‘At the Third Stroke She Will Be 78’ - Grandma


And so there were the three of us: Tommy, Kevin and Julie, and that is what I was always called: Tommy-Kevin-Julie! My mother would fire off the three names in quick, stressful succession, each name a hasty and frustrated correction for the previous one, and each one gaining in emphasis so that Kevin became ‘Tommy-Kevin’. Only Tommy was ever really called immediately by his correct name and, even then, in times of extra stress there was likely to be a debate: ‘Tom—, Kevi—oh Tommy!—’ I think it must be a family trait because I simply cannot mention an alpha male member of my family or circle without putting my husband Grant’s name first: ‘Grant-Tommy or Grant-Kevin’. Similarly, I know my brother, Tommy, calls his eldest daughter Julie-Anita and me Anita-Julie.

There were the three of us and then there was Grandma. Bridget O’Brien, my maternal grandmother, had come to live with us towards the end of the war after the death of my grandfather, having found the farm they ran together just outside Castlebar, County Mayo, too much for her alone. ‘Not enough soil to feed a man. Not enough soil to bury a man.’ None of her four children, of which my mother was the eldest, was prepared to take it on. Because my mother was arguably the cleverest of the four, her parents had earmarked her to run it and look after them in their old age. Having plans of her own, she ran away, aged twenty-six, telling them that she was just going to visit England, and she never came back. Then when she announced just six months later that she had met and was going to marry my father, a builder, a letter came from her mother, demanding in no uncertain terms that she should ‘come home at once!’ and then commenting, disparagingly, ‘marrying a man in overalls indeed!’

I don’t think Grandma acknowledged my father once during the whole fifteen years she was with us, except for the odd, sneering lift of her nose into the air in a pantomime expression of her snobbery. My brother Tommy also got short shrift where my grandmother was concerned, which was generally felt to be due to the fact that he was born before she arrived, and also - and more likely - because of his resemblance to my father. My brother Kevin, born not long after she arrived, was her out-and-out favourite. This, I think, was because he looked like her favourite son, Martin, and, more importantly, her late husband, Patrick. I fell somewhere in between, and feel now that I was probably lucky to be neither loved nor hated by her.

She had suffered a couple of strokes even before I was born and my brothers used to say, ‘At the third stroke she will be seventy-eight.’ It turned out that she had in fact suffered a whole series of tiny cerebral bleeds, which had an effect similar to Alzheimer’s disease. She was never quite with it and at times got very confused. She would frequently get up in the small hours, dressed only in a pair of truss-pink, knee-length, interlock-weave bloomers and a pair of brown, fluffy, zip-up slipper boots, looking for all the world like some bizarre geriatric football player, and she would disappear into the night.

The first we would hear of it would be a phone call from the local post office where, for some unknown reason, she would always end up at a godforsaken hour, banging on the door. My father was duly summoned by a fairly pissed-off postmaster to go and pick her up. Then there would be a bit of a scuffle where he, the postmaster and the postmaster’s wife would attempt to get my grandmother into her brown plaid dressing gown. This was no mean feat as Grandma’s strength was legendary. I once came home from school to find a piece of coal the size of an armchair sitting in the middle of the sofa. How she had managed to hoick it from the coalhouse and lift it on to the said sofa is a mystery equal to that of Stonehenge. The whole post office debacle would invariably end, after my grandmother’s repeated claims that she had no idea who my father was, with her giving in and getting into his van with her usual imperious lift of the nose, accompanied by a little, thin-lipped sniff.

Things seemed to take a turn for the worst, as far as I can remember, when a pigeon shat on her head in Trafalgar Square. We had gone on a day trip to London to visit Auntie Agnes, my mother’s unmarried sister, in my father’s Ford Esquire estate. The M1 had just been built and I must have been about nine. Things were fine on the way down but after the pigeon incident she became rather quiet. Then when we were about halfway back up the motorway she announced that she was going to ‘get up now and make the tea’, whereupon she attempted to get out of the moving car. My mother instructed the three of us to sit on her, which we did, but every few minutes, like Groundhog Day, she would start again: ‘I’ll get up now and make the tea.’ Eventually we managed to distract her with a pile of magazines that our aunt had given us for the journey. She threw a cursory glance over a couple of pages and then began slowly to shred them into neat, thin strips. By the time we reached home, the car was like a giant hamster’s nest.

I can still remember us getting out with strips of paper flying off us into the wind and my mother’s face, livid, some of the strips trapped amongst the curls of her newly permed hair: ‘Now you can get up and make the bloody tea!’ My grandmother, her expression at first innocently blank, closed her eyes in a slow, world-weary way, then up went the nose and out she got, an exit worthy of royalty. As she walked up the garden path like a world leader on a state visit, my brother shouted from the car, ‘Grandma’s wet on the seat . . . Eeeeeew . . .’

