I’m sitting in front of the electric fire, wrapped in a crocheted throw that Granny made for me when I was a wee girl. I’d asked her for a blanket with all the colours of the rainbow for my birthday so it’s a glorious eyesore, but it’s familiar and toasty and that’s all I need right now. I could do with some Ovaltine, but surprisingly, there’s none in the kitchen.
Yes, that’s what’s surprising about this. Granny’s lack of Ovaltine.
He’s a nice man. Kind. You know those people that you just warm to, even before they’ve said a word?
Even if they’re claiming to be your time travelling grandfather.
Except he’s not claiming that, not really. He doesn’t know what happened to him.
Any more than I do.
Wait, focus. I’m going to try to start at the beginning and get all this down in some kind of order or else I think the thoughts ricocheting around my brain will make my head spin right off.
I don’t know why my first reaction wasn’t to ring an ambulance for Granny. She said herself that she was worried she was losing it when she first saw him on the street a couple of weeks ago. She thought she was seeing his ghost.
But whatever Nate may or may not turn out to be, he’s flesh and blood. I shook his hand when he left, though he hesitated slightly and I realised later that maybe women don’t shake hands in… his time. Then a second later I thought about Cara’s story and wondered if he was going to crumble to dust, but no. He just smiled at Granny in this sweet, wistful that clutched at my heart even as my head was spinning, and he took his leave.
Sorry, sorry, I’m jumping about.
According to Nate, after he had to travel back to the US with his regiment at the end of 1945, he went straight to Chicago to work in a car factory for a few months to save up the fare back to Scotland. “I was raised to be a farmer,” he said in his soft voice. “But I always wanted to work with cars. I ‘ain’t never happier than when my hands are covered in oil.”
He does sound unmistakably American, but in this curiously clipped, precise sort of way that reminds me of black and white films Granny and I used to watch on rainy Sunday afternoons.
He’s from Indiana.
When he told us that bit I physically jumped and nearly dropped the cup of tea I don’t remember Granny giving me.
She looked a helluva lot like you.
I butted in to ask if he had siblings or nieces, and he looked a bit startled then said that his sisters were all much younger than him, the last time he saw them they were children but…
But seventy years have passed since then.
Granny was quiet during all this. I suppose he must have told her the story before I arrived, so she let me question him, but even so, silence is uncharacteristic for her. I glanced over at her a few times, and it was unsettling. Her eyes were sparkling, and the way she sat, upright with her ankles crossed together like a drawing on an old fashioned elegant dress pattern… it was as though I could see her at sixteen. I don’t mean literally, it was just now and then, I glimpsed the Granny – the Elsie – that Nate knew. It’s funny, you always think of your parents or grandparents as just there, as having sprung into being as parents and grandparents. It never really occurred to me to wonder why she stayed single all those years, but suddenly I saw the woman who had waited for her lost love all these years.
And it made me really, really want it to be true.
However nuts the thought of him somehow having turned up like this, however frightening the implications might be, I want him, somehow, in some way, to be Nathan Williams, missing grandfather.
Back to his story. Finally he had enough for the passage and, hoping against hope that he would make it in time for my mother’s birth, he travelled to Boston and headed back across the Atlantic. When he arrived in Glasgow, he straight went to the bakery where Granny had worked during the war – right round the corner from Cara’s restaurant – and was told that she had gone home to Islay.
Granny finally piped up then, and said that her parents had offered to take care of her and the baby if she came home to the farm she’d grown up on, and it seemed to be the best solution. She lasted until Mairi – my mum – was about six months old before deciding she was bored out her bonkers and heading back to the city.
I didn’t know that.
I knew that Granny was originally from Islay of course, her total distain for any whisky that doesn’t taste like a campfire is proof enough of that, but I’d had no idea my mother was born there. My head filled with questions, did her parents accept her as an unmarried mother? Didn’t they pressure her to give the baby up or anything? Isn’t that the kind of thing that happened in those days? Why did I never ask her any of this before?
But those questions would have to wait, because Nate picked up his story again to explain that he hitch hiked as far as Kennacraig – “there was a steam ship that went right fae Glasgow in those days,” muttered Granny – where he begged the loan of a fishing boat and set out into the Irish Sea.
The night sky. A stormy sea.
I hadn’t even noticed the riptide of prickles rushing up my spine, but it was at that moment that they crashed over me and I fainted.