These days, when I go to visit my grandparent’s bungalow I take loose, comfortable clothes that I don’t mind getting dirty, and sturdy work boots. Cliff and Sarah are old, and they’re only getting older, the amount they can do for themselves diminishing faster than they’re ready to admit. The jobs started out as small things. My grandmother would take my empty plate and nod towards the garden.
‘While you’re here, would you mind putting the lawnmower back in the shed? Your grandfather got it out but he now he’s feeling a little weak around the knees.’
Of course I’ll do that for you. Then, next time, it’s;
‘While you’re here, would you mind mowing the lawn? Your grandfather would, but his arthritis is giving him hell.’
Sure thing. Then it’s;
‘What do you know about cavity wall insulation? Your grandfather thought installation was included in the price but it turns out, no.’
Four hours of stapling fiberglass into the crawl spaces, while your grandfather makes suggestions from his armchair will naturally make a person reconsider the frequency of their visits. But, being the only relative who lives nearby, I bear the burden of visiting, making my assessment and reporting back to my aunts. I usually make the call as soon as I get home while the details are still fresh in my mind, to an aunt who has me on speakerphone, and I answer questions for a babble of voices.
‘How is her leg?’ someone unidentifiable asks from the other end.
They always begin with general enquiries about Cliff and Sarah’s health and wellbeing, the kind of straightforward questions my grandparents could answer for themselves, but this is only preamble.
‘Her leg’s better,’ I tell them, ‘she’s walking about town again. Actually…’
‘That’s great,’ someone cuts me off. ‘Did he forget anything this time?’
The aunts biggest fear is that either Cliff or Sarah will lose their marbles a long time before they die, and some kind of expensive healthcare will consume the inheritance.
‘Well,’ I hesitate. ‘He did call me Greg at one point, but he corrected himself pretty quick. Anyone know who Greg is?’
There’s a murmur from the other end as the Aunts confer.
‘We think he had a employee called Greg in the 70’s,’ they tell me, ‘a borderline retarded guy in the factory. He was probably thinking of that.’
I remember my grandfather giving me basic, step-by-step instructions as I held up strips of prickly insulation that drifted into my eyes.
‘I think you’re probably right. What else?’
There’s a long silence as everybody circles around the real meat of the matter.
‘How was the house looking?’ someone ventures. There are a lot of dimensions to this question, and I have to approach it carefully. If I tell them that the house is untidy, the aunts will take it as evidence that my grandparents can no longer cope. If there’s any sign of disrepair it could mean that Cliff and Sarah’s debility is now affecting the value of the house, which is secretly the main concern. When I tell them that Cliff visited a store I can hear the sharp intake of breath, and a tension that only dissipates when it turns out that he bought an object that will retain its value.
‘The house is fine.’ I tell them about the insulation and I can hear them looking to one another nodding. Insulation reduces the cost of living, and adds to sale value.
When I last visited them, my grandmother was standing before a mirror, tying up a shawl beneath her chin.
‘Will you help you grandad fix the video player?’ she said, ‘he’s got a tape stuck in there.’
‘I can do it,’ came a voice from the living room, and I peered around the door to see him sitting red-faced on the floor, the box marooned in the middle of he carpet. ‘Although I don’t think I can get up.’
My grandmother left once I had helped Cliff back into his chair, and I knelt before the TV, ready to fix whatever small problem they had before they could think up anything more strenuous for me to do.
‘Don’t worry about that,’ Cliff said, waving his hand as I plugged the machine back in. I had assumed that video player meant DVD but no, it seemed my grandparents still had a working VCR set up. I was afire with curiosity. I don’t know what happened to my VCR. Presumably I got rid of it at some point, sold or taken to a charity shop when the rise of DVD’s became insurmountable, but I don’t know for sure. To have no memory at all of how I dispatched such a once treasured item seems strange to me, flippant, like forgetting having abandoned a childhood pet.
‘Just leave it,’ said Clive, ‘We don’t use it much anyway.’ I told him it was weird to see a VCR player again. He looked offended. ‘That’s top of the line that is,’ he said, ‘that must have cost about three hundred quid.’ I asked him when. ‘Not long ago. Nineteen- ninety something I’m sure.’
I didn’t pursue the subject, not wanting to find out if he knew what year it was.
‘That’s probably quite expensive too,’ he said, prodding at something on the coffee table with his walking stick, ‘but I’ve got no idea how to use it.’ I shuffled across the carpet to see what he was talking about. It was a laptop. It took a moment to register that it was a laptop, because finding a laptop in my grandparents bungalow was totally anachronistic. It was like finding a laptop in an ammonite fossil.
‘It’s not ours,’ Cliff told me. Someone down the pub lent it to me, said it would help us keep in touch with the grandkids but…’ he shrugged. ‘The BT man said we could get to the internet because our of phone package, but I’m not sure. I haven’t been able to turn it on.’
I turned the computer towards me. It was a Toshiba, the same make as mine but a model up. Hitting the power button did nothing, but it was probably just out of battery.
‘You see if you can make it work,’ Cliff said, rising laboriously from his chair and leaving the room. ‘Personally I don’t think it does.’
The computer came to life as soon as I located the cable and plugged it in, and while it was loading I turned back to the VCR. With the power restored there was nothing obviously wrong with it, and I pressed the eject button. The tape popped out with a clunk and, wanting to make sure everything was working, I turned on the TV and pushed the tape back into the player. Two women immediately appeared on screen, rubbing their bodies against each other and cooing, while smooth saxophone music played in the background. The recording must have been at least fifteen years old; the women had wavy bouffant perms and were half-wearing bright spandex leotards. On the wall behind the bed was a Soundgarden poster and a shelf covered in wishing trolls. For a moment I was locked into the nostalgia of the room, but then the women cast aside their leotards and got more comfortable. Down the hall I heard the toilet flush and a door creak open, and I ejected the tape, sliding it back into its blank case.
Cliff hobbled back in to the living room where I was sitting on the sofa, the laptop on my knee, tapping away. He looked from me to the tape which was laying on the coffee table.
‘All fixed,’ I said, not looking up. ‘I’m making progress with the computer too. I’ll show you how to browse the internet if you like.’
He rolled his eyes at me and fell backwards into his armchair. Poor guy. A window to a whole universe of porno right here in the room, but beyond his reach. At least now he can work the VCR.