The family began to suspect that all was not well with Grandad the morning he marched downstairs and announced that the toilet had lodged a formal complaint with him.
'He told me…'
'The toilet is a "he"?' asked Jake, munching a slice of toast.
'Will you shut up and listen?' Grandad continued. 'He told me he doesn’t like us doing our business in him.' He held up a hand to forestall any further interruptions. 'I know, I know – I told him: "This is what you were made for, mate", but what he said back was this: "So you think the way you start life should dictate the way you spend the rest of it? I don’t even get a choice? Construction isn’t destiny, pal – that’s a deeply reactionary attitude." And, well, I felt he made a good point. I didn’t fight the Nazis just to watch my own country slip into this sort of fascistic determinism.'
'You didn’t fight the Nazis at all,' said Mum. 'You were thirteen when the war ended.'
'That’s not the point,' said Grandad, and started rootling around in a Tupperware box in the pantry.
'What’re you after, Dad?' said Mum.
'Shed key. I need a shovel.' He held up a rusty key and waddled towards the back door. As he opened it, a look of pain passed over his face, and he jammed his fist into his bum-crack. 'And I’m going to need it sharpish.'
Dad’s head snapped up from The Telegraph. 'Oh God, my hydrangeas,' he cried, threw down the newspaper and fled after the old man.
Three days later, everything seemed to return to normal. Grandad put the shovel back in the shed and resumed using the bathroom, explaining to the family that the toilet had landed a job as an art critic for the local newspaper and didn’t mind doing a spot of sewage disposal on the side.
The family relaxed.
That is to say, they relaxed as much as they ever did these days. Jake heard his parents squabbling through the bedroom wall and counted the days until he left for university. The thought of leaving home was joyous; the thought of being a student less so. University was a time for pranks, hijinks and endless sex with girls who would never expect you to call. Jake knew this: he’d seen enough American sitcoms. Standing in front of the mirror with his shirt off and examining his pudgy frame with disgust, he couldn’t help thinking that his experience of higher education was going to be a disappointment.
My tits are bigger than mum’s. I am never going to get laid.
And so a relatively uneventful week slipped by, culminating with the family’s ritual Sunday gathering around the dining table, where Mum presented her clan with a traditional roast, though it was less traditional these days, Jake having forsworn meat, when he wasn’t forswearing all food not in the form of a low-carb snack bar.
'Smells nice, love,' said Dad, straining a smile at his wife. The Quorn roast was burned but the baked potatoes emitted a pleasant aroma, so this was not entirely untrue.
'Thank you,' replied Mum, and smoothed her hair with a hand that was still inside an oven glove.
Jake looked glumly at the brimming serving dishes. 'Where’s Grandad?'
Mum sighed and stood up. 'I’ll get him.'
She found the old man sitting in the conservatory, reading a book. He was wearing flip-flops. And nothing else. Except for the contents of a tub of Lurpak, which he had smeared all over his limbs and torso. The empty pack lay accusingly on the coffee table, the lid and foil by his feet.
An entire weather system of emotions flitted over Mum’s face. 'Dad?'
He looked up from his book. 'What day is it, dear?'
Grandad laughed. 'Don’t be silly. It was Sunday last week.'
Lunch was a solemn affair, with Mother absent while Jake and his father chewed in silence, all enjoyment banished by appetite-killing images of a naked relative who was far more effectively basted than the fake roast they were eating. When it was over, and Mum had returned to the dining room, Dad made an announcement: 'We need to have a family meeting.' Mum stood up to clear the table, but Dad put a hand on her arm. 'Now.'
Mum and Jake awaited the paternal speech.
'I think we all know that things have been difficult since Grandad moved in. We’ve tried to make the best of it, but it’s not working. We,' – Dad looked at Mum – 'have never fought so much. And you' – looking at Jake – 'are spending more time on your Xbox than ever. You must have thwarted eighteen global terror threats in the last fortnight.'
'What are you saying?' asked Mum. 'We should put Grandad into a home?'
Dad exhaled loudly. 'I don’t see what choice we have. We can’t look after him if he’s going … doolally.'
Mum’s face looked sad, but her shoulders relaxed. Jake said nothing as Mum put up a token protest. The boy hadn’t seen such poor acting since his primary school’s Nativity Play, when the Angel Gabriel wet himself and Mary couldn’t stop laughing. Dad batted away Mum’s objections with ease and, within ten minutes, it was decided: Grandad would have to go somewhere to be looked after by professionals.
Four months later, the old man had moved into sheltered accommodation. Jake – now a student with a serious gym habit – took time out from his schedule of weight-lifting to visit his grandfather in his new digs.
The door was answered by a middle-aged chap in a white uniform. Grandad was standing by the kettle in the kitchen, holding a teabag aloft. 'Billy, listen: I know you’re scared of the hot water, but I assure you, I have never once met a teabag that didn’t love it when it got in there.' Noticing his grandson in the doorway, he looked over and waved with his free hand. 'Hello Jake. Jolly good of you to come and visit your old Gramps. I see you’ve met Step-Hen.'
The middle-aged man smiled wearily. 'It’s Stephen. Nice to meet you.' He cleared his throat and lowered his voice. 'You might want to help your Grandad out with the tea. I’m not sure he’s safe around boiling water.'
Jake nodded. 'Don’t worry, I’ll take it from here.'
Grandad watched Stephen leave, leaning backwards and then forwards to keep him in sight until he had disappeared down the path and entered another flat.
Jake pointed at the kettle. 'Shall I do that, Grandad?'
Grandad shook his head. 'No need. I know Stephen worries about me, but I’m fine.'
'Oh. So you can say his name, then.'
'Of course I can. Listen Jake, I want to tell you something, but you have to promise not to tell your parents.'
Jake sighed. 'Sure.'
'There’s nothing wrong with me.'
Jake blushed. “If you say so.'
'No, really. It was obvious from the word ‘go’ that your Dad didn’t like having me in the house. I may be old but I’m not stupid. Or deaf. I heard them – arguing about me day and night they were.'
Jake looked quizzical.
'So I thought, "How can I make it easy for them to get me out of the house?" Acting bonkers seemed like an idea, so I went for it. And here I am.'
Jake’s mouth fell open. 'You sly old dog. Really?'
'Really. Now. You still take artificial sweeteners?'