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Light from the Stars : Paul Magrs

My Gran was a sunseeker. That’s how she died.

I mean, she never tanned herself to death, like some of these people do. Flying back home the colour and texture of a cheap handbag and blind with sun spots. That wasn’t how she sailed into the hereafter. It was, however, down to the fact that she liked to go abroad.

In later life, my respectable, rational, scientific Gran turned into a proper gadabout. More than that: a globe-trotter.

Bless her heart. She never went abroad till she was fifty. She saved up all that time. Early retirement. She decided to see the world.

Or rather, to see some swanky hotels, some plush resorts. She decided she was going to have a beano.

My Gran became a sunseeker. And so did her best friend Beryl, who was always chiming in.

My Gran and Beryl were scientists. They worked in a laboratory together. They never discovered anything or invented anything, but they quite liked the work. It was clean and the hours were good. They liked the white coats and the clunky goggles – they really did. They had a funny sense of glamour. Fifties style, Quatermass chic. Pointy bosoms, frosted hair, Bunsen burners at the ready. And the laws of physics, they found, were satisfyingly static, unchanging, dependable. They worked together all those years, happy in the knowledge that the universe under their feet was firm and secure like no man ever was.

They tended not to bring their work home with them.

Beryl was with her right to the end. Mum and I couldn’t get rid of Beryl. She kept coming round. Being mawkish. It was harder for Beryl than it was – even for us – to let go of Gran.

The day of the funeral – small, Baptist church, not much fuss, crematorium afterwards and ham sandwiches – Beryl seemed to think she was the star of the show.

She kept saying horrible things. Even after the coffin and the body had been flown home all the way from Spain, and there’d been autopsies and lying in state and heaven knows what, Beryl claimed she could still smell the chlorine from the swimming pool that poor old Gran had drowned in.

‘But then,’ Beryl added, sotto voce and with an heroic, tragic expression – ‘I’ll always smell chlorine when I think of your Gran now.’ It was Beryl who’d administered the kiss of life to Gran – after Gran had been fished, lifeless, out of the deep end.

I can’t bare to think of the kerfuffle of the scene that must have ensued. All those pensioners – drunk, dismayed, horror-struck. The chaos as Gran lay sopping, already dead, in her holiday finery. Galumphing Beryl poised over her, pummelling at her chest and – an unlikely seducer – pressing her magenta lips to Gran’s blue lips and puffing away like mad.

Both Gran and Beryl were 40 a day women. Even more on trips where ciggies were cheap. That kiss of life must have been pretty feeble: pretty toxic. No matter. Gran stayed dead. There was no miraculous resurrection.

Not that either would have hoped for miracles. They were both women of science. They didn’t hold with mumbo-jumbo.

And all I could taste was chlorine, Beryl kept telling us. That clean, chemical smell. No matter what I’ve eaten since, whatever I’ve drunk and no matter how many ciggies I’ve gone through. I’ve been burping chlorine all the time. And I could smell it there, in the church, just sitting by the coffin.

Mum kept scowling at Beryl. She never had much time for the woman. And now Beryl kept going into lurid, horrible detail about her adventure.

She seemed compelled to do it, and relate all the detail to us. And she treated it just like an adventure, too – a strange adventure of being left alone, abroad, with the lifeless body and abandoned belongings of your very best friend.

But, oh, the Spanish police and authorities had been marvellous. Oh, hadn’t they just. They had been wonderful and they couldn’t do enough for you. Beryl had to take back everything she’d said about the Spanish, she admitted that.

The worst thing Beryl described was that moment during the conga when Gran got completely carried away. Her new, shiny-soled shoes slid on the wet tiles. She broke the chain. She lost her footing; her place in the joggling, jostling, high-kicking rank… and she fell. Those she’d lost grip on laughed at first, startled, thinking she would hit the ground softly – maybe she’d bounce – the way you think when you’re completely drunk. She did sort of bounce, Beryl said. She hit the tiles at the edge of the pool and slid into the water with very little disturbance. She slithered like a sea serpent into that soft blue, undulating water: water so thick with warm chemicals it looked like jelly. Like you could cut a neat slice of it – and lift it out onto the poolside – and rescue Gran from the depths…

Except you couldn’t. And they couldn’t. By the time that the broken ranks of the conga had realised what had happened and they’d all stopped jostling and tooting their hooters and come back to see what Beryl was yelling about - to see what on earth was this large, distorted, lilac shape resting gently at the bottom of the pool - by then it was too late.

Gran’s lungs had filled easily with water. She hadn’t struggled at all – the coroner had told Beryl and Beryl took great pleasure in relating to us. They’d been filled easily as a hot water bottle at the tap.

How amazingly relaxed Gran must have been. The sun and sangria had worked wonders on her, evidently, that she was so relaxed. Really, looked at in one way – the holiday had been a great success.

Mum gave Beryl a very odd look.

