Grandparents have secrets. And trust me — you don’t want to know what they are.
My Grandma was 87 years old when she revealed her secrets, but nobody would have pegged her anything beyond 75. She had a few lines and wrinkles here and there, sure, but you’d never guess she was pushing 90. And if you spoke to her without seeing her, you’d think her in her 30s. She could talk a mile a minute and she swore like a trooper. She knew her stuff when it came to modern music and the latest blockbusters. She had an iPhone and a Snapchat account and thousands of followers on Instagram.
So when pneumonia took her down we were all surprised. None more than her, mind.
“I’m too young for pneumonia.”
“You’re 87,” my Mum told her.
“People like me shouldn’t get pneumonia. Haven’t had so much as a cold in decades. Only time I get sick is when I overdo the whiskey sours and that doesn’t count — that’s self-inflicted. Are they sure it’s pneumonia? I don’t believe it.”
“It’s true. So you’ve to keep quiet, be on your best behaviour and cooperate with the doctors.”
“Yes, dear. I will. Best behaviour.” And then she saw me clock her crossed fingers and threw me a sly smirk.
I visited her as often as I could. I got the bus from the hospital straight after college every weekday, and I went in the morning and again in the afternoon on Saturdays and Sundays. She’d always have a tale to tell about the time that passed during my absence. How she initiated a group singalong of Bruno Mars’ 24K Magic throughout the ward. How she invited the charming 28-year-old hospital porter out for drinks. How she’d given one of the specialist doctors a lesson on achieving the ultimate orgasm. How she’d sneaked into the hospital kitchen to add chilli powder to the meatloaf mixture. On and on it went — miniature adventures which transformed a drab old stay in the hospital into a thriving chapter of her life.
But after the second week on the ward, the adventures became less frequent, less exciting. Her retelling of the few escapades she did manage — having a cheeky squeeze of a handsome nurse’s bum, for example — became less animated. Her cheeks grew paler. Her voice grew weaker. The wheezing and rattling in her chest grew stronger. Her skin was almost translucent.
“Not long for this mortal coil,” she croaked at me one day.
“Don’t say that, Grandma. You’ll be alright. Keep your chin up.”
“It is up, it is. But we’ve all got to go someday. My time’s coming up and that’s alright. Just promise me one thing.”
“Invite Michael Bublé to my funeral. His number’s saved in my phone. He might not come, but I’d like for him to have the opportunity to say his goodbyes. He only knew me briefly but… well, he knew me rather intimately.”
I didn’t ask for details. “I’ll invite him,” I said, though at that stage I didn’t mean it. I didn’t believe she’d ever even met him.
“Thank you, dear.” She sighed, shook her head slightly. “There’s a lot you don’t know, young lady. A lot that nobody knows.”
“What do you mean?”
“My life. I don’t want to blow my own trumpet, but it was bloody colourful.”
“So tell me about it.” That was my first big mistake.
“How old are you, again?” she said.
“Old enough. Just. Where do I begin?”
“Right at the beginning, I guess.”
“Oh no. Childhood was boring. It wasn’t until I was your age that the good stuff kicked off. It was my sixteenth birthday that I went to the pub for the first time. Shouldn’t have done — very uncouth for a girl of my age to be in the pub in that era. But I went, anyway, and I met this handsome 23-year-old who introduced me to the art of poker.”
“Poker. And I was good at it. Born liar, I was. Great at bluffing. He saw it in me as soon as I told him I was 21 and a Russian spy.”
“So he taught me how to play poker — play it well — and we set up this club which met every Saturday night in the pub after it shut its doors to the public…”
Grandma recounted the tale to me; she rinsed the blokes who dared to take her on and made herself quite a pot of gold over the course of two years. When she had enough money saved up, she packed her things and put herself on a boat to New York.
“…Exotic dancing — that was my thing.”
“What? I had a cracking body at 18; why not show it off? Great money, too. Drooling men are free and easy with their cash.”
I looked into her brown eyes which had grown pale and cloudy with age, and then looked quickly away. If she was going to give me all the racy details of her life story, I’d have to try to forget she was my grandmother. It was too weird.
“It was when I was working at that club that I met Mr P,” she said.
“Who was Mr P?” That was my second big mistake.
“A man of mystery. A man of great wealth. A man who had fingers in an awful lot of pies. Utterly charming, he was, as long as you stayed on his good side. I knew a few folks who lost fingers and toes when they got on his bad side.”
“Oh, that’s nothing. But the ones who really pissed him off didn’t live to tell all the awful things he did to them. I soon became Mr P’s right hand gal. He loved my British accent — told me I was delightful. But he knew I was smart, too, so he used me in a couple of his more complex schemes.”
