I remember my grandfather’s house. I remember my grandfather in his house, sitting at the table watching me eat. I remember the train that took me to my grandfather’s house; it was a fast train. I watched as the landscape went by: field and tree, field and tree. Every now and again a station would flash by: people waiting for a train – their train, not my train – at the end of their day, reading their newspapers or just staring out across the railway tracks. I tried to see them as they went by, but they were always too fast. There-gone. There-gone.
Ξ Ξ Ξ Ξ
My grandfather met me at the station, taking my bag and carrying it to his car. I remember my grandfather’s car. It was blue and small and he had to fold himself up, like a jack-in-the-box, to fit inside. Except, when he got out, he did it slowly and in stages, not all in a hurry like other jack-in-the-boxes.
It was a long drive to my grandfather’s house. I remember town. I remember the harbour; the water black, like the night sky without any stars. The headlights on my grandfather’s car swept past the black water and I stared at their warm light on the road in front. I remember the harbour. I remember the deep blackness.
We crossed the bridge and left the lights of town behind us. The road followed the edge of the land as it stretched and curled and curved its way out into the darkness. My grandfather’s house was at the end of a long drive that started at a gate at the side of the road. I watched my grandfather unfold himself from the car to open the gate, the light of the headlights colouring him a sunny yellow in the darkness. I remember the gate, it was green, although the paint was old and flaking off, the top rubbed smooth where my grandfather rested his hand each time he swung the gate open and shut.
The house was painted in darkness but my grandfather had left a light on beside the front door, to guide us inside when the headlights on the car closed their eyes. My grandfather had parked the car beside an old, tumbledown shed and I picked my way carefully across the garden towards the house, following the light.
‘Are you hungry?’ my grandfather asked when he had carried my bag upstairs and I had taken off my shoes. I was – the right answer – and from under an old tea towel he produced a plate: ham and cold potatoes, cucumber and lettuce, carrots, two tomatoes. My grandfather sat opposite me at the old, smooth wooden table and watched as I ate my dinner. Only when I had finished and placed my knife and fork next to each other on the plate, did he speak.
‘What would you like to do Annie?’ I said that I would like to listen to the mermaids singing. He smiled at me and told me to put on a jumper, my coat, my hat and my shoes. When I was dressed, and when my grandfather had filled a flask with hot chocolate, we stepped out of the front door, holding hands. We walked away from my grandfather’s house, the one light standing sentry against the night, following a path through the garden towards the beach. Moths or insects or – I didn’t want to think about it – something worse flitted past my face. My grandfather’s torch tore a hole in the darkness and these flying creatures all came to have a look inside. My grandfather asked if I was scared and I told him I wasn’t; I was eight and brave and not scared of the many-winged and many-legged things tangling themselves in my hair. I remember the taste of the lie as I said it.
I remember my grandfather’s beach. He said it wasn’t his, that it didn’t belong to anyone. He said it was a border place: somewhere between the land and the sea, the solid and shapeless, the earth and the darkness. He said it belonged to both. And to neither. I remember that it was stony – not sandy – and that the stones filled my shoes as we walked across it.
The mermaids sang on the rocks at the far end of the beach. Too far out to sea from me to swim to – especially with my shoes full of stones – but not so far that we wouldn’t be able to hear them singing. My grandfather spread out his big coat on the stones and we sat on it, waxy and warm and smelling of my grandfather. He poured me a cup of hot chocolate from the flask and I drank it in the darkness, carefully because it was still hot. I remember the smoothness on the roof of my mouth where the first sip scalded me. I closed my eyes and listened to the sound of the sea.
My grandfather nudged me and I opened my eyes. Two mermaids were sitting on the rocks; I could see the starlight reflecting on the scales of their long, powerful tails.
‘Don’t forget,’ my grandfather warned me, ‘they are fiercely dangerous creatures. Never get any closer to them than you are right now. But they sing’ – he paused and lifted his head and listened – ‘they sing so beautifully.’
As if waiting for that introduction, the mermaids began to sing. One first and then the other, their voices joining and breaking, joining and breaking; waves crashing against the shore. I remember crying, but it was happy crying. My grandfather was crying too. He wrapped an arm around me and I snuggled in close to the warmth of him as the mermaids sang in the starlight.
Ξ Ξ Ξ Ξ
It was dark again and the mermaids had gone, taking their starlight and their songs back into the sea. My grandfather told me that they sang other songs, in other places, to other people, but I thought he was wrong; their songs were just for us. Nothing that perfect was supposed to be shared.
