Daria stood and strained to listen in the dark silence for a reply. None came. ‘Hmm. That’s weird’ she thought and called out again, in a loud sort of whisper. ‘Opa. Are you upstairs?’ Daria clicked on the hall lights and, after she’d taken her key out of the lock and shut the door behind her, she stood still again and listened. Silence. She gave a cursory glance into the downstairs rooms and, knowing he wouldn’t be there in the dark, decided to take a look in the bedrooms. ‘It’s a bit early for him to have gone to bed’ Daria half muttered, dismissing sombre thoughts of his being ill ‘and he was fine yesterday.’ On reaching the top of the stairs, Daria crept to his bedroom and, seeing there was no crack of light under the door, she slowly open his door and craned her neck round to see his bed. She could just make out a shape under the heavily embroidered bedspread. ‘Oh Opa,’ Daria affectionately thought as she crept over, ‘Were you that tired today?’ She gently laid one hand on the bed cover and, bending slightly, tenderly stroked his wispy grey hair with the other, not wanting to disturb him. Then she froze. She knew he wasn’t sleeping.
‘If anyone says “oh well he was a good age” once more to me, I think I’ll hit them. That’s not unreasonable, is it?’ Daria turned to her eldest son, Antony, half smiling and he wasn’t quite sure how much she meant it.
‘C’mon mum, people never know what to say at funerals. You know that. And he was 94, so what else can they say?’ He bent to kiss her cheek and added ‘Would you? Hit someone, I mean? You are looking quite fierce at the moment.’
Daria squeezed his arm and grinned. ‘Maybe’ she said, with just the smallest glint in her eye. ‘Look, there’s Ben and Jack finally emerging. Is that dreadful woman in that ridiculous hat still dogging them? What on earth does she think she’s got perched on her head?’
‘Why are you being so outrageous today? Aunt Pearl is not dreadful. Annoying, yes; irritating, yes; nosy, yes; interfering, yes. Oh well, maybe you’re right. But she’s not there anyway, mad hat or not. Shall we go to the car now or is there anyone else you’d like to insult or commit violence to?’ Antony smiled at his mother and linked his arm in hers to guide her to his brothers.
‘C’mon, I need to get out of here. Let’s go to that little café in that village we passed. Go and get the boys’ said Daria.
‘What? The café? What about the wake or celebration of his life, or whatever? We’ve got to be there.’
‘No we haven’t. I want a big, fat piece of cake in that café. And a strong coffee.’
‘But...’‘No buts. You can go to that stuffy hotel if you want. But I’m not.’
‘But you’ll be expected. And you paid for it, not least.’
‘I don’t care. I’m not listening to a load of old cronies who haven’t seen Opa in a thousand years go on about him. That’s not how I want to celebrate his life. And then I thought we could go for a walk around that lake he loved. I hope Ben has bought some of that cannabis stuff. I could do with a toke.’
‘Mother.’ Daria grinned at the shock in her son’s voice. She knew she must have offended about a thousand of Antony’s sensibilities, but she needed to do this in her own way. That was important.
‘Oh, he had such a wicked sense of humour. My whole body ached with laughter when once he was so fed up with cold callers on the phone, that he pretended he was a vicar or a monk or something and even got the poor salesman to pray silently with him about how mobile phones were the curse of the devil. He did it all so seriously. God, I shall miss him so much.’ Daria wasn’t too sure if she was laughing or crying at that moment, probably a bit of both.
‘Here. Mum, have some more.’ Daria lifted her head and wiped her eyes as she re-took the joint from Ben. She didn’t miss the glare Antony gave his younger brother, nor the snigger at Antony from Jack, her youngest son. But she chose to ignore them and stared out over the lake. It was so peaceful, so beautiful just watching the grey wagtails flitting about around a log on the water’s edge. Swallows dived and skimmed the water’s surface and Daria watched the ripples on the glass surface as the sun reflected yellows and oranges.
