My grandfather, sitting in his wingback chair, rasps his breaths; bare veiny feet in misshapen faded green corduroy slippers rest on the brown tiled hearth. The fire cracks and sputters. My grandmother, in her paisley wrap-around housecoat, comes in and dusts the mantelpiece; she lifts the ornaments one by one, rubs them with the yellow duster, and puts them back. She’s already done the brasses. She says: They’ve given us that blummen cheap coal again. He shouldn’t be sitting up so close but there’s No Telling Some Folk. He’ll know about it when a spark lands. She shakes the last of the coals onto the fire and goes out taking the empty scuttle with her. Thick brown smoke hisses up the chimney through a layer of powdery black slack.
In the room – it’s not the front room or the living room, it’s just the room – the smell of coal smoke, brass polish, laundry. Mist on the insides of the windows; outside, rain. The back kitchen door is open; the boiler gulps out great clouds of steam as my grandmother lifts the lid with a folded teatowel and, leaning back, prods at the contents with wooden tongs held the full length of her arm.
My sister and me, in shorts, kneeling up at the table: Lakeland crayons – new ones in little packs of five, plastic press-studded pouches that smell like custard – colouring books, magic painting, thin thin paintbrushes, water in an egg-cup shaped like a shoe. My grandfather says, Howway bonnie lass, pass is me coupon over, help is fill it in. Time to do the Pools, win some money. I have to fill it in because Nanna has given up long since and you daren’t ask our Derek and my sister’s far too young.
I’ve finished my magic painting anyway. I hold it up to look, blow on it, shake it a bit to make it dry. It’s a donkey, standing in a field with some daffodils that have come out brown. The paper’s gone lumpy. I kneel up and sing a wee song we learned at school: Daffodil shiny peep through the green, prettier lady never was seen … My sister, looking up at my picture, sucking at the bristles on the end of her paintbrush.
My grandfather leans forward, lifts his arm and prods his bony finger in the direction of the football coupon. He said that finger came from the war. Nanna says baloney, he never went near any blinking war. Howway lass … he starts, but his words dissolve into coughing. He rests one hand on the mantelpiece and the other on his knee and he coughs and coughs till he retches up with it then spits into the fire and wipes his mouth on his hanky. I lay my picture down carefully away from my sister and stand on my chair to reach the Vernon’s from off the top of the china cabinet. My grandmother puts her head round the door and looks at my grandfather then at me. I’m not supposed to get him agitated. Mind ye divvent fall, she says, then shakes her head and disappears into the back kitchen. My grandfather is just wheezing now, getting his breath. His fingers scrabble in his cardy pocket, feeling for the biro.
The best thing my grandfather likes is his pools. I get to fill it in with tiny little crosses in tiny little squares. He says you can tell I won the prize for neat writing (I had to copy out ‘This Royal Throne of Kings’ in actual ink). You have to be exact and you don’t get a second chance. That’s what my grandfather tells me: in the important things, there are No Second Chances. He says, now mind you remember that, bonnie lass.
If you win the pools you get loads of money. Enough to buy Nanna a holiday and me a typewriter. I printed an entire story with my John Bull which took for ever and Granda said the lassie needs a typewriter, that’s what she needs. We saw a child’s one, a Lilliput, in Sheena Robson’s catalogue but it was too much. Unless, he said, unless we win the pools, and he tapped the side of his nose with his war finger and winked at me. Nanna was sitting in the other chair, darning. She wound the strand of wool round her finger and snapped it, then looked up, and shook her head. Then she put her work away in the basket and got up to do the tea.
That day I filled out the coupon double quick because Davy next door came knocking for the money. On Saturday I wasn’t there for the checking because I was away up the gull ponds with Rosemary Patterson. We’d come back late because we’d seen a dead sheep floating in the rushes, its belly all swollen and its legs sticking up stiff in the air and the smell of it had knocked us sick. When I came flying in the door my grandmother was there in the back kitchen. She said hey, steady on now and went on prodding at stock which happened to be a sheep’s head boiling with peelings and barley and I felt even sicker at the sight of it. Get away with you, she said, laughing. Then she said, Your granda’s won the pools, and stirred again at the stock. Go on, she said, ask him, and laughed some more.
I clean forgot about the dead sheep because I was so excited. I ran straight next door to get Sheena Robson’s Grafton’s. She couldn’t believe it and had to come into ours to verify while Davy washed his hands from cleaning out the ferrets and came in too. A typewriter was ordered and Mrs R said you could pay it off week by week but there’d be no need for that in this case, would there; she laughed and ruffled my hair and called me Little Miss Lucky.
