The Best of Times Short Story Competition

Autumn 2012 Results

When Julia Met Granny

Copyright © Janeen Samuel 2012

It’s late October 2011 in Alternative Universe BZ7101 KPI 275 J092, and a young woman is driving to Heathrow Airport to pick up her granny.

An alternative universe, as any SF fan will tell you, comes into being every time there’s an event that can have either of two outcomes. A battle, for instance. An assassination attempt. Or a referendum on whether a country’s citizens want to ditch their absentee monarch in favour of a president.

Whenever there’s such a fork in the road of fate, two parallel universes form, each incorporating one of the possible outcomes. Then each outcome leads on to more possibilities and more divisions. Will the other former dominions follow the lead of the first and also declare for republicanism? In the universe in which they do, will the citizens of the mother country decide, now their monarch no longer has an empire to rule over but is merely queen of one damp island and a bit of another, that she’s not worth keeping on?

Time keeps chugging along at the same rate in all the universes – although in some, such as the one in which all life was annihilated by the nuclear holocaust of 1963, one would hardly notice it. So while we have been having this explanation, the young woman has managed to park her car and find the right gate for her granny’s flight. Her name is Eugenie Ferguson-Windsor – Janey to her friends – and she arrives just in time to see granny emerge from Customs behind a noisy troop of schoolgirls who are returning from a visit to their sister-school in Kuala Lumpur.

“Hello, Granny.” She gives her a quick kiss on the cheek and takes her hand luggage: a very large handbag, a plaid rug and a hatbox. “Did you have a good trip?”

“Quite nice, thank you.” Having spent most of her life uttering fulsome phrases in public, granny is not inclined to do so in private.

“Can you manage the hike to the baggage collection?” Janey looks around, doubtfully, at the pushing crowds and the cheerless, chairless concourse. “Or would you rather wait somewhere while I get your things?”

“We shall come with you,” declares her granny. “Exercise after a flight prevents Deep Vein Thrombosis, or so they tell one.”

The airport seems even more chaotic than usual and the distance to the baggage collection area about half that to John O’ Groats, but granny keeps up gamely. She’s had plenty of practice pacing the long corridors of palaces and stalking over grouse moors. As they cross one hall however, which is strewn with bodies stretched out on floors or curled on seats, their heads pillowed on bags and packs and shiny hard suitcases, she comes to an indignant stop.

“Are these people living here?” she demands.

“No, no, Granny, it’s all right. They’re just waiting to get a flight. They must be Qantas passengers. Just as well you weren’t flying Qantas or you’d still be stuck back in Perth.”

“That would not have happened,” says her grandmother severely. “We always fly British Airways.”

The baggage carousel, when they reach it, is revolving but empty. Empty, that is, except for the single suitcase which is always present on every baggage carousel in every universe that has invented air travel. Janey and her granny join the crush of travellers who are staring, mesmerised, as the suitcase does its round, disappears through one set of black flaps into the unknown world where luggage is mysteriously lost, damaged and destroyed, then reappears through the other set for another lap.

Janey, going in search of a trolley, spies an island of seats that is free of Qantas refugees.

“Wouldn’t you like to sit down over there, Gran, while I watch for the bags? Aren’t you tired?”

“Not at all. One does not become tired sitting on an aeroplane. Besides, we shall need to identify our luggage.”

She’s a tough old bird, thinks Janey. Still going strong at her age even after flying half round the world, not to mention gallivanting around half Australia. It’s all down to her genes, no doubt. Her great-great – and about twenty more greats – grandmother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, went tearing all over Europe at the age of seventy-eight – by horse, too; no plane travel then – arranging a marriage for her granddaughter. Not that Janey would want Granny doing that, no thank you.

“So, no hiccups on the trip?” she asks. “It all went well?”

“As well as could be expected.”

“Still, it’s a pity granddad couldn’t go with you.”

