My grandma Alice is staring into a snow globe. I have shown her how to shake it so the snow falls over the pastoral landscape many times before. Sometimes she remembers, and sometimes she does not.
Rosie, her great-granddaughter, my four-year-old niece, is watching her with the same inquisitive, slightly disapproving expression that she reserves for adults who are not doing quite what she thinks they should be doing. She has given me this look a few times, when I tie her shoelaces wrong or make her funny-tasting dinners. As a full grown adult, this look should make me laugh, but it always hits me somewhere embarrassingly deep inside.
‘You’re not doing it right, Alice,’ Rosie says, her head cocked to one side, but Alice looks right past her, entranced by this tiny, wintery world.
Instead, Alice says what she has said ten times already in the last hour, as she points at a miniature rose bush; ‘I found her here..’
‘Who did you find, Grandma?’ I ask for the eleventh time.
‘The baby,’ she says. ‘She was all alone.’
‘She’s talking about nanny,’ Rosie says, turning to me, ‘but babies aren’t from bushes, they’re from tummies, aren’t they?’
‘That’s right,’ I say.
‘Alice,’ Rosie says, very firm now, her voice loud and clear, ‘babies come from tummies – like this baby, you see?’ she says, jabbing me firmly in my eight-month bump without turning her head. ‘That’s my baby cousin in there; it’s going to come out soon, and I’m going to play with it – but we don’t know yet if it’s a boy or a girl.’
‘No,’ I say, but I do know; it’s a girl. We have kept it to ourselves, me and my partner, Sam. Having a secret for just us two feels childish and exciting. Alternating the pronoun from she to they gives me a thrill; a kind of linguistic Russian roulette.
‘Come and help me bring the tea and cake out, Rosie?’ I say and she places her little hand in mine and plods out to the kitchen with me.
‘When you eat, does the food fall on your baby’s head?’ Rosie asks, matter-of-fact like she’s asking about the weather.
‘No,’ I say, picturing the teacakes that I am putting in the toaster falling onto a tiny head, a crumpled, grumpy, frowning face. ‘It’s not actually in my tummy … it’s sort of next door.’
Rosie nods, satisfied, and I am grateful for the lack of need to go any further with my biology lesson. I plonk her on the kitchen counter, and let her pull the toaster lever down.
‘Can I pop it up yet?’ she immediately asks, finger hovering over the stop button.
I am about to say no but then think, why not? ‘If you like.’
Her face lights up, and I think how amazing it is that something so small gives her such pleasure. I smile at her, and she grins back, her tiny fingers encouraged to move freakishly fast, pushing the lever up, down, up, down, up, down. Oh, for god’s sake.
‘Ok, you need to stop now,’ I say, pulling her hand away.
‘Hmph!’ Rosie says, crossing her arms and swivelling around so that her back is to me.
I stroke her hair absent-mindedly and enjoy the moment alone with my thoughts while the teacakes are finally being left to do their thing in peace. I keep thinking about this post I saw on Instagram; it was on one of those faux-spiritual accounts – swirly italic writing on a floral background – and it has sent me down a spiral of contemplation. I can’t remember the fluffy sentiment around it, but the thing that spun me out was, ‘you were once inside your grandmother’s womb.’ It took me ages to get this straight in my head, but it means that the egg that made the baby inside me now was created when I was still in my mother’s womb, meaning she was in her grandmother’s womb. The whole thing is the sort of trippy ‘we are all made of stars’ idea that’s only ever interested me on the rare occasion I’ve dabbled in pot, but it got to me somehow. And then it dawned on me that it wasn’t true, not for me – I wasn’t inside my grandma, not the grandma sitting next door. My mum wasn’t quite found in a bush, but close enough; she was wrapped up in blankets on a park bench and spotted by an early-morning dog walker.
‘It smells in here,’ Rosie announces.
‘Oh fuck,’ I say, frantically popping up the toaster.
We both peer at another dismal display of my cooking.
‘They’re all black now,’ Rosie says.
‘Yep, silly me – it’s ok though. We can just do this,’ I say, scraping the burn into the bin.
‘There’s still black bits on it.’
‘Yes, but a little bit of black bits is good for you – makes you grow big and strong.’
‘Because they both begin with B, don’t they?’
‘Right! You are so clever Rosie-Posie. Do you want to put butter and jam on or just butter?’
‘Butter AND jam,’ she says, widening her eyes and spanning her arms out wide. ‘SO MUCH JAM!’
‘Okey-doke, so much jam for you – you can put it on yourself.’
I butter mine and Alice’s and ignore the jar that is being poured, liquid-style, onto the teacake next to me. I wonder if Alice will notice the burnt bits. She never makes comments on food, and she will eat anything sweet that is put in front of her quicker than Rosie. People say that we revert to children when we get old.
When we take the plates into the living room, Alice is sleeping, snoring gently with her mouth open, and the snow globe is still clutched in her hand beside her.
