Granddad used to tell a story about oranges

My feet don’t reach the floor when I sit in the big green chair in Granddad’s house. He’s made me my favourite. Pasta with red sauce and tomatoes. The tomatoes are huge and cut into fours that glow as if they have little suns in them. They even smell like a sunny day. I don’t have to sit at the table. I’m allowed to have my plate on my lap. Granddad sits in the blue chair and tells me a story about when he was on a train with soldiers, in a warm country. The train stopped in a field full of orange trees and a soldier got out to pick the fruit. No sooner had he got off the train than it started to go again! He chased after them, dropping oranges as he went, but he couldn’t catch up. They all watched, laughing, as he got smaller and smaller in the distance. Everyone had to wait at the station while he got the next train, and he was in all sorts of trouble, but at least he got his oranges.

* * *

My feet touch the floor on tiptoes when I sit in the green armchair in my granddad’s house. He has made the pasta with tomatoes, and he’s telling me the story about oranges. He gets to the end, where the soldier gets smaller and smaller in the distance. I ask how much trouble he got into at the next station. My granddad laughs and says they couldn’t wait for him. I’m sure he’s always said they waited, but when I try to remember, I don’t know what words he used. I only remember the story.

I ask him what he did in the army. He smiles and says, pushing pencils. Then he says, just listened to the Germans on the radio.

I ask him if he could understand them. He says yes, speaking German can save your life you know. He says about how he had to listen for certain words, but I’m paying more attention to my tomatoes, knocking them around with my fork, noticing how when they catch the light they seem to glow.

Granddad, I say, if you didn’t wait for him, what happened to the soldier who picked the oranges. He leans back in his chair, then says he doesn’t know. He never saw him again.

* * *

The red poppy parade is on the TV at the care home. My mother and I sit in a room full of old people who are aware of very little, other than that they sit in a room full of old people. It smells like old people. My grandfather is in an armchair that leans back like in a lifting-off space shuttle. My mother feeds him a green leaf salad, allowing him time to chew, then caringly—motheringly—asks him if he’s ready for the next forkful. The seats here are all brown, which is disappointing. If they were green or blue, it would be fitting with the past; there’d be a poetry lasting from then to now. For the first time I realise I am taller—I stretch out longer in my chair—than my grandfather. There are sun-dried tomatoes amongst the salad leaves, and they look like him: thin and bent and wrinkled. He would have fed my mother once, in the same way she feeds him now.

I want to ask him if it reminds him of when their roles were reversed.

I want to ask him if the parade on the TV, which he has paid absolutely no attention to, means anything to him.

I want to ask him if he notices the off-ness in the old people he’s surrounded by, the slight hollow in their voices.

I want to ask him if he sees himself as separate to them, or if he recognises the same hollow in his own chest.

I want to ask him if he remembers the story about the soldiers and the oranges, and telling it to me.

I want to ask, but I don’t. In this room full of old people it’s too late for questions.

* * *

My grandfather, Richard Franklin, did not speak today. My grandfather, Richard Franklin, died this evening. We sit around him in the home. Thankfully he’s been in a room full of family, rather than a room full of old people. I sit by his bed and wonder what the last thing he said was. What automatic greeting or trivial request, to a family member or to a carer, was his final remark. If he had an idea, a quiet inkling, that it might be the last words he ever spoke.

Now, if I have a moment with him alone, I can ask him these questions, in a way I have not been able to since he moved into this halfway place. He won’t hear nor answer. There was no precise moment when he left. We sat with him as he twisted and turned in an aggravated sleep, and he was alive. Then there was a sinking, a period of long outlets of breath. Then silence, and it was clear that he was dead, and had been for some time, that he’d died earlier, when the air leaked and grumbled out of him.

As one my family stands, to go and make phone calls, to talk to undertakers and carers, to find a less crowded place to cry: to do all the important things the living must. He’s so small between us, us towering giants that teeter and sway above him. He grounds the middle of us, existing only as a single point, demonstrating that we, the living, can never truly stop our moving, settle our shaking hand or quell the rise and fall of our chest. That we have no understanding nor comprehension of what it really means to be still.

 * * *

I sit in the little green armchair, my knees forced comically high. My cousin, a few years older, sits in the blue chair and laughs at me. Our grandfather’s house is full of family, so here he is not just Granddad, he is Dad, Uncle, and Brother. His younger sister, who is led around by her son’s wife, is now experiencing existence without a brother for the first time. The house smells like the old peoples’ home. I can’t remember what it used to smell like before this scent caught hold, apart from that when he cooked, the smell of tomatoes used to fill the rooms.

