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Short Story Overall Winner Jean Rovegno with ‘Grandma’s Hands’

Photo by Johnny Bugeja

There is this thing, this observable fact that are hands; long and slender or short and stubby, smooth or wrinkled, soft or calloused, pale or freckled, gentle or rough, able to hold firmly and kindly or dismissive and distracted.

There is beauty to appreciate at both ends of the physical gamut, in the curiosity of youth and in the wisdom of age; the in-between is but a fleeting blur as nugacious as the waving of a hand.

‘I want to help!’, delivered frankly, knowing that perhaps I would be shooed away, that my unskillful hands would make mess not order and that in my eagerness thwarted, I would turn and walk away subdued and unable to fill the hours of a boring, rainy Saturday morning.

‘The secret of this dish is in the sauce and the secret of the sauce is the grating of the cheese. Just so,’ was the response. My face lit up in a smile and scrambling to sit facing the kitchen windows framed by wooden shutters and the short sheer curtains swaying in the warm spring breeze.

Grandma, quickly and in one adept movement shook out a clean and laundered tea towel laying it squarely on the kitchen table, without fuss or direction, the hand-held cheese grater settled on top of the tea towel and the cheese left to one side. Peeling off the covering and working part of the red luscious wax from the side of the cheese I watched mesmerized, as the cheese fell like rose petals and holding the weight of the slab in my hand, the pretty red wax covering shiny in the fluorescent light and wondering how long could I grate before having to strip more wax away or accidentally grate my fingers till they bled. I sat quietly involved in the moment, the peace and harmony of a well-oiled kitchen where I belonged and was loved.
The occasional called out greeting and wave from a passing neighbour and the leisure of time that seemed hardly to pass. My grandma broached no nonsense her quiet gaze surveyed the kitchen; all was in order. In direct relation to the increasing mound of cheese, my hands tiring and my focus waning, I would drop of the chair and saunter to the stove. Arms folded on the countertop watching the rhythmic dance of the stirring spoon, the sumptuous wafting of odors and the satisfied look on my grannies wrinkled face. ‘When you are older,’ she’d say I’ll pass on my secret recipe’ she’d wink and continue stirring, momentarily stopping to season the dish.

After lunch with dishes cleared and a pristine kitchen table scrubbed flawless, upon which sat the customary instant coffee, made religiously: 1 tsp of coffee granules, a teaspoon of sugar, milk added to taste and whisked energetically with a fork, the hot bubbling water to follow, lastly a smidgen of quiet expectation. Sat at the head of the table and silently involved in her own reflections, those worn hands cradling the green glass cup settled on a matching saucer. I’d watch quietly from the doorway in fascination not daring to break the spell, the moment was sacred and to be valued and treasured, I knew better than to interfere, nothing was ever spoken, the moment just enjoyed, it was almost like a satisfied sigh enveloped the room.

‘Mama! I can’t find my slippers!’ I had looked under the bed, in the hallway, in the bathroom and among my siblings’ garments. No! The house has swallowed them up and I couldn’t find them. ‘Mama!’, I whined. Her soft slippers dragging up the corridor, the tired look of, what now, and an inaudible sigh, ‘have you looked in the wardrobe?’


‘Have you looked under the bed?’ ‘Yes’

‘Have you looked…’,

‘Everywhere mama, everywhere’ I rudely, abruptly, interrupted.

‘Okay, there is only one thing for it’ turning and shuffling in the direction of the kitchen I follow mystified. The second drawer below the cutlery drawer is slid open and out comes another tea towel. In a most solemn tone, my granny grabs hold of the tea towel and whilst tying knots in it she recites ‘Santo Cucufato los huevos te ato, si no encuentro lo que busco no te los desatos!’ I stood in open mouthed dismay, although young I knew exactly what she meant and wondered who is this poor Saint and what torturous spiritual journey did he face to find his genitals tied up in a knot? With a flourish she slings the knotted tea towel on top of the kitchen cupboards and nonchalantly walks away. How on earth is this going to help!

With a shake of my head and dismissing the whole thing as inconsequential I remember the latest Dr. Who episode is about to air, switching on the TV in excited anticipation I settle down in childlike insouciance, untroubled enjoyment.

Leaning for comfort towards the cushions I feel the edges of my slippers concealed behind the green velvet cushion where they had landed after a heated argument with my brother.

‘Mama! I found them!’

‘It never fails!’ came the relaxed reply.

‘Now go and fetch the tea towel and undo the knots’ she ordered. ‘It will not work next time if you don’t,’ she cautioned.

These were the memories that came flooding back to me as we sat upright and solemn waiting for the doctor to sign the death certificate; the occasions at the kitchen table where I was gradually entrusted with the secret recipes, the coffee ritual I was humbly initiated into after a certain age, the numerous times I squirmed while countless handkerchiefs or fingers were licked and rubbed on my stained face. Hands that had been wrung in despair and anguish, had held in joy and hope, had prayed and worked hard, had created memories, of which now, many of them rolled down my cheek as tears. Those same hands now, lay folded upon her chest; pale, wrinkled, but most certainly, worthy.

Adjudicators Comments:

‘The cyclical structure of this narrative allows the writer to move from life to death, and bookend the environment wherein their grandmother reigned with quiet, controlled organisation. A devastating and honest work, made more so by beginning with such a small detail as a grandmother’s hands as she prepares food. The invocation of a saint adds a touch of light relief that contrasts with the reality awaiting us at the end of the piece.

Despite being written almost entirely in English, the writer manages to make the work feel profoundly Gibraltarian, from the domestic proverbs to the grating of hard cheese covered in red wax. The story successfully conveys the onslaught of memories that accost us upon the death of a loved one and manages to convey the importance of the small details that once seemed trivial.’

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