‘We’re all going to miss him. I can’t imagine what it’ll be like without Opa. Closest thing we ever had to a grandfather really.’ Jack wiped his eye and Daria felt a gush of warmth for him as he never minded showing his feelings.
‘He was totally barmy though, let’s face it. Completely unpredictable and didn’t give a fig for what anyone thought.’ Ben leant over and took his mother’s hand. ‘He was related, wasn’t he?’
‘Cheeky boy,’ said Daria ‘But honestly though? I think I’d always wanted to be like him, well be like him a bit more perhaps. I couldn’t. I don’t know how he could be the way he was. What an outrageous man. God, the embarrassments I’ve had with him. And yet I admired him so much for that real live and let live attitude he had. You must have inherited that from him, Ben. You’re right, it wasn’t from me.’ And she ran her hand over his tight curly hair.
‘You do have a wonky idea about yourself, you know’ said Ben. ‘How many other middle aged women do you know would skip the wake and get stoned instead? With their sons, too?’
Daria saw the contradictions and giggled. And giggled and giggled whilst pretending to be offended at being called middle aged when she was only 49, but she could not finish her sentences. Ben and Jack laughed with her, with the three of them getting louder as Jack fell off the tree stump he was sitting on.
‘For god’s sake. This is ridiculous’ said Antony, the anger, the frustration showing in his voice. ‘Put that down now, mother. You’re supposed to be a respectable woman. Grief must be hitting you in strange ways. It’s home for you and some strong coffee, or whatever you need.’
‘For fuck’s sake Tony, shut up and have some yourself. Who are you to tell her how to behave?’ Ben felt irritated by his brother. ‘Let you hair down for once. It won’t kill you.’
‘Home, mother. Now’ Antony ignored Ben and stood up with a hand out to help Daria off the log she was sitting on.
‘Mum, don’t.’ Ben and Jack responded in union as Antony made to lead her away.
But Daria surprised them all again and instead of taking Antony’s arm, she slowly and deliberately strolled to the water’s edge, flung off her shoes and walked into the water.
Antony stared in indignation, disbelief and incredulity and his mouth hung open. Ben and Jack roared with laughter and simultaneously decided to join her.
‘What are you doing? For god’s sake, what are you all doing?’ And, once again, Antony felt left out, but even more so this time as he usually had his mother seemingly on his side against some or other bizarre behaviour. He was tempted just to walk away he felt so outraged, drive home. But as they’d only brought one car, he knew he couldn’t. So he resigned himself, sighed and sat down on a log, watching a water fight noisily take part. ‘Opa would have loved this though’ he thought ‘this lunacy is a true celebration of him at least.’ And Antony found himself nearly smiling at the antics of his family. And he had to admit, it was good to see his mother laughing again.
Antony drove his dripping family back to their mother’s house after having insisting that Daria wrapped a blanket around herself. Whilst everybody dried and changed, Antony rang for a takeaway.
‘It’ll be half an hour. I ordered extra papadums,’ he called up the stairs. ‘I’ll lay the table, mum.’
‘And get the champagne out of the fridge, will you?’ Daria called down ‘and those special glasses. You know, the crystal ones at the back.’
‘Have you still got those? I haven’t seen them for years.’
‘There’s only five left’ said Daria as she descended the stairs looking dry and flushed with all the emotions and strangeness of the day. ‘But that’s ok because there’s only four of us.’
As if drawn by the magnet of a promise of champagne, Jack and Ben emerged from their old bedrooms simultaneously and tussled for first place going down stairs, tripping over each other and laughing as they tumbled.
Antony raised his eyes and went to the kitchen. Daria shook her head and smiled at the inevitable competitiveness between the two.
‘Always the little boys’ she said.
‘It was him. He barged in front.’ said Jack defensively.
‘I got there first. You know I did.’ said Ben.
‘As I said’ grinned Daria and followed Antony.
Antony popped the bottle as they all stood in a circle and proficiently poured the champagne.
