My grandfather was a writer. Quite well-known, in fact, though I'm not going to name him, because if you have heard of him, your perception of him will be different from mine and if you haven't, you'll either feel ignorant or conclude that I exaggerate his fame. None of this represents the best way for us to begin. For me, Grandad he was and Grandad he'll remain.
He celebrated his sixtieth birthday in the same year as my birth; my mother says, a little ruefully, that our two birthdays were the crowning events of her year. She was the youngest of his five children and, though neither of them ever said as much, probably his favourite. I saw him with all of my uncles and aunts at one time or another and he was never less than solicitous and kind with any of them, but his reaction to my mother entering the room amounted to a physical difference, almost the childish wriggle of delight at the approach of a good story or a special treat.
His favourite place was the room which became the library, at the top corner of the house, looking down over the village and countryside. Though sombre and studious, with its dark wood and velvet backed armchairs, it was not so big and intimidating as to be uncomfortable and light streamed in from two huge bay windows side by side, with south-facing views taking in affair part of the county. He would habitually have his chair near to one of the windows, where he would read or write longhand, a notebook raised on his knees. He usually preferred to write there than be shut away in his study, which seemed to be more about his business and financial affairs, along with the letters he wrote constantly.
I was seven when he showed me an album relating to his own childhood. I sat next to him on the cushions placed on the bay window ledge and watched him turn the pages and talk. It had dawned on me by then that I'd had probably become the favourite grandchild to match my mother's favourite child. The realisation took a while; I didn't see myself as special and my two elder siblings were already notching up a formidable range of accomplishments between them. I responded to his attention towards me, the warmth in his face and eyes, the care he took to amuse and interest, the world not being too full at the time of people who saw me as anything other than a rather detached, self-absorbed, plain child. And he was so entirely at peace with himself then, an unhurried, cultured voice which suited so well his calm hazel eyes, though I can remember, even then, the pallor of his face and hands and how oddly shrunken he seemed compared with the young man in the photos.
One remains in my mind particularly; him with his huge family, about nine or ten of them, on a day out at Eastbourne. I still have a reproduction of it in my own study now. Though the day was obviously bright and warm, they are all correctly, even stuffily, dressed, Grandad and his brothers all in shirts with ties. But everyone wore great beaming smiles, so pleased with themselves, each other and the day; I said to him how happy everyone looked.
'Yes', he said. 'But not necessarily for the same reasons. It's interesting that at any moment in time, people are always seeing things in entirely different ways.'
I watched him and listened carefully; he never talked down to me, even then, and though I found it strangely pleasing to be spoken to in such a way, free of the silly babyish chatter and condescending tone typical of so many adults, I had to work hard to understand him sometimes.
'My eldest brother George told me later that he looked so happy that day because the teacher who ran the school football team had finally agreed the day before that George could have a try out at centre forward; he said he was working out training programmes even as the camera pointed at him. My sister Helen had just seen a small child thrust his head into a great bunch of candy floss, which had caused the little boy to look like he had a candy floss head and set Helen into fits of giggles. I'd not long since had an ice cream bought for me, an uncle's treat, and the fresh flavour of it was still in the back of my mouth, the coldness of it still on my tongue. It seemed to me to be a moment of extreme happiness, in the brightness alongside all of them, and the association has made me love the taste of ice cream in the back of the mouth ever since. I used the feeling in a story, years later. That's what writing can do, John. The photographer can record the authentic look of a day; the writer can capture and keep the flavour of it'.
With the years, he retreated, and it began to puzzle and irritate me that he didn't seem as accessible and easy to talk to as he had been. By the time I was twelve, family gatherings would produce only a token appearance from him, half an hour or less of mostly nodding and smiling before leaving for study or library, and the larger the gathering, the more token the appearance. Sometimes I would even see the library door firmly shut. I put it to my mother eventually.
'Why does he always leave us so quickly? Doesn't he like any of us anymore?'
She stopped and, for once, she really registered what I'd said. My mother assumed and practised a full-time career long before it became more fashionable for women to do so. Some of my more conventional female relations viewed her with various combinations of suspicion and envy. Her business, making and selling clothes, had become very successful at that time, but it meant the demands on her increased proportionately. She turned her compassionate big guns on me, eyes widening, hands gathering mine to hers.
'Grandad is going deaf, darling, that's mostly what it's about. He can't hear what people are saying most of the time, and it's even worse in larger company. He tries to lip read and he's making progress with it, but people don't always talk distinctly or face him. He's learning to sign with his hands. I wish I could' - then that odd contortion, a kind of anguished writhe of the top half of her body, which increasingly frequently expressed her anxiety then. 'But I just don't ever get the time to settle to it'.
