It was hot that day and the dirt was so dry it crunched under the soles of my shoes. The garden, shaded by the fig trees, smelled of parched wood mixed with the sweet odour of figs. I was chasing my older brother George and I watched in awe as he jumped over the hot grill of the barbecue like a ninja jumping through a cloud of smoke. I copied him and still recall the feeling as I stomped the ground, leapt and slammed sideways into a mountain of burning charcoal.
‘He’s OK. He’s OK,’ Mum said to Grandma as she sprinkled icy water over my bum and hand. I was in the bathtub, crying so loud that my voice tore at my throat. I was crying because the burnt skin was stinging. I was also crying because I hated the bathroom at my grandparents’ house. I hated the bathtub that stuck to my skin, the creme tiles that were cracked in the corner, the sink’s neck that was rusty and that it always smelled of lavender and pee.
Grandma was as short as a twelve-year-old and wore brown rimmed glasses with thick lenses that made her eyes huge. Her cheeks were so round that when she laughed or smiled they pushed her glasses up and off her nose. She favoured black dresses and tied her hair back with a fishnet, and she was always at the house to welcome me after school. She would wrap me in her arms and kiss me, and I would cringe and push because the moist tip of her nose always left a cold stamp on my cheek. I’d move my face to avoid it and she’d squeeze me tighter, my nose pushing into her greasy dress that always smelled like sweat and frying oil.
I recall one afternoon, sitting on the small brown couch in the area that connected to the kitchen. Grandma had fried me some chips and I ate them while studying, my books spread out on the small wooden table. I heard a throaty, hissing sound and looked across the room to see Grandma in the kitchen holding a plate up against the sunlight, inspecting it. Then she hissed, spat on it and wiped it. I must have squealed because she called out to me.
‘Do you want some biscuits, my boy?’ she asked, placing a few on the plate.
‘Just a few biscuits?’ She began walking towards me, smiling and adjusting her glasses.
‘Just a few.’
I heard keys jingle at the door. Grandpa was home.
‘Grandpa! Grandpa,’ I shouted running away from Grandma and towards him. I didn’t know exactly what to say when he paused to look at me so I said the first thing that came to mind. ‘I got twenty out of twenty in history, Grandpa!’
‘Bravo,’ he mumbled, dropping his heavy hand on my head. Then he walked by me and pass Grandma, who stood still, blushing and staring at him, her glasses hovering on her face, as he made his way to the patio.
Grandpa spent most of his time on the patio. It was enclosed with glass windows, held by a wooden frame that was painted white, the brown of the wood peeking through the cracks. It was always hot in there. I remember Grandpa sitting at the big plastic table, filling his hunting cartridges with powder and shot. He wore a white vest, moist at the upper chest, and the whole patio smelled like armpits and cigarettes.
If not on the patio, Grandpa was in the garden. It hosted tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers and lattices that stretched ahead to meet the wall of fig, mandarin and apple trees. Grandpa used white, grey and black pebbles to build a path to walk around and through the garden when watering it with the red hose. The flowers sweetened the air in the garden and the butterflies danced and the bees hummed while the birds sang, and the crickets buzzed. I remember a day when Dad and Grandpa sat under the shade, adjusting the scope of an air rifle. Dad was like a miniature version of my Grandpa: the same bald patch on top, hair around the ears (but Dad’s was black), thin moustache outlining the upper lip, and in this case they both wore brown shorts, white vests and sandals.
‘Jorjee! Come here,’ Grandpa called my older brother George. ‘You think you can shoot that leaf up there?’ Grandpa pointed up at the fig tree and George said he could. ‘You sure, Jorjee? You want to bet?’
‘I’ll give it my best.’
‘OK. If you shoot it, I’ll give you a pound. But if you don’t, you and Dinos,’ — my heart sprang when I heard my name — ‘will clean the weeds in the garden.’
‘OK,’ George said and took the air-rifle, sat on the chair and aimed high with his eye behind the scope and his tongue sticking out. Dad lifted the binoculars to observe. The rifle spat.
Dad laughed. ‘He shot it.’
‘No…’ Grandpa snatched the binoculars and looked up. ‘The little bugger! Tell you what, Jorjee. You shoot through the hole of the leaf you just shot, and I’ll make it two pounds, but if you don’t, you and Dinos will be cleaning the garden for a year.’
Around Christmas, Dad and Grandpa had an argument because Grandpa had never bought us any presents. The argument ended with Grandpa storming out of the house and returning an hour later carrying colourfully wrapped boxes. On Christmas day we all gathered in the front living room waiting for our presents. This room had green soft couches, a table with a shiny glass on top and a few vases of dry flowers. The dry flowers tried very hard to hide the scent of lavender and pee that invaded every time the toilet door opened. It was always cool and dark here, the green curtains were always drawn and the white marble floor was so smooth we could skid on it. Andrew and Katey, my cousins from the UK, were also here. Andrew sat in the middle of the couch while George and Steven, my younger brother, crammed left and right of him, watching him play Spiderman on his Game Gear. Katey and I stood further away.
‘I’ve decided,’ Katey whispered and I felt her warm fingers touching mine, ‘that next year we should run away together.’ Katey had brown straight hair, big eyes and very white skin.She always smelled like suntan lotion. I was about to say yes when Grandma walked in carrying the colourfully wrapped boxes, shouting, ‘Merry Christmas!’ with a smile so big her blushing cheeks pushed her glasses up to her forehead.
We unwrapped our presents. Steven got a white drawing board, Katey got a make-up kit, Andrew got a white and green football, I got a plastic shotgun and George got a small car that looked like the batmobile but was wired to a remote and, with a push of a button, it buzzed and transformed into a robot.
Next thing I remember? Andrew’s laser machine gun laugh, the transformer flying and smashing on the wall then swinging and smashing on the floor, bits and pieces exploding left and right and all of us laughing. We laughed so hard we failed to notice that Grandpa had walked into the room. He stared at the wrecked toy, then lifted his eyes to look at us. His face reddened. His nose wrinkled. His eyebrows sank. He turned and walked away.
I sat in the front garden, next to the wooden fence, staring at the road. Every car that passed left behind a stink of fumes and gasoline, and a bee humming around the roses, for some reason, kept crashing into the back of my neck. I felt the threat of being stung so I squeezed through the black dressed crowd and walked into the house. The front room was dark and breezy. I heard the toilet flush and saw George exit the bathroom along with the smell of lavender and pee. My aunts crowded the kitchen. The large, square TV was being used like a table, with plastic plates, pastry food and koliva on top. Katey was behind the stove, making coffee. I began to feel the moisture gather under my armpits so I went outside. The soil in the garden was dry and cracked. I grabbed the red hose and started watering. I watched the dirt suck the water greedily until it began to flood. Sparrows chirped and crickets buzzed. I breathed in the sweet odour of moist earth, leaves and flowers.
I didn’t want to go back inside the house because everything in there felt different now. So, I wandered around the garden, only stopping when I reached the side garden where the old grill still stood. It was rusty and beaten, with a few holes on its wall as if it had been shot at. My caution around it was still there. As if it was still hot and that inside there was a pile of burning red charcoal waiting to scold me. I looked around me to make sure no one was watching me then dashed towards it, stomped the ground and jumped. I was older then, taller and leapt safely over it. I looked back at the grill, wanting to see smoke but all I saw was ashes, twirling and vanishing into the wind.
Dinos Gregoriou is a filmmaker and video editor who works and lives in Cyprus. Although he began studying creative writing to develop his abilities to write screenplays, he soon found a passion in prose life-writing. ‘At My Grandparents House,’ is his first published story.