This year’s winner of the Cassandra Jardine Memorial Prize deals deftly with an all-too-familiar drama
A good view from a living room window gets boring quite quickly. When you’ve seen the same frame since childhood, there are only three instances in which the view’s charm is restored. The first is during a good sunset, when it looks as though it came straight from the hand of Monet or Cézanne. The second is Bonfire Night or New Year’s Eve, and fireworks spark up in clusters around the valley until the early morning. I’m standing in the front room of my childhood home, a foot from the window which is probably three metres in width and another one and a half in height.
Looking out across the valley, I’m not sure it’s the view itself I’ve missed, but more the light, the openness. The knowledge that every person who lives somewhere in the quiet folding of these hills sounds a bit like me. The relief that it’s still the same as I remember. All wrapped up to form the third joy of this view.
There’s a white house up on the moors to the left. When I was five, my best friend and I promised that when we got older we’d marry, buy that house, and own a dozen horses together. I haven’t spoken to him for 11 years now. I’m not interested in marrying, and I’m allergic to horses. But there’s something about that house that still charms me.
The phone rings, and the whole house seems to jump from its din. It’s Mum. She sounds breathless.
“Your grandma’s not in. The carer said she didn’t see her at lunchtime either. I think we’ll have to send out a search party. Can you walk down to Strawberry Fridge and see if she’s there?”
Strawberry Fridge. Our pet name for Sowerby Bridge, a little town of about 10,000 people that used to be nothing more than a fording point where people could cross the river. My grandma frequents one of its cafés on a daily basis.
I grab my jacket and begin a careful tread down the steep hills towards Sowerby. My grandma’s house is about halfway down and as the familiar sign on the end of her road comes into view I turn left to check she’s not there.
It’s the same doorbell I pressed so many times as a child. She never bothered learning to drive because her husband used to work on the steam trains. And for a long time her legs have been darkened with ulcers, her feet unsteady. The only way for my sister and I to see her was to walk down to her house.
The doorbell made no sound but instead flashed orange lights into every room. She’d open the door with the chain on, peer outside, shut the door, take the chain off, open the door, and welcome us in.
We’d always decline glasses of juice because the juice smelled funny. We’d stay with her for a little while, using our hands and enunciating to her during conversation so she could lip read. Probably too soon, we’d agree between ourselves, in quick exchanges, to leave. “Right, we’re off,” we’d say. She knew this cue and would use shaking arms to push herself to her feet and shuffle slowly to follow us to the door.
And as I kissed her goodbye there was a little trick I’d play. A child’s trick. “Elephant juice,” I’d say. And she’d say, “I love you too.” I’d giggle, and she used to look at me with her brow furrowed and say, “What’s funny?”
But I’d just smile and shake my head.
I can see the lights flashing through the frosted glass in her front door, but the door stays shut. I turn and carry on down the hill, scanning the café when I arrive. No luck – she’s not there. The man at the counter says he hasn’t seen her since Wednesday.
I leave with a can of 7up he insists I take for free. There’s an outdoor market just ahead and I sit at an empty stall while the rain passes and I decide what to do. People in front of me walk, heads bowed, against the rain. Quite a few have umbrellas, which means I’ll struggle to recognise Grandma if she walks by.
Umbrella. That’s a word she can’t say properly. We call them Irene-isms: odd words or phrases she’s picked up wrong as a result of being deaf since childhood. Umberella, she’ll say. Mushyrooms. Ice ring. One time after lunch at our house, my dad brought my grandma a coffee and said, “Do you want some baklava?”
“A barraclava?” she said and we laughed. So did she. But she leaned forward, looking closely at my dad.
She asked him to say it again. When she reads lips, her own move like shadows. “Bak-la-va?”
My dad just opened the box and put two of the glistening sweets on a plate for her. She looked around, smiling. “I think I’m going deaf,” she said.
“Grandma, you are deaf.”
She pressed a hand against her ear and shook her head. “What was your dad saying about barraclavas?”
The rain has passed and I head back towards my grandma’s house, thinking I might spot her. As I turn on to her road I notice the light on in her front room. I press the doorbell and see the lights flashing orange. She opens the door with the chain on then shuts it to let me in. “Oh, Rose Anne!” That’s my sister’s name. “Have you come down to see me?”
I tell her that we’ve been looking for her all afternoon.
“What for? I’ve been in all day.”
She beckons me into the front room where I see a bag of groceries and notice a receipt which is dated an hour ago.
I call Mum, who’s just had a call from Cathy, a family friend, who’d seen my grandma wandering around town and drove her home.
Grandma says she’s never met anyone called Cathy.
She probably hasn’t eaten so I make a cup of tea and a sandwich, which she eats as my parents arrive and go to check on her. Grandma seems very grateful for the impromptu family gathering, and walks us to the door when we leave. “It’s been lovely seeing you all! Thanks for coming by.”
“Mum, we were looking for you!”
“I’ve been here all day, love,” she says, her hands clasped.
She looks to the calendar on her right, frowning. “Tuesday today, yes,” she mumbles.
We kiss her and clamber into the two cars. Grandma steadies herself by holding on to the gate, the same one I remember painting with her when I was little. The green paint I chose has almost all flaked away, leaving a rusty orange underneath.
Grandma waves, her frail hand jittering up and down, until we’re completely out of sight. I imagine her closing the door and settling back down in her armchair, breathless, the bewilderment of today already forgotten.
And there she’ll sit, through the night, waiting for those feeble orange lights to flash again.
Journalist Cassandra Jardine was the linchpin of the Telegraph features desk for 23 years. She died in 2012, and together with Cass’s husband, the actor William Chubb, we launched the Cassandra Jardine Memorial Prize, open to women writers aged between 18 and 25. This is this year’s winning entry.