No Heroes by Kate Jones
Granddad sits in his armchair. It’s been re-upholstered. Twice. It has holes in one arm where I stuck a knitting needle into it in a rage, forget what about.
He’s staring at the rented television set. The Queen laying a wreath on the Cenotaph. I’m twelve, tall and skinny, blonde pigtails, precocious.
‘Load of old bollocks,’ he says; can barely get through a sentence without swearing. ‘Look at ‘em all, the old buggers, in their chuffing medals. Tsk’, he makes a derisory sound with his teeth.
Photographs scatter across the coffee table, bleeding out of the oldOxo tin. I perch on the arm of his chair, picking up a black and white snapshot, frayed at the edges, yellowing and dull. Three young soldiers bake under a foreign sun. The one at the centre is a young, handsome version of Granddad, smiling, his arms thrown casually around the shoulders of an ebony skinned soldier, tall and muscular, and a skinny white youth. At their feet sits a scrawny dog.
‘Where was this taken?’ I ask.
‘Cairo’, he says, dully.
‘Egypt? Wow – did you see the pyramids?’
‘Yup. Just a pile of old bricks, really, now’t special’.
‘Where else did you go?’
‘Well,’ he rubs his white whiskered chin thoughtfully, ‘went to Bethlehem, where they reckon baby Jesus was born. It was a lot like Attercliffe slag heap.’
He takes the photo, bringing it up close to his old eyes. ‘I was the only one that came back’, he says quietly. He shakes his head and puts the photo back onto the table.
I touch his bony shoulder through his many layers of wool.
He points at the ebony soldier. ‘Landmine’, he says. Then, the skinny one, ‘Syphilis, too much fun on leave in Cairo,’ a deep-throated chuckle.
I’m unsure why that’s funny. ‘How about a nice cuppa?’ He says, pushing himself up from the chair and walking across to the cool kitchen. He puts the old metal kettle onto the ring, clicks the gas lighter until the ring bursts into blue flame.
Swinging the heavy kettle off the ring, I pour steaming water into a waiting teapot. A small handful of relatives sit, chatting politely. A couple nibble curled ham sandwiches.
The kitchen’s warmer; it’s summer. I’m older, still skinny but the pigtails have gone.
After the visitors leave in their dark suits, I help my parents tidy the house. I know every patch of magnolia woodchip.
Granddad’s old Oxo tin sits on the sideboard. I pick it up and stroke its rusty lid. It hangs off at one side where the hinge is broken. Inside: the black and white photographs, bus pass and spare reading glasses.
Right at the bottom, a velvet wrap like Mum has for jewellery. I ease it out and roll it open on top of the sideboard.A row of perfectly polished war medals, gleaming and mirror-like, stare back. Granddad’s name is etched on each one like a stain.