Grandma and the terrorist
Evi Ruhle (Deakin University, Australia)
Waiting for Grandma to die is boring. It’s been two days since she last spoke. Meret has seen corpses like plasticine on stretchers in the American movies she watches when her parents are out. The films make her feel grown-up and grown-ups can do what they like even if it’s wrong. Grandma makes puffing sounds like a toy steam train but her duvet doesn’t rise or fall. From her cross-legged position on the couch, Meret faces the wheelchair in the corner opposite her. She gets up and sits in it. It smells of Grandma. She grips the joystick handle and pushes it away from her, upon which the chair judders and the wheels squeal on the parquetry floor, but Grandma doesn’t even stir. Through the half lowered blind, blades of light come in and slice up Grandma’s face.
Outside, a group of children run past. Meret rushes to the window and pulls up the blind. The sun is dazzling, making it hard for her to recognise anyone. Most of her friends are on holiday anyway. Lourdes is in Malaga and her grandma isn’t dying. Even if she were, Lourdes wouldn’t have to mind her. She’d be at the beach with her cousins. Dorothea is in Poland in a town that sounds like danke, also near the sea. Meret’s parents work, even during the summer break.
Occasionally, Meret’s mum takes her to the lake that is surrounded by forest. The walk from the bus stop always sends up dust clouds that settle on Meret’s feet and create a sandal pattern like instant suntan.
‘Aren’t you going in?’ Meret’s mum asks, supine on her elbows, one hand waving a cigarette. Her lipstick looks bloody on the filter. She bathes in a patch of sunlight breaking through the treetops, and looks out over the lake like a seafarer waiting for a ship.
‘Are there frogs in there?’ Meret asks, her legs hugged to her chest.
‘Don’t be silly. See all those kids over there? They don’t worry about frogs.’ She points, her hairy armpit gaping at Meret.
‘But the water looks like Dad’s coffee. You can’t see below. And those kids have lilos.’
‘Leave Dad out of it. I’ll get you a lilo for your birthday. The water is nice and cool. I’ve given up my Sunday to come here, so let’s not spoil it,’ she says as she chases a bug off her towel with the lit cigarette. With her arms stretched out sideways for balance, Meret tiptoes across the prickly forest floor to the water’s edge. Mud squeezes up between her toes. ‘Go on,’ her mum calls. Meret edges forward until she sees her own reflection in the black mirror of water. She draws a breath for courage and jumps at the ghost of herself.
‘Not too deep,’ her mum calls. ‘I’m not fishing you out.’ Meret’s hair lies fanned out on the surface of the water while her legs drag her down with the weight of an anchor. If she’s not careful she might snap in half. She imagines her friend Lourdes suspended in glassy water over sand smooth as semolina. Jealous of the boys and girls splashing around on their lilos, Meret scoops up a mouthful of water and spits it towards them, but it falls short. Her mouth feels like sandpaper.
Since Grandma has taken over Meret’s room, there have been no excursions. Dad usually comes home late and Mum waits up, chain-smoking. Meret can smell the smoke from her mattress in the office, where she sleeps beneath the bookshelf. Sometimes at night, when her mum and dad bicker, she lights a candle for them, and then looks at the books. There are some of Dad’s science journals and a stack of Spiegel news magazines. On top is the one with the picture of a man in front of a star, the letters RAF and a machine gun. Meret flicks through the mag to look at the terrorists. She used to get them confused with tourists and is still unsure whether they’re evil in the same way murderers are. The dentist who checks her teeth has black and white photos of their faces pasted up on the wall in the waiting room.
