When I was little, the dark staircase between the front and back rooms of my grandparents’ two-up, two-down terrace house had been a mountain. Each step a jagged, granite foothold; the shadowed landing a dark cloud hiding a kingdom of giants, or a castle encased in twisted branches. Their bedroom glowed yellow; the edges of the furniture seemed to flicker in the half-light. I would sit on the low stool in front of my grandmother’s dressing-table mirror; lift the lids of varnished papier-mâché boxes painted with tiny blue birds that held golden sprigs in their beaks. Run my fingertips over each piece of an ebony vanity-set embossed with silver initials – not my grandmother’s or my mother’s, but maybe those of a princess or a witch. Each object felt like a portal to a story my grandmother had not told me: Had she brushed a velvet coat with the horse-hair clothes’ brush? Fastened silk-covered boot buttons with the silver hook? My mother said that the scissor-like tool was for stretching gloves. Sometimes I’d click the two wooden prongs together, snap at my fingers, at the edges of my skirt, at my face in the tarnished glass; picture my grandmother’s hands, elegant in soft calf skin.
Now, I am thirteen and bored of these Sunday visits to my grandparents’ house. Bored of the tiny rooms, bored of the dish of water in front of the gas fire, of the color-television turned down to black-and-white. Bored of how cold my fingers get in the front room. Bored of the blue-striped bowl filled with sugar lumps that I pop into my mouth every time I walk by. Bored of that picture of my mother as a child in my grandparents’ bedroom; the one where she has round cheeks and a ribbon in her dark brown hair; where she looks like a miniature, porcelain version of her adult self.
I stay downstairs. Sit on a worn, dull-green-tufted chair next to a large table lamp with an orange shade while my grandmother bustles back-and-forth to the kitchen. In a minute, my mother will tell me to carry food and dishes and cutlery to the front room where we will eat our tea: white bread sandwiches smeared with shrimp paste or filled with cheese and Branston pickle, slices of hard-boiled eggs and tomato wedges fanned out on plates, celery sticks plonked into a glass.
My grandmother stops in front of me. She holds a metal jug with a hinged lid. Her body is square and still. She fixes her watery hazel eyes on my sullen, teenage face:
“All of them stopped there. The Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Elvis.…” She repeats the names in a staccato, emphasizing each one, like she is issuing a challenge. “Mick Jagger used to call me mum.” Her voice is louder than usual. “I have all of their autographs.”
My mother had told me that, in the sixties, my grandmother had been a waitress in a restaurant at one of the only service stations on the M1 – the first motorway in England. Travelers to and from London stopped there. My grandmother brought them milky coffee in glass mugs, emptied their ashtrays, wiped their tables dry.
I look up, thinking my grandmother will say more.
Instead, she turns, and I watch her walk past the shadowed stairway, until her body becomes a silhouette in the filtered sunlight.
Later, after we had sat, elbow-to-elbow, around the tea table; after I had eaten two triangles of cucumber sandwiches, crunched the stringy end of a celery stick, and stirred greasy streaks of evaporated milk around slick canned-peach-slice islands, I mumbled goodbye to my grandparents, then slouched, nauseous, in the backseat of the car. I asked my mother:
“Does Nan really have all those autographs?”
“I don’t know. Probably. Maybe.” She pauses. “That restaurant was the only place to stop on the M1.”
“She has all of them? The Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Elvis?”
“Did Mick Jagger really call her mum?”
“He probably called everyone mum.” She laughs slightly.
“Where are the autographs? Do still you have them?
“I’m not sure where they went. I wasn’t that interested.” Her voice trails off.
It was my grandfather who told me bedtime stories, who staged puppet shows with my cuddly toys, who made me kites out of balsa wood and newspaper. My grandmother watched. She was quiet. Her mouth straight and tense, her eyes wide and contemplative. She kept her hands busy – baking, crocheting, searching through her square handbag for a tissue or a barley sugar. She never spoke about her childhood, never mentioned her brothers and sisters’ names, what her father did for work, the color of her mother’s hair. All I knew was that she was born in Scotland; that after she married my grandfather, she worked as a cook in stately homes across England.
She had wanted me to know about the autographs. Maybe if I asked her, she would tell me how she got them? She might find a dusty shoe box full of them and show them to me, one-by-one. She would smile and I would be interested. She would say that one day, she would give them to me. I would treasure them. Pass them on to my own children.
