When I was ten my Grandad died, and I became more scared of him than ever. Not him exactly, but what he left behind.
Five days after the funeral, we visited my Nana with my Mum and Dad. My Mum was still crying herself to sleep at night. Nana made tea and juice and brought out slices of cake from, what she called, the well-wisher cake mountain. Mum and Nana talked about memories of when Grandad was alive: when he chased the neighbour’s cat up a tree; when he buried me up to my neck in the sand on the beach; how he always sucked his false teeth when he came in from the cold until they warmed up.
“They bother me,” he would say.
Mum and Nana don’t talk about Grandad’s darker side: how he had set a fire under the tree to teach the cat a lesson; when I was fully interred and completely stuck in the sand, packed in with stamps of his boot, he had walked away and didn’t come back for two hours; while his teeth warmed up he would shout and swear and order us about like an ornery drill sergeant.
Even though I was ten, I understood the grumpy old man was gone forever. He would never growl at me again, never cuff me behind the ear with his gnarled hands, never criticize my Dad or belittle my Mum. I was glad that he wasn’t there anymore.
I’d already had two cups of tea and a glass of juice and needed to go to the toilet. But I held it in. I did not want to climb past the photograph on the landing.
Mum started the time-to-go ritual by saying: “We should be off soon.”
I perched on the edge of the couch and rocked from thigh to thigh. Mum nudged me with her elbow, kept talking about Grandad, and motioned with her head towards the hallway. I understood. I had to go.
I said nothing as I stepped out of the living room and closed the door. Mum’s laughter became muted and blurry as if my ears were filled with cotton wool.
I looked up through the bannisters and saw the bend and tiny landing as the stairs turned ninety degrees towards the upper hallway. I saw the legs of the small table on that landing. I could not see the knick-knacks arranged on the table nor the framed photograph hung on the wall above it.
I advanced to the bottom of the stairs with short steps as a precaution against wetting myself and, in part, reluctance. I did not want to climb those stairs.
One step up and I would be able to see the photograph. And the photograph would be able to see me. It never blinked, it never slept, it never looked away.
There were twelve steps between where I stood and the landing. I heard Mum’s laugh again. The story must have been told. I wondered if they were already standing, edging towards the door. Had Dad already pulled out his car keys and uttered his “we really ought to go if we want to catch the traffic” line?
I had to hurry and climbed up one step.
I felt the eyes on me. That gaze pressed down against the top of my head. I could not, would not, look up.
The next three stairs were easy enough. I felt no increase in the pressure on the top of my head and no increase in the pressure on my bladder.
The fifth stair creaked. My joints seized tight. If I glanced up I’d be able to see the carpet of the landing. The pressure on my head increased to three times what it had been and shifted backwards as it tried to tilt my head. It wanted me to lift my eyes and meet the gaze of that never blinking stare. It was too soon. I would never make it to the toilet if I looked now.
Two more steps up and, if I looked up, I would be able to see the top of the small table with the knick-knacks on it. Only five stairs more to go.
When Grandad was alive, I had always found it hard to climb these stairs but now that he was dead? The photograph’s gaze had never been this strong. A spot on the crown of my head began to feel warm as the photograph watched my ascent. Tiny vibrations had started deep within my neck muscles as they attempted to resist the constant pressure that willed me to meet its gaze.
The eighth step creaked too. I felt the blood rush through my veins and my heart thump against the prison of my ribs. I was going to run, need to be pee or not, but the gaze pinned me to the eighth step like a lepidopterist might pin a butterfly to a felt board.
I had to keep going. I imagined ripping the pin from my upper thorax (chest) and flexing my powdery wings.
Released, I stepped up onto step nine with only three to go. My neck muscles gave a spasm, like a miniature cramp, and I lifted my head. I saw that the knick-knacks on the table were the same: a wooden plate painted with a forest scene; a small ceramic wren; a fir cone and a white shell. Each had their own tale of how they came to sit on this table.
My eyes crawled up the rose-patterned wallpaper to the bottom of the photo frame. Inside the frame sat a black-and-white photograph, which had been behind the glass since it was developed. It had no opportunity to oxidise or accumulate creases and folds. The picture was as pristine as the uniform and starched collar of the man posed within it.
He stood at attention.
The composition showed the upper torso of a man from his breast pockets to the top of his hat. I could not stop my eyes from their upward journey, past the shiny buttons and the row of ribbons and medals, past the sharply pressed, dazzlingly white collar of his shirt, past his clean-shaven cheeks and jaw. His gaze seemed to etch hot acid lines into my forehead as I continued to raise my eyes. The man’s lips were held tight into a thin white line. His nose was straight and strong. His cheeks, even in the monochrome of the photo, appeared ruddy, as if someone had applied rouge there. With an immense effort, I managed to skip past the eyes to the peaked cap he wore. The peak cast a shadow onto his unlined forehead. How often had I wished that his head had been angled down, or the sun had been shining higher so that the shadow cast by the cap be deep and low enough to hide his eyes?
My ten-year-old eyes met my Grandad’s twenty-six-year-old eyes through the lens of a forty-year-old photograph. His gaze was unforgiving and pitiless. He was a hard man for a hard time, and those eyes had held many young men in their thrall. He had ordered those men to kill for King and country. There was a seduction in those eyes, an abdication of responsibility, a siren’s call to death and destruction. What those eyes had seen had marked my Grandad as surely as I felt marked by them in turn. My eyes were seared by their heat, branded by their gaze.
I don’t know how long I stood there, dazzled, and I may still have been standing there if it wasn’t for a small spurt of wetness trickling down my thigh.
I closed my eyes, felt hot tears run down my cheeks, and wrenched my head to the side. I turned to the right and raced up the final steps until I gained the upper landing. I ran into the bathroom and slammed the door behind me.