From then on she had her own special seat next to the fire in the kitchen. She ate all her meals sitting in it. One evening, when we were all sat around the table having our tea, my mother suddenly exclaimed, ‘Oh, may the great God look to me!’ We turned round and there was my grandmother performing the delicate task of eating a soft-boiled egg with a huge pair of coal tongs, her face blackened with coal and sticky with yolk. It was like the seat in which she did everything, literally. It made a sound like a full sponge if you poked it with your finger or, God forbid, sat in it, though few did unless they had some olfactory impairment. I can remember the priest once getting up out of it with a damp patch on the back of his cassock and us all staring silently as he waved a jolly goodbye at the gate. So we were on full alert when visitors arrived, especially in summer when the whiff was somewhat reduced by virtue of the fact that the fire wasn’t lit. We were ready in a second to head them off at the first sign that they might wish to take the weight off their feet.

My poor mother did what she could about my grandmother’s incontinence, but with three children and a full-time job at Cadbury’s, she couldn’t always give it her whole attention. I can remember feeling very angry seeing her, exhausted after a full day’s work, clearing up yet another of my grandmother’s deposits.

One day, I saw Grandma walk up the middle of our small strip of garden, which Mum had lovingly planted and tended. I watched as lupins, gladioli, iris and pansies were mashed under foot and at the same time small, hard turds were dropping out from under her old black skirt as she walked along, just like a horse. I am ashamed to say I ran after her and kicked her up the bottom; I am now pleased to say she didn’t notice. My dad then erected some chicken wire around the garden to stop her wandering on to it, but this had to be taken down when one day after returning from the shops we found her spreadeagled, flat on her face on the lawn, with both feet stuck in the chicken wire.

My mother kept chickens for several years after the war. Only a dozen or so, they were kept mainly for eggs and occasionally at Christmas one would be dispatched for lunch, my grandmother doing the honours. These birds would invariably be a little tough as they were rather mature, so one year a turkey was bought to be raised for the following Christmas. However, my mother could not bear the thought of the creature suffering and when it came to it refused to allow it to be put down. So it became a pet.

It grew to an enormous size, strutting and scratching around the garden with its brain growing on the outside of its head and seeing off anyone who had the audacity to come in through the back gate. Tradesmen were terrified of it. When the milkman came in with his daily delivery, the turkey would stand at the top of the garden, his head down, aggressively scratching his feet out behind him, then he would run the full length of the garden and, like an overfilled jumbo, take off just as he reached the end. As the milkman was bending down to put the milk on the step, the turkey would fly at him with a fearsome squawk, its awful talons to the fore. People became too scared to come into the garden but still my mother refused to get rid of him, stating that he was as good as a watchdog. This state of affairs continued until one day my brother Kevin, who was three at the time, came running into the house, screaming in terror. The thing was on his head, flapping and screeching, its talons embedded in his scalp. So Grandma was dispatched to do the dispatching.

Grandma was a whizz at dispatching. Legend would have it that she could dispatch, pluck and draw a bird in about ten minutes. The other thing she was good at was making great sugar sandwiches, something my mother would never allow: lovely squares of white bread slathered in butter and then thickly covered in white sugar. She was always there when I came in from school and these treats were produced not only on demand but with pleasure.

She was also an endless source of entertainment, introducing words into our vocabulary that none of us had ever heard before or since, words that no one has ever been able to explain. ‘Ahhh, she’s like a maharather in bad weather!’ is one example, which seemed to be a derogatory term usually aimed at my mother, and we children were often referred to as ‘wee goms’ as in ‘get up out of bed, you wee gom!’ When she sat down to watch television, she never really understood that whoever was on television at the time couldn’t hear her. For instance if there was a drama on, she would join in with the dialogue: ‘How dare you speak to her like that!’ She was hard of hearing and would often shout at the newsreader, inches from the screen, ‘What did you say? Speak up, man!’ Her eyesight wasn’t too good either and once whilst watching a ballet she suddenly stood up and said, ‘How dare you display yourself in front of me like that!’ and marched out of the room, slamming the door behind her. She had thought that the male dancer, instead of wearing tights, was naked from the waist down.

Grandma was a good playmate too and you could engage her in most games of make-believe. I have one vivid memory of telling her that she had just started school, as I had done in reality only days earlier. She became completely immersed in this. I can see her face now and can remember being quite frightened by its sudden transformation. It became strangely lopsided, the small, brown eyes moist and shining, her mouth stretched wide into a grin I had never seen before, clearly showing that she had but one yellow tooth in the middle of her upper jaw. She began to babble excitedly about learning to read and write, and then she wrote her maiden name in a childish scrawl several times on the paper I had given her. Two or three years after she died this had a rather strange repercussion.

