Granny Bridget was a bit boring and nearly a hundred, thought Charlie. Why did Granny Bridget let her hair be grey, when Granny Lucy’s hair was bright yellow? At least she didn’t kiss him with sticky red lips like Granny Lucy. But Granny Bridget was always fussing over him. She made him have an unnecessary pill in the plane on the way to Spain. She called it ‘motion sickness tablets.’
His mother was always fussing too, but over Maisy, the baby, never about him. Everywhere they went Mum carried a vast flower pattern cloth bag with nothing in it but nappies and baby wipes and nappy cream.
Granny Bridget’s shiny black handbag was full of tissues, tablets, and leaflets and bits of paper. Whenever they were asked for their passports as they went through the airport she held up the queue, rummaging amongst all that stuff. Or she couldn’t find her purse. It happened at least six times. And then she pulled out a bag of wine gums and they scattered like beetles across the airport floor.
Charlie remembered his father saying: ‘Do we really have to bring her to Salou? She’ll start going on about buying a villa and we’ll have all those estate agent handouts shoved in our face every evening. Or waste our time driving round to see ‘developments’. It’ll ruin it. I don’t mind her for an afternoon or something but a whole week, well…’
It had been a couple of weeks ago. Dad had been sitting at the breakfast bar in the kitchen at home and Mum had put her hand on his shoulder as she picked up his cup and plate.
‘But it’ll be a nice break for her, she’s been so lonely since Dad died. And she’ll babysit Charlie and Maisy, so we’ll be able to go out. Even just for a couple of hours, now that Maisy’s going that bit longer between feeds. It would be so lovely to go out for a meal, just the two of us, after all you’re at work so much these days … we never get any time together.’
‘Hannah,’ he said, and wound his arm around her hips.
And then she cuddled up to him and he made a kind of ‘mmm’ noise. It gave Charlie an odd feeling in his heart, like the feeling when they told him Grandpa Geoff had ‘passed away’.
Grandpa Geoff had been poorly. He had woken up one morning unable to move his legs, unable to speak, unable to eat. Or so Charlie learned from his parents’ conversations, as they did not take Charlie on their visits to the hospital.
Charlie liked Salou as it was hot and sunny, and full of big hotels just like theirs, with blue swimming pools and palm trees and bushes with pink flowers. They sent him to kids’ camp every morning. He played volleyball on the beach and did some salt dough models with some girls.
‘I went to Port Aventura,’ said one of the girls. ‘Have you been there? It’s, like, a theme park. There’s a giant roller coaster there. The Dragon Khan.’
‘I don’t think we can go,’ he said, trying to make the eyes stick to a green salt-dough snake, ‘because it’s too hot for the baby.’ Everything was too hot for Maisy, according to his parents.
His mum was lying on a lounger by the swimming pool when he got back, his father beside her shielding his eyes and squinting at his smartphone. Maisy was asleep in her buggy in the shade of a parasol. Granny Bridget was leafing through a pile of sheets with photographs of houses. None of them was interested in a salt-dough snake.
‘Three bedrooms and a sun-terrace,’ said Granny Bridget. ‘Geoff would have liked something like that. A bit big for just me, though. I’d love a little apartment somewhere. Oh, what about this one? Isn’t that gorgeous?’
She held the page up with a triumphant smile, but no-one could be bothered to look at the pictures.
Dad was frowning at his laptop.
‘The hotel wifi’s rubbish. I’ve just emailed Bob and I can’t get a reply.’ He walked off with his phone and disappeared into the hotel foyer for a while. Then he stomped back and sat down heavily. And then he said a bad word. And again.
‘Darling!’ said Mum.
‘I need to get back to London.’
‘Oh, no.’ She sat up, pushing her sunglasses up over her forehead.
‘Bob has just put a 3 million pound contract into jeopardy.’ Another bad word. ‘I’ll get a flight first thing in the morning.’
‘It’ll ruin our holiday!’ She looked down at her legs, smoothing them where the sun oil seemed to be turning them a pinkish brown.
Dad was silent for a while, tapping at his laptop keyboard.
‘Can you drive me to the airport tomorrow? I’ll hire a car. I’ll need to fly from Barcelona.’
‘But what about the children?’
His father exhaled angrily.
‘This is a multimillion pound deal I’m talking about, not a kiddies’ outing.’
‘Darling,’ protested his mother, weakly. ‘And I’m still feeding Maisy.’
Charlie felt that odd feeling in his heart again, a pricking at the back of his eyes.
‘I don’t want to go to the airport. We haven’t been here very long.’
His face felt hot. His father wouldn’t even look at him. He was looking over at Granny Bridget.
‘Can’t you look after him for us? Hannah can take me to the airport, and she can keep Maisy with her for the day. I’ll hire a baby seat. Then you can meet up on the way back. You can always stay here in the hotel until I ring.’
The hotel foyer had leaflets about Port Aventura in a wire rack and Charlie carefully lifted one out, looking up at the lady at the desk who smiled and nodded her permission. He pored over the brightly coloured map. The Dragon Khan was the best ride. Charlie studied its shape, its dimensions, its speed. Maybe Granny Bridget would take him tomorrow. He went back to the desk.
‘Excuse me.’ He held up the leaflet.
The lady smiled at him again.
‘You want to go to Port Aventura? Is not far. We have a daily excursion by bus. But you must go with an adult, OK?’
