On Monday evening as I chopped bratwurst and potatoes my phone rang. It was my wife.
'You need to call your dad right now.'
'Your dad called my phone. I don't know what's wrong, but you need to call him right now.'
My father lives in Coventry, England whilst I live in San Antonio, Texas. We speak fairly regularly but this seemed like something out of the ordinary, a moment I'd been dreading. Apparently unable to phone me at home, he had called my wife at work and wanted me to call him back seemingly regardless of it being near midnight in England. I felt ill.
My father sounded sleepy but not unusually distraught, which I immediately noticed with some relief. He told me that Madge had died in hospital. I suppose Madge would be my step-grandmother, if there is such a thing. She was ninety-three and had recently suffered a fall so it wasn't entirely unexpected.
Approximately forty years earlier, a knock on our front door had brought similarly grave tidings. We lived on a farm in rural Warwickshire with just one telephone connecting us to the outside world, and this was kept in the main office and shared by everyone. One of the other workers, or possibly even Mr. Harding himself had come to our door with a message. Being winter and early evening it was already cold and dark outside, and the news was that my grandmother had been involved in a car accident. My dad grabbed his coat and rushed out whilst I commended him on his haste, helpfully explaining that old people were frail and therefore less likely to recover from accidents of this sort. I was probably about eight and I think it was the only time my mother delivered unto my person one of those clips around the ear you always hear about.
When I was growing up we tended to see more of my mother's parents than the Burton side of the family, which is simply the way it was. Arthur Burton, my grandfather, was herdsman on a dairy farm near Witney in Oxfordshire. Like my dad, he was the guy who milked the cows.
I remember my grandmother, the first Marjorie Burton, and I remember her well enough to recall her voice and her face without the need of a photograph, but sadly that's about as far as I get. I remember their budgerigar, their bungalow, woodlands full of bluebells behind the farm; and I remember that whenever we visited I would usually end up behind their sofa, chuckling at cartoons in the twelve collected volumes of Punch magazine dating from 1936 to 1941 which my grandfather had purchased after the war.
Regrettably the first Marjorie Burton didn't survive the accident, which quite naturally left my grandfather somewhat rudderless, and there was one year in which he joined us for Christmas dinner at the house of my other grandparents which, if not exactly awkward, seemed a little odd, like Batman turning up in an episode of Star Trek. I was too young to recall much beyond the usual seasonal haze of the annual toy frenzy, and I have difficulty imagining what they all could have talked about. Both grandfathers had served during the war, one in Egypt, the other interned in a POW camp in Poland. One was a dairy farmer, the other a structural engineer for Coventry City Council.
Saturday 26th March 1977 is marked in my Letts Schoolboys Diary as the day Grandad married Madge, short for Marjorie and recently widowed. Madge became the second Marjorie Burton, and because none of us knew if there really was such a thing as a step-grandmother, she remained Madge. They were married at St. Stephen's Church in Clanfield situated at the end of Busby's Close where Madge lived with Cindy, her corgi. It was a fun day, although I don't remember much beyond that my uncle George refused to enter the church on the grounds of being an atheist, which struck everyone as both characteristically disrespectful and idiotic, because it was. Arthur took a job at a dairy farm in Clanfield, a job which came with a farm cottage, although Madge kept her bungalow knowing they would have need of it when Arthur retired. We visited from time to time once they had settled into their cottage and Madge would serve up the most incredible Sunday roasts, although I only recall going to stay on one occasion, a week in January 1978 before the school holiday came to an end. I stayed with my other set of grandparents in Kenilworth every other weekend, but I didn't know Grandad and Madge quite so well, so it seemed initially strange to me. Nevertheless I had a fine time, pestering my grandfather as he milked cows, certainly eating well, going for walks, and finding myself shepherded around the cottage with Cindy snapping at my heels, unable to shake off her herding instincts or the suspicion that I was probably a sheep. Waking with a temperature one morning, Madge prepared hot fortifying drinks involving milk and whisky, then brought me something to read from the mobile library, a book I recall as being Neutron Star by Larry Niven. There was a spacecraft on the cover so it had struck her as being something I might like, which it was. Whilst staying at their house, I watched the first broadcast episode of Blake's 7 - which meant a great deal more to me then than it does now - and pleaded to be allowed to stay up late to watch Spike Milligan's Q8. By the time it came on, my grandfather had fallen asleep in his armchair but Madge continued to watch bemused as Spike grinned on the television screen in response to a series of boob jokes conveyed through the medium of women in lingerie. It seemed to go on forever. I pretended I was asleep, watching through half closed eyes and struggling not to laugh.
