Alexander Smith is an Australian-born writer based in Birmingham, England, who teaches sociology at Warwick University. He has a PhD in Social Anthropology from Edinburgh University and an MFA in Creative Writing from Warwick. He is writing ‘Last Op’, a literary memoir exploring addiction, mental illness and the legacy of war amongst his grandfather’s bomber crew and three generations of their families.
I was seventeen years old when my grandmother told me her husband’s secret.
In February 1991, she rang and asked me to join her for a mid-morning walk. The day was warm, the summer holidays drawing to a close. I would be starting university soon. I was old enough now, she said: old enough to know the truth.
I waited at the breakfast counter. Mum was drying the dishes, rummaging to find space for the crockery in the overhanging cupboards and noisily dumping freshly rinsed cutlery in the side drawers. She seemed nervous that Nanny was on her way. Not wanting to stay in the room but also unwilling to leave, she was a pensive sentry anticipating contact with a superior opposing force.
My grandmother knocked at the front door and I joined her outside. We walked up the lane, past the high school, the sun speckling through the overhanging branches of eucalyptus trees. She told me things about her marriage to my grandfather, things she said she would never speak about to me again. As his grandchildren, we revered Bangar, a kind and benevolent man who flew bombing missions in the war against Hitler and wore his medals with pride on Anzac Day. Now, Nanny told me what I didn’t know about the man he used to be.
When I got home, Mum was still in the kitchen. She wanted to know what we had been talking about.
‘Is it true?’ I asked as I hoisted myself on a wooden stool.
‘Is what true?’
Mum went very still.
‘What did Nanny tell you?’
My tone was flippant.
‘Oh, you know. How he came home from the war a violent drunk and beat you all up when you were a kid.’ This had all happened before I was born, Nanny had said, before he went into detox and vowed never to touch alcohol again.
My mother said nothing at first. I wasn’t sure but I registered her reaction as shock, or perhaps disbelief.
‘She told you that?’
There was a box of tissues on the sideboard. Mum reached for them and tore a couple loose.
‘Poor Bangar,’ she whispered.
I don’t know why I felt irritation towards her. I felt emboldened by my grandmother’s judgment that I was now mature enough to be entrusted with the kind of familial knowledge usually reserved for adults only. There is a fine line between boldness and arrogance. At that age, it can be hard to know the difference.
‘So you’re saying it’s not true then?’
‘Of course it’s true!’ Mum suddenly yelled. ‘All of it is true! I was there, you know: I was the one who had to walk to school with the bruises and black eye to show for it!’
My mother wiped her eyes with the tissues. Lowering her voice, she spoke as if what she said next was really intended for her self.
‘Nanny had no right to tell you that about your grandfather.’