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My grandfather is creepy. He's kind of ugly, with patches of white stubble on his cheeks and a giant scar from the bridge of his nose to the edge of his lips; but you can't help getting drawn in by his hollow blue eyes.
When I was a child I barely knew him. My mother - his daughter -never spoke of him. I remember asking her about him once and she got so angry she hit me. Ever since then he loomed in my imagination as a bogeyman.
As an adult, I only ever saw him at funerals. He was always the shady figure in the back row. I never saw him speak to anyone - people seemed to naturally avoid him.
So the phone call from King's College Hospital came as a huge surprise.
"May I speak with John Berringer?"
"Your grandfather, Blake Grayson, has had a stroke. He's in the emer-"
"Is your grandfather Mr Blake Grayson?"
I had to think about it. I don't think I had ever heard his name said aloud. "Y-yes," I stuttered. "How did you get my number?"
"You're listed as his next of kin, sir."
I got the address and caught the bus. I pulled out a map to make sure I didn't miss my stop - or maybe so I didn't have to think about seeing Blake.
When I got there his condition was stable. He lay in bed with his scary blue eyes rolling back in his head. He looked older and paler than I remembered.
As I stood there I realised that I didn't know what to call him. It sounded awkward to call him grandfather, and worse to call him Mr Grayson.
He greeted me with a gravelly: "Who the fuck are you?"
My jaw oscillated a couple of times before he started laughing. His laughter sounded like a smoker's cough.
"Go home, John," he growled, "I'm conscious now. I'm gonna be fine."
"You had a stroke."
"State the fucking obvious." He looked up at the drip and flicked the tube that went into his left arm. "They don't make this stuff like they used to."
I tried to stay cool. "They're going to keep you here at least a few days. How will you get home?"
"They can fucking drive me home. I didn't ask them to drive me here, so they can fucking take me back."
As he talked his ragged face looked twisted. I wondered if the stroke had paralysed him.
"I'll drive you back," I asserted. "I can borrow Mum's car."
"Fuck you. Leave me alone. Go home."
I drew a deep breath and clenched my jaw. "Look, gramps, I don't know what the fight is between you and my mother, but I've never had a beef with you. You can't intimidate me just by being so damn ugly, so give it up. Swallow your pride, if you can still swallow, and I'll be back when you're ready for me to take you home."
I turned to leave.
"John," he barked. I looked back at him. His empty eyes searched me. He seemed to tense up as I stared at him. "If you ever call me gramps again I'll kill you."
He was discharged three days later with a pocketful of pills. He walked with a limp - I wasn't sure whether or not the limp had been there before.
"Where am I taking you?" I asked.
"We're stopping off at the allotment." he ordered.
"You're in no state to be gardening."
"I'm not fucking gardening, I need to pick something up from the shed."
"You could -"
"To Brixton, cabbie."
We drove there in silence. It was a grey day, and Brixton looked dilapidated as usual. There were flowers by the road on Rush Common where someone had been killed, by a gun or a car or an overdose or something.
When we got close, Blake barked directions. The allotments were between the broken old windmill and Brixton Prison.
"Stay in the car," he ordered, and opened the car door to leave; but his strength failed him and he couldn't get out. I got out and walked around to help him.
"Don't you fucking dare," he spat. "The day I need help to get out of a fucking car is the day I'll shoot myself in the head."
The fool deserved to struggle. I turned away and looked up at the ancient windmill. Without sails, it looked like a skeleton.
I heard a low groan and realised that Blake had made it out of the car. He headed towards the allotments entrance with a set of keys, and disappeared inside.
I walked up to the high fence and tested the door - he had left it unlocked. I pushed the damp wood open and crept into the lonely compost-smelling gardens.
I ducked behind the strands of a wilting willow tree to spy on Blake. Most of the allotments were fairly well kept, with scruffy patches of beans and curly kale, or neat rows of root vegetables. But Blake's plot was overgrown and neglected. I couldn't even tell what he had been growing; I could only see a mess of weeds.
