My grandfather was an antiques dealer, actor and magician; a teller of tall tales and wealthy enough to buy anything I cut of the Argos catalogue and sent him. A year or two before he died, he called me up and asked whether I would acconmpany him on a trip to sell some porcelain. It sounded like a bonding opportunity and it was.
We’re in a railway carriage looking out at the disappearing fields of East Anglia. I’m sitting opposite my grandfather with a copy of Mojo on my lap, steadying a Diet Coke on the table in front of me. His reflection catches mine, and he pulls a ghoulish face, raises his eyebrows and slides out his dental plate. Despite the fact that I’m nineteen, he can’t resist playing the role of the clownish ancestor. ‘What have you got there?’ he enquires mischievously. ‘Mowgli? Is that the Scouting magazine?’
We’re on route to London, to deliver a consignment of porcelain to Phillips, the auctioneers. He’s wearing a suit, with a smart beige overcoat, topped off with a flat-cap, clearly having put some thought into what the stylish gentleman should wear on a trip to London. I notice he has slipped some new rings onto his fingers. Between us is the stash of porcelain, a small precious selection from his wider collection. I have been entrusted with the case.
It is not clear whether he actually needs the money, or whether this is a trumped up excuse for a boys’ day out in the metropolis, but there is an undeniable excitement to all of this. He tells me stories about the war, about his antique dealing. Despite having been retired for many years, today he clearly feels back in the game. This is a comeback of sorts. He tells me there was a kind of hierarchy among the dealers. At the bottom rung, there were those who went ‘on the knock’ who would visit houses and ask to buy their antiques. Often, they would scan the obituaries and offer to do house clearances in the hope of picking some finds. Then there those who haunted the auctions houses, who loitered like ghosts around the tables (in a way they all did this). At the top, and of course he included himself in this bracket, were those with a shop of their own, who would greet his public with blue cravat tucked into a freshly pressed white shirt.
Often he said, it was quiet and you could read or just enjoy a cup of tea while admiring a painting, or better still close the shop and do something else. He had an assistant, he tells me, who ran by the unlikely sounding name Unkie. In my mind he immediately becomes a sort of Igor character, ready to obey his master’s every bizarre whim. One morning, a refined lady comes into the shop looking for a picture a night scene with a moon. As luck would have it, he had a rather pedestrian painting leaning up against the wall in the back room. He asks her to wait a moment while he has a word with his assistant. A few whispered instructions later and the lady is despatched out of the door minus several hundred pounds, with the instructions to come back towards the end of the afternoon after they had a chance to wrap it properly. A few moments later, Unkie himself is despatched with a couple of pound notes in his pocket in the direction of the craft shop to purchase a small pot of white paint. You can probably guess the rest, but suffice to say the lady got her painting of the moon. Whether this made my grandfather a minor criminal is a thought that’s left hanging in the air, but you suspect this is an image he is happy to propagate.
Passing through Ely, we unwrap the cheese sandwiches my grandfather’s wife, Hilda, has made for us, and he administers two small doses of tea from an ancient Thermos. Despite being of some considerable means, he is of the generation that thinks it is nothing short of madness parting with a ten pound note for a few slices of bread and a brew. Besides, he is something of a tea snob, and is one of the last in the world I suspect who messes around with tea leaves rather than plumping for the tea bag. He drinks religiously from his plastic camping cup and watches the cathedral recede into the distance.
We draw into Liverpool Street Station on time. I go to help my grandfather to his feet, but he shoos me away and points his cane at the large leather case on the floor. ‘That’s what you need to looking after, not me. And it doesn’t matter that I might be older than the porcelain.’ From his seat, my father raises his hat to a passing older gentleman and nods to another couple as they wait their turn to leave the carriage. It is entirely typical of my grandfather to act like a member of the royal family when travelling. Some fame on the amateur dramatic stage has gone to his head and never left. In fact I think he rather fancies himself, on the evidence of nothing, as some obscure minor noble – merely awaiting the conformation of the DNA results to confirm his suspicions. There is a photograph of him sitting on a throne in the middle of a field in Africa while one of his soldier mates kneels obsequiously before him. While we the passengers continue to shuffle down the aisle, he tells me a story about a previous foray into the capital. He was, he says, in a room at the Tate admiring Van Gough’s Sunflowers, when all of the doors are suddenly closed and a senior looking attendant whispers to them all to carry on exactly as they were. The Queen he explains, then walks into the room and joins the small crowd inspecting the art. ‘One of the guides was filling her head with all sorts of nonsense,’ he tells me, ‘so I went over and offered her a more considered opinion of the work.’ I rest a cheek on my hand while this increasingly unlikely story unfolds. I nod until the last of the passengers has left and we follow suit.
