Fiction | Short Story

The Box

“I miss her,” he says. “I can’t lose her like I lost your dad.”

In all the years I’ve been coming here, I’ve never opened the box before. Never looked inside. The latch on that large, red, leather effect box has always remained shut. I can’t believe I’ve never thought of it before, really. “Why don’t we have a look through your records,” I ask him. Grandad doesn’t seem so sure. I think he was happy with the silence. That awkward, shuffling silence. I’ve never been able to cope with those. Always piped up with something, no matter how ridiculous or spontaneous. He reluctantly agrees and I lift the lid.

“There’s some more behind there,” he says, gesturing to the old record player unit. It doesn’t even work now, that unit. Hasn’t for years, but it still sits there, in the corner of the living room, a monument to better and more hopeful times. Grandad made the wooden cabinet and surround himself, all its beautiful corners and edges and sides. As well as the stack of records standing up against the wall, and a couple of other smaller boxes, there’s a little door hidden in the rear of the cabinet, like a priest hole for easy listening vinyl. Some of the records have their price stickers intact. Woolworths. All of them yearn to be heard once more.

That’s why I’d bought him the new turntable. You know, one of those turntables which looks like a briefcase and opens out with its own speaker. There was a cavalcade of records and nothing to listen to them on. The turntable’s case was a deep red, just like the box. They were so similar, and the box in such good condition, that if it wasn’t for its tarnished latch you’d have no idea that they were manufactured decades apart. Resting it on the dining table, I opened it up and turned the speaker to face towards us. “What shall we play first?” I ask.

The box was full of 78s and LPs and a handful of singles. Richard Tauber. The Mike Sammes Singers. Max Bygraves. The Geoff Love Orchestra. The Beach Boys. That must have been one of Gran’s. Grandad was more interested in ‘The Colonel Bogey March’. They both loved songs from musicals, especially ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’. I take out a copy of ‘The Yankee Doodle Boy’ – it’s a single I’d bought for them from a record shop in Marseille last summer because of how much Grandad talked about that film, with James Cagney. It’s the flip which he’s most interested in, ‘Over There’. I put that on the turntable first and Grandad sparks into life, more animated than he’s been all day, nodding his head and looking, fleetingly, like a man without any troubles, while I – still rifling through the box – make mental notes about vocal groups long forgotten by anyone but collectors and people who associate these kitsch grooves with a better time.

When I show him the record I’d bought for him just the other week – a 45 of the Vienna Philharmonic performing works by Strauss, including his favourite, The Blue Danube Waltz – he doesn’t say anything. There’s, barely, a flicker of a smile while he reads the back of the sleeve. “Put it on then,” he says, just about managing to conceal how giddy he feels. “We haven’t got all day,” he says. I still remember him saying things like that, usually followed by something like, “You daft ha’porth,” or “You can’t win ‘em all.” He used to say that a lot, but now he doesn’t say much at all. I wish I’d talked to him more often.

The Vienna Philharmonic single was supposed to be a birthday present but I thought it’d cheer him up now. He needs cheering up. And it works. He sits upright and reminisces and talks and laughs. I haven’t seen Grandad act like this in a long time. In recent years his memory has waned and his passions have subsided, no longer capable of doing the carpentry work for which he used to have such skill. He’s even given up smoking. His two havens from the rest of the world, his garage and the spot where he’d light up at the top of the garden – that beautiful garden which still gushes with colour, stretching back towards the February sun – he doesn’t go to either of them now. 

He’s still obsessed with Spitfires, just like he always has been, and although he rarely reads anything other than the morning newspaper he’ll frequently devour any information about his favourite aircraft, whether biographies or technical manuals or the inscriptions on the backs of commemorative World War Two plates. He isn’t interested in much other than Spitfires. Spitfires and Strauss.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do without her,” he says later, out of nowhere, his eyes noticeably damp as he says it, and this isn’t a side of him I’ve seen before. He’s always been strong and resolute and calm. We both used to be, outwardly at least. I ask him what he means and he just repeats what he said before, adding, “She’s gone, isn’t she. She’s dead.” 

It’s been three weeks since Gran went into hospital and they’ve hardly been separated from each other in all the time they’ve been married, so for him it must feel like an eternity. I remind him that he’d seen Gran just a few days ago. We’d taken him to the hospital to visit on their 70th wedding anniversary. “Oh yes, I remember,” he says, in that tone only ever used by people who clearly don’t. 

