If pushed, Maisie said the TV was crap, the weather was crap, the food was gross and the art gave her nightmares. But Grandad was OK.
That was, if pushed. Usually Maisie’s phone conversations were a series of grunts and monosyllables. Her mother let her express her feelings.
‘O.K., talk to you on Wednesday, Green Monkey,’ Mom said.
‘What’s the matter?’
‘Nothing. Why do you call me Green Monkey?’
Mom paused. ‘I don’t know.’
Maisie hung up. What she had really wanted to ask her mother was why she had sent her here. A month ago, Mom had sprung the trip on her. Mom said that she wanted Maisie to get to know Grandad better. After all, she said, Maisie had lived her whole life half a world away from him.
But Maisie knew the real reason she was here. Mom didn’t want her around, so she had passed her off to Grandad.
Maisie was standing in ‘the sitting room’. She still couldn’t work out what that was supposed to mean. This sitting room, as far as she was concerned, was the living room and the parlour downstairs was like a den and that’s where Grandad did his sitting.
Grey rain slipped down the outside of the window. She thought about home where it was sunny. Her mother was probably wearing flip flops and the patio door would be open to let in the morning air. Maybe Mom was eating a cupcake—which she was big on. Maisie recalled how her mother licked the paper cupcake liner, sure to get every crumb, her tongue circling the corrugated pink paper. Maisie couldn’t bear to watch. Then Mom folded the liner in half so it looked like an orange segment—only pink—and then folded it again and again until it was a slender wedge. Mom always frowned at it then, as if it should have taken another shape. But there it was, like a tent peg. It had gotten so that Maisie had to leave the room before this whole ordeal was over. That was before her mother had stuck her on a plane to London.
It was four in the afternoon in July and it was cold. You could hardly call this a summer vacation. Maisie went to find Grandad. Without a fire, the parlour felt like a dungeon. This underground tomb even had a skull which sat as a centre piece in the middle of a table. Grandad called it Yorick’s skull. And on the wall was the pinched nose and high cheekbones of a turbaned head carved from wood. This was supposed to be art. Grandad was big on art. He’d taken her to the National Gallery, Tate Britain and the Victoria and Albert Museum—all in one week! He seemed to think he had to, so Maisie had been polite.
‘Well, did you speak to your mother?’
‘And how is she?’
‘I’m glad to hear it.’
‘She’s tutoring a kid who thinks he’s the sultan of Brunei. He thinks everyone is there to serve him, Mom says. And he’s not even the lead in the movie.’
‘Well, let’s hope she puts that young man in his place.’
Grandad was gentle company. He had a broad brow and a crest of white hair. He looked distinguished, Maisie thought.
‘Do you wanna play chess?’ she asked him. She had played chess with her own father—her mother often reminded her—when she was a very little girl. That was before Dad had moved to Australia. At home she sometimes played chess alone. At least here she had a good opponent.
‘Are you bored?’ Grandad asked.
‘No. I’m fine.’
‘Why don’t you go out tomorrow? Go to the Tower of London. You need to visit the Tower. I’m not up to all the queuing.’
‘Go on my own, you mean?’
‘Yes. You can do that, can’t you? You know how to get to the underground now.’
‘Wow, I never get to go out on my own at home. Mom’s afraid I’ll get kidnapped or raped or something.’
‘Well, I don’t think . . . You have your mobile phone, don’t you?’
‘Sure. I can call you if I get lost.’
‘Just follow everyone else’ had been Grandad’s advice about exiting the tube station at Tower Hill. Maisie made it to the Tower of London without any help. Trying to get back to Tower Hill, though, she got turned around on the path by the river and wound up among glass buildings and business suits. It was the time of afternoon when everyone was rushing through the streets. It was the time of day when Mom would be making dinner—maybe fettuccine alfredo, Maisie’s favorite. She loved to smell it cooking while she did her homework in her bedroom. Mom would probably be in the kitchen with Rob, who was her boyfriend even if they acted like he wasn’t, talking over ‘all the shit that goes on behind the scenes’.
