Death in the Family
Topic: Lactose Incompetent
Sunday night, and I've driven out of London to catch a late movie. I missed the start, so opted to go see a horror movie, instead, one that toyed with the premise of going into the past and changing it, and what ripples that could have on your life.
Driving back at midnight, slightly nervy as I don't know where I am, already having stopped once to try to find myself on a map, window down just far enough not to be dragged out through it, radio on XFM low, wondering if men feel quite as nervy as women on the street at this hour, noting that basically there are no women on the streets at this hour, unless they're in a mini skirt on the street corner - I pass a brightly lit fast food burger joint in Thornton Heath. As I pass, I deliberate: pulling over, getting out, getting a kebab? Then dismiss leaving the car as too dangerous at that hour, in an area I don't know - and an odd movement flickers in my peripheral vision. Just a flicker, but it's someone - maybe a few people, moving fast. With something at their feet.
I'd been speeding, slowing as I came towards a roundabout, trying to recall which route on the map translates to the deserted wasteland of a Sunday night in front of me. The glimpse is only peripheral, and it passes quickly by with the rest of the street. As it passes I hear a sound.
Dull. Heavy. Yet reverberant. Like a chair leg quietly knocking against a chamber pot.
If you've ever heard this sound, you don't forget it. If you hear it once, you'll recognise it forever.
It's the sound the bone inside a skull makes when it hits an immovable object.
Today, my grandad died. He was an okay grandad when I was a kid, he was a nice guy. He tried to give all his grandkids aims and aspirations, and that's a good thing. He gave me #10 for every exam I passed, which I still have, in the same post office account, and haven't ever brought myself to spend. (Not spent because when am I ever going to find myself with any other money so honestly earnt?)
As I grew into an adult, I could see that he was belligerent at times, but he had a large family, and a large house, and it was a nice place to sit and read a book you got for Christmas. I guess I'm saying, I liked him, but he wasn't close.
The last time I spoke to him, he was staying at my parents' house when I phoned. He picked up the phone, was told it was me, and because the phone was by a computer proudly announced he'd never chatted on the internet till now, then hung up.
The time before that was when he wrote me a letter wishing I'd find God and someone to spend my life with. I found that letter pretty upsetting, especially as I had a girlfriend of eight years standing at that point, but I guess then I knew that he at least knew, although my aunt had hinted as much, and at his disapproval, but he was pretty old, so I can forgive him for that. I guess. Eighty nine is pretty old.
And I never had any other grandfather, either. I sort of regret that when I was told to attend his ninetieth birthday party with the instruction that I might never see him again, I'd replied "you promised me that when he was eighty". But not really. I didn't mean it like that. Really.
There's no grandparents left now. I think that's the frightening part of it. Everybody expects an old chap to pass on one day. But now he's gone. Who's next? I find that much more frightening. I don't want any of the rest of my family to die. They haven't had eighty-nine years to torment us yet.
Back in Thornton Heath, I'm stuck at a red traffic light on a roundabout, turning right, and realising what the sound is, my memory leaps back in a rush to the other three times I'd heard it.
I heard it in '01 when my car hit a dog running off its leash round Bellingham, hit it in the head. It survived pretty well, but the shock and horror lasted for ages. I heard it in '98 when I was living on a dangerously lawless estate in Kennington, when I looked out of my window and saw my neighbours kick the jaw loose from a passersby's head, because he'd said hi in an australian accent. I heard it in '92 when a group of eye-rolling kids in Brixton smashed glass into my face and then drop kicked my head for the fiver in my pocket.
I'm ashamed of it, but my first impulse is to drive away. Away from the beating, away from Thornton Heath, away from the violence, away from my own impotence to stop it. What could I do? A skinny woman on her own in a car. I turn the corner and drive, trying not to hear the sound.
What does that make you, if you don't care? I ask myself, as I reach the next red light, still on the roundabout. Do you know who that makes you? Is that what you're about?
I pull the car further to the right than it needs to be to make my turn. I know I am going to go back, but I don't want to know that I'm going to do it. Every other time I'd heard that noise had ended in a scene of mob law, with police who weren't interested, were mates of the people involved, or who just wanted me to fit up some black guy, and didn't care who it was, or how correct my statement might be. I don't like the police in the areas I think of as war-zone London, I don't want any more contact with them than necessary.
But I have a phone. He might be dying. I knew it would be a he. And I know that what seems like a heavy roll of carpet, behind that sharp flicker of movement, isn't. I don't want to think about what I will have to do. I just pull the car round the junction and turn back into the road behind me.
There was nothing I could do for him.
You can't go back to the past and change things. The decisions we make in the present are the ones that have ripples. The past is the past - we've already lost the moment.