My parents taught me the difference between right and wrong. Right was saying please and thank you, treating people as you’d like to be treated and eating with your mouth closed. Wrong was picking your nose, being rude, and any kind of public indecent exposure. Right was finding fun in the minutiae of long summer days in the 80’s; dens in the garden, mud-pie pits, seashell collections and detective clubs, long before 24-hour TV and video games. Wrong was lying, not sharing, eating anything that could rot your teeth, and not feeding your collection of pets, gerbils, rats, chickens, cats, or snakes.
Smiling was right.
Scowling was wrong.
There was technically nothing on the ‘wrong list’ about stealing dead people.
My brother and I respected grown-ups, we followed rules and we used our common sense. We believed in Father Christmas long after we should. We had exciting walks in the dead of night to see meteor showers and we choreographed shows for anyone who would watch. Gymnastics, dance routines, plays and interpretations of Adam Ant songs. Creative was right. Imaginative was right. Problems were there to be solved; there was always a good solution if you looked long enough.
Suddenly we were in our early twenties and by a succession of odd events, my brother and I ended up caring for an elderly woman, our ‘pretend grandma’, who was dying. Margie was a firecracker; wise, and funny, feisty and fearless. Having been on the fringes of our family for most of her life, Margie had carried an inextinguishable torch for my granddad, though they both married other people. But now it was just her left, and at almost 90, Margie’s tiny body grew smaller by the day until a slight wind could have blown her away. She was all alone in her dusty, cluttered flat, which was obviously, wrong. Right, was looking after her. We spent day after night and night after day in her dusty, cluttered flat. Days turned to weeks, and weeks turned to months and the few of us around Margie watched, exhausted as her body waned to nothing, her mind clinging on to the last. And then we were left to clean up. Exhausted, Heartbroken.
Then, from nowhere, the step-daughter appeared. She belonged to Margie’s long-dead husband, and was the sole heir to Margie’s estate. I barely knew she existed, because during the nine months before Margie’s death, she hadn’t visited once. But then she was suddenly there, organising the funeral, weeping at the door as she greeted guests, mourners, those of us who’d nursed Margie’s withering body like ‘the help’. She stood there, loudly lamenting on what she was going to do with the ashes, and those of us who knew Margie shuddered, knowing she wouldn’t want to be stuck in a vase in the ground in a characterless plot.
This was a problem. Problems were there to be solved; there was always a good solution if you looked long enough. But we didn’t have the luxury of time. Within the hour, the crowd would disperse and what was left of Margie would be taken off to an unacceptable end.
I think it was my uncle’s idea, which gave the impression that it was credible, not illegal perhaps. He stood guard at one door, my aunt at another. One of my friends engaged the imposing, perfumed bulk of the weeping step-daughter in conversation as my brother and I crept down the stairs, into the service room, towards the tin next to the photo. My heart was pounding in my mouth. Could I go to prison for this? The lights in the room had been dimmed and weird shadows crept up the walls. The muffled conversation in the room above us sounded like it was drawing to a close, someone had gone to get our getaway car, driving it slowly towards the back door. I can remember every second, the smell of wax, something heavier, sweeter, lurking behind. Upstairs people were leaving. We quickened, collecting our prize, and making for the door. Out in the cold, crunchy November air we passed the tin into the getaway car. Our guards withdrew and as far as we know, the step-daughter never asked where her dead benefactor had disappeared to.
The tin travelled safely out of town and was placed unceremoniously in my uncle’s dusty, cold garage alongside some other precious things. Margie would have approved, wholeheartedly. The next summer, her ashes were sprinkled out on the lake where she once went sailing with my granddad. He was worth waiting fifty years for, she once told me.
Our parents taught us the difference between right and wrong. I still respect grown-ups, I mostly follow rules and use my common sense. I say please and thank you, I eat with my mouth closed and I do not pick my nose. I still find my fun in the minutiae on long hot days; dens in the garden, mud-pie pits, seashell collections and detective clubs. I sometimes eat things that rot my teeth and as for public indecent exposure? Meh, maybe on occasion.
Problems were there to be solved, and sometimes, in solving one particularly well, you had to walk a fine line and anyway, technically, it was never stated that stealing your dead grandma was wrong. There are about 8 of us who probably grin from ear to ear whenever we think of that day. And smiling is definitely right.