After a few more days, I was struck by a crushing combination of homesickness and guilt regarding the same, wishing for familiar surroundings whilst worrying I might appear ungrateful. I was probably a fairly cranky child, but Grandad and Madge both seemed to understand. Whilst nothing about Madge suggested that she suffered fools gladly, she was nevertheless a kind and thoughtful woman.
Many years later I went to stay with them a second time. It was summer 2001, Arthur had retired, and they had moved to Madge's bungalow in Busby's Close. I was in my late thirties and conscious of the fact that I hadn't seen my grandparents in at least a decade in conjunction with Arthur now approaching ninety. They were both significantly older and slower and more prone to spontaneous napping, but it was otherwise comforting to find that little had changed in their world. On a slow walk with my grandfather, himself moving at snail's pace with the aid of a stick, he casually pointed out the three enormous and adjacent allotments from which he continued to harvest a tidal wave of carrots, potatoes, beans, onions, and other vegetables, expressing regret that he no longer had the energy to maintain the fourth plot. He was as self-contained as ever, and I recalled that our previous meeting had been at a wedding in 1990 during which he'd regaled myself and two friends with a lengthy treatise on the cultivation of onions. It lasted at least twenty minutes and came in response to my asking how things were going with his allotment. He naturally assumed your interests to be the same as his own, a traditionally obnoxious trait which nevertheless came across as quite endearing when Arthur did it.
'Well, he certainly knows his onions,' my friend Carl observed, slightly dazed as my grandad trundled off to bestow his horticultural wisdom upon other unsuspecting guests.
Meanwhile in the summer of 2001, Madge was a little surprised when I explained that I could only stay for a few days, somehow having missed the detail of my staying at all; but she didn't seem to mind, her main concern being that I might be bored, possibly being more accustomed to the breakneck pace of life in that London. All I had really intended to do was enjoy their company, so that was what I did. In the evening we would watch Emmerdale as Arthur intermittently slept in his chair, or we would discuss the rest of the family, cousins I had not seen in decades and so on. At one point my grandad talked about when he would visit the cinema in Rugby during his youth, and it took me a minute or two to realise that he was referring to silent films starring Tom Mix and the like. It was a window into an older, quieter world, another detail of which was revealed in the framed photograph hung upon the wall - Madge in her twenties bearing a more than passing resemblance to Rita Hayworth and just as beautiful.
Although we weren't related by the usual definition of the term, Madge seemed like the perfect grandmother, warm but strong, and with a good head on her shoulders as the saying goes. Her voice alone, softly accented with rural Gloucestershire, seemed to offer the assurance of all being as it should be at least in her corner of the world.
Sadly the next time I saw her was at Arthur's funeral in 2007. I had attempted to get to Clanfield to see the two of them again a few years earlier, but Marian had derailed the visit with her characteristic penchant for making everything complicated, thus denying me the last occasion upon which I would have seen my grandfather alive. Madge being Madge seemed to understand, or at least didn't hold it against me.
The last time I saw her was just before I moved to Texas. She still lived in Busby's Close, soldiering on regardless in the absence of her beloved Arthur. 'I don't suppose I shall be seeing you again, Lawrence,' she told me, and I had a horrible feeling she was right, as indeed she was.
As I stood in a kitchen in Texas speaking to my father that Monday evening, I felt a sense of relief that at least nothing unfortunate had happened to either him or my mother. The world hadn't come to an end, but one small corner of it had lost someone that could not be replaced.
So it goes.