Charlie sat next to Granny Bridget in a pirate boat that swung on a long iron arm, back and forth. With every swing he could see more and more. He glimpsed the next ride, a roundabout with teacups, and then could see over it across the theme park to the glittering looping rollercoaster that was like a crazy scribble on the horizon. Up and down went the boat, and more up, and down, and even more up, until Charlie felt his stomach leaping and sinking with every slow, momentous lunge of the machine. He shrieked – all the girls were shrieking. He gripped the metal hand rail but it didn’t seem to support him. Granny Bridget beside him was still and silent. The boat rose up to its greatest extent; it felt as though it would overturn and they would all tumble out like the wine gums that Granny Bridget had dropped at the airport. It seemed to balance in mid-air as though choosing which way to topple. Everyone screamed again, a long thin wail that dispersed high above the upturned faces of the people queuing on the ground. And then the boat came down again and again, swinging in gradually smaller arcs until it came to a stop and it was time to scramble out on to the wooden decking.
Granny Bridget looked pale, but managed a smile as he grinned up at her.
‘Oh, cool, that was the best ever!’ he crowed. And then pulled from his pocket the crumpled leaflet he had found in the hotel. ‘It’s over there, Granny Bridget, the Dragon Khan, oh please, Granny Bridget…’
‘I think…’ her voice was so weak that he had to strain to hear it over the machinery and music of the theme park. ‘I think I will need to sit down for a few minutes, Charlie. I’m sorry.’ There was a beading of sweat on her upper lip.
He led her to a bench in the shade of some bushes and she sat down and found a hanky in her big black handbag and wiped her face. Her hands were trembling.
‘I’m sorry, Granny Bridget,’ he said. ‘You didn’t like the pirate boat, did you?’ Maybe she wanted to go back to the hotel. The thought of missing out on the Dragon Khan was awful. But he had never seen her looking so frail. ‘Have we got to go now?’
‘I just…I’ll be better in a few minutes,’ she said. ‘I feel a bit nauseous, you know, a bit sick. It’s the motion of the rides.’ She put the hanky back in the handbag and snapped its big gold clasp. She sat with the bag on her knees rested her hands on it, breathing deeply. He remembered that handbag at the airport.
‘The tablets, Granny Bridget! The motion sickness tablets! Then maybe we could do it.’
She looked as if she was almost going to say no, but then she opened the bag again and rummaged until she found them and took one.
‘It’ll take a half an hour or so to work,’ she said. ‘Perhaps we could sit here for a little while and then go and find the Dragon Khan.’ She patted the bench and he sat down beside her. They were quiet for a while and then she put her arm around his shoulders.
‘Grandpa would have enjoyed going with you,’ she said. And then she was silent again, as though she was missing Grandpa too, and feeling that odd feeling in her heart.
Charlie remembered a time long ago, long before Grandpa was ill, a sunny afternoon in Grandpa Geoff and Granny Bridget’s garden, when Grandpa had been edging his grass with a kind of spade, driving the point of the steel down into the ground again and again.
‘Spin me round again, Grandpa,’ Charlie had said.
‘My best boy!’ Grandpa had chuckled, and had thrown the spade down and grabbed Charlie by the wrist and ankle – a wing and a leg, he called it – and then they whirled around the lawn together laughing like chimpanzees. The house whizzed past in a blur, then it was the trees, the sky, Granny Bridget’s smile, the house again…
Even when Grandpa Geoff became frail, and sat shrunken in an armchair, he still called Charlie his ‘best boy’.
‘Grandpa liked making me dizzy,’ Charlie smiled. ‘He’d have liked the rides, wouldn’t he, Granny Bridget?’
‘He wouldn’t have wanted you to miss out, that’s for sure.’ She rose slowly to her feet. ‘Come on Charlie, I mustn’t sit down here for too long, or I’ll set like concrete. Let’s go and do that ride.’
They stood in the queue for the Dragon Khan. Charlie kept glancing up at Granny Bridget, hoping that she would be okay. She met his eyes and smiled.
‘Don’t worry Charlie,’ she said. ‘I’ll be fine. I know it’s what you’ve set your heart on.’
Charlie thought about Granny Bridget’s brochures.
‘And you’ve set your heart on an apartment, haven’t you?’ he said.
‘It’s the weather back in England, you see, so cold and wet. My joints feel so much better in the sun. And I could live here so much more cheaply. I could sell the house, and I’m sure I could manage on my pension. .’
‘Could I come and stay with you in the holidays?’
She reached out and ruffled his hair.
‘I’ll get a place in Salou, and then you’ll be able to come here.’
Charlie would never forget the sure smoothness of the ride and the way it kept on climbing and climbing long after he thought it must surely have got to the top. When they were at the summit and the carriage paused and tilted forward he could see across a vast coastal plain and into the depths of the blue sky. Then the descent started. His stomach banged into his chest and he could hardly breathe. The wails of the girls faded behind them as they hurtled through the air. The ground rushed up to meet them and then just at the last minute they were jerked forwards into spirals and loops and bends that flung them this way and that. He marvelled at the strength of the metal monorail and the perfect timing of the mechanism. I want to be an engineer, he thought.
The metal car came to the end of the ride and drew slowly to a halt. The staff came along the platform clinking open the chrome bars, so that people could get out. Granny Bridget was trembling and Charlie, getting out first, reached back with his hand to help her to rise and step out. She clasped it gratefully.
‘Best granny,’ he said.