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It reminded me of a witch’s cauldron that boot; shiny and black with all sorts of ugly secrets bubbling inside.
I had never seen it up close, but I felt sure it held the clues to unutterable questions about Grandfather and its mysteries both horrified and intrigued me at the same time.
You see he had always been so spiteful that it was difficult to feel anything for him but hatred. He never smiled, he rarely spoke to any of us children and he certainly wasn’t the kind of man who would have lifted us on to his lap for a cuddle.
He just sat there, smoking his pipe, watching snooker on television in his brown, velvet chair which we took turns at sniffing whenever he left the room. It smelled of bums and we used to giggle for hours at the thought that he must have farted for Scotland on that chair every time he polished off a hefty meal. “Pooh” we used to say. “Grandfather’s got a really stinky bum.” Then we’d collapse into fits of giggles on the floor. The second he came back into the room, we’d stiffen up immediately in case he sussed what we were up to and gave us a beating. It was agony – keeping the laughter in. But you wouldn’t dare giggle in front of grandfather. That would be fatal.
I knew he had a temper because whenever I stepped out of line he would bring out an old cane and whack me across the back of the legs. He had been a headmaster in the 1950s and was a dab hand with that stick. He knew just the place to catch you so it would hurt the most. Dad said I got off lightly. He said I should count my lucky stars that Grandfather hadn’t used his belt, whipping it round my body in steady strokes. I counted.
But even though I hated that damned cane and the temper that came with it, the thing that terrified me most had to be that boot. It was big and black and ugly and never left his foot – even in the midst of summer when it grew unbearably hot.
I didn’t understand why he needed it and no-one would ever explain, they just told me it helped him to walk and left it at that. If ever I asked a question I was hushed into frightened silence so in the end I relied on my sister Veronica for all my answers.
“It’s empty,” she gloated. “A big black hole. He only wears it to pretend there’s something in there. His real foot withered to nothing when he caught polio and he’s been wearing that boot ever since to fool everyone.”
“What’s a polio?” I asked but she never would explain. “You’re too young to know,” she’d say, “You’ll find out when you’re older.”
She always said stuff like that and it really made me cross as if somehow being two years older made you better.
“You don’t know what a polio is either,” I snapped, but it still didn’t answer my question and the more I thought about that withered foot, the more horrified I grew.
Veronica loved to tease me whenever the old man was around. She said his leg was green and slimy like a rotten old cucumber. She tried to goad me into poking it whenever he fell asleep in his chair.
“Go on,” she’d say. “Just grab his stick and whack it. See if it hurts. It won’t – there’s nothing there. I promise you.”
But I wouldn’t. If she was lying and there was a foot in there he would kill me. I knew he would and how would I explain why I’d been thumping him?
One time he caught me limping behind him – and that was it. He got hold of his cane and whacked me so hard I had big red lines across my legs for weeks. The wounds started weeping eventually and I started to really panic – I thought they were going to fall off like his and that terrified me.
In fact, it scared me so much I was glad he wasn’t a cuddly grandfather. I didn’t want to go near him in case I caught a polio.
It wasn’t the limp that bothered me – in fact I quite liked that - I wanted one of my own. No, what I didn’t want was that big, ugly, black boot or the gammy cucumber inside.
I knew it was wrong of me to feel that way because when Gran was alive she never seemed to mind.
I used to really fear for her because I knew that every night she would have to lie next to him in bed. His bare leg would lie under the covers next to her bare leg and I wondered how on earth she could possibly stand it. I’d be sick. I knew I would. I’d never marry someone with a gammy leg and if it went gammy while I married them I’d get a divorce. Gran was dead now so it didn't really matter to her but I'm sure she went straight to heaven just for loving him.
The other thing that bothered me was that Veronica tried to convince me he had kept his old foot.
“Doctors gave him it to keep in an empty pickle jar,” she said.
Just the thought of it made me shudder but it also made me wonder, and I found myself more and more curious about whether or not it was true.
You see, a tiny little part of me, that seemed to grow every time I saw him, wanted to see that gammy foot more than anything else in the world. Sure, it would be terrifying but thrilling all the same so when we started to argue about it I decided to prove Veronica wrong.
“Big Gordon says you’re a liar,” I said. “He says Grandfather still has his foot – it just shrunk to the size of a baby’s and couldn’t support him. He says you’re nasty to say he still has it and that you’ll go straight to hell where you’ll rot with all the fallen angels in your own fibs.”
Big Gordon was our eldest cousin and everyone looked up to him. I felt sure he’d know better than anyone what was wrong.
But Veronica wasn’t impressed.
“What would Gordon know?” she said. “He’s hardly ever here and if you’re so sure the foot’s not in the bedroom I dare you to look.”
At first I said “No way”. But she threatened to tell about the chair sniffing and anyway, as I said, I was kind of curious.
I waited until we were supposed to be in bed before I dared the gammy leg hunt – it was too risky to look during the day in case he found me.
