Lunch ends with the head waiter kissing my grandmother on both cheeks. He calls her ‘beautiful girl’ and forgives her for not having eaten more than a few mouthfuls of her melanzane parmigiano. While she appreciates the attention, gran doesn’t understand it– the table behind us are beery loud, she’s slightly cross with me for paying, and she usually pretends not to understand English spoken with a non-British accent.
I move the bill from my grandmother’s reach again; the waiter gives me a quick peck on the cheek and wishes us both a Happy Marches day. He steps out my way as I begin manoeuvring gran out of her chair. She is too confused to play up; she doesn’t entirely know where we are and the half-glass of white wine is making the eczema on her forehead flare redder in this lighting.
The last of the crowds on the street outside Bar Leo have cleared; the procession won’t pass back this way for another three hours. We start walking up to the market cross for coffee and gran begins to find herself again. For the last two or three years she has walked from her flat by Tescos, up the High Street to the cross for a cup of white coffee and a ham toastie. She knows where she is, how long it will take her to get there, what she can expect at the end of it.
It’s my thirtieth birthday. I’ve slipped it into conversation twice now – both times my grandmother stopped and turned to me, gripping my arm tighter and reaching across with the hand that holds her walking stick.
‘Are you really?’ she asked. ‘It doesn’t seem possible.’ Then she tells me she wishes she were my age again. By the end of the conversation she thinks I’m in my early twenties – that’s the age she automatically remembers me as. ‘I’m twenty-one too, of course.’ She chuckles as she tells me that – she chuckles a lot, my gran. She also does a short, ironic laugh of the ‘that’ll teach’ variety, and the occasionally emphatic ‘hah’. Mainly she chuckles – a mischievous, deeper version of a giggle.
For a ninety-one year old, she’s an exceptionally fine escapologist. When I called on Saturday and told her I was coming to take her out for lunch on Tuesday, my gran neglected to remember that it was The Marches; the highlight of the local community calendar. I called Sunday to tell her I was coming out at noon. I called Monday to remind her and fell for her best trick – pretending to remember. ‘Of course, I know. I’m looking forward to it dear.’ I believed her, assumed she’d written it down. Assumed she’d check her diary, even if she did write it down. We agreed I’d call from the train so she knew exactly when I’d arrive.
We always want to believe her; to feel remembered. I’m lucky in that she usually knows who I am. My brother will sometimes get introduced as one of her sons, or she’ll have a polite, blank moment where I watch her watching him and his wife; she knows she knows them, but the details fade out at times. My mother is the daughter-in-law who comes at weekends and doesn’t make her do things she doesn’t want to. My aunt is the daughter-in-law who comes during the week and forces her to shower, throw out mouldy bread, admit she forgot to take her medication the day before.
As we walk up the High Street, gran points out all the shops she finds interesting. Most of them are closed today, for The Marches. The streets are busy; the kids are off school, most of the adults have been drinking since they hit the streets at lunchtime. The brash pop music from the funfair is filtered out by sporadic sets from pipe or samba bands. Every sixth person who passes us is in some kind of uniform or costume. ‘Did you see Archie in the parade before?’ Gran is exercising her selective remembering again. My great-uncle Archie is most likely curled up in bed, resting; his prostate cancer has left him yellow and breathless. I should have called him and said I’d be in town today, but I haven’t. When the procession went past a couple of hours ago, my gran pointed out the troupe Archie used to march with. Now she’s filling in the gaps in her memory with things she saw in the past, with possibilities and probabilities from the life she prefers to remember.
Contradicting her feels cruel. I gently pull her out of the path of a double-buggy and counter with a memory from the last time I came out for The Marches, seven years ago. We all went to Mary and Archie’s house for lunch, then stood on the street corner together to watch the procession. Archie wasn’t marching that year, but my younger cousin was. I’d brought my boyfriend-at-the-time with me and Archie gave us both whiskies and told us to hurry up and get married. It was the summer I graduated with First Class Honours from St Andrews University, but gran read all the press coverage about Prince William getting a 2:1 and told everyone that’s what I’d got. Mary had asked my mother if I was disappointed, which is how we found out what had been happening. I don’t repeat the last part of the memory.
We tell each other how much we enjoyed today’s procession, and I remind her that we’d stood next to her upstairs neighbour to watch it.
‘I don’t see her much,’ gran repeats. ‘Only when I’m out really. She’s nice though.’ We don’t talk about me losing her this morning. She prefers to keep up a façade of capability; I respect that desire for dignity, but mainly I’m too much of a coward to confront it.
