The Old Building

When I was a boy, my mother often took me to my grandmum’s small apartment in Liverpool. She had many photos. Mostly of people, generally uncomfortable in clothing they rarely wore looking at the camera. Never thinking that someone all these years later would look and wonder about them. Wonder about their stories.

My gran once told me who they were, but I’d forgotten and when I was old enough to really care, she had lost her grasp on who they were.

There were a few photos of places. One haunted me. A small shop with some apartments above it. It was on a street paved in cobblestones that broke sharply down and to the right so the shop was at an angle. A horse-drawn wagon delivering something.

Shortly after my gran died, I asked my mum about that photo. She went into a box of various things that were kept after the apartment was cleaned out. She wiped off some the dust on the ornate, metal frame.

“You never had the chance to meet your grandfather. This was your great-grandfather’s shop. When gran was a girl, she worked there on the weekends. She told me it wasn’t much of a shop. They sold odds-and-ends. The newspaper. Smokes. Things people needed but didn’t want to venture down to the High Street to get. Or have to venture back up.

“People would stop by, especially on Saturday nights, and play cards or other games. Your great-grandpa did particularly well on Saturdays. Especially with the beers he sold.

“Your granny was about 16, she once told me, when a bunch of lads showed up, making fun of the old men playing cards and drinking their ales. It was summer and really hot so everyone was a bit on edge. She recognized a few as being a few years ahead of her at school One of them grabbed someone’s beer and just drank it, smacking the glass down on the table in front of the guy he took it from. He turned to leave and all but one of his mates were laughing at the old man yelling at him.

“I don’t know what the boys did for work. I don’t think your granny ever knew. What she did know is that one of him reached into his pocket as the rest left, laughing, and put a coin in front of the guy whose beer was taken as he walked out. Didn’t say a word.

“Of course your granny kept her eye out for him. He was only a little older than she was but she didn’t see him again. That was in 1914 and she figured he’d gone to war—he’d have been the right age—and that he didn’t come back. Lots of boys that age didn’t come back.

“And your granny worked at the shop on Sundays to help her dad and worked in a uniform factory nearby during the rest of the week. The men who came to the shop on Saturday nights were getting older and older and as the war progressed they didn’t laugh as much as they had and they didn’t flirt with your granny as much as they did.

“When the war ended in 1918, granny’s dad, your great granddad, closed that shop and opened a modern one on the High Street. It did very well, but the old-timers found it too far, to go down and up the hill. But he couldn’t make a living in the old place. By then, the boys were back from the war and the factory was no longer making the uniforms, so your granny had no work. She helped you granddad at the shop. All the while your grandma was trying to find the right man for her.

“It must have been 1919. In walks that boy who took the drink. He was still a cocky sod, and your granny had no eyes for him. ‘Ain’t you that girl that used to work at the little shop on the hill,’ and she said she was. ‘You ain’t my type, but how about you saying hello to a friend.’ She said she was game. And back then she was a lot more ‘game’ than her mum and dad wanted, always going to dances and spending too much on clothing.

“So about a week later, Mr. you-ain’t-my-type leads his buddy into the shop. It was busy, Saturday afternoon, so the two had to wait. Finally there was a break and your granny walks over to them. As she approaches, she recognizes him, yes, as the one who’d left the coin. The one she didn’t see again. And she recognizes that he can’t see anything. It was the war and he’d been gassed and lost his sight.

“But that didn’t deter your gran. She shook his hand and said she remembered him. And they start talking. The boy, yeah, he’s your granddad, starts talking in a way he’d never spoken to a girl before, especially since the gassing. Out of the army in 1917. Lived in an invalid home for veterans. His buddy leaves the two of them alone and he waits around until the shop closes.

“She introduces him to her dad as the ‘guy who left the coin,’ and her dad remembers him and shakes his hand and then when he sees the guy is blind he stops shaking his hand like he’d break like a China doll.

“From that point on, your granny went to see him at the Invalid Home every Sunday. She’d take him to church and then sit with him for the rest of the day until she had to walk home. And just like that—although I’m sure it wasn’t ‘just like that’—they were in love. They got married about four months later. He moved in with your granny and her folks and helped out at the shop. He had a way with people, and helped your great granddad build the business.

“She got pregnant about five months after they married. When I was two-and-a-half, your granddad got sick. Probably something from the war. He died in 1922.”

My mum reached into the box and searched until she found it. Dusted it off.

“And this is the wedding photo. Your granny and granddad and their folks. Your great grandparents. I of course never knew him.” She returned to the box, pulling up a small photo in an oval frame. “This is me with him. It’s the only photo of the two of us. You remember. Your granny kept it on the mantel. She must have told you about it, but you were too young to remember.”

My mum got up and went to get a tissue to dry her eyes. “And now you know why she always had the picture of that little building on the mantelpiece too.”