Dan Carpenter is the next to explore the theme ‘Collections‘ in the lead up to our VAULTS event at The John Rylands Library, in this brand new short story…
I have been collecting pieces of my grandmother now for several months. The time she worked in the cellar of the town hall, processing invoices for the gas board; dancing to her favourite song; a moment on a beach somewhere in the south of France when she looked out at the water and imagined just swimming and swimming, and never looking back. I have been storing them in mason jars which I got from the local hardware shop. Every day it seems I have to head down there and buy some more.
Neil, who runs the shop now his father has died, asked me the other day, “You been cooking loads of jam?”
I looked at the jars in my hand.
“Yes, I’m a real jam fiend. Can’t get enough of it.”
“Me too. If you ever have any spare, I’d love to taste a sample.”
I promised him that I would. Just like I promise him every single time now.
The pieces of my grandmother are not in any chronological order and I have been trying to sort them. It’s difficult. Some are easy. When you can look at a moment and find a newspaper, or see something on the television, you can place a date on it. When the offices of the gas board caught fire, it was 1961, because she went right home and watched The Avengers for the first time. That was easy to label.
I have also bought labels from the hardware store, though Neil hasn’t asked about those.
The harder pieces to date are those scattershot moments that exist so briefly that you cannot pinpoint when they take place. There is one, just a short snapshot of a moment: she is standing on a bridge in a forest and she is looking down at the water; the current is slow and eventually, a single stick floats into view. That’s it. That’s all I have.
She is not making this easy.
For those pieces, I write on the label something like, ‘Bridge’ or ‘Stick’ and I leave the date blank. Then I file it along with all the other jars that have no date on – on the lower shelf of my pantry.
I have been trying to take a different piece of her each time I see her. She lives on the other side of town and so, in the afternoons, I cycle over to help her do chores around the flat. Her flat is part of a little complex of retirement properties. Her neighbours are an old couple who have been married for nearly seventy years. They’re called Mildred and Ronald. They have a grandson around my age, but, “he works in the city and he’s ever so busy.”
I’ve got all the time in the world.
One day when I go round, she’s watching some talk show on the television, and she absolutely refuses to turn it down.
“Grandma, I was wondering if I could ask you about something?”
“What?” she yells, and I can’t tell whether she’s asking me what I wanted to ask her about, or if this is a request from her for me to repeat everything I just said.
I repeat everything I just said.
“Did I ever tell you about the time the old house got flooded?”
The memories are always new. That’s the thing about collecting pieces of your grandmother, the bit they leave out of all the books; whatever you take, you can’t put back. Those pieces are gone forever from her. I’m doing a bad job with it too. Taking little bits here and there. Her life is like a wedge of swiss cheese now, and it makes finding out anything else even harder. “It was when I was working at the…oh, where was it I worked?” she would say.
“Gas board,” I’d reply. “You worked at the gas board.”
But it wouldn’t mean anything to her. All I would get back is a blank stare.
“Where do you live?” she sometimes asked, and when I told her, she’d say, “I’ve got a grandson who lives there. Lovely boy.”
Lovely boy. Sure.
I wonder sometimes whether the pantry is more my grandmother than she is. I wonder whether there is a chance I could take it all from her. Leave her an empty shell. Would it be possible? How many mason jars would that fill?
I go back into the hardware store and pick up another eight mason jars and take them over to the counter.
“What flavour?” Neil asks.
“Oh, strawberry,” I pull out my wallet, “just strawberry.”
Is it wrong that I don’t remember how this began? That there wasn’t just a moment where I asked her about her life, and she offered up pieces of herself, and it went from there? I have been doing it for long enough now that it has just become a part of me. I could ask her, of course, could sit down with her and find out what she remembers about me, but the thought of taking those pieces scares me. What if taking those means I would lose a little piece of me?
When I went to see her this week, I sat down in the chair opposite, and I looked into her eyes, and I saw nothing. Just an absence staring back.
“Have you come to take my things?” she asked. “People come here and take my things. They don’t think I know, but I know. They’ve taken all sorts; my rings, keys, money too. I think they’ve been hiding them.”
“I’ve not come to take anything.”
I got up from the chair and went to the kitchen. “Would you like a cup of tea? Maybe a biscuit too?” I flicked the kettle on even though she didn’t answer and I shut my eyes.
When I went back in to the living room, she was still sat on the chair, and she looked at me.
“You know you look a little like my grandson.”
“You know he lives in a lovely flat by the river with his wife.”
I got up and left.
There are pieces and pieces of her that I have, but there are connections missing. There are faded parts and blacked out frames, and I don’t know how to fill them anymore. I have tried asking the questions. I have tried to remind her of the things I have taken but those are lost entirely. I was cooking the other night when my mind went blank, and when I snapped back the food was burned. Where had that part of me gone?
Neil asks me again today about the jam. He asks what my recipe is and whether I’ve tried gooseberry. He says I might just be his best customer. He says he only orders those damn jars in for me.
“I think you might just be keeping me in business,” he says.
I hope that in years to come when my own grandchildren take pieces of me; I manage to give them just those moments in the hardware store. The bits inbetween.
Grandad, they’ll think, he was a jam fiend.
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