The suitcase is heavy, but not painfully so, and I consider its weight a useful reminder of its existence. A small package could easily be left behind on a table or chair. I march through the barrier towards the Underground when I hear my grandfather calling behind me. ‘We’ll get a taxi,’ he says. ‘I’m not messing around down there.’ I try to assure him that it’s a very short hop and that Phillip’s are very close to Bond Street tube, but he isn’t having any of it. We flag down a black cab and are soon on route.
My grandfather is a patriarch of the old school. He carves the meat on Sundays and ignores you if you tell him you don’t much feel like seconds. He speaks in absolutes and his views and values are immutably fixed. For example, he has not yet forgiven the Japanese for wartime atrocities and believes The Beatles just produce a lot of shrill noise. He raises his voice when he is angry and he is not to be crossed or contradicted in public. If you are late you better have a good excuse. On the other hand, he is silly and childish, whimsical in his thoughts and ideas. He worries he may be reincarnated as an amoeba and that he does not generate enough motion to power his kinetic watch.
The meter on the taxi ticks over while the cabbie makes exaggerated sighing noises. The traffic hasn’t moved in five minutes. ‘It’s about time they sorted all this out,’ he tells us, without revealing what ‘it’ is. He winds down the window and leans out almost the entire length of his body to get a look at what’s happening down the street. ‘We’re on Oxford Street and at any rate not far from our destination. ‘Maybe we should get out and walk the last bit?’ I suggest.’ My grandfather appears not to hear me, staring out at the window displays, the gaudy signs and pavements crammed with shoppers. The meter ticks over twenty pounds and I take this as our cue to leave. ‘This’ll be fine,’ I tell the taxi driver. ‘It’s just round the corner,’ I tell my grandfather. He nods, then reaches in his jacket for his wallet, peeling out a twenty and a five. I see a fifty nestling in there too, which I’m sure is the same one he has kept for show for the last ten years.
We start walking and I haven’t quite let on how far we still have to go. However my grandfather appears unconcerned. He still stunned into a sort of trance like state by the sensory overload of modern London. A woman dressed in an all in one silver cyberpunk outfit sticks a pierced tongue in our direction revealing a luminous blob of pink bubble gum. He gives her a rather mischievous smile. From a quiet street in Norwich, Oxford Street must be like visiting Mars, but he’s clearly enjoying it all.
A few seconds later and the bottom drops out of my world. I’m not carrying anything. I’m not carrying the bag. I almost push my grandfather to the side of the pavement and deposit him in the doorway of a jewellers. ‘Hang on,’ I tell him, ‘I think I’ve just seen someone I know.’ I race back down the street, weaving and dodging in the crowd in a delirious state of panic. I jump into the road and start running after the traffic, narrowly avoiding being sliced in half by a cyclist. I must look like a thief, except I’m not carrying anything. The traffic has moved on, but not a great deal and eventually I reach a line of taxis. I look in the first and second, but don’t recognise the driver. For an awful moment I wonder if he’s done that thing that cabbies do, which is spot a fare on the other side of the road, do a nifty u-turn and disappear off towards the east end. The porcelain could be half way to Whitechapel for all I know. Just then, I see the taxi, still idling up ahead. I pull up alongside and tap for the man’s attention. He waves me away and pulls off into a sudden clear road. I sprint after him, with a red bus behind me. I can’t think what I must look like to those sitting at the front. Eventually I get the man’s attention and he winds down the window.
When I catch up with my grandfather, he looks rather lost and bewildered. ‘Did you find your friend?’ he asks me. I tell him it wasn’t who I thought it was. Arriving at Phillip’s, we are greeted by beautiful women in expensive clothes. He becomes himself again, surrounded by his favourite things: antiques, glamour and money. We are directed upstairs and engross ourselves in the catalogues while we wait to be seen.
‘Mr Wells,’ a distinguished voice eventually summons us. He rises smartly to his feet. ‘I believe you were expecting my father,’ he says. ‘Unfortunately Mr Everett senior retired last year. I’m his son.’ My grandfather cannot disguise the disappointment and perhaps it is at moments like these that he feels the passing of time most acutely.
‘Well,’ my grandfather says, philosophically, ‘I hope he’s enjoying his retirement.’ He adds, rather waspishly: ‘He’s made enough money out of me.’ I lift the case and place it on the counter, waiting to hear the clatter of broken pieces.
‘Ah yes,’ my grandfather says, ‘this is my son, Chris.’ I correct his mistake. ‘Yes, well he’s following me in the business,’ he says. I leave this white lie uncorrected and hope that I am not interrogated on the origin of the porcelain.
‘Excellent,’ says Mr Everett junior. ‘Now let’s see what we have in the bag.’
I hold my breath.
ADVICE MY GRANDFATHER GAVE ME
- Always make a cup of tea with loose tea, not a tea bag.
- Never apologise.
- Punctuality is the courtesy of kings.
- Don’t trust the bank.
- Check your doors are locked before you go to bed.
- Don’t settle for being a big fish in small pond.
- Catch your own fish.
- Always peel an apple.
- Listen to your mother.
- Old does not equal bad.