Grandma was 85 years old. She still lived on her own quite independently, although she had stopped driving the car when she’d reached 80. In a moment of weakness, she had confessed to the doctor that she occasionally had dizzy spells when she could not remember what her name was or what country she lived in.
He prescribed pills for mild epilepsy and ordered her to give up her driving. At first she refused, but the doctor insisted, saying it wasn’t safe for other motorists. Therefore she had no choice but to surrender her licence, which she deeply regretted.
“What difference does it make what country I’m in?” she asked her family. “I can still see where I’m going.”
“But which side of the road were you driving on?” asked Jeremy, her grandson.
His question was totally innocent, because he knew that people in France drive on the right side of the road, while in England, India and Australia, they drive on the left. But Grandma took the comment as mockery.
“The correct side of course,” she replied, and then, turning to her son, she said, “Nigel, I blame you for your children’s impertinence.”
“Yes, mum,” said Nigel, softly. He was actually a very good son to his aged mother, and visited her regularly with her grandchildren.
Grandma did not seem to realise that her son was a grown up. While they were having tea, she asked him, “Have you cleared out your room yet?”
“Yes Mum,” he replied. “I cleared it out 35 years ago when I was living here.”
“Exactly,” she snapped. “35 years is way too long to leave your junk lying around in your room. You and your brother should have emptied it out decades go. I want everything gone by next Tuesday. Jenny and Edward are coming to stay. They’re not going to Benidorm this year, so I invited them over here for a good rest. They will need somewhere to put their clothes.”
Jenny was Jeff and Nigel’s cousin, though you might suppose that Grandma was a complete one-off, Jenny so resembled her and was even named after her, that Uncle Jeff said that she must be a clone!
She was married to Edward Johnson, a man of few words. Jeff and Nigel could not recall him ever finishing a sentence …
After tea, Nigel went upstairs to look at the room that he had shared with Jeff many years ago. It was in the converted attic. A handful of their things were still there, like the now vintage train set and the James Bond Aston Martin toy car with an ejector seat and a pop-up shield on the back window, and spikes that came out of the wheels.
“If we had only kept the box, it would be really valuable now,” he thought with a sigh.
But most of the junk that was lying around had nothing to do with Nigel and Jeff. Over the years, all sorts of unwanted objects had been cast into their room. He counted 17 suitcases, enough old duvets to fit out a hotel (if they had not been full of dust mites), 9 electric fan heaters, 23 dusty and torn lampshades, two broken umbrellas, 4 chamber pots, 10 sleeping bags, 32 pairs of shoes, heaps of old clothes, and an old chest that was heavily carved.
However, the chest was not junk. In fact, he recalled his dad saying that it was Elizabethan. He opened the lid and found something even more special — his late father’s army uniforms and medals. Nigel and Jeff’s dad had served in World War II. He had been particularly proud of his dress uniform that he had worn on parade when he was commissioned as an officer at the military academy called Sandhurst. Nigel took out the jacket, and marvelled how small it was. His father had been very slight in build when he was a young man, although he was considered to be rather dashing, and photos showed him posing with various mystery young women in uniform.
And then he opened up a little box and found his dad’s prized Burma Star medal, won for fighting in The Far East with an outfit of crack Jungle warfare soldiers called the Chindits. And here was the Chindits’ blue insignia with a golden dragon. These were precious things — representing an important part of family history. Nigel folded his father’s uniform lovingly and put it back in the chest.
On the way downstairs, Grandma called out, “Well, is the room empty yet?”
“Not yet,” said Nigel. “There’s an awful lot of stuff to throw out. Can’t Jenny and Edward sleep in the spare room?”
“Impossible,” said Grandma, “the curtains don’t match the new bed covers.”
“Well in that case, I will come back later in the week,” said Nigel.
“Hmph,” scorned Grandma, “fat chance.”
But Nigel, being a good son, took Tuesday off work to clear out his old room. Up and down the stairs he went, ferrying stuff out to the car. Grandma insisted on inspecting every broken lampshade. He made several trips to the town dump, before starting on the dusting and vacuuming.