As we wait for the hearse, my cousin asks me if I remember our grandfather’s story about the soldiers on the train. His version is different to mine. In his, all of the soldiers disembarked, and the train never actually stopped. It was travelling slower than walking pace, so they thought they’d be able to get off, pick the oranges, and get back on. It gained speed while they were in the field, and they all had to run after it. One soldier wasn’t fast enough, and he was the one who was left behind, and became smaller and smaller in the distance.

I ask if he remembers the tomatoes our grandfather used in cooking. He says no, and I describe how big they were, and how they seemed to glow from the inside. He still doesn’t remember them, but he talks about a curry our grandfather used to make, with rice, and chips, and sauce, and chicken, and assorted vegetables, all with their own section of the plate, so it looked like a bright multicoloured pizza, or a modern-art clock. The image is new to me, my grandfather showing me something I haven’t seen before, despite his absence.

Isn’t it strange, my cousin says, that the train story happened in Palestine?

I start, shocked, but cannot ask him more, as the hearse has pulled up outside the window. We have to be moving, as always.

 * * *

‘In 1942, after gaining his Higher School Certificate, in which he received a distinction in German, Richard joined the Signals Corp of the Royal Artillery.’

I sit on the pew, my mother on one side, my cousin on the other. The man we’ve told about Granddad, Dad, Uncle and Brother stands at the lectern, and tells us about Richard Franklin.

‘Being fluent in German he was transferred to the Intelligence Corps in July 1943 as a German code breaker. He firmly believed the transfer saved his life, as none of his colleagues in the Signal Corps survived the war.’

There’s a folded card in my hand, a picture of him young, in a soldier’s uniform, on the front. I’m sure I remember, when I was in the green chair, him saying that learning German can save your life. But I don’t know if he did, or if hearing the celebrant’s words, I’ve instinctively redrafted my memories. Added a few more frames to the reel, a few more words to the story, to properly foreshadow learning that he believed knowing German, and his consequent transfer, saved him from dying with every man he trained with. That it allowed him, in the end, seventy more years than them.

‘Richard rose to the position of staff sergeant and on demob in October 1946 his testimonial said that his “military character was excellent.” His commanding officer described him as “performing his responsibilities with real competence and modest dignity.” This modesty was characteristic of Richard, and extended into his later life. Despite his testimonial stating that “he has been engaged in work of a highly responsible and specialised Intelligence nature” when his children asked what he did in the war, he simply replied “pushing pencils.”’

A murmur of recognition runs through the lines of family: the sound of an open mic night audience who understood the joke, but didn’t find it quite funny enough to laugh. More than once, in the chairs, he told me how there were certain German words he listened for, and that they used them to figure out which cipher the Germans were using. There was a lot more detail to his explanation, but I never properly listened, so those words are gone.

‘This modesty, of course, never stopped Richard from enjoying telling his stories of his adventures during the war. His most prolific, perhaps, the story of the soldiers, the train and the oranges.’

There are some appreciative chuckles from the crowd. They’ve heard this one before, but it sits warmly in the memory, and they’ll gladly listen to it a few more times. This is the one they’ll retell after the show, each person with their own phrasing of the same punchline.

‘The story of when, travelling through Palestine, a single plucky soldier disembarked from their still-moving train to pick oranges, only to turn and see the train rapidly gaining speed, leaving him standing alone in the field, with his arms full of oranges. The soldier was never seen again.’

This, it seems, is now the official story. Our different versions merged together into one, set into type, and finalised.

‘This was often followed by his tale of a supposed close-call with a woman in Gaza, who he believed to be part of a Zionist underground organisation. She wasn’t the only woman he claimed attempted to seduce him during the war, nor was she the only he claimed wanted him dead.’

My mother, through her red eyes and her tears, coughs a laugh, but my cousin and I look at each other blankly. This is a story we were never told. I look at the wooden box, centred behind the celebrant, as still as a piece of furniture, and I don’t need to ask why. When you were young enough, we were too young. Where we were old enough, you were too old.

The celebrant goes on, placing together images and stories of you, using our memories in an attempt to recreate you, moving and living, in the aisle between the pews. He raises the food you made, and draws nods in a line from my cousin, me and my mother, as he lists off: the bright clock curry, the pasta with almost-glowing quarter-cut tomatoes, and ice-cream glazed with golden honey. We’re all part of this reconstruction, we make a pile of you in the centre, tomatoes, and plates of curry, and green and blue chairs, and Zionist women, and trains, and soldiers’ uniforms, and German books, and ice cream glazed with honey, and oranges. We look at the little mound we’ve created, and from it we each see you again.

I’ve made you again Granddad. I sit on the pew, and I feel you standing just behind my shoulder, out of sight. I made you, as an answer to the questions Richard Franklin can no longer be asked, and to say goodbye.

Originally published in Beyond the Walls anthology. 

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