As a child I would visit the local war memorial to the men who were killed during the First World War, the memorial that had my great grandfather’s name on it, as he was killed at the age of 40.
As a young woman I didn’t think about him, or my distant family. I moved out of the area in my late 20s and built a life and what passed for a career in the Cotswolds.
As I grew older I started to think of my great grandfather – Albert George. A young soldier in the only photograph my grandfather had. I only knew about the family from my mother. My grandfather died when I was 10 and I remember him as a quiet man but as a young girl I was far too scared to speak to him. I don’t know why as looking back he was a kind man, not the imposing person I imagined. I remember when two local boys were giving me a Chinese burn in the front garden my grandfather came over and asked why they were picking on me as they were much older and I was a girl. He told them to go away and they did. He would sit in the garden on the stump of a tree that had been cut down, cross his legs and smoke a cigarette. Finding peace. In the summer he’d wear a panama hat and his shirt sleeves would be rolled up. He’d been a scaffolder his entire life and now it strikes me as a strange profession for him as I can see that he was a kind gentle man who was more of an artist than a labourer.
I know this is about my great grandfather, but I can’t speak about one without mentioning my grandfather, also Albert George.
My mother once told me that my grandfather’s overwhelming memory of his mother was of sitting at the piano as she played. He said she was a Lady. All of a sudden I wanted to see the house he grew up in, which was just 15 minutes from the where I’d grown up. I knew it was a small terraced workers cottage that today sells to city types.
I drove from the Cotswolds, parked at the top of the road and walked to the cottage. There was a For Sale sign on the stone wall and on impulse I called the Estate Agent and set up a viewing for 10 minutes time. I stood outside until he arrived, a good looking guy in a flash motor.
As I stepped through the doorway the air changed. It had been cold and wet outside, but inside it was sunny and the dust was floating on the rays from the sun in the hallway in front of me. There was a smell of baking. Two small boys aged about 10 and eight ran down the stairs and right past me.
Just as I was about to turn to leave, a beautiful petite women in a long skirt and blouse walked past me laughing as she mock scolded the boys and told them not to run as they might knock their father over as he came through the door. I turned, and there standing in the doorway, was my great grandfather. He was a young man. The woman ran to him and they embraced. Time froze as their bodies touched and I could see that he was breathing in her scent, the smell of her skin, her auburn hair and her freshly laundered clothes. This was a man who had been in France at the Front. A man who hadn’t slept in a clean bed for months, perhaps years, who had lived with the stench of death and fear.
Here was my great grandfather, Albert George, home, and safe, in the embrace of his beautiful wife Kate.
Their embrace was broken as two young bundles of mischief launched themselves at their father. My grandfather Albert and his brother Les, two carefree young boys. Men I’d only ever seen as old and worn down by life, now happy, carefree and laughing. I’d never heard my grandfather laugh.
I followed them into a small living room where there was a piano, a dining table and chairs and two comfortable chairs. Kate led Albert to one of the chairs and he sat down, but not as I have ever seen anyone sit down. He melted into the chair. The bones in his body seemed to dissolve as he fed himself into the comfort of the chair and the clean stillness of the room.
I’d stepped back 100 years to witness a family that would be gone within a year. My great Grandfather was killed in 1915 and less than a year later Kate was dead. My grandfather and Les went to live with a relative and their lives changed forever. My heart was breaking as I watched this happy family in front of me. And they were happy. They touched – I didn’t think people did then. Albert couldn’t take his eyes off Kate and the boys. He hugged them, again in an age when I didn’t think people hugged. He held them close as though he was trying to suck their very essence into him. To carry it back with him to France where he could think of them and remember the peace, something to remove his mind from the reality of mud, and filth, the constant fear and the smell and sound of death all around.
Kate bought him a cup of tea and a small plate of food, her hand rested gently on his, before she sat at the piano. Les, the younger brother, climbed onto his father’s knee and sat there as my grandfather sat on the floor by the piano and looked at his mother. She played a classical piece that I recognised. Then she played two songs that the boys sang along to. I looked at Albert and tears were running down his face. Kate was looking at my grandfather and Les was sitting on his father’s knee looking ahead and singing to the skies as Albert sat quite still as his tears fell silently.
My heart broke. It hurt as it never had. Here was a beautiful family but this was the last time they would ever see one another as Albert was killed in France.
The song was coming to an end and Albert wiped the tears away as Kate turned around.
“I can’t believe you’re here at last. The boys and I have so much planned for the four of us. Tonight we’ll have a lovely dinner and then tomorrow we’ll walk to Crystal Palace to see the dinosaurs. There’s a concert in the Parish Hall that we could go to. Otherwise we can have our own concert here, just the four of us.”
My grandfather said: “Les and I have learnt two new songs for you. We’ve been practising for weeks now.”
“I’d prefer if we have our very own concert. Just us four. Just like we always do.” Said my great grandfather.
Kate walked over and took Albert’s hand. I watched them look at one another and I understood that time does stand still. I prayed to God to let me do something. Please God don’t take this man’s life. Please spare him to grow old with Kate and watch his sons grow up. I walked towards Kate to touch her. As I placed my hand on her arm everything disappeared and I was once again stepping through the doorway.
I walked into the living room and saw a Bang & Olufson hi-fi and large flat screen TV on the wall above the place where the piano had once stood. Where were they? Where were my beautiful family?
Darren, the good looking estate agent, was beside me. I couldn’t hear what he said. I turned to him “You look as though you’ve seen a ghost.” “No ghosts. Is the kitchen through here? The garden’s south facing isn’t it?” I asked questions in a hurry to mask my heartbreak. “Is it ok if I take a look upstairs?”
Ten minutes later I’d left the house and Darren had driven off. I sat in my car desperate to cry, big sobs that come from somewhere deep in your stomach and rock you to your very core, sobs of the heartbroken. I’d have to wait. I drove to a florist and bought some freesias. I’d seen freesias in the living room and Kate had bent to smell them. They’ve always been my favourite flower. I went to the Memorial and put them in front of my great grandfather’s name. I said a prayer – rest in peace Albert, Kate, Albert and Les. I love you all and may you all be together now. Laughing and singing, together again.
Once again we would like to thank David Nobbs for judging this year’s short story competition. We are grateful to this prolific genius who has kept us entertained for many years as he spends his time writing about people who never existed and create things for them to do that never happened, and that he has the joy of their company all day!
David’s career as a comedy writer began in 1963 when he was a contributor to the iconic live Saturday evening satire show, That Was The Week That Was. You will of course all know him for The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin and perhaps you watched the recent rerun of A Bit of a Do on the Drama channel.
We will bring you a review of David’s latest novel The Second Life of Sally Mottram. It is now available in paperback at £8.99. Published by Harper Collins it is available in all bookshops and online. It’s recommended reading so get down to your local bookshop and buy a copy.