An Evening with my Grandfather

Part – 1

I stand, as all young boys should, next to my grandfather as he sits at his hand-crafted Chinese writing desk. Scrolls of fire breathing dragons are intricately carved on each pedestal, and wild animals hide amongst exotic flowers around its edges. Its secret drawer remains just that, while its surface of scratched glass reflects his polished rosewood pen case. It smells of ink and pencil shavings. The HMSO glass ink well, with embossed brass cap issued to his father as a badge of his position, is now empty of its charge and stands guard over the case. It is a reminder of times past.

The irregular shaped panes of Victorian glass, held in place by beads of white powdered lead, allow only small shafts of evening light through the lounge bay window. They hit the desk and are, at first swallowed, and then magically reflected by the ink well’s thick glass into miniature rainbows that produce a kaleidoscope of colour on the wattle and horsehair plaster ceiling. In my lifetime, the desk has always been there, looking out over the neat rose garden surrounded by ranks of ancient oak trees. They shelter his humble green and cream cottage, which is, and will always be, my castle in the enchanted forest.

Grandfather smells of old tobacco and shaving soap. It is familiar and comforting, just like the sight of his cotton checked shirt, green woollen tie and cavalry twill trousers, with a centre crease that you could cut your finger on. I know without looking that the insteps of his brown leather brogue shoes are polished, in true military fashion, just as brightly as their leather uppers.

We are about to embark on an evening ritual, observed on the first night of each of my Easter holiday visits, and, as I peer up, with wide eyes, at his lined and craggy face, he smiles. I smile back in anticipation at the adventure that is about to start.

With due ceremony, the bottom desk drawer is opened, and he pulls out the dog-eared leather-bound album that holds the secrets of his youth. He has left a marker on the page that we last visited. As he carefully opens it with his right hand, I notice yet again the tightly curled little finger that, according to previous stories, was damaged by a faulty Vickers machine gun. Of course, I find out later that it wasn’t that, but then, I think that I prefer to believe the story.

With pages turned by his hands only, we recap on his childhood progress. We skim through Jamaica and  Hong Kong, where his father supervised the rebuilding of His Majesty’s shipyards to handle Kraken monsters of iron and steel rather than those of wood and sail. There are pictures showing Hong Kong harbour before and after a typhoon, with Chinese junks turned to matchwood and a tramp steamer sitting in the high street. He tells me that the house they lived in had typhoon-proof walls over four feet thick, which survived both cannon and musket ball attacks. Boyhood images of pirates and damsels in distress flash through my mind as we move on hurridly to reach our next port of call. Simonstown, South Africa.

I can see his eyes becoming shiny as the pictures become more formal. Then, finally, he stops at one showing the front of a large stone-built house festooned with a cascade of wooden verandas and surrounded by a vast garden of flower beds and ornamental trees. He informs me that the Admiralty supplied it as a suitable home for his father because it overlooked the harbour and allowed him to keep a constant watch over his place of work.

The walls were and, as I discover much later, still are solid blocks of natural stone. Honed and shaped from the surrounding forested canyons and ravines, which were his boyhood hunting ground. There are three imposing white stone entrance arches, with a fourth hidden by trees. They lead into a covered terrace, where afternoon tea is taken by the ladies of leisure who discuss the latest news from London. The stepped levels above have open tropical hardwood verandas, with arches fashioned in an oriental style. Each arch is fitted with a slatted wooden roller blind, independently operated by a drawstring, fastened in true naval fashion, to a secure brass hook on the veranda’s ballast rail. If this was insufficient to keep the first and second-floor visitors cool, large wooden fans set at regular intervals under the veranda ceilings are in place. Each of them operated by hand, but, of course, not their hands.

My grandfather points to one of the first-floor arches on the left of the picture and tells me that the handsome young man leaning over the bannister is him at the grand age of thirteen. He is dressed in a white shirt and school tie and is sporting a neat pair of fashionable white calf-length shorts. His straight hair is combed to perfection, with a parting on the left. I peer closer and then point at the picture. His foot is protruding through the bottom of the veranda railings. It is naked. Grandfather chuckles conspiratorially and says that he hated to wear shoes, and nobody seemed to notice anyway. I am proud of my grandfather’s rebellious nature.

Standing next to him, but much shorter, is his younger brother, aged nine, dressed similarly but has not yet progressed from the obligatory embarrassment of wearing dark school shorts. I cannot see if he has the same aversion to shoes. They both exhibit an air of relaxed familiarity with their surrounding that is bordering on the nonchalant.  

Two more figures are framed in the arch next to them. One is a mature woman, in a white cotton dress, with three quarter length sleeves, an embroidered bodice and a high-necked collar.  Her fashionably narrow waist is nipped in with a dark leather belt, fastened by a simple silver buckle. Her light-coloured hair is set in conventional tight curls, while her face is just beginning to show the effects of the tropical sun. One of her hands, enclosed in a fine lace glove, is delicately placed on the rail in front of her as if playing the piano. The other hand hangs out of sight, in the shadows. 

To her left, and leaning, over casually, against a veranda post, is a man with receding hair but still sporting an absurdly sizeable bushy moustache. There is a serious look on his face that seems almost incongruent with the informality of the location. It hints at being more at home in a supervisory environment.  He is dressed in a white shirt with a tie and wears a dark linen suit that sports a five-button jacket. Despite the obvious heat, each button is done up. There is a white handkerchief displayed formally in the top pocket. 

My grandfather refers to them as mater and pater.

The portrayed informality of the photograph is betrayed because they are all looking down in the same direction, to a spot in the lower left of the picture, where there is a gap in the flower beds. It seems it was the gardener who was cajoled into taking the photograph. Apparently, it took nearly half an hour to agree to the camera’s position. According to my grandfather, it then required another half an hour for the housemaids to remove all the Cape fire ants from a distraught photographer after he fell into one of their nests while trying to get a better shot.   

There was no second picture.

Part 2 – click here.

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