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Grandad’s Smile

Grandads smile


Estimated reading time — 14 minutes

Grandad is dead at the dinner table. He’s been sitting there for forty minutes and no one else has noticed. He’s still wearing the pink paper hat that came out of his Christmas cracker, and he’s smiling – He’s smiling at me.

I’m eight years old when this happened. We’ve just finished Christmas dinner and Mum is busy clearing the plates away, while my Dad and Sister are in the lounge, arguing about what film to watch next. I’m sitting in the chair opposite the recently deceased and I’m currently not allowed to leave the table until I’ve finished all of my green beans – the only thing more disgusting than a dead body, in my opinion. Mum appears from the kitchen with a steaming hot cup of tea and places it down in front of her father.

“There you go, Dad”, she says lovingly, followed by a kiss on his wrinkled cheek. His own daughter, flesh and blood of his own loins, can’t see that he’s gone. Perhaps if he had been a man who said “Please”, and “Thank you” every once in a while, she may have noticed his unresponsiveness. But he never did, so the rudeness passed by without remark. I heard adults talk before about how old people become ‘invisible’, but this was the first time I had witnessed a disregard towards the elderly in real life. Before this, in my ignorant youth, I thought they meant that literally. Like…would you suddenly be imbued with the power of invisibility when you turned sixty or something? I was looking forward to it; think of all the pranks you could play on people, or the secrets you could learn…or the things you could steal. I guess even back then I had something wrong with me, because I didn’t want to tell the others about Grandad – not just yet. And I didn’t feel sad about it either. Why would I? Grandad was a nasty prick who never missed a chance to get a rise out of me. A gaslighter through-and-through. No cuddly, wise-old sage to be seen here, just a bitter, black hearted old miser. Scrooge, but without the spark of hope buried deep down within. The only thing that lay deep inside of him were rancid skunk farts strong enough to burn out a geiger counter. He hated me, and I hated him. It was just the way it had always been.

In truth, all I felt at that particular moment was excitement. I wanted to watch and wait – to see who would spot Grandad first. All the while I played a movie out in my head, exploring each possible reveal.

Mum would definitely go to pieces, she worshipped the ground that man stood on – God knows why. The hold he had over her would make most cult leaders envious. Dad was (for a man) very tearful. I could imagine him trying to keep it all together – for my mum’s sake, before falling to his knees and sobbing his eyes when the penny dropped. Finally, my sister never missed a chance to be a drama queen and be sure to mourn the loss of her Grandad, as if he had been her best friend in the whole world. When in reality, the pair of them barely acknowledged that one another existed. We’d just have to wait and see who wins the jackpot. We’re coming up to an hour now, can’t be much longer.

“I want a clean plate mister”. Mum warns me, on her way back to the kitchen, but I can tell from the weariness in her voice that she can’t be bothered with proper discipline today. She was working on her fourth glass of wine at the end of the meal, so perhaps that dulled her senses enough to not notice the corpse sitting at her table. Anyway, she’ll soon cave to my stubbornness, and then I’ll wolf down three portions of trifle before the Queen’s speech has started. You could set your watch by her lack of parental consistency. I do hope they don’t notice Grandad until I’ve had my trifle. That would be annoying. Speaking of the old Devil, he was looking like one of my action men now. It was surprising to me, just how quickly the dead turn into wax. His whole skin had drained into a creamy white mass. I see that same colour every week when I walk past the cheese counter at the supermarket. I thought about taking my knife and seeing if I could easily push it through his fingers to reveal the boneless, bloodless rubber within. Instead, I settled for jamming my fork underneath the nail of his index finger.

When I first noticed he’d stopped breathing I’d kicked him hard in the groin a few times, to make sure he really was gone, but it didn’t hurt to double check. The prongs seeped into the finger tip a couple of centimetres then hit the bone and stopped. “Take that you old shit”, I whispered to myself. That’s for every time you pretended you couldn’t hear me, and yelled, “Speak up boy!”, right in my face, covering me in your acid spittle. For all the times you’d tripped me up with your cane, and then laughed your rotten self silly with amusement. And for the farts – those fucking farts. Always had one on standby for me didn’t you? Ready to unleash from your ancient bowels, whenever I had to pass you in the corridor. And then to top it off you’d blame it all on me! All my friends’ Grandad’s showered them with love and gifts: Took them to the park for a kick-around, taught them carpentry, or showed them how to fix cars. Christ, I would have settled for one pleasant, “Hello” from the man – how pathetic is that? Thinking about it, the first genuine smile he’d ever shown my way, was the one he had plastered on his dead face right now. Everyone else in my family was either somehow blind to his arsehole-ness, or just too scared to argue back. Any complaints I made were always written off, as me being ‘too sensitive’.

