This short story was first published in Empirical Magazine in February 2012. This Special First Edition is no longer in print but you can still see this story on Empirical’s blog here or buy it in the Best of Empirical 2012: Fiction and Poetry. Check out the latest issue of Empirical magazine here.
by Laura Rittenhouse
I love Tuesdays. Mum works especially late so I get to eat with Gramps, not just hang around his flat killing time until Mum calls like on every other week night. He always makes fried eggs and chips, which is the best meal ever. Mum says he’s destroying my cholesterol, but Gramps insists he’s “doing it wonders.” He always chuckles when he says that and Mum always scowls. It’s one of those adult topics. I don’t think kids are supposed to know what cholesterol is.
This visit is turning into one of the better ones ’cause George is here. George is Gramps’ neighbor. He’s a blackfella. Mum says not to call him that because it’s not polite. She says he’s Gramps’ indigenous neighbor. Gramps says Mum doesn’t know what she’s talking about. George calls himself a blackfella so that’s what we should call him. Gramps asked me, “How would you like to be called ‘white invader’ because some government fella decides that’s what’s right?” I want to be called Graham ’cause that’s what my mum named me. So now I just call George, George. He doesn’t seem to mind.
When George is around, Gramps always breaks out a bottle of Bundi and I get ginger beer in a little Bundi bottle which is heaps better than lemonade. Ginger beer and eggs with chips: “A little slice of heaven.” That’s one of Gramps’ sayings. He has lots of them and Mum wishes I didn’t copy him so much. She thinks it’s limiting my vocabulary. But it’s not. I only use one of Gramps’ sayings when it fits. I’m pretty careful with my speech. I don’t like getting things wrong and it’s not wrong to call tonight’s tea a little slice of heaven.
I’m probably so careful with my speech ’cause of Gramps and George. They’re both storytellers and they say that words matter. They’re not wrong. I could listen to them all day. I’m sure it would be better than listening to Miss Anderson. She’s my teacher and is always going on about grammar and punctuation and stuff, but she never says anything that’s interesting. Gramps is full of real interesting stories about the wars. He was in that one in Europe where Churchill was the hero. He says it was the last just war, that anyone who didn’t fight the Nazis was a Nazi hisself. Mum doesn’t like him talking about Nazis so he calls them fascists when she’s around.
Gramps knows a lot of Churchill’s speeches by heart. I think Gramps could have made better ones but he was a foot soldier then. No one listened to him. Then he came home and was a plumber all his life and still never made speeches. He’s shy around strangers he says, but not around me and George. Around us, he’s full of speeches, but he calls ’em stories. I’m not sure of the difference, but I think maybe Churchill should have told stories instead of speeches if he wanted ’em listened to more.
George tells stories too, but his are different than Gramps’. Gramps’ stories are about wars and heroes and jungles and such. George tells stories about rocks and whales and stuff. His are more about nature, but I think Gramps’ are more exciting. Gramps laughs when I say that, ’cause he thinks nature is more exciting than bullets and airplanes. Maybe when I’m ancient—like my gramps—and have fought in a just war, I’ll agree. Either way, this is a great night because I get both kinds of stories. Tonight, George even tells a new one that I’ve never heard before. That doesn’t happen much these days ’cause I’ve known George since I was little and that’s a lot of years of hearing his stories.
Miss Anderson gave us homework today. I don’t even want to think about it. We have to write an essay about a person—two whole pages. She says we can pick anyone, but we have to research them before we write about them. William is doing his on Ricky Ponting. I wish I’d of thought of that first. He’d be dead easy to write even three pages about. He’s the best cricketer ever.
It’s Friday, so I don’t get to eat with Gramps, but I ride my bike over anyway until my mum calls and says she’s home. I take a long time to ride over thinking about who my essay can be about. But there are lots of people walking around and so I get all distracted and stuff. Mum says I get too easily distracted. Gramps says I have an inquisitive mind and that’s a good thing.
When I get to Gramps’, I’ve almost forgotten my essay, but then he asks me how school was. It’s like I ate a stone. I tell him about my two-page essay and how scared it makes me. He laughs. He’s always doing that, laughing when I think something’s awful. Sometimes it makes me feel stupid and sometimes he explains it to me and gets me laughing too. I hope he explains my homework in a way that I can laugh so I’ll want to write an essay.
“You have nothing to be scared of, you silly goat. An essay is just a story told in writing. Two pages is nothing for a story.” Gramps has a big smile, but I still don’t think it’s funny.
“But this essay has to be someone you research, like a historical person. William is doing Ricky Ponting, which would be the easiest thing ever.”
“Why don’t you write a story about George? He’s an interesting fella. He’s one of the stolen generation and that’s a popular topic these days. Though in my day it was something no one talked too much about.”
“Is George on the internet? How can I research him?”
“Did Miss Anderson say your research had to be done on the internet?”
I shake my head.
“Well, that’s a relief. I worry about your generation. These silly computers seem to have taken over everyone’s head. How about interviews? That’s research and you sure could interview George.”
I think about it. I guess interviewing might be research. I could ask Miss Anderson on Monday. But I don’t really think writing about George is what I want to do. And I don’t think he’d like it. He’s always saying how his stories aren’t written down because they’re meant to be told, not read. He says stories read don’t mean much, because you can’t hear the voice of the ancestors in them. And I don’t want to write a sad story. I don’t know a lot about the stolen generation, but I know the Prime Minister had to say sorry and I know some people cried—even George. So I don’t think it’s a happy thing. I want my essay to be a happy one. It would have been if I’d written about Ricky Ponting.
I talk to Mum about my essay on the weekend and about what Gramps said. She can see I’m worried about it and says maybe if Miss Anderson says it’s okay, I could write about Gramps. Since I see him every day after school, I’d have plenty of time to interview him. And he has great stories that would make it easy to fill two pages. I think she’s right. I think Gramps’ story might make a good essay.
