The opening chapter of English Monsters, published by Jonathan Cape on 5th March 2020.
My grandfather liked to be in bed before the nine o’clock news, so he started drinking early and worked fast. The first cork was drawn around five, and another would soon follow. By the time the headlines came on he’d have eaten his bedtime cereal and left his teeth grinning in the washing-up bowl to soak until morning.
With each finished bottle, the call for the next would go up with more alacrity, and he’d make a point of including me in the moment – especially if, as on this occasion, we had company.
‘Max!’ he said. ‘Be a good lad. Shin up that counter and fetch us the Frenchman.’
The tingle of hearing my name on his voice: adrenalised excitement, well short of fear, but enlivening still. He knew just how to pitch it. I had been eating my bread and butter, happily submerged, adult chatter breaking over me like sunlit surf. But he would never leave you alone down there for long.
Up I sprang, eager to keep them at the table. Buttery light on the yellow butter, always on the turn because it never went in the fridge. The corkscrew, a French one with arms and vertebrae, had its own nail on the wall, and what with the soft loaf, the two cold roast chickens, the ripe tomatoes and several cheeses on the go, it was time to open another. This was in 1986. The usual Sunday-night quartet of me, my grandparents and my Great-Aunt Dee. I was ten.
He might easily have left the corkscrew on the table between bottles, but then there’d have been no role for me. No chance for the sound of my name on his voice.
‘And when he’s older, he’ll say, My old grandad used to make me climb the kitchen units to get the corkscrew down when he wanted another bottle opening. What will he think of us?’
He had a way of banking memories for me like that. Much of the time I didn’t notice him doing it, but this evening I clocked him instructing me to remember. Consequently, the instant is bookmarked. The striped T-shirt I was wearing. The scrape of my leg on the Formica as I climbed. Window blinds teased by the breeze. Their lined faces lit golden. One moment like many others that flares on demand because he told me to keep it.
One of the birds on the board had now been picked clean by him. He raised it in his palm, slick skin ribboning beneath, and whistled for his collie.
‘Bob. Not at the table,’ said my grandmother. But Jack only had ears for him and gently took the carcass from his hand. ‘By goodness I shall make you jump if any of that gets on my floor.’
His voice dropped to an urgent whisper, his special canine frequency. ‘Goo’n’see.’
The dog surged outside, nails skittering on the quarry tiles, despoiling them only with spots of saliva.
Jack was the latest in a long line of collies with scrambled parentage and unpredictable tempers. He was a known biter, but I had a sense of what lines not to cross and he’d never gone for me.
‘I thought you weren’t to give them chicken bones,’ said Dee.
A familiar look of disgust fell over my grandfather’s face. ‘That only mattered when we ate brittle old broiler hens! These pullets you get now are so young, they bend. I wouldn’t even need my teeth in.’
As he spoke, his strong, dark-wrinkled hands swept the table for crumbs, wetting them to a paste with a dribble of wine and packing it into the knothole near the top of his plate. He did this at every meal, tamping down the fudge of food with his thumb then smoothing it over. He’d made the table himself from a diseased elm and it was as if he were always trying to finish the job. My grandmother thought it a disgusting habit, and would ream out the knothole when he was elsewhere, but it was always replenished again by the end of the next meal.
When he reached the cheese and was a bottle or two down, the pace would slow, because this was the best bit. He’d run his hands up and down his forearms, then back to the tabletop. He did this with my limbs too sometimes, appraising my grain as he might that of a piece of wood. Then he would sit back from the table, which affected the mood, since he was a big man, and home in on a story.
He’d circle for a while, refining his angle of attack. No account could begin without dissent. Only when he and my grandmother had haggled out an opening could we proceed.
It must have been that wet spring when the lambs all got daggy.
Yes, good Lord, do you remember, you had to shear the lot in two days.
I went to Cambridge that winter to buy a thresher.
You never did. You’ve dreamt that.
The misfires were essential to the engine’s ignition. It was as much an exercise in digesting their lives as an act of storytelling. They were moving into their late sixties. Many of their cherished people were gone, and there were few photos. So they sat around these Sunday evenings going over the dead. Rendering memories like stock. Addressing the bewilderment of having lived.
