Gran spreads out her knickers on the baking tray.
I hardly dare peek: my mother says it’s a crime to stare at undies, especially those of old people.
But Gran doesn’t care.
Next, she reaches for the string that loops across the kitchen and tugs my undies off it. Laying them carefully beside her own, she slides the tray into the oven.
Gran is weird – but a good sort of weird. She bakes bread in a flowerpot, and grows mustard and cress on wet facecloth. At Christmas, she sends me home-made fudge in a used can of chick peas, with a dollar coin taped to the bottom. The label is amended with black pen to Chuck Pea, her pet name for me. I’ve kept all the cans she has ever sent.
There’s a pop as the gas ignites; Gran beams. “Friendly flames on a freezing morning; what could be better?” As I watch the flames, she stretches across and ruffles my hair. I duck away, though secretly I love the touch of those soft, wrinkled hands.
How will I explain to mum this evening that Gran set fire to my clothes? My mother’s moods are brittle and unpredictable; she could do anything. At home, I study her emotions with guilty intensity. When the world overpowers her, I know I’ll be shipped off to Gran’s again so my mother can recover.
Gran’s cottage is adrift on sand; soon it must collapse into itself. The window frames hang warped and rotten; the siding has sprung apart. Through the gaps you can see snow-covered dunes and the grey, churning ocean beyond. I woke this morning to windows that were a filigree of ice ferns; my blanket was covered with dew. I love Gran’s wreck more than any other place on earth.
Though the oven is starting to warm, we can still see our breath. “Cold days mean comfort food” Gran announces, as she flattens the dough. “Chuck – it’s time to cut the cinnamon scones.”
I hardly dare turn away from the flickering flames. If I don’t keep watch, I know my underwear will blacken and smoke and burn.
But I love the soft springiness of the dough in my hands, so I hurry to cut scones with an upside-down mug, and within moments they are safely swapped with the tray of undies.
My pants are as hot as toast. “Put them on,” orders Gran, “you’ll never forget the feeling.”
I turn my back so Gran can’t see, then I pull the pants up under my dressing gown. The heady fragrance of the cinnamon scones as they spread and rise, and the feel of hot cotton against my skin flood my senses.
If only I’d known that I’d never see Gran again.
It is the first funeral I have been to. I feel desperately sorry for Gran because there are so few people; the hall should be packed, but snow has been filling the country roads. Heavy flakes tumble down ceaselessly, whitening the coffin in moments as it is wheeled towards the crematorium.
The priest is distant, concerned only about finishing before snow makes his departure impossible. Gran was “indomitable,” he says; “a one-off, a well-loved character”. But his words are passionless; he didn’t know her at all. My mother is lost in one of her dreams; Gran’s death means nothing to her either. In the whole world, only I really understood Gran.
Snow piles in the lanes outside as the coffin, sliding silently through the curtains and into the darkness, bears Gran towards the flames.
Gran’s voice wells up within me, blotting out everything else: “Friendly flames on a freezing morning – what could be better?” I bury my head in my hands and sob.
Hugh Cartwright lives in the Pacific Northwest, where writing provides relief from his hopeless goal of growing Canadian oranges.