‘Shall we go back?’ my grandfather asked, but I told him I wanted to stay on the beach drinking hot chocolate from the flask. My grandfather poured me another cup. ‘Perhaps you would like a story to go with your refreshments?’
He told me the story of the twenty three pixies he had found sitting in the road. They were just sitting there, singing their little hearts out, oblivious to the danger they were in. My grandfather was on the way back from town and luckily the road was not often used. He told me how he had squeezed and pushed and prodded them into his little blue car – all except one, who had insisted on sitting on the roof, holding onto the aerial and singing rude songs – to take them home. The problem being that they couldn’t agree on where home was: half of them insisted it was under a tree in the furthest field beyond the lightning oak, while the other half said it was in a cave around the headland beneath the lighthouse. My grandfather told me that the opinion of the twenty third pixie – the one on the roof – was not suitable for an eight-year-old girl’s ears.
Then my grandfather told me about a man he knows – a sailor: seaweed for a beard and barnacles up both legs – who had fallen asleep in his wheelhouse after a long night chasing fish along the coast. The sailor had woken up to find that all of his crew had disappeared. Not a hat, or a glove, or a shoe remained. But in their place, standing at the stern of the boat, was an enormous gull, the largest the sailor had ever seen. The gull had fixed the sailor with a dark and sinister eye and had started along the deck towards the wheelhouse. The sailor couldn’t move, frozen to the spot by fear and wonder at the sight before him. The gull was making its heavy, web-footed way along the deck towards the sailor when, in a watery explosion that sent sea and salt and seven small fish flying into the sky, a tentacled arm flung itself from the ocean. The huge, dripping tentacle grabbed the gull, squawking and pecking, and dragged it down into the waiting beak. The sailor was never certain, my grandfather said, his voice a whisper, whether it was the gull or the colossal squid that had taken his crew. But the sailor swore then and there that he would never set foot on a boat again.
I asked my grandfather if the sailor had told him this story himself. He told me that he knew the sailor well. The sailor had shaved off his beard and scraped off his legs, sold his boat and declared himself a land-loving man for the rest of his days. With the money from the sale of the boat the sailor had bought a small ice cream shop in town, where he would entertain his customers with fine ice cream and tales of his watery adventures. My grandfather went there every Friday. I asked my grandfather if he believed the sailor’s story. He thought for a moment before replying. ‘I have never seen the ice cream seller in a boat, so he is telling the truth about that at least. And if that part of the story is true then why not the rest? After all, stranger stories than that often float to the surface like so much flotsam.’
My grandfather leaned closer to me and dropped his voice to a whisper. ‘Do you know about the angler fish?’ he asked. I remember the thrill of fear that tickled the hairs on the back of my neck. ‘The angler lives in the blackest black of the deep ocean. Down in the darkness where there is no sun to warm your skin or to light your way. You can grope and prod and feel, but you cannot see, not down there in the depths of the savage sea. Can you imagine what it would be like, Annie, to live in their endless dark and then to see a light? Think how bright, how unbelievable, that light would appear. You would be drawn, not like moths around a candle – oh for moths know of light, they just choose a night-time life – but with a sense of purpose that you would not be able to resist.
‘But Annie, that light means you harm. It draws you closer and closer and then, just when you cannot stand its brilliance a moment longer -‘ Bang! My grandfather clapped his hands together and I made a scared little squeal. ‘The angler fish has lured you in with her bobbing light, hanging so invitingly just above her great big mouth, full of great big teeth. And now she has got you, she will eat you up until there is nothing left at all, not one tiny piece.’ I remember trying to imagine that there was nothing of me left in the world. I remember I couldn’t. I asked my grandfather if the stories were true. He shrugged and said that they were all just as true as I wanted them to be; not a bit more and not a bit less. I remember that I didn’t understand that answer.
Ξ Ξ Ξ Ξ
My grandfather helped me get up. I remember that my legs were full of tingling sleep and I had to rub them and stamp my feet until the warm blood filled them up again. We held hands as we climbed back up the path from the beach to the garden of my grandfather’s house. I remember wrapping the darkness around me like my grandfather’s big warm coat, to protect me from the many-winged creatures that flew all around us. My grandfather’s torch lit up the footsteps we were about to make and, in the distance, the light by the front door guided us back to the house.
We had just passed the old wooden shed when my grandfather suddenly stopped. I remember the sharp pain in my hand as he squeezed it too tightly.