“Indeed,” says her grandmother, “that had been our plan, as you know. But then that other matter arose and he felt his duty lay there.” At this point several rucksacks come nosing through the flaps and are seized and shouldered and carried off by young people with lots of bronzed skin showing. “We told him,” continues Granny, “ ‘It’s not your concern. Where would one be,’ we asked him, ‘if one felt called upon to interfere every time one of one’s poor relations got into debt?’ But you know what Greeks are when it comes to family. Ah! there is our luggage.”

Approaching along the conveyer belt, standing out among a jumble of black bags, like flowers on a muck heap, are a powder-blue suitcase and matching hatbox. Janey retrieves them and stacks them on the trolley.

“Is this the lot then, Gran?”

“Not at all, there is another hatbox.”

But the only luggage now emerging through the flaps is a bevy of identical green-and-purple striped bags. The school girls fall on them with shrill cries, like seagulls squabbling over scraps.

“Are you sure there’s another?” queries Janey. “You’ve already got two.”

“One does know,” says her grandmother freezingly, “how many hatboxes one has.”

Janey sighs. She’s due back at work in an hour. The missing hatbox is probably doing laps on a baggage carousel in Halifax or Harare – and good riddance too; how many hats does one woman need, for God’s sake?

But there are still people standing around this carousel with anxious faces, so there must be more luggage to come.

“Did you manage all right on your own then?” Silly question, Janey: obviously she did or she wouldn’t be here now. Still, one has to show concern.

“Certainly. You young people seem to think no-one over sixty can do anything for themselves.”

It’s on the tip of Janey’s tongue to point out that until she was well over sixty Granny never had done anything for herself. But she bites it back and says mildly, “Well, it can be difficult, catching buses and trains and things in a foreign country.”

“Pooh! buses and trains!” Granny dismisses them with a wave of her hand, as if she’s spent her life as a strap-hanging commuter. “They were no concern. But in Melbourne one was expected to take a tram. That was more problematical. One was required to purchase a ticket from a machine actually on the tram, while it was progressing. And it was exceedingly confusing, because how was one to know which buttons to press or what coinage to insert in the slot?”

“Poor you! What did you do?”

“Fortunately a woman sitting nearby came to my assistance. She said she was from Adelaide so she understood how difficult the machines were for newcomers. She was a young woman with red hair – as red as your mother’s – but she was very pleasant. I must say Orstralians are always most helpful and friendly, even if their manners are a little rough. We conversed together for the rest of the journey. She told me she’d come from England herself, when she was a child, though you would never have known it from her dreadful accent. One does find the Orstralian accent gets worse every time one visits.”

There’s a squawk from behind Janey: “There’s our port, Bruce, quick!” It comes from the female half of a fiercely sun-weathered couple who have been watching the conveyer belt as keenly as if they expected Phar Lap to come galloping along it. “No worries,” says the male half, as he retrieves a bag plastered with blue Southern Cross flags.

“She said she once thought of entering politics,” continues granny, “only then...”

But Janey has stopped listening. Behind the Australian bag there is an empty space on the conveyer and beyond that, in majestic isolation, a powder-blue hatbox is processing towards them. One might almost imagine one saw it give a little back-and-forth wave.

A minute more and it is sitting atop the trolley that Janey is trundling, at a pace which is far from majestic, towards the car park.

“Tell me if I’m going too fast,” she says, but that is something granny would never do. All the same, as she pants along in Janey’s wake she is realising just how tired she is. Maybe her family is right and she is getting too old for all this gadding about.

Never mind, she’ll soon be home now. Home sweet home. Not quite what it was, of course, and certainly not with the staff it had in the Good Old Days. Still, that’s not too big a problem. When one suite of rooms becomes too grubby and felted with corgi hair they just move to another. Given the size of the Palace, even if she lives to the great age of her mother – and the way she feels at present that seems unlikely – it should see her out.

Janeen Samuel lives in South-West Victoria and could be described as a vet with literary ambitions. She has had poems and short stories published in various magazines and anthologies and websites: most recently a story in Award Winning Australian Writing 2011.