Slipping down the stairs in my bare feet, I tip-toed across the floor to avoid the creaky floorboards waiting to snitch on me. I had done this journey often when Veronica and I played dares and she had forced me to sneak down to the kitchen to steal some biscuits.
“Cough three times if you hear him coming,” I whispered, as she hid in the downstairs loo, leaving me to walk the corridor which led to my fate.
As I reached Grandfather’s bedroom my heart battered against my chest. What if there really was a pickled foot in there? I could just imagine it, withered and creamy white, its toe-nails curling up the side of the jar like some creepy plant.
I had heard that toe-nails and hair continued to grow after you died and I had a vision of this curly-nailed, hairy foot clawing to get at me. I wondered if Grandfather took it out from time to time – tried it on even. Why else would he bother to keep it hidden under his bed?
Turning the door handle, I slipped inside, hoping not to feel too disappointed if the foot wasn’t there. I let my eyes readjust to the light.
It smelled musty and old in the room now Gran was gone and my knees shook so loudly that I felt certain grandfather would hear me.
I shone a torch around letting it cast shadows in the darkness - I couldn’t risk putting on the light - this room was strictly out of bounds and I knew I would be in for a serious caning if I got caught.
Creeping over to the bed I shone the torch underneath dragging my eyes half shut to where the light circled.
There were no jars under there – just a load of old Reader’s Digest and a wooden box that looked quite promising so I stretched under the bed and began to pull at it.
That’s when I heard Veronica’s signal – an unmistakable cough which meant Grandfather was coming my way and fast.
For a second I panicked, frozen in mid air but I knew I didn’t have time to escape. I dived under the bed keeping my arms tight to my side in case they brushed against something I’d missed when I searched with the torch.
It was Grandfather. I could hear the thud, thud of his boot as he neared the room.
“What are you up to?” he shouted at Veronica.
“Just using the toilet,” she whimpered.
“Where’s your sister?” he sounded suspicious.
“In her bed,” she said.
“Which is precisely where you should be- now beat it,” he said.
I heard his hands catch the bottom of her legs as her footsteps deserted me and the thud thudding moved closer to the door. I held my breath.
The light snapped on as the big black boot neared the foot of the bed. It stopped for a second while Grandfather lifted something off the dressing table and then turned, thud thudding over to the bed.
His boot was level with my eye-line. There was a familiar click while he adjusted the splint and I realised to my horror that he was about to sit down.
The room was silent as Grandfather reached for his pyjamas and bent down to undo the lace on his left boot.
I shut my eyes. This was the moment that the mystery would be solved but despite my burning curiosity I felt suddenly shamed. I had believed coming in here would make me some sort of hero – the queen of childhood dares who risked the beating of a life time to find the foot. My cousins would look up to me, my sister would envy me and I would have earned the kind of respect I’d always been seeking.
But now I was here, I just felt guilty.
Grandfather’s hands moved slowly as he undid the lace on his boot and then he tugged with all his might to set it free.
But the boot was stuck.
He sat back for what seemed like ages before pulling at it again but the only way to free what was inside was to undo every loop of the lace.
I heard him fumble and curse as he struggled to bend down and realised he must have hated that damned boot even more than I did. He had to wear it day by day just to walk on even ground and I couldn’t remember a time when I’d seen him without it.
The boot was loosening now and he was down to the last loop but although I knew that my spying was wrong I still could not look away.
At last he gave one final groan before the boot flew off in his hands and thudded on to the floor right in front of me.
And there it was – the thing that had enticed me to risk a serious clout with the belt, lay open and empty an inch from my face.
It wasn’t easy – escaping from that room when I knew he could open his eyes at any second. I lay there for what felt like hours listening to each gargling snore until I felt absolutely certain he wasn’t awake.
Eventually I slid from beneath the bed, crawling on hands and knees in slow motion until I reached the door. I froze there for several minutes until a rustle of sheets sent me shooting up the stairs as fast as I could. I dread to think what he would have done if he'd caught me.
I lay in bed with my chest pounding – the thoughts of the evening’s events circling round my mind. It was light outside when I fell asleep.
By the time I got down to breakfast Grandfather was already in a bad mood.
“About time,” he grunted without even looking up from his newspaper. “Five seconds later and you’d have gone without.”
I sat down and reached for some toast and could sense Veronica giggling hysterically by my side.
She passed me a jar of pickled gherkins she had obviously snaffled from the fridge and nodded down at Grandfather’s foot, screwing up her face.
“His foot,” she mouthed, shaking the gherkins in my face. “Did you find his foot?”
I glanced over at him. His shirt sleeve, which was not yet buttoned, was about to flop into his cup of steaming hot coffee - an event that would normally see me chuckling right through to lunch time.
“Mind your sleeve grandfather,” I said quietly, scraping butter on to my toast.
He glanced up sharply, searching my face for mischief.
“Your sleeve,” I said pointing. “It’s about to fall into your coffee.”
For a second he looked me straight in the eye and for the first time in my life I met his glare with a genuine smile.
Buttoning up his cufflinks, he took a loud swig of his drink before returning his eyes to his newspaper to read.