Daddy or Chips

french-fries-1351062_640 It was my granddad’s funeral, the one I wasn’t supposed to like on account of what he did. I remember the front room, my grandparents’ front room, being full of people, mostly strangers, and it being dark. I thought it was odd to have the curtains drawn and the lights off when it was bright outside, but we did it out of respect, my mum said, ‘though he didn’t deserve it’, I heard her mumble. My grandmother looked old and drawn, quiet, maybe a little confused, maybe she didn’t know everyone either. She sat in her normal chair by the fire, which wasn’t lit. It was strange to see it so dark and cold. It was normally lit even through the summer with each lump of coal being positioned in exactly the right place to ensure it burned properly. My granddad knew about coal.

I remember us all just kind of sitting there in the awkward quiet, or standing if there was no room to sit, staring at the floor not quite knowing what to do or say until one guy, standing with his hands in his pockets, no idea who he was, suddenly said to no-one in particular, ‘You know, I’ll really miss his chips’. The room sighed, parts of it laughed and a smile spread across my face.

His chips were amazing. Potatoes had to be individually selected, peeled and cut properly before being deep fried in an old pan seasoned over decades of use. He really was upset if he caught you cutting potatoes the wrong way, ‘That’ll never make a decent chip’, he’d say, and he’d be right.

He grew his own potatoes of course. Most of the ex-miners in the long row of cottages had a small garden plot at the back where they grew their own vegetables, and perhaps kept the odd chicken. I remember my granddad, the one I wasn’t supposed to like on account of what he did, showing me peas in their pods growing in a wee patch of jumbled canes, greenery and damp earth that got under your nails. We city boys didn’t know how to shell peas, obviously, so he showed me how to remove the stem end, peel the stringy fibre and gently prize the pod apart. It took just a second. Inside, the peas were firm, bright, and tasted like no pea had ever tasted to me.

They were great cooked as well, of course, and we had them with chips, and beetroot. We always had beetroot with our chips at Granddad’s. And we wiped our plates clean with buttered bread and laughed at how Granny wasn’t going to have to clean the dishes as we’d wiped up every trace of food.

My uncle pressed a card into my hand and I looked at it, not knowing what it was. My brothers also had one as did my cousin. I was number 4. I kept it tight in my pocket as we walked down to the graveyard, a procession of quiet jumbling feet interspersed with thick accents I could barely understand.

At the graveyard, at the side of the grave where the coffin was already in place resting on a couple of planks of wood, my number was called and I was told to stand near the foot, just to one side. The crumpled bit of paper was handed over to someone and in return I was presented with an end of a bit of rope. I really wasn’t sure what was going on but I worked out, by careful observation, that after the planks were removed the coffin was being lowered into the ground by a few guys using rough, old tattered rope while we, we had nice rope with a big knot and frilly ends. We didn’t hold the weight of my granddad, the one I wasn’t supposed to like on account of what he did, but it looked like it was us lowering him into his final resting place.

And then I remember us all walking away from the hole, slowly being filled in behind us. I remember my dad, not usually one for showing any kind of emotion, putting his arm around my mum and she leaning in to him. I remember her saying, ‘I don’t want to cook tonight’, and her turning round to us, me and my brothers, and smiling, saying, ‘Shall we get chips on the way home?’

A Chip off the Old Bookshop

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He watched them for a while as they chatted, pointing to the windows, gesturing with wide arms as though measuring the walls and imagining them different. Occasionally they would glance over conspiratorially as though their presence had somehow managed to remain undecipherable, their secret plans buried and hidden amongst the piles of unsorted books.

‘Can I help you gentlemen?’, he finally asked and put his mug down on the counter, placing a bookmark neatly into the fold of what he had been reading, closing it, and placing it next to his mug.

Startled, the two young men looked at one another and slowly and nervously scuffled towards the counter, as though they had just been summoned by the headmaster.

