Simon didn’t like to be alone with Grandma. He didn’t like the noises she emitted and was worried she might die on his watch and he wouldn’t know what to do. He might even be blamed.
She liked to tell boring stories about when she was young and Simon was too polite to get up and leave like his sisters did.
Simon’s family was at his aunt’s for Sunday lunch. Grandma lived with Aunt Julie and you could tell Simon’s aunt was unhappy about that – there were wrinkles around her mouth and staccatoed across her forehead. Simon thought that Aunt Julie’s body might be keeping a tally of all the boring stories Grandma told.
The aroma of the roast idling in the oven drifted in from the kitchen and sunlight slipped enticingly through the window. Simon was too slow getting off the couch when his sisters bounced from the room and, before he could stand up, Grandma had lassoed him with her opening sentence.
“Did I ever tell you about the time I was a coatroom attendant?” she asked.
Her teeth weren’t in properly and Simon could hear them coming away from the gums and clacking every time she opened her mouth, it sounded like she was chewing taffy with damp velcro.
Simon knew his mother would be livid if she heard he had been rude to Grandma, so he sat back down and gazed out the window at his sisters running around the backyard.
“No Grandma,” he said, sitting on the edge of the cushion with his hands tucked beneath his thighs – as if he would catapult himself from the room as soon as Grandma finished her story.
“It was back in the ’20’s,” she said.
Wow, Simon thought, Grandma’s ancient.
While Grandma talked her teeth clacked and drool collected in white pockets at the corners of her mouth. Simon felt a compulsion to reach over and wipe her lips with the cuff of his shirt. He pushed himself all the way into the back of the couch.
“I was just a baby, barely into my twenties when I worked there,” Grandma gazed at the opposite wall, as if the movie of her past life was rolling across the paintwork.
“It was a speakeasy. Do you know what one of those is Sam?”
“It’s Simon,” said Simon. “Yes, Grandma, I do. I think.”
He frowned and looked at the same wall as the old woman, searching for pictures she might have conjured.
“It was a type of bar wasn’t it? One in a secret place?”
“A secret place,” she said. “Yes, I suppose it was. Hidden away below street level of a sewing shop.”
Simon tried to imagine a bunch of people gathering on purpose in a basement.
“Blind pigs they called them, the speakeasies. I loved it. I got to meet so many people. Fancy ladies with sequins on their dresses and furs of such rich, deep colors,” Grandma smiled and closed her eyes.
“I would bury my face deep in those furs,” she said. “And inhale their lovely musky smells and the ladies’ perfume,” she opened one of her eyes and glanced at Simon.
“When they weren’t looking of course,” she added.
“I remember one night I got to work. It was pouring buckets outside. I was soaked and had to change in the tiny bathroom at the back of the shop. I was late going downstairs and there was a man standing over the shop owner. I thought he was sleeping.
“The man looked panicked when he saw me, like he was caught doing something bad. ‘He was unconscious when I found him,’ he told me.” Grandma shook her head.
“What happened to him?” asked Simon, now perched on the edge of the couch.
The laughter of his sisters drifted into the room. He heard the muffled voices of his aunt and his mother chatting easily in the kitchen.
His father wandered into the living room. When he saw Simon sitting with Grandma, he raised his eyebrows.
“All right lad?” he said. “Don’t you wanna go outside?”
Simon recognized the lifeline his father was throwing, but he shook his head.
“Nah Dad, I’m fine. Grandma’s telling me a story,” he turned back to Grandma, whose cheeks had reddened slightly.
She smiled. Simon noticed how much it lit up her face, even her eyes sparkled.
“Now, where was I?” she said
“The body on the floor,” nudged Simon. “The suspicious stranger.”