Eventually, he came down and said, “Right-Oh Mum, I’ll be off now.”
“Already? You always leave a job half done,” she complained.
“Sorry but I’ve got to run. Liz and I have planned an evening out to the theatre and supper together. ”
“Typical,” said Grandma. “I suppose your ‘sweetness and light’ put you up to this,” that was how she mockingly referred to Liz.
When he had settled into the driver’s seat of his car, Nigel hastily fumbled to turn off his phone before his aged mother could call him back.. It was ringing as he pressed the off button. He sighed. At least he could look forward to the weekend when he was flying off with Liz and the kids for a holiday in Egypt.
A week later, he had almost forgotten that he even had a phone, as he was blissfully caught up in his own world, soaking in the turquoise clear water.
As he walked back over the warm sand to his deck chair, he heard the ‘Ping’ of a message. He picked up his phone. It was hard to read in the bright sunlight, but he made out:
“Nigel, its cousin Jenny. Nigel, it’s cousin Jenny. Your mother is just amazingDo you know how . Dyou know how fortunate you are? I you are?don’t think you appreciate Aunty Jennifer Aunty Jennifer like I do.” It was from cousin Jenny who was now staying in his old room. A few seconds later, his phone went ‘Ping!’ a second time.
“Oh for Heaven’s sake! Leave me alone,” he cried out loud.
“There is is a leak in your kitchen ceiling from the bathroom. Your mother says its your fault because you chose the wrong shower.”
Nigel was too annoyed to answer. Half an hour later his phone pinged again:
“Mr. Kowalski, the plumber came round and came round and says it is definitely your fault because the shower that you chose, — that you chose — is the cause of the leak. He says it is a huge huge job and now ‘I’ have to call the insurance company company. By the way, the house is full of junk. And just to let you know, And just to let you know, I ordered a skip, which has just arrived. Is there anything specific you’d like get rid of?” me to get rid of
Dad, spluttering with rage, read this last text out to the family. Jeremy suggested, “Why don’t you tell Aunty Jenny to throw herself into the skip?”
‘Ping!’ Went the phone again.
“Edward offered to mow the lawn, but all he could find were two broken mowers in the shed. He’s chucked them in the skip along with some other things he found in the cupboard of your old room, including an old train set and some toy cars.”
90% of Dad’s holiday relaxation had vanished into the glorious African skyline. “How dare they?” he was totally exasperated.
“Now, now, calm down,” said Mum. “They’re probably doing you a favour, even if they are very annoying.” Mum was in a very good mood and nothing was going to spoil it.
Dad resolved to go for a swim, because nobody could feel stressed while dipping in the beautiful clear water of the Red Sea.
But over the next few days, the messages became even more frequent.
Jenny was now complaining about the insurance company. The leak in the kitchen was getting worse, and the plumber could not fix it because the pipes were 100 years old, made of lead, and not covered by the policy.
“Why did you not check the terms and conditions when you took the insurance out?”Jenny demanded to know. “We can’t use the kitchen because the water is dripping onto the cooker and the electrics are not safe. We are camping out in the dining room.”
“Ask Mr. Kowalski to fix it.”Dad replied. “He’s always done jobs for us.”
“He says it will be expensive, and we should call the insurance.” replied Jenny indignantly.
“But the insurance won’t cover it, so ask him to do it,” replied Dad.
“But he says it will cost a lot,” said Jenny.
“What other choice do you have?” asked Dad.
“I don’t know? It’s not my house.” replied Jenny. “We are only trying to help. You are Jennifer’s son. Can’t you make any better suggestions?”
And so it went on. Stress! Stress! Stress!
Then it got worse.
“Edward has to go back to work on Wednesday. We can’t leave your mum with a dripping ceiling in the kitchen. You’ll have to come home so we can hand over to you.”
“Can’t you ask Jeff to come over?” texted back Dad.
“He doesn’t even answer my texts,” replied Jenny.
“I can’t imagine why,” wrote Dad, dryly.
But just after he pressed ‘send’, he recalled that Jeff was trekking with his girlfriend, Jessica , in the jungle of Papua New Guinea which would explain why he was excommunicado.
“You’ll simply have to come back Nigel,” Jenny insisted. Edward has to work!”
“Feel free to leave.”
“No, that’s not an option. We can’t leave your mother on her own.”
“She always lives on her own.”
“It is my social responsibility not to leave her.”
“Don’t be absurd,” said Dad, now getting quite worked up.
But an hour later he received a text from his mother. This was a very rare event as she thoroughly disapproved of mobile phones. She had a special model — a Nokia from 1999 — which she used to send texts in absolute emergencies. It read. “Jenny is barking mad. She won’t leave. If you don’t come back, I’m going to call the hospital and tell them I’m having a serious episode so they can take me away in an ambulance for tests.”
At that point, Dad knew the game was up. He had to leave the family and return home. Not only was his holiday ruined, but the flight home cost him £900 and the taxi from the airport wasn’t cheap either!
He arrived at his mother’s house still in his holiday clothes. Jenny answered the door.
“Couldn’t you come any sooner?” she said. “By the way, I wouldn’t wear shorts if I were you. You look ridiculous, like a knobbly-kneed, schoolboy.”
“Well now you can be on your way before it gets too late,”said Nigel, optimistically.
“Not before I’ve given you my hand-over briefing,” said Jenny. She made him sit down while she went through the receipts for everything she had bought from the supermarket that Grandma would never eat — including the pot noodles, the powdered soup, and the tins of macaroni cheese, not forgetting the new brush for the loo.
Two hours later Jenny and Edward were gone — or so Jeff thought. Just as he was sinking into an armchair, Jenny came back through the front door to collect her phone charger.
“Bye, have a safe journey,” waved Nigel patiently.
“I do know how to drive you know.”
She went out, but thirty seconds later she came back to use the bathroom.
And then she went out again, finally. Grandma said, “Thank goodness she’s gone!”
But, as fate would have it, Jenny soon returned to check that Nigel knew where to find the tin opener for the cans of Macaroni cheese and to check that he was going to recycle the box from the online grocery store in the blue bin.
This time, after she disappeared through the front door, Nigel locked, bolted and chained it, before turning off the electricity so she could not ring the front door bell, and drew the curtains so that she could not see in through the window.
He and his aged mother held their breaths. They heard Jenny’s car start and the wheels crunch over the drive.
“She talks to me like I’m five years old and is completely mad,” said his mother. “I feel like I’ve been to hell and back,” she complained.
“I can imagine that you must have really suffered,” said Nigel.
“Well I don’t have to imagine, because I went through it. The past ten days have seemed like a decade.”
For the rest of the evening, Grandma actually seemed to appreciate her son.. Nigel began to hope that a change might have come over her after she had met her match in Jenny.
He slept in his old room, and awoke to find 3 new texts from Jenny. He ignored them. He got up late and left his mother in bed with a cup of tea while listening to the radio. He wandered down to the river to have coffee and finish the book he had been reading on holiday. At about 10.30am, his phone went ping. It was from Jenny who was back at her home in Wales. It read:
“I’ve just called your mother and she is in bed feeling unwell. She says you have gone out and not made her breakfast. Go back immediately and make her toast and marmalade.”
Nigel spent the next fifteen minutes figuring out how to block Jenny’s number. He was not the greatest with technology, but he was highly motivated, and he felt a whole lot better when he had succeeded.
But he did go back and make his mother’s breakfast. Then, feeling a little nostalgic for his youth, he went into his old room and opened the Elizabethan chest to take a look at his father’s army uniform.
But It wasn’t there anymore.
Taking a deep breath he returned to his mother’s room. “Er, did Jenny by any chance throw out Dad’s uniform?”he asked. “Because it isn’t in the chest anymore.”
