Low life

Seeing Nelson in a new light

10 February 2018

9:00 AM

10 February 2018

9:00 AM

I picked up my grandson from his mother’s flat and noticed the change in him the second I clapped eyes on him. He was taller than when I had said goodbye to him a month ago, and his spirit seemed more conscious of itself. I also noticed that my devotion to him (lately inviting criticism as being excessive) was as strong as ever.

Alone with me in the car, he was reluctant to speak. The circumstances of his life have changed in the past few months — new home, new school, new friends, new town, a different parent — and I wondered if he was defeated by it all. We were bowling along a fast country road when I turned to him and said, ‘Are you happy?’ Oscar is too intelligent to measure the complexity of his experiences against a simplistic concept like happiness. But he has a kind and forgiving heart and he knew that his grandad’s question was kindly meant. ‘Yes,’ he said, and he met my searching eye as he said it. He might have lied, of course. Faithfulness to a good cause does sometimes cause Oscar to palter with the truth. But I chose to believe him. ‘Fancy a swim?’ I said.

He did, and, unusually for a Saturday afternoon, we had the vast local indoor pool largely to ourselves. We measured his recent growth spurt by seeing how much further he could walk towards the deep end on tiptoe before the water covered his nostrils. The difference, since our last swim, was about three metres. The only other occupants of the pool were a swimming teacher and his pupil, a little girl aged about five. The little girl was learning to front crawl. She responded to her teacher’s laconic instructions by throwing herself at the water with an almost suicidal fanaticism and flailing madly. Oscar and I stood in the shallow end and threw a small plastic octopus back and forth over a low-slung string of bunting.


Simple and undemanding as this game was, Oscar played in earnest. I am not above throwing and catching a small plastic octopus competitively either. Equally and excitingly matched, we threw the octopus to each other for half an hour, keeping score of catches and drops, disputing vehemently over no-balls and dropped catches, while the poor pool attendant, visibly bored out of his young skull, gained about £4.50 at the current minimum wage rate, and surely wondered to himself how life’s glad confident morning could suddenly deteriorate to this.

After our swim we drank Fruit Shoots and ate chocolate tiffin at Costa. The café used to be a much-loved pub, and from our comfortable sofa I considered the internal structural changes. The door and Georgian windows were the same; everything else was altered. A dozen members of the Satan’s Slaves biker gang had once come surging in through that door, I remembered. Standing at the bar was a similar number of their hated rivals, the Aquila. I remembered too that my sister and I had perched precariously on that window sill over there and viewed the battle in relative comfort and safety. Chairs, tables and bar stools were swung or thrown, lending a cowboy-film atmosphere to the proceedings that made us laugh till we cried.

Oscar and I were home and in front of the telly in time to catch the thrilling finish of the France vs Ireland rugby international. Then grandad went into the kitchen to make supper and lost his temper because even microwaving a supermarket ready meal is often fraught with unexpected dangers and difficulties. Then, because it was cold in the house, we went to bed early and played rummy, then chess. Finally, I read to him, choosing the episode of the Battle of the Nile from an adoring Nelson biography. During the battle, Nelson was wounded in the head by a lump of flying shrapnel, exposing an inch of skull. ‘As he fell into absolute darkness he thought he was dying and begged to be remembered to Fanny.’

After annihilating the French, his head bandaged, the victorious Nelson visited the court at Naples. Here, unfortunately, he made such a hilarious fool of himself that our biographer felt it necessary to excuse him by pleading in mitigation a combination of heavy drinking, sex deprivation, a mid-life crisis and brain damage. This Neapolitan episode was as new and surprising to me as the historical figure of Nelson and the Battle of the Nile was to Oscar. Before we slept we said our prayers, adding Horatio Nelson to our list of people with faintly comical names, such as Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn, whom we ask God to bless. ‘Are you happy, really?’ I said after turning out the light. In the darkness Oscar answered, this time with an upbeat squeak, to be interpreted, I think, as yes, he really was.

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