The Old Man in the New Town

I originally wrote this story in first year as a piece of coursework, and have been holding off on posting it here since I submitted it to the Creative Writing department’s anthology. It’s now been printed, but since it’s a small, informal publication I hope I’ll not get in any trouble for putting my story on this blog.

When I heard the anthology I submitted this story to was going ahead, and was asked to read my story at its launch event, it was a little bittersweet. I wrote the piece as a largely-autobiographical examination of how my family – my Granddad and myself in particular – dealt with the loss of my Grandma several years ago. However, a few weeks ago my Granddad passed away, giving this story an extra layer of significance and melancholy to me.

Given this context, I know it sounds like it’ll be an extremely gloomy story, but I hope that it holds some optimism, for essentially it’s  about how my Granddad managed to take comfort in memories and find beauty in small things during a painful time, and in doing so, taught me to do the same. His example is one I still try to follow.


It is cold here
but at night
slivers of yellow and white and red
drift across the walls

and I can lie in bed pretending
I’m at the north pole surrounded
by sheets of snow

I can fall asleep
watching the northern lights glow.


My Granddad greets us at the door to his new flat. He is smaller than I remember. He grins, pleased to see us, and welcomes us in before shuffling backwards because only one person can fit through the narrow entranceway at a time. Mum goes first, then Dad, then Sam, then me. We each stoop to give Granddad a hug as we pass him just inside the main room. I pat his back lightly when I put my arms around him. He smiles and says I’ve grown. The others have begun surveying the apartment, navigating their way around half-opened boxes and skewed furniture, making noises of pleasant surprise.

‘Wow, this is nice Dad, isn’t it,’ Mum calls over. ‘It’s a good size,’ she adds, poking her head into the kitchen. He doesn’t hear her, and goes to sit on a padded grey armchair pushed against the back wall. Dad and Sam shift boxes off a low pink sofa and perch there awkwardly. Realising it’s the sofa from Granddad’s old house on Summerhall Road, I begin to scan the rest of room and suddenly notice familiar objects are scattered everywhere; sitting on the windowsill are the framed photos of Sam and me, on a coffee table the lava lamp we delighted in as children, on a shelf the same puzzle books we pored over on the living room carpet while grown-ups walked around us. Seeing it all here is unnerving, like spotting a teacher on holiday. I move a stack of papers from a chair and sit, taking off my coat as the stifling heat of the room suddenly hits me.


I did not know the names of birds

before I met her


then one afternoon she gifted me a language

that turned the little brown ones

with tails like checklist ticks

into wrens

the ones that bob on river rocks

to dippers


all their songs sounded sweeter then

as we walked through the valley

under a swallow sky


‘Tea, dad?’ Mum calls from the kitchen.


She steps back into the living room, raising her voice. ‘Would you like a cup of tea?’

 ‘Oh, yes, if you’re offering.’

She turns to Dad, gesturing a hand lifting a mug. He shakes his head. She looks at me and Sam. I ask for juice and Sam asks for water. We are a quiet family. From the kitchen I hear the sound of drawers opening and the click of the kettle turning on.

‘It’s a nice view, don’t you think,’ Granddad says to no one in particular, pointing towards the window with the cane he’s kept lying across his lap. The glass has misted over from the cold outside and I have to lean close to see through. Right below us is a main road, a stream of cars roaring past, and further back there’s an ASDA with a parking area the size of a football pitch. Beyond are hulking grey tower blocks – flats or offices – then nothing. Just more roads, more tower blocks. Sky.

‘You get some great sunsets here. And you can watch the aeroplanes.’ On cue, a plane passes by against the pale blue horizon before disappearing into the grey above, its dull drone continuing long after it’s gone from sight. I wonder how he sleeps.

‘You know, when I was in the air force, no plane could leave the runway without my signature,’ he begins. There is the sparkle of a story in his eye. We’ve all heard it before. His memories are so old they have become stories, and his head is so full of stories he can’t fit in any new memories. We listen anyway. Fuel tanks, propellers, checklists. Punchline. Laughter.