So, if she couldn't, I reasoned, I would. And I did, secretly, in front of my bedroom mirror first, and then with the help of a deaf brother of a school friend. At that time, deaf children tended to be sent to special schools and were subject to the usual range of childish cruelties if they happened into the company of their secondary school contemporaries. Peter, my school friend, small, dark and lively, was very protective of his brother Alan, even though Alan was two years older, and he saw it as a really good idea to show Alan that he had special skills which other people wanted and didn't have to
feel himself at a disadvantage all the time. They lived in a great spreading house on the edge of the town - their father was a lawyer, as I remember - and the brothers had their own 'den' affair, basically a big space which had once been a garage and which opened out on to the lawn at the back of the house. It was about as private and protected as kids' quarters could be. At first, I thought Pete overestimated his brother, who couldn't actually say many coherent words and who would sit looking blank if Pete and I were talking to each other. But, over time, and especially as I got to understand what Alan was signing about, I appreciated that he was at least as clever as either of us and the relationship he had with his younger brother wasn't a one-way affair by any means.
I didn't want to subject Grandad to my signing until I could at least do the basics and I worked long and hard on it. Peter and Alan didn't have much time for most of the traditional physical activities of boyhood, partly because they knew the kind of treatment Alan was likely to have to put up with, and at that time, I was so chronically shy it was all I could do to make myself answer questions in class, so the three of us were happy enough with our own company and the sign language would occupy us for hours on end.
I think it's probably fair to say, looking back, that I did it as much for myself as for Grandad. Peculiar emotions stirred in me then, alongside the routine vagaries of adolescence. I felt increasingly that I was drifting away from one state of lukewarm engagement with my childhood and family to another totally unknown place where I might find myself even more disengaged and bewildered. As an insignificant young boy in a virtual prison of shyness, I felt sometimes as I wasn't even really visible, that people were looking through me rather than at me, those of them who ever looked at me at all. My hard-working parents and exam-preoccupied siblings were becoming so like casual acquaintances, not often talked to and only inconsequentially then, that I felt the need for something or someone which would root me in my family whenever whatever was approaching arrived and swept most of it away. The potential exclusiveness of my sign language communication with Grandad promised a kind of anchor to the youth of my past if and when I needed it, both in the present and eventually in the memory. I hugged the whole thing to myself, quite literally like a young actor working up to his first big role and determined not to take the stage until he was good and ready, though the notion of acting anything out in front of any number of people at that time would have sent me into such paroxysms of terror that it couldn't be contemplated at all, even as a fantasy.
Grandad's description of the flavour of a day often came back to me, but usually in a kind of sarcastic, hopeless way. The flavour of most of my days seemed to be fear, expressing itself in the dryness of the mouth and a kind of numbness in the skin. My opinion of myself dropped almost to zero when I deliberately feigned illness just to get out of a class work presentation, which would involve me talking to the whole class, even though it was only for a few minutes. Only the fact that I continued to get fairly good marks for most of my work, and my growing interest in the sign language, kept me afloat and interested in life.
Not far from eighteen months must have gone by between the start of my signing language learning with Alan and Peter, almost always when the three of us could be undisturbed and not suffer the insulting incredulity we thought public sessions would encourage, and my first attempt to use it with Grandad. I was well past my thirteenth birthday. Our visits to his country house were rare now, with
his withdrawal from company and the continuing heavy demands on my parents' time, but that didn't concern me too much because I knew the time would soon arrive when I could go on my own. When I did see him, I noticed how far he had advanced with the sign language in the lengthy conversations he could have with my grandmother; but I still bided my time on starting signing, concentrating on sitting or standing right in front of him and moving my lips carefully.
My confidence was growing slowly along with my body, and I'd determined that the signing would be used with Grandad when a proper opportunity came along, which it did, if in disguise. My mother suddenly collapsed at work and the whole phlegmatic family found itself suddenly plunged into crisis. Medical definitions, then as now, were difficult to pin down, with much talk of 'exhaustion' as if that was an illness in itself and more alarming references to a heart problem, though my mother was only in her mid-forties. She spent three days in hospital, my panic stricken father hurrying back from abroad; he was a journalist, and away frequently. Grandad actually left his house, possibly for the first time in years. Nearly three months later, not long after my fourteenth birthday, my mother had recovered enough to return his visit. I asked to go with her. Misinterpreting the very slight hesitation she showed, the perceptible reluctance to have any company with her, somehow triggered my decision to use the sign language for the first time. I simply could no longer bear to be marginalised, left out on that periphery which the youngest always seemed to have to occupy.
She knew, of course, that she had inadvertently hurt me and spoke to me in the car, her eyes carefully on the road, as we approached my grandparents' house.