“What they don’t tell you about marriage,” he continues, “is that it’s the first fifty years which are the worst.” It’s a line which he’d come out with ten years earlier, and he mentions it every now and again, a sort of Greatest Hits selection from a man of few conversational gambits, but also a link to his past. To our past. To how things were then.

We’ve never actually sat down and listened to records together before, Grandad and I. You might count those times when he’d dig out George Formby LPs and put them on, as a sort of anachronistic soundtrack to the video games I’d play at their house every weekend when I was a boy. Or whenever we’d mime playing the tuba to the Hancock’s Half Hour theme tune, a show we bonded over when I was a teenager discovering comedy that he’d loved the first time around. Or the day I demonstrated to him my first ever CD player, brand new, by playing a track from the latest Massive Attack album, Mezzanine, only for him to mutter a devastatingly caustic review to my teenage self. “Sounds like the dehumidifier’s backfiring. I’ll take it apart and have a look,” he’d say, with a mischievous glint in his eye.

Then there were the occasions I was between turntables so would go round to Gran and Grandad’s to listen to the vinyl releases I needed to review for the local newspaper, clutching a bag filled with Mogwai singles, obscure folk reissues and a host of other sleeves stamped with the logos of small record labels that Grandad would often confuse for band names, like Static Caravan or Victory Garden or Trunk or Great Pop Supplement. He’d poke his head round the living room door to gently chide me with some comment about how I must have been playing it at the wrong speed or it must have been scratched, because surely it shouldn’t sound like that. Or he’d point out, accurately if somewhat bluntly, that it’s “not like Gracie Fields, you know.” 

But we’d never actually sat together and listened intently, passing the sleeves back and forth, running our fingers along them, reading the liner notes and talking – actually talking – about what we could hear, what we could imagine, what we could feel.

These songs unlock memories, both sad and happy. He speaks of wartime and the Blitz in Coventry. Of cycling holidays on a tandem. Of trips to the seaside with other couples. Of tales from my childhood, from when I was too young to remember them myself. “You used to like this one,” he says, drumming his fingers on the arm of his chair. He briefly becomes raconteur, a captivating storyteller in his own understated way, while the records spin on the turntable and sounds and moments flood from the past.

“I miss her,” he says. “I can’t lose her like I lost your dad.” Everywhere else in the house is silent apart from us. She’s not where she usually is, in the kitchen or tending to her garden. I reach across and put my hand on top of his, trying to subdue the memories tumbling in my own head. After a few seconds he tells me to put another record on. It’s the way he says it this time, though. He snaps. He’s never snapped at me before. Grandad’s always been a gentle and patient man. So patient, truth be told, that he’s been known to watch whole snooker matches live, purely on Ceefax. Once, he even didn’t notice that there was a break between sessions but continued watching the screen, expectantly, assuming that the low-scoring frame was merely due to a very determined passage of safety shots.

“She’ll be coming home soon,” I reassure him. He quickly flicks back to jovial mood, as if shaken from a hazy torpor, and as the minutes pass we take more LPs from the snug refuge of the box, poring over every detail and always with at least one ear attentively on the speaker, even when swapping stories or deciding what to put on the turntable next. It’s mostly him talking. I like it when he does.

The bright winter sun pours into the room through the French window and he looks at me and I look at him and we smile at each other. The kind of smile that says, “Yep. That’s done it. That’s done the trick.” Life’s troubles temporarily washed away by an afternoon of listening to cherished vinyl. A moment filled with hope and happiness and warmth. A moment where I feel like I know Grandad just like I used to.

“I  just want to sit here for a bit. On my own,” he says. He looks weary, as though the joy of Irving Berlin, of playing records, of forgetting again – as though it’s drained away. But it hasn’t. There’s a twinkle in his eye which says, “I’ve really enjoyed this but I’m 94, you know. I’m not made of vim.” I get up and tell him I’ll put everything away but he tells me he’ll do it himself. 

I tidy the piles of other records away and move the smaller boxes back behind the cabinet, leaving him with just the one box, that red box on the floor next to the records we’d been pulling out of it for the past few hours. I can tell from the way he looks at them that they’re more than just artefacts from years ago. They’re scattered like fragmented histories, defining and rewriting the past. Each one a direct link to a library of stories in his head, of people, of remnants from a life fully lived. I wish he’d tell me more about them, but he wants to be left alone now.

“Go on, then,” he says, shooing me towards the door. As I get up to leave I hear him sighing, downhearted again. He files the records back in the box and closes the lid for the last time, then crumples in his armchair and closes his eyes. “I haven’t got all day,” he says.