Thursday, January 5, 2012

And then I drifted of down the road to Mombasa

I don’t have any grandparents of my own. I lost all mine relatively1 early on, due to various smoking-related diseases, or dementia, or other such carelessnesses on my part. I don’t have many other elderly relations either, other than a Great Aunt who is utterly fabby and entirely unlike the Great Aunt in the Swallows and Amazons books. This means I have an inclination to adopt elderly people in place of my absent grandparents, provided they are sane and reasonably non-flatulent. Ideally I’d like to have Dame Judi Dench as a grandparent, but until I find her forlornly by the side of the road looking for an adoptive grand-daughter to rescue her, I have Tim’s grandfather.

Tim’s grandfather is fantastic. He’s approaching ninety-seven, but still has all his marbles, plus several extra he won in a round of Bridge. Given people in my family seem to start losing it at around fifty2, I find this rather wonderful.

Grandpa, winning at cards. Again.
Grandpa is still as sharp as a razor, can play whist all evening and win outright, and on the way home can list who played which card in which order for every hand throughout the night. Me, I daren’t play against him – one of Tim’s aunts is invariably in disgrace for making the “wrong” call, and I doubt I’d play to an acceptable standard either.

But the best thing about him is his stories – by the time one gets to nearly-ninety-seven, there’s very little that one hasn’t done or seen. Grandpa has served in the army, and is proud of the fact that he shot a German after the war was officially declared “over” (“Well, I told him if he went on burning those documents I’d shoot him, and he went on burning them, so I shot ‘im!”). He tells stories of attending a court-martial (not his own) in Antananarivo (“No, not many lemurs there, but we were only there for a day.”)

There's the saga of trying to get a column of supply trucks across an African desert, double-declutching all the way, and smoking the leaves confiscated from the local drivers en route (“They said it was marijuana but it didn't really do anything – quite a disappointment!”). He avoided trouble when he overslept after an epic gin session only to find that the unit had moved on without him (““What time is it?” I asked. “Oh, about eleven in the morning” said my medic friend. “Eleven! And we're due to move out today! We'd better get a move on!” “Oh, the unit left yesterday. We tried to wake you, but couldn't. Don't worry though – I told everybody you had malaria.””). I think the court-martial he did receive was for cannibalizing some of the more decrepit trucks for parts to fix the others, and consequently arriving with fewer trucks than ordered (“Well, I pointed out that at least I had arrived! They let me off in the end...”)

After the war was over, he worked for the company which installed the elevators at Buckingham Palace (“We had to design corgi-guards for the elevator doors. That was a challenge”), got used to working with the royal family wandering by (“The Queen Mum was lovely. Very gracious. And drunk as you like by midday!”), got threatened with prison by Black Rod (“Well, you see, a question had been asked in Parliament about when the lifts would be finished, and they said “three months”. So they said to me “you will finish the lifts in three months”. And I said “We can't – the parts are on order and won't be manufactured for another six months!” And that Black Rod, he said to me “Parliament has said you will install them in three months. Are you aware that if you don't do it in three months that will count as Contempt of Parliament, and you can go to jail?”)

The thing is, Grandpa's stories are fascinating (and a lot more audience-friendly than the tales my own Granddad would tell me,3) but we've heard them all many times before. It just takes the phrase “And another time on the road to Mombasa....” and we all zone out. Whenever someone new visits, Grandpa delightedly begins recounting narratives to a new audience who listen with amazement. At that point, I start to think “Actually, these are quite impressive, aren't they?”, and wonder whether anyone ought to be writing them down for posterity. But I wouldn't have a clue where to start.

Still, I'm sure there's plenty of time. Grandpa's currently making plans for his 100th birthday – I think we're all having a huge family shindig in Rhodes!

1 See what I did there? “Relatively”, when talking about relation- Oh, never mind.
2 With the exception of my fabby Great Aunt mentioned above.
3 My granddad, of whom I was very fond, was an ambulance driver on duty in Benfleet on the night of the 31st January 1953, and therefore was called out to Canvey Island. It clearly affected him, and I think he still suffered post-traumatic stress about the incident. He would tell tales of breaking off the rooftops of houses to find drowned corpses huddled in the attic, where they had scrambled higher to escape the rising sea and then become trapped in the icy water. Or the miracle baby, whose entire family had perished in their sleep, but the crib had floated and the baby was saved. That last one sounds suspiciously like an urban (or possibly rural) legend to me, but Granddad always swore it was one of his friends who found the baby.

No comments:

Post a Comment