'John, darling, I am going to need to see Grandad on my own, for a little while at least; Grandma will enjoy your company, I'm sure. Please don't think badly either of me or you because of that. One day, you may be approaching my house with your own child and feel the same way and, much as I intend to love your children, I hope you do'.
I looked at her profile, the ordered, careful hair, now with occasional greys appearing which she refused to disguise in any way, the hazel eyes so similar to her father's and now, to me, seeming a little more frightened, vulnerable, than before. I knew I ought to know what she meant and I knew I didn't, adding it to the perpetual mysteries, which so often characterise the teens I had still only recently entered.
The library door closed behind her and I continued doing my best with Grandma, to whom I was also devoted but found rather overpowering, with her hearty outdoor preoccupations and loud pointed questions and instructions. I allowed myself to be inveigled into one of her earthy weeding sessions, with the ulterior motive of distracting her mind from my schooling, career, diet, literary preferences and one or two excruciatingly personal issues.
My mother eventually came to take me to the library. She had obviously been crying and saw no reason to disguise the fact. She was, for once, astonishingly indifferent to my state of near filth after the gardening session and we went to the library together.
He took my head in his hands, lowered it and kissed my forehead, a habitual greeting. Mother sat down on the floor beside his chair. He looked so tiny and sick, as if simply fading away into himself. His face was thin and ghostly clear like alabaster and the eyes in their deep lids stood out like red wounds.
I moved a few feet away, directly in front of them, took a long breath, and started signing.
'The flavour of a day, Grandad. Remember? I think today it's soil, earth, worms and little flies. Itches, warm face, grass smells. Something creeping slowly up my leg.
I've been helping Grandma in the garden, and I don't think Mum would let anyone take my photo. The flavour of this day is mucky'.
His mouth had dropped open; a little more colour came into his cheeks and something was alight in his eyes which hadn't been there before. My mother gazed from him to me and back again in mute astonishment. Then his head went back and a sound that none of us had heard for a long time, perhaps
years, emerged from him, a great long guffaw of a laugh, his head tilted right back and his entire little body shaking with the effort of it. Then their eyes were on me and I had the oddest feeling that they were seeing me, really seeing me, for the very first time. It sent through me a surge of pride and exhilaration which I've never forgotten. My mother's expression was one which, to my astonishment, I simply didn't recognise, much as I thought I knew her in such detail. Almost always, she would look at me either with a mixture of affectionn and exasperation, or look through me, as if I was a window. Now she saw me properly and so did he; her face and his eyes inculcated me with a yearning for this to go on happening, to be standing in front of people looking and respecting the skills I had taken such time and trouble to perfect. And it suddenly occurred to me that it probably wouldn't matter how
many of them there were.
The experience triggered a process, which rapidly became unstoppable. Not only writing, I could see, could achieve worthwhile results from carefully developed skills. To everyone's amazement, I became a performer, both in school plays and with a local drama group. That extraordinary realisation of presence, being looked at and seen, was so exciting that even hostility, even adverse reactions, improved on the cloaked anonymity of before.
Other things fell neatly into place. My mother sold her business for a very comfortable sum of money, it seemed, meaning she had more time at home and was much less stressed. My father moved to an editorial job based in London, and we made a series of discoveries about each other centred largely on adapting mutual misunderstandings, his that I was simply an undemonstrative boy, something of
a cold fish, who didn't need or respond to much affection and mine that he was so remotely adult and
cultured that I could not communicate on any level that he would understand. We spent, gloriously, some entire days together visiting such places as museums and galleries, discussing that we saw and allowing the talk to move on from that to more intimate topics concerning the family, schooling, future jobs etc.. Alan and Peter faded a little into the background as my circle of acquaintance expanded rapidly, but they were able to help me retain the signing skills and contributed to some of my performances. A delighted Grandma gave me robust and sometimes deeply embarrassing assistance,
insisting on me practising speeches and movements in sometimes very public places to knock off the
edges of my boyish reticence about performing. Sometimes I felt my face blushing a deep crimson and saw passing members of the public gazing at me as if I was a maniac, but the whole process was wonderfully effective in losing my diffidence and restraint. Even my high-flying, athletic brother and artistic, intelligent sister started to treat me with the respect due to an equal.
But the one broken area which I wanted to repair more than any other eluded me. Grandad carried on for over three more years, though his writing continued for less than eighteen months, and he became increasingly unable to communicate or respond to others. I carried on visiting him regularly, with and without various members of the family, and we not only used the sign language to its widest extent, we invented one or two terms of our own, the beginnings of a private language, including a combination sign for flavour of the day, when I would put one finger on my lips and another on my temple.
