And I’d ask ‘What did they die of, Grandpa?’
And he would say – he would always say – Well, hen, it’s just like this (and he would pause there, for the greater effect) his heart… jist. stoaped. beatin’.
And then he would look at me. Dead straight in the eye. Serious-faced like and say:
Ye know hen – thur’s folk dying the day that huv never died afore.
Then he’d nod and look sagely at some distant point before eventually walking off.
Only then would I splutter and start.
He reeked of fags. Wee thin roll-ups. The hoose was clean – mostly – but after she’d died it was just a hoose – wi’ a bit a a ghost of her. He slittered thin grey fag ash on his black troosers – that were hitched up wi’ a worn black leather belt – other times wi’ braces. Sometimes he’d fall asleep and burn the pleather moquette of the settee she’d been so proud of. Other times he’d stare into the nicotined wall in front of him, like it was a dark maw.
He’d boil tripe. The stench hitting you as you reached the front door step. And make soup from ham houghs. On Saturday mornings he’d fry bacon, removing mine when it was just turned and frazzling his, til it was crisp and burnt. And make porridge with all milk and salt – just for me.
He was this implacable, immoveable, unrufflable calm. This dense core of knowingness. His were the eyes of an old soul.
He was as close to the Taoist Kao as I’ve ever met. I remember reading Salinger’s version out loud to him.
Duke Mu of Chin said to Po Lo: “You are now advanced in years. Is there any member of your family whom I could employ to look for horses in your stead?” Po Lo replied: “A good horse can be picked out by its general build and appearance. But the superlative horse-one that raises no dust and leaves no tracks-is something evanescent and fleeting, elusive as thin air. The talents of my sons lie on a lower plane altogether; they can tell a good horse when they see one, but they cannot tell a superlative horse. I have a friend, however, one Chiu-fang Kao, a hawker of fuel and vegetables, who in things appertaining to horses is nowise my inferior. Pray see him.”
Duke Mu did so, and subsequently dispatched him on the quest for a steed. Three months later, he returned with the news that he had found one. “It is now in Shach’iu” he added. “What kind of a horse is it?” asked the Duke. “Oh, it is a dun-colored mare,” was the reply. However, someone being sent to fetch it, the animal turned out to be a coal-black stallion! Much displeased, the Duke sent for Po Lo. “That friend of yours,” he said, “whom I commissioned to look for a horse, has made a fine mess of it. Why, he cannot even distinguish a beast’s color or sex! What on earth can he know about horses?” Po Lo heaved a sigh of satisfaction. “Has he really got as far as that?” he cried. “Ah, then he is worth ten thousand of me put together. There is no comparison between us. What Kao keeps in view is the spiritual mechanism. In making sure of the essential, he forgets the homely details; intent on the inward qualities, he loses sight of the external. He sees what he wants to see, and not what he does not want to see. He looks at the things he ought to look at, and neglects those that need not be looked at. So clever a judge of horses is Kao, that he has it in him to judge something better than horses.”
When the horse arrived, it turned out indeed to be a superlative animal. (Franny and Zooey. Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1982.)
Sometime weeks later he pointed out the window at his neighbour: whit’s that horse dae’in oot there?
But he wasn’t Kao and his knowingness was a wearying weight to him.One he anaesthetised with whisky and beer and talk. And a routine he substituted for living. The bus tae Wishy toon. The Jehovahs and the Mormons in for a gab. The dugs. The bookie’s. Gettin’ a wee bit fu’. Noo mind – a drunk man aye tells the truth he’d say, pished and telling me he loved me.
He made me sing Don’t cry for me Argentina and he called me a dirty bitch when I stoated in drunk and couldnae make it to the upstairs toilet. But he didn’t clipe – not for a while anyway – not until I was too old for my mother to have a go at. He hated confrontation that much.
Mid-teens I stayed with him every weekend. I worked the hamburger van until the wee hours and then walked home, lettin’ maself in wi’ ma key and rolling onto the settee he’d piled wi covers. ‘Oor Iain’ wis never in and his bed was seldom slept in – but his room was boggin and anyway he’d have killed me if I’d gone in there. So I had the settee.
Time is a bastard. 8th December 1989. He’s nearly 27 years dead. He died the day before his birthday. And I just cannot remember enough.
How fucking frail is our memory? I want to recall whole conversations – not just the repeated catchphrases. I want to inhale deeply and smell the sweat and soup and stale fag smell of that wee house. And I want to hear the trim phone ring in all its avocado-coloured glory.
But anyway. That’s the nature of it. We live. We die. In between we accumulate: pride; love; regret; shame. More largely, perspectives. The benefits of hindsight.
Now I see his death as a giving up-ness. The result of an accretion of loss. Of her. Of purpose. Of really being needed. He moved to the periphery – the edge of our vision. Joined the ranks of the elderly occasionally visited. Cared for and loved, more in absence and from a distance.
He became superfluous – eventually even to himself.
So. What did he die of?
I know what he would say.