I watched him unlock his shed. He looked over both shoulders before slipping inside. I shrank back against the wet bark of the willow tree and shivered.
"Do you know him?"
The question startled me. I wheeled around to see a serious-looking middle-aged man leaning on his pitchfork in the plot behind me. I tried to control my expression as the burst of adrenalin boiled away. He didn't return my smokescreen smile.
"Are you a relative of his?" asked the man, with his forehead creased in disapproval.
"He's my grandfather," I admitted.
"He's a nuisance," scolded the man. "He's always rude to us, and he never does any proper gardening. He comes here in the middle of the night, I saw him once. He's just using his plot as storage, and I swear he's up to something. It's not right."
I opened my mouth to speak, but the man raised his voice and continued: "If he doesn't tidy up his plot we'll kick him out." I realised that Blake was walking back and that last comment was more for him than me.
"Fuck off, Hennessy," shouted Blake. "I've had this plot since 1957. I pay my rent, so I can do what I want with it. I can open a fucking zoo."
The man's face flushed. "You're a cancer, Blake, and I cannot wait for you to die. If you came to any meetings you'd know the Association passed a resolution that says we can kick you out if you don't tidy up your plot."
"You can't kick me -"
"We'll change the locks and -"
"I'll help," I offered. Blake and Hennessy stopped in mid-sentence and focussed their glowering attention on me. I must have looked a little surprised - I don't know why I offered to help. I think part of me was curious about my grandfather.
Hennessy spoke first. "No use you helping, he's -"
"Ha!" interrupted Blake. "You don't want him to help because if I tidy up my fucking plot you can't kick me out after all!" Blake started hobbling towards the gate. "Fuck you, Hennessy! Fuck you!"
Hennessy shot me a smouldering glare; I could feel it festering on my back as I followed Blake out.
The sun was crisp and low. I could see my breath. Blake sat on a fold-out chair in front of the shed, puffing on a cigarette, watching me on my knees pulling weeds. He wore a tatty old shirt with a vest underneath - how he wasn't freezing to death I'll never know.
I had been thinking all morning of what to say to him. I couldn't think of any common ground between us. Except for one thing, which I burned to ask, but didn't dare.
I dug the trowel in and twisted it. My knees hurt and my hands were sweating in the leathery gloves.
Eventually, he spoke. "They should hang 'em all," he said, waving his cigarette towards the prison and spitting into the dirt.
With the silence broken, I couldn't hold back any longer. "Why does my mother hate you so much?"
The question hung in the air. I focussed downwards, filling my vision with soil, imagining his washed out blue eyes. Enough time passed that I was sure he was going to let the silence punish me for the rest of the day.
So I felt disarmed when his voice cracked into a question: "You really don't know?"
I shook my head, concentrating on the soil. I can't remember if I continued weeding or if I froze. Certainly, many minutes passed before his voice returned. I might have been imagining it, but it seemed softer than before.
"She blames me for her brother going away," he said.
"Her brother? I have an uncle?"
"A no-good drug-dealer of an uncle who deserved every piece of my disrespect. Not my problem if he couldn't hack it."
"What happened to him?" I asked, turning to face those tiny eyes, that giant scar.
Blake slowly raised his head, exposing his wrinkled neck. He flicked a finger across his throat.
He studied my face for a response; but I didn't know what to say. A thousand questions whirled through my head, but none of them formulated into words. I settled for a harmless prompt.
"Nineteen seventy-seven," Blake said, looking up now into the middle distance, leaning back in his fold-out chair and scratching his nose. "I was in my prime then, clearing out all the dealers in Brixton."
"Were you a cop?"
Blake threw his head back. "Ha! No. Although... although I did spend many years in the prison." He cocked his head towards the endless prison wall and stroked his stubbled jaw. "I sniffed a lot of them out in there. And when they came out, bam!" He hit his fist into his palm.
