The venetian blinds made that metallic whishht sound as Mum yanked the cord, pulling the slats up like a demented accordion and flooding the room with light. Dust motes floated in the air and resettled on Grandad’s side table. His glasses sat there. Not his proper ones – we were still waiting on some of his stuff to be sent home from the hospital, and he was wearing his proper glasses when the ambulance came and took him. At least we think the glasses were at the hospital. I don’t think funeral homes hang on to that sort of stuff.
Anyway, his spare glasses were always on the side table next to his recliner, and often resting on top of the newspaper. A roll of peppermints were on the table too. I smiled at that. He always had peppermints. One of the old blokes from his former fire station had mentioned it in the eulogy: ‘Augie used to nick off during shift and buy his peppermints in bulk. He said if he was going to have to carry a damsel in distress out of a burning building, then his breath was going to smell sweet…’ That’s how he met grandma, by the way.
Mum and I were here to look for some paperwork. We had to stop his pension and do something about his bank accounts, so here we were rifling around his flat and peeking through his drawers. It was eerie. Everywhere I looked there was another reminder of him – squad photos from different firehouse postings, framed newspaper clippings and one special glass case with his merit and courage awards. Of course he’d been retired for years, but he had still been great buddies with some of his surviving former workmates. Brothers for life, they always said. All the photos showed him as a handsome man with creases at his eyes and a smile that showed all his teeth. The captions gave his name as William Burton but everyone called him Augie. Nobody seemed to be able to remember why.
Mum and I attacked Grandad’s study methodically. It seemed he had a few bank accounts over the years and Mum was looking for various bits and pieces. She took on the desk drawers and tasked me with a chunky old filing cabinet under the window. It was hard – we both kept getting distracted with the things we found – Grandma and Grandad’s wedding photo album, my late grandma’s U3A certificate in Art History – and Mum’s old school reports had me rolling on the floor for about half an hour. And then within minutes we’d be in tears after finding a thank you note to Grandad – someone’s family home, love letters, cherished pet or loved one had been pulled from a fire by my Grandad and his mates.
But neither of us knew what to make of what I found in the cabinet. Lying on the base of the third drawer was black and white calendar from 1958. I picked it up gingerly – its edges were sharp and clean, and its cover was still stiff, as though it had been lying flat, unopened, for a very long time. The cover still had a slight sheen to it. None of that was very strange. But.
It was full of naked men. When I say naked, the photographs were … er … tastefully done, we’re not talking full frontal nudity, but still, the men had no clothes on. None.
Mum and I stared at each other.
We started giggling because it had been a weird day, a sad week, and when you’ve been squeezed out like a sponge you bounce back not quite the same as before. You’re a little bit wetter than you were. And then, because the funeral was still like a fresh bruise, our giggling sort of crossed over into gaspy sobs, and the tears started up again. Mum stopped herself, frowned, and took the calendar from me. I calmed myself too. This could be awful. This could be … well, I didn’t know what it could be. What did it mean?
Did Grandad fancy men? It cast a whole different light on his life in the firehouse, his close-knit mates … but what did it mean for grandma? Did he love her too? Was this going to be a tragic story about Grandad being forced to pretend to be something he wasn’t for all of his life? I wasn’t sure if we could process that today, on top of the grief of losing him.
‘It might have been Grandma’s?’ I said. ‘It might have been something of hers that he kept?’ – although I couldn’t think why. I couldn’t tell what Mum was thinking. She was flicking through the pictures one after the other. She hadn’t said anything.
It was strange. There wasn’t anything else here that gave any weight to Grandad being attracted to men. Not to generalise or anything but all his stuff seemed pretty straight up and down – it was all just … grandad-ish. He was a man of brown cardigans and orthopaedic shoes. And this calendar didn’t exactly look … well-thumbed, or anything. In fact, it looked reasonably pristine given that it was sixty years old.
Mum stopped flipping and went back a couple of pages. Her eyes were round and it looked like one of our rotating emotions was about to bubble up again – I just couldn’t tell which one. Her mouth dropped open. She gasped. ‘Oh my GOD!’
I thought her eyes were going to pop out. She dropped the calendar and clapped her hands over her mouth, backing away from it as though it was on … well, fire.
It was then that I saw the front cover properly. How had I not noticed it before? – perhaps the nudity had something to do with that. But dropped on the floor, the calendar was opened face down with the cover towards me. Seeing past the limber loins of the gentleman on the front cover I saw the title – Fireman’s Calendar 1958. This was a collection of naked photos of … firemen.
I looked at Mum. She still had her mouth covered, and there were tears leaking out of her eyes. But her eyes – so like Grandad’s – were all creased up. She was laughing.
I snatched the calendar up, heart beating, unsure if I really wanted to find what I thought I’d find. What Mum had found. I flipped and flipped, and then I saw it. The same creases at the eyes, the same cheesy smile, and – oh my God – my Grandad’s entirely naked body.
The breath came out of me with a whoosh. It was a sort of snort, that then turned into a breathless whoop, and Mum finally uncovered her mouth and let hers loose too. We were bent double, and slapping the desk, and finally falling on the floor as we passed the picture back and forth. My grandad had posed for a nudie calendar.
Mum suddenly stopped and grabbed the calendar off me again. She tried to stifle the grin spreading across her face. She handed it back to me with a smile. ‘Augie.’
Grandad was Mr August, 1958.