There were two ways to my grandparents’ house from school. In fact, I suppose, there must have been many ways to get there, from one part of the town to the other. But there were only two ways that we would take, my brother and I, when the school day ended and it was time to go home.
We didn’t live at my grandparents’ house. Our own house was midway between there and the school, and we would pass close to it as we walked on the route we most often took. But our parents worked, and so we had to keep going, beyond the road to which we later would return, towards the little bungalow where our grandmother would be cooking or baking or cleaning; or else, in summer, she would be outside, sometimes gardening, sometimes just sitting on a chair in the sun, with my grandfather and his Daily Telegraph beside her.
Hers was a busy, generous presence, that filled the house; his, a profound gentleness of a kind one meets only rarely, and most often in elderly men, but which I suspect he had possessed for most of his life, since he came home from the war after years in a German prison camp. Or perhaps it had always been his, there is no way now to know. Together they provided that mix of love and mystery that grandparents bring to young children, their lives and memories so distant, so strange, as to almost be unreal.
That was the destination, that place of quiet, orderly warmth, to which we walked, my brother and I, after school. A place of comfort and of calm. Today, I suppose, we would not be allowed to make such a journey unaccompanied. The fear of abduction or accident has left children half captive, no longer free to walk or make choices for themselves: this way or the other?
But thinking back to it now, I find my own freedom restricted. It is twenty-five years since I last made that journey, aged nine or ten, and close to twenty since I last was in that town. And though I’m sure that I could still find my way from the school to the bungalow where my grandparents lived, the details of that walk – the steps that once held it together – have gone.
Looking at a map online, I try to piece it back together. I try to follow the roads on screen as I once followed them on foot. But somehow certainty doesn’t come. I can trace a line from start to end, and see the way we must have gone, but it’s not quite as I thought it was. And that second route we sometimes took, I cannot find at all. My memories refuse to be translated into two dimensions. They shrink and wither as I bring them to the light. The distance between then and now has grown so great that I am lost, on a journey that once was so familiar.
There were two ways to my grandparents’ house from school, and we walked them together, my brother and I. But today, I could take either route and it wouldn’t matter, one way or the other. I could walk and walk and still not reach that destination. For my grandparents, long dead, would not be there to meet me.