The shelf is deep and there is a space behind the front row of books. Meret takes out a couple and peers through the hole like a giant looking into a small house. Hiding in there is an old book written in letters Meret can’t read properly. She knows it’s a bad book that should have been discarded after the war. Pressed flowers and four-leaf clovers cling to a few of the pages like dragonfly wings. Her most secret treasure, though, is a discoloured journal with photographs of women in it. She takes it off the shelf and irons out the creases with the palm of her hand. The women are wearing long pearly necklaces over bare breasts. On the pages at the back some are plain naked, and at one of them, Meret blushes because she reminds her of herself. The woman has a large birthmark next to her navel that is identical to the star in the picture of the terrorist in the news mag. One night, Meret decides to store these women in a safe place. With the journal pressed against her chest in the same way people hold a bible against their heart, she listens at the door. Downstairs is filled with the rumble of Mum and Dad’s voices. Meret opens the door to Grandma’s room and steps into blackness. She shuts the door behind her and waits. Nothing. Her hands raised like a marionette, she teeters through the dark until she stumbles across a bag near the wheelchair and a zip stings her hand. She unzips the bag and slides the magazine in before standing stock-still. Her heartbeat is giving her tinnitus and drives her toward the door. She slips out. Back in the other room, she makes sure to put everything back as she found it. If anyone asked, she would play dumb.
Sometimes her dad gets home before her mum.
‘She’s a bit nervous at the moment,’ he explains about Mum smoking a lot.
‘Because Grandma’s … sick?’ Meret asks. She tears a piece of skin off her thumb with her teeth, which sends her face into a grimace.
‘Well, yes,’ her dad says.
‘But I’m looking after her,’ Meret replies.
‘You are,’ he agrees. ‘But it’s school holidays and you should be with your friends,’ he says, his black hair glistening under the kitchen fluoro. Meret likes him in his suit and tie. He looks like the men in the American movies.
‘My friends are all away. Why don’t we ever go on a holiday?’ she asks.
‘Your friends are not strictly on holiday.’
‘Of course, they are,’ she says as she picks the bit of skin she’s been chewing on off her tongue and wipes it on her pants.
‘They’re visiting family, people they don’t see all year,’ he explains.
‘We don’t have anyone to visit. Not even close by. And my friends’ mums are always at home,’ Meret replies.
‘Because their mums work early shifts in the factory. I’m here now, aren’t I?’
‘Lourdes and Dorothea don’t carry a house key around after school,’ Meret says and realises she still has the chord with the key around her neck. She takes it off and hurls it onto the kitchen bench.
Her dad sighs. ‘Look Meret, I’ll take you on a holiday, maybe even this summer. But for now, we need to organise a nurse for Grandma,’ he says, unzipping the briefcase on his lap. He pulls out some paperwork, which he places on the dining table. ‘That’s no life for an 11-year-old, sitting by her grandmother’s bed,’ he continues as he takes off his suit jacket. Meret knows what comes next. He gets himself a laboratory beaker from the kitchen cupboard and produces a bottle of red wine from the sideboard next to the fridge. In what could pass as a preaching gesture, he lifts the beaker to eye level with one hand and follows suit with the bottle in the other hand. Then he squints and pours exactly 15 ml of wine into the glass. Meret has never understood why he doesn’t just fill the glass up the first time round. The stool squeaks when he sits back down.
‘Isn’t Mum coming?’ Meret asks.
‘Where?’ he asks back.
‘Maybe. It might just be you and I. Time for bed now. Shall I take you up?’ he suggests.
‘Dad, I’m not a baby.’ Meret gets up, gives him a kiss on the cheek and leaves the kitchen.
The next day it’s raining. People in overcoats stoop beneath umbrellas as they pass the house on their way to the train station. The apartment blocks across the road look like mere shadows of themselves. There is nothing on TV until the afternoon and Meret is bored. She opens the door to Grandma’s room. A bunch of white flowers on the desk gives the impression of a funeral parlour. Mum’s friend Sabina dropped it off last night, saying she’ll be on holiday and might not be around when Grandma passes. A lost bee is drifting from flower to flower in slow-motion. Meret wonders whether it might die before Grandma if she doesn’t let it out. She positions herself in the wheelchair. With her eyes closed, she focuses on the buzzing bee against the falling rain and imagines a distant beach. The duvet rustles, which brings her back into the room, and when she opens her eyes, she searches for Grandma’s pupils – in vain. She scans the room for something to kill her boredom and finds the record player. She walks over to flick through the records beside it and picks out a French one that belongs to Mum. The lid of the record player moans when she folds it up against the wall. When she moves the arm across the turntable, the blue lights at the front come on like water running sideways. The arm snaps into the groove of the record with a crackle and it trumpets out Tous les garçons et les filles de mon âge, se prominent dans la rue deux par deux. Meret jumps up, spins the volume knob to 0 and turns towards the bed. Grandma rolls onto her back.
