(This is an archived post moved here from my old blog, originally published on 11th May 2011)
If I shut my eyes I can see my Grandad’s hands – loose, wrinkled skin – the little nub of his left index finger which was cut off below the nail. When my older brother and I were kids he told us he’d got it stuck in the big anti-aircraft Bofors gun he fired during the war (presumably at a time when he and his mates weren’t using the barrel of said gun to smuggle stolen tins of raisins, or being stranded on the wrong beaches with it whilst the rest of their regiment fought it out, a little way down the coastline, in the Invasion of Sicily.)
No, he told us that he’d been firing the gun in Egypt when his finger became trapped in the mechanism. Unfortunately it had to be amputated, but the story had a happy ending because he gave the nub of discarded finger, nail and all, to a sad and starving stray dog that had been skulking around camp – which led to the mutt following him around for the rest of the war. My mother, though, has another version: she was told as a child that he lost it in a duel with a Cossack. Yes. A duel. With a Cossack. Asking around, we realised that everyone had been told a different story.
That dashing looking blond lad up there is my Grandad, Ronald Price. I’m currently in the middle of spell-checking and correcting the grammar on the literally hundreds of letters that he sent to his parents whilst away during WWII, and which I’ve typed up and intend to make into some sort of book for my family. And I’ve finally found the truth of The Missing Index Finger:
I missed writing this weeks letter for a day or two as I squashed one of my fingers with a sledge hammer on Monday and the M.O had to cut the end of it off to trim it up. It’s the index finger of the left hand so it won’t bother me at all. It’s healing up very nicely so don’t get worried or anything.”
They were putting up a tent. Not quite as glamorous as the duel or even the dramatic gun-mechanism-finger debacle. But this is my favourite story about my Grandad – if you know me well enough the chances are I’ve already told you it. It’s my Grandad, right there. The entertainer. The comedian. The truth may not be as exciting as the overblown and entertaining tales that made us laugh as kids, but there’s something in seeing this little paragraph, written to some parents at home in North London, worrying about their only son. Something so young and human. Reading these letters has let me see my Grandad as Gunner Price – in his early twenties, never left home till the war but now traveling the world, and desperate to document and share everything he sees and experiences with his mum, dad and sister back home.
In an odd way, I think I know how he felt. I spent three months in New Zealand at 19, phoning home almost every day to tell my family about the incredible places I’d been to, the people I’d met. I was desperately homesick but loving every minute – but more than that, more than homesickness, I was aching to share it all with the people I loved.
And here’s my Grandad, old creaky Grandad young and blond, dancing and swimming and eating his way around Italy, spending his leave in Rome weighed down with guide books (“I saw the famous Colosseum but as it is not the first Roman amphitheatre I’ve seen I wasn’t very stirred“), going to a Turkish Bath in Iraq (“This brings to the surface all sorts of mud and slime whereon you blush hotly and wonder what mother would say“), picking up a tan in Sicily (“Yes sir, that’s me, the body beautiful. Oh what a treat the girls are missing.“).
He was obviously making an effort to be cheerful and entertaining for his worried parents back home – and for his sister, who was slowly dying of a brain tumour. His letters to his parents and his sister in those last few months before she died are heartbreakingly chipper and positive, full of cheesy jokes and shared memories for her, and assurances for his parents’ benefit that miracles happen every day, no matter what the doctors might say.
But it’s the little things, the signoffs (“Cheerio love Ron“), the asides (“I hope Dad has just pruned the roses. Now is the time, you know) and the postcripts (“P.S. How are the tomatoes?“) that bring it all home for me.
For a long time I’ve wanted to write something about my Grandad, but it’s so hard to put into words all the things that I want to say. That I want to say to him, really. He passed away on the 29th of October, 2005. And I have missed him desperately, each and every day since.
But I can’t. But I do. In my head, every day. So here I am with my tomatoes, and I am a child again, and it’s summer again – stretching on through endless sunny sunday nights, the knowledge of them ending there somewhere, but hazy, out of sight. I’m standing in my Grandad’s greenhouse- stiflingly close air heavy with the earthy smell of things growing, sunshine and water on crumbly soil. The little concrete paving slabs line up between the tall green rows, a little tangle of strawberry plants makes a break for freedom through a gap in the breezeblock foundations. But mostly tomatoes. Little hot, sunny, red skin-cracked tomatoes.
While not of my Grandad and his tomatoes, here is a photo of him with his other garden produce.