My grandmother took the bookies to the cleaners that last Christmas we were all together.
They had it coming, she reasoned. She had placed the same bet every January 2nd for the previous seventeen years and never won a penny. The stakes that had begun at five shillings – cobbled together from copper coins dropped into a jam jar throughout the year – had risen in the past five years, with the payout from Grandad’s life insurance, to £50 per bet, while the odds had widened from a cautious 10–1 in 1963 to more than ten times that, as those taking her money had become more complacent.
Since getting her pensioner’s bus pass she had begun risking multiple £50s by using her council-supplied freedom to roam the county, placing the same bet in Preston, Southport, St Helens, Leyland and a dozen or more other nearby towns as well. Mum always chided that she was throwing her money away and fretted that the steadily increasing stake showed that her mother was becoming addicted but, apart from her £1 contribution to the Grand National sweepstake at the charity shop where she volunteered two mornings a week, the annual bet was the only gambling to which Gran ever succumbed.
That Christmas Eve, as my brother and I trudged through the snow with our shovels over our shoulders, our talk was mainly about how we might benefit from her good fortune. Paul fancied an electric guitar; not anything fancy, like a genuine Gibson, but maybe a decent Japanese copy. I was already thinking about university the following September. I’d need my own record player for the halls of residence. Paul said I’d also need a set of headphones if I wasn’t going to alienate everyone else with my Supertramp and Electric Light Orchestra records. We’d already overheard our parents deliberating between new carpets and refurbishing the bathroom, which had been on their to-do list since we had moved into the house eight years earlier.
Grandma had said nothing specific to them about the value of her winnings, but they had calculated that when she had collected them from each of the betting shops on Boxing Day – Dad had volunteered to drive her from one to another, as the buses wouldn’t be running – there would be enough money for her to buy a small house, suitable for one person, in the centre of town and still have plenty left over for sharing. Certainly, she would be able to move out of her basement flat, although, as Mum said, she’d rented it with Grandad for almost thirty years and brought up two daughters there. Those walls stored a lot of memories and she might not want to leave them.
At least if she did move, Paul mused grumpily on the way over to Gran’s flat, we wouldn’t ever have to do this again. He wasn’t happy at missing out on his planned tour of the town’s pubs with his former schoolmates, collecting lascivious drunken kisses from girls he’d been spurned by at school but who were now also home from university for Christmas, their boundaries redrawn by the first months of living without parental supervision. If he missed tonight’s celebration of young lust, the next opportunity would not be until New Year’s Eve, when custom dictated that the town’s youth gathered around the clock tower in the market square for the chimes of midnight, after which all reticence was discarded for an hour or so.
At first, we’d thought Mum was panicking unnecessarily, but after the snow had fallen incessantly since lunchtime, adding more than a foot to the layer that had arrived overnight and shown no sign of melting, she had become agitated.
‘There’s more forecast for the morning, so let’s get her over here tonight,’ she said. ‘We don’t want to risk her being snowed in and not able to get here for lunch tomorrow.’ So we used the dustbin lid to clear a path to the garden shed, found the shovels and set off towards the flat.
Although Gran lived barely two miles away, it took us more than an hour to walk there. The snow had settled at about knee level and it was impossible to see where the pavement ended and the road began. Far from being filled with young revellers or solitary drinkers escaping empty homes, most of the pubs had not even opened for the evening and the town was virtually silent. Occasionally a car would prowl into sight, edging its way along the narrow channel gouged out by previous vehicles, wheels slipping on the frozen base. An empty bus came through, lights blazing, like an ocean liner in the night.
A wide flight of stone stairs led up to the front door of what had once been an imposing Victorian house, but Grandma’s flat had its own entrance, down a dozen or so steeper steps at the side. She’d always said that she preferred to have her own front door instead of having to share it with the three flats above. We stood at the top and looked down. Mum’s concern had been justified. Only the top three steps were visible above the accumulated snow. The lights in the front room were on and, spotting us outside, Gran waved, then mimed putting the kettle on and pouring mugs of tea.
She must have reboiled it a dozen times before we finally cleared enough snow for her to open the door. We shuffled in, taking in the cinnamon aroma that always seemed to permeate the flat. Our wet boots were deposited in the hall, socks draped over radiators, and we sank into the armchairs to be fussed over with tea and freshly baked cakes, as if nothing unusual had happened. There was an atlas on the sofa and a pile of magazines on the coffee table.
‘Weren’t you worried about being trapped?’ I asked, as we explained about how deep the snow had been outside her door.
‘To be honest, love, I hadn’t noticed it until your Mum phoned,’ said Gran. ‘I was miles away.’
She picked up a few of the magazines and passed them to us. I realised that they were holiday brochures.
‘I’m going to use my winnings to see the world,’ she declared, smiling broadly. ‘I’ve never even been abroad, you know. There are so many places that I’d like to visit – Alaska, the Galapagos Islands, New Zealand. Maybe even New York.
