Gran had paper-thin skin, blue as an aerogramme. Her voice was backward-slanted. As the years went on it became frail and more spidery. The loops of her l’s remained fat as tear drops, and liberally sprinkled, but perhaps I am remembering the look on my mother’s face as she peeled open each letter.
Sometimes Gran would write some words especially meant for me: well done Susan on your music exam; I am glad you are enjoying Brownies Susan. She was an indistinct figure on a porch in a parched blue paddock, saying faint polite things. You could tell by the fading on the ink that Rhodesia was hot, and that was even without her mentioning the rains being late. My cousins in Rhodesia were chlorine blonds with white teeth and strong tanned limbs. I had a tan too, but in Rhodesia there were no cold winds to ruffle the surface of the pool and make you shiver in your towel. My cousins in Rhodesia had never ridden their bikes into a southerly. They had never had chapped lips. They didn’t wear wool jerseys, didn’t smell of damp itchy lanolin, ever.
Gran had had two lives. In the first she was a slim woman who lived in a large mossy farmhouse and wore fashionable hats, with clips underneath to keep her curls flat to her head. This life was built of brick, had damp skies and a musty odour. I would heave open the album, its covers black and heavy as cathedral doors, and study the tiny photographs. There she was: one hand on the elegant handlebar of a perambulator, the other on my uncle’s shoulder. Six years old, hair licked down and parted, he’s straining away from her, trying to catch that blurry hen. Stone walls, a ha-ha, silver on the polished oak at Sunday lunch, a circular gravel drive, a tradesmen’s entrance. Family names tucked up under lichen on tombstones in the nearby Norman churchyard.
Then the war arrived. There was requisitioning: cheerful airmen who took over the house, who flirted with the dairy girls, who scraped their dining chairs as they scrambled to get under the table when the bombers came, who flew their missions and sometimes survived, though a man’s smile could be twisted out of place for ever. It was overcast then for years: muddy, drizzly, the sunlight rationed and meagre. It was no good for photographs, just the occasional studio shot of my dashing moustachioed uncle in his uniform.
I turn the last damp page and Gran’s second life begins. It looks like heaven. There she is in front of a trellis of climbing roses, bare-legged, wince-smiling into the sun. There’s my uncle, safe and sound, standing foot-square on dust in shorts and sandals. There are picnics, young people wearing sun frocks and open-necked shirts, posed on fenders – so many dazzling faces. The light is dry, white, flammable.
I imagine Gran in her Yorkshire dining room. The table, its oaken glow long dulled, is cluttered with kitchen contents. She’s supervising the packing. What to take? What to leave? The table can’t come, no matter how many lives it spared offering its broad back to the bombs, no matter that its fat-calved legs look like they could walk all the way to Africa.
Sometimes, when I was little, I picked up the battered silver cup that Mum kept on the mantelpiece. She liked to display proteas in it. For a long time I didn’t know it was a prize cup, awarded to a champion farmer, an expert breeder of sheep, year after year the proud exhibitor of show-stopping long-stapled Leicesters. It took me even longer to realise that the champion was my grandfather, though the inscription was clear and I knew it off by heart: William Francis Jordan, 1936, 1937, 1938. When did it get dinted? On the voyage from Southampton to Cape Town in 1947? On my parents’ voyage to New Zealand fourteen years later, the newly-weds playing deck quoits all the way to a harmonious green land glittering with rivers? In a cold, poky Wellington flat, with only packing cases for furniture, did my mother throw it at my father? Or at me, to stop my incessant crying?
I think of my grandmother standing in a wide-roomed, airy, deep-verandahed house, surveying the family relics. It’s 1961. My cousins toddle on tanned legs under their mop-tops of bleached hair. They already know lots of words, like bwana and veldt and voetsak! but the new phrase just blown in from further up the continent causes the adults to fall silent and is not deemed suitable for children. Mau Mau, whispers the hot, electric air, and the clouds build – always, it seems, on the horizon; forever, it seems, pent.
My grandmother surveys the family relics, the portable bric-a-brac that has survived the attrition of migration. She’s trying to decide which piece should travel with her only daughter – my soon-to-be-mother – to a small, distant country at the very foot of the world. Which piece will she give her? Which piece that she will never see again?
I could never balance the album on my skinny knees for long. It had such weight, as if it were trying to fall back through the earth itself, perhaps to emerge on the other side of the world, whereupon it would spring open and the small people inside would step out and get straight to work. Here, it closed continually over its contents with a force like magnetism. They wanted sleep, those faces that looked out so youthfully from the little black and white squares. They wanted to close their eyes and rest at the bottom of our bookshelf, in a living room ringing with children’s voices, neat eh, a room where proteas in a silver cup overlooked a stubbly lawn of pup tents and carelessly dropped bikes.
So here’s me running barefoot over prickles and couch grass to the letterbox, and here, tucked into the slot above the milk bottles in their wire crate, is my blue Gran. She is flimsy, and her voice is barely audible where she writes Mrs Pat Wootton and family, 56 Fitzherbert Ave, Wanganui, New Zealand, but then, she has come a long way – over all those oceans – and it is hot in Rhodesia, where they are always waiting for the rains.