Poor old Ev. She’d love to be here now with a glass of wine and a fag.
She’d be ninety next year.
Would she really?
This was the late mother of my grandmother and my great-aunt. But it might just as easily have been his best friend Jim who died at Arnhem, or his Uncle Harry who shot off his own arm while vaulting a gate.
War stories might ensue. How my grandmother cycled into Coventry to work the morning after it was razed and fell into a bomb crater. How he stayed to farm and joined the Home Guard and watched his mates disappear. My attention would wax and wane with my understanding, but he always hauled me back if he sensed I had been alone for too long.
I had dipped out again, fallen away somewhere. He’d noticed.
‘Pay attention, boy,’ he said, with mock severity. ‘We haven’t always lived like this. We worked bloody hard. You need to work bloody hard as well, you hear?’ I nodded, trying to smile. ‘He’s not listening to a word. Never mind. Maybe some of it will sink in. I remember my grandad, and how hard he worked, so it must keep somehow. He was a marvel, my dad’s dad. He rented one farm from Lord Binley but he ran two more on top of that. He worked a thousand acres. By the time he retired he had two sets of thatching tackle, two steam engines, the lot. He went like hell. You’ve got to go like hell, you hear?’
His big hand ferreting into my abdomen.
‘I will,’ I said, hoping to acknowledge the moment and get it over with.
‘What about your father?’ said Dee. ‘It didn’t go so well for him, did it?’
‘It was harder for him. The twenties were rough for farming. Then again, he and his brothers were useless. It skips a generation, I reckon.’ He shot me a look I didn’t understand.
Dee pulled a Rothmans from her packet and it dangled from her arthritic fingers, shaming their root-like gnarliness. My grandfather leaned over, eyes widened in my direction, and with a quick pull upwards from beneath his trousers produced a lit match. The old routine delighted me still. He held the flame for her then popped it in his mouth, chewing and swallowing with contentment. I’d yet to catch him removing the spent matchstick. Dee pulled in the smoke then exhaled a blue line that smelled acrid and delicious and tapered into marbled layers above us.
‘Then of course the younger Lord Binley took over,’ he said. ‘And his daughter turned out to be a bit of a goer. We found her knickers in a field once after she’d had a tumble with one of the local lads.’ Always the stray possibility here that the lad in question had been him, if you sought the glint in his eye.
‘You never did.’
‘His Lordship was no better. He was a tup. He had a wooden prick.’
‘Yes, he was up half the night, wasn’t he?’ said Dee.
‘Famous for it. He had a special Rolls-Royce, with a trapdoor in the back.’
‘For goodness’ sake, Bob,’ said my grandmother.
‘What?’ I said, sensing mischief. ‘Why did it need a trapdoor?’
‘Can’t you guess?’
‘Bob, do you have to? The boy’s ten years old. What’ll I tell his mother when she asks me where he’s got these stories from?’
‘His mother knows the story too. He had the trapdoor so he could stand up when he had a friend in the back with him.’
‘He never did,’ said Dee.
‘He did. So he could park somewhere and have a proper bit of leg-over room.’
‘You’ve got a filthy imagination.’
‘And one day he was up one of the lanes giving some girl a seeing-to when the car got shunted by a tractor. Broke both his legs. Nearly took them off.’
Dee was a good accomplice. She was shorter than my grandmother, and wickeder, and had the dirtier laugh. She had had quite a life. She was never not in poor health. After the war she’d married a Pole called Joe who had since died, and she was fond of saying she was going on top of Joe when her time came. She called me genius, and I could ask her anything so long as I didn’t ask her how she was.
Eventually I might summon the courage for an intervention of my own, always mindful of the danger of accidentally going too far. You could say anything to him and Dee, but my grandmother was more shockable, or pretended to be. Earlier that evening my grandfather had told the one about the man from Devizes, so it seemed only natural for me to recite now the next one I knew, even if I wasn’t sure why it was funny.
There was a young fella from Ghent
Whose prick was so long that it bent
To save him the trouble
He kept it bent double
And instead of coming, he went.
‘Good Lord,’ said my grandmother.
But he was off. He was beyond speaking. Keeping eye contact with me, then shifting it to Dee as the laughter played out in waves.
