By Alice Bianchi-Clark
"I'll have a wedding just like hers," I declared, crossing my arms.
With heavy-handed brushstrokes, Grandma yanked my hair into a ponytail until my scalp ached.
"Really? And when will that be?" she said.
The year my parents bought the country house, I spent every other weekend at Grandma's. They said it wasn't safe for me to play there until they'd finished refurbishing it but really they wanted me out of the way so they could focus on grown up things.
I didn't mind. I slept with Grandma in her enormous bed while Grandpa was sent to the little bedroom. Grandpa snored so loudly that the pom-pom on the crown of his woolly nightcap trembled and the walls reverberated. No wonder Grandma was embarrassed.
Every morning, at the ding-dong of church bells, Grandma would sneak out of bed. I would sprawl starfish-like across the sheets until she returned with slimy, coffee-scented kisses that made my nose crinkle. But what I loved most about staying at Grandma's were her stories about Great Auntie Anna's wedding.
Mummy wore a black trouser suit on her wedding day but Great Auntie Anna looked like she had stepped out of a fairy tale.
"Keep still," Grandma said.
I wriggled upright as the leather seat of her dresser stuck to the back of my thighs.
"Again, tell me again. How did she look?"
"She glowed," whispered Grandma as if she were letting me in on a secret. "She wore a wonderful, ballooning gown. It was swan white and she wore –"
"Satin slippers on her feet –"
"She had the tiniest feet and dainty, china-like hands. Her hair was long and silky. She wore it in tresses, which tumbled about her face like jet necklaces."
"And her carriage? Tell me again about her carriage."
"Oh! The carriage. It was a regal carriage inlaid with cherry wood and gold leaf. First came the priest in a cloud of incense, followed by hundreds of guests, wearing feathered hats." – Grandma's voice sang and my eyes soared over her vanity dresser. One day, I would have one just like it. – "Then came the brass band, all tasselled shoulder pads and glinting buttons. Their golden instruments filled the air with music. And then Anna in her horse-driven carriage." – A stripy, glass perfume bottle stood on Grandma's dresser like a trophy. My fingers reached past her silver brush, past the matching hand mirror and her jewellery chest, where she hid her wriggling snakes of pearls. – "There were six plumed horses. Their manes glistened. Their hooves pattered on the cobbles." – The netted rollers on Grandma's head bobbed as if she were party to the procession. – "Crowds parted in awe. Church bells chimed." – I gripped the perfume bottle's sweetie-shaped squirter and prepared for the squeeze. I could see Grandma's eyes widen in the tall, folding mirrors. – "No," she said firmly.
I could not wait to be grown up, I thought. Then, I would squirt perfume on myself all day long and no one could tell me any different. I scrunched up my eyes and let go of the squirter, expecting to be told off. Instead, Grandma lifted me into one of her kiss-smacking embraces.
"You smell lovely the way you are," she said.
I slid to the ground, baring my belly. She wrapped a woolly scarf around my neck, buttoned my coat and fixed earmuffs onto my ears.
"Can we see Great Auntie Anna's photo album?" I asked, sliding the muffs off my ears.
"Not now, darling, Grandpa is waiting for you."
I ran down the corridor, flapping my strung mittens behind me like elephant ears. Grandpa was in his armchair, hiding behind a newspaper. He cleared his throat and slipped on his cap.
"Where are we going?" I asked him.
"To the park."
"Could we stop by the fishpond, please?"
He winked and tapped his left breast pocket. "Sure," he said, "I have the stale bread."
It was no use telling Grandpa that I had no interest in going to the fishpond to feed fish. Grandma always said that boys don't understand girls and she must have known because she'd been around an awfully long time. Boys are all about pirates and dragons; they don't remember any of the useful fairytales. Grandpa could feed the fish. I would search for frogs instead. You never know where a prince might lurk.
I rushed through the door. "Grandma, Grandma!"
Grandma was in the kitchen, smelling of oven-roasted aubergines. I hugged her legs. "Can we look at the photo album, now?" I pleaded.
"Not now," she said patting my head.
"Then, when?" I whined.
"How was the park?"
"We fed the fish," said Grandpa from the corridor with a chuckle.
Grandma helped me out of my coat and slid a box in front of the kitchen sink so that I could climb on top of it and reach both taps to wash my hands. She tied the apron, which had been hanging on the oven rail, around my waist.
On the kitchen table, were bowls of parmigiana, mozzarella, pommarola and basil waiting to be layered.
"Will you be a good little girl now and help your Grandma cook?"
"I'm not little anymore, I'm almost six."
She nodded and placed the salad spinner into my lap. I sighed. I hated spinning.
"If you spin the salad, you can have the heart," she cooed, knowing the promise of a gem lettuce heart would win me right over. Noisily, I wound the handle round and round. She hummed as she pirouetted round the kitchen, twirling her wooden spoon in mid air like a wand.
The door rattled open and Grandpa's head stuck through. "What's for dinner, darling?"
She fluttered to the door with a red-lipped smile. "It's a surprise, now don't you spoil it," she said, shooing him out of the door.
"Please, Grandma," I whined, as soon as Grandpa was out of earshot, "the photos."
"After dinner, but only if you eat up all your food, there are children dying —"
"In Africa," I said, finishing her sentence.
"And not a word to your mother," she said, wagging her forefinger. 'You know she doesn't approve."
I nodded my head in earnest.
