“Time for elevenses!” said Gran, reaching for the battered, silver jubilee biscuit tin. The image of that blue and red tin is lodged in my memory, because when Gran took the lid off there, taped to the inside, was a little piece of paper saying WALY. It was the first time I remember seeing those letters.
“What’s that?” I asked, pointing.
She smiled and stuffed the piece of paper in the front pocket of her daisy-covered apron. “Never you mind,” she said, waving the tin under my nose.
The next time I was in the garage with Granddad. He’d built it himself; the dusty concrete floor had a slightly uneven texture and every wall and surface was decorated with things that might ‘come in handy’. Rays of bright sunshine crept in from the open doors and scattered off millions of tiny dust motes. I played with a bit of blue nylon rope attached to one of the metal beams, watching Granddad as he tucked a pencil stub behind his ear and unfolded his wooden workbench.
There it was, written on the surface in chalk. WALY.
“I saw that in the biscuit tin!” I said.
He just laughed, picked up a cloth and rubbed it out.
I spent a lot of time with my grandparents, especially after my parents divorced. Over the years I saw WALY in all kinds of places. Written on a bathroom mirror so that it appeared when the room filled with steam, drawn with a finger in the mud on the back of Granddad’s car and once, memorably, actually mown into the large lawn, in front of the old summer house.
“Mum, what does WALY mean?” I asked one day. The question was fresh in my mind; I’d spotted the letters on a piece of paper tucked into the band of Granddad’s brown trilby just as I was leaving.
She’d picked me up in her white Peugeot. It smelled faintly of petrol, and the windscreen wipers squeaked rhythmically as they wiped away fresh batches of late summer raindrops.
“Wally?” she asked, her eyes fixed on the road.
“No, the letters, W A L Y. I’ve seen them lots at Gran and Granddad’s, but when I ask them what they mean, they never answer.”
“I’ve no idea.” She wiped the corner of her eye as she stopped at a junction, the indicator ticking loudly.
“Shhh, I’m trying to concentrate,” she said, her head turning right and left, searching for a gap. A battered transit van let us out. She waved a hand at the driver. “Shall we get Chinese for tea?” she asked. The thought of sweet and sour pork balls instantly replaced all thoughts of WALY in my mind. I didn’t ask again.
The wind grew chillier and the sunlight dwindled as that year trundled on. I sat on the overstuffed brown sofa in Gran and Granddad’s front room one evening, feet curled under me, staring at the battered paperback that I was supposed to be reading for school. The words danced in front of my eyes and stubbornly refused to move into my brain; instead I found myself hypnotised by Gran’s knitting needles, clacking together and jiggling the pink wool that hung from them. Granddad had folded his newspaper into a square and was sucking on a pen.
“Three down: 1974 song by Dolly Parton,” he said.
Gran smiled. I could never work out the crossword clues, but she always could. I wasn’t sure if it just happened that she knew all the clues he didn’t, or whether he deliberately saved some for her to answer.
“More than one word, is it?” she asked.
“Five, the first one is ‘I’.”
“Get away with you.”
Granddad chuckled, and then started to cough; a nasty, wet, hacking sound.
“You need to give up that pipe,” said Gran, knitting needles falling silent. I never saw Granddad smoking, but his clothes often had the sweet smell of pipe smoke.
“Don’t–” he coughed again. “Don’t fuss.”
“I will fuss,” she said, pushing herself out of her chair and heading for the kitchen. “Have you made that doctor’s appointment?”
He shook his head, the light glinting off his bald patch.
She handed him a glass of water, her blue eyes fixed on his. “Do it tomorrow, please. Do it for me.”
Christmas came. Mum and I went to Gran and Granddad’s. I sat at the table, wondering if I could possibly squeeze another After Eight in on top of the huge lunch of turkey and roast potatoes. I looked across at Granddad. It suddenly struck me how different he looked to everyone else. While we were all red-cheeked and overfed, his red jumper hung loose on his frame and the dark circles under his eyes looked almost like bruises. He said he’d do the washing up. Gran told him to sit down. I watched him write WALY in the gravy on his plate with his finger.
January bought scatterings of snow, enough one day to close my school. After a morning of building a rather skinny snowman, Mum called me back in and gave me some steaming soup. She looked at me across the kitchen table, chewing her bottom lip.
“I have to tell you something,” she said with too-bright eyes. “Granddad might not be with us for much longer. He loves us, though.” She took a deep breath. “He’ll always love us.”
Leaves began to reappear on the trees, and the frozen air was gradually softened by hints of grass. I got off the bus that I’d caught from school, and stared at the daffodils growing in the verge. Behind them, the imposing grey walls of the hospital reached up into the sky.
I walked though long corridors, full of the sounds of rattling trolleys and the smells of plastic and disinfectant, and arrived at Granddad’s bed to find him writing furiously.
“Where’s Gran?” I asked.
“I sent her to the coffee machine,” he said, “shh, I’m writing a letter. I don’t want her to see it.” I watched him write ALY at the bottom.
“Where’s the ‘W’?” I asked.
He just folded the paper up and asked me what I’d been doing at school.
He died three weeks later. Mum helped with everything that needed to be done. I stayed out of the way, feeling numb. I can’t remember exactly when it was that I found Gran reading the letter, but it had been a while. She wasn’t crying. Maybe the tears had run out by then.
I didn’t know what to say or what to do.
“Gran, what’s WALY?” I blurted, “and why did Granddad only put ALY on that letter?”
She gave me a fierce smile. “Have you never worked it out?”
“No,” I admitted.
She smiled again, gentler this time. “He always loved me,” she said.
This started out as a 500-word piece of flash fiction, which was later expanded into something a little more substantial. It’s not my usual fantasy/sci-fi theme, but I was rather pleased with the way I’ve (I hope) conveyed the emotions.