‘Is there a particular book you are after?’. He looked from one to the other. Both wore almost identical ill-fitting navy-blue suits and, although both lads were quite slim, they seemed to have selected shirts too tight so that their buttons strained allowing glimpses of pale flesh beneath. The jackets were so tight they’d never fasten to cover the strain. And their sleeves were too short. And so were their over-tight trousers. One wore socks with some kind of logo on them. He was facing two boys who couldn’t even dress themselves properly and one was wearing children’s socks. Was this fashion or just pure and simple stupidity? He smiled.

‘I noticed you were in the fiction section’, he leaned over the counter and nodded over to his left. ‘It’s just that the children’s books are over there. Lots of pictures.’ He added and smiled again.

The two navy suits looked a little annoyed, realising they were perhaps being insulted. ‘We’re not here to buy your books old man, we’re here to buy your shop!’, the one with logos spouted.

Unmoved, he picked up his cup and took a sip, ‘I didn’t realise I was selling it’.

Logo Man, clearly the main voice of the navy twins, grew agitated and, now their purpose for visiting the shop was out in the open, vented his invisible boss’s anger. ‘You’re going to have to close sooner or later, you can’t survive here, in this spot, it’s in a prime location and my firm will give you a really good price. You know that, we’ve been sending you proposals for the best part of a year.’

‘I’m not selling.’

‘See you?’, the non-logo man dug into his pocket and brought out a small micro-disk. ‘See this place? See all these books? I can have them all on this tiny little disk, I don’t need your shop, people don’t need your shop, nobody reads books anymore. You’re just wasting everyone’s time and you’re not doing yourself any favours trying to stay open when you know you can’t. You’ll have to close sooner or later.’

Logo Man looked disappointed in his twin. ‘Well, we’ll send some papers through for you to have a look at with our latest offer’, and with that he turned to leave, his companion fumbling with his pockets, following.

Picking up his reading material again, opening it and removing the bookmark, he looked around his shop momentarily before continuing to read from where he had been interrupted, though having time to call after the Navy Twins without looking up to see if it had any effect, ‘I have colouring-in books as well’.

It was a good read this, a really good proposal to enhance the bookshop and put in a small coffee bar at the main front window. It was a surprisingly good idea, considering where the proposal came from, and it should do really well with a bit of work, he could see that. And, it would be one way of finally being allowed to put, ‘& Son’, after the shop name at long last.

The Life Of A Polar Bear

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The polar bear swept through the water.

Gliding. A grace, an art to its movements. Moving just too fast to be described as ‘slow’, just slow enough to avoid the moniker of ‘fast’. Shifting its majestic mass in a cornucopia of curves and pirouetted turns. A creature of power, of strength, and yet once also bearing the fruits of fragility. A wonder of nature.

‘Is this Attenborough?’ Julie swivelled her head slowly, careful not to dislodge the precariously perched red paper hat upon her brow or the mountain of festively rich food nestling away in her stomach, directing the question to her older sister, Mary sitting on the opposite end of the couch.

‘Hmm?’ Mary’s face barely registered a flicker as the sound shot out of her slumped, worn-down exterior. Her phone commanding the vast majority of her attention.

‘I said, is this Attenborough?’

‘What?’ Mary looked up at the tv momentarily. ‘Oh. Maybe. Probably. I dunno. Check the Radio Times.’

Mary’s attention switched back to her phone.

‘No, no, it’s fine. In fact…’ Julie leaned forward, reaching towards the Radio Times lying on the coffee table. A slight push, an effort extended would be required to get it, she decided. Something slight, nothing much more. And then she thought better of it, slumping back onto the couch. ‘…actually, no it’s fine.’

‘Hmm?’

‘Never mind.’

It will be Attenborough, she thought. I don’t need the Radio Times to tell me that. The Radio Times. The ONLY copy of the Radio Times we buy all year, she thought. Well, that Mum and Dad buys anyway. But I suppose, its tradition isn’t it. Mum and Dad asleep in their chairs well before 8pm, she thought as she looked across at her comatose parents. And turkey. I mean who eats turkey throughout the year? Apart from the Americans on Thanksgiving, obviously. And Christmas cards. Chocolate Coins. Morecambe and Wise repeats on the telly. Oh, and that bloody ‘Holidays Are Coming’ Coca Cola advert!

