The Harp

An evening with my grandfather – part 2

As my grandfather turns the last page of the album, the spell is broken. I am instantly transported back from the wild days of colonial South Africa to his desk that sits in the bay window of his Victorian cottage. Today’s adventure is over and, as if she had been standing in the wings waiting for this moment, my grandmother announces from the lounge doorway that tea is ready.  This is not tea as I know it; it is high tea. A mysterious event that only takes place in my grandfather’s home and is a prelude to an even more mysterious adventure which he calls supper. Something that only grown-ups are privileged to experience. As he rises slowly from his seat, he bends down and slips the photo album back into the desk drawer. To my relief, I see that the next leather-bound volume is still there, waiting for the story to continue.

Taking me by the hand, we walk towards the small dining room that sits, almost as an afterthought between the lounge and the kitchen. My grandmother, who I later find out is not my real grandmother, but somebody my mother calls the other woman has laid out two places on the large dark oak table. They are for my grandfather and me—just the two of us. My grandmother is sporting a pure white apron that looks out of place as it sits over her calf-length brown woollen skirt and pale green cashmere jumper with a matching cardigan. The only thing missing from her usual daytime ensemble, as a concession to the work being done in the kitchen, is her genuine pearl necklace. It’s an heirloom from my great grandmother and a source of much family debate.  She is shorter than my grandfather, with a trim body and dark hair tied up in a neat bun, perched at the back of her head. It held in place with invisible clips. She has a schoolmistress air about her that is offset by a constant smile and a glint in her eye that my grandfather obviously found compelling.

Before I pull out one of the heavy wheel-back wooden chairs, I remember the words of caution given by my mother. “Your grandfather is a very fastidious man. Make sure you wash your hands before you eat. He will check them.” I turn and walk to the small cold bathroom that sits next to the kitchen. Running in my grandfather’s cottage is an outlawed activity. Having completed the ritual washing of hands with as much flourish as possible, I walk back, proudly holding them in front of me as evidence of my achievement. My grandmother is standing on the red flagstone kitchen floor, monitoring the egg timer that sits next to the saucepan of boiling water. It holds three brown eggs, one for me and two for my grandfather. The gas cooker is a three-ring affair with a small latched oven and sits on four raised metal legs, next to the gas fridge. A contraption that mystifies me for the rest of my life.  On one of the other gas rings, an asbestos mat supports an earthenware bowl covered with a muslin cloth. It is filled with local rich dairy milk, and my grandmother informs me that it will have transformed into clotted cream by morning. It’s pure magic. 

Having solemnly shown my grandfather both sides of my hands and obtained his silent approval, we set about High Tea. The tightly rolled linen napkins are extracted from their monogrammed silver holders and carefully place on our laps. We then boyishly tuck into a spread of lightly boiled eggs, homemade brown bread, deep yellow butter and strawberry jam. There is cold milk for me and hot Orange Pekoe tea for my grandfather, without milk. I watch and then copy my grandfather’s unique technique for decapitating the egg with one swift stroke of the butter knife. My valiant attempt is not successful, and the rich yellow yoke descends rapidly over my egg cup, but we do not care.

At the end of the feast, grandfather announces that it is time to light the lamps. This exciting game involves helping him light a long thin wooden taper from the kitchen stove and then walk around the house and light the gas lamps. I say help, but since my rather clumsy attempt last time, when I accidentally touched one of the gas mantles and watched it disintegrate into a pile of white ash, it is more of a watching event.

While this is being completed, the lounge fire has been expertly lit by my grandmother, and it is roaring away in the open stone hearth. It not only radiates a blanket of warmth but fills the room with an intoxicating aroma of heated wood oils. The scent varies with the seasons and the type of tree, but it is always deep, rich and comforting.

The night is with us, and the heavy drapes that hang from the oversized wooden rings have been pulled across the bay window, shutting out the dark. The light from the gas lamps is yellow and dances along the walls casting deep shadows in the corners, and for a moment, my mind focuses on bedtime. I know from previous visits that my bedroom sits to one side of a very steep staircase, and its wooden floors creak, even when I am not walking on them. The small leaded light windows never close correctly, and I am convinced that the cold draught that constantly seeps in is a prelude to the admittance of the night demons. This is not helped by the fact that grandfather’s copy of Dracula is on the small bookshelf that sits near my bed. It is like a candle to a moth.  I know that I will not be able to resist the compulsive urge to look again at its grotesque black and white images. Nightmares loom.

My sudden nervousness and apprehension must be evident to all and is reflected by the fact that I become very quiet. A most unusual event for a seven-year-old boy. Although my grandfather never says anything so obvious as – “are you OK?” – he instinctively knows that I will have thoughts of home as night approaches. He announces in his best cheery voice. “I think it’s time for cards.”

My mood changes instantly as my grandmother lifts the pack of playing cards out of their small wooden box together with an extensive collection of broken matchsticks. Blackjack, or Twenty-One as my grandfather calls it, is one of the last rituals of the night. The game lasts for a rip-roaring thirty minutes, and all thoughts of ghosts and Dracula are swept from my mind. I am far too excited to go to bed. After a crafty wink from my grandfather, my grandmother gathers up the evidence of our night of gambling. She then disappears into the dining room, reappearing moments later with a large butler’s tray laid out with two glasses and two bone china tea plates.

One of the glasses is a heavy cut-glass tumbler filled with two generous fingers of golden malt whiskey. I know that it has been poured from one of the matching decanters in a thing called a tantalise that belonged to his father. It is another object in the cottage of mystery that I am forbidden to touch. The other glass is shaped like a small vase and, according to my grandmother, is called a schooner. It is filled with nothing stronger than a shot of guava juice. Its exotic pale purple colour and its method of presentation compensate for the fact that it is not exactly like my grandfathers. The plates each have two biscuits placed carefully in the centre. His are plain Batholomew’s surmounted by a generous helping of blue cheese. My two are cream cheese crackers with a tangy taste of salt.

As we sit back and unceremoniously lick our fingers and enjoy the embers of the dying fire, my grandmother walks over to the far corner of the room. Without saying a word starts to play her harp. It is a professional orchestral instrument. On my first visit to the cottage, I was given a very stern warning by everyone never to touch it, which, of course, meant that I would give one of the strings a twang on every possible secret occasion. Its wooden soundboards are inlaid with gold filigree, and its combined metal and catgut strings are pulled steel-rod taught within a framework of ebony wood. Pedals in the base balance the sound so that its tone and resonance fill the room with a vibrance that you can hear and feel. It seems that my grandmother is a woman of many talents. Later in life, I find copies of news articles from the 1930s that mention her playing in the London Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Sir Thomas Beecham. 

By now, both of our glasses are empty, with only crumbs on the discarded plates. My grandfather sits back and closes his eyes and lets the music engulf him, and in awe of his presence, I do the same. Immediately my eyes shut I am enveloped in a magical land with trickling waterfalls and a forest of gently swaying trees. The sounds gradually fade, and only silence remains. 

When I wake up, I am in my bed, the sun and not the wind is pouring through the small panes of glass, and the birds are singing a dawn chorus that is louder than anything I have ever heard before. In the distance, church bells are ringing.

It is Sunday, and I am hungry not only for breakfast but also for my next adventure. The Easter Egg hunt.

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