[An introduction to this short story, written when I was around sixteen, is given in my post ‘Short story – prologue‘. It is emotionally substantially autobiographical – even if the precise events and circumstances are not.]
She cradled me in her arms like she used to; only now I was twelve years old. No longer a baby; no longer, even, a child. My head lay on her shoulder and her wrinkled hands held tightly onto mine. The rhythmical motion of the rocking chair dragged down my eyelids, but I forced them open. I didn’t want to miss the sunset. I had to see it; I had to see it for her. I was her eyes now that she was blind. That would never change, whether I saw the sunset or not; it wouldn’t matter to her, but it mattered to me. It mattered because some day I too might be blind, and I wanted to remember what a sunset looked like. Suddenly it was all important that I should remember, and just as suddenly the atmosphere around me seemed too insubstantial to be remembered, leaving me longing for another sunset, and another. It was always the same. For as long as I could remember, it had always been this way. Just me and her, my grandmother, sitting together outside our front door, watching the sunset. It was the time when we felt closest to one another- no words marred the perfect understanding which seemed to exist between us. It was as though we were the only two human beings on the island; nothing else existed for us apart from the blood-red sun slowly sinking into the sea. This was how I always wanted it to be, and saw no reason to suppose it would ever change.
The first thing I always heard when I awoke, was grandmother’s breathing from the bed beside me. I lay still for a while, enjoying the morning silence and the summer sunshine streaming in through the window, warming my legs. I got up quietly, without waking grandmother, and put on a skirt and a faded old shirt which had belonged first to my grandmother, then to my mother, and now to me. Though my mother’s picture lay on the dressing table beside me, I could not remember her. She had died when I was two years old. My grandmother had always refused to tell me anything about my father, and there were no pictures of him in the house. I had long ceased to wonder about him.
I knelt by my bed and said a prayer. Before I left the room I kissed the picture of Jesus above my bed. My daily routine had started all over again. Ever since my grandmother became blind, when I was six year old, I had taken over the position of housewife. This meant that I could not go to school and had no time to associate with children of my own age, of which there were few. Most of the young and middle-aged people had moved to the mainland, where they could make a better living, leaving the older people behind. As I walked down the hill to the baker’s, I saw countless old ladies like my grandmother, sitting on their doorsteps, knitting. The older men were in the cafes, reading newspapers. I saw children playing in the streets, but didn’t identify with them, didn’t even know them, since I did not go to school like they did.
Grandmother had taught me all I knew. Of mathematics and of science and geography I was ignorant, but of history, literature, philosophy and art, I knew more than most. Grandmother was interested in enriching my soul, as well as my mind. But to her, the most important thing she taught me about was religion. Religious piety was the one thing she instilled in me from a very early age. So it was, that every morning on returning from the shops, I made a quick visit to church to light a candle and to pray for myself and for my grandmother. I felt a peculiar stillness and contentment in church.
When I returned home I had to cook lunch, and after that grandmother lay down for her usual afternoon sleep. I never slept in the afternoon; I was never tired enough. And somehow it seemed to me like a waste to spend a whole afternoon sleeping, when I could be doing other things. So I read a book, and when grandmother awoke, I went swimming.
The water was warm. I picked up a handful of sand from the sea-bed and watched it run through my fingers. My time was running out. Ten, nine, eight, seven…I swam to the surface of the water quickly, and burst through it, gasping for air. I lay on my back to recover my breath. When I could breathe normally again, I started to swim further out to sea. Turning towards the shore for a moment, I looked up at the top of the hill, and saw grandmother sitting in her rocking chair. As though she had some sixth sense and knew I was watching her, she waved to me. I waved back, and though I knew she could not see me, I sensed that she knew I had waved – such was the closeness that existed between us. My heart sang as I turned from the shore, and dived back into the sea.
I knelt by my bed after turning out the light. “God, please bless everyone, and keep us all safe, especially my grandmother. Amen”.
