The Unsung Hero

My grandpa was a quiet man. He was a soldier. He had a box of medals from the First World War. When my dad was a wee boy, he’d try to box with my grandpa. ‘Faither, tell me aboot the war, tell me aboot the fightin.’ Grandpa would swat dad away like a wee midgie then trudge around the garden and lop the heads off his roses. My dad told me that grandpa would walk for miles in the fields behind the house, hands clasped at his back.

My granny and grandpa lived three doors up from us. I thought their house was my house too. I knew where my granny kept everything. She had a big jeely pan under the sink to make jam and soak the tripe in milk. She would birl the big, white, stretchy bands of cow’s stomach along her arms as I gasped, eyes wide. She kept six teeny tiny silver spoons in a fancy box in her cupboard beside her bed. They were mine she said, if I was good.

My grandpa taught me when to chap at dominoes. ‘Hiv patience bairn’. He showed me how to win at draughts. ‘Surprise!’ He murmured when my granny shouted at the wrestlers on the telly. ‘She thinks they can hear her’. He let me fill in his pools coupon. ‘Ye can have half if we win’. And he taught me sign language because he was deaf. Not hard of hearing. Completely totally deaf. My granny had to stamp her foot in the kitchen to get him to come for his tea.

My grandpa was a stretcher-bearer with the Kosbies in the War. Uncle Jim said he must’ve seen some awful bloody sights. ‘Unsung heroes,’ he said. They didn’t have guns, they didn’t fight. They had to go out into the no-man’s-land to find the dead and dying. On 12 October 1917 my grandpa was carrying an injured man back to the trench. This was during the first battle of Passchendaele. ‘There wisnae much passion,’ Uncle Jim said. A mortar exploded about twenty yards away from them. Uncle Jim said Grandpa didn’t notice much at the time. He was too busy getting himself, the other stretcher-bearer and the injured man through the mire and mud. It was the last sound he heard clearly.

Uncle George said after Grandpa came home he didn’t speak much. Granny could speak for both of them, Uncle Jim said. Maybe he didn’t like the sound of his own voice inside his head. Grandpa grew used to silence. He whispered his prayers with his papery hands folded like a kirk roof and his eyes closed.

When I came along he’d been deaf nearly forty years. He’d sit for hours looking at the fire. I’d watch him, wondering what was going through his mind. So I kept him busy. He was my patient when I was the nurse and let me take his temperature with a pencil, wipe his brow with a tea towel. He was my pupil, my audience. He did his sums and clapped when I bowed. He nodded at my picture book stories and chuckled at my faulty signing.

Then I went to school. The children’s rules in the playground were harsh. The teachers watched us from the staff room. Smelly, fat, stupid children were targeted first. Outside school, an adult who couldn’t tell you off was a novelty, a rare treat. I sniggered up my cardi sleeve when the big kids shouted at Mongo Jean and Cripple Jock when they were at the caff. I hid behind the wall when my dad came to shoo us away.

Me and Margaret were the babies of the gang. Her big sister Pamela was first with any mischief. ‘It was in Baghdad when ma mammy met ma dad…’ we sang, snorting like wee piggies. One summer afternoon I was in the park with Margaret. We sat on the grass, making long garlands of daisy chains. In the distance I heard, ‘There’s auld deefie Austin!’ My heart hurt inside my chest. I stared down at my daisies but Pamela spied me over the heads of the other children.

‘Hi, wee yin! Bet yer grandpa isnae deef at a!’

‘Aye he is!’

‘Prove it.’ Arms folded like her mother. ‘Gan richt up tae him an shout Deefie ahin his back.’

All the eyes of the gang turned to me. I wish I could say I threw down my daisy chain, I stamped my foot, I ran away. I wish I could say I even hesitated. With a hop, a skip and another skip I ran up behind my beloved grandpa as he trudged along and yelled ‘Deeeeeefie’ with all my childish heart.

My dad was there out of nowhere. He scooped me up and carried me under his arm to the shop where he sat me on the back step and hunkered down in front of me. ‘Please dinnae tell him,’ I sobbed.

‘Ah dinnae need tae.’ He held my hands. ‘Ah dinnae know how he knows an it disnae really matter.’ He passed me his hanky. ‘Ah did the same when ah wis a wean an he forgave me too.’ I calmed down in the cool shade of the canopy, the daisies limp round my neck, breathing in the clean smell of my dad’s white shop coat.

‘But lassie,’ his index finger under my chin, ‘When he comes in, tell him you’re sorry.’ He stood up and circled his fist over his heart. ‘Show him you mean it. You know whit tae dae.’  I blew my nose and practised my sign for sorry until my granny turned the lights off and I heard my grandpa open the shop door.