Peter felt like putting his head in his hands, how had he been manipulated to this?
“And so I said to Jimmy, I said, ‘Jimmy why would you NOT go? I mean why shouldn’t you? I’m not of your persuasion’ I said ‘but if I was, I should, I would, I am sure I would go to see the Holy Father in Dublin. What could possibly stop you?’ I was surprised that he was hesitating. I said ‘why would you not go?’ He said something about Cathleen; Cathleen was his wife, lovely girl; ‘would she not want to go?’ I asked. ‘I don’t know’ he said ‘I think maybe she wouldn’t, what with being English and all’ ‘But he’s your leader, the Pope! Why would any Roman Catholic ‘ because Joe and Cathleen were both Roman, you know. I worked well with Joe, he was a fine chap. I wouldn’t want too many in the department, now, but Joe, he was fine. Very sturdy. Very reliable. Course, you know...”
“What?” said Peter, then kicked himself under the table
“Well, they owe an allegiance to Rome, don’t they? You can never entirely trust them. But Joe was okay about the job, and he and Willie got along fine. Willie was an Orangeman through and through. He was a Black man.”
“What? He was black?”
“Yes, not a negro, you know. He was a member of the Royal Black Order of Orangemen, you know, The Black Men.”
Peter was getting lost, Black was Orange? And had Granda really just said negro? At least he hadn’t said the other N word, like his English Grandmother had recently. She insisted that her first dog was called Nigger, and kept saying it out loud, in public. “It wasn’t an insult in those days. It was just a word. You have to be so careful now. My first dog was called Nigger, and nobody thought that was strange.” He had imagined calling the dog back in, in Bradford, where he’d gone to university. You’d get lynched! Now his Granda was talking about Black men. He looked up, Granda was still talking.
“And so I said to him ‘why would you not go to see the Pope. I remember it, because he went straight home and said ‘Thomas says we should go and see the Pope’ and she said ‘Thomas says? Thomas says? I’ve been saying that for a week!’ Women, you see, always want the credit. But he took my advice and went. I told two girls in the department down the way. They were both of that religion too. I said ‘I asked Joe if he was going, and he said he wasn’t sure. Not sure? Not sure? Why would you not go, I said’ and I told the girls this. Mairead, she had eight children, typical catholic.”
Eight children, but she’s still demeaned by being called a girl? Thought Peter, and started to zone out. This explanation had been going on for forty five minutes, about a single conversation held forty years ago, he had tried to steer the conversation, he had tried to get it off this bloody subject. But Granda was like an oil tanker on railway tracks. A sly look at the clock revealed that it was nearly four o clock. Maybe that would shut him up. Shut the fuck UP! His mind screamed. And he smiled as Granda explained:
“So I said, You should go. And he did. And it rained so much that the field was just mud, and their car got stuck and had to be towed out. Joe was late the next day, and I had to say he needed to try harder; and he DID need to try harder. If you are paid to do a day’s work, you should be present for the day. But I said ‘why wouldn’t you go to see the Holy Father’, if that’s what you call him. I think it is, I think the Romans call him Holy Father. And he went home and talked to his wife and they went. And that’s that.”
“Would you go to see the Queen if she came over?” Damn! Damn! Damn! Why did he say anything? Why didn’t he keep quiet and hope Granda fell asleep?
“I would. If she was coming down the road outside, I believe I would. I think it’s important to give such people respect. As I said to Joe, ‘why wouldn’t you go?’ And I meant it. I think he should have gone ... and he did. And I don’t know why Mairead didn’t go; I mean why wouldn’t you, that’s what I can’t understand. I’m a man of few words, you know that; and I said clearly and openly to the girls ‘why wouldn’t you feel the need to see the head of your church?’” ‘across a field, about a mile away if there are a million people attending’ thought Peter, he’d been to festivals in his youth. He had a strong inkling that they didn’t put up massive flat screens in 1979. You’d see some speck in the distance. This time he kept silent. He was thinking about something else, which was why he was surprised when he came back to the conversation.