After standing on a corner for minutes, trying to figure out which way to Tower Hill, Maisie decided she couldn’t avoid talking to a stranger any longer. She chose a lady with purple high heels and asked for directions. These led her to Bank Station, but at least from there she could find her way home.
Every afternoon it happened. She became ravenous. Grandad wasn’t big on food. He liked to keep the fridge free of tidbits and leftovers, so it offered no relief. Maisie opened the cupboards, hoping to find what she knew wasn’t there. Instead, boxes of tea: Earl Grey, chamomile, English Breakfast. Maisie resorted to a dry Weetabix that she gnawed on, standing in the middle of the kitchen.
Grandad didn’t ask about her trip, but she told him. He was sitting in the straight-backed chair in the parlour with his legs stretched out in front of him. While she described the ravens and the jewels, he watched the ceiling twisting in the firelight.
‘Those ravens are pretty boring pets. They should bring the elephant back. I bet the beefeaters would like having it around a lot more than those birds.’
‘The elephant?’ asked Grandad.
‘Yeah. One of the kings had a zoo with an elephant. It must have been like a three-ring circus. People getting their heads chopped off. Elephants wandering around. All those jewels and canons and prisoners. And they even have a playground for the beefeaters’ kids.’
‘Well, I think you’ll find that the Tower’s uses have changed over the centuries. Not all of those activities were happening simultaneously.’ Grandad’s voice was rough from disuse.
‘That’s what the beefeater told us.’
Grandad dragged his feet across the bare boards to sit up straight. Then he pointed out the painting over the mantel. It was of St. Sebastian, the man pierced by seven arrows and dying. Grandad told her the legend. ‘I especially like Sebastian’s expression. It’s as though he embraces his fate; he collapses into it; he almost depends upon it.’
Maisie tried to see what he meant. Then she said, ‘I don’t mind going around by myself, Grandad. Maybe I could do it again.’
‘I suppose you might like visiting Madame Tussaud’s. I haven’t been there in years, but once was enough for me. I think a lot of young people go to Camden Market, too.’
Maisie liked the idea of finding her own way through London, of being trusted to do that. Grandad obviously trusted her more than Mom did. It wasn’t that she felt lonely going out on her own, but maybe she was a little worried about getting lost like she almost did today.
‘Yeah, I’d like to go to Camden Market. Maybe I can get a present for my best friend, Meghan,’ Maisie told Grandad. ‘But I think I’ll stay home tomorrow. I’m kind of tired.’
Grandad nodded in agreement and picked up his book.
When she came down for breakfast the next morning, Maisie found a present on the dining table. Her name was shakily written on a striped paper bag from the newsagent. It contained a calligraphy set, including a bottle of black ink and a practice book. She wanted to thank Grandad so she headed for the parlour.
Getting to the parlour meant braving the staircase with its blind turnings as it spiraled down. Every time she descended the staircase, she feared running smack dab into someone like a burglar or a murderer or worse. She caught her breath. She paused and listened for footsteps coming upward, toward her. Then she took a step.
She found Grandad reading the newspaper. He dropped the newspaper on the floor, leaned forward in his chair with his hands clasped between his corduroyed knees. ‘It will give you something to do when I’m not much company,’ he said about the calligraphy set.
She spread out paper on the dining table. Grandad didn’t mind if she left it there. Mom would have barked at her to clean up her mess before dinner. She wrote out sheets of As, Bs and, her favourite, Zs—capital and lowercase letters. Over the next few days, there were occasions when hours passed without her noticing. She scripted a letter on parchment to Meghan and one to Mom, but she didn’t mail the one to Mom.
Each day she thought she might go to Camden Market tomorrow.
When Mom called, Maisie told her that Grandad was attending a lecture but she’d tell him Mom had called. She mentioned the calligraphy set, but she didn’t tell Mom about the daytrip to the Tower on her own. Mom might put an end to anymore trips. It would be just like Mom to stop the best thing about this summer vacation. So Maisie let Mom believe that Grandad had accompanied her.
‘It sounds like your grandfather is in good health if he has the energy to gallivant around with you,’ Mom said.