‘Grandma?’ Meret asks. Grandma opens her eyes and lets them fall shut again. In what looks like pantomime to Meret, Grandma sticks out her arm and waves her hand. Meret walks over to hold it but Grandma pulls it away. What if she needs to go to the toilet? Meret won’t change her nappies. Mum promised she wouldn’t have to do that. Grandma points towards the wheelchair. Meret examines the chair and notices Granny’s handbag hanging off the handle. When she touches it, Grandma’s arm comes to rest on her chest and Meret takes the bag to the bedside.
‘Red wallet,’ Grandma croaks. Meret stares at the old lady as if she has risen from the dead. Then she unclips the brass clasp of the brown leather bag and looks at Grandma for approval. Wallets and leather cases are slotted in like in a filing cabinet. There’s a zipped compartment and she realises that’s where she hid the journal with the women last night. She blushes even though Grandma can’t see her.
‘Red wallet,’ Grandma repeats. Meret pushes the journal deeper into the bag before she flicks through the wallets. She pulls out a maroon one, holds it up in the air, and waits for instructions. The old lady takes a deep breath as if preparing herself for the next jumble of words. She reopens her eyes and says ‘photo,’ while pointing at the wallet. Meret opens it and searches for photographs. There’s one of herself as a baby and another of Grandma and Mum in long theatre dresses, but Grandma shakes her head at those. Then Meret finds one of a young man with a sailor’s hat and holds it in front of Grandma’s face. Grandma nods.
‘Is that … Grandpa?’ Meret barely dares to mention his name. To speak of him has always seemed taboo.
‘He’s in America,’ Grandma says.
‘Why?’ Meret asks.
‘He left … had to leave.’ Grandma sighs and starts again. ‘You were … the war,’ she stutters. Meret is reminded of the American movies she’s seen and feels a connection with the grandfather she’s never met.
Grandma tries again. ‘He … is a photographer, but the family thinks … he’s evil.’ Her granddad in America and a photographer? Meret’s fondness of him grows and she smiles to herself. Grandma begins to cough. She coughs so hard that Meret tells her to stop.
‘Some water … please,’ Grandma croaks. Meret doesn’t dare to leave the room. She picks up the glass of milk Mum put on the bedside table in the morning. Grandma’s breathing is even and as faint as the ticking of a clock, but soon turns into a whimper. Meret takes the glass of milk and sits very close to the old woman. She uses one hand to support Grandma’s head as she once did with Lourdes’ baby sister. With the other hand she holds the glass close to Grandma’s lips. Grandma takes one shaky sip before her head drops back and milk trickles out of her mouth onto the pillow. Like ink on blotting paper, the stain swells into the shape of an angel and Meret begins to cry. Unsure what to do, she stands up and takes hold of Grandma’s hand, but gets spooked by her open mouth. When she lets go of the hand it drops like a billiard ball. The room is filled with a smell that reminds Meret of the boys’ toilet at school and she lifts up the bedcover to check whether Grandma has wet herself. When she pushes up Grandma’s gown to adjust her undergarments, a large mark next to her navel makes Meret pause: a star shaped mole on Grandma’s paper skin. Her eyes fix on the shape and she compares it with the star on the naked woman in the magazine. It looks drawn on and Meret reaches to touch it, but the door slams downstairs and she draws her arm back to the safety of her own body. She clears her throat. With the efficiency of a nurse, she straightens Grandma’s gown and bedding, and folds her wrinkly hands on top of the duvet. Then she runs her own hand over Grandma’s already closed eyes. She’s seen them do that in the movies. Like a petty criminal, she gathers the photos and the journal and presses them against her chest. From the door, she takes one last look at Grandma and decides she never wants her room back again. Meret knows she will be going to America.
Evi was born in Frankfurt. She lived in London, Berlin and Sydney before permanently settling in Melbourne in her late twenties. As a German translator she has been reading and writing in German and English for many years across several genres. But she is new to creative writing. She currently studies Creative Writing at Deakin University at their cloud campus. Evi’s writing is influenced by the different places she has called home with a particular interest in climate change.