It was Puzzle Time again. This was the fourth school night in a row, and a treat for them both. And though Nana had become more accustomed to grown-up wine-amplified chatter on evenings in with old friends, she loved this disruption to the norm. The sound of her granddaughter’s exclamations were welcomed and embraced by all the corners of the house.
Anya came speeding down the stairs, having changed out of her school uniform, and slid herself onto a chair at the wooden dining table, swinging her seven-year-old legs with the excitement of staying over. She planted a kiss on Nana’s smiling cheek. They were nearly done with the puzzle they’d started three days earlier – a picture of an amphitheatre under the sunshine in the ancient ruins of Petra. The world’s rose-red city. After three days, the empty stone-pink stage, a place where ancient dramas were once played out, was beginning to take form, piece by piece.
‘How was your day Anya? What did you learn today?’
Anya concentrated hard on a faded-pink puzzle piece while thinking back, to give her Nana an honest, considered answer.
Somewhere in the room, Nana’s phone gave out a text-message-tinkle. ‘I’ll check it in a second. Go on, tell me.’
‘Well, Sophie gave out invitations for her 7th birthday party. She gave me an invitation – it’s in my folder. Sophie’s my good friend – not my best friend – but my good friend. I think all my friends will be there.’
‘That sounds like fun. Does that mean you’ll have to buy Sophie a birthday present?’
‘Yes, I’ll wait for mummy to get back, then we’ll go shopping together – you can come too, Nana. Do you think mummy will be back by then?’
This four-day sleepover, especially during school time, was out of the ordinary – and out of the blue. And while enjoying this little person’s company, Nana hadn’t thought about what to tell Anya. She fiddled with a puzzle piece, spinning it between thumb and forefinger, while coming up with answer.
‘Why? Are you not having a good time with Nana?’
Anya looked up.
Nana smiled and winked.
Anya smiled back, shy and reserved all of a sudden. ‘Yes, I aaaaam.’
‘Good then.’ Nana put down the puzzle piece and walked towards the fridge. ‘Now, you carry on with that puzzle while I get us out some of those carrot sticks with hummus that you like so much. And tell me more about your day.’
Anya was more than happy to carry on. ‘Well Georgia, my other good friend, told me her granddad’s taking her to the farm this Saturday to feed the pigs and comb the pony’s tail. And she said there were chickens too. And they get to see the baby chicks being born.’ She traced her fingers along the edge of a puzzle piece in front of her while she spoke.
Nana came back to the table with a plateful of carrot sticks and bowlful of hummus to go with it. Anya studied her Nana’s face with the scrutiny of a seven-year-old about to ask a question she probably shouldn’t ask. ‘Nana, why don’t I have a granddad?’
Nana wasn’t Nana yet and Granddad wasn’t a granddad when he’d driven her through Jordan all those years ago. That’s how they’d met and got to know each other. He was earning money driving tourists around a country he’d come to love. She was the only woman travelling on her own. She had coloured beads around her wrist and neck, and a tattoo of a peacock on her shoulder. Her hair had been dyed a flaming red.
So he asked her questions. And answered hers about the deserts, the towns, the ruins of Jordan. They bonded over a love for liquorice tea, a shared sense of humour, wickedly dry, and a secret favourite pastime of solving fiendishly difficult jigsaw puzzles. He taught her his secret hummus recipe – the best she’d ever tasted. She told him of her dreams to visit all the places in the world she’d read about in books as a little girl. They teased each other about getting old and spending their years putting puzzles together all day long.
When she finally decided to head back to London, he came with her. They set up a home, where they’d spend evenings with friends. They started designing their own puzzles that he’d print onto wood and carve out for them. They drank wine and ate hummus and solved home-made jigsaw puzzles with the radio on in the background…
Nana switched the radio on. She and Anya weren’t making as much progress as she’d expected to make that evening. She picked up a puzzle piece and slotted it in smoothly, finishing up the set of stairs leading to the amphitheatre. She picked up another piece and spun it around between her fingers again. ‘That’s a really good question, pumpkin. You do have a granddad. Hasn’t mummy ever told you about him?’
‘Ummm. Nope. I never knew what a granddad was, but Georgia said everyone has a granddad, sometimes two granddads, and then at playtime I asked Sophie and she said her granddad lives with her. Do you know where my granddad is, Nana?’
Around the time he left, not-yet-Nana had been having odd, vivid dreams for a few weeks. So when she’d heard the front door gently open and click shut again, she thought nothing of the sound. She believed she’d dreamt it.
When she’d woken up alone in the morning she still hadn’t a single suspicion, no reason to suspect anything was wrong. Their half-finished puzzle and his half-empty wine bottle were still on the dinner table. He had kissed her cheek before sleep the previous evening, and rubbed the growing bump under her night shirt.
When, by lunchtime, she hadn’t heard anything, she assumed he must be busy at work. She cleared up last night’s dishes, made the bed, tidied the room. And it was only when she went to put her clothes away in the closet that she noticed the emptiness. Where there should’ve been shirts and trousers hanging, there was only now a phantom. It declared its dizzying presence through tobacco scent, the freshness of wood shavings from a day’s work, the smell of the solvent used to scrub ink off hands.
He’d left a note, the absurdly polite man. She hadn’t seen it coming. But she had to get herself together for the child she was about to bring into the world. Her child, not theirs. A few weeks later she had stopped wearing her wedding ring. Her memory of his young face didn’t match her own, ageing, so she let go of it. And though it took years, she eventually stopped thinking about how she’d react if she ever saw him again.
She helped Anya slot another piece into the puzzle. Then she picked up another, brought it close to her face and took in a gentle breath of the wood scent she’d pretended to ignore for decades. It still reminded her of him. He could’ve been there in the room with them.
‘Your granddad… he’s… I’m afraid I don’t know where he is, my lovely. He used to live here, many many years ago. But not anymore. I don’t think he’d be able to take you to the farm.’
As Nana said it, Anya turned her head towards a silhouette approaching the door outside. Children somehow always sensed when their parents were nearby.
Nana had forgotten to check her phone. The message said ‘I’ll make it back this evening. I’m bringing him with me’. Nana should’ve expected it – she knew where her daughter had gone. But before she could make anything of what she’d just read, Anya had run to open the door.
‘Mummy!’ They gave each other kisses and hugs.
‘Hello Anya, my dollface. How are you? Have you had fun with Nana?’
Nana approached the door to find her daughter wasn’t alone.
The man had ink under his fingernails. He was the jigsaw piece she had just held to her face. He was the hummus she’d just fed to her granddaughter. The flat pink stone of the Petra amphitheatre. The day she’d tried so hard to forget. He was his daughter’s curiosity. And as he stood in front of Nana now, he was the past. She stepped back. And she let him in.
by Roshni Goyate