It’s been said that no good phone call ever comes after nine at night and before seven in the morning. And when my mobile rings at exactly 6:36 this morning and the caller ID pic is my mum, I know what’s happening before she speaks.
He hasn’t been well for over a year, after all. Hadn’t. Everything about him is past tense now. Something new to get used to.
“He’s gone?” I ask her. I’m calm enough when I say it, but a twisting motion spirals from inside my stomach and my hands start shaking. So this is what cold terror feels like, this feeling of having swallowed a lump of liquid nitrogen.
My mum is crying and finds it hard to answer, and the nitrogen coldness slices me open from inside. My mum doesn’t cry often. The last time was when she was telling me about the people she saw fall from the towers when she was in New York on September 11th.
I tell her I’m coming home and I can almost feel her nod at the other end of the line even though she doesn’t answer. After another few seconds of dead air, another voice takes over the line, one of my mum’s neighbours.
I tell her again that I’m coming home and she agrees it would be for the best. My dad is already on his way, as is my sister, all of us heading for the same point on the map. I tell the neighbour to do what she can, but my lips and throat move without any conscious effort.
I hang up and roll back in bed, looking at the ceiling. Like a car crash in slow motion, the physicality of it hits me then. Dead. My grandfather is dead.
No more stories of how he saw The Beatles at the Cavern Club before they were famous. No more time to hear how he helped Pete Best get his coat back from the guy who stole it. It’s dust now. All that history locked up in his head is no more.
I swear at the empty room, and the world swims to blurriness and dissolves.
My lecturers know I’ve been waiting for the call, and it’s only a matter of a few text messages and I’m free from university for a week. I roll out of bed and something takes over, driving me forward. I sit at the back of my head and watch my hands and body move as they feed me breakfast, then run my hands over myself when I shower and clean my teeth. At some level, I know I’m crying, but autopilot keeps me moving.
There’s part of me, the part I pushed away at seven this morning, that’s screaming in the back of my head. If I turn to comfort her – and I so want to comfort her – then I’ll be back there, sobbing as she is. There will be time to let my tears out. But that time is not now.
Autopilot takes me from my flat and down into the tentacled mass of the London Underground. It uses my Oyster card in all the right places and picks out a seat in a tube train without me even having to think. Every endless second moves me forward, but I don’t feel like I’m moving. A forty-minute journey to King’s Cross station takes me a thousand years, but it doesn’t matter; all that matters is the destination, the things that wait at the end of this long days travel.
At King’s Cross, I walk past a brick wall with a half-buried luggage trolley in it. Above are the words Platform 9¾. There’s magic here…or at least, supposed to be. A wonderful world right through there that we Muggles can’t see.
I wonder if it’s like that where Granddad is now.
There are benches near the departures board and I take one while I wait for the train that will take me back to him.
Even at this hour, the people coming and going are a constant stream. This place never really stops or sleeps. Libraries aren’t where the stories are; it’s here where humanity finds its tales. This train station, that airport. A missed connection that leads to a chance conversation. Paths taken and not taken, decisions made and changed. Five hundred stories an hour come through here, travelling towards life and death. This is one of the knots where our strings entwine, one of the places where we come together or part.
I close my eyes to bite back my tears. Now I’ve stopped moving, autopilot is off and I’m back in charge again. Only I don’t know how to work the controls anymore. None of the buttons and levers are where they’re supposed to be.
I open my eyes again and my Granddad is sitting beside me. I smile at him, or at the illusion of him. At this point, I don’t really care. He doesn’t look the same as the last time I saw him – eaten alive by cancer so slowly you could almost miss it – but the way I want to remember him, hale and well, light sparkling in his eyes from some private joke.
He greets me the same way he always has and a fresh wave of tears nearly overwhelms me. “Ayup, girl.”
“I’m sorry, Granddad. Sorry I wasn’t there.” I manage around the sobs.
He shrugs and waves off my concern. “Got your own life to live, pet. I’ve had mine.”
“I wish I’d been there.”
“Don’t fret, chip.”
A woman wearing a blue wig walks to the turnstiles, beyond which a thunderously humming and vibrating train sits waiting. She’s wearing astonishingly high heels and a very short skirt. She’s also about forty kilos overweight and doesn’t so much walk as lurch, trying desperately to stay upright.
“Bloody hell. Women never dressed like that in my day,” Granddad says.
“You had mini-skirts in the Sixties, Granddad. Don’t tell me you didn’t.”
“Forgot you were the history buff. University! Never knew anyone went to university. Miner’s granddaughter, ay? Who’da thought that?”
“You made a lot of sacrifices for me and mum, Granddad. I know that.”
“It’s worth it to see you both getting on in the world, gal. Well worth it.”
“Just…I wanted to thank you and gran for it.”
He looks around again and leans back against the bench, looking up at the vaulted ceiling fifty metres above us and the clouds visible through the long skylights, this Victorian cathedral to progress and the railways.
“Done this place up right nice now. Bin a long time since I come here.”
“The train to Paris goes from right under our feet.”
He leans forwards and looks between his shoes as though he can see it. “Aye.”
There’s a long silence before I can really ask him what I’m thinking.
“What’s it like, Granddad. Dying?”
“Din’t hurt, if that’s what’s botherin ya.”
“I’ve never been to a funeral before, you know.”
“I know. It ain’t so bad though. Chance to say goodbye and get on. That’s what really matters. Gettin on. Grieve and get on, gal. You got that?”
“I got it, Granddad.”
He turns to me and holds my gaze. “I’m dust now, pet.”
A sob rises to the back of my throat and I stifle it with a fist on my lips. “Oh, Granddad.”
“It’s true. But that ain’t so bad. Everyone came from dust and back to it we go. I just borrowed the dust for a while, just like you and everyone else. The dust is always there, so I’ll always be there. You get me gal? This is important.”
“I get you.”
“You be sure to tell your mam that when you see her. Now, you better get movin. Your train’s here.”
I glance up to the departures board, and when I turn back, he’s gone. In his place is a small pile of grey dust. But in the space of a blink, that vanishes too.
I stare at the empty bench for a long minute. Then I stand and head towards the train that will take me home, back to the place where he no longer lives.