Nancy Baume arrived in Britain from Sydney, Australia, as a 19-year-old in the winter of 1947. To Glasgow first, for work. And you couldn’t complain: for a first gig, it took some beating. The Glasgow Herald was a paper of repute, even if the surly middle-aged men on the features desk seemed to be in daily competition with one another to achieve new feats of extravagant rudeness. Nancy paid them little notice and took their measure easily; banked straight into her own kitty of private mockery.
The pathetic cruelties of men she could deal with, but it was the cold that bit hardest. The coldest winter on record, people said, when the frost would cling to the thin tenement windows and the streets glazed over with black ice – things she’d only read about. That winter felt like an eternity, or perhaps a vision of hell. But it passed just like everything else, almost before she knew it.
It’s the spring of 2009 and I’ve heard this all before. Me and gran, who has been Nancy Ward for nearly 60 years, are sitting in the sweltering visiting area of a large Victorian hospital on the outskirts of town, where the walls are painted an insoluble shade of mustard yellow. The stories are blending into each other confusingly and I am straining to hear between the din of other conversations and the low hush of her voice, as she labours to gather her recollections. I'm here to visit, as I do every evening between six and seven. She is here because she is dying, though we are both trying very hard not to acknowledge it.
It’s strange watching her trying to tame the jumble of her thoughts into words. Gran had been a journalist for many years, but that changed when her children arrived, and never really recovered. Her memory was a running joke; comically dreadful for figures, obscenely prodigious for words. Anything and everything from songs and filthy jokes, to poetry and gossip, with nothing too trivial that it couldn’t be fashioned into a punchline. So it’s hard to see her struggle, as if the keys to her own past have been misplaced.
Later, when it was over, I felt relief for a while. Most people do. At 16, you think you know it all, and I’d always taken grief as my own specialist subject. Her middle daughter, my mother, had died many years ago. At one point it didn’t feel like life would go on, but it did, and that somehow felt like a worthwhile lesson. In the years that followed, gran was my primary carer (along with my aunt, her youngest daughter) and I was, towards the end, trying to be hers – but I had absolutely no idea what I was doing.
The bond between grandparents and grandchildren is a powerful thing, for those with the luck to have experienced it. For them, the second chance at the centre of a child’s life, minus the neurotic intensity of first degree parenthood. For us, the promise of something nameless and entirely unconditional that I find it impossible to put into words. Of course I was spoiled, that was in gran’s nature. And I thought I probably deserved it, too. Extra pocket money and all kinds of limitless indulgence were the gifts I’d earned, which my own past excused and made natural. The selfishness of childhood and adolescence is an inexhaustible thing and it feels good to feel yourself the centre of other people’s lives. In a tacit way, I gave something back. By being here with gran, I gave her twilight years a shape. Meals to be provided on my return from school, friends to welcome in, nonsense to talk in front of the TV and epic games of Scrabble, which she’d invariably let me win.
But once you dive beneath the halcyon recollections, not everything is glazed in amber, and later, when it was all over, I felt shame. Of all the hours my bedroom door was closed to her, or the twangs of mortification as she hammed up the last vestiges of her Aussie accent to Kiwi minicab drivers in Catford. Shielding your eyes from death can be taken as both a kindness and a lie. There is comfort in repression, but for who? For them or for us? The ones on their way out or those left behind. The extra hours I could have stayed in that terrible hospital building in those last days, even if they had just been spent in silence. All the supine adolescent embarrassment directed at her and back out at the world. Imagine the thousand personal wrongs we could right, by just a couple of steps back through time. That I was scared shitless is one explanation. It is not an excuse.
We expect our grandparents to die, but expectation is not the same as understanding. Of all the things we take for granted, it is the lives of those we love the most that seem the most unassailable. Of all the things that never happen, here’s one we can’t escape. Gran always had a healthy streak of fatalism; insurance against a long life’s worth of grief and care. “You’ll miss me when I’m pushing up daisies,” she’d laugh after I’d thrown some particularly inane cheek her way. But the last months saw the jokes stop, as the days thinned and the inevitable began to loom heavier on the immediate horizon.
In the decade since her death, I have had a recurring dream that crops up every so often. Sometimes it’s weeks, or months that separate its visitation, but the content is always the same. We are in suburban south-east London, near her – our – flat. The streets are made of cracked red clay and the sky is a vast, unending ocean of deep, unset concrete. In silence we make our way back to the safety of home, but before we arrive the sky has become clay and the streets concrete. I turn to take her arm, but she is nowhere to be seen and I wake, to the dark of my bedroom and its outline slowly swimming back into vision.
In every house I have lived in as an adult there have been a few constants that come with me, from Dundee to the quiet, unprepossessing corners of south-east London that we have called home for so many years. Pictures of significant moments, some framed and others loose and halfway crumpled. There’s a belter of me and gran in a chipped wood frame, from my 16th birthday. Standing arm in arm like hardened conspirators, faces crumpled on the verge of mirth at some forgotten absurdity. That was one of her main lessons: you had to laugh. Otherwise, what? Just think on all the other things you can’t control.
And there are the books. Her books, collected over a lifetime. From an Australian girlhood to the texts that marked maturity, age and, finally, the end of age. There was a joke we had, a piece of perfectly honed slapstick routine that would play out every week. She’d always justify slipping me a £20 note with a wink and the same punchline. "Take it," she’d say as she batted away my weak protestations, "there’ll be sod all when I’m gone." But that was never true. There were the paperback thrillers and tattered comic novels, as well as the gold paged Shakespeare collection, bequeathed as a high school prize. I never really knew what inheritance meant until I became their guardian. It always struck me as a lawyer's word, and one we would never have much use for.
Sometimes their presence feels heavy; more than just a gallery of pages and spines. Some are yellowed from cigarette smoke, their corners battered from decades of rereading. To some extent they feel like her, in all of her generosity and contradiction. It was late afternoon when she set me off, until I felt tears pooling at the corners of my eyes. I’d picked up one of my favourites, a needlessly ornate hardback anthology of English poetry. How it came to her, I’ve no idea. The inside page is entirely defaced, with her unmistakable looping script; half shorthand, half private code. There, in thick black pen, is the entire timetable for the 171 bus, graffitied straight across the gateway to this swaggering, pompous book.
In the last lucid days, we spoke a lot about writers she loved. I was at that greedy point, when everything is new and fresh, when ignorance is still a virtue. There was a poet called Anthony Hecht, she said – a German-Jewish New Yorker, who had lived through much inhumanity during the Second World War. "A Voice at a Seance" is just that, a voice speaking back from behind the veil to the living, trying its best to explain what awaits us there.
What you learn has nothing whatever to do with joy,
Nor with sadness, either. You are mostly silent.
You come to a gentle indifference about being thought
Either a fool or someone with valuable secrets.
It may be that the ultimate wisdom
Lies in saying nothing.
I think I may already have said too much.