When my grandmother was a young child, no older than ten years of age, she embarked on a remarkable feat to save all four of her siblings from a deadly blaze. She told me this one afternoon whilst I sat upon a frayed rug, tinged with a burnt orange hue as she sipped a glass of Sauvignon Blanc, chuckling to herself. Her grey hair, embellished with streaks of blonde, was in its usual style, plaited and then twirled into a bun. A headband kept any loose strands from framing her face. It was a worker’s style, a practical choice for physical activity.
I knew she’d worked as a paediatric nurse for years, I knew that she had met Thatcher, but my Nan, the local hero? This was a revelation.
One night she had woken to the heat radiating from beneath her. I had originally remembered it being the smell of the smoke and yet if that had been the case, she wouldn’t have escaped her slumber. I remember now; she thought it was Christmas. She thought her parents had lit the fire below.
She had ventured downstairs and noticed the door to the kitchen slightly ajar. She reached for the handle and recoiled, her hand throbbed profusely from the sensation of the tight burn. Here, she had realised the harsh position she had been thrust into; there was no opportunity for a getaway attempt through the front door.
I wonder if she ever really registered the pain soaring through her hand. The adrenaline must have taken care of that issue as she hastily climbed the stairs and woke each of her siblings.
As the oldest sibling she must have felt a drive of protectiveness and responsibility as it seems she had little regard for her own safety. She went straight to the youngsters. Whilst each child woke, she rid each of their beds of the bedding, rushed to one of the windows and threw the duvets and pillows to the ground below. The accumulation of the padded material made a cushioned fall for each of the children.
And so she threw each of her siblings out of the window and into the soft clutches of the linen, before turning back for what could have been a final glance at her room. With a deep breath, she herself leapt from the window and escaped the potential horror locked within the four walls.
“I even had my own little bit in the paper” she said. She grinned and leaned forward, her eyes the liveliest they had been for a while.
I beamed at her. “That’s so awesome!”
Awesome is a word that I often find myself, and many others, using without recognition for the original meaning of the word. I myself often use it as a synonym for ‘cool.’ And yet, this was perhaps one of the few moments in memory where I felt a sense of awe at something present in reality.
The most recent interaction between my Nan and I revolved around a funeral. Her mind was in a remarkably good place considering she had lost the love of her life. Of course, she still cries; even in trying to retain her unaffected persona, it’s impossible not to let the pain seep through.
As it happens, a misunderstanding of a conversation had her in absolute stitches.
We discussed my mother’s anticipation regarding seeing particular people in such a public service, my Nan suggesting “we’ll just give her a large drink.”
The ebb and flow of the conversation caused me to believe we were talking about the woman my mother was concerned about and my ingenious plan was to sprinkle some cyanide in the drink. After my mistake was clarified, Nan erupted into fits of giggles.
“All we’d need,” she chuckled, “is six or seven capsules of sleeping tablets and we could empty them into the drink and it would be done!”
After a good few seconds of undisturbed laughter, she turned to me, expression comically serious, and said. “Where can you get sleeping tablets?”
I snorted. “Sainsbury’s?”
“Sainsbury’s?!” She was incredulous.
“They have a pharmacy!” I was indignant.
“I think you need a prescription” she pondered.
And with that, the laughter returned.
My Nanna was married at the age of nineteen. It took me more years than she had been single to realise that Nanna was actually an incorrect spelling. I asserted my confidence in being right to my sister many times until, in later life, I picked up a birthday card and grimaced at the bright ‘NANA’ gracing the top of the image.
Her husband, my grandfather, had fallen for her from afar and had pursued her until she agreed to date him. She was a paediatric nurse, he became a banker. It was a good deal.
She gave birth to my auntie when she was twenty one, my uncle when she was twenty three, my mother when she was twenty five, and adopted my younger uncle at the age of twenty nine in lieu of his distressing background and learning difficulties. She’d rarely tell you she loved you but Nan has always had one of the biggest hearts I’ve ever witnessed.
These are the boring facts.
One day she was working in the hospital, in the children’s ward, when her vision began to go blurry and her body hit the floor with a powerful thud. I’m assuming this, of course, since she wouldn’t have been conscious of the surrounding impact of her ill health. She had contracted kidney disease.
It wasn’t the first time she had been seriously ill. For two six-month spells, between the ages of twelve and thirteen and then later between her thirteenth and fourteenth years, she suffered from rheumatic fever. The recurring incapacitation had made her incredibly weak, to the point where her doctor had told her never to engage in rigorous exercise ever again. She was also told that she would never be a mother since her body did not have the capacity.
A very inspiring teacher took pity on her once she had received this damning fate. Instead of heeding the staunch warning, he made her swim every morning until she built up the strength to last a mile a day. She defied all the odds.
We took Nan to Lanzarote. It had been a year for us all. Death, death, death, cancer. They say there is always light at the end of the tunnel and we needed a break for the light to truly shine.
“Nan, you should come in the pool!” I said. I always loved to swim; the first thing I do on a holiday is find the water. My Nan used to take me down to the sea in France. She’d lead me through the wild forests of seaweed, through the lair of the crabs whose bodies were hidden by the sandy, obscure water. So I assumed she’d join me.
“Oh no! Not for me!” she said and retired to a corner on the balcony to read her book. She always loved to read. But she always read. There was always more time to read.
We took her out for dinner. Oh dear, my Nan sat at a dinner table with the opportunity to people watch really is something to behold.
“Oh would you look at them, how interesting!”
“Nan, you can’t talk about people when they’re right there!”
“I’m just observing, they can’t hear me,” she said.
“They can,” my sister would say under her breath, in a tone only I could hear.
This penchant for people watching got her into Love Island. The entire nation had been swept up in the frenzy surrounding the gaudy reality TV show; the British summer had reached a peak heat higher than I could even recall, England made it to the semi-finals of the FIFA world cup and Love Island had the majority of Brits captured in its thrall. It was the cherry on top of the long, hot summer where all our cares were forgotten.
Nan found the show hilarious. It was her own daily magnifying glass on lives so disparate to hers. She was like a fascinated child on her first ever visit to a zoo. She’d sit there with a glass of Mateus rosé and giggle at every single action performed by the bizarre people on the screen, the weird, new young people.
It was about a week after we arrived when I sleepily stumbled out of my room and saw my Nan swimming in the pool, the image lit by the burgeoning noon sunlight. She was in her own little world, without a care for anything or anyone else. She was her own person once more.