‘To Opa. A blessing in all our lives.’ Said Daria.
They chinked glasses and sipped.
Over more anecdotes about the man they all knew as Opa, they laid the table and drank more champagne. By the time the food arrived, they were on the second bottle and it was showing. Over an assortment of bhajis and dahls, they reminisced and remembered until food and tales were replete.
They had dug deeply into their combined memories trying to recall why the man they were all so devoted to was called Opa, when Opa was not an Opa at all. To begin with, he was not German, but French. Neither was he any anyone’s grandfather. He was some sort of cousin’s of Pearl and nobody ever really knew why he was called Opa but it’s what everyone did. And always had done, as far as they all could remember.
Daria had been the first baby he had ever known and he doted absolutely on her. His somewhat chequered and unusual past, together with his silver tongue, made him a prolific story teller about his time in the merchant navy, working in a Kibbutz in Israel, a vineyard in Spain, the French Resistance or a ranch in Arizona. As a child Daria hung onto his every word, believing it all to be true. It was only in her teens that she began to be somewhat sceptical and tried to discern the truth from the fantasy, but she still loved it all, and him, nonetheless. And so never questioned him.
Daria stood. ‘And now a final toast. Fill the glasses Ben, if there’s enough left, that is’ and she giggled. ‘A toast to you, my boys. Now don’t get all hairy on me, I know you are grown men, but to me you will always be my boys and I love you all.’
‘Mothers pissed. Watch out.’ interjected Ben with a grin and Jack laughed.
‘I take offence to that’ replied Daria ‘I am not pissed, well maybe just a little tipsy. But I am going to say this. But not just this, several things actually. So, listen up.’ Daria pretended the champagne had had a greater effect than it actually had and wagged her finger at her sons. ‘There are things I want to say. Now. First, Antony. I love your ambition and your head for Maths and that magical thing with numbers that you do. It’s brilliant. Not only that, you are intelligent and reliable and you always have been. And I am so proud of you for that.’ Daria emphasised each word as if reinforcing the message. She felt she needed to reassure him, let him know how much she loved him because of how puzzled he had been about her afternoon antics. ‘You’ll get that Head of Department job, no worries let me tell you, even if you are young. You could do it standing on your head and if the college doesn’t realise that by now, they should be shot.’
‘Mother, you’re getting all violent on us again’ said Antony, aware that he was beginning to feel a little awkward. Daria liked that strange, almost contradictory streak of modesty he had. But she ignored his comment.
‘And Ben’ she continued, ‘I love your sense of freedom, your willingness to explore and experience all those different cultures and people. I think it’s brilliant. Some of the places you have been to, my god it’s just amazing. You are so brave and I’m not sure that you fully know that. You will find your way, find something or someone you love and that restless soul of yours will settle. I could never have done what you’re doing and I so admire you for it.’
‘Ha. What you mean is that you are, once again, not condemning his somewhat extended gap year.’ Antony interrupted again. Displays of emotions embarrassed and thrilled him, and he knew his mouth worked overtime in such situations but he felt he couldn’t help it.
Daria ignored him again. She knew he had tendencies to get, or at least to appear to get on his high horse about Ben’s choices.
‘And finally Jack. Oh how you were born to the stage or TV screen or film or whatever you choose. You’ve acted and put on plays for us all since before you really knew what it was you were doing. And that college will be the making of you and I hope you realise how special it is that you got in there, not that you didn’t deserve it. To think, one day I will have a famous son. I can’t wait.’
And Daria stood for a moment and simply looked at them, eyes brimming with love and pride.
‘So, a toast to the three of you. My three lovely boys. Cheers.’
They stood and cheered and chinked glasses.
‘But that doesn’t mean that you don’t all act like extreme idiots at times and drive me round the bend.’ said Daria and emptied her glass as half hearted protestations and objections got louder, ‘and always remember how much Opa adored you, each of you.’
‘Now, let me explain a few things’ Daria said and they all sat once more. The brothers looked at each other with raised eyebrows, all wondering what on earth could be coming next.