I discovered what a totally astonishing amount he knew about various plays. His reservoir of novels and poetry was extensive enough, but I didn't see drama as quite his field. Though he'd never acted, he had spent some time as a theatre critic for a London paper, and many of the finer points of language and characterisation he could help me with. Increasingly, my school and drama group moved away from plays for kiddies - of course, I was getting older anyway - and some of the material found me a little out of my depth until he expanded on what other people had done with such parts. Looking back, he had his preferences and prejudices, as everyone does, but he did not, as so many people in the theatre seem to do, make highly contentious statements without giving examples and reasoning to support them.
Occasionally, I would summon up enough courage to disagree or take issue with him, and he would always watch me with a quiet smile and now and then actually concede a point. Only once, to my great alarm, did I see him in tears after we'd had a lengthy dispute about how to read and play the character of Richard III, unsurprisingly, since no two people seem to agree on it. Mortified, I even went down on my knees.
'I'm sorry, I really didn't mean to upset you'.
'It isn't that, John. It's the absence of time, I suppose, the dreadful certainty that I will never know you at the full height of your powers and enjoy the way you're experiencing some of the very major parts. But we have had a good deal of time together and that must suffice'.
Some months after my sixteenth birthday, when he could no longer react with much more than smiles, nods and simple sentences, I used the day flavours idea to put whole days together and act and sign what had been happening. It may have been largely a one-way conversation, but it was still a conversation and we were still sharing the same places.
In the late summer following my seventeenth birthday, it became clear that not much time was left to him. After he'd been hospitalised for a while, the family paid for nursing help to allow him to die in his home and he stayed in the bedroom next to the library, where similar views were available when he sat up supported on pillows. I had won a place at a very good drama school, to start in September, and I would rattle on at him about my plans and ambitions even as my heart sank with the realisation that I was going to have to leave him behind with my boyhood. In the middle of a steamy August, it had become clear that no more than days remained. Even propping him up on the pillows was no longer possible. The family put together a kind of rota to ensure that someone was always with him, though he was now either asleep or unconscious almost all of the time.
Tuesday August 17th, a cooler evening after a close, uncomfortable day, and the pleasant air, scented with all the flowers and herbs of Grandma's garden, circulated the room and relieved its oppressive air of termination and defeat. I sat in a chair near his bed, doing my evening shift, and doggedly signed away, as his eyes were open and in my direction.
'The flavour of yesterday was terror, to be honest. They've sent me a reading list you wouldn't believe, great wedges of Shakespeare, of course, but also some really obscure Restoration stuff and even a few mystifying chunks of Greek tragedies with not much in the way of explanatory notes. Terror does have a flavour, Grandad, believe me. Dry mouth. Tongue stuck to palate. Trying to keep breathing
He was laying on his right side, his right arm and hand along the bed. His hand moved suddenly, compulsively, upwards, stayed there for a few seconds, and sank again. When I looked back to his face, the eyes had closed. I stood and moved to the window, as if trying to get a picture of how his favourite view looked at that moment, to tell him if he woke again. When I went back to the bed, he was totally still, a pale, shrunken little hulk. The notion of departure resounded in my mind. This was, quite literally, the remains of a man, the physical residue left after everything else of meaning and animation had departed.
I sat in the library while my mother and grandmother said their goodbyes, realising after a few minutes that I was in almost exactly the same spot as I had been on the day I began signing at him.
Just fourteen seemed the time equivalent of a million miles away and I felt rueful at the idea that he would always, to some extent, be associated with my repressed, detached childhood. But the resonance of his achievements have nourished my family ever since and will do for generations, and, typically, he succeeded in setting me free as an almost incidental side issue, so telling are the ripples which great men make around themselves.
Peter went into broadcasting, starting from the lowest point possible, tea boy and gofer. He always said he had no patience with studying at university when he could be learning while working. Still quick-witted and able to communicate with just about anyone, he eventually became a producer, but he still helps out with the signing for programmes for the deaf.
Alan, tall and lean with the meditative smile, became a specialist teacher of the deaf and now trains the teachers.
During my time at drama school, I met an idealistic young actress - I'll call her Anne - and from the very first, I could almost see the old man signing away in his enthusiasm about her. We did a student Macbeth together and made love for the first time on the last night of it, when everyone in the play had done with stabbing everyone else and we thought something a little gentler might be a suitable antidote. It didn't prove to be a particularly typical showbiz marriage, because I'm still married to her and we have two rapidly growing kids.
I am an actor. Quite well known, in fact, though I'm not going to tell you the name, because if you don't know it, you'll think yourself ignorant and if you do, you'll think me vain. And that's hardly a good way to say goodbye, is it?