‘Annie, stay very still,’ my grandfather warned. I could hear the fear in his words. I stared into the darkness in front of us, trying to see what my grandfather could see, but the only thing in front of us was the light beside the front door. Everything else was darkness. Very quietly I asked my grandfather what was wrong. ‘Look at the light,’ he said, ‘look very carefully.’
I remember screwing up my face in concentration as I stared at the light. It was just the light, the one by the front door, hanging in the darkness. But – then – did it move? I blinked, and rubbed my eyes. The light was moving. Only just, but if I watched very carefully then I could see the light bobbing ever so slightly up and down.
As if it knew then that its trick had been revealed, the monster in the darkness decided to attack. The light burst forward and in its swinging arc I saw a hundred sharp teeth; sharp teeth that were following the light across the garden towards us. It let out a roar of anger – or hunger, or anticipation – and I remember the smell of the sea that accompanied that terrifying sound. It came on, hauling itself on short, stubby legs. A massive, seething beast made of teeth and pain. I could see it more clearly now, lit both by its own swinging ball of light and by the light of my grandfather’s house, no longer shadowed by its huge body.
My grandfather pushed me behind him as he looked around for something to defend us with. Finding nothing, he lifted up his torch and held it up in front of him like a sword. I remember knowing that the torch was not going to save my grandfather from all those teeth.
‘You need to go. Run. Now.’ I looked around but there was blackness in all directions save one. I didn’t move. I remember not knowing if I actually could. The creature was no more than a few, short, stubby strides away from us now and it was still coming. Its bouncing light was almost above us. My grandfather swore – rude words that you shouldn’t say – and, unexpectedly, from the old shed behind us there came an echoing reply.
My grandfather pushed me to one side as the door to the shed flew open and an explosion of tiny bodies spilled out. They attacked, rushing forward with screams on their tongues – the one at the front swearing spectacularly – and weapons clasped in their little hands. A watering can caught the creature in the side of its head, dull metal catching the light as it cartwheeled out of the open shed door. Twenty three tiny people threw themselves at the monster, stabbing it with shears, breaking plant pots on its sodden sides, hurling hammers and screwdrivers at its head.
The creature bellowed and thrashed, sending our rescuers flying into the bushes. My grandfather chose that moment to heft his torch and throw himself into the fight. I remember trying to grab his coat, to stop him from getting hurt, but he was gone before I could. His torch crashed into the creature’s face, illuminating the tiny bodies pulling themselves from the bushes. They kicked and clawed and clambered on the creature’s back, the better to poke at its eyes and ears with their ramshackle weapons. A second watering can turned circles in the air before delivering a direct strike to the monster’s bobbing light. A scream of pain and then it was gone, lumbering away on its short legs through the bushes towards the sea. A tiny voice accompanied its escape with the most amazing swearing.
My grandfather pulled me up off of the ground and hugged me tightly. ‘Well that was fun,’ he said, although I don’t think he meant it.
Ξ Ξ Ξ Ξ
My grandfather led us all into the house: me and the twenty three pixies. We sat around the table, three pixies to a chair, and my grandfather made us all hot drinks. I remember looking around the table at their little faces as they slurped their hot chocolate from my grandfather’s teacups. I went up to my grandfather – I didn’t want them to think me rude – and asked him why he had pixies living in his shed.
‘They couldn’t decide in the end, between the tree beyond the oak or the cave beside the lighthouse. So I brought them here while they made up their minds. That was seven months ago, so I guess that they have probably decided to stay.’ Twenty three contented pixies sitting around a table drinking hot chocolate. ‘Plus,’ he added, ‘they love gardening, so it works out well for all of us. I’m a bit too old to be looking after all of this on my own anymore Annie.’
I hugged my grandfather and told him that he was just the right age for a grandfather to be.
I remember how tired I felt. I think I remember my grandfather carrying me up to bed, but I may already have been asleep.
Ξ Ξ Ξ Ξ
I remember that I was right about my grandfather. He was just the right age for him to be; one more year was just too much and he died – passed away, moved on – less than a week into the next year. I remember that it was cold at the church and colder at the side of his grave. I remember wondering why the pixies had not come to say goodbye, but no one I asked seemed to know, or to care. They told me that my grandfather had gone to a better place, but I could not think of a better place than the house at the end of the lane with the green gate; the house where mermaids came to sing songs of the sea; the house with a shed full of pixies and monsters in the garden. Perhaps the pixies had finally agreed about where they lived and had gone home. I remember hoping that they had.
I remember all of these things, but I cannot remember if they are true. I wish with every part of me that they are.