How Grandpa Discovered Central Asia
By Julia Archer
I worried about Grandpa.
After Nana died, he was all by himself in England, and we, his family, lived over here in Central Asia.
Because, well, this is where Mum and Dad both have jobs.
Grandpa had never been out of England in his whole seventy-two years, so it was a shock when he phoned to say he’d bought a plane ticket, and he was on his way to Gulistan.
‘It’s just crazy!’ Mum said. ‘I’ll be at work all day, Dad’s at work all day, and you three are at school. What’s he going to do? Sit around watching movies-on-demand for eight hours?’
I said, ‘He won’t mind. What does he do at home, anyway?’
‘He’s got friends, Zachary! He has a routine! He goes down to the pub.’
‘He’ll know that. He’s coming to see us, not visit the pub.’
‘He won’t know that,’ Dad said. ‘He’s got no idea. He thinks even Scotland is a foreign country.’
I didn’t like to say, So do the Scots.
So, less than a day later, our family was out at the airport searching the crowd for Grandpa. He walked out of Arrivals dragging a brand new green suitcase and looking totally confused.
‘I told you,’ Mum said, almost grinding her teeth. ‘He thinks he’s mistakenly landed on Mars.’
But my little sisters and I just shouted, ‘Grandpa!’ and raced past Security to hug him.
He looked around, saw us, opened his arms, and the confused look became total happiness.
Of course, he should have come. My parents worry too much.
So we drove him home, and he sat in the front beside Mum, looking out the window at a world so untidy and unfamiliar and colourful, saying, ‘My goodness,’ from time to time. I thought that was pretty accepting, considering how wild the traffic is, how the market stalls crowd to the very edge of the bitumen, and pedestrians walk onto the road without looking.
We got home, and he greeted our Gulani cook like an old friend, looked around Chloe’s bedroom she’d given up for him, and nodded like he approved of it all.
So that first evening went okay, and after dinner, Mum explained about us all being gone all day tomorrow, and if he was disappointed, he didn’t say so. Dad showed him how the TV worked, and he could get the BBC World Service, or stream movies, and Grandpa said that was fine.
Except it wasn’t fine when Chloe and Francie and I got home from school, and he wasn’t there.
‘When did he go out?’ I asked the cook.
‘About two hours ago.’
‘Did he say where he was going?’
‘No, Zachary. He didn’t say.’
‘Did he say when he’d be back?’
Francie took charge. She’s nine, and she’s into that. ‘Get your bikes. We spread out. Zachary, take the middle of College Park. Chloe, you take the streets to the west, and I’ll ride up the streets around here. Got your phones? Go!’
That was smart. He couldn’t have gone far, could he? Could he?
Face it, Zachary, in two hours he could be anywhere in Khan Sharif.
Well, not if he was walking. And he wouldn’t just get on a bus in a strange city, not knowing where it was going, would he?
Yes, maybe. Because we’d never thought he’d get on a plane and come to Gulistan.
I was riding up my street thinking all this, and thinking that any of the neighbours I was passing could have invited him in for a cup of tea, and I wouldn’t know.
Chloe phoned in. ‘I can’t see him anywhere, Zachary.’
‘Keep looking, but don’t go too far from our house.’
I’d ridden along three streets and looked left and right down others, and still no sign of him. Up ahead was our little neighbourhood park. Ah-ha!
I stopped the bike and pulled out my phone. ‘Okay, guys. Target visual. All units stand down and return to base.’
‘YOU FOUND GRANDPA?’ You can actually hear Francie talk in capitals.
‘Yep. All good.’
He was sitting at a park picnic table with three local guys about his own age, one flat English tweed cap among three little round caps, bent over two checkerboards.
‘Hey, Grandpa,’ I said.
‘Zachary! Great to see you, son.’
‘Great to see you, too, Grandpa. We didn’t know where you were.’
‘Well, I was here. It’s just like the UK, Zachary. Indians down at the park!’
‘They aren’t Indians, Grandpa. Indians come from India. This isn’t India.’
‘Phttt!’ Grandpa said. ‘I don’t mind where they come from. People are all the same.’
I shook hands with his new friends. ‘Salamet siz,’ I said to each one.
‘Um, I think we better go home,’ I said.
So he shook hands with them, and I taught him to say, ‘Khosh, goodbye.’ There were more smiles, and we walked home.
Mum and Dad were already home, and they weren’t happy, at all.
‘Dad, you can’t just wander off!’
‘You could have got totally lost, and we’d have no idea where you were!’
‘Actually,’ I said, ‘The guys with him were pretty sure he came from this house, and they would have brought him home in a bit.’
‘That’s not the point,’ Mum said. She gets cross when she’s had a scare.
She hadn’t had half the scare I had. After all, before she even heard he was missing, I’d found him.
So the next day the girls and I got home, and no Grandpa.
‘He went to the park,’ our cook said.
So I rode up to the park, and he wasn’t there. Two women were sweeping the path for the City Council.
‘Kim izdeymiz?’ they asked. ‘Who are you looking for? Your grandfather? He has gone to the tea shop by the bus station.’
Why can’t he stay at home and watