My Grandmother is dying. She had a massive stroke yesterday, and the news arrives as I am leaving London. Her medicines have been stopped. She cannot swallow, so cannot drink. It could take up to three days, my mum tells me, for her to die. She tells me this, in a matter of fact way – in the way that is needed to stop herself falling apart at the other end of the phone. This is one of many calls she needs to make.
My Grandmother is ninety-nine years old. She was born after the outbreak of the First World War and adopted by a couple who ran a tiny tobacconists in Merthyr Tydfil. They needed a girl in the shop to help out. And so that’s what my Gran did. She worked in that shop, selling cigarettes in five-packs to the men who tipped out of Merthyr’s late-night cinemas. She was a bright child. Her school wanted to put her forward for a scholarship, but her adoptive parents said no. She would work in their shop. She had no choice and left school at fourteen. Over the years, she told me that story again and again – this bright girl, one of a whole generation of girls (and boys too), denied education beyond fourteen. They were poor and they were working class. Some years later, she took herself off to night school to study secretarial skills – an act, I now realise, of absolute defiance.
As she aged, her memories of Merthyr became a startlingly bright constellation that circled ever closer to her. In the end, she talked about little else.
Everything in life brings us to the present moment. To the moment when I write this, to the moment you read this. I have had life chances my Grandmother never had. I remember her pride in my various, if haphazard, achievements, and her astonishment at the news I had sold my novel and it would be published. She will not live to see the book. But there is no doubt that, without her, it would not exist. Her kindness, her strength, her sheer determination to live a happy life – all of this shaped me profoundly.
Every book holds the same too in some way. A book is not just words, the story contained between the covers – it is realised in the love and hope and desperate hard-won achievements, and losses, of others.