"It's our secret. Now, go and pick a sprig of rosemary," said Grandma, handing me a pair of scissors. I knew what she would say next, it's what she said about each of her recipes. "What would Parmigiana be –"
After dinner, Grandma kept her word. She took my hand and led me to the sitting room, the room she only opened for important guests, and me. It smelt of silver polish and stale air. Here, whispers reigned among sleepy curtains and droopy chandeliers as if slumbering under an enchantment.
Grandma crouched by the marble topped side cabinet, upon which her silver tea set lay on display. She slid a tiny, gold key into a lock and delivered the photo album from its leather case. The slow seriousness of her expression reminded me of priests and Sunday mass. I sat still as she rested the album on my lap.
The first photo was of Great Auntie Anna. She reminded me of a porcelain doll. Her thickly lashed eyes were lightly closed, her skin translucent and she wore a pearl tiara over her thick tresses.
"My little sister was barely 14. It was early May. She smelled of soap and lily-of-the-valley," whispered Grandma, pointing to the flowers cupped in Great Auntie Anna's hands.
"Grandma, what does this say?" I asked, pointing to the curling, inky letters.
Grandma read a few words out to me, which rhymed like poetry. I had no idea what they meant but Grandma's eyes shimmered in the candlelight and my stomach tightened as if I had done something wrong.
"Is she waiting to be kissed?" I asked, pointing to a photograph where she lay on a bed of rose petals, like Sleeping Beauty.
I started at the ring of the doorbell. A shuffling of slippers followed. I imagined Grandpa heading down the hall.
"That must be your mother, you're going home today," said Grandma, wiping her eyes. "Remember what I said."
I nodded and closed the album on my lap.
"I'll be right back," said Grandma, securing the door behind her.
I was alone. The grandfather clock went tick-tock, tick-tock.
When the door creaked open a few minutes later it was not Grandma, although she followed soon after. It all happened so quickly. The open album was snatched from my lap, hands flew in the air and words were hurled like weapons.
"Burn that photo album!" Mummy cried.
I crawled under the sofa and squeezed my eyes shut, pressing the heels of my hands against my ears.
Mummy spoke of illness, death and said something about Grandma's wedding dress being buried underground.
Grandpa's footsteps echoed down the corridor. He ordered everyone out. Grandma left in tears. I was too frightened to move. It was my fault, I thought. If only I had put the album away, our secret might still be safe.
I lay underneath the sofa until the thudding in my chest subsided and the grandfather clock went tick-tock as if nothing had happened. I hummed 'Hickory Dickory Dock' because it was soothing. Eventually a door clicked open and shut. I held my breath. I recognised Grandma's knobbly, velvet slippers and the familiar scent of lavender and mothballs.
"All is well," she whispered, "you can come out."
I was relieved she had returned to get me. I wanted to say I was sorry. I wanted to say I didn't want to go back home with Mummy, who could never believe in fairy tales the way we did. I wrapped my arms around her big large tummy instead, finding comfort in the warmth of her body.
"Little Anna didn't want a funeral," Grandma murmured, so softly that I had to think hard about what words her lips might have said. "She wanted a wedding. That was her last wish. People are always happiest at weddings, she said. Oh, little Anna," she simpered, shaking her head.
"Grandma," I whispered, "what, exactly, is a funeral?"
Grandma slumped back into her armchair and sighed. She closed her eyes. "It's an expression of love, that's all."
"So funerals are a little bit like weddings, aren't they?"
"In a way they are. Let's not talk about funerals anymore. Your mother says you're too young to understand."
I sat down on the damasked sofa next to her. I was quiet for a while. I noticed one of Grandma's hands was clenched.
"What's this, Grandma?" I said, reaching over to prize open her fist. Inside was a sprig of rosemary. Her fingertips smelled of it.
"It's Rosemary. It's a symbol of remembrance. It's for Anna."
I thought of the rosemary Grandma kept potted on her balcony and of how she put a sprig of it in all her dishes.
"Was Great Auntie Anna worried she'd be a little bit forgotten, Grandma?"
Grandma opened her eyes. "Maybe, or maybe I was worried about that."
"Grandma, when people are very old they die, don't they?"
"They tend to, yes."
"And they never, ever come back?"
"When someone dies only their body stays behind and is buried. Their soul goes to heaven."
"What's a soul?"
"It's the part of each of us that never dies."
"And where does it go?"
"It never stays in one place."
I wondered what it would be like to flit from place to place. I hooked my thumbs together and fluttered my hands like wings. "Like a butterfly?"
She smiled. "Kind of."
Grandma's eyes were fixed on the wall. I wasn't sure what she was looking at but I was sure it wasn't something in the sitting room.
"But why did Great Auntie Anna die if she was just a little bit old?"
Grandma placed her right palm on her forehead as if she were struggling to find the right words. "Sometimes people get so sick that even doctors cannot help."
I stared at Grandma's lined forehead, the creases on her cheeks. I wondered what this house would be like without Grandma and I felt a knot in my throat. I knelt before her. I nestled my head on her lap.
"And you're so very old, aren't you?" The words croaked out of my mouth and I realised I was frightened. I didn't want Grandma to leave me. Nothing could be the same without her.
"I'm not that old," she said.
"Mummy says you are."
"Yes, all the time."
She stroked my hair. I wondered how it was that Grandma always managed to make me feel better.
"Grandma, I won't need any rosemary to remember you. I will remember you forever. But if I have to go to heaven before you do, I'd really like to go by carriage like Great Auntie Anna. You'll remember that, won't you?"
Grandma didn't answer me but her lips curled into a smile. Her eyes were fixed on the ceiling, so that I knew that's where Great Auntie Anna's soul had fluttered to, for now anyway.QLRS Vol. 14 No. 4 Oct 2015