Scene from an unpublished novel about a dysfunctional family struggling in the aftermath of two World Wars as the millennium approaches.
A couple of times a year, Jamie's grandparents would brace themselves to take him on a trip to a theme park or adventure playground and made a great show of having fun. He couldn’t make out where they were coming from because they were normally quite humourless. Above Jamie’s head, they would bicker about what children liked and what disciplines were called for, each claiming a superior interpretation of scriptural wisdom.
After these outings, he’d have bizarre dreams in which his grandparents were cast as 2-D comic Disney characters, pulling and twisting with the immanent velocity of the plot. It was funny, but sort of scary too, like those supermarket promotions where a big, furry cereal monster greeted you at the door looking friendly and benign, but you knew there was an unknowable being inside the costume.
On one occasion, they’d taken him to a Safari Park and monkeys had clambered all over Grandpa’s newly waxed Vauxhall and torn off the windscreen wipers as if they were stripping bamboo. He had made believe they were mischievous tykes and grunted with grisly laughter, but Grandma’s face was menacing with indignation. All day, even over their corned beef picnic, she talked of recompense, insurance. It was no use Grandpa pointing out the notice disclaiming indemnity against such risks. She didn’t blench at the sight of the lions and tigers lunching on blood-smeared carcasses, but turned pale and uptight when he depressed the accelerator hard to show Jamie how the car could whizz along ‘to give the pipes a good blow’.
“Edwin! You’re over the limit! Don’t expect to be kept safe! It’s not me speaking, it’s God!”
With the penetrating and uncluttered intuition of a child, Jamie knew that his Grandpa’s mastery of the machine was the one aspect of performance in which he could excel and have Grandma at his mercy.
When she went off to the Ladies, Grandpa told Jamie about an awful dream he kept having.
He was riding a tiger. He was sitting precariously upon its bare back and could see the muscles rippling through the striped sheen of its fur. The tiger repeatedly turned its head and snarled. A hollow rumble was coming from its jaws. Every time hanging foliage whipped against Grandpa's face, he had to concentrate hard to keep his balance. If he fell off, he would be devoured in seconds.
Jamie listened agog. Disappointment at the open ending of the story was stilled by a dull relief.
Then Grandpa said: “You know, don’t you, James, that Grandma’s got native blood? Pirates from the Barbary coast!"
Jamie had only the haziest grasp of what this might mean. He was inherently blind to shades of skin. His best chum's father was from Nairobi. It was not a good time to probe such matters because Grandma was coming back wearing her usual sour expression. She appeared for all the world to be sucking lemons.
“Right then!” said Grandpa. “There’s enough wind to fly a kite today! What do you say, James?”
Evermore, James was to associate kite-flying with the dream. The trouble with kites was that if you let go, they took off in a demented whirl, up and away, before a nosedive over some entangling wood, or plumb into the middle of dark, deep waters where they sank without trace.
Images courtesy of Nancy Tillman, children's illustrator.