I must have been about twelve at the time and I had decided to move up into the unused attic room at the top of the house. It was a large, cold room with a big sash window, looking down over the street. The wallpaper was faded and torn, and one wall was completely papered with front covers of Punch magazine from when my brother Tommy had slept there briefly some years back. Before that the only other time it had been occupied was when my aunt and uncle had lodged with us for a couple of years. It felt wonderfully removed from everything - from the rest of the house, as no one ever went up there, and also from the world outside; it was higher than the houses opposite and you could almost see over the top of them. It was a brilliant vantage point from which to view the world of the street and its goings-on, and the relationships of the various children that played there.

Once a friend and I dropped water bombs from the window down on to a football game taking place below. The bombs were made from balloons filled with water. The subsequent surprise and chaos that it caused - boys screaming in terror and shock, and mothers rushing out on to their doorsteps to see what the commotion was, and everyone looking this way and that but mainly up to the heavens as if they’d been dropped from some alien spacecraft - sent us into paroxysms of fear and laughter. We never owned up even though it was the talk of the street for weeks, my mother’s wrath being the chief deterrent.

On the first night that I was to spend in this room, I got into bed, excited by the fact that I had a light suspended above my pillow that I could switch on by pulling a cord. I was sitting up in bed, reading my comic, when the light suddenly went out. I was not too worried as I thought it was probably not switched on properly so I yanked it back on. This happened again several times in fairly quick succession. In the end I gave up and snuggled down to go to sleep. Just as I was drifting off, the light came back on again and I began to be slightly alarmed. I pulled the cord to turn it off and dived down under the covers, but on it came again. This time, my heart hammering, I quickly put an arm out from under the blankets and snapped it off. ‘Stop it!’ I shouted and it did. I lay there for some time, unable to sleep, wondering whether the light did this every night, in an empty room, of its own accord, sending out a mystery Morse code to the universe, when suddenly, on what sounded like a huge breath of air, the door to the room was flung open. I can hear it to this day, pushing the tattered old rug back with a mighty squeak. I stayed under the covers sick with fear, my pulse sounding in my ears. I told myself it must be a draught and somehow eventually I fell into a fitful sleep.

When I awoke next day the door was still wide open but the morning light had removed all threat. It was when I got up that I noticed it: a small piece of paper a couple of feet from the bed. On bending down to pick it up, I recognised it immediately. It was the paper I had given my grandmother some seven years earlier, on her ‘first day at school’. It read in thin wavery writing: Bridget O’Brien, crossed out, and then her maiden name, Bridget Clark Bridget Clark Bridget Clark. I couldn’t work out where it had come from, but then I remembered that outside the door, on the small landing, was the trunk my grandmother had brought with her from Ireland when she had first come to live with us. It was filled with various items of her belongings. But why would this scrap of paper from a game played years ago have been kept in her trunk? Maybe she had treasured it for some unfathomable reason, but even so if it had been put in her trunk, with its heavy wooden lid and its substantial metal catch, how did it get out of there and into this room, which I had cleaned thoroughly the day before, and how did this stiff old door, catching on a thick rug, on a calm night, open with such force? Well, suffice it to say I never slept up there again.

Grandma died in 1960. As she lay dying I would sit by her bed, in the little back bedroom of our house, and moisten her lips with a tiny brush dipped in water, fascinated once again by the transformation of her face, this time with an unrecognisable peace that softened her features, the old yellow tooth, unhampered by inhibition, clearly visible again at the centre of a half-smile, and I saw for the first time that there was beauty in her face.

I’m asked time and time again about why I choose to play people older than myself: Mrs Overall, or Robert Lindsay’s mother in GBH, or, more recently, Evie in the film Driving Lessons. I have always found other people endlessly intriguing, as all actors do. The way they think, the way they speak and move, their faces and clothes, and older people were - and are - even more interesting in some ways, simply because I haven’t reached their age and I want to go and explore it. But I believe the main reason that I end up playing so many older women is that somewhere I want to re-create and comprehend both the fun and the calamity that was caused by my grandmother’s presence in our house for what was actually almost the whole of my childhood years.

This conundrum was partly solved when I was involved in an Omnibus for BBC Television about my life and career. I went back to the West of Ireland in the mid-nineties, to the place where my mother was born. The single-storey, thatched cottage that she, her two brothers and sister had been brought up in had long since been demolished, but I spoke to the people who had lived next door to them. When I asked them about my grandmother, the woman they described came as a revelation to me. She was apparently lively, energetic and funny, loved by the local children and always welcoming with an apple to give them from the orchard. I was shocked, feeling both deprived of that woman that they had all known and saddened when I thought of the poor confused, cantankerous old woman I had grown up with. It made no sense to me and then I remembered the beauty of that face as she lay dying, with its secret smile, and somehow it did.

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