Elspeth was a dancer - though she wasn’t very good. She had been coerced into it at a young age and through some loose determination and a lack of anything else to do, had continued progressing quite well up until the age of eight. This was apparently the age at which she could either plateau or choose to fully transcend her bodily form and become more dancer than human. She was perfectly content to do the former. She had enjoyed slim portions of her dancing career - a Christmas recital, two friendships formed and retained. But never, in all eight of her years, had she envisioned that she would continue forever. Her grip on this ambition, in place but not so firm, loosened further still and she was eager to abandon her shoes and pursue other prospective passions.
She raised these feelings with her mother one evening over a can of beans.
“Mother,” she said, “may I raise something with you?”
Her mother looked up bemusedly, and a dollop of beans dropped down happily from her spoon, assuming they had made good their escape.
“What is it, Elspeth?”
Her mother had endured a long and tiring day. It had begun at 5 o’ clock in the morning and was only now, at dinner time no less, drawing to a close.
“Well mother, I’ve been thinking about my dancing,” Elspeth began, and she paused to find the courage to conclude. Her mother looked across the table, spoon poised. “Well… I don’t think I want to do it anymore.”
The briefest of pauses.
“Fine,” said Elspeth’s mother, jamming a despairing spoonful of beans into her mouth. “Good.”
Elspeth sat uncertain. What to do with this unexpected and now unwelcome information. For she had anticipated poison, disagreement, ferocity - her mother was intensely capable of all three and much more besides. Assent and agreement were highly infrequent and left Elspeth with a cold sense of unease.
“Alright,” she said then nothing more.
The silence sat between them like an overly polite house guest. After a moment, he tensed and looked at his watch with a terrible jerk of the neck.
“But,” her mother munched beanily, “you’ll need to tell your Nana.”
Once again, Elspeth had underestimated her mother. So consumed had she bean by thoughts of this particular conversation between the two of them, she had completely forgotten her Nana. She had known and expected a need for her mother to agree to any intention to quit. She had not anticipated a need to secure Nana’s approval for such a move. Nevertheless, she would been quietly keen to avoid the conversation.
For Nana had encouraged Elspeth from the beginning with no coercion or force, just some gentle appreciation for her granddaughter’s continued and increasingly reluctant efforts. And she was the one in all reality who had sustained the little girl through miserable nights and even dimmer days. Elspeth held her own tender awareness of her Nana’s love of dancing - mentions of halls, bright nights, other people’s weddings. These passed through her mind quickly. She focussed now on the residue of some other half-forgotten memory, lurking barely there at the back of her mind. She would go and see Nana tomorrow.
“Alright,” she nodded. She nodded, alright.
They took the bus as usual. Elspeth’s training as a dancer did not translate into any sort of grace in day-to-day movement, and she much preferred to traipse and shuffle. Life was more enjoyable like this for she could play games, tumble down and around, roll off the pavement and into the grass besides. She hung onto the rail with one arm and flung her body from side to side waving her opposite arm in the air alongside.
“Woooooooo,” she hummed happily, “wooooooooooooooo.”
“Stop that, Elspeth,” her mother said sternly, gripping her elbow and forcing her into a seat. Elspeth did not resist and sat now, staring out the window at the houses, trees and letterboxes as they passed. The bus jolted and huffed impatiently in the afternoon traffic but the journey was not a long one and soon they were where they needed to be. Her mother allowed her to press the bell as on all but the most hurried of days, and she did this now in preparation. She stood up straight and polite, ready for disembarkation.
Elspeth and her mother stepped in time off the bus and into the path of an oncoming pensioner. Fortunately, he was still some distance away and not moving at any great speed and amiably doffed an imaginary cap at their passing. Elspeth’s mother greeted his passing with a perfunctory nod. This part of town was full of such folk and Elspeth’s mother did not care for it - she had no time for the idle grace of the elderly, reminding her as it did of her own past and future. She lived determinedly and fastidiously in the present, casting a glance in the direction of the horizon only so far as was necessary to prepare for the remains of the day. Hers was a sharp and linear focus, untroubled by any fuzz at the edges or corners.
And now, they proceeded to where Nana was. Elspeth was on her way already - she knew the route well enough by now. Her mother made to call her back and chastise her but then stopped herself, deeming it unnecessary on this occasion. Elspeth made ahead quite contentedly, preparing her words, rehearsing each flavoursome syllable and pause. She liked the taste of them in her mouth, tongue coaxing out the rhythm and the flow. She had a sense of how she would begin the conversation, but not how she would middle or end it. She hoped her Nana would give her guidance, lay a path of gentle prompts and smiles. But she was not always forthcoming and would now sit back and offer a silent smile. And really, Elspeth needed sounds to fully feel the tone and the volume of the response being offered.
Traipsing shifted to a bolder amble now, and Elspeth moved with greater purpose. She thought she was setting a tremendous pace but her mother kept up with her easily - looking down and askance every so often and scanning the pavement ahead for any obvious hazards that had been missed by Elspeth. There were none visible. They reached the point quite quickly now, slowing down appropriately in time. They did not knock - for who knocks on a gate.
