Creative Nonfiction: Lochinvar Eats Beans on Toast by L Scully

Workington, England

My maternal grandparents come from a mining town in the North. You can look across the sea and see Scotland from the top of their road. My grandfather was a miner when he was young, a teacher when he was older, and is still a more or less certified genius. My grandfather was once a formidable mountaineer, a world-traveling climber, a hiker of mountains and miles, and to this day, a teller of stories and epic poems and baffling riddles. He has always been larger than life to me. One of his favorite things to do over FaceTime when I call from an ocean away is to recite to me Sir Walter Scott’s “Lochinvar,” a tale of a heroic young knight kidnapping his lover at her wedding to another man. It seems to me he knows every poem ever penned, but these days he always seems to return to Lochinvar. Why exactly, I’m not sure; he certainly didn’t kidnap my grandmother at her ill-fated betrothal. Sometimes I think he recites the poem to keep his mind sharp, its iambic pentameter difficult to memorize, a source of pride and a nod to his lifelong commitment to literature. I smile thinking that my grandfather might somehow see his own love story reflected in the enthralling poem. His youthful courtship of my grandmother resulting in four daughters and a sixty-year union may not have come about in quite the same way, but the passion with which Lochinvar fights for his bride is the same. It is the passion with which my grandfather would one day stand outside a nursing home window in a pandemic to hold a bouquet of flowers up to the glass separating him from his dying wife.

So faithful in love, and so dauntless in war,
There never was knight like the young Lochinvar.

My grandfather is without question one of the smartest people I have ever encountered. Some of his jokes are decidedly cheeky, and when I’m stumped on some obscure riddle or another, he is known to shout HURRY UP, OXFORD into the phone. As a child it seemed to me that he had been everywhere, done everything. And perhaps, through literature or life, he has. We visit my mother’s homeland as often as we can, though with the pandemic, it has been over a year now since we have seen my grandfather. When I dutifully follow him up the fells, as locals call the rolling Northern English mountains, he is something mythic. My grandfather’s memory is going now in his eighties, so over FaceTime he reads me the same story of a hiker encountering Lucifer on the fells, and I let him because the thought of his loneliness feels unbearable.

He staid not for brake, and he stopp’d not for stone,
He swam the Eske river where ford there was none…

My grandparents’ surname is Rafferty. Growing up, I heard stories of a mystical place tucked deep in the fells self-titled Rafferty Valley. I have never been. Please Take Us There, we begged my mother. When You’re Older, she assured us. The foot journey to Rafferty Valley was not for the faint of heart. The appeal of Rafferty Valley, the heart of our desire, was the fairies. The valley was reportedly home to all manner of tiny magical beings, popping up amidst the tall grass and flitting by the faces of kind visitors. Who exactly has been to Rafferty Valley, I’m not sure I’ll ever know. My grandmother has died. My grandfather is old. I wonder who will lead me there.

“O come ye in peace here, or come ye in war,
Or to dance at our bridal, young Lord Lochinvar?”

I believe I inherited my love of cold water from my grandfather. He swims in the mountain lakes, untouched by sunlight or human hands. He simply wades in and starts a slow but strong crawl through the mirrored water, the mountains reflected around his ripples. I also inherited his love of writing. He keeps notebooks chock-full of half-written tales in his study, and often puts the phone down to shuffle through miscellaneous papers and wine bottles to find his most recent work to share with me. Oftentimes, his stories are about wayward altar boys with a little nod to himself as the main character. Or hikes through the Himalayas and the mountaineers who passed their time with him or even fell to their deaths. When my grandmother was alive and able-bodied, she would type out his stories on the household computer so that they might exist in a place other than his notebooks, or even his head. He has to write them out longhand now.

And now I am come, with this lost love of mine,
To lead but one measure, drink one cup of wine.

My grandmother had a stroke in the spring of 2017. She was Locked In, or, mentally all there but paralyzed and mostly unable to speak. She could still move her left arm and hand, her head and neck. Her words would come out garbled, the epitome of frustration: to her, it sounded as though she was speaking normally, but to us unknown words and sounds came out. She had one sentence that she repeated all the time, in a variety of tones, to express her needs. The sentence was I See Grandma. At first it was very difficult for me to conceptualize what I See Grandma meant. It at times appeared to mean, I Need To Be Changed, and at other times, I Love You. My confusion came from over-analyzing the meaning of I See Grandma, wondering whether this was my grandmother’s way of looking in a verbal mirror, or asserting her existence, or just keeping track of who she was. Eventually I accepted that somewhere in the brain to speech tunnel, I See Grandma became the phrase that lodged itself before any other words. Sometimes there is no sense to be made.

She look’d down to blush, and she look’d up to sigh,
With a smile on her lips and a tear in her eye.

After my grandmother’s stroke, my mother started crying every time she saw an elderly person, which was often. My father, my sisters, and I struggled with how to support her as she tirelessly FaceTimed my grandmother every day at 6 AM and again on her lunch break to practice elocution and exercises with her good hand. She spent her holidays at her mother’s side, in that terrible, stuffy care home that we couldn’t afford to get my grandmother out of. The care home is just around the corner from my grandparents’ house, convenient in the past when visiting aging friends, and sinister when it became a daily destination. My grandfather visited every day. He brought her fresh flowers and warm nightclothes from home and the silly little figurine of a football player that stayed by her bedside until her death.

So stately his form, and so lovely her face,
That never a hall such a galliard did grace…

After my grandmother’s stroke, my grandfather refused to sleep in their bedroom. The master bedroom is the loveliest in the house, with gentle blue light and mirrored closets that always made it feel a bit like Narnia to me. Instead, my grandfather slept in his sleeping bag in the little room at the front of the house, next to the master bedroom. He always awakens before me so I never saw him emerge from that room, but some nights when I visit and he’s gone to bed first I can hear his snoring through the slightly ajar door. I know he dreamt of taking her far away, breaking her out of the care home. Sleeping next to her again one night, just as they had every night since they were nineteen.

So light to the croupe the fair lady he swung,
So light to the saddle before her he sprung!

My grandfather never transitioned to calling the care home “Grandma’s” the way the rest of us did. He never transitioned to making meals for one. When I visit, I stock his fridge with fish pies from the fancy supermarket. I make him trivia games to play over FaceTime, all the questions about obscure Greek gods and biographical details of the lesser-known English monarchs. When I hang up, he always says Thank You For Calling. These days I’m calling from Boston, where I was born, and where I have many fond memories of my grandfather’s tall tales whispered to me conspiratorially over a brazen sip of beer during my childhood. My grandfather never posits himself as the audacious young knight of whom he speaks, but to me, he is synonymous with the epic hero, who is making beans on toast for himself as soon as we hang up the phone.

So daring in love, and so dauntless in war,
Have ye e’er heard of gallant like young Lochinvar?

L Scully is a trans writer and double Capricorn currently based in Boston. Their work has appeared in Jellyfish Review and Hobart, and their chapbook is available from ELJ Editions. They are the cofounder of Stone of Madness Press.

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