Mostly, Papou wins at cards. Although after every game, he’ll say that I won. I visit when I can, which is less often these days. Every time I visit we play cards. We play rami-gin and Bastra; which I just call ‘the jacks game’. Occasionally, Blackjack. Sometimes we’ll do Sudoku together. All of this is done over a cup of tea. Since his son, my grandpa, died, Papou hasn’t had anyone else to play cards with. Most days he plays solitaire.
We sit and play for a couple of hours, sharing polite conversation. We never talk about religion, or dating. I don’t mention the cancer and he doesn’t mention the rapid growth around my middle. But today feels like a repeat of events, it has happened to my mother and her father, as well. Sitting in this chair, playing cards with Papou. Sitting in this shell of a home we have called ‘home’ all our lives.
His face sinks a little more every time I see him. Still, he welcomes me with open arms and we sit at the trestle table and talk about normal things.
‘How is your mother?’ he asks, having only seen her yesterday.
‘She’s good, she’s happy,’ I always say. He likes to hear it from me too.
‘Are you still in the supermarket?’ he says.
‘No, I’m at the other place now making phone calls. Remember?’
‘Ah yes, I was just testing you.’ He takes his glasses off and rubs his forehead. He looks tired from a long life of raising children. I grew up in this house. My mother and her father grew up in this house. Papou has lived in this house for 60 years.
Something softened in him with age. Mum says it was me that did it, she said she’d never seen him cry until one day he followed through on his threats to give me a smack. I’d climbed on the couch and I fell and hit him in the face. He instinctively smacked me. Mum came home that night and I watched him talk to her from behind the bedroom door. He told her he smacked me but he didn’t mean to. He cried and pulled her into a stiff hug. I ran to bed before she knew that I was eavesdropping. She came in and tucked me in and we never mentioned it. I have never seen so much as a tear from him since.
Papou turns the news on, mostly for background noise. The TV begins to blare a segment about cyber bullying.
‘You know, when you were a little girl you’d come home from school, do your maths every day and play outside. You’d do the dancing on the grass. Kids now they don’t know how grass feels,’ he says, cards in one hand, waving the other for emphasis. He collects the last of the cards on the table with a jack.
He wasn’t always as soft around the face and he wasn’t always this content. There was a time when Papou could hold a grudge. He would never hurt a soul, but he could scare the hell out of any one of us when he was angry. When my mum was young, he was a perpetually angry man. Whenever his football team lost a match he would come home in a rage.
Yiayia started setting up a bed in the attic. She’d watch the football to see who’d won and if his team lost, she’d climb the ladder through the pantry and stay there until one of them fell asleep. Mum said she’d slept there once; the night she’d told him she was to become a single parent, after being raised by one herself.
I shuffle the deck and deal four cards each and four cards face up on the table. Papou takes the cards and begins the game.
‘It’s because the parents. They don’t have time. See we – I — always had time for you. You went in the sun. And your mother, too.’ He inhales his tea, and, with a shaky hand, lays his cards on the table.
‘Papou,’ I say. He looks up from his cards to meet my gaze. I put my cards on the table. ‘Papou, you are going to be a great-great-grandfather.’ The words spill out of my mouth before I can stop them.
‘I know,’ he says with an ear-to-ear smile. He places his cards on the table and pushes them towards my pile. ‘You win,’ he says.
He puts his hands over mine. A single tear trails from his chin.