Reflecting by Ian Butterworth

We live, my Grandfather and I, in a large grey house, past which the buses rattle late into the night. There is an armchair, matching the dull red curtains, positioned so the old man can look into the street. Medical equipment waits in the dusty shadows cast by the tall lamp. The light is dim. I wipe a damp flannel over his chest; push aside his tiny penis, avoiding his eyes as I do so. His skin is the colour of mushrooms. I fear bruising him, as if my fingers will mark his flesh. The nurse left a plastic sheet to place under him as he bathes, but I cannot treat him as if he is a child.

A sweet biscuit leans, damp in the saucer of his lukewarm tea.

Without the thick lenses of his ridiculous glasses, now folded by his chair, his eyes are yellow and blank. Without his clothes, once impeccably creased, he has faded away. I love him. In my childhood he held me when my father would not. Through my divorce, he refused to judge, though all else knew that the fault was mine. He took me in, when my wife and children left. He taught me to pray, though I was a man.

Only weeks before I had watched him before a room of sixth formers, some intense and keen, others bewildered.

'Was it hard?’ one asks, uncomprehending.

'How did you survive?’

'Do you hate them?’

He tells it once more, calm as a tale.

As I gently wipe his skin, he mutters, wisps of remembrance. 'Jacob…Jacob.’ His own Grandfather’s name…

I squeezed the words from my mouth. The yard, surrounded by fastidious white gravel, blazing rows of coloured flowers; beyond that the wire, barbed and black against the bleached light of the cold, morning sun; and towers filled with men, pointing guns.


Grandfather; shaved head with cuts, face raw red where his beard had been torn. Blue striped pants, oversized like a clown, waist-knot clutched in his swollen hand, wooden soled shoes, from which his filthy heels dragged in the dust. This proud Rabbi and scholar. Alone in front of the higgledy-piggledy lines of broken boys and men.

'Spit,’ said the soldier, a father to a child, almost reverently. 'Spit on it. Save yourself.’

His kippah, woven and neat, lay in the dust, by my Grandfather’s feet. How had he hidden it? Who had betrayed?

'Spit on it.’

'Jacob…Grandfather. Please. Spit!’ I daren’t speak out loud.

The old man remained still, facing the soldier. Holy words emerged from his mouth.

The words became louder. His voice rang out. He swayed in the dust. He bent at the knee. The berakhah. We could hear. Grandfather was blessing us all.

The soldier raised his arm, the pistol pointing at Grandfather’s face. I wanted to run to him. I wanted it to stop. But my voice was still.

My Grandfather’s eyes open, briefly glisten. Then they return, glassy and blank. I lift his arm, heavy and dull. On the underside remains the number, gouged deep, the ink now faint. How he has suffered. How little we know. The end is close. There is nothing I can do.


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