I was ten years old when Grandma died. She’d been ill for a long time. All my memories of her were tainted by her illness. I think I probably remember her as an illness more than a person. When you’re young, things like illness and disease are hard to process. Death, by comparison, was quite straightforward to me.
Mum had been upset, obviously, and Dad said that Grandma was better off now, and that it was a relief for everyone, but he never said things like that when mum was around, only to me. He always spoke differently to me when we were alone, like I was an adult, or at least older than I was. He was right though, it was a relief. Mum didn’t have to go to the home every day, and she wasn’t worried sick about Grandma’s health anymore, and it seemed she was lighter somehow, especially after the funeral.
They didn’t take me or Sammy to the the funeral because they said we were too young, and Barbara came round from next door and looked after us. She’d promised us a late night staying up watching TV, but mum and dad returned at 8 and Barb went back home with twenty quid and a half drunk bottle of wine. Dad said we could stay up til 9, he said it would be good for Mum.
Dad went straight to the lounge, it’s yellowy, corner uplights reflecting off the drinks cabinet, which was a tall, dark, glass fronted monstrosity from the 1970s, filled with cut glass tumblers and sharp looking wine glasses. The top shelf, well out of reach from curious young fingers, was filled with mysterious potions labelled “highland cream” and “rum liqueur.”
He liked this expensive malt whiskey that smelt like TCP, and he poured both himself and Mum one, but she just wanted a cup of tea. She looked like she’d walked through a doorway into a familiar room which was somehow now alien to her. She was in the kitchen and seemed a bit dizzy, doing odd things like opening the cupboards to count the cups, and checking the flour was still in date, and making sure the spoons were still in the spoon section in the cutlery drawer.
Dad drank both the drinks and poured himself another one, and told us not to worry about mum, and that it was time for bed anyway, so I took Sammy and we said goodnight and went upstairs. The walls in that old house were so thin, they may as well have been paper. As we climbed the stairs we heard mum sobbing and Dad’s deep slurring voice, calming her as it often calmed us after we’d had a nightmare or a bump on the head. When we reached the landing, Sammy, she was six at the time, grabbed my hand and pointed up at the picture at the top of the stairs. The hallway light flickered quickly for a moment. The picture was a watercolour of Towan Beach in Cornwall, where we’d all spent many summer holidays with Grandma and Grandad. The flickering wasn’t down to a faulty bulb.
“Look, Mike, a butterfly!” whispered Sammy. And sure enough, sitting on top of the frame was a small orange butterfly, with black and white stripes on its wings.
Sammy said it looked like a tiger. She tried to get closer to it but she was too small, and asked me to pick her up for a better look. She was so excited, her voice got louder and she began to squeal. The butterfly quickly flittered away, and landed behind us on the banister.
“Quick Mike, lets go!” Squealed Sammy, and we switched position over to the rail, but those striped wings flicked the light again and we lost sight of the little tiger for a moment.
“Wheresit gone?” Cried Sammy, and we looked around with an elevating panic. It had flown back onto the picture frame, and we jolted round again with whispering shouts of “there it is… wow…look at it…”
Then we heard the kitchen door open. Dad gruffly shouted, “What’s going on up there? I thought I told you to go to sleep.”
“A butterfly daddy,” said Sammy. “Come quick it’s a butterfly”
“It’s not a butterfly, Sammy,” he said. “It’s January. It’s too cold for butterflies.”
But I retorted immediately: “Dad, it is a butterfly, it really is, come and see.”
We heard Mum mutter something and dad sighing “they think they’ve seen a butterfly,” and a brief pause followed by “Yeah, that’s what I said.”
“Let’s see what all the fuss is about then.” he said, clunking his glass down on the Formica. I heard him mumble, “Probably just a moth”.
Sammy was so happy, “look Daddy here look a butterfly”
Dad walked halfway up the stairs and followed Sammy’s pointing finger with his eye and then looked at me and raised his left eyebrow. We were right.
“Bloody hell! It’s a red admiral!” He exclaimed, like it was a present he’d almost given up hoping for. “Where did that come from?” And then he called to Mum, “Jackie, come and have a look at this, the kids have found a red admiral!”
Possibly frightened by all the commotion, the bug flitted around the landing, from banister to wall, picture to picture, eventually settling on an ornament of a sheepdog which sat on the narrow shelf above the stairs. Sammy was squealing like a delighted mongoose. Dad told us both to calm down, and said that we should feed it something.
