We took our granny to the home of the elderly when she was seventy. For the next fifteen years, she sat in the same wheelchair next to the same window, gazing out over the same flowerbeds. She consumed, mainly, cups of tea. Occasionally, she would have a chocolate digestive with them. We visited every Friday, but she hardly spoke a word. I wondered if she still recognised us. The nurse said she had Parkinsons, Alzhemiers, and rapid-cycle bipolar disorder. There was nothing rapid about her, if you asked me. Her glazed-over eyes were as lifeless and watery as the tea she drank. She had become an empty old shell. They pushed her to bed at night and they pushed her back to the window in the mornings. They pushed her along the corridors as they had pushed a thousand weary souls before.
One Friday, Granny wasn't there. The wheelchair was, but she wasn't in it. And this is where, according to the policeman present, the mystery begins. I feared the worst. I feared that she had somehow fallen, or perhaps maybe jumped, through the window. It was, after all, as wide open as wide open could get. But there wasn't a body in the flowerbeds, not even an old woman shape left behind. There was nothing, but she was gone. As gone as Lord Lucan or Elvis. As gone as Houdini during a vanishing act. And this is where the sightings begin.
The first one is an account by a lollipop man working the crosswords at a local primary school. He said he saw an elderly woman in flowery pyjamas skipping across the road. He said she was both skipping and whistling at the same time. She moved, according to him, with the speed and grace of a prom queen on powerful stimulants. Like a teenage ballerina on her way to the gala, he said.
The second was a CCTV recording inside the Co-op on Wimpole Road. She was seen stealing a loaf of sliced bread and making off out of the store without bothering to queue up and pay for it. She was also spotted soon after at the local canal, sitting with her feet in the water, casually feeding the ducks. When a groundsman approached her, she pushed him in and made good her escape over a hedgerow, soaring over it like a hop skip and jumper of Olympic standards. It gets worse. A lot worse.
Within that same hour she was seen passing over a busy motorway on a bicycle with a basket on the front, like the one in E.T. This was the point where I had to sit down to fully ingest what was happening with my simple, senile granny. She pedalled over ten miles – ten miles! – to a neighbouring town, where she entered an ice-skating rink and hired a pair of size five boots. I quite clearly remembered my granny's shoe size, but there was no history to my knowledge of any ice-skating experience. Apparently, she did several laps unassisted and attracted quite an audience, leaving via a fire exit and setting off all the alarms in the process.
Her next activity was an outdoor yoga session in the park. She joined in with a community gathering, practising moderate exercise and mindfulness. The rest of the class were impressed by her fluid agility. They said that the light of the day drifted around her different postures. The way she moved, she reminded them of The Karate Kid.
Next thing she did was book herself into a daytime champagne spray party. Some bigwig chief exec was throwing a bash in a public function room. Granny couldn't resist popping in for free refreshments. Along with everyone else, she was soaked to the bone by the time she left, so she showered off at the leisure centre next door, doing a few lengths of the pool while she was in there. Backstroke, I believe, at quite an accomplished pace. Maybe she was drunk and maybe she wasn't. It's unclear how much drinking actually takes place at those spray parties. The attendant said he had to give her a verbal warning for bombing into the shallow end.
After her dip in the pool, she went for a game of bingo and won over a thousand pounds. After buying some fresh pyjamas and new slippers, she handed the remainder into a Salvation Army box. They said she had a golden soul and that the ether of the atmosphere was shifting around her as if she were some kind of spiritual messenger from another realm.
How she had not been detained by the authorities by this time was beyond me. I was hearing, but I wasn't believing. She was eighty five years old, for the love of God. Surely we couldn't be talking about the same woman. There had been a mix-up, this was a mistake, it was all an elaborate set-up. The police officer informing me of all this was a prankster, hired to play out the details of this joke. She was still here really, sat in her wheelchair somewhere else on the ward, blending in with the furniture as she had for the last fifteen years. I was the subject of a hoax. Except the policeman was real. I knew it in my heart. It was etched all over his face, deep within the lines of his puzzlement. My granny had not only disappeared from the second floor of a nursing home, but gone on a sheer bonkers rampage of unimaginable scope. And most surprising of all the utter madness, somehow, was the fact that she hadn't paid for a loaf of bread. Granny – stealing! Never mind all the otherworldly frolics, this perhaps was the hardest piece of the jigsaw to get my head around.
They never found her, alas. All she left behind was a pile of pyjamas and slippers on the precipice of a hill at the white cliffs of Dover. How she got down there remains unclear, it wouldn't surprise me if she hitch-hiked in a truck. The true mystery is if she tried swimming the English Channel or not, for what chance did an ordinary old woman have of conquering those waves? The chances were slim to none, but it was fast becoming apparent that my granny was no ordinary woman. She was a maverick, a dynamo, a freak show, a magician. As yet no body has been recovered, and there are no reports of her at Calais.
Maybe she is still swimming in the waves, and maybe, just maybe, the light of the day is still drifting around her.
© ATD 2015