I twisted the fork clockwise and in doing so, nursed his fungus ridden nail away from its bed. The unskinned meat beneath glistened like hot lava. The rush of power I felt in that moment was incredible, but that euphoria soon evaporated when I looked back at Grandad’s smiling face. Only now, he wasn’t smiling. He was grinning. The old tramp only had three teeth left in his head, so it wasn’t much of a grin, but nevertheless those eroded yellow fangs were now on full display, when they definitely hadn’t been moments before. In shock, I released the fork (still embedded in his nail) and sank back into my chair as far as I could. I almost forgot myself entirely and was about to scream out for parents’ help, but managed to compress the yelps before they left my throat. Immediately, I began to rationalise. He was dead. I knew that for certain. I had waited such a long time to be sure. It must have been something I had done. I must have used too much force with the fork. Enough to knock his jaw loose and make it appear as if he was grinning. That term at school we had learned about how the human body is controlled by a series of electromagnetic responses and chemical reactions. Maybe…I hit a dimly functioning nerve ending, which made his mouth twitch? Or perhaps random body movements were all just part of the decomposition process? I should have paid more attention to the teacher and not spent so much time doodling skulls in the back of my science book. But these theories were overshadowed by a bigger question, one that had been playing on my mind ever since I noticed that the cantankerous shitbag had popped his clogs. What was he even smiling about? What thought could have passed through that cesspit of an organ he called a brain to induce such glee before the lights finally went out? If it was enough to make him smile, I’m sure I don’t want to know. Maybe the bastard just wanted to give me one last scare before he left this earth?

The fear left as quickly as it had arrived and now I’m grinning right back at him. Soon I had to cover my mouth to stop the sound of my laughter, as a joke popped into my head, “Hey Grandad – Maybe I should…“Speak up boy?” – Let everyone know that you’re worm food?” But no – I won’t. I’m staying stum. You can sit there and rot for a bit longer. I look back at the fork sticking out of his mutilated finger, and see three small bloods leaking onto the table cloth. Soon a small stream began to stem from the finger and I cursed myself for getting carried away in my revenge. If anyone saw the blood the game would be up too quickly – and I’d also get done for desecrating a corpse.

I had to get rid of the evidence. I checked my peripherals; Mum was still dossing about the kitchen and I could still hear my Dad and sister voices reverberating from the lounge – The film choice argument was still not resolved. I yanked the fork from Grandad’s finger, releasing a spurt of pressure. Then I flicked the fork over and scooped the prongs underneath Grandad’s veiny wrist. Using all my strength, and many years of practice playing arcade claw games, I raised his hand up and dragged it over to the right, until it was hovering directly above the still boiling hot cup of tea. Then, with all the precision of a magician’s tablecloth trick, I whipped the fork out from beneath his wrist and sent his bleeding hand tumbling into the boiling bath below. My plan worked surprisingly well, his old shrunken fingers were just the right size to fill the depth of the cup without knocking the whole thing over. Only a few drops of tea shot over the rim and splashed onto the dinner table. As the steam rose up from the cup it perfumed the air with a new smell of macerated flesh (which still smelt better than green beans). I pulled the napkin out from around my neck and mopped up the rest of the spilt blood and tea from the table, then sat back in my chair, just before mum walked back into the room. Again she didn’t pay attention to her father in the slightest, caring only about the contents of my plate, “I want all these greens gone in the next five minutes, or no trifle”. With her final warning handed down, she went back to the kitchen – the sound of a cork popping off a fresh bottle of wine came not thirty seconds later. Now I knew I had plenty of time to get rid of these rancid vegetables. And for once, Grandad was going to be of some use to me.

I slid off my chair, grabbed the beans from my plate and then stuffed them into his cold mouth. They slid with ease over his toothless gums – it was the easiest ‘hole in one’ I’ve ever had in my life. But even sitting down he was still a lot taller than me, so I could only get them in so far. I took a moment to observe and record this image fully in my memory. He really looked quite the sight. The green tendrils dangling from his mouth made it look like he had some kind of alien creature bursting out of him. I took my trusty fork again and pushed the rest of them all the way to the back of his throat, until they disappeared from sight. Then I punched his mouth shut. The force of the uppercut made his pink paper hat slide down over his eyes and somehow…his mouth formed back into a smile.
“Mum…I’m finished”. I shouted with savoured glee.
“Ok dear”, She replied – the alcohol already breaking down her words into their bare vowels. And with that, I leave Grandad – blinded, gagged, and all alone.