‘I know today wasn’t quite what any of you expected, to put it mildly. So you deserve an explanation and my thanks for being patient. Opa was so special, so meaningful in my life that I had to celebrate him. I’ve been thinking about it so much since he died, wondering how to do it. I didn’t really decide until this morning and I know maybe I should have said something to you, but I was afraid I’d lose my nerve if I said the words out loud. You know, let you know what I was planning. And I thought you’d all talk me out of it too easily. Perhaps I should have gone to his hotel wake, but he’d have hated it. And I bet he was laughing at the way I was today, the way we all have been. So I did what I thought he’d enjoy. And so I celebrated him that way. Did exactly the opposite of what was expected of me. But I apologise especially to you, Antony. You must have thought I’d lost my mind. Yet I’ve loved today, so thank you.’ Tear began to slide down Daria’s cheeks. ‘No, I’m ok. Let me carry on.’ Daria wiped her eyes and blew her nose on the tissue Ben had run to get her.
‘It’s such a relief that the funeral’s over, and it was so important to laugh after it was all done. To celebrate his laughter. And that could not have been done with nutty Aunt Pearl and her senile husband or any of the Lewis’s. And he hated them all. Well, he loved them really but just couldn’t be doing with them. And at this moment in time, I don’t even want to ring them all to apologise. But tomorrow I probably will. Even though he wouldn’t want me to. Oh, I don’t know. What a mad old bugger he was.’ Daria paused to wipe her nose again. ‘And do you know, I’ve never had a joint before, never had a water fight in a lake as an adult, never done what wasn’t expected of me by someone or other. Well, I probably have, but never with anything so big. So today, I had to. Just do things he’d have laughed at. It sort of feels as if it was indulgent and naughty and for once I don’t care. So thank you, the three of you, for going along with me. You are the lights of my life.’
‘Honestly, I was beginning to be somewhat concerned, mum...’ started Antony.
‘Forget it, Tony’ said Jack ‘Don’t spoil this.’ And Antony took Jack’s advice for once.
Over the third bottle, they shared stories about Opa and childhood, glad that champagne was his favourite drink. Stories well known, well loved, often repeated but never bored of. The Sunday drives out to a huge old oak with a rope swing; searching for conkers in autumn; cooking over campfires in the back garden. And those weekends he used to take them camping as young boys that Daria knew were ostensibly to allow her and Paul, her ex-husband, some quality time together but knowing that the reality was different.
Opa had sensed the unhappiness in Daria, had seen the tangles she would create trying to keep her former husband content and so he had regularly tried to give them some child-free time. But he had known Daria’s inner happiness and growth could not be imposed on her from without, and he grew to learn that Paul was seriously lacking in any real understanding of how Daria needed nurturing and encouragement to expand her horizons. Opa had known that Daria had a ‘restless’ spirit, as Daria had called Ben’s, but lacked the confidence, not the imagination to follow her dreams. He had also known how much Daria loved her boys, how much joy they brought her and how she would shelter them from the truth about her relationship with Paul.
And so it somehow was no surprise to anyone that Paul finally left and set up a new home with the secretary of his building firm. Opa had always found Paul boringly predictable and, as if to prove him right, Paul chose to leave as soon as Jack started his ‘A’ levels. Yet somehow Opa had also known that Daria would not grieve for too long after Paul’s departure and he had always been sure that he saw relief in her as well.
The divorce had been a scary time for Daria. She had frequently woken up in the night wondering if and how she’d cope after Paul had abruptly packed and left. He’d just announced it one Saturday morning and by lunch time he’d gone.
