‘Hello, boys,’ she said, looking up as we came in. She was wearing the dress with the red roses on it, which meant she was expecting company.
‘Where have you been?’
‘We’ve been in the ruins up by the peat diggings,’ said my brother, Elvar, a chubby boy with peculiarly dark grey eyes. His hands were still covered with dirt.
‘In the ruins?’ Grandma repeated. She looked at Elvar’s hands.
‘Go and wash in the sink right this minute,’ she ordered, ‘and use the caustic soda.’ Her tone was harsh and commanding. ‘You too,’ she added, pointing at me. We did as we were told, and the acrid stench of caustic soda rose up our noses as we washed in the tepid water emitted by the little heater above the sink. Usually Grandma told us to go easy with the small cache of hot, or rather lukewarm water that it produced, but not today. She watched us as we washed, her expression anxious.
After we had rinsed our hands and dried them on one of the canvas towels made from old feed sacks, she told us to come over to the kitchen window. The sunshine was bright outside and we now deeply regretted having come indoors, though it had been hunger that had driven us in. I darted a glance into the sitting room and saw a whole array of cakes on the table.
‘Who’s coming round?’ Elvar asked.
Grandma didn’t answer. She lined us up side by side in front of the window with our faces to the light and scrutinized them carefully, especially our lips.
‘Hmm,’ she muttered.
‘What’s the matter?’ asked Elvar, a note of alarm entering his voice. He was quick to feel fear; quicker even than me.
‘Did you dig deep in the ruins?’ she asked distracted.
‘We only had Grandpa’s feed scoop,’ I said, ‘and it’s hard to dig with.’
‘I’ve told you a hundred times you mustn’t play with the feed scoop,’ Grandma said. She glanced quickly into the sitting room, as if giving thought to the cakes, then looked out of the window, up the slope. There were no cars in sight.
The kettle was boiling on the hot plate. But she didn’t seem to notice. Instead she pinched my lower lip and examined it in the light from the window, reaching for her reading glasses on the counter to get a better view.
‘Anthrax, boys, anthrax. That’s what I’m afraid of.’
‘Anthrax?’ said Elvar in a tremulous voice. ‘What’s that?’
‘It’s a terrible disease. It kills men and beasts stone dead. Your lips turn deathly blue straight away and after that nothing can be done.’
I saw Elvar turn white, and felt a shudder run through my body.
Grandma took off her glasses and put them on the window sill, then let out a sigh, as if relieved.
‘I think you’ve got away with it this time,’ she said. ‘But you must never dig in the ruins again. I heard of a boy who did it over in the next valley and he died.’
‘We won’t do it again,’ Elvar said. Any mention of illness was enough to take all the wind out of his sails. I was relieved to have escaped but wasn’t entirely convinced that we would never go back to the ruins.
Grandma let go of our hands and went to see to the kettle which was now boiling furiously on the hob. Having removed it from the hot plate, she grabbed the crepe pan from a hook above the stove. Since the tea water had boiled and she was starting on the pancakes, the visitors must be due any minute.
‘Who’s coming round?’ Elvar asked again. The colour was returning to his cheeks after his narrow brush with anthrax.
Grandma didn’t answer this time either, appearing, utterly preoccupied. It was best not to bother her when she was like that. I raised my hands to my nose and smelled again the powerful reek of caustic soda.
We sat on the little stools under the window and watched Grandma in her dress with the red roses on it, against the backdrop of the blue-painted kitchen. She bustled about making tea and pancakes, now and then darting into the dim larder and out again into the sunny kitchen, like the woman in the weather house on the mantelpiece in the sitting room. She had started to hum. This was a good sign and we felt reassured.
‘Can I play with your battery bulldozer later?’ I asked Elvar. He looked at me in a pityingly superior manner and didn’t answer. I saw that he was himself again. Taking Grandma’s reading glasses from the windowsill, I put them on. Everything became very indistinct and I could see Grandma only as a sort of reddish blur, in ceaseless motion.
‘These glasses are strong, Grandma,’ I said.
She didn’t seem to hear.
‘Now you two go upstairs for a little while and play,’ she said. We got up and went out of the kitchen. I was still wearing the glasses and saw everything as if through a fog. When we entered the darkness of the corridor I couldn’t see a thing but thought I could smell earth again, like in the ruins earlier.
Photograph by John Lodder