“Now, What do they like to eat?” He asked us, but we didn’t know. I offered nectar as an answer and Dad gave me an impressed look, but then he asked Sammy if she remembered the zoo from last summer, and the butterfly house, and the big blue butterfly that was sitting on a piece of fruit. Sammy said yes, she did remember, it had been hot and sticky in the butterfly house and the big blue butterfly was sitting on a banana, and the banana was black and yucky, but the butterfly didn’t care.
Dad asked Mum to bring some pieces of banana, but she said she didn’t want bits of fruit lying around the house that might attract mice. Well, this made Sammy squeal even more, because she wanted a mouse, and she started crawling around the landing making squeaky mouse noises.
Dad quickly picked her up and squeezed her quiet.
“Shhhh, don’t frighten it,” he whispered.
He gently called down for Mum to bring the banana, but she was already at the foot of the stairs with one, sliced but unpeeled, laid out on a plate like it was for the queen.
“It’s not a red admiral though.” she said. “Red admirals are blacker. This is something else.”
“Jackie, it’s a red admiral, why do you always have to shoot me down?”
They exchanged a stern, silent interaction, which I could sense reciprocated the never spoken phrase, “Not in front of the kids.”
Mum handed him the plate of banana.
“Just don’t get it on the carpet” she said. Dad acknowledged this with a subtle hand gesture that meant “alright alright…” He knew the anger that messing up the house would elicit. Often in the past he’d walked in with muddy hands or oily boots. Once he tramped varnish into the living room carpet and mum didn’t speak to him for two days. He’d learned to be careful.
He placed the chunks of banana around the tops of the pictures and we all sat on the stairs waiting for the little creature to move. It stayed absolutely where it was, twitching it’s antennae every now and then. Dad told us to be patient, and Sammy yawned.
“Well, whatever it is, where the bloody hell did it come from?” Dad asked again, to nobody in particular. Nobody said anything.
“It’s too cold for butterflies” he repeated. “Nobody round here keeps butterflies, do they?”
Mum shook her head indistinctly.
“Maybe it was living in the loft” said Dad, “and it woke up early.”
Mum was silent. Her eyes were fixed on the little beast, which quickly flicked itself onto a chunk of banana.
“Ohh it likes that,” said dad, and we watched for a few minutes. Banana had been a good idea.
Mum didn’t take her eyes off it.
“It’s mum.” She said, quietly. “It’s mum saying goodbye.”
Dad nudged me and rolled his eyes.
“Stephen don’t.” Mum said sharply. Dad held his hands out like a clock at 5:35.
“What? I didn’t do anything.”
“Just because I didn’t see you do it,” she said, “doesn’t mean you didn’t. Stop it.”
He let out a deep sigh and apologised.
“Come on now guys,” he said to Sammy and me. “Time for bed.”
My room was directly above the kitchen. I could hear the low thunking of glass on wood, chair legs scraping the floor tiles, voices hushed and intimate. I switched off my lamp – I could hear better in the dark. I heard dad say, “OK Jackie, it could be.”
Mum was upset with him. She accused him of not understanding, for rejecting her views, not just that night but regularly. She was sobbing again, and I heard dad comfort her, I imagined him holding her, stroking her hair, kissing her forehead.
I didn’t hear anything else other than two or three more clunks of those heavy bottomed glasses. I fell asleep to the gently fading sounds of nighttime murmurs and shuffling.
Next morning I woke up before Sammy and ran out to the hallway. The chunks of banana had been cleared away, the picture frames had been dusted. There was no butterfly. Mum and Dad were downstairs in the lounge. Mum looked better, her eyes weren’t puffy anymore and her shoulders were relaxed. She was holding a picture of Grandma and Grandad from 40 years ago, just after Mum was born. They were sat on a beach, Grandad with his trouser legs rolled up, still wearing black socks and polished shoes. Grandma was very beautiful in a matching pale blue chiffon trouser suit. Her hair was short. They both looked very happy. Grandma was holding a baby girl – mum, I guessed. She was in a short legged baby grow and a floppy white hat. On the baby grow was a print of a very smiley caterpillar. A piece of paper in the bottom right corner of the photo had some writing on it. “On Towan Beach. June ‘81”
“Where’s the butterfly?” I asked.
Dad got up and led me into the kitchen.
“We let it go, Mike.”
“But it’s cold outside!”
“I know, but we couldn’t keep it. It’ll be alright.”
“Sammy will be upset”
“She’ll be fine, Mike”
“Do you think it was grandma like mum does?” I asked him. He turned to the back door, opened it, stepped out onto the patio. He was disappearing off to the shed, as usual.
“I don’t know son. It could have been. Your mum says some funny things sometimes. All I’m saying is that your grandma didn’t like bananas.”
Image via Pixabay