A couple of days ago one of my tics took me aback and made me laugh with surprise:
“Scotch egg castle and the exasperated carrot.”
It wasn’t the content of the tic that made me chuckle but the fact that I pronounced ‘castle’ and ‘exasperated’ with a short ‘a’. This linguistic trait is one of the few indications that I spent much of the first five years of my life in Blackpool.
A couple of years ago, when I started doing a lot of public speaking, I decided it was time to commit to a straightforwardly southern accent. It took a while but eventually I managed to get myself to use long ‘a’s most of the time, but when I read out loud, or tic, my northern roots often reveal themselves.
But my pronunciation isn’t the only giveaway that I spent a lot of time in Lancashire with my grandparents. I also have the vocabulary and turn of phrase of a classic ‘nan-kid’ – ‘let the dog see the rabbit’ (get out of the way), ‘fallen out’ (argued), ‘poorly’ (ill) and ‘toffee’ (as the generic word for any kind of sweets) are just a few of the many 1940s’ phrases I inherited from them.
This is going to be a difficult post for me to write, and it might be difficult for you to read, because this evening, the woman whose influence is reflected in my speech, who for years carefully bathed me in a sink in a Blackpool bungalow, who taught me to read through sheer determination and bribery, who spent hours with me in imaginary worlds and in a small plastic Wendy house, a person with a seemingly endless supply of peanut butter sandwiches on long train journeys, who absorbed my rage more times than I like to remember, whose house I walked to on receiving my A-level results, my gran, whose nurture shaped my character and whose love is embedded in me – died.
Yesterday morning I got a call at work from my sister. She said she’d just spoken to the care home where my gran’s been staying for the last few months and that her condition, which had been deteriorating rapidly since Christmas, had got worse. My parents are abroad at the moment so Fat Sister headed to Milton Keynes to have some very difficult and sad conversations. Over the course of yesterday it became clear that my gran was entering the last stages of her life.
This morning I headed to Milton Keynes myself to see her, supported by Poppy, (and thank you very much to the staff at Euston and Milton Keynes stations who didn’t make a fuss about the fact that I hadn’t booked assistance 24 hours in advance).
When we arrived the sun was lighting up the façade of the care home and it was such a bright day that Pops said it made everything look like a cartoon. It felt calm inside the home, we were welcomed warmly and directed up to the first floor to my gran’s room.
She looked incredibly frail, but comfortable – her breathing was loud and regular. She wasn’t conscious but I sat and chatted to her for a while. At one point I found myself reciting the fist few lines of Postman Pat’s Foggy Day, the first book I claimed to be able to read. My gran always knew that it was actually the first book I’d been able to learn by heart, but it didn’t seem to make her any less proud.
Her room had a large window overlooking the street, and her bed was at the right height for the sunlight to spread across her covers. The nursing team had left the radio on gently – familiar tunes drifted away in the background. I’m very familiar with my gran’s musical repertoire after insisting on being sung to sleep night after night for many years. In fact as I write this I’m listening to Bing Crosby singing the 1937 classic ‘The Folks Who Live on the Hill’.
A red cushion that’s at least as old as I am sat on a chair in the corner, and pictures of my family were neatly arranged on a shelf near her bed. Pops sat and read in the corridor while I sat and stroked my grandma’s shoulder. A little while later I went to the nurses’ office and had a frank conversation about what to expect in the days ahead. I went and said a final goodbye and left relieved knowing that grandma was comfortable and surrounded by people looking out for her.
This evening when I saw an 01908 number come up on my phone I knew the sad news this call would be bringing.
Tonight my mind’s full of memories of life with my gran. These make my heart swell with love and my eyes fill with tears:
Playing swimming pools in Ashley Close
Counting rabbits on the golf course on the way to town
Your desperate attempts to tame my naturally unruly hair
The hairy brown rug of displeasure (your equivalent of the naughty step)
Warm milk at supper
The smell of chicken, peas and potatoes cooking at weekends
Wotsits and sliced ham every night for tea
Your inexplicable love of embossed furnishings, wallpaper and table cloths
Brief tepid baths
Your repeated threats to get rid of the telly if I didn’t do my homework (which, much to my horror, you eventually did!)
Hugs in the kitchen
Fox’s Glacier Mints in a basket – just out of reach
Your collection of ceramic ornaments that miraculously made it through my childhood
The Little and Large matching roller-skating lambs you got for me and Fat Sister shortly after she was born
Your obsession with picking every speck of fluff off the carpet, but your total unflinching acceptance of my absolute chaos in your home
Walking side by side in St Anne’s as I nervously explained Tourettes. Your response: “You don’t need to tell me about you. I know you and understand.”
I’m very proud to be a nan-kid and to hear your voice in mine.
And I’m very glad to have seen you today.
My love and my thanks forever.