Her mother rarely came in now. Instead, she would stand on the roadside or on the grassy verge just within the walls with stare fixed on some particular piece of sky. She would put both hands behind her back and occasionally move to keep the blood pulsing around her nimble form, either by wiggling an ankle or jiggling a knee. She travelled through her repertoire of movements quite methodically, never repeating one in the same visit, and naturally moving from the top of her body right the way down to the tips of her toes. It was in this way that Elspeth’s mother would fill the time that the young girl spent with her Nana. She could no longer tolerate spending that time herself.
Elspeth moved into the cemetery slowly, correcting her motion so that she was neither whimsical nor dreary but showing just the right and obvious amount of deference to the place that she was in. She did not actually believe that her Nana could see or perceive her, she was much too world-weary for that. But still, she could feel her presence and her essence, something unnameable that sat pleasantly in the air, like the smell that had always greeted her when visiting her in her final days in the home. It was musty, yes, and perhaps a touch damp, but it had been the final smell of Nana, and in that way, it had a quiet splendour to it.
She came to the right place and smoothed herself down before sitting before the great grey tower of rock, almost as big as she. She had always found it funny that Nana had not earned her own stone, for all her lived years of life, and counted instead simply as an additional imprint to that belonging to Elspeth’s Grandpa. He had died some years before Elspeth was born, so she had no memory of the man other than some whispered remembrances handed down by Nana. All she had now was his impression in the rock before her, and Nana added below, as if an afterthought. She was here though to consult with her female relative - no one else could hold this space.
“Hello, Nana,” she began as always, even though a greeting was not needed necessarily. “I hope you’re alright.”
She looked down then and wondered what to say. While the bus-based rehearsals had given her some sense of how it was that she would structure her speech, now she was here, all words eluded her, swimming away like gleeful fish escaped from the hook.
There was no silence, just the rush of the road behind the graves and the wind causing the branches of the trees to adjust themselves slightly. She looked up again with wetness on her face.
“I don’t want to dance anymore. I can’t do it. I’m not good enough.”
And for the first time, Elspeth let herself properly think of her Nana as she was, not as she had seen her in her last days, huddled and braced against the imminence of her own time passing. She remembered in the years before, her with a book or a stick in hand, and Elspeth’s own in her other. Up or down a hill they would go, there would always be words to be read and people to meet. For there was no one in this village whose business Nana did not know, never judgemental, only amused. She would greet them with a handshake firm and probing, unintrusive, asking after a cousin, a sister, a dog. Then Elspeth would stand in quiet awe, looking up at the grandmother who could retain all this and give it out, to remember people as well as she could. And then, with a wink down at Elspeth, re-commence along the path, having paused for no longer than a minute or two but having a lifetime’s worth of conversation with another of the world’s fine friends.
The change had come quick and violent, reducing Nana to something less than she was, less than this quick and physical thing who was always the first over a stile or a gate. The energy drained from her and those arms and legs which had borne Elspeth along became deflated imitations of their former selves. Then, she would lie down and rest, the light draining from the room unnaturally quick, as if it had only ever been artificial. But her eyes remained til her very last day, spry and lithe, echoing past movements of her body. And what would remain with Elspeth, certainly, was Nana’s last look - one that mirrored every other, of love and depth, of sweet and light. Elspeth, with her eight years of wisdom, was glad that she was not there when that had faded away.
But still, here she was, crumbling on her grassy seat.
“There now, what’s all this,” she knew she could not hear this in reality, but she felt it all the same. “Why these tears.” She looked up and could feel Nana before her, gentle and commanding, teasing and at ease. “Come on then. You don’t have to dance if you don’t want to. It’s meant to be fun, after all, isn’t it.”
Elspeth nodded, worried to be letting her down.
“You’re not letting anyone down, least of all me, girl. I am dead, after all”. Elspeth smiled at the humour which had survived her. “I just want you to be happy. And it might be that you don’t know what will do that yet. But as long as you keep looking - keep on, keep on looking - then that’s enough for me.”
It may have been that Elspeth’s memories of her grandmother were a bit too sickly sweet - perhaps her own words would have been more precise and stern, the conjured rememberings coated in honey. But they were not inaccurate - for she could hear them in Nana’s voice.
She looked back up and the words stopped ringing in her ears. She sniffed and wiped her face. Obediently, she stood. The choice was hers, she realised, and no one else should make it.
“Thank you, Nana,” she said quite sincerely to the slab of rock before her. It did not respond - but Elspeth did not mind.
She stepped back then and walked back across the grass, to where her mother was rotating her elbows, only halfway down her form this time. There had been instances in the past where her mother had been reduced to extending each toe in turn, so far had she had travelled down the length of her body during Elspeth’s communions with her own mother. But this time, there had been no need. She did not say anything, but gave the little girl a look. Elspeth returned it with a new and burgeoning certainty.
Lovely story, Adam. I can recall similar moments remembering grandparents - really nicely captured here.