It wasn’t the limerick itself, which he had almost certainly told me in the first place. It was the words on my lips. Ten-year-old Max with the smart mouth, what a precocious fellow.
‘To think he knows something like that,’ said my grandmother. ‘Isn’t it awful?’
And instead of coming, he went. I just thought it meant he was facing the wrong way.
Always a suspended moment after the first gale of laughter had blown through. Always the chance it might settle into a silence that bordered on discomfort, in which I realised later they were questioning their status in loco parentis and wondering if they had exposed me to too much. But this time I got lucky. Just as the hilarity was fading it got a boost from Jack the collie, who sidled in, opened his jaws and brought up the chicken carcass in a grey heap on the floor. By the time my grandmother had banished the dog, mopped up the sick and disinfected the site, she was laughing as much as the rest of us.
He would send me to the piano in the next room to clatter through a few simplified Scott Joplin rags while they did the dishes, then we’d take in the last of the daylight outside. Tonight we were throwing a heavy oak ball he’d turned on his lathe for the dogs. He hurled it with big, underarm sweeps down the track that led to the park. The lump of wood hung aloft, unspooling slobber lending it a tail like a tossed hammer, then came to earth, kicking up clouds of late-summer light. Jack and the pup competed to bring it back until the ball was splintering and the dogs’ gums foamed with a pink emulsion of blood and saliva.
‘There’s nowhere better than this,’ he said, savouring the day’s final grassy exhalations. ‘This is as good as it gets.’
Then the sun slipped off and the air cooled and I went round with him as he saw to the animals. The dogs slept in a stable near his workshop in a packing crate filled with straw and sawdust and the heavy reek of dog meat dog breath dog hair dog. Their food was in unlabelled wholesale cans shrink-wrapped and stacked on a pallet. He pulled two tins from the tray, turned them in the wall-mounted opener, then shook the contents of each into a bowl, the cans sucking at the cylinders of meat as he jerked them out. He dumped the cans and lids in another packing crate and stood back to watch them eat over the stable’s half-door.
‘Twenty pence each I pay for these tins. I tried to get them down to one between them last year. Then I thought Well, I suppose it’s Christmas, and started giving them one each again. Now they’re fat as pigs.’
He’d drop off in front of the television before bed. My grandmother was too deaf to hear what was on, preferring to sit in what she experienced as a companiable silence, puzzling over her poets. She had her favourites – Auden, Blake, Eliot – and she absorbed them in a constant cycle, waiting patiently for them to reveal themselves. For all that she did it in plain view, it was a private activity, and the extent of her musing only became clear to me after her death when I was old enough to decipher the questions in the marginalia of her Songs of Innocence and Experience and her Four Quartets. Like him, she hadn’t had a lesson since leaving school at fourteen.
Her recurrent fear was that he might have died without us noticing. She couldn’t hear his snoring unless it was very loud, so she assessed whether or not he was alive based on movement, and if he had been still for too long, her voice would pierce the air.
‘Bob? Are you with us?’
I had thought about telling her that I would listen so she didn’t have to worry about it, but I couldn’t think how to phrase the suggestion. Besides, the responsibility would have consumed me, and there was no changing their habits now. It took no more than two of her interventions to provoke the reassurance she required: a sudden inhalation like a punctured vacuum, with follow-up snorts and an uncanny rearrangement of his teeth. She’d have returned to her verses before the sequence had fully played out.
Whether this woke him or not, he would slope off soon for his nightcap of Coco Pops, then I’d hear his heavy treads on the stairs. Later, when I went to the kitchen sink to draw a glass of water, the teeth would be there waiting, somehow always a surprise, laced with tendrils of chocolatey milk.
He’d be up in the night, sitting for an hour with a pint of tea and the Farmers Weekly, but teeth were not required for that, and the dentures wouldn’t go back in until he got up for real at six, when he’d shuffle outside to unkennel the dogs and begin again.
This is how it went.
Fanciful perhaps to imagine some blood-wisdom transfused to me round that table, setting me up for the future. But his code for life did far more than amuse. It hard-wired compassion. Stoked outrage at cruelty. The credo was simple. Work hard. Live well. Be kind. Speak up. But especially speak up.