It was only when she sat down and methodically went through exactly what her husband leaving her would mean, that she realised that she had that ran the home when he was there anyway. She’d begun to wonder why she’d stayed married for so long, why she hadn’t divorced him earlier. She had brought up the boys, paid bills, done the food and household shopping. True, he mowed the lawn and provided the money until she began work when Jack went to school, and then she contributed also. Slowly she’d started to realise that his absence really wouldn’t make a difference. She knew she wouldn’t miss his company and she certainly wouldn’t miss the mess he made or the begrudging way in which he’d agree to wash up or vacuum the floor when she’d asked. And she certainly wouldn’t miss the sex which over the years had become some sort of occasional perfunctory act that took place on his birthday or Mother’s day. In many ways, Daria’s life carried on as it had during her twenty seven years of marriage. Except that she was happier.
Antony, Ben and Jack were all stopping in the family home after Opa died, kept by Daria as part of the divorce settlement. They still had their old rooms and Daria was not ready to sell for anything smaller, especially as Ben and Jack didn’t have their own permanent places yet, even though it had now been a couple of years since Jack left home for college. She doubted that he’d ever live at home again, but knew he loved to come back for a lot of the holidays. And she’d never really know when Ben would come home. He’d simply announce a return in one of his very regular calls, giving her anything from a couple of hours to a few days notice. The similarities between his and Opa’s lifestyles had not escaped her. Antony, of course, already had his own mortgage and quite a chic flat in an up and coming part of the town. Antony had seen it as an investment, and he was right.
Daria had wanted her boys with her when they went to Opa’s solicitors to see the will. She’d felt that hearing how his possessions were to be distributed would be too much of a confirmation that he wasn’t coming back and she didn’t want to bear that alone. Daria knew there was absolutely no logic to that whatsoever but the boys joined her as support to hear Opa’s typically short will. Typically short because despite his vast propensity for the telling of tales and the reciting of anecdotes, he was never one to put pen to paper.
Unsurprisingly, everything went to Daria. Not that there appeared to be much. Nothing beyond a state pension, no insurance policies or savings, stocks or shares. There was his little terraced house that he’d bought just after Daria was born, but had only really permanently lived there for about the last ten years or so. Before then, it stood empty or sometimes it was occupied by short-term lodgers or he’d be there alone or have a couple of friends with him. Whenever Daria had popped in, she was never completely sure who she’d find, if anyone.
Daria really appreciated the support she received from her three boys, but after a while she had started to feel a bit stifled by them. It was almost as if they were worried about her being alone after Opa’s death. Antony called round practically every evening after work and weekends; Ben stayed for longer than he planned and she’d almost had to pack his bags for him and send him back to his job on the archaeological dig he was on somewhere in Italy. He promised he’d be back when his time had finished. And she was incredibly grateful that Jack really had to get back to college as he had auditions.
They visited Opa’s house several times, just wandering around or sitting and chatting about him. Daria wasn’t ready to even think about any practicalities, she just wanted them all there together. To remember and to reminisce. She needed the comfort of at least something remaining the same, before the inevitable change that the disruption of sorting everything in his house would cause. She felt that each cup that would be packed away or chest of drawers that needed sorting would remove Opa from her life that little bit more. And she wanted to delay that.
But apart from work, Daria’s life had slowly returned to the routine it was, although an echo of Opa remained with her. She was part of a book club at the local library and a rambling club with a friend at work. Daria read a little, listened to the radio and watched TV in the evenings and returned to baking and preserving. It was a quiet life and quite a happy and contented one
Putting her key once more into the door of Opa’s house, on her first visit on her own, it felt strange not to be calling out his name. So she did anyway. Then she stood still. There was a silence in the house that she hadn’t experienced with her sons with her. And she took a strange and unexpected delight when she realised it still smelt the same. She hadn’t seemed to notice it that much when she was with her sons. But it seemed more intense. Not that the couple of weeks would make any remarkable differences, but she’d always loved the smells of his house. Hints of stale pipe tobacco, some sort of sandalwood and tinges of damp, alongside the ever present smell of axle grease from some or other mechanical project he was always working on, usually in the kitchen on his Formica table.
