The Things We Leave Behind by Adele Evershed

The darning mushroom was a wedding gift from her mother; it screamed imagination and magic while possessing neither. To me, it looked like a toy for fairy folk with its bright red cap curved like a come and play smile. Her mother had told her, "Make sure Harry always has a clean shirt and socks without holes, and you'll do alright ." She had a carbuncle on her  finger that reminded me of the wicked Queen in Snow White, and I called her GG, and she was my Grandmother. The year after GG was married, war broke out, and when my grandfather left, he marched away with almost enough socks to keep a centipede happy. 

One muggy day when I'd become too whiny for my mother to cope with, she dropped me at GG's house so she could have some peace. GG let me feed her hens that she kept in the backyard, and after I came inside, streaked with dirt, she washed my face and made a pot  of tea. I didn't really like tea, but GG always had a jug of milk and a matching bowl of sugar cubes that you picked up with a pair of silver tongs. There was always a choice of cakes and scones served on a tiered cake plate with homemade jam, so I felt like a character from an Enid Blyton book called High Tea at Mallory Towers. I was swinging my legs back and forth and had helped myself to four sugar cubes, plopping them in, so the tea had slopped into the saucer. GG sighed as she said, "Really, Miranda, I know you have better manners. Would you like to see something special?" Of course, I nodded. GG always had the most fascinating things in an ornate glass cabinet in the best room. Fine porcelain figures of ladies in long dresses, a white and gold tea-set that looked as if it was made for fairies, and a jam-pot with a forest of puffy unlikely colored trees that came free with her wedding band. My favourite was a jewellery box covered in shells and glitter. A tiny ballerina in a pink tutu pirouetted to The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy when you opened it up. 

That day GG went into her bedroom and came back with a small black metal box; it had a red stripe around the lid and a tiny keyhole. GG took out a key and unlocked the box. Inside were my grandfather's letters to her from France during the war. The paper was as delicate and wrinkled as a dead leaf. GG made me promise to handle them with care and left me to read them. The box smelt musty as if it hadn't been opened for a while, and there was a tang of something else I couldn't quite identify. 

Most of the letters were about the terrible food and how he missed GG's steak and kidney pies or about the rain, which he described as 'thick as threads and enough to drown a man.' But there was one that read more like a story from a book. In this one, he told how one of 

his mates, Cliff, had gone foraging for mushrooms. Everybody was fed up with army rations and looked forward to something that didn't come out of a can. They were all dozing when there was a yell. They found Cliff leaning over a body on its side on a carpet of cherry blossom. As they got closer, they saw it was the body of a child, terribly thin and underdressed. In a halo around the child's head was a spray of blood-spackled mushrooms. They decided the child had eaten the mushrooms, not realising they were poisonous. They asked in the local village about the child's identity, but nobody recognized the 'sad scrap of humanity' he wrote. So they buried the child in the local cemetery with the words 'Go to bed without fear-lie down and sleep soundly.' After reading this, my stomach was full of notes, and I couldn't finish my strawberry scone. 

I noticed my grandfather always ended his letters with, "Don't worry—I'm treading softly through hell." When I asked GG what that meant, she smiled and said, "Oh that, it was something I always said to him before he left for his shift down the mine. He always said he'd go to heaven for the weather but hell for the company. I think he got that from a book, but it always made me smile." 

I never met my grandfather; he died before I was born. He survived the war, but my mother told me, "Only his body came home. He left his real self in France." Then she added, "I just wish he'd left his bloody socks there too!" When GG opened his kitbag, it was full of all the socks she had sent him—frayed, dirty, and holey. So GG got out her darning mushroom and started to mend them all. 

My mother didn't have many happy memories of her father. According to her, he was as changeable as the wind, and she never knew when she got back from school whether she'd be met with a gale or a soft breeze. And often, the storm of him was aimed at GG. My mother never said that her father was violent towards her mother, but she did say, "When he died, nobody minded the lack of him, you know. Your GG had always been a heavy woman, but she seemed lighter somehow with his passing, and she never talked about him. 

The only change I can remember is she started to wear trousers. Dad was such a traditionalist he only wanted her to wear skirts or dresses." 

My mother didn't take after GG at all. Instead, she preferred teabags and shop-bought cake which made GG tut when she was offered it after Sunday lunch. She told my mother, "You know Jean love, teabags are made from the sweepings off the floor of the tea plantations, and shop cake is made with powdered egg. I didn't even use that in the war." My mother lived in high-waisted jeans and hippy tops, and when my father's socks went through at the heel he asked my mother if she would mend them, she laughed and said, "Life's too short to stuff mushrooms and darn socks." 

When GG was in her nineties, she started not to manage as well as she used to, so we got her a home help, a lovely lady called Maria. Unfortunately, Maria was afraid of GG's hens, so my mother looked after them, grumbling all the while, but she did start to bake cakes to use up the eggs. So I would take GG a Victoria sponge or a pineapple upside-down cake on a Saturday afternoon, spend a few hours reading to her, and then we'd watch the wrestling. 

It was only after she passed that I found out from Maria that GG had kept all my grandfather's socks, and she wore a pair every day. GG carried on darning them, and when I opened the drawer, I found some of them were patched so much the original sock had been replaced almost completely. There was a pair on her bedside table, and next to them was her darning mushroom. I unscrewed the lid and took out a long thin needle; I threaded it and pulled the sock onto the curved top. It took me some time to repair the hole in the heel, and I managed to prick my finger, so my blood was smeared into the wool. I pulled the socks on, they were soft and cozy, but my toes refused to warm up as I tiptoed home. 


Published in Issue #25

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