Grandma sits in her high-backed upholstered chair. Her eyes are closed; her hands rest lightly on the arms of the chair.
I see all of this through the skinny panel window in the door to her room. I knock before entering; her eyes open slowly and she grins when she sees me.
‘Come in, Gil.’
‘Grandma, how are you?’ I lean down to kiss her. She begins to rise out of the chair. ‘No, don’t get up.’
‘I might oblige you there, Gil. Thank you,’ Grandma says as she lowers herself back into the chair. ‘Why are you here?’
‘Come to visit.’
‘No, I mean in this city. Why aren’t you home in Brisbane?’
‘Just wanted to see you. And Mum and Dad, of course.’
Grandma narrows her eyes. She knows there is more to it. Very difficult to put anything past this woman. Eighty-seven years old, frail in stature but strong in character; her mind sharp as a tack.
‘Hmm,’ Grandma murmurs.
‘Can I get you a cuppa, Grandma?’ I ask, keen to come out from under her searching gaze.
‘That’d be lovely, thanks.’
‘Be right back.’
I leave her room and make my way to the tea area, smiling at the staff as I walk in.
‘Morning Gillian,’ says the centre manager, Jane. I am always amazed she remembers my name, and that I am Edith’s grand-daughter, given that I hardly ever visit. ‘How’s Edith today?’
‘She must be very pleased to see you.’
We chat for a while over Grandma’s health and spirits while I prepare two cups of tea. I bid Jane goodbye and head back to Grandma’s room.
‘Gillian, I want to tell you a story,’ she begins as soon as I walk in. ‘In my youth, I was friendly with a girl, let’s call her Rita. We were inseparable as teenagers. We’d walk to church together, we’d go to the local dances together. As we got older, we were on the organising committee for the dances.’
Her tea is next to her on the small round table. Mine is in my lap. I am all ears and eyes; I love her tales.
‘It was before the war. A happy period, even with the threat hanging over our heads. Rita and I made the best of our dances. We decorated the tables and entrance door with tissue paper bunting. We cooked shortbread and sponges and butterfly cakes. And we made sure the band played all the latest tunes as well as the old-time favourites. Within weeks of us becoming organisers, we heard about a visit here by a group of American soldiers, and we somehow managed to invite them along for the Saturday dance.’
I smile, nod for her continue. I sip my tea. Grandma clears her throat and reaches for her tea. She has a sip then rests the cup and saucer back on the table.
‘Rita fell, hard, for a solider called Bert. Love at first sight really. I found them kissing that night out the back of the dance hall. I cleared my throat, to let them know I was approaching. This was not appropriate behaviour back in the day, Gil. Particularly when you’ve just met the boy. But Rita was headstrong, emotional, followed her heart with little thought to ramifications and consequences.’
I remain silent, wondering where Grandma is going.
‘They stopped kissing when they heard me. He stared at me. Well, glared, more like. He stormed to where I was standing and threatened me with some rather unsavoury language. His fist was clenched. I thought he might punch me. I pulled my shoulders back, and gathered every particle of strength within me. I turned on my heel, called Rita to follow. Inside I was a cowering wreck, but Rita and I held hands and went back inside the hall.’
‘And what happened then, Grandma?’
‘Rita never saw him again. She dodged something that night. I think if she followed her feelings, her life might’ve been markedly different.’
I nod. ‘I see.’
‘I wonder if you do, Gil,’ Grandma says gently. She holds the silence. She keeps watch of me as her story begins to sink in.
It hits me. ‘Oh, right,’ I say. ‘There was no Rita, was there Grandma?’
Her lips are tightly clamped, but she gives a small smile.
‘I see a lot of me in you, Gil. And I wonder if your visit here is because of something more sinister at home?’
‘Things aren’t great, Grandma.’
‘Do you want to tell me what’s going on?’
I don’t answer straight away. I sip my tea. I fight back a flood of tears. With a gush, I exhale, as if I can whoosh all the bad out. ‘I think I made a mistake, and I don’t know how to get out.’
‘Gillian,’ Grandma says. She grabs my hands and clasps them in her own. It’s a move that instantly makes me feel safe, loved, known. ‘That soldier was doing more than just kissing me. And I can’t lie, even now, I liked how it felt. I was still a virgin—mostly everyone waited until they were married back then—but I was tempted to let him carry on. I wanted to follow my feelings. But my head was telling me to be wary. I think your head is saying the same to you?’
I can’t meet her gaze. I just nod slowly.
‘Gillian,’ Grandma prods. She rubs my hands with her gnarly, arthritic fingers and papery skin. ‘Just turn on your heel. Gather every particle of strength within you and walk away.’
I let go of her hands, and reach around her shoulders for a hug. ‘Thanks Grandma.’