“I didn’t know you were sentimental about such things,” replied his mother, which wasn’t really a reply at all. It was an infuriating habit of hers never to answer a question properly.
Dad felt a huge anger rising up in him. He had to go out into the garden and take some deep breaths. He still felt upset two days later, when the plumber finally dealt with the leak, and he could go home. He sat in his own living room chair and thought: “I wonder if Jeff is back?” He called, and Jeff answered.
“Just landed at the airport.”
I expect you are exhausted,” said Nigel.
“Not at all! We were upgraded to first class and slept like babies! We had a huge bed. It was like the best hotel. We’ll drop in on the way back.”
That sort of good fortune always happened to Jeff. Nigel had heard of people being upgraded to business class, but first class ! His brother seemed to lead a charmed life.
Jeff and Jessica went to pick up their dog, Smoochies, from the luxury animal boarding lodge, before calling round to see Nigel. He told them the whole story of cousin Jenny’s visit to their mother’s house.
For once, even Jeff was outraged: “A skip!” he said. “The cheek! You should have chucked her in it.”
“Jeremy said something similar,” said Nigel. “But sadly there wasn’t an opportunity. The thing is, I think she threw dad’s uniform and his medals in there. They’re missing at any rate.”
“What?” exclaimed Jeff.
It was highly unusual for Jeff to be bothered about anything, but when he left, all his holiday relaxation had gone too.
Liz and the children flew home at the weekend, and soon the family was back into the usual routine of work and school, and Dad started to forget about all his troubles with his super-annoying cousin.
The following Sunday, Uncle Jeff called round, unannounced as he often did.
“I’ve got a nice little surprise,” he told his brother on the doorstep.
“Oh great, I could do with one of those,” said Dad. “What is it?”
“Just cast your gaze over to the car,” said Jeff. And he pointed to the pink Porsche, where Jessica was getting out of the driver’s seat.
“What’s she dressed as?” asked Dad.
“Can’t you see?” said Jeff.
Because Jessica was wearing an army uniform — their father’s army uniform to be precise. He had been so small when he was 20 years old, that it now fitted Jessica perfectly. She was even sporting his medals.
“Well, well, well,” said Dad, “Where did you find it?”
“Aren’t you going to invite us in?” replied Jeff.
Inside, the family admired Jessica, who said that she would only wear the uniform this once, before putting it away safely for posterity.
“It was like this,” explained Jeff. “For two days I was too angry to think straight, when I calmed down, I thought to myself, it’s not like Cousin Jenny to chuck out something valuable. Her own house is full of junk that she’s too mean to get rid of. I bet she sold Dad’s uniform. Then I thought to myself, there’s that Street Market on Saturday’s not far from where Mum’s house is. They sell all sorts of antiques and odds and ends down there, and I even think there’s a bloke who has vintage uniforms and army gear.
I bet she’s flogged it to him. So Jessica, Smoochies, and I toddled down to take a look, and what do you know? I was right. Dad’s uniform and his Burma Star was on sale for 50 quid. I told the bloke the story of Cousin Jenny, whom he recognised from my description as a middle-aged lady who was off her rocker, and I offered him cash, but he refused to take a penny. Said he was sorry — though I can’t say it was his fault — and let us take it away. Then guess what? On the way back I passed a stall selling old toys, and our James Bond car was there. If we had kept the box, it would have been worth a lot, but he let me have it back for a tenner. I asked him about our train set, and he had that too. I had to give him 100 quid for it.”
“Wow,” said Jeremy. “So Aunty Jenny didn’t throw all your precious stuff in the skip after all.”
“Naaa, she’s too canny for that,” said Jeff. Then he thought for a bit and said, “I know you are a bit old for train sets, but this one’s rather special, shall we set it up?”
“Oh yes, that would be fun!” said Jeremy. And so they spent the rest of Sunday afternoon playing vintage trains, and forgot about all their annoying relatives.
And that was ‘Wicked Uncle and Grandma’s Skip.’