When the typewriter came I got all in a muddle trying to open the box without taking the string off and Nanna said, patience, patience, and went to get the scissors. I wound in the special typewriting paper our Derek had brought from up the street and then I had to decide whether to flick onto the black or the red. I couldn’t make my mind up so I had a go with both: I wrote ‘the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog’ in both colours and then in capitals and my grandfather said, hey steady on lassie or your ribbon’ll be needing changed before you’ve even started, and I put my arms around his neck and said he was the best granda in the whole wide world even if he did have no teeth and smelt of remedies and he said not to talk so daft.
My typewriter had a special case that required some careful manoeuvring to get the lid back on and at first I got cross with it and tried to force it and Granda stood up and said, no no no lassie, that’s not the way to do it. And he made me laugh even though I was cross because he said it in a funny gratey voice that sounded like Punch and Judy. He came to where I was kneeling on the carpet and he helped me get the lid on and that was the strangest thing because my grandfather never got up off his chair and he certainly wasn’t supposed to walk across the floor. He had to get back double quick because we heard Nanna coming down the stairs with the hot water bottle and she looked worried when she saw him out of breath for no apparent reason.
That first day I typed up a poem about my dog that I had written specially. Granda said it was champion and I’d be writing books one day, and he slapped his leg as if he couldn’t quite believe what he’d just said. I made a lovely pattern round the edge and coloured it in and wrote underneath in fancy writing to the bestest granda and Nanna said there was no such word. But she hung it up anyway, by a drawing pin, next to Granda’s little water-colour of a mill in the Ouseburn Valley, remembered from when he was a lad, from before he got too sick through breathing in the industry that sunk down there, down around the cottages, down under the viaduct, from before all he’d grown up with had somehow fallen into rack and ruin.
Not long after, my grandfather died, peacefully in his sleep it was said, but I wondered how anyone would know that. Oh, they know, my nanna said, they know alright.
One day, a few weeks later, Mrs Robson came but Nanna was out cleaning. I was by myself and I asked politely what can I do for you Mrs Robson. She said, Oh I’ve only just come for the typewriter money, but if your nanna’s not here, well ... I asked how much it was. A shilling, she said, for this month, and the same for last. I gave her a two shilling piece out of the coal money and she said, well that’s all fettled then, a big weight off my mind. When Nanna came in I didn’t know what to say. I had to tell her something though because the coal man would come on Monday and she’d be short and there’d be ructions. My grandmother was cross and said whatever was I thinking of, and money didn’t grow on trees. I said, but I thought my granda won the pools, and Nanna said, well it just goes to show, doesn’t it, you’re not paid to think, and when I want you to think, I’ll let you know.
I was nine years old when I got that typewriter. I know it’s strange to say, but it got much harder to write things after that. The words may have looked better, but they didn’t sound the same, and sometimes they didn’t feel like they were mine any more. Once they’d been clacked out key by key, they were changed, transformed by the machine, alien. I’d watch them scrolling up in front of me and I’d be filled with an unaccountable rage. At times I even fancied the machine was mocking me, appearing to be obedient while making secret mistakes. I would wrench the paper out in fury, making the machine jump.
And as for those packets of typewriting paper that our Derek was always bringing down from up the street, there evolved in my mind a horror of the blank page that, in the end, amounted to a physical revulsion. On rainy days my grandmother would see me sitting around, at a loose end, or leaning on the kitchen doorpost, nothing to do. The devil makes evil work for idle hands, she would say, go and find yourself something to do, for pity’s sake. I’d be halfway up the stairs when she’d shout, Get your typewriter out, write a story.
What they wanted had half become what I wanted and I did try to do it. But whatever it was that had been in me had secreted itself away. In its place, panic, loneliness, a desperate sense of obligation – to my grandfather, to my entire family, for the useless sacrifices they so willingly made. Their kind encouragement, nothing but a burden.
I still have my Lilliput, and I’m still afraid of that terrible tangle of love and anger and pity and shame and longing and guilt that I jammed in there the last time I forced the lid on.
Photograph by Shelley Day Sclater. It’s the actual typewriter.
Artwork by Jamie Patterson.
About this piece: ‘It piece began its life in an NCLA memoir course (Alison Light and Jackie Kay, 2010), prompted by the suggestion to focus on an object. The child’s typewriter came to mind as an object in which were condensed themes and feelings that seemed important to explore. I like working in that dense borderland between fact and fiction, where memories take shape and the past emerges anew each time. This piece is part of my personal quest for belonging: in a family, in a class, in culture, in history.’ Shelley Day Sclater.
About Shelley: She has been a lawyer and an academic psychologist and now writes fiction. She has completed the first draft of a novel and the first year of a p/t MA in Creative Writing at Newcastle University and has had several short stories published.