I'm skipping along narrow Crown Street in Ryde between the Crown Hotel and the newly constructed National Provincial Bank. I have just finished school and I'm on my way home. It is snowing, not hard or cold enough to settle, and it fascinates me. It is also April Fool's Day and a Monday. The year is 1968 and I am ten years old.
I cross busy Lind Street and then run down St James' Street to the family house in Spencer Road. I patter down the stone steps, the ground floor is slightly below the level of the street as it is constructed on an incline, and let myself into the hallway. I open the door to the kitchen where I see my mother looking serious and my grandmother sniffling.
"Grampy died today, Matt, this afternoon,' Mum informs me. I must look blank because she adds: "You will never see him again. Never. Do you understand that?"
I don't know whether I do...
Just over three months previously I had experienced the happiest Christmas ever. I remember him warming himself up in front of the log fire in the lounge with a cigar in one hand - he had given up smoking many years before but would occasionally indulge in a cigar for special events. That Christmas he had bought me a Triang-Hornby electric train set - I had loved it. He had also let me have a tumbler of Woodpecker Cider too.
He wasn't a tall man but he had a presence about him - I respected him. Mum thought he looked a bit like Ernest Borgnine the actor, and perhaps he did. He had been born in 1893 in Forfar, close to Dundee, on the eastern coast of Scotland. Throughout most of his life he was employed either as a book-keeper or stock-keeper - he was meticulous and good with numbers. He was also fluent in French, Swahili and Persian - he worked abroad often, including upon the heightening of the Aswan Dam. He was also a Freemason (I still have his tin with his regalia in) and I have photos of him with fellow members of his lodge abroad. During the Great War he served as an aerial observer and was shot down over German lines where he was treated in hospital before spending the rest of the war in a POW camp - before that he was in the trenches. He was wounded twice - shot in the arm (he described the pain as similar to having a red hot poker thrust into your skin) and once having a bullet graze his nose. He also recounted the tale of how one of his comrades had been wounded and stranded in No Man's Land - the enemy fire was too intense for anybody to attempt to rescue him. They heard him moaning all day and it wasn't till nightfall that he was picked up - he should have bled to death but he staunched his wound with mud and that saved him. On another occasion a German soldier who had surrendered was told to go back to his lines but unbeknown to him a long delay hand grenade had been slipped into the pocket of his great coat - he got about fifty yards before been blown apart. My Grandfather had been quite horrified by that.
After the war he married but lost his wife during labour along with the twins she was carrying - tragic. He then met and married my Grandmother in 1926 with whom he had my Mother in 1927 but my Mother had become ill as soon as she was born. It looked as though she was going to die having never left the hospital. My Grandfather's response was to remove her, despite the protests of the staff, from the hospital. "Underneath these people don't really care, a baby needs to be with its mother," he had told everybody. He was right - my Mother survived.
He spent the next three decades working for oil and construction companies across the world: Nigeria, Egypt and Persia amongst others. He made certain he was out of the country for the Second World War though. "One war is enough for any man, and planned by those who don't do have to do the dirty work," he had muttered tersely when I had spoken of it.
In the late fifties he had settled down to retirement on the Island - where I come in. I recollect him working part time preparing accounts for a local garage owner (who was mentioned in the book, Babycham Nights) and also running a beach kiosk on Ventnor seafront. He was a terrible driver too having been given his license before compulsory tests. On one occasion he left the handbrake off on his Ford Popular and had to chase it down a hill, jump on the running board stretch in through the window and pull the handbrake on before it crashed into a wall - I think he was in his early seventies then.
As I was a child I never spoke deeply with him but he had a couple of outlandish views - I believe he read Omar Khayham and other mystical poets in Persia which may be where he derived some of his philosophy from. My Mother was once bemoaning the fact that she was unsuccessful in life (she was deeply ambitious underneath) and my Grandfather had merely replied: "Tens of thousands of swimmers swam for the solitary place on the life boat - you made it and they all perished. Is that failure?"
I also recollect him saying on New Year's Day (1968) in front of Nana and I, "We are closer to the end of time than we are to last year." I knew what he meant but Nana didn't.
The last time I saw him alive was in St Mary's Hospital - he had suffered a heart attack a few days previously. Mum had driven Nana and I up to see him. He was in good spirits and looked to be recovering. He told us how he had a very vivid dream of driving round a lake in Africa and how wonderful and tranquil it was. We know now that the lake represented the Great Unknown. We had all gone home expecting him back, but it never happened as he suffered a massive fatal coronary at about three o'clock in the afternoon on the 1st April 1968.
I am in the lounge at home. I am throwing catkins into the log fire and watching each one burn brightly before merging into the flames. I am repeating this time after time.
My Grandfather's funeral took place this morning. He was cremated and for some strange reason I need to recreate it repeatedly.
I am thirteen years old and in bed. I am thinking about Grampy. I am thinking about what it must be to be oblivious for all eternity. For a split second I comprehend it, and then it is gone. I will never grasp it again.
"Well he certainly fooled us all, dying when we thought he was on the mend," my Mother is saying, and as though he did it on purpose.
I just nod - I don't really understand.