On Tuesday 30th November 2017, 3 weeks short of his 99th Birthday, my Grandad died. He was a funny, but quite distant character whilst I grew up. His life had seen difficult times, and this might explain his distance. When he was very small he was sent from Leeds to live in the small town in Parma in Italy, where his mothers family came from. When he returned to his family several years later he could no longer speak English, but soon picked it up again.
Grandad’s father died whilst he was very young, and he never forgot the debt he felt he owed his mother, for all the work she did in bringing up four children on her own. He had four children of his own. The eldest was Carol, who died very young from Leukaemia. Now I’m older and have my own children I realise that underneath the jokes and breezy energy he must have always been sad about Carol.
When I was little I used to spend the odd day working with him, selling flowers to old ladies or sitting in on delivery rounds from his florist business in Kirkgate Market in Leeds. We drank tea, ate fish and chips, swept up in front of the stall. People came and went, some customers, some were Poles, Jamaicans, Irishmen – loud voices with strange accents and stranger jokes. The shuffling tramps with names like Barnsley Bob came past, smoking fags and coughing – one taking a long, slow arcing piss into the cardboard box full of odds and ends of wool from the haberdashers across the way from our stall.
We went out and delivered roses, or wreaths. On those drives he taught me how to change gear using ‘double-declutch’, and told me about fighting Vichy French forces in the mountains of Syria, where he was wounded several times. Grandad first received the last rights from a priest in those mountains in 1942. The last time was the 5th time, the day before he actually died.
He spent much of the rest of the war out of direct harms way in Alexandria, where he worked on the motor pool. He told stories of the sharp cold starts you can see driving across the Sinai desert, and the petty crimes and graft that army life involved. Grandad always had an eye for the main chance. We have a photograph of him standing on the running board of an enormous American truck that he and his friends stole from somewhere and kept for the rest of the war. He often said that he would have brought that truck home if he could.
In his early 90s he bought a brand new “motor” – he always loved cars. He always looked forward to the next thing, the next job, adventure, piece of work. I didn’t realise how fiercely that drive affected us all until it had gone, how much I took for granted that Grandad would always be pottering about putting screws in a tin in his garage, or sanding down a window-sill, making jokes at funerals.