‘Sure. For an old man.’
‘Don’t wear him out.’
‘How’s his appetite? Does he eat well?’
‘OK. OK. Well, I hope the weather’s better.’
‘Can I go now?’ Maisie said.
‘Maisie, I know how hard it is getting to know your Grandad. He’s not a man who shares much. I don’t want to weigh down your relationship with my baggage, but . . .
Maisie noticed the hesitation in her mother’s voice. ‘OK, then don’t,’ Maisie said. ‘Grandad’s fine. I’m having the time of my life!’
‘I was just going to say that it seems like you’ve broken through his aloofness.’
‘Maisie, I’m doing this for you.’
‘No, you’re not. I wanted swimming lessons this summer.’
‘You can have swimming lessons next summer. You don’t know how long Grandad will be around.’
‘Don’t be so depressing. Maybe you should come over here and spend time with him.’
Mom hesitated again. ‘I have work.’
‘Yeah, that old excuse.’
‘It’s not an excuse. It’s a necessity. I try to give you more than just your needs, Maisie. That’s why I sent you to Grandad. I hope you have a better relationship with him than I did as a girl.’ Now Mom sounded angry.
The advantage of being long distance was that Maisie could hang up the phone. She didn’t have to continue the conversation. The disadvantage was that she would feel badly and wouldn’t have Mom around to hug for an apology. So she stayed on the phone as Mom ranted on about Grandad’s ‘emotional neglect’ after her mother died. Maisie stopped listening.
The next afternoon, Maisie took the underground to Camden Town. Within a few yards of the station, she’s had two offers of body piercing. As if! And one offer on a tattoo. She looked at the samplings of tattoos that the young woman in a black overcoat held up. Maisie liked the kitten tattoo. It would be really cute on her ankle, like a kitten purring and rubbing itself against her. Knowing Mom, that was probably the closest thing Maisie would ever get to a cat. Pathetic. But, Maisie said ‘no, thank you’ and continued along the sidewalk.
A very short person stopped Maisie dead in her tracks. At first, she thought that she was being approached by a child, but then she saw the worn face and understood it was an old woman, shorter even than Maisie.
The woman pushed a cardboard sign into Maisie’s face. ‘Homeless. Please help,’ it read.
Maisie offered a half smile. She shrugged.
‘I need money for a room tonight,’ the short woman said. ‘Give us a fiver, love.’
Maisie didn’t know what a ‘fiver’ was. ‘I don’t have any.’ And because she felt bad about not helping, Maisie slipped away, moving with the crowd of people walking from the tube to the market. The woman’s squeaky voice stayed in her head: ‘Give us a fiver, love.’ What did it mean?
On a bridge over the lock a young man caught her eye and called out to her. ‘Do you smoke, madam?’
‘Would you like to smoke, madam?’
He hopped on his toes in front of her. He was very pale, except for the skin around his nose ring and a stud in his brow which was irritated red. His eyes were enormous and rimmed pink. ‘You’re very young to have already made up your mind, madam. You should be more open-minded.’
He blocked her way on the sidewalk and her heart began to pound. Other people pushed past them without taking any notice.
‘How old are you?’ he asked. ‘Eight?’
‘Eleven,’ Maisie said in self-defense.
‘Well, by eleven I was smoking. Come here, I want to show you something.’
An opening in the stream of people allowed Maisie to swerve to the right, into a narrow passage of the market. She walked quickly and made a few turns, hoping to shake him, but when she finally stopped to look behind her, she discovered that he wasn’t there and that she didn’t know where she was. Lost, again! Maisie felt like crying.
Now she wouldn’t shop for a present for Meghan. Maisie only wanted to find her way home. She had to ask directions a couple of times to get back to the underground station. She arrived there to find Camden Town station closed for the afternoon. She would have to go to Kentish Town. Maisie was tired of having to think on her feet. She just wanted someone to take her to where she needed to be, to Grandad’s house. But she couldn’t trust a stranger.
When she descended into the parlour, the reflection in the mirror flickered with a fire in the grate. The room was filled with fog. Then Maisie realized it was smoke.