I cast the winning vote in the film choice – Muppets’ Christmas Carol – the only real choice. The muppet had just finished their opening musical number about Scrooge when mum’s scream sent us all jumping to our feet. My Dad and sister barrel into the dinning room. I file in dutifully behind them, trying to build up some tears in order to look suitably distressed. Once in the room the three of them break into a state of panic. Soon, I joined them.

Grandad wasn’t smiling anymore. He wasn’t even sitting at the table. He was on the floor, with his hands around his throat. His cheese coloured skin was now a lively reddish-blue. His arms and legs jolted on the floor intermittently, like how my toys did when their batteries were running low. Mum is on her knees next to her fallen father, sobbing, trying frantically to unlock her phone screen, but her hands are shaking too much from the booze and the stress. Dad takes action immediately, he dives to the floor and starts a half-remembered, fumbled version of the heimlich manoeuvre on Grandad. The old man’s bones break like bread sticks. Bless Dad for trying, but the kiss of life, it was not. My sister navigates to the furthest corner of the dinning room and starts screaming incessantly – No bloody help as usual. Meanwhile, I quickly move over to the pile of vomit by the side of the table that no one has noticed yet and do my best to crush any visible green beans into the carpet with my heel. My heart somersaults in my chest as I watch Dad spend ten minutes slamming his father-in-law’s body around like a pinata, before he admits defeat and starts balling like a baby. “He’s gone”, my father announces, with no medical authority whatsoever. But it looks like he’s right – just like that, Grandad stops moving and turns back to wax. Mum still can’t unlock her phone, so I take it from her limp hands and do it for her (like all good children I knew her pass code by heart). I’m pretending to dial 999, thanking god this is all over, when something burning hot wraps around my bare ankle. I look down and Grandad’s eyes meet mine – sort of. They’re full white, rolled all the way back to oblivion. He’s holding me with his right hand – The scalded one. It’s littered with broken boils that open and close like a thousand hungry mouths. Blood from his ripped off nail runs down my foot and in between my toes. He flaps his lips, but no sound comes out. Instead, he seems to suck the sound out of the room completely. It goes so quiet, as I stare into those snowstorm scleras, that I think I must be dead too.

Mum comes to my rescue. She pulls her father off me and blubbers some rubbish about how he needs to, ‘hold on’ and ‘stay with us’, but as soon as she lays him on his back he’s not breathing. Now his lungs have stopped, mine can finally start again. That last jump scare must have finished him off – for all the man’s faults, you can’t say he wasn’t a fighter. Without me realising Dad had taken the phone from my hand and had made it through to the operator. He starts a frantic rundown of the situation, but then Mum barks at him to stop. She draws Grandad’s arms over his chest and then buries her face into his hands – the universally accepted grieving pose, of knowing that a person’s life has come to an end. Then the crying properly starts. Her body bucks in great snivelling bouts. The dry hyperventilating accompanied by the shivering rush seems to shrink her body smaller and smaller. I go to place a comforting hand on her back, but before I make contact, she suddenly stops crying. Her head raises up. She’s looking down at Grandad’s hands with a puzzled expression on her face. Quickly, she turns his non-scalded hand over and removes something threaded in between the withered fingers. It’s small, about the size of a postage stamp and when she spins around to show us all the mystery behind Grandad’s final smile is revealed.

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I instantly recognise the colourful, crumpled piece of paper – It’s one of the ‘joke slips’ that came out of our Christmas crackers. Like most people we never bothered reading that rubbish, their only destination is the bin, but on this occasion it seems Grandad held on to his. Mum keeps staring at it, her eyes running over the tiny printed words again and again. Dad asks what it says, but she ignores him and continues to burn a hole in the paper. I snake behind her and thread my arms around her neck in a caring embrace, but of course, I just want to see what it says. Bizarreness followed.

Question: What did Grandad say before he kicked the bucket?
Answer: “How far do you think I can kick the bucket”?

