The front door is wide open, as it always is, so I saunter in and deposit my school bag in the hall. The smell of burnt cake summons me to the kitchen where my grandmother is trimming a layer off two circular sponges with a bread knife. ‘Your mother rang,’ she explains, and dusts sugar off her fingers. ‘I forgot all about the oven.’
Fifteen minutes later we’re devouring homemade Victoria Sandwich in front of a crackling fire. Jam and cream squish between my fingers; the sweet, buttery cake is heavenly, and the fire is warming my back.
‘But do you love him, child? And are you happy?’ She asks when I tell her my parents have taken against my boyfriend, my first ever boyfriend. ‘That’s all that matters.’ She pats my hand, and in that moment something in her eyes shines a light on my confused teenage world.
My head wiggles an acknowledgement of how much her words matter to me, and I try to swallow the lump which has emerged in my throat: relieved someone understands how I feel; sad my mother doesn’t; desperate to squeal yes, yes, yes, I love him more than anything.
In the bigger picture, of course, what mattered wasn’t a boyfriend, that one or any other; it was the importance of deciding for myself what is – and isn’t – right for me, and what dreams I wish to nurture.
Encounters such as these occurred a handful of times before my grandmother died but they’ve etched themselves on the inner folds of my psyche. A few years after the cake episode, I bumped into my grandmother in the street in Chichester. I was studying for my A-levels at the time and was relishing new-found freedom, whereas my poor grandmother had been progressively losing hers. Told not to drive by her GP, that day she’d given her residential carer the slip and got the bus from where she lived in order to do some shopping. It was this spirit which marked her out. She refused to be subdued in the same way that she refused to allow cynicism to infect her thinking. ‘It’s safe here,’ she always replied when asked to shut and lock her front door. Of course, she closed it at night but she didn’t lock it and she would often pop to the village shop and leave it open. In those days, and in that place, perhaps she was right: she never got burgled. It’s the trust which impressed me.
Another emotional memory of my grandmother is that she waited years for the house she wanted to live in with her family. She and my grandfather (who I never met) bought another house in the same village and asked the owners of their dream one, in a polite, English way, to let them know when they wanted to sell. The house in Singleton, which I knew, was her dream home. It may seem materialistic to fixate on a particular place to live but I don’t see it that way. She was somehow touched by its magic and waited patiently. When they eventually moved in, she made it into a place which everyone loved going to, and one which gave her immense contentment for decades.
Other memories are simply funny. She would never kill spiders; she would swoop them up in a voluminous pair of pastel-coloured knickers and chuck them out the window. We’d arrive for Sunday lunch and find her bloomers in the dahlias outside the kitchen or in the roses in the front garden. I am terrified of spiders and whenever I manage to relocate one, I always think of Granny’s knickers!
I’m sad that I didn’t get to spend much time with my grandmother but I also appreciate what an amazing and inspiring woman she was.When people visit me, I want to cook for them. In situations where I don’t know what to do, she is the person I channel. When I think I’ve got my priorities wrong, or world events are affecting how I feel, I bring to mind what my grandmother would say. I imagine her patting my hand, calling me ‘child’ and reminding me of the importance of happiness and love.
International Women’s Day 2017