As I passed through the duty-free shop on my way into Heathrow Airport, the question on my mind was which brand of whisky I should buy for my grandad. The answer was not easy to find, as my grandad has been dead for 25 years, and may well be unaware of more recent developments in the beverage market. What would he make of Johnny Walker Blue Label, for instance, at £190 a bottle?
Not much, probably.
He lived in the world of the cloth cap and the workingman’s club, the hip flask held surreptitiously under the table to top up the shot glass, and the half-pint bitter chaser. He died four days after I left England for Australia, so I couldn’t attend his funeral. But I mourned for him in my heart, and every night I had the same dream: that he came to my house or called me on the phone, told me he wasn’t really dead and asked me out for a beer. And I’d wake up, more bereft even than before, cheated again.
The dreams stopped, eventually and the grief passed – it was always, I suspect, for myself anyway, for the childhood I’d lost once he was gone. But I made a pledge to myself, most honoured in the breach, to have a silent drink with him whenever I raised a glass.
My dad had died the year before. He’d gone into hospital for an operation to remove a stone from his gall bladder, and his heart had stopped beating on the operating table. The doctors had revived him, but he came back a different man. His skin was orange, his hair was white, and it stood up straight on his head, like a forest of silver nails.
I remember him sitting stiff-backed in the social club like a startled jaundiced soldier, when my mum walked through the door. It was the first time he’d seen her since she’d left him 14 years before. He looked across the room at her, expressionless, as if there was nothing there.
Twelve months after the operation, he stepped out of the bath and, with a towel wrapped around him, sat on the bed while his second wife combed his hair. He fell sideways and died for a second time.
I think of him too, but less often and with greater guilt. He didn’t drink, so I can’t share that with him, and I wasn’t a good son. I couldn’t offer him the comfort he deserved.
When I went back to England last month, I planned to visit both their graves. They lie in neighbouring cemeteries a few miles outside Leeds in West Yorkshire, and I was returning to the city – “going home” – for the first time in 15 years. I wanted to pour a bottle of whisky over my grandad’s stone, to quench his thirst in the hereafter.
But the problem is, it’s just a gesture, a metaphor. Obviously, I don’t think my grandad is really going to drink the whisky and if, after I flooded his grave with single malt, I heard, for instance, a subterranean belch, I’d probably keel over myself. So it seems a bit excessive to buy a litre. Or even a half litre. And so, like God’s little acre, the bottle of whisky I was going to bring to my late grandad grew smaller and smaller, until I had almost settled on a miniature – but you couldn’t buy miniatures in singles. You had to purchase at least four bottles.
My dad and my grandad were my models for masculinity, and I sometimes consider the wisdom they passed on to me. All I can remember grandad saying is to always look after my family and never drink so much that I couldn’t go to work the next morning. My dad’s only pieces of advice were “never volunteer for anything” and “whatever you do, don’t get the clap”.
It was sound stuff, but hardly Rudyard Kipling.
When I arrived in Leeds, someone drove me to the house where my grandparents had lived, the landscape of my dreams. I was thrilled to find I remembered the way, after all the years. But many of the streets around their home are blocked off. They lived in Harehills, near Chapeltown, where the vile Yorkshire Ripper murdered and mutilated the prostitutes who used to help my grandad home in the dark. Many of the roads were closed with bollards, to deter kerb crawlers and later, apparently, joy-riders.
Harehills was almost a slum when I was growing up, and Chapeltown became famous only for a succession of riots. It seems a little cleaner now, but still in disrepair, and my grandparents’ terrace so tiny I could barely believe a family could fit inside.
I lived in Leeds for the first 12 years of my life, in four different places. I forgot to go and look at the house where I grew up with my dad, and I lost my lift before I could ask her to take me to the cemeteries.
That didn’t matter too much, since I hadn’t bought the whisky.
When I came back through the duty-free section at the airport in Australia, I used the money to get a bottle of brandy for myself instead.
It’s what my grandad would’ve wanted.
I sat at home and poured myself a burning glass, and let the liquor wash me to sleep.
That night, the dreams, long dormant returned to me. And they’ve been with me ever since.
MARK DAPIN | GOOD WEEKEND, 2014