As Daria entered the house, the familiarities warmed her and she went into the kitchen to make a coffee. He was a big coffee drinker and considered himself a discerner of taste and quality and only drank espresso from his bubbling and hissing machine which was forever on the old cooker. Daria always thought he drank coffee because he was French, particularly as no-one else of the older generation in her small family drank anything other than strong, thick tea which he despised. And so Daria had grown to love a good coffee.
Sipping the hot, black liquid she slowly sauntered through his house. She just wanted to sit and look, she wasn’t ready to decide what to do with anything. Or the house. And she’d deliberately stopped herself thinking about it. She just wanted to feel her way round this unusual day. She felt sad, but not maudlin as she knew he’d led the type of life he wanted. Opa was never one for regrets. Or compromise.
As she walked around, peering into cupboards and drawers, she realised the enormity of the task. Determined not to be overwhelmed, she knew she had as long as she wanted. The length of time she had had her job at the local archivists office meant they were being very generous with her compassionate leave and she always had weekends after that.
She sat on his bed, dunking one of his chocolate digestives and wearing his shabby blue scarf that he’d had for years and had fallen on the floor. The scarf was soft and smelt of him. She sat and simply thought about him, about how different her life would have been without him. She never missed having brothers or sisters when he was around and he was such a wild contrast to the rest of her small, steady family.
Then she cried because she missed him and it hurt that she’d never laugh with him again and see his deep brown eyes shine with mischief. Nor hug him in his over-sized, threadbare red dressing gown that he refused to give up. Nor try to encourage him to tame his messy mass of white hair, with a beard just as bad. And she laughed out loud at how outraged everybody seemed by him; by his constant wanderings; by the mystery he wove around his whereabouts; by his lack of wanting a wife and by his refusing to grow old gracefully. In lives of conventional routines, holidays at the same destination year after year and meals of meat and two vegetables, his lifestyle and behaviour were completely beyond their understanding. And so they condemned him, complained about him and misunderstood him. Daria always felt she knew him better than anyone but even then, there was a lot she wasn’t sure about.
She thought that a lot of his stuff could go to charity shops, she wasn’t really interested in trying to sell it. Or maybe let one of the women’s refuge’s have bits too. There were a couple of things in his house that she wanted for herself as they oozed memories and she wondered if the boys would like anything. Daria thought that perhaps it might be nice, a sign of friendship or kinship or something, if she gave some things to the rest of the disparate family. But there was nobody left who’d cared about him or even liked him that much. She knew that. And nobody she really wanted to see again either. Was she being mean? She didn’t know. She did know Opa didn’t want anyone else to have anything or he’d have said in his will. She was sure there was nothing of value and had no idea if anyone else even liked any of his stuff. She decided she’d talk to the boys about it.
A lot of the contents of Opa house was really old and shabby, without being particularly chic: dark, heavy, oversized furniture; mismatched plates, cups and cutlery; threadbare rugs and old, bizarre mementoes that Daria had always assumed were from his travels. So many things seemed to have had some sort of tale or mystery surrounding it. Daria remembered sitting on Opa’s knee as a child and being enthralled with his deep croaky voice as he wove stories around an old vintage tin toy car that he said he’d bought in a flea market in Lyon; the moth eaten, stuffed pygmy crocodile that had its eyes sewn together or the strange collection of bridle bits he said he’d picked up in America. She’d loved trying on the heavy Victorian ceremonial fireman’s helmet with its thick, clanky chain or the outsized Arabian thawb that always seemed to somehow smell faintly of pineapples. Old trunks and suitcases stored under beds or in wardrobes were forever a source of enthralment and wonder. It had all fascinated her, beguiled her and as she looked about she wondered what on earth she’d do without him.
After she’d been there for a couple of hours, Daria decided to clean and tidy up a bit, without really knowing why. The place was about to be turned upside down but she felt restless and needed to do something. Driving home later, she stopped to buy black sacks and beg a few boxes from the local shop. She’d find out about local women’s refuges that needed things and then she’d begin sorting.