Alby Stone: Grandfather

Copyright © 2018 Alby Stone

Remembrance is both good and bad. You just can’t beat a well-constructed happy memory. Equally, you can’t really escape past misfortune, not by moving forward, not by forgetting, nor by reinvention. No matter how you regard or reshape your history, the bad things still happened – and they happened to you. Rewriting in the now does not change that.

It’s a little more complicated for me, but the rule still applies.

I called my grandson this morning. I like to know that he’s okay, even when I know he isn’t. It’s always good to hear his voice, though what he says is sometimes distressing. But he’s an intelligent, resourceful young man and his activities are so interesting that I am always eager to listen. In some ways he reminds me of my own youth, though I am sure I was never so boastful of the least success.

When I was his age, give and take a few years, my life was one long adventure. I lived in what might reasonably be described as a self-contained war zone – suburban London in the late Sixties and early Seventies may have been quiet and sedate for some, but not for me – and came close to death on many occasions. The first time was in 1969, when I was fifteen years old. It was just before nine in the evening and I was walking home from a friend’s house, crossing a main road that nowadays would be busy. Then, of course, there were fewer vehicles on the road and not a lot to do after the shops shut and work ended for the day, so apart from a bus and a couple of old boys on bicycles the road was more or less empty. Then a car pulled out of a side street and accelerated, heading straight for me. Luckily, the sound of the engine revving startled me, and I managed to dive to one side. I caught a glimpse of the driver’s face as he passed – it seemed vaguely familiar but I didn’t know him – then rose to my feet and shakily cursed him. Over the years, that face came to haunt me, though it would be a very long time before I could put a name to it.

For all his faults, all his obsessions and the single-mindedness that has caused us both so much heartache and soul-searching, I love my grandson very much. I can’t say the same for his late father, though. My son was a deeply unpleasant man, brutal and violent. He beat and bullied his wife into alcoholism and an early grave. He served time in prison for crimes I don’t care to think about. Thanks to him my grandson has severe psychological and emotional problems, not to mention a good number of scars and a few once-broken bones. My son died five years ago in what the police said was a mugging that went wrong – a knife in the belly on a deserted street in the early hours of a cold Sunday morning. I’m pretty sure nobody was sorry to see the back of him. Not me, and that’s a fact.

My son’s demise reminded me of the seventh attempt on my life – an unexpected assailant as I was taking a shortcut home one night in 1971, the sudden blade glancing off the tobacco tin in my inside jacket pocket, becoming tangled in the cloth and falling to the ground as I ran away. The would-be assassin, as usual, made no attempt to conceal his face. As ever, there was that bewildering sense of almost-recognition that refused to bring a name to mind. The coincidence was uncanny, though an eyewitness said my son’s killer was masked.

My grandson has unrealistic ambitions, a life plan that is destined to fail. We have no secrets – well, I have one that he will never be told – and we talk openly and honestly about his legacy of fear and pain, his constant depression and despair. He says if his plan doesn’t succeed, he will take his own life. I hate to hear him talk that way. I tell him, with absolute certainty, that it won’t come to that. But he sneers at my confidence. He has his own. It isn’t his fault he doesn’t know he’s wrong.

Just thinking about him breaks my heart.

The murder attempts went on for eleven years, one or two a month, right up until I got married, when I was twenty-six. I never told anyone about them. Some gut instinct told me it would be inadvisable. Besides, who would believe me? I was a nobody, an ordinary young man living a dull, average life. I didn’t do drugs, I wasn’t involved in crime. I hadn’t wronged anyone, not as far as I knew. Who would want to kill me? But the attempts continued. The sniper on a tall building, the brick dropped from a high window, the cars from nowhere, the knives and blunt instruments in the dark, the gas leaks, the hand forcing beneath the bathwater. Petrol through the letterbox, sliced brake cables, the shove in the back on a train platform. The cyanide in the coffee, detected just in time. And always that face, the face that loomed in my dreams and nagged at my memory until…

What happened that night is burned into every axon and dendrite in my brain. Yet somehow I didn’t see it, not until it was too late.

Who am I kidding? It was always going to be too late.

My grandson doesn’t know that I know. Not that he’d ever stop talking about himself long enough to register anything I have to say. It’s all about him, all the time. His terrible life, his endless angst, what he suffered at his father’s hands, an eternal ebb and flow of suffering and blame. I’ll kill myself, he wails, though we both know he’s too much of a coward to take his own life. It’s easier and more self-affirming to blame, blame, blame. Really, my existence is only acknowledged when he’s blaming me for the way his father turned out. I know differently, of course. I remember the love and care my wife and I showered upon our only child, the opportunities we gave him, the time we took and the money we spent. It wasn’t our fault nature gave us a selfish, vicious narcissist – that our blessing turned out to be a curse. My grandson doesn’t see it that way, though. I am to blame, the cause of all his misery. I wish I’d never been born, he says with monotonous regularity. I am so glad his grandmother is no longer around to witness his descent into self-loathing and nihilism.

Yes, my grandson is a clever and inventive man, quite brilliant actually, and I love him dearly. But I can’t say I like him all that much. He shuts himself away in his cellar, surrounding by electronic components and arcane tools, building machines he claims will change the world, transform people’s lives. Well, he’s right about that. One of them will certainly change his life.

I didn’t realise until that proud day – for me if not his father – when my grandson went away to university. I took a photograph, him standing in the garden flanked by my wife and son, all smiling for my camera – not that my son’s smile reached his dead, cold eyes – and in that moment, gazing into the viewfinder, I knew. Recognition was belated but total.

Blame, blame, blame. My fault, mine alone.

That night, that terrible night. Strolling home after seeing her to her door, a chivalry that was nearly suicidal. He lunged at me from the darkness of a garden, flowing from shrubbery like an eel after prey, the knife glinting yellow in sodium light. Black hooded top, grey jogging bottoms, unusual clothing in those days. That face, twisted in hatred. We struggled, fell to the pavement. The knife turned and was buried to the hilt in his chest, driven home by his own misguided hand. I stood and stared down at that face, horror diluted by relief. My tormentor was no more. I ran from the scene, sweating for days until it became clear that the police would not be following a trail to my door. It was over.

That face. So like my own when I was his age.

My grandson phoned again just now. For once I interrupted the usual litany of woe. What are you wearing? I ask. I can almost hear his impatient shrug. Grey joggers, black hoodie. Why? No matter, I say. Then I feel compelled to tell him this one thing, one last time. I love you, you know.

He hangs up straight away. It isn’t what he wants to hear. I could try to warn him, but he’s habitually deaf to my advice. And what would it achieve? What happened is what has always happened, what will always happen. Really, his life was over long before he was born. I know because I was there.

For a few seconds, I feel guilty and desperately sad. Then I think of all the times he tried to kill me, and sympathy evaporates. The little shit deserves what’s coming to him.

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