I will ask my grandmother about the autographs on our next visit. She will sit on the green tufted chair next to the lamp with the orange shade and fold her hands over her stomach. I will see how her emerald ring and gold wedding band reach up to the knuckles of her short fingers. Glance at the gold chain that loops below the neck of her beige sweater. Notice the way the wrinkles on her cheeks move as she speaks.
She might set the scene:
From the outside the restaurant looked like wooden boxes stacked end-to-end, the bottom floor was all windows and the top extended into a bridge over the motorway. Customers could sit there and watch the cars whizz by underneath.
She might say that the restaurant was not a greasy spoon but a proper sit-down place with a varnished-wood bar and fitted carpets.
You could order steak if you wanted.
She might say that she wore a black dress uniform and a white apron, that her shoes had hard soles, that the sides of her feet ached by the end of the night shift.
I slipped my heels out of them while I waited for your grandad to pick me up.
She would talk about the customers: the salesmen, the middle-aged couples, the rowdy local boys who came in after the pubs closed. The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Elvis – images of them from magazines and movies would come to life like holograms. Mick Jagger would look up at her and smile:
He had dark brown hair, the same color as your grandad’s used to be, the same color as your mother’s. He reached for the coffee cup before I could set it down. He couldn’t sit still. He said:
My grandmother had been in her forties when she worked at the restaurant. Her mouse-brown hair would have been styled in a short, cauliflower perm. She would have had it set at the corner hairdressers, the one with net-curtain covered windows. Carefully wrapped her head in a plastic bonnet and tied an opaque chiffon scarf under her chin for the walk home.
She had felt young only three times in her life. Once, as a girl in Scotland, when she had borrowed her brother’s military kilt and beret and she had smiled and met his gaze directly when he took her picture. Then, again, the moment before she grasped her new husband’s hand on their wedding day, her fingers warm in silk gloves. The last time had been in 1943 when she bent over a steel panel with a welding iron and the sparks cascaded gold-and-silver against her visor.
The young man was young in a way she had never been.
My grandmother would not have known who he was until she saw the other waitresses looking back-and-forth, giggling behind their hands. Then, she would have pushed a white paper napkin toward him and handed him her blue pen. She would have said:
Those lassies would like your autograph.
Maybe my grandmother could retrace her steps. Ask herself the question my mother always asks when I lose things:
“Where did you see them last?”
First, she would have opened the front door, pulled off her chiffon headscarf and unbuttoned her brown wool coat. She would have clicked open the painted gold clasp on her brown leather handbag. Had she taken out the stack of white paper napkins? Smoothed out the corners with her palm? Looked down at the blue-ink scrawls?”
My grandmother would have opened the slim, polished drawer, hidden under the lip of the writing desk. Stretched her red-knuckled hand to the very back, searched for a space behind the fountain pens and the airmail envelopes. Then she would have walked quietly into the back room. Considered standing on the armchair to reach up to the shoeboxes on the top shelf of the high cupboard.
No, not there. Maybe upstairs.
I haven’t asked my grandmother about the autographs. She has bustled back and forth from the kitchen, and I have sat and watched her as usual. She has been busy opening cans and packets, buttering bread, boiling eggs, slicing tomatoes. Her face is impassive, almost expressionless. I have decided that she doesn’t look like she wants to talk. That I shouldn’t bother her. That maybe I’ll ask her on the next visit.
I go upstairs.
My teenage body feels too big for the dressing-table stool. I scan the bedroom for hiding places. I open each of the boxes with the painted blue birds. Empty. Turn over the framed photograph of my mother as a child, the one where she looks like porcelain – the back is sealed shut.
After her nightshift at the M1 restaurant, had my grandmother stared into this dressing-table mirror? Looked at herself in the yellow light? Was this where she had hidden the autographed napkins? Had she pushed them through the glass to the other side, then quickly drawn her empty hand back into her lap? Left them there with her other stories – the ones she kept secret, the ones she treasured, the ones she had forgotten, the ones she had invented. The ones that she didn’t want to tell me, or that she might have told me if I had asked.
The rosewood mirror frame seems to shimmer. The glass looks hazy. I draw a sharp breath. When did she dust it last? I move my face closer to where my grandmother’s reflection would have been. Touch the mirror. Watch the tip of my finger melt into its grey-flecked surface.
Jacqueline Ellis is a writer and professor of women’s and studies. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Feminist Review, WSQ, Mutha Magazine, and Hinterland Magazine. Originally from Peterborough, England, she lives now in Montclair New Jersey.