How had he been dragged into purgatory like this? He liked Granda, or he had when he was younger. In the last ten years, his views on women, foreigners, catholics, blacks, foreigners, young people and foreigners; mostly foreigners; had started to grate hugely. Even whilst being treated by an Asian doctor, a Polish Catholic nurse, and a black care worker who showered him once a week, he still maintained the misogynistic, racist views that he had learnt in the 1930s. Peter found it harder and harder to like the intelligent man that Granda undoubtedly was. The plan had been that his mother and father were coming over, Mum would take Aunty Aggy away for a few days, and Dad would look after Granda instead. It would give Aggy a break. Then the project ran into a crisis. Dad had to fly to India. The trip would be cancelled!
Nobody even considered asking Cathy, his sister, they all knew her reaction would be ‘no, now what’s the question?’ She stood heavily on her rights not to be considered part of the caring, female group in the family. And she had never forgiven Granda for demanding she make a coffee for him when she was thirteen. Anyway, she was in Asia, collecting exotic diseases, probably. She had had dystentery, typhoid, and Swincoff’s porpheria, whatever that was. Peter listened to his mother over the phone and, before she got to the punchline, he said “I’ll come instead”. He was that kind of guy; helpful and kind, and still a student (doctorate in final stages, hopefully), so able to take a few days. He got the train to Manchester, met his mother and ‘shared the driving’ - he did it all. Now she was away in Donegal for three days, threatening to kill Aunt Aggy for being the “annoying, irritating, argumentative, bitch” that she was. He wondered why they were doing this for the two most annoying people in the world, even beating Mr Trump by a short head. At twenty seven, he was learning that it was possible to dislike someone, and love them at the same time. His mother was managing this feat, he wasn’t sure he was.
“ ... Peter, I wonder if you could do me a favour...”
“Yes.” he replied automatically. Probably make some tea or something. Then Granda launched into another rambling discourse that used many, many words to say nothing. He began to zone out, again. What would he make for their tea today?
“So, I wonder if we could make it to Beth’s for an evening?”
Wait, what? What or who was Beth?”
“Sorry, Granda, run that past me again?”
“No running here, I’m afraid.”
“NO, I SAID CAN YOU REPEAT WHAT YOU SAID?” Granda could be hard of hearing when it suited. Maybe that was unfair, maybe he really was deaf as a post.
“I hear Beth’s is still operating. It’s the oldest institution of its type in Northern Ireland. It’s said that Michael Collins visited when he came to Belfast. The Rev. was certainly a regular customer. It’s on the Powell Road. Out near Cave Hill. You know the way?”
“No, I could look it up. But I was told you couldn’t travel. I...”
“I’ll not tell. Just for old time’s sake. It’s where I met your grandmother. You mustn’t tell that to anyone.”
“No, no, of course. I ... well, let’s wait for the call at four.”
At four, his mother and aunt rang to talk to Granda about how he was, how he was eating, how he was sleeping, how he was going to the toilet. All the indignities of questioning that an old man of ninety has to endure from people who think you’ve lost your marbles. Then they would be free for the evening. Granda filled the time until four with a long-winded explanation of why he felt it necessary to tell Joe to go and see the Pope in Dublin in 1979. Inside, Peter’s digestive tract was thinking about breaking through and strangling him to put him out of his misery. The clock slowed to a tick every hour, and he discovered the secret of stopping time, Boredom-Man, a superhero who could bore time to a standstill. The phone rang, and he all but cheered at the release. He didn’t mention the planned trip.
“So, we’ll be home at four tomorrow, so we won’t call tomorrow. Everything okay?”
“Couldn’t be better. Having fun?” Peter lied.
“Glad to hear it. We’re having great fun, thanks.” his mother lied back. They both knew they were lying.
Phone down, Granda was up, “I’ll get changed, you’d better ring. Here’s the number. They like to know who is coming.”