Love & Death - Short #2
“Did you know you almost never were?”
Grandad is watering the plants in the garden, looking sharp for the job in his pressed shirt and trousers. His pomade-dry hair shines in the rare, late summer sun.
“‘Never were’?” I reply, incredulous as only a 14 year old can be.
“Never were,” he begins, “as in, you almost never even came to be. See, there was the time we were in North Africa holding back the Germans and the Italians, right up by the Suez Canal. They dropped a shrapnel bomb on us - me and my troop. About seven of us.”
“You nearly died?”
“I was the only one who survived. Took a piece of shrapnel right through my upper leg - in one side and right out the other. I still have the scars, here.” He touches his fingers to both sides of his right thigh.
“Whoa,” I respond appropriately.
“They used to clean you up and put maggots on the wounds to eat away the dead flesh. Amazing things - very effective. But you could feel them wriggling.” He sucks a breath in through his teeth. “Itched like the blazes.”
My mouth is hanging open and Grandad seems pleased. He puts the watering can down and takes a seat next to me on the bench.
“That’s not all,” he continues. “I was back in London on leave a few months later. We were in church - St. James’s on Muswell Hill. There were a couple hundred or so people in there, mostly troops, all belting out one hymn after another. My mate next to me, Douglas his name was, suddenly stopped singing. Before long nearly everybody had stopped. See, we could hear it over our heads - a doodlebug.”
“A bomb with an engine. Sounded like an old broke-down car, chug, chug, chugging along. Until the sound stopped. And that’s when you knew. That’s when the bomb started to fall. Most of us had already started running before it hit. I was close enough to the door, I s’pose. Only twelve of us came out alive.”
A couple hours later and Mum is driving us back home. “Did you know those stories about Grandad, Mum? How he nearly died in the war all those times? None of us would be here if he hadn't made it.”
“Yep,” she says with a sigh. “But that's not even the half of it.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, he and Grandma nearly didn’t get married after the war.” She pauses for effect, but I'm just staring, waiting for an explanation. “She loved another man - a friend of your Grandad’s. But he didn’t feel the same way about her. Broke your Grandma’s heart. So your Grandad stepped in and wooed her - but it wasn’t easy. She told him she could never love him the way she loved his friend.”
“So how’d he do it?”
“He told her he had enough love for the both of them.”
Mum smiles and turns back to the road ahead of her. I watch her hands gripping the steering wheel, almond-white knuckles and veins and skin, the impossible products of time and chance, vital and true like shrapnel.