We only get two weeks to write this essay and mine is going to be the best ever. Ricky Ponting is a boring topic compared to Gramps. I’ve been interviewing him every night and I know where he was born and where he went to school and what his favorite vegetable is. I need to start writing though and that’s the scariest thing ever.
It’s a Friday, so I’m going to ask Gramps some more stuff about his life. Mum says I should ask about his feelings: love and stuff. I’m not so sure. Then on the weekend I’m going to start writing. I can get Gramps to read it next week and he can fix anything I’ve got wrong before I have to hand it in to Miss Anderson. I ride real quick over to Gramps’ flat to do my interviewing and the door is open and George is sitting on the sofa. I don’t see Gramps, so I shout as I walk in, in case he’s in the bathroom and doesn’t know I’m here. “Hi, Gramps, I’m here.”
George pats the sofa next to him and tells me, “Come here boy. Sit down next to me.”
I stand still. I’m staring into George’s eyes. They’re real dark. His eyes are always dark brown, but there’s something even darker in them today. “What?” My voice kind of cracks and it embarrasses me a little.
“Just sit with me a while. Your mum is with your gramps and will be back for you shortly.”
I know something’s wrong. Mum has to be at work right now, which is why I’m supposed to be with Gramps, not George. If Mum’s not at work, something really bad must have happened. “What?” This time my question is more of a whisper than a crack.
“Just sit with me a while.” George won’t say anything and now he won’t even look at me.
Something is very wrong. I know it. I drop my bag with my interviewing notebook in it and sit on the floor staring at my shoes. George doesn’t say anything and neither do I. I don’t think about anything. I wonder if Gramps would still think I have an inquisitive mind. I wonder where Gramps is.
I hear footsteps at the door. I know it’s still open, ’cause I never closed it and George hasn’t moved. I turn my head to see my mum and her face is red and puffy and I know she’s been crying and Gramps isn’t with her and I know it’s bad. I curl up and tuck my head between my knees. I can’t breathe.
Mum squats down next to me and I hear her voice, but I can’t understand a single word. I don’t know what she’s saying. Then I hear the word “gone” through her sobs. I don’t uncurl. She rubs my back. George sits. Gramps is gone.
I know I’m crying, because I feel water dripping down my cheek. But my eyes are squeezed shut and my ears are as closed as I can make them without putting my fingers in them. My arms are wrapped around my knees and I think I’m going to be sick. Mum is still talking and I still can’t hear her. George picks me up and carries me to the sofa. Mum sits next to me and wraps her arms around me. I feel her sob deep in her chest. Noise comes from the kitchen and I think George is making tea. He doesn’t like tea and neither do I, but it’s what you have at a time like this. I really just want my gramps.
I don’t know what I’m doing. It’s Sunday and Saturday is lost somewhere. My gramps is dead and I don’t want to think about it. Mum gives me ginger beer and fried egg with chips. She doesn’t make it as good as gramps does – did – but I eat it ’cause she’s been crying and I want her to stop. I see my interview notes and think of my essay about Gramps. I didn’t want to write a sad story, but this is the saddest ever. I cry so much, ginger beer comes out of my nose. Mum holds me close and I feel the sobs in her chest. They match the sobs in my chest.
I wake up and it’s dark. My digital clock tells me it’s 3:14. Gramps used to get up at 4:30 when he was in the army and he said that was earlier than the birds, so it was just silly to not be sleeping then. I wish he could laugh at me and make me laugh too. He always knew how to make people happy—at least me and Mum and George. And that’s all he ever had to worry about.
I get out of bed and put my interview notes on my desk. This was my gramps. His least favorite color was purple and he hated the way pumpkin was all squishy. I like purple but I won’t like it any more. I never liked pumpkin, so that’s okay.
I get a clean sheet of paper and start writing about my gramps. It’s going to be the best two-page essay ever. I’m going to write about my gramps’ life. He cared about the war and George and me and Mum. He loved the environment and the ocean, even the stingers. He thought George’s stories were the best.
My gramps’ story ends after three pages. I just couldn’t squeeze him into two pages. I bet Ricky Ponting didn’t ever get three whole pages written about him. And mine is a happy story. It ends with Gramps being the best ever storyteller in heaven. I didn’t do research on that bit, that’s just something I know.
At the funeral, the coffin is open. You can see Gramps and he looks okay. His hair is real neat and he is shaved better than I’ve ever seen him. Mum says he looks peaceful. I think he looks uncomfortable, but I wouldn’t tell Mum that. George looks uncomfortable too. He’s wearing a suit with a tie and it looks like he’s strangling.
A man talks for a while at the front of the room, behind Gramps’ coffin. You can’t see him without seeing Gramps. I wonder if Gramps would like that since he was so shy. Mum goes up and talks and I can’t really follow what she’s saying. She starts crying and I look at my shoes so I won’t cry too. My shoes look like they’re underwater, all wavy and stuff. Then a drip falls on one of my toes and I know I’m crying anyway.
George talks and tells Gramps’ favorite story about where stingers come from. We all smile. I like the story. It’s happy.
After all the talking we go up in a long line to look at Gramps. I look and see that maybe he doesn’t mind all the attention now. Maybe now that he’s heaven’s best storyteller, he likes talking to strangers. I slip my iPod out of my pocket. Mum looks at me with a question in her eyes. I put the ear piece in Gramps’ ear and sneak the player under his coat, and then make it play and repeat and repeat forever and ever. It’s my essay about Gramps told in my voice so he can hear it and hopefully hear my ancestors in it, too. Maybe he can hear himself there. I want him to hear it before anyone else does. It’s his story, after all.
© Laura Rittenhouse 2012