I went with my Grandad to pick up his things from the Bowls club.
He had his own locker for nearly fifteen years. His name was written on the front - George Broadbent. A sturdy, Yorkshire name, with strong, proud vowel sounds. A name that was passed down to me, now spoken in a chirpy RP accent.
I collected Grandad from the flat, where he would always wait at the end of the drive. Early was on time. He wore his grey suit, his flat cap, and carried his walking stick in his right hand. I drove him in my second-hand Renault Clio, purchased for when I was learning how to drive, used for when I could help out with things, when I wasn’t studying or ice skating or at drama club or drinking Bicardi Breezers in the park with friends I would not keep forever. Essential, unimportant things.
We parked in the small, L-shaped car park at the Bowls Club and I offered to help Grandad out of the car. He always said no: he had hauled himself up into tanks as a young man, he could pull himself up, now, at eighty-four, from the little black Clio.
It was a bright and sunny spring day. Golden patches shone on the grass, the field surrounded by majestic, dark green trees, standing tall, looking down at the man who was bent at his shoulders, moving his walking stick, his granddaughter at his side, twirling her car keys around in her hand.
‘You shouldn’t come out with wet hair!’ said Grandad. ‘You’ll catch your death of cold!’
He would say this to me often. My hair was smothered with mousse, the ritual of a child trying desperately to hide what made her different. I wanted those curls as close to my head as they could be, so no one could call me frizzy. Frizzy hair was the worst thing I could imagine.
Grandad had been one of the first soldiers in to liberate Bergen-Belsen. He could imagine worse things. Although he never talked about it.
A couple of old boys were at the Bowls Club. They were jolly and said hello to me and Grandad. He asked about their wives, children, grandchildren. He introduced me, swollen with pride.
‘This is my granddaughter. She plays the piano!’
I greeted them, as politely as I could, hoping no one would ask me to play the piano. I took it for granted back then – having people who always wanted to listen.
We went to his locker. There was not much in there, but what there was, he took: a pair of gloves, a sunhat, some paper, perhaps for writing scores, perhaps thoughts. I did not ask. I wish I had.
We put the things into a small cardboard box and I carried it. He let me. I am sure I checked my phone, looking for a text message about weekend plans, or from a boy I would forget. I would have been half there, half waiting to get back onto MSN.
We went out the way we had come in.
‘Goodbye, George,’ said one old boy. ‘We hope to see you soon.’
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Take care.’
Grandad was quieter on the way back. I could tell the walk had tired him. It was only twenty metres or so, but that was a lot for him now. To think, the mud he was forced to wade through, for miles and miles, when he was young and his legs were strong. He walked in happier places too: by the seaside with my Grandma; alongside the River Mole on sunny days; upon Box Hill, kicking a football towards us when we were tiny, for us to dash wildly after.
For as long as I had known my Grandparents, I had known them to play bowls. In the colder months, they would play inside at the Leisure Centre. In the summer, it was on the green, in the sun, with their friends, or acquaintances, chatting with this person and that, wearing white sun hats and airy clothes. Grandad moved while he could, as much as he could, until time slowed him down.
When it was suggested that I drive Grandad to Bowls, I don’t think I fully understood what I had been asked to do until much later. And I wonder, how much of my absent-mindedness that day was youthful self-involvement and how much was self-protection. I had seen Grandad grow tired. I had observed his eyesight deteriorate. I helped put little yellow stickers on the buttons on his stereo, so he could see clearly where to press play, when he wanted to listen to his classical music. He would sit in his armchair and sing along gently, ‘lah-de-dah, lah-de-dah!’ I did not want to think too hard about what it meant, to carry the box of Grandad’s things back down the driveway at the Bowls Club. And so I texted. And twirled my keys.
If I could go back to that day, sixteen years ago, perhaps I would ask to stay a little longer. I could chat with the others about their grandchildren, or times they remembered playing bowls with my Grandad. Maybe I would look at more details in the room: what pictures were hung, how many empty tea cups were on the table. Perhaps I would take a picture of Grandad’s name on the locker – George Broadbent – now long gone, covered over with another sticky label. Perhaps I would throw my phone in the river and reach for my Grandad’s hand.
Or perhaps it was enough.
‘It could have been a very sad day for him,’ said Grandma to me, after Grandad had passed away. ‘To go in there, knowing it was his last time. But he enjoyed that day, because you went with him. He was proud to walk in there with you. And proud to walk out.’
Grandad had been brave in his life, running into gunfire, a working-class lad doing as he was told with chin up and no choice. But bravery doesn’t have to be loud and fast. Sometimes it is walking quietly along a path, facing a hard truth, lowering yourself back down into a Clio and thanking your granddaughter for the lift.
It is I who should have thanked him, for the privilege of that day. It is I who should have been proud.
I am 33 now, Grandad. Older and a little wiser. And proud. So very proud to have walked with you.