Short Fiction ~ Stephen Smythe
Honourable Mention, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 9
Granny mimicked James Cagney, danced to Boy George, borrowed money from herself, slipped me ten bob on my birthday and drank eleven mugs of tea every day, never leaving one unfinished no matter how cold it got. When she’d smoked all her Park Drive, she used the empty packet for her weekly budget. Her columns of pounds, shillings and pence were barely visible to the naked eye, yet they were crystal clear to her. She didn’t need specs until she was way into her sixties, so didn’t have to remove any the time she punched a skinhead.
I was ten, which would have made Granny around fifty, and we were in a café at the city zoo. The skinhead, who was across the table from us, was scowling at a girl next to him. He called her “Slut” and gritted his teeth. The girl’s cheeks reddened and she lowered her eyes. Granny’s cheeks were also flushed but her eyes were blazing.
“What you lookin’ at!” the skinhead, sneering, said to Granny.
Granny stood up and walked around to where he was seated. “Pardon?” Granny said.
“You need a hearing aid, Grandma?” he said, leaning back in his chair.
Granny socked him flush on the jaw. Her knuckles swelled afterwards but she said she didn’t feel a thing at the time – except satisfaction.
He remained seated, open-mouthed. Granny stood over him, all five foot two of her, fist cocked ready to deliver another right cross. The girl smiled and the skinhead skedaddled.
Granny was always there for me. I wish she were here now, so I could pick her up like I did when I grew bigger and she got smaller. “Put me down!” she’d yell, laughing chestily.
She left school at fourteen, in 1926. Jobs may have been scarce nationwide but not for Granny who lived a few minutes’ walk away from the burgeoning Trafford Park Industrial Estate, built in the north of Victorian England on what was once deer land and meadows. She walked into the offices of Ford Motors and asked about vacancies. The supervisor liked Granny’s initiative and gave her a job right there.
It was after two years at Ford Motors that Granny met Harry Turner, a new accounts clerk. He was eighteen. It was a brief courtship and a hasty marriage: Granny was three months’ pregnant with Mum. I discovered this after Mum died and I was looking through papers stashed in a shoe box, found buried away at the bottom of Mum’s wardrobe.
I never knew Harry Turner, Grandad, nor what he looked like. There were no photographs. Granny didn’t talk about him. Whenever I said, “Tell me about Grandad,” she’d roll her eyes, or change the subject.
Like Granny, Mum didn’t mention Grandad. The stories I heard about him came from Dad: how Grandad met Granny, how he gambled his wages at White City Greyhound Stadium, always had a Woodbine dripping from his lip, and that he drank too much. At the age of 39, he was so drunk he slipped off his own balcony to his death.
Granny was a Catholic. She went to confession on Friday, mass every Sunday and always took Holy Communion, right up until having a stroke when she was 81. She was to live another six months.
The week before Granny died, we were in her flat on the top floor of the five-story block where she’d raised Mum. She refused to be rehoused even though the lift often broke down. “I’ll manage” she said, “I always have.”
It was hot but she was wearing a woollen shawl, seated in her armchair, tepid mug of tea in one hand, a lit Park Drive in the other. Her left cheek sagged slightly but her speech was clear enough. I asked her one last time to tell me about Grandad.
She rolled her eyes.
“What’s the big secret?” I asked. “It can’t be that bad.”
She smiled, lopsided, and spoke slowly.
“It was Sunday night. I’d been to mass with your Mum. We ate supper and she went to bed – she had school the following morning. I was reading, one eye on the clock, waiting for…” she hesitated “…waiting for him to come home. I used to dread eleven o’clock – chucking out time at the pub.
“I heard the key in the front door and I went stiff. He staggered in, stinking of booze. He went straight to the balcony door and let in the cold air. I can see him now, smirking in the doorway, slurring his words, “’Cheer up you miserable cow!’”
Granny stopped speaking and drained her mug. “He was shouting how he wished he’d never married me. That I’d trapped him by getting pregnant. He was always saying that.
“I thought he was going to wake your Mum. I stood and said, ‘If you don’t like it, pack your bags.’ He gritted his teeth. ‘Don’t answer back!’ he shouted. He punched me and my head banged against the wall. He’d cut my lip, again.”
Granny’s eyes blazed as she looked beyond me. “He pointed to the kitchen, told me make him a sandwich, and went outside. I looked in the mirror and saw the mark he’d made on my jaw. It’s a wonder the bruises ever disappeared.” Granny stroked her face, the side that sagged.
“I could see in the mirror that he’d climbed onto the balcony ledge. He was shouting and waving his arms, pretending to fly. A light from a flat across the road went on and off.
“I wiped the blood from my mouth and walked out onto the balcony. It was dark and nobody was around. He looked down at me, arms swaying, and sneered. ‘Where’s my sandwich?’
“I felt my swollen lip. His legs were within easy reach. I thought, ‘Who’d ever know?’”
Granny waved her cigarette smoke away from me. ”And nobody does know,” she said, her eyes softening, “except God, me – and you.”
Stephen Smythe lives in Manchester, England, and completed an MA in Creative Writing at Salford University in 2018. He was shortlisted for The Bridport Prize (Flash Fiction Category) in 2017 and shortlisted in the Bath Flash Fiction Award 2018. He was also placed second in Northern Ireland's Bangor Literary Journal FORTY WORDS Competition in 2019 and this year he was Highly Commended in the same competition for his micro-fiction.