“We set up a charity to help out the homeless. And we did help them, too. They got a few new pairs of socks now and again, a couple of hot meals. But a lot of the profits went… elsewhere. It was clever, you see…”
And then she taught me, in great detail, how to get away with siphoning off hundreds of thousands of dollars from a non-profit company, should I ever ‘fancy that line of work,’ as she put it.
“Did you get caught?” I asked.
“Of course. But by that point Mr P had already arranged for my name to be changed. He paid for a new hairstyle, a brand new wardrobe, a new passport and a plane ticket to Aruba. I lived there for a couple of years in a hotel he owned. I went back to the poker thing to make a bit of extra pocket money. The cash I made from the charity gig was sitting in a bank account, waiting until I’d laid low for long enough that I could get my hands on it. It was lovely there in Aruba. I had a bit of a thing with the gardener. Oh, the muscles on that man! He once carried me out across the beach and into the sea and we made love under the moonlight. The most romantic fuck I’ve ever had.”
I felt myself turning pink.
“And then we rolled around on the shore for a while, at it like rabbits. I got sand in the most uncomfortable places. But that was nothing compared to the night his brother joined us out on the beach.”
“Am I making you uncomfortable?”
“Well…” I didn’t know if I’d ever be able to look her in the eye again. But she’ll be dead soon, a part of my brain said, and you won’t have to look her in the eye. So I took a deep breath, shook my head and let her continue.
“If you want to know a thing or two about sex, kid, you have to hear it from me. I’ve done it every which way you can imagine. There was this one time where I had my knees up by my ears and…”
And then she told me things I daren’t repeat. Ever. To anyone.
“…But in the end, I discovered that the rugged gardener was seeing somebody else behind my back,” she said. “One of the maids. I was absolutely fuming. Couldn’t believe the sleazy bastard would do that to me.”
“What did you do?”
“I chopped his dick off.”
“Don’t worry, he lived. Just. But the maid didn’t want much to do with him after that. Can you blame her? That dick was the only thing he had going for him. Anyway, I was already gone by the time she dumped him — back to New York to claim the cash owed to me, figuring enough time had gone by that I’d be well out of trouble. But guess what? That bastard Mr P had done a runner with my money.”
“Yes. He got caught up in some trouble even beyond him, apparently. He’d pissed off the real big guns. Something to do with a shit load of cocaine and a crate full of Pop Tarts. Don’t ask. So I vowed to get revenge. But in the meantime, I was skint. Well — not totally skint. I had the money from my poker ring in Aruba, plus the cash that the cheating bastard of a gardener used to stash beneath his mattress which I helped myself to before I skedaddled. But it wasn’t going to last me too long. So I set up as a psychic. Mystic Maggie, I called myself. Bought a crystal ball from a flea market, did up this tiny basement apartment with weird old ornaments and jars and feathers and silky wall hangings and incense sticks and all that hippy-dippy shit. Put an ad in a local shop window and told people to spread the word. Before I knew it, I was raking it in.”
I frowned. “You’re psychic?”
“Of course not. Ha!” She followed her cackle with a wheezing, hacking coughing fit. I helped her take a sip of water and waited for her to go on. “All people really want is an assurance that their life isn’t totally going to shit. Will I ever find the man, woman or dog of my dreams? Will Aunt Dolly make it through her illness? Should I take the new job? Will I ever be rich enough to afford an apartment with a view? You know the bullshit. I just gave them peace of mind that it would all turn out as they hoped.”
“But what if it never turned out like they hoped?”
She shrugged. “Then they learned they were a fool for believing in a batty old lady who took their money to tell fake fortunes. They were too embarrassed to do anything about it. I never had any repercussions from the straight old future-tellings. But then then trouble started.”
“The voodoo doll trouble. There was this woman whose husband used to lay his hands on her, see…”
And then she told me how to make a voodoo doll that really works and how to fight off a powerful man who is set on revenge, using nothing more than a handbag and a pair of stilettos.
“… I knew I’d maimed him long enough to buy myself some time, but I realised my time in New York was over. I scarpered, quick sticks, back to England.”
“Back to poker in pubs?”
“Only briefly. It was during my third poker night back on British soil when I met your grandfather. Chiselled, he was. Beautiful man. He may not have looked it when you knew him. Gravity and the stress of living with me will do that to a handsome face. But I was smitten by him all those years ago. I was his after just one kiss. He had the softest lips. And the most talented tongue.”