I called from the train, as arranged, but she didn’t answer. I left a voicemail. I kept calling at five minute intervals until the train pulled in. I started walking down to her usual coffee shop – at least her routine has been fenced in for the last few years, so I know she won’t be in Falkirk or Stirling or somewhere untraceable. I call one last time and she picks up; she has just arrived home. It costs her more effort than usual to pretend she is expecting me. By the time I arrive at her flat, a couple of minutes later, she is pretending she hasn’t been out at all.
I tweet updates about gran as the day goes on. It’s easier for me to translate things into a hundred and forty characters of humorous excerpts. It’s also a way for me to keep my brother (in Turkey) and my parents (in St Lucia) aware of how she is. My followers join in the game of hunt-the-gran, and give a very positive response to the photo of her drinking wine in the Italian restaurant. Several people – most of whom I’ve never met or previously been in touch with – favourite the tweet about gran complaining loudly that the kid on the table next to us is too fat. I don’t tweet her comments about one of the waiters looking ‘too pale to be a proper Italian’, how I’m scared she will collapse in the street from being too tired when we’re watching the procession, how it feels that she still thinks I’m an undergraduate student and can’t understand that I’m older, have a job, have moved to a different city.
We finally reach the cross, but gran’s usual place is closed. I try to find out if it was open this morning – if she wasn’t hungry at lunch because it was all too overwhelming (most likely) or because she’d already had her usual toastie here (always possible). She tells me it isn’t open and looks vague. If I pushed for an answer, there’s no way of guaranteeing it’ll bear any resemblance to the truth. We go to the café across the road and they tell us they’re closing in half an hour because the council will be shutting the road off at four. Gran drinks all of her white coffee but declines to share a piece of cake. ‘I’m not at all hungry today,’ she insists. ‘I don’t know why I feel so lazy, but I do.’ Feeling lazy makes her angry with herself, briefly. The waitresses begin sweeping up around us. ‘A lot of places wouldn’t do that with customers in, you know.’ It isn’t a criticism; gran went into service at fourteen, still makes her bed each morning to hospital standards. She enjoys watching cleaning, tells me it makes her feel comfortable.
Inevitably, she brings up the subject of my ex-boyfriend. Not the one who came to see The Marches seven years ago, a more recent break-up. ‘I don’t know why, but I always liked him.’ She uses the same phrases every time – it was endearing when we were together, but over the past year it has begun to stick me on edge. I am grateful that she has stopped asking me to get back together with him, at least. ‘There was just something about him.’ I break in to remind her that he is now engaged to someone else. She purses her lips. ‘Yes, well. I liked him even before, you know.’ She means before we got together, when he and I were just friends. It is true, she always did have a soft spot for him. We pass quickly into the litany of when will I be getting married, when will I be starting a family, when will I—she breaks off, distracted by a small child walking past the window in a bright pink dress. ‘Look at the little one!’ she smiles. I go to the counter to pay.
Gran is getting ready to stand up when I return to the table. She keeps peering round the corner, hoping that the waitress who has been cleaning will pay attention to her. My gran forms these likings – and dislikings – based on very little. If someone makes her feel safe, she acts as though she has known them for years. She wants the waitress to watch her while she stands up, so that she can play silly buggers and pretend to be old and querulous. I always play along, but I’m worried she’ll fall over when pretending her knees are wobbling all over the place. She is only half joking when she pretends to need to be pulled up out of the plastic seat. The waitress is young and stressed; she wants to get the place closed so she can go meet her friends. She pays no attention to my grandmother.
The next day I get a call from my aunt, asking if I’d been to see gran. ‘She keeps changing her story.’ My aunt apologises for disturbing me. ‘She said yesterday you’d been out, then today she says she hasn’t seen you. Then she says you came for The Marches. I thought maybe you’d been out on Monday instead?’
I talk her through what happened. My aunt asks me when I left. ‘We found her about five, walking in circles down at the end of the High Street.’
My gran refused to go home when I left her. She tried to do it slyly, knowing I wouldn’t approve; she kept asking when my train was. ‘I don’t want you to miss it, dear. You go up to the station. I’ll be fine getting back by myself.’ I tell her I’m walking her home, that I have plenty of time. She keeps asking. It’s unusual for her; normally she wants me to come in, have another cup of tea. Finally she admits she doesn’t want to go back. I suggest she might be tired after such a long day. She presses her lips together and looks away. I have inherited my stubborn streak from my grandmother; she is intractable when her mind is set on something.
We compromise; I leave her on a bench, watching one of the pipe bands massing. I can’t physically force her, and she’s in better fettle than I’ve seen her in a long time. It’s The Marches; tradition says you get out on the streets to see and be seen. Gran keeps telling me sometimes you don’t see some folk from one year to the next, except on The Marches. She wants to be a part of it. The procession will be passing back about five, I can’t stay to watch it with her. My aunt finds her by chance – near the bench – less than an hour later.