At seventeen, I was a 'prentice sparkie – electrician. Though I say it, I was in pretty good shape and had no problems getting dates. Janet was a nice girl; we'd been dating for nearly a year. I don't think either of us had any illusions about being in love, but we liked and respected each other. When she fell pregnant ... I mean, when I got her pregnant ... it was a surprise; we thought we'd been careful. Even without pressure from both lots of parents I think we'd have wanted to marry, but we thought alike and I, at least, thought respect and affection a good basis for marriage anyway; I still do.
We couldn't afford our own place on an apprentice's pay, but my parents' house was a decent size and they never complained about the noise from our room after we retired to bed...
We didn't think much of it when she started feeling unwell. Some women get like that when they're pregnant, we thought, so it took several months before she sought advice from the doctor. The diagnosis, confirmed rapidly by the specialist, was cancer. I didn't understand the half of what he said and the name of the Thing was so long and complicated I never tried to get my tongue, or my memory, round it.
So ... what were we to do?
"I strongly suggest a termination followed by an intensive course of chemotherapy," the specialist said, "it's an aggressive type and waiting until your baby is born would be a death sentence for you ... even if you live long enough to deliver."
"No." Janet's voice was firm. "I will not kill our baby."
"No. Tell me, doctor ... if you started treatment today, what would my chances be?"
"Well..." we could both see he didn't much like the question, "it's quite a rare condition, so the figures... " Janet just looked at him steadily, "I'd say you would have about a fifty percent chance of surviving to five years, at which time we would consider you cured."
"Fifty percent. No, doctor, I'm going to keep my baby. Even if I were prepared to kill it, I wouldn't on a fifty percent chance of surviving myself."
Erica was born in September and although they started treatment on Janet as soon as they could, she died in November. I felt as though part of my heart had been cut out. Perhaps ... I really did love her after all.
Because of the chemo, we had to bottle feed Erica. Between my parents and myself we managed to look after her. However devastated I was at losing Janet, I had Erica. I was determined that Janet's self- sacrificial decision would not be wasted.
I suppose we spoiled her. Okay, she was a sunny child and seemed to be no problem; it was our pleasure to indulge her. When she reached puberty, though, I had to wonder if she'd been taken over by some alien entity. Oh, the screaming tantrums, the sulks...
It would have been a waste of time trying to stop her dating.
I should not have been surprised when she got pregnant at sixteen. Why was I surprised when she refused to name the father?
"He was an asshole," was all she'd say. Too much American drama.
"He had a big dick and knew how to use it."
Who was this person that looked so much like Janet? Where was the sunny, affectionate little girl?
The baby was born in the middle of August, a lovely little girl.
"What are you going to call her?"
"Don't know. You think of a name."
I was thirty-four and still living at home with my parents. Between us, we decided on Catherine, though that rapidly became 'Kate'.
Erica stuck with breast-feeding Kate for six months, during which we went to Family Court and got papers giving me parental responsibility. All that meant was, if Erica wasn't around I could give consent if anything happened, say Kate needed medical attention.
Erica started going out again and a month or so later, just didn't come home. That would be early May. Late July, I got a call from Cornwall police. I had to travel down to identify the body. Her arms were covered with the track marks of injections; she'd overdosed on heroin. The police said it was probably an accident as there'd been a lot of rather pure heroin around and there's been a few similar deaths when addicts didn't realise how pure the stuff was.
I buried her there and mourned the sunny little girl we'd lost, wondering what I'd done wrong.
There was no question of what to do with Kate. Between my parents and myself, we looked after her. She never said 'Mumma', or 'Dada'. My father and I were both 'Ganda' and Mum was 'Gamma'.
That winter we had a lot of fog. Mum and Dad were on their way home on the motorway in a pea-souper; they braked when they came up behind a truck and were rear-ended by a big SUV travelling far too fast. Their little Micra was decapitated ... and so were they.
But for Kate I'd ... well, I don't know what I'd have done.
Thirty-five wasn't too old to be a single dad, was it?
I had the house, quite a lot of savings as I hadn't had much in the way of expenses and I had Kate. I quit work and signed on. Everywhere I went, Kate went with me.
I bathed her and tucked her into bed at night. I took her to the park and watched, heart in mouth as she clambered about the climbing-frame, wiped up the mess when she had an ice-cream, cleaned up grazes and kissed bruises better.
There was nothing I liked better than to hear her say, "Ganda ... hug?" unless it was the feel of her little face pressed against my neck while her arms nearly strangled me.
At age three she started at nursery-school. Just the mornings. My old employer was happy for me to do an hour or so while she was there and once she started school, to have me work twenty hours a week with the understanding Kate took priority.
Like her mother, she was a sunny little girl. Unlike her mother, adolescence didn't change her into a monster from outer space. At twelve, she was a leggy bean-pole with curly dark hair and enormous eyes. Her personality was all tom-boy, but she was generous. She'd 'give you her last Rollo'. When her periods started, she came to me without a second thought. At thirteen she was starting to fill out a bit and by the time she was fifteen she had half the boys of her age and older in hot pursuit ... but took no interest in any of them beyond being friendly. The few times she gave in and went out on a date, she was home well before the midnight curfew I set. If I asked her how it was, she just shrugged.
"It was okay," she'd say. "There's no ... spark, though."
What with one thing and another, it wasn't surprising she did well in her exams and went on for 'A' levels, a beautiful but serious young woman.
'A' levels, taken between sixteen and eighteen, are divided into two, with AS levels taken, as it were, at half-time. English and Maths, Physics and Computing ... I said she was a serious young thing, didn't I? Four A stars at AS level. (the following year she achieved the same at A2 level)
"Well, Kate. I think you deserve a treat. What would you like to do?"
"For a start, I want a hug from my Ganda." She never did call me anything else.
That I could do with pleasure. Except that the young woman in my arms, pressing herself against me, was no longer a child but a warm and nubile, extremely attractive young woman.
"Ganda's hugs are best," she said as I tried to conceal my erection.
For ... heaven's sake, I was over fifty. Not only was she only seventeen, she was my grand-daughter.
"Then I want you to take me out for a nice meal," she said, "I want you to put your good suit on and see you properly dressed up."
To be sure, I didn't have much reason to dress up, jeans and a t-shirt being my usual attire if I wasn't in overalls.
"Don't you want to be seen with me?" She'd never resorted to manipulation so I wasn't sure if her disappointed expression (when I didn't immediately respond) was genuine or an act.
"I'd be proud to be seen with you, Precious. It's just ... well, don't you want to go out with someone your own age?"
"There's no-one I'd rather be with than you, Ganda."
She wanted Italian cooking.
"Proper Italian, not Pizza."
Romantic meals weren't exactly in my experience. I got some advice from a colleague at work who'd been happily married for over twenty years.
"Trattoria Roma", he said. "Very good food, excellent service and a reasonable price. You can trust their recommendations on both the choice of food and the wine."
When Kate appeared, I had to hastily take myself off to the toilet to compose myself. It was like seeing Janet again. Tall and lovely, in a classic 'little black dress' her narrow face, surrounded by curly dark hair, usually so serious, wearing a smile.
When I returned she was looking worried. "Ganda ... are you okay? Do I look okay?"
"Kate, you look wonderful and, yes, I'm okay..."
.... There is more of this story ...