The news of her death got to us on the Friday night. We got a garbled phone call from the Spanish police. It was all crackly and hissy, all the way from Tenerife. And there was Beryl, on the line, telling us it was true. Gran was flat out dead. Lying there in the hotel. Beryl had come direct from the scene of the disaster. She thought she’d better let us know straight away.

And then… after a horrible weekend of aftermath and grief and all the things that go with that sort of sudden, shocking news…came a post card from the continent.

A day-glo postcard from Gran herself.

Full of chat and holiday-type expostulations.

Nothing startlingly original or pithy or profound.

Just the usual wish-you-were-here’s; the weather’s lovely; Beryl’s so stingy.

The lots of love.

I watched my mum reading it over, that Monday breakfast time. She turned it over and over. Scrutinizing what was, essentially, a very ordinary, jaunty, crumpled post card. She was searching it for clues. For something else. Some missing grain of wisdom, or extra piece of love.

Something – anything – in that posthumous postcard from Spain.

We all knew – even mum knew – that it wasn’t really posthumous at all.

Of course Gran had sent it when she was still quite alive, running around with her best friend Beryl, up and down the prom, round the swimming pools and amusement arcades… Of course, while she was tipsily scrawling her messages of love and fun and cheap wine to us on the back of that card, and sticking down the oddly-coloured, funny-tasting stamp, she never for a second thought that this card would reach home and she never would.

This card was just meant to be a tiny piece of her; a quick, off-the-cuff thought from her; a token, a gesture, popped into the post box quite casually. And she would see us again, in the flesh, quite soon.

In fact, the post card would probably arrive through our letter box after she was back home, with her tan already fading and her photos developed.

Wasn’t that usually the way?

Mum had that post card framed.

The picture on the front – a coral-white hotel with a million balconies and all those acres of baby blue sky and frothing sea – that was turned to the wall. Wasn’t interesting to us. Worse: the place that killed my Gran, her mum. The wicked, foreign place that did her in.

Instead, mum put the written side of the post card facing outwards. That mud-coloured stamp and smudged postmark. Gran’s rather girlish hand. She’d learned her style so long ago and it had stayed the same – as had her hair, her clothes, her manner of speaking. Why change a classic? She’d just grown greyer, then whiter, then creakier then stooped. Her handwriting was just a bit shaky on the card but, as mum said, that could have been the drink.

Gran didn’t drink in England. She kept that for the continent. Booze was foreign and special and dangerous. Like noticing sexy men or wanting to wear gaudy clothes. We were often shocked and thrilled by the thought that she and Beryl had been drunk while abroad. It sounded to us like they had shaken themselves free of Earth’s gravity. They were floating away from us, tipsily burping and hiccuping – tumbling and twirling in a sky full of stars.

She slipped and tripped on the poolside. One of those crashing, sickening, awful moments when someone GOES TOO FAR. When they get over-excited, do something silly and COME TO A BAD END.

She who’d been so rational and precise. She who’d been scientific.

Gran was leading a conga around the bar, round the hotel reception, outside onto the terrace and round the pool. She was the life and soul that night. Everyone remembered that. The English woman who’d started exhorting everyone to get up! To come on! To join the conga! She got everyone mucking in and kicking up their legs.

At home, Gran was more self-conscious than that. When she queued for things in shops she kept her eyes dead ahead; lowered them when speaking. She warned me: don’t stare. Don’t catch strangers’ eyes. You can draw maniacs to you. Stalkers. Bad men. Mad scientists. That’s how they latch onto you.

So, could we really believe that Gran had all the over-fifties dancing around like mad? Did any of this ring true, what Beryl was telling us? Beryl, in black, in a big hat, at the funeral. Laying on the waterworks. A bit thick, mum said. She and Gran weren’t that close really, though they holidayed together each year. Though they were lab technicians in the same place, all that time. They’d had some bad fall-outs over the years, on ferries, planes and funiculars. Usually about money or somesuch.

Anyway, the point was – about the late postcard. Gran’s own, familiar, unremarkable hand – a hand known to us from other cards over the years – and gift tags and letters sent during family squabbles. The card that came after her death, as if she was despatching a missive from the other side. That illusion that she’d found a post box in the hereafter. The fact that for a second – just a second – both mum and I – puzzled and wrong-footed - could believe in such a thing.  

A message from someone already dead.

Like the light from stars when we see them down here on earth. Whether we’re somewhere normal at home, or somewhere exotic. It’s all the same. By the time we see that starlight – it’s already dead. It’s the speed of light. The speed of life.

It’s something we were doing at school just about the time Gran took her jump into the deep end – into that swimming mass of reflected stars in the pool. And it stuck with me – that nugget of physics – that tiny, mad piece of physics – about the only thing that ever did stick with me. The only bit I remember of Gran’s beloved physics – her bodies in motion, her unstoppable forces, her bending rays of light through space…

When we see stars, they’re already dead. Spectacular, distant, having a rip-roaring time up in space. But they’ve taken so long to shine – they’re already dead. They just don’t know it yet.

And if we don’t tell them, they never will.

They can still do the conga round swimming pools. They can still send post cards home.