The ferry glided into the tiny harbour, its decks full of noisy tourists in funny hats and ridiculous shorts. I watched them from a street corner, shouting to their children in languages I could not understand. Grandmother had been sad that morning, for she knew that now, since summer was well under way, the annual flood of tourists was inevitable, and this distressed her. She’d lived on the island all her life, and had never been anywhere else. She loved the place, but as it had been when she was a girl, playing hide and seek in its cobbled alleys. An island set apart from the rest of civilization, a haven of quiet, simple country life, where everyone knew and trusted each other. The tourists started to arrive and the island became more and more commercialized. Hotels multiplied, discotheques disrupted the night-time silence, beaches became overcrowded and dirty. But worst of all, the community spirit of the inhabitants of the island started to fade, and then people changed. Now, they were simply out to make money. Our tiny society had finally become greedy, caring more about their pockets, than about the island and its people, and this saddened my grandmother and hurt her deeply. She no longer identified with the people around her – a lot of them ‘foreigners’ – and so ceased to go out very much. Her home was the only thing which hadn’t changed since she was a girl, and so she centred her life around it and chose me as her only companion. She fed me with stories of her childhood and the island as it used to be, so that the place she had known would not die, it would live on in me; and so that I would never become greedy, like the rest, but would cherish the true values of honesty and love for other people. I was constantly with her and rarely had contact with other children. I used to sometimes wish that I could go and simply play with others of my own age. Having got used to my daily routine of looking after grandmother and the house, my wish faded, but it was still there, waiting to be re-awakened, though at the time, I was not conscious of it. That is, not until I met Helen.
She came up to me as I was sitting on our front door-step, reading. She was short, and very fair, with pale blue eyes such as I had never seen before. I looked up at her and she smiled. Pointing at herself she said ‘Helen’. I told her my own name and she smiled again. She pointed to herself again and then held up all ten fingers, and then one finger. I realised that she was trying to tell me that she was eleven years old. I was surprised, for she looked older. When I had signalled back my age, she took my hand and pulled me from the front door. She wanted me to go somewhere with her. I hesitated; I felt uncomfortable in her presence. I was in awe of the way she simply came up to me and started talking; the ease with which she spoke to a total stranger, and her lack of inhibitions. Being constantly in the house with grandmother had made me shy, and uneasy about meeting people. I couldn’t relax or be myself. Here was a child a year younger than me, and yet I felt so inferior to her and did not know why. She continued to pull my hand, but I held back until grandmother called me. She had heard Helen’s voice. Somehow, she had sensed what was happening, and she told me I could go. I had been trying to fool myself with the excuse that I must stay and look after grandmother, but now that excuse had evaporated.
We walked slowly, not speaking. I felt uncomfortable, though I sensed that she did not. Helen took me to an apartment which her parents had rented for their holidays. It was complete with television and other appliances I had only see a few times, and which we did not have in my grandmother’s house. Then Helen showed me her room and all her toys, of which there were plenty. What amazed me most were her dolls. I marvelled at all their different outfits, and spent what seemed like hours dressing and undressing them and combing their hair. I had no dolls and Helen couldn’t understand why I was so enthralled by them. She thought herself too old to play with them. I couldn’t understand that.
She called me from the bottom of the street. This time I went to her with no question. We held hands, and now I didn’t feel uncomfortable, just pleased. We went down to the beach, where she introduced me to a group of children on holiday. They smiled at me with the same ease as she had done, and accepted me just as quickly. We chased each other along the beach, buried each other in the sand, and did everything together. At first I joined in the games cautiously, but as I became more involved, I started to lose my inhibitions, until that magical moment when I realised I was totally at ease among them. I belonged with them, I was one of them. I felt inferior no longer, a stranger no longer. But above all I felt free, without a care in the world. Something had changed; the child inside me had finally awakened and asked to be allowed to play.