"What?" I asked, confused.
"What do you think?" he challenged. He stared at me with wild eyes and a mouth that stretched grotesquely back into his creased cheeks. I must have looked horrified, my jaw wide open.
He burst into mocking laughter. I half-laughed as well, teetering between relief and discomfort. His laughter transformed into a hacking cough.
He spat and clutched his shoulder. He seemed to shrink. He looked at me, but somehow past me.
"Have you ever seen a dead body?" he asked.
Of course I had, I thought, but before I said it I stopped myself. I had seen dead bodies on TV, in newspapers; I had seen ancient bones, and actors playing dead. But never a real meat-and-bones human corpse.
"It's different, you know," mused Blake. "We spend all our lives trying to be something, something more than just a flesh-and-blood machine. But it's flesh and blood that wins. More and more as you get older - until, in death, you're nothing but. A dead person ain't a person anymore. It's a cold lump of limestone."
I looked at him, trying to understand. Then I turned back to the soil and wrenched out another weed. We didn't exchange another word that day.
Soon, the light was failing, so I gave Blake the tools to lock away in the shed. He limped worse than before. I drove him home, both of us staring straight ahead for the ride. I felt glad to see the back of him.
A week passed without me thinking of him, save for an ominous itch at the back of my brain. But I had promised to help him tidy up his allotment, and it was far from done. I told myself that I shouldn't let him scare me with his bullshit creepy stories. He was a contrary man, but that was no excuse not to help him.
And yet I didn't call him.
So I had an empty feeling in the pit of my stomach when King's College Hospital called again.
"I'm sorry to inform you that your grandfather, Blake Grayson, is dead."
"Dead," I repeated.
"He wasn't taking his medication. We found all the pills in his jacket, unopened. He had another stroke. Would you like to come in and see him?"
I shivered. A cold lump of limestone. "No thank you. I'll make the arrangements."
I told my mother that he had died. She made a dismissive kind of spitting sound and that was that. I couldn't think of anyone else to tell.
I was the only guest at the perfunctory funeral. I left before the end; it didn't feel right.
My solicitor called me to go through the will. Blake had left everything to me. It wasn't much. His house had been remortgaged and I couldn't afford to keep it, so I instructed the solicitor to sell it.
I resented going to his tomb of a home and sifting through his old stuff. There were years - decades - of TV guides, final demand bills, tabloids with half-completed crosswords... Nothing of value. In the end I threw it all away.
There was only one thing I kept. The right to rent his allotment in Windmill Gardens. I was unsettled to discover that he had been renting it under a false name; I wondered what else he had lied about.
That weekend, despite the rain, I went there. I stood in that overgrown patch, alone, cowering between the twin edifices of the windmill and the prison. My soaking clothes were sticking to my skin.
I walked up to the shed, the shed that he had never let me enter. My heart beat in my mouth; a ball of adrenalin and regret filled my stomach. I lifted up the giant padlock, for which I didn't have the key, and felt the cold, rough metal on my hands.
I howled and kicked the door, once, twice, and then collapsed inside the shed in a flurry of splintered wood. I stayed on the floor for a moment, breathing in the swollen wood smell.
I clambered to my feet. The water on my face and hands seemed to attract the ancient dust like static. I felt dirty, primal.
I swiped my hand across a shelf, spilling paint pots and tools and a thousand nails of different sizes. I screamed again and kicked a bag, spreading quicklime dust into the air, into my nose. I grabbed a shovel and broke the windows.
My frenzy was too much for the old wooden floor, and two loose floorboards gave way. I kicked out and broke several more. I coughed and wiped my bleeding hand across my nose. My chin quivered as I looked at the floor. In my heart, I already knew.
I threw aside the broken floorboards, exposing the clotted soil underneath. I stabbed in the shovel and started digging. Two metres by one, like a grave.
I didn't stop when I found the first body; the dirty, sticky bones.
I kept digging.
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