By spending time at Soly, I could monopolize Grampie and Mizzy and pretend they were only mine. Grampie made things come alive for me. He talked to me about important things, like a grown-up. I loved to listen to him, to hear his words.
I just sat there letting his words seep into my body – through whichever opening they chose to enter, because most of the time my ears just couldn’t understand them. Printing his voice in my heart and locking it in my soul. I could feel his voice squeezing past the hairs on my arms, running up my nostrils, hurriedly making their way down into my thundering empty head. “Noony-head-in-air” Mizzy always used to call me. So I was sure that I had nothing much under my tangled, sun-bleached hair.
I desperately wanted to make contact with Grampie – I wanted to feel him, breathe him, touch him and make everything of his a part of me. I wanted a special place in his heart, because so much of my heart was filled with him.
Books were his passion and so they became mine as well. Old books, new books, musty ones with tattered yellow pages; it didn’t matter. But Grampie didn’t just sit there and read – he ate up the books, devoured them, poured over them, intently sucking every word and phrase out of them. He paid homage to his books and pushed others to do the same.
I’d sit on the floor playing solitaire and he’d be puffing on his pipe in his chair by the window. I wish he would tell me a story. The flickering flames from the kerosene lamps had a soothing effect and I’d inch my way closer and closer to the foot of his chair.
I leaned my head gently on the side of his leg and he ruffled my hair.
“Will you tell me a story, please?” and he sat back with his pipe and told one about me riding the bike. I loved it.
Gruff though he seemed, he was not. His stories were passionate, sometimes lilting into a gentle cadence, like waves softly lapping on the shore; then suddenly he would pounce with a yell and in all the same breath move back to the lullaby rhythm. I was enthralled; his melodious voice was exhilarating.
Suppers at Soly were always a simple affair of boiled eggs provided by Mizzy’s plump brown and black chickens or soup.
“Look! Look how yellow the yolks are!” She would pronounce every time. We would all “Ooh” and “Ahh” on cue.
Slices of toast oozing butter, raw carrots and cheese on the side and tall glasses of thick creamy milk, it never got boring or repetitious.
The little house purred on autumn evenings, the fire gently crackling in the corner scenting the air with eucalyptus and pine, then at one minute to ten the silence was broken by irreverent screeching from the Wireless.
The Wireless was their only point of contact with the outside world – an old Pye radio which ran on six AA batteries. As it warmed up, it shrieked and hissed until the great bells of Big Ben could be heard through the cacophony.
“There! There it is” I squealed.
“Shh. Quiet now.” Grampie shushed me, but with a little smile pricking the edge of his lips. I loved this part, I watched him intently as he turned the dials, enraptured.
“Good evening. This is the B.B.C. and the “Ten O’Clock News …” the announcer’s hot chocolate voice poured over me. I was my favorite part; perhaps because it was the only piece I ever understood from beginning to end.
Yet it didn’t matter a bit. I was them and I took my cues from Grampie: nodding, listening, cocking my head. For a while I was part of their grownup world and I loved it.
As with all holidays, it was over all too quickly and it was back to school with me.
It was just another cold, grey school morning when I came face-to-face with death for the first time. I was seven.
Mummy came in and told us that Grampie had died. Just like that.
My throat squeezed shut. What? It’s just not fair! My eyes squeezed shut. I could see angry white spots inside – but I couldn’t see Soly. I was sitting on the edge of my bed in my underwear, gooseflesh prickling my arms and legs – and it wasn’t only the cold. I want to see Soly! I want to see Grampie.
Grampie? Why did you die? You said you would stay with me…I didn’t know if I was allowed to cry, but my eyes were stinging more and more. I think I’m going to cry … don’t cry silly baby. The words had throttled my soul; my soul where I had woven Grampie into – I could feel bony cold fingers trying to pry out the warmth.
Forcing my eyes open, I looked at my mother and asked again,
“H-how did he die?”
Her eyes filled with tears.
“His heart was tired. He was bringing in some logs for the fire and it just gave out. He fell right there. Right there in his living room next to his favorite chair.” She hunted in her sleeve for a handkerchief.
It’s just not fair! I want to scream and cry!
Daddy walked in and put his arm around Mummy,
“Come on, darling,” he said gently, “I think we’d better be getting along.”
Getting along? Where? What do they mean?
“Noony, you’ll be going to school – your sister will come with us.” What? Why?
“But Daddy, I want to come too, I want to come where you’re going…” I was confused. Don’t leave me out! Don’t leave me alone with this horrible pain!
“The bus is coming. Please just get dressed,” Daddy said.
“But, why can’t I come too…?” Please, please don’t leave me out.
“Because you’re too small and you’re going to school” he responded and I knew that was the end of that.
As my parents walked out of the room, my eyes began to cloud over with tears, tears which I angrily pushed away with the back of my hands.
I threw myself down on the bed and hugged my pillow. Grampie, Grampie, why did you leave me? Talk to me please … I could hear my heart pounding in my ears; pounding like great African drums. Loud angry African drums, beating, beating, beating.
A fuzzy image began to form behind my eyelids and a distant rumble was growing deep in my inner ear … so softly that I could barely hear it over my heartbeat. What’s that? I know you. What are you saying…?
I held my breath and struggled to listen. The picture started to come into focus …
It was an autumn evening a few days before and to the light of the kerosene lamp, Grampie was reading to me. It was “The Congo” by Vachel Lindsay – that poem I so loved which sounded like great African drums.
He pounded the table while he read alternately strumming his fingers like the patter of bare tribal feet:
….Beat an empty barrel
With the handle of a broom
Hard as they were able,
Boom, boom, boom!
I had been laughing with excitement when he banged on the table, his cheeks bright pink savoring every word and rolling them over his tongue. He was at once throwing up his arms and roaring like the apes of Africa, filled with passion, his bright blue eyes dancing and dancing behind his round glasses. Now softly like the waves again
…Then I had religion
Then I had a vision…
The image began to blur. No please! Don’t go! Don’t go! His great voice became a distant echo as I strained to hear him
…Mumbo-Jumo is dead in the jungle
Never again will he hoodoo you
And in a puff, like the fireflies, he was gone. Please said the whisper in my ear, Please don’t leave me alone …
Please… And slowly from far away up the lawn behind my eyelids came a soft soothing voice,
“It’s OK, Noony. You can do it by yourself…” and just as gently it melted in a cloud of blue smoke taking with it my innocence.
Watching the drizzle of that grey chilly morning, I dragged on my grey school uniform, about as grey and as drab as I felt right then and began the first day of the rest of my life without Grampie