Two pigeons have landed on the paint-peeling railings of the small concrete balcony outside. I watch them hesitate then flap over onto a worn metal table. They peck at bread crusts Granddad must have left out. He’s still talking, but I sense the words carry little meaning to him now. Behind his eyes he is somewhere else. I sweat into my jumper and wonder if he is sad.


This town is built to last

and our footprints are in the concrete

set like fossils
she took a running jump and landed

with a splat

in 1946
her tap shoes marking a beat

that still sounds


this is a new town

they said

this is post-war paradise


she turned back

to smile over her shoulder

both feet sticking in the grey

go on

she said

I dare you


When the tea is finished Mum suggests we go visit the bench. Lost in thought, it seems to take a few seconds for the words to sink in before Granddad looks up and says, ‘Oh, yes, I suppose we could.’ Before we go, Mum asks him where his coat is. If he has any gloves. If he needs a hat. Every conversation is a struggle and I almost resent him for making her feel like she is nagging when she just wants him to be warm. Eventually we make it out the door. He’s wrapped so thickly under a raincoat, tweed blazer, cardigan and shirt that he’s almost doubled in size. He pulls a flat cap down over his thinning white hair.

He lives on the fifth floor of the retirement flats, so we take the lift. It’s tiny and creaky and the walls are covered with half a dozen laminated posters: helplines for loneliness, advice about cold callers, advertisements for weekly coffee mornings and bingo nights. It seems okay here, but I’m sure Granddad misses his old house. His old new house. They hadn’t even put in streetlights when he first moved in, seventy years ago. There were only two or three other roads. The town was built up around him; he is older than almost every single building. He tells us that a lot. At least he’s still in Stevenage; he loves this town. Or at least, all his stories set here are happy ones.

Outside he unlocks his mobility scooter from a metal storage box and climbs on, fumbling for something in the front basket. He reveals a pair of aviator sunglasses which he pulls on with one hand and a smile before starting the engine. Once he gets going we almost have to jog to keep up with him. We follow the concrete path that curves alongside the main road, a small strip of frostbitten grass separating the two. The road is awash with traffic but we are the only people on the pavement. I can almost feel the petrol fumes snaking into my lungs. Stevenage was futuristic once, a vision of modern living, a brand new slate. Granddad often tells us – as if it’s a good thing – that it was graduates fresh out of University who designed the town. These days it’s the type of place young people try to escape. We hurry on. Up ahead Granddad has stopped driving and is peering down at the pavement; I think perhaps he’s dropped something but by the time I reach the same spot he’s speeding up the track again. I pause for a second as Mum, Dad and Sam walk past then I examine the ground. There are two pairs of footprints sunken toe to toe in the concrete.

The valley is one of the few places I like here. It takes us twenty minutes of underpasses and traffic lights to reach it, but once we do, it’s like we’re in another world. There’s the great expanse of long yellowing grass, bent and whispering against the wind; the winding path that curves through it as if tracing the route of a dried out river; and in the distance, the forest where mum used to make dens with her brothers. It’s late afternoon now and the light is already fading. Birds swoop in and out of silhouette, zooming down to skim the grass where clouds of flies hover, before twisting up and away. I feel like I can finally breathe here. Led by Granddad, we take the path through the valley, passing a bench every one hundred metres or so. We stop at the fifth one we reach.

We are a quiet family, unceremonious. We each read the plaque silently to ourselves, see her name, the dates. I rest my head on Mum’s shoulder for a second then stand away, closing my eyes against the cold winter breeze.

By the time we get back to the flat it is dark. As I wait my turn to say goodbye to Granddad I wander through to his bedroom. I shiver. There is something beautiful about the way car headlights reach through his blinds and play across the wall.


It is cold here
but at night
slivers of yellow and white and red
drift across the walls

and he can lie in bed pretending
he’s at the north pole surrounded
by sheets of snow

he can fall asleep
watching the northern lights glow.