Face to Face

by Gavin O'Toole, from Carshalton, Surrey

Darren pushes his chin down and sticks out his lower lip like the spout of a jug. He is trying to be sad. Everyone must know he is miserable. He pulls what he hopes is his longest possible face.

That’s what his mother wants, he has convinced himself, stretching his neck taut like someone trying not to drown in the deep end of a swimming pool. It is beginning to hurt.

The stiff collar of his new shirt is rubbing against his neck and he desperately wants to take off the black tie his mother has ordered him to wear. She pulled it so tight at the church he thought she would strangle him. Honestly, there cannot be a single twelve-year-old left in the entire country who wears a tie to a funeral. If it were up to him, it would have gone out of the window the moment her back was turned and right now would be lying like a dead snake on the grass verge outside Block C of the Meadow Estate for any passing stray to scarper with between its teeth.

Gran would have found that funny. 

For the umpteenth time, he adjusts the numb cheeks of his bottom on the hard chair by the front window beside the open curtain. He is turning his discomfort into an improvised dramatic performance hoping this shuffling will somehow reinforce his vain effort to appear dejected, because the simple truth is that he is not.

Gran is dead, but Darren is not entirely sure what that means.  

He watches the guests shuffling into and out of the living room of her flat, chatting softly, exchanging those weary shrugs that adults use to communicate condolences, hovering by the kitchen door to snatch mushroom vol-au-vents from the table unseen.

Food is what he will remember her for. Or, rather, desserts. Ice cream. Rhubarb crumble. Chocolate biscuits. Cheesecake every time he came to visit. Christmas pudding. She was an endless source of sweet things.

He touches the mobile phone in his pocket. He has been prohibited from turning it on. It is strictly forbidden.

Gran would be horrified, his mother said before they came. It’s a funeral, Darren, try and resist, just for one day.

But Gran would not be horrified. If she were here, she would be sitting next to him by the window letting him fidget with his phone to his heart’s content, just as bored as he is. And she would not be sad either.

Now he can see her beside him, sharing one of those knowing looks they both understand completely as they watch Aunt Jacqueline’s stunted, barrel-chested husband rolling across the carpet to the kitchen for yet another cheese sandwich. Gran winks at Darren, and he feels her elbow digging into his ribs. He wants to laugh out loud.

That’s why he is not sad that Gran is dead. Because she is not. She is still here.

He smiles to himself, then looks around. The faded sofa and armchair, the dusty television set, the glass cabinet filled with porcelain cups and saucers. Everyone has suddenly left the room because someone has found a photo album in the bedroom and they are gathering round to take a look. He can hear them chatter through the wall. 

This is his chance. He pulls out his smartphone and holds down the button on its side to turn it on. Graphics begin swirling on the screen, making the shape of the Motorola M, as it starts to load. He likes this bit the best. It fills him with anticipation.

He runs the tip of his finger along the smooth, curved black plastic at its edge. It brings back one of his sharpest and most recent memories.

His mother had sent him to visit Gran by himself for the first time.

You’re old enough to go by yourself now.

Darren had been convinced she had simply wanted him out of the way, but Gran was expecting him. She came clean as soon as he had stepped into the hallway and she was struggling to pull off his wet parka.

Your mother asked me to talk to you, Darren. She worries about you. Says all you do is stare into that telephone of yours.

When he had reached the front room it dawned on him that he was being ambushed. His mother had recruited his favourite person in the whole world to compound the siege he was under at home. Darren had felt aggrieved and had wanted to stomp and rant. He had wanted to tell his Gran, who was the one person in his entire life who listened to him, that it was so unfair being tricked like this. He had wanted to say that she was his best friend precisely because she was not his mother, who nagged him endlessly while ignoring whatever he said in reply. He had wanted to say that he did not stare into his phone all the time for nothing, because the people he was texting were his friends. His only friends.

But he did not have to.

Gran had waved her hands in the air and let out that throaty laugh of hers that made the cat run to the kitchen and hide under the table.

Well what does she know? I remember when your mother was your age. Even worse! Glued to the box she was. Never lifted a finger.

Gran had sat Darren at the table before she had even dried his hair with one of her smelly purple towels, slid a bowl of sticky toffee pudding with custard in front of him, taken the phone that he hardly ever let go of from his hand and replaced it with a spoon, and then examined the device as if it were the first time she had ever held one.

It turns out that it was the first time she had ever held one. 

If this thing’s so great, why don’t you teach me how to use it?

Then came Darren’s favourite part of this memory. They had laughed all day.

It had taken him a whole hour to teach her how to turn the phone on, because you have to hold your finger on the button for three seconds precisely, no more no less. She had dropped it when it started vibrating, and he had been worried she had cracked the screen and so had to check it thoroughly. When she had made her first call she had held it two feet from her ear and shouted at it, and must have burst the eardrums of whoever was at the other end. She simply could not figure out what texting was, let alone what it was for. And you might as well forget the concept of memes on Tik Tok. This had baffled her so much she had broken free and had started to make bread and butter pudding instead. By the end of the day Darren was exhausted.

Gran, you’re a dinosaur! he had concluded as she slid in front of him the steaming bread and butter pudding with a dollop of cream on top.

Nonetheless, he felt that he had at least done his duty. He had introduced a senior citizen to the bare essentials of mobile phonology, the only survival skill worth having in this day and age. Darren could now take her education about the modern world to the next level.

Let’s go to the shopping centre next week and get you a phone.

Nonetheless, at the end of all that hard work, as Darren was bidding her goodbye at the doorway of her small flat in the dim early evening light, Gran had announced that she did not want one after all.

Who would I call? My boyfriend? she had said, giving him a playful poke. You’re my boyfriend.

They had a special connection, Darren knew that. It was quite different to his relationship with his mother, which was built upon a firmament of boring, practical matters like ensuring he was wearing clean underwear, doing his homework, and saying please and thank you at every pointless opportunity.

Darren had never given the bond he had with Gran much thought, just accepting cheerily that she possessed a weird sixth sense which somehow enabled her to see inside his head. She seemed to understand exactly what he was thinking. He also knew that it was a stronger connection than the wavering little stair-step Wi-Fi reception icon of any smartphone. It never faded if you were far from the router.

As he had turned to leave that day, Gran had reached out with her frail hand, the green veins bulging from her freckled, sagging skin. She had given him a warm hug and kissed him on the top of his head. Then she had said something that he would come to understand the significance of only later.

Why would I need a mobile phone, Darren, when I can tell you that I love you face to face?

He had hardly taken this in at the time, wriggling free of her grasp, dismissing it as one of those things old people just say.

But next week never came for that trip to the shopping centre.

Instead, Darren found himself stuck at home enduring the sad silence of his mother, broken only by the occasional bout of weeping, followed after several days of shocked grief at her mum’s sudden death by a sudden burst of activity “making arrangements”.

He realises now, sitting alone in Gran’s front room at her wake, that she knew she was about to die. It is one of those moments when a child spies by chance a fleeting clue to one of the mysteries of life.

He also understands what the last thing Gran had said to him had meant, her hug that day stronger than usual. He can still feel her arms around him.

For the first time, Darren becomes aware of the emptiness of the living room, but more than that, an emptiness inside himself. All of a sudden, he feels uncomfortable, and so he turns to Gran, still sitting there, still fussing over him. She smiles at him as she always did.

Although his mobile phone is in his hand and he is ready to dive into his social media on auto-pilot in a sort of cyber reflex, he has to admit now that she had a point.

Why do you need a mobile phone when you can tell someone you love them face to face?

I love you Gran, he says.

Then he turns off his phone.