At the time, I noted the creepy coincidence, but I was certain that’s all it was. I didn’t think the old goat had one funny bone in his decrepit body, but it fits that if anything were to amuse him, it would be gallows humour…even rubbish gallows humour. Maybe that’s why they make those jokes so terrible in the first place, they’re designed to make you appreciate the good jokes all the more. Just like how a terrible person can make you value and cherish the nice people that you meet in life – Basic human conditioning. Turns out I gave myself too much credit, Grandad was never smiling at me, he was smiling to himself. Amused by his own mortality, maybe even at peace with it, before he felt it starting to slip away from him…what else can a person do in that situation but smile. And then I went ahead and stuck green beans down his throat…well, it was an honest mistake.
I figure now is the time for me to release some crocodile tears and bring the curtain down on this whole event. Dad embraces me and mum with his sweaty arms. Then he beckons my still screaming sister over to complete the family hug. Her irritating scream finally gives out as she waddles over and joins us. I have to admit, being buried at the centre of that grieving mass, I felt an inner peace like I’ve never experienced before or since. Imagine finally returning to the womb, that’s what it felt like. Living in that moment for only a handful of minutes completely justified the traumatic event of watching an old man choked to death in front of us. A true Christmas miracle!

Just a shame that I never got my trifle…
The condition that affected dear, departed Grandad is called Catalepsy. You would have seen it illustrated before in countless films and tv shows for dramatic effect – but, I promise you, this was a rare example of its real world application.

Definition: A medical condition, characterized by a trance or seizure with a loss of sensation and consciousness accompanied by rigidity of the body. This includes overall slower bodily functions – particularly breathing.

So, it seems I jumped the gun a bit…in my defence, I was only eight years old, and also people rarely ever recover from catalepsy. Death isn’t usually far off, so you might say I just sped up the inevitable. Your welcome, Grandad. The official cause of death was recorded as choking, followed by unsurvivable cardiac arrest. Luckily for me, the coroner attributed the injuries I inflicted upon Grandad’s pelvis, finger and face, to my Dad’s clumsy life saving attempt (Sorry Dad) It was all wrapped up in a neat little bow – just like a rubbish joke inside a christmas cracker.

Mum doesn’t really talk about that day, she blames herself too much. Now you don’t often see her without a drink in her hand. When she’s on a real bender, those dark thoughts she harbours in the back of her mind sometimes form into words and fly from her mouth.
“So strange he should choke…I’m sure his plate was empty when I took it away. Why, the only food left on that table…was your green beans”. And then she would give me a loaded stare, just for a second – before washing away any lingering suspicions she may have about her only son, with another good glug of wine. Oh, what parents’ won’t do for their children, eh?

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One small tradition does live on from that eventful day. Every Christmas since, we gather around that same table and raise a toast to Grandad’s memory before tucking into our meal. No one ever wanted to sit in the chair Grandad died in, so Dad threw it away. Now this six seater table only has five chairs. I find the lack of symmetry rather disturbing, but not as disturbing as what happens next. For even though I did escape punishment, I have ended up paying for my sins. Be it real, or purely physiological, all I know is how goodman real it feels. The moment our glasses clink together, it starts. Sometimes its an instant thing, over and done within five minutes, or ( and what seems to be happening more frequently) the full torture can play out over a period of hours.

“Speak up boy!” – Says the familiar gravelly voice that only I can hear. Then my nostrils begin to burn from the scent of a rancid fart no one else seems to notice. Finally, a red hot tightness coils itself around the ankle – the exact same place where I got grabbed all those years ago – and pain starts firing up my leg. The voice continues, “I’ll be here with you, until you…speak up boy! You want me gone? You better tell them all what you did.”, Grandad instructs me. But I know better – he won’t go, not even if wrote a signed confession to the police. He’s having too much fun. I can see his shadow right now, watching from the empty space where his chair should be. Don’t ask me how I know, but I can assure you – he’s still smiling.

I suppose there are things I could do to try to stop the curse, if that’s the right word for it? I could avoid the dinner all together – try not join in on the toast perhaps? Or maybe just spend a couple thousand pounds on therapy? My worry is, that if I do any of those things…I think this evil might follow me elsewhere. This ritual of torture seems to suit Grandad’s spirit – I think it contains him, and that’s good. I figure, just like Christmas itself, you only have to suffer through it once a year – and it’s always better to be haunted in some company I reckon. So, I do my best to stumble through the meal; Attempt to make out what everyone else is saying, while the voice in my head screams bloody murder. Try not to gag from the smell that makes my eyes sting. Talking when the pain allows and slowly eating what I can…but for me that’s probably the worse bit. Ever since that Christmas Grandad died, I’ve really struggled with my food.

You see now everything just tastes like…green beans.

Credit: Alex Blackwood

Please note, the author of this story does not give permission for it to be used for any form of narration.

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