That afternoon, I couldn’t concentrate on the housework. I was restless, my old complacency was gone. For the first time in my life I was impatient and I resented the work I was doing. Suddenly, routine confined me. I felt trapped. For the first time in my life I felt grief for a loss, a need for something that was missing – my childhood. I realized with mixed regret and anger that somehow in my life, I had missed my childhood, skipped over the best and happiest years of my life without noticing. Responsibility was put on my young shoulders and it dragged me into adulthood long before my time. I was serious, responsible, mature, but not happy. Complacent but not happy. For where was the joy, the humour, the carefree nature I suddenly longed to possess. I felt a sudden urge to do something utterly silly and childish, but something held me back. I realised I could not now become a child, though I could experience a child’s world. I could act like a child, but I could never think like one. The fact that I realised this at all, proved it to myself. I felt angry, but I didn’t know at whom. What I did know – what I was aware of – was a deep-seated longing, a desperate desire to be free of responsibility, free of routine. I couldn’t stop thinking of Helen. She became my ideal, my icon. I felt Helen’s presence with me, even when she was not there. She supplanted God as my best friend, and the longing to share in her world moved me almost to tears of frustration. The hours I spent with her, being a child, were magical; and each time I left her, it became harder to go back to my old routine, to my chores. Until one day I knew it was not the chores I resented, but my grandmother. What my soul resented was not being faced with work, but being faced with age, the one thing of which I longed to be rid.
A few days later, Helen once again stood at the bottom of the steep alley and beckoned to me. I waved to her eagerly, my heart racing all the while. I ran into the house to put on some shoes. My grandmother was sitting in her rocking chair with her hands on her lap and her eyes closed. Her knitting lay beside her. I told her I was going to meet Helen, but as I started to leave she grabbed my hand. The grasp was not as strong as it had been when she used to cradle me. I had not noticed this before, but maybe that was because she hadn’t cradled me recently. In a soft, shaky voice, she asked me not to go. I started; it surprised me, this request. I asked her why, but she simply said that she didn’t want me to leave her, not today. Her grasp tightened slightly and suddenly I felt trapped once more, and angry at how unreasonable she was being. The thought came into my mind that she was trying to prevent me from being a child; trying to tie me to the house and to my responsibilities, simply so that I could run around for her. A pang of guilt stopped my train of thought, for I knew that this was not true, but I dismissed it from my mind. Guilt had no place in the ideal child’s world I was striving to create. She pleaded with me to stay, but each plea made my resentment greater and my longing to go to Helen more intense. In the end, I prised my hand out of hers and left the room. The minute I loosed my hand she stopped pleading, as though she knew it was useless. Somewhere in my mind I was conscious of a deep relief that she hadn’t cried as I left the room, but as soon as I re-joined Helen outside in the sunshine, I was conscious of nothing but a newfound freedom, and an overwhelming joy.
Walking home in the darkness, clutching one of Helen’s dolls, I realised that this was the first sunset I hadn’t witnessed sitting outside our front door with my grandmother. Sudden remorse and guilt filled me because I hadn’t been there to see it for her. But this feeling quickly disappeared as I thought about my wonderful afternoon. That afternoon I had come closer to being a child than ever before. Not only had I acted like a child, but for the first time I had begun to think like one, to forget responsibility and what was ‘sensible’. As I approached the house, I noticed with surprise that my grandmother wasn’t sitting outside the house. I went inside and called her name. The house was still, and no one answered. From the table the picture of my mother glared at me.
A sudden uneasiness overtook me, so that when I opened the bedroom door, I did so very slowly, as though afraid of what I might see inside. My grandmother was sitting in her rocking chair, but she was motionless. Her hands lay limp in her lap, her head rested on her shoulder. Her eyes were closed and her knitting was still beside her. She was exactly as I had left her – but something was different, something was missing. An alertness about the mouth, a twitching of the fingers, the rhythmic heaving of the chest. I noticed these things, but did not take them in. I walked to the chair and picked up one of her wrists. Her fingers didn’t reach out to grasp my hands, or her arms to embrace me. When I sat in her lap she didn’t cradle me. Age, the enemy of my childhood was gone, and now I was free to be a child. So I cried like a child, for like a child with a child’s mind, I could not accept death, could not understand why this had to happen, or why God had let it happen. I still don’t understand.