‘In fact, you know what,’ she announced out loud.

‘Hmm?’

‘You know what polar bears remind me of? Or used to anyway?’

‘Hmm? What’s that?’ came the disinterested murmur.

‘Coke. Coca Cola that is. Remember back when we were kids, round about the early 90s or so, the Coca Cola Christmas adverts had polar bears in it?’

‘What? Yeah, ok, yeah. You’re probably right, yeah.’

‘And then that ‘Holidays Are Coming’ advert came in and that was that. The same ever since. The same banal nonsense year after year. No deviation. No change. Or ‘tradition’ as they call it.’

Julie felt the merest suggestion of moisture approaching her eyelids.

‘Hmm? Yeah, yeah…’ Mary’s own paper hat ricocheted painstakingly slowly against the felt of the couch as her head twitched under the threat of impending and impromptu nap.

‘And that’s something else about polar bears’ Julie continued, continuing to stare at the tv which showed a mother polar bear and her cub nestle into one another, ‘they hibernate completely, protecting their young, for two months out of every year from the harsh outside world and its climate. And you know what months they are? November and December. Obviously. And if that’s not a metaphor for the Christmas period then I don’t know what is.’

A slight snore came from Mary as her body, head first, began to arc towards the arm of the couch,

‘But what happens when the cub doesn’t feel protected? What happens when it feels claustrophobic? Stifled. Empty? What happens when even that warmth, that routine, that tradition starts to fail? To lose its impact with you? What then?’

Mary’s head connected softly with the arm of the couch. The orange paper hat falling silently to the floor.

‘And that’s another thing, about polar bears…’ Julie’s eyes were now welling, ‘their fur. Did you know it’s not actually white? It’s actually transparent. Or clear. See-through. Whatever you want to call it. It’s basically an optical illusion. So, sometimes…sometimes. So, sometimes, what you see is not what you get, it’s actually…’

Julie stared across at her sleeping sister. She laughed quietly as a solitary tear fell down her cheek.

The hint of a smile crept onto her face.

It would have to wait, she decided.

After all, it was Christmas.

It was the time for smiles. The time for happiness.

To put on a show.

The time for tradition.

It would have to wait, she thought.

As always, it would have to wait.

Julie rubbed her eyes gently as she turned her gaze back towards the tv. A torrent of hail and snow thundered across the screen as one polar bear, seemingly alone, trudged slowly through the vast snowy wilderness. Struggling through the haze. Desperate for a break in the storm.

Growing

‘Puts me in mind of a pepper’, he said, peering through narrow glasses perched halfway down his long, angular nose. He continued to view the plant from all angles before straightening his bent body and peering around the small room.

‘No tomatoes?’, he enquired.

‘I keep them in the Grow House, over by the wall’, nodding in the general direction of the cheap, plastic contraption sitting at a jaunty angle by the south-facing wall. ‘It’s far sunnier there and they seem to do better.’

His eyebrows arched in exaggerated surprise. He then nodded sagely, but with obvious disbelief, mumbling about the cost of a greenhouse, it not being positioned in the sunniest spot in the garden, and it not being used for growing tomatoes. And then, adding how I had far too much money to waste.

‘And this little table and chairs?

‘It’s so we can come out of an evening, sit in the warmth and have a glass of wine’, I smiled. ‘It’s a nice place to relax and see the garden without shivering in the cold.’

He shuffled in a circle to get a better view of the garden through the glass walls but stumbled. I caught him and rested him on one of the chairs as he started coughing, placing his stick to one side. ‘Just as well I had them’, I quipped. He ignored me and started fumbling in his pockets, wheezing heavily.

Pulling out a battered packet of cigarettes he paused, looked up at me and asked, ‘This is outdoors isn’t it?’

For anyone else I’d have said obviously not, but for him I said, ‘yes dad, this is outside’, and heard those words echo in the small, half-empty glass house as I stared down at an empty chair, imagining the smell of tobacco in the air.

***

In memory of William McDermid, 19th June 1922 to 30th August 1998. He’d have loved a greenhouse xx

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