‘Is Alice dead?’ Rosie asks, licking the first layer of jam off her toast.
‘No, Rosie!’ I say. ‘She’s just sleeping.’ I take the snow globe out of Alice’s hand and tuck a blanket over her. I get a flash of being tucked in by her as a child. Almost every weekend, my sister and I spent a sleepover at her house while our parents went on their date night, and I felt just as safe and at home in her spare room as I did in my own. It occurs to me now that this setup was unusually fortunate; to me, my father’s parents were just funny-smelling people who talked in loud, patronising tones and who we only saw at big family events.
I wonder if Alice being so hands-on with us was the effect of waiting so long for a child. They tried for almost ten years before they adopted my mum. I have never asked my mum if she had been curious to find out about the woman who grew her. Even as a child you can sense when things aren’t to be spoken of.
Rosie is humming cheerfully while she eats.
‘Your mum used to do that when she was little,’ I say, absent-mindedly.
‘What?’ she asks.
I copy her humming. ‘This,’ I say, ‘when she ate – we used to say it was because she loved her food so much. Your mummy still loves her food, just like you do, doesn’t she?’
Rosie shrugs, irritated.
That must be genetic, surely – the humming; it can’t be copied. I’m sure my adult sister no longer hums when she eats – it’s not really so cute as an adult.
Alice’s dementia is a sort of misplaced humming, or maybe a faulty record player; one that repeats a chorus on a loop at awkward intervals, stops entirely for hours, and suddenly whirs into action again when everyone has given up trying or fallen asleep. The themes that the dementia disc provides is entirely off-kilter too, comprised of a confusing mixture of long-buried secrets, taboo subject matter, and myth.
Maybe it is this new exposure to Alice’s chatter that’s made me think about this part of my past, not the Instagram post. It must be the pregnancy too, but I can’t really pick it apart. It all happened at once: the escalation of Alice’s illness, my growing stomach. I never thought it was my business in any way; it was my mum’s choice what she wanted to know. But now I just can’t stop thinking about this person who carried my mum through morning sickness and hip pain and this particular, aching vulnerability. The woman who watched her stomach lurch from side to side in the bath and felt each of those hiccups. If she is still alive, how often does she think of her daughter? Would she like to know that she has grown-up grandchildren, a great-grandchild, and another on the way? Now that I’ve realised that I too was inside her, does that give me a right to something of her too?
It’s messy, this unravelling of past and future, the what-ifs, especially when it is all happening inside my own mind. If this woman had never left my mum, or if she had left her in a different place or at a slightly different time, my mum may have never been found alive or may have been found by the wrong hands.
‘Alice is awake,’ Rosie announces, saving me.
I go over to Alice and stroke her hand.
‘Hi, Grandma, how are you?’
She is staring at her hands. ‘Snowy snowy.’
‘Here you go,’ I say, passing her the snow globe.
‘No, no,’ she says, pushing it away, ‘snowy, snowy,’ and she points at Rosie.
I suddenly know what she means. ‘Do you mean bath time, Grandma? With the talcum powder?’
She nods, doubtful at these words, but apparently calmer.
I turn to Rosie. ‘You know, when your mum and I were little girls, we used to stay and have bath time at Alice’s house. When we got out, Alice would shake talcum powder all over us, and we used to pretend it was snowing,’ I say. ‘Fun, hey?’
Rosie nods, unsure.
I realise she won’t know what talcum powder is. And anyway, saying it now, it sounds rather weird. But it was something so magical for me; the sensation of lying on the bathroom floor and watching this soft powder fall onto my skin.
‘I want to do snowy snowy,’ Rosie says, uncertainly.
‘We can ask your mum,’ I say, but I’m not sure if you can buy talcum powder anymore. I think I read somewhere that it gives you cancer or something now. I would have liked to do it with Rosie and my little girl; traditions like that die if you don’t pass them on. I guess I can figure out something else.
‘Are you with the father?’ Alice asks suddenly.
‘Yes, do you remember him, Alice? He’s called Sam.’
‘I know Sam,’ she says, defensive.
‘That’s good,’ I say. ‘He really likes you.’
She shrugs the compliment away, looking into the middle distance again, and I think I have lost her.
But then she is back. ‘And do you love him?’
‘Sam? Very much, Grandma.’
‘Very nice,’ she says, and then she leans over and touches my bump, just once, very gently. ‘A little bit of him and a little bit of you.’
‘And a bit of me!’ Rosie says, wedging herself in between us both and sitting on my lap.
‘Yes, a little bit of all of us,’ I say.
Sapphire Allard is a writer of both prose and poetry and holds a PhD in Text, Practice, and Research. She works in Adult Education and outreach settings teaching creative writing. Her work has been shortlisted for the Bridport Prize and has been previously published by Ambit, Lucent Dreaming, Sunday Mornings at The River, Ink Sweat and Tears, and others.