A MATTER OF WORDS

My grandmother. North Shields. l959. Sitting in the back kitchen with her friend Nora under the tobacco leaves my grandfather was drying on the airing rack, having a conversation we weren't supposed to hear. A lot of miming over the teacups. Significant pauses. ‘They fetched Davy from Swan and Hunters . . . He was the only one who could do anything with her . . . been there nearly an hour . . .’ Until suddenly they’d become aware of us listening and the heavy door would be pushed to.

My grandfather used to take me down to the Black Midden rocks at the mouth of the Tyne and talk about shipwrecks and the time he'd been to the West Indies in his father's boat for a cargo of bananas. He couldn't look at a banana now he said. And I remembered how my mother had queued to get me a banana just after the war and how she'd fainted because she was expecting my brother and the greengrocer had given her two of them without asking for her ration book and he'd winked at me.

There were a lot of things that couldn't be said. My Italian great-grandmother sitting in front of the fire with her great swollen legs up on the fender cushion, combing her long, still-dark hair down over her lap, a terrible length of it, and saying ‘Cara, carissima. Bella bambina.’ Because her old brain couldn't remember the English any more. She slept on the divan in the living room.

Sometimes I would have the spare room to myself, and sometimes I would have to share it with the cousins. My uncle's wife had run off with a woman who ran a market garden in Crewe and their divorce was in all the papers. My grandmother cut the articles out with the kitchen scissors and we had to read pages with holes in. But of course we went up to the newsagent on the coast road and sneaked a look at the columns that were missing. We particularly liked the bit where she threw the water carafe at him in court. And we had to go to the library to look up the word ‘lesbian’ in the Oxford dictionary.

At night in the big feather bed the three of us would cuddle each other and practice french kissing to see what it felt like - so that we'd know what to do when we were old enough to do it with boys. Afterwards Sally made us get out of bed and pray for forgiveness because it was sinful and we might otherwise all turn into lesbians.

My other aunt had married a man who wasn't ‘in work’. My grandmother said it was the drink. And when Aunt Talia came round with the baby, I saw her slide a pound note out of her apron pocket and slip it into Talia's bag when she wasn't looking.

My grandfather was trying a new process with the tobacco leaves. He'd got the idea from a friend who worked at the Wills factory and it involved molasses. My grandmother went crazy because it dripped all over the kitchen table and got in her hair, and one day when he came back from the shipyard she'd put the whole lot in the bin. That night he went down to the Union and he didn't come back until after his shift the next day. I heard him talking to her in the back kitchen, nuzzling her neck. Cara, carissima. And she'd bought him a packet of gold cut out of the rent money. Carissima, bellissima.

He told us that his father, my great-grandfather, had met Francesca - Nannina as we called her - while offloading a cargo at Genoa. He'd followed her through the streets to find out where she lived, and then he'd asked her family if he could marry her. And him with not a word of Italian except ‘grazie’ and her without a word of English. There was a boy down the road, whose parents owned the chip shop. He had crepe soled shoes and a pocket comb to slick his quiff back. We all fancied him and used to slip anonymous notes through his front door and then run round the corner and hide behind the privet.

He and some of his friends took us down to the allotments and tried to push us down in the grass behind the sheds. They smelt of Brylcreem and had spots. Lily said she'd give all her Christmas money to whoever was the first to do it and then tell the rest of us what it was like. But in the end it was Lily who had to get married at sixteen to a welder at Swans and we weren't even invited to the wedding.

Sometimes the priest came to see Nannina, carrying a small black case. And he would lay out a white cloth and candlestick and silver plate and cup and take little white wafers out of a box. Popish palaver, my grandmother said, but my grandfather said the box contained the Awful Mystery of the Holy Spirit. We weren't allowed to be in the room while the priest was there. Once when he touched our hair and blessed us as he left, my grandmother put our heads under the kitchen tap and shampooed our hair with Dettol.

And then I reluctantly have to remember the day I went to Seaton Delaval with the boy from the chip shop, whose name I think was Joe. My cousins had gone home and there were only two days of the holiday left. I had to lie to my grandmother and tell her I was going to the pictures. She didn't approve of Joe. His mother had been one of the women who gutted fish down on the quay and she wasn't ‘nice’.

We went to Seaton on the bus and Joe paid. He had some Woodbines and we went up on the top deck to smoke. He was going to show me where the soldiers had hidden out during the war. There were great caverns inside the cliffs he said, as big as a ten storey building - bigger than Fenwicks department store. That was where they'd kept the big guns in case the Germans invaded. His father had been stationed there when one of the guns had blown back and twenty men were killed.

It was a steep climb over the rocks, which were slimy from the high tide. Joe stepped easily in his crepe soles, but my best sandals slipped about on the sea wrack and he had to hold my arm to pull me up. Inside it was very dark even though Joe had brought a torch. The floor was thick with mud and the roof dripped. We went up concrete steps into blind rooms, sensing other rooms and corridors beyond from the slow draughts of putrid air that brushed past. Rotting seaweed, he said. There was nothing here now. Though a friend of his had found some ammunition once, an empty shell cartridge and a rusty grenade. In one of the rooms we found the bones of a small animal - a seal pup or a dog. I felt very cold and mysteriously frightened and said I wanted to go back outside.

So we sat on the concrete lip of the gun position dangling our legs above the sea and ate the two mars bars his mother had given him. When he kissed me, sticky with chocolate, I could hear the drip, drip of the sea fret from the ceiling behind us. He unbuttoned my blouse and I thought it would be unfair to say no, because he'd paid for the bus fares. But his fingers on my breasts were cold and damp and white and made me shiver. I told him I was going to throw up and he made me put my head down between my knees.

Climbing down I slipped on a rock and got tar on my best skirt, and in the daylight I could see that my sandals were covered in black mud. All the way home on the bus I was afraid of what my grandmother would say. But when I got back she was weeping on the kitchen table and Nora was making tea for all the people who were there. And my grandfather was dead, laid out on a door across two chairs in the living room just as they'd carried him home from the shipyard. A steel plate had swung too far on the crane jib and brushed him off the deck like a crumb off a table. Annie, one of the men said, he never felt a thing. Wouldn't have known what hit him, hinny.

Nannina was crying out, holding the blood-stained jacket they'd given her, words we couldn't understand. Il padre . . cara Anna . . per favore . . il padre . . dov'e Lei? . . mio figlio! Mio figlio! She'll have to go, my grandmother said. All the old body does is eat. And you can't understand a word she says. I kept her here for Tom's sake, but she'll have to go now.

In the bathroom I washed the mud out of my sandals and sponged my skirt with methylated spirits. It was the first time I noticed that the mirror lied. It told me that I looked exactly the same. But a whole page had turned itself over inside my head, and there was something written on it that I couldn't see to read.

© Kathleen Jones Pitch 2001