The need to find out everything about his life – after the initial grief, that’s what hit me when my grandfather Jim died. I needed to rummage through his dozens of boxes of old photographs, through his garden shed, through his house, through his life. I needed to find out the exact dates and exact places he had ever been – within reason. I needed to go back to his roots, back to his homeland, to the Scottish Highlands. He was in the Royal Air Force so moved around a lot, and lived until the ripe old age of 96. His wife Liz, my Nanna, was still alive when I started this project. Two years on, and she has passed.
The starting point seemed obvious to me: Southampton, England, the house where he lived with my Nanna for more than 25 years. I knew every nook and cranny of that place. I spent all of my Christmases there. But without him, it had taken on a different dimension. A kind of void could be felt all around. Liz, whose memory was somewhat glitchy, thought he was still alive at the time. She talked about him as though he was sitting next door in the living room, watching football. But Liz continued to live her life. She went to the hairdresser’s every week. She invited her daughters round for tea. And from time to time they took her out for dinner at the pub. When she set the table, she always set a place for Jim. Despite his absence, he was always there. His coat still hung under the stairs, his cardigan was still draped over the chair, his bed was still perfectly made, his dressing gown, which hadn’t moved, was still on the hook of the bedroom door.
And then I went to Scotland. Strangely enough, the air bases throughout England weren’t what held my attention. I wanted to walk around this stark countryside he called home for a large part of his life, and soak it all up. A pilgrimage of some sort, where I discovered his past, and remembered his life. There is an innate calmness to all of these places; places to reminisce, places to forget, but most of all, places to bring you peace of mind.