‘I’m going to start with Egypt. I’ve wanted to see the pyramids and the Sphinx ever since your grandad took me to see Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra.’
She opened one of the brochures and pointed to a cruise that would take her around the Mediterranean and through the Suez Canal.
‘I’m booked on a flight from Manchester to Lisbon on New Year’s Eve and my cruise starts the next day. I’ve even got an outside cabin. Very posh.’
‘That’s fantastic, Gran,’ I said. ‘You deserve a nice holiday.’ It didn’t even occur to me to ask how long she would be away or whether she had bought a return ticket.
It was a couple of hours before we could get a taxi to come out. By the time we got home, it was just after midnight and the snow was starting to fall thickly again. The next day, while the turkey roasted, we went for a walk in the park, Grandma smiling broadly at the children as they tobogganed down the shallow slope to the playground and studying the snow sculptures that had appeared in every bit of open space or garden along the way.
‘I missed doing all of this when I was a girl,’ she said. ‘The only time it ever snowed was during term time and my mum made your Auntie Olive and me stay in to do our schoolwork and help get dinner ready. By the time we’d finished, it was usually too dark to play out or the snow had already melted.
“I always dreamed that one year it would snow at Christmas so that I’d be free to go out and enjoy myself while it lasted.
“And now my dream has come true,” she added with a wink.
We opened our presents after lunch. They had all been bought before we knew about Gran’s win and were much the same as every year. We gave her what we thought were luxuries – bath salts and potpourri. She gave Paul a £20 book token and I got a record voucher for the same amount. She had brought her holiday brochures with her and, as we settled into the afternoon hiatus between opportunities to eat, she listed her planned destinations while my parents, sensing their new carpets fading away or the bathroom remaining avocado, listened dispiritedly and occasionally questioned whether this place or that might not be a little bit dangerous, hot, cold, primitive, crowded or in some other way unsuitable for a woman of her age.
She brushed their misgivings aside with a dismissive wave of her hand.
‘If I don’t go now I never will. I’m seventy years old and I’ve never even been on an aeroplane. There’s a whole world out there and now I’ve got enough money to see it in style. I’ll be fine.
‘Anyway, what else am I going to do? Sit at home watching television, eating custard creams and guzzling sherry until I go dotty?’
Over the next two years, Grandma’s postcards would arrive almost weekly. Tripoli gave way to Tanzania. Then she was in Cape Town. I followed her route up the west coast of the Americas and across the Pacific, then all over Japan and into South East Asia. I Blu-Tacked a large map of the world to the wall of my new room in the halls of residence and started to pin the cards in their locations, but it was quickly swamped and I took to keeping them in an album instead. I showed it to the first of my girlfriends at university and afterwards we lay, apprehensively entwined but still partially clothed, on my narrow bed, talking about the places we would visit together once we had graduated.
Gran rarely said much about where she was but every few weeks she would write: ‘THIS WORLD IS SO WONDERFUL!!!’ – always in capitals and always with an excess of exclamation marks.
The last postcard came early in December, from Goa. She had drawn a little snowman on the back and written: ‘Not much chance of getting snow at Christmas here!’ The next communication we received, three days after Christmas, was a black-edged telegram from the British Consulate in Calcutta. Mum cried, naturally, but I could think only of all those exclamation marks and the sense of wonder and excitement that they proclaimed, of a woman unbound, finally getting to see the world that had been in her dreams for so long.
A fortnight later, back in the halls of residence, as I slipped Gran’s final postcard into the album, I thought back to the last time I’d seen her, waving her off on her first and only trip abroad. The snow had completely melted as Dad drove us to the airport. It had arrived in time for Christmas, even in London, where the TV news showed it falling on the roof of the Meteorological Office as the capital sludged to a halt, but Boxing Day had brought blue skies and sunshine. By New Year’s Eve the crisp whiteness was gone, as though we had dreamt it. The wet fields and hills it left behind looked joyless, as if they would be grieving until the spring came. The snow wouldn’t return at Christmas for another thirty years.
We saw her through the departure gate and then waited in the café until the board showed that her flight had taken off. On the way back, Mum and Dad continued to debate their home improvement options. Gran had been more generous than any of us had anticipated and now there was no need for them to choose between carpeting and a bathroom suite. Paul was already scouring the guitar shops’ advertisements in Melody Maker and I knew exactly how I would use my windfall.
Two days later, on January 2nd, I walked into one of the bookmakers in town. It had been Gran’s idea and, before she left, she had told me exactly what to say and do. I had only just turned eighteen and I’d never been into a betting shop before. It smelled of stale cigarette smoke and shirts that had been worn for more than a couple of days.
‘£500 on us having a white Christmas again this year,’ I said to the middle-aged lady behind the counter, placing half of Grandma’s parting gift to me in front of her. ‘What odds can you give me?’
‘Sorry, love,’ came the reply. ‘Instructions from head office. We’re not allowed to risk taking bets on that anymore.’
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