She’ll be dead soon, my brain said. Humour her! But I didn’t want my happy memories of my late grandfather tainted with thoughts of what his tongue was capable of. “Grandma, please leave out the gory details on this one.”
She laughed. “Quite the prude, aren’t we? Well, to cut a long story short, the devil knocked me up. I was terrified. Had no idea how to be a mother. But your grandfather was thrilled, and I ended up so swept up in his excitement that I forgot my appointment.”
“For the termination.”
“You were going to abort my Mum?”
“Yup. Glad I didn’t in the end, but sometimes I wonder how different my life would be if I had. You wouldn’t be here for a start.”
A strange sensation went through me that I couldn’t quite put my finger on.
“I settled down. Became normal. We bought a house and I learned how to cook and clean. How to go to bed at 10 p.m. It was quite comfortable, really, and it went on for years and years and years and… well, you saw a lot of that part. When your grandfather died, I considered going back to New York to live out my last days, but I was settled. Couldn’t bring myself to move so far away from my daughter and granddaughter. So I stayed boring for the sake of the both of you.”
“I appreciate that, Grandma.”
“Until Mr P turned up again.”
“The old bastard just knocked on my front door one day, apologising profusely, begging for my forgiveness. After all those years I couldn’t believe he still remembered me, never mind cared enough to track me down and apologise. Quite sweet, really. I suppose I really did charm him.”
“So did you forgive him?”
“No chance. I killed the old git. Big old kitchen knife. Lots and lots of blood.”
She stared at me, unblinking. I stared back, expecting her trademark cackle. But it didn’t come.
“You’re serious, aren’t you?”
“Deadly,” she said. And then came the laugh. “Oh, it feels good to get that off my chest. Weight lifted, I tell you.”
“I’m the only one who knows?”
“When? When did it happen?”
“Does it matter?”
I supposed not. What was done was done. And by the sounds of it, Mr P wasn’t a particularly pleasant man. If my grandma was going to murder someone, the least she could do was choose someone who deserved it.
“Why did you tell me all this now?” I said. “Why not take it to the grave?”
“I suppose I just wanted someone to know the real me before I kicked the bucket. All of me — the good, the bad and downright abhorrent. And I couldn’t share it with your mother; she’d be appalled. Listen, kid, I don’t expect you to tell anyone about this unless you want to. I mean, once I’m dead and gone it doesn’t matter if the boys in blue find out — they won’t be able to get to me when I’m six feet under. But I’ll rest a little easier knowing that at least one person knows the kind of woman I really am.”
“Well… I’m honoured that you chose me to confide in. A little… freaked out, but honoured nonetheless.”
She squeezed my hand. “I’m tired.”
“You want me to go?”
“I think you should. My time’s almost up. Grim Reaper’s on his way — I can feel it.”
“Then I should stay. And I’ll call Mum.”
“No, no. I don’t want company for dying. I’ve been independent for too long to be mollycoddled now. Go home, kid. And thank you for listening.”
“I love you, Grandma.”
“And I love you.”
I kissed her on the forehead before I left, and I cried all the way home. And yet I was relieved, too; she might have let me in on her dirty secrets, but they’d have no clout once she was dead. They’d be nothing more than crazy anecdotes to share with people at parties — Wild Things My Grandma Told Me.
It wasn’t until the following morning that I got the news. Mum knocked on my bedroom door and roused me from sleep.
“She’s gonna make it.”
Mum wiped happy tears from her eyes. “She pulled through the night and she’s better today. Huge change, doctor says. Isn’t that such good news?”
I nodded. It was good news — the best news. But how would I ever look Grandma in the eye again after all she told me? Already I felt the weight of her secrets dragging me down and clouding my mind.
I made every excuse I could think of. Homework to catch up on. Coursework to focus on. Friends birthday party to go to. Laundry to do. Bedroom to tidy. Any and every feeble reason I could find to avoid seeing her and thinking of her making love under the moonlight or rolling around naked in the sand or wielding a kitchen knife, hands covered in blood.
Until she called and I picked up. That was my third big mistake.
“Why the absence?” she said.
“Just… been busy.”
“Well you better not be busy today. They’re discharging me from the hospital I want you to collect me.”
“Why me? Can’t my Mum do it?”
“She doesn’t know about Mr P.”
“So she’ll get quite a shock when she sees him laid out on my kitchen floor.”
I fell quiet. There was a muffled noise on the line, like she was covering her mouth as she laughed.
“I thought it wouldn’t matter,” she said. “Thought I’d be dead by the time someone found him. I was wrong.”
“What are you saying?”
“Sorry to dump this on you but… you’ve got to help me move the body, kid.”