My late paternal granddad Ted was an almost constantly grinning man with a moustache, glasses, and a scar running across the entirely bald dome of his head. Right from when I was very small, I’d known that he’d been injured in World War II, but it wasn’t until later that I asked about the scar’s exact origin. “NO,” my very loud dad told me. “HE DIDN’T GET IT WHILE FIGHTING. ACTUALLY, HE DIDN’T DO ANY FIGHTING. HE WAS MENDING A PLANE AND FORGOT TO MOVE OUT OF THE WAY WHEN THE PROPELLER STARTED GOING, AND IT FOOKIN’ CLONKED HIM ONE.”
My dad never addressed his dad as “dad” but as “TED” or “TEDWARD”. To me this says as much about Ted’s extreme Tedness as it does about their relationship. In my memory, he is preserved as a human teddy bear: cheerful, circle-faced, cuddly, and often found in the woods. But teddy bears cannot survive alone in the world and in my grandma Joyce my granddad had found a complimentary opposite: stern and fearful, a woman who once called the police on her own son for messing about on a train track close to their council house in Nottingham. Joyce’s role was to remind Ted not to post his house keys in the letterbox at the end of their road or leave loaves of bread on the roof of the car prior to long journeys, and, during visits to heavily mirrored buildings, stop him from spending too much time apologising profusely to other moustachioed men with scarred bald heads for blocking their path. Ted’s – arguably more significant – role was to shake Joyce out of her naturally pessimistic state with a succession of dancing classes, neighbourhood bonfires, fancy dress balls, caravan holidays and Derbyshire walking expeditions.
For most of his adult life, Ted worked on the floor of a factory that made women’s stockings. This was somehow apt, given his penchant for gently bawdy humour, but in view of his relationship with his cars, it now seems slightly surprising to me that, both here and in the war, he was entrusted with jobs that involved handling heavy machinery. In the 1960s, he drove all the way to Devon from Nottinghamshire in an Austin Wolseley that lacked a reverse gear. Once there, he somehow survived a week driving the county’s narrow, high-banked lanes, repeatedly getting out of the car to knock on the window of befuddled oncoming drivers and tell them of the vehicle’s fault so they could move backwards and let him pass. It was a rare journey in Ted’s car that went by without him running a red light, although this was always due to absent-mindedness, not haste. “Oh, I think it might be time for me to give up driving,” I remember him announcing after various fraught journeys through the Nottingham suburbs in the early and mid-90s but it wasn’t until a few months before his death, in 2002, that he actually did. One winter, after a visit to our house in the north Nottinghamshire countryside, a passing group of six sinewy cyclists were enlisted to push his Toyota out of a snowdrift and back onto the road: a task that, even bearing in mind the snow, necessitated an unusually Geoff Capesian amount of grunting. It was only later that it dawned on Ted – thankfully in a way that he neglected to voice until later, when the cyclists were gone – that he’d forgotten to take the handbrake off. One other occasions he had been known to park the Toyota in the dead centre of the country lane we lived on, and once left a small Paraffin stove burning inside its footwell to “keep it defrosted”.
My mum remembers that on her first visit to my grandparents’ house, Ted was wearing a paper party hat. Since it wasn’t Christmas or anybody’s birthday, this confused her, until she found out that making Ted wear the hat was my grandma’s scheme to help him remember that he had to turn their immersion heater off. My own initial firsthand encounter of my granddad’s legendary doziness came when he caddied for me in a junior golf tournament and, arriving on the second tee and reaching for my driver, I found the flag from the first green in my bag. This occurred during the same year that he and Joyce sent a Christmas card to my parents – whose names are Mick and Jo – reading “To Joyce and Ted. Happy Christmas! Love from Joyce and Ted.”
Nobody can remember the exact moment my granddad’s scatterbrain gene kicked in, but a poll of those who knew him puts it at around the age of 36: four years younger than I am now, and four years before Ted set fire to a stranger’s coat by putting his still-lit pipe in his pocket during a coach trip from Ilkeston to Mablethorpe. I was always closer to my nan on my mum’s side than I was to Ted and Joyce, and have often been told that my personality and looks are closer to hers and those of her husband Tom, who died before my birth. But recently, particularly as my hair on my head has become slightly less thick and the hair on my face thicker, I’ve started to see a hint of Ted in the mirror. This effect will no doubt become more extreme if I finally start wearing my glasses as often as I should. It also has got me thinking about my genetic destiny, especially on the days when I put the coffee beans straight into the mug or a bottle of unused shampoo directly into my green recycling bin.
I kidded myself for a few years that my increased doziness might be down to a overfilled mind and the pace of modern life but I’m now facing up to the fact that my Ted gene has now fully kicked in. I suppose a big signpost was the moment in 2013 when I got a bit too involved in a folk album I’d just bought, forgot to check on my bonfire, and accidentally set a fairly large portion of my next-door neighbour’s garden alight. Increasingly, friends and strangers chase after me as I exit pubs and shops, waving my clothes and valuables in the air. But that’s ok. Ageing is often about facing up to your flaws and admitting your mistakes. For example, the other day I put my wallet in the fridge, and I now realise that was a mistake.
I mentioned some of these incidents to my dad, seeking reassurance. I knew that he, at least, hadn’t inherited the doofus gene: he was always double-checking that he’d switched appliances off, was, for all his eccentricities, a rigorously organised person. He sat me down and replied in, what was for him, an unusually hushed voice: “WHY DO YOU THINK I’M SO NEUROTIC? IT’S NOT JUST BECAUSE I GOT IT FROM YOUR GRANDMA. I HAVE TO BE LIKE THAT, OR I’LL WALK AROUND DOING STUPID THINGS ALL THE TIME.” He too had first experienced the phenomenon during his mid-30s, he said, during a holiday when he broke an up-and-over garage door off its hinges by pulling it the wrong way. “IT’S A LATENT COX TRAIT. I WAS GOING TO WARN YOU ABOUT IT THE OTHER SUMMER WHEN YOU DROVE INTO THAT PARKING BARRIER AND SNAPPED IT, BUT I THOUGHT I’D GIVE IT A WHILE JUST TO MAKE SURE.”
It felt comforting to know there was a cure for my condition, but I also felt hard done by. My dad had had great fun playing practical jokes on his dad – convincing him, say, that he’d received a call from my grandma on an unattached, analogue telephone many yards from any building – but because of his pesky compensating for his condition, I’d been robbed of the chance to do the same thing with him. Instead, I had been doomed to a life of being told “REMEMBER TO PUT YOUR HEADLIGHTS ON” and “DON’T SAW INTO YOUR HAND WHILE YOU’RE CUTTING THAT WOOD.” Now my illness had been confirmed, I could no longer even claim he was fussing unduly.
Not long before he died, my parents took Ted on a visit to a large country house that was open to the public. “Ah. If I could do it all over again, and got luckier, who knows?” he sighed. “I could have been the gardener here.” Ted worked hard all his life, but he never got ideas above his station, which perhaps meant his doziness was easier to manage. I, on the other hand, have always had many ideas above my station. With this in mind, I should probably start thinking about winding it all up now, for safety’s sake: spend more time pottering about the garden, perhaps keep the car on the road for a few more years, but limit it to small trips to local tea rooms, hardware firms and dinner dances. Occasionally, I’ll need to go shopping for slippers, and I might fall foul of the odd full-length mirror in the process, but I’ll cope. It won’t be a bad life, and if I live it a quarter as nobly as Ted did, I’ll have no complaints.