The fire smoked into the room, making everything hazy. Grandad slept in his chair. The only window to open was too high up. Maisie grabbed a fat book lying open on the table next to Grandad. It was so fat that she had to hold it in two hands while she fanned the flames to send the smoke up the chimney.
Grandad started from his chair. ‘Leave it alone.’ He coughed. ‘Put it down.’
With her back to him, she said, ‘I’m trying to get rid of the smoke!’
‘Leave it.’ He was behind her now. His long, dry fingers grabbed her wrist.
Surprised, Maisie dropped the book into ashes. He held onto her. His hand made her think of a rusted gate, stiff, unyielding. She felt frightened. His deep-set eyes didn’t seem to recognize her. His grip tightened.
‘It’s me. Maisie.’ She twisted her arm to get away.
‘Well, pick up the book.’ He let go of her wrist and used the poker to break up what was left of the fire.
Maisie started to cry. She hated this stuffy tomb. She wanted to go home to Mom who smelled like cherry Jell-o, sweet with a twist of sourness.
Grandad clumped up the stairs. ‘I’ll open some windows.’
It wasn’t her fault that the fire had smoked. It wasn’t her fault she couldn’t open the window in the parlour. She had only tried to save his life. He could have thanked her for that. Who cared about that stupid book. Wasn’t saving him more important than Shakespeare or whatever? It wasn’t her decision to come here in the first place. It was Mom’s and Maisie would never forgive her. Never!
When he returned, he said, ‘I don’t think you need to tell your mother about this. She’ll worry. You’re all right, aren’t you?’
Maisie wiped her face with her sleeve. She nodded and marched up to her bedroom.
She didn’t flop on the bed or sit down to cry. Maisie wandered around the small room with the etchings of the sleeping and the dead on the walls. She’d brought with her posters of Harry Potter. She’d hoped Grandad would let her decorate her room with them, but then she’d seen these nightmarish pictures and had guessed his answer. This had been Mom’s room when she was a girl. Had she slept with these things on the walls? That would explain a lot.
Maisie pulled out her suitcase. She was ready to pack. She was leaving. She knew how to get to the underground. She could find Heathrow. Some nice stewardess would pity her and put her on a plane home. At home she wouldn’t have to wonder around the streets on her own like she did in London. Mom would drive her.
Opening the suitcase, she discovered all the things she hadn’t unpacked: the lucky seagull feather she’d found on the beach, the diary Mom had given her to record her ‘big adventure’. Maisie found her box of Polly Pockets that she’d brought with her. What had she been thinking? That she would just play on her own? That she’d meet another girl her age who would play with her? That Grandad would? Maisie sat on the floor with the box and began taking out each pair of tiny shoes. She matched them up and arrayed them like the colours of the rainbow.
When she looked up, Grandad was standing in the doorway. ‘Why don’t we go out to dinner? You haven’t eaten much these past few nights.’
Maisie didn’t think he’d noticed that she couldn’t choke down the slimy beans on toast or the soggy shepherd’s pie from the freezer.
‘Where will we go?’ she asked.
‘There’s a restaurant around the corner.’
‘The Chinese place.’
‘Maybe that’s it.’
The evening was clear. Everyone was standing outside the pub with drinks. It looked like a party. This almost felt like summer.
Grandad shook his head over the menu. ‘I don’t know about any of this.’
‘Let’s have the duck, the squid and the broccoli.’
‘Can we eat all of that?’
‘Probably. If we can’t, we can ask for a doggy bag.’
After Maisie had given the order to the waitress, she told Grandad about the only pets she’d ever had. ‘Once Mom bought me two hamsters. She thought they would be a good lesson in the facts of life. They were both girls. Mom talked to the vet about artificial insemination, but he didn’t think it was practical. Mom hung up the phone and asked me, ‘What’s practical about fucking?’ I said I didn’t know.’
Grandad stared at her. ‘I’ve never heard your mother use language like that.’
‘Well, she does. A lot.’
He growled. ‘You don’t need to repeat it.’
‘You don’t know Mom very well.’
‘Well, she was a difficult young lady, your mother. I ignored her adolescent stage, but she never grew out of it.’
Maisie identified each of the dishes for Grandad and then they ate in silence.
The fortune cookies arrived on a black plastic tray. Grandad didn’t touch his. Maisie snapped her cookie open and ate it before she read what the white slip of paper had to say about her future. ‘Optimism and tact will save the day.’ It was a stupid fortune. ‘Someone at the fortune cookie factory ran out of ideas,’ she said.
‘You remind me of the Green Monkey,’ Grandad said.
‘Mom calls me Green Monkey.’
‘Does she? I’m thinking of a painting by George Stubbs. If I show it to you, you’ll see what I mean.’
‘Why do I remind you of the Green Monkey though?’
‘Well, you are a busy, chattering little soul. And, you’ve been caught in the act.’
Grandad’s laugh sounded more like a cough. ‘Well, if you are like your mother it will be a suspicious one.’
‘She is pretty sneaky. She got my plane ticket to London before she even asked me about it.’
‘You didn’t want to come?’
‘Nothing against you, Grandad, but I wanted to hang out with Meghan and go to the pool.’
He nodded. ‘I suppose your mother tries to do the right thing. When she was a girl, we didn’t talk like you and I do.’ He unwrapped a toothpick and, with a bent head, removed the Chinese from between his teeth.
‘I know. She’s either interrogating me like a policeman or nagging at me. She can be like Jekyll and Hyde. One minute she’s interrogating and then she’s nagging.’
‘I tried to avoid being an unpleasant parent. It’s better not to say anything than to nag a child,’ said Grandad.
‘Yeah, well, I wish Mom had followed your example,’ Maisie said. ‘But I’m not like Mom so what act did you catch me in?’
He broke the toothpick in two and set it aside. ‘Maybe it’s the act of growing up.’
For the first time in days, Maisie felt satisfied by her meal. She would crack open the diary Mom had sent with her, use her calligraphy set and, in her best hand, write what? Today I woke up and decided to go to Camden Market. Ho hum. Grandad motioned for the bill.
Or record a moment that she’d recalled today. Once my dad said to me that Mom didn’t need a man because she took care of herself. He sounded angry. That was just before he moved. I wonder what Rob thinks. Mom takes care of me and herself.
The window looked onto a square of grass that gleamed in the evening sun. That was one of the things Maisie liked about London, the long days that defied night-time. Sometimes she even fell asleep before dark. In her diary, she could list what she liked about the city: 1. I can be independent 2. there are 2p coins which are silly 3. long days.
Next summer Mom should visit Grandad with her. He would like Mom’s cooking. He was a skinny old man and needed feeding up. How long had it been since Maisie had seen her own dad? Like Mom and Grandad, years passed without a face to face. Funny how families were similar like that. Maisie might record her observations.
Grandad stood and wrapped a woolly scarf around his neck with his long, dry fingers that were unhurried by the waitress who stood frowning at his elbow.
Thinking about her father, Maisie often whispered ‘Why did you leave me?’ When he visited from Australia, she got to stay in his hotel overnight—maybe she could write about it in her diary. How he’d assure her he wasn’t trying to get away from her. But, it felt like that, especially now that he had a new son. Maybe Grandad felt the same way about Mom living in the States.
One day Maisie might have to send her own daughter to Australia to meet her Grandad. She would put her on the plane with the advice: don’t expect much, but it’s all you’ll get.
‘Tomorrow I’ll take you to the British Library to see the Medieval manuscripts. Maybe you’ll pick up some tips for your calligraphy.’
‘Great, Grandad.’ She could already feel the jaw-stretching yawns brought on by another museum.
Originally from California, Kimbalena calls London home. She completed a master’s in creative writing at Birkbeck. After teaching literature and writing for years, she has recently dedicated her time to practicing what she preaches. Her first novel, No Life to Breathe, the story of Hamlet’s mother, is currently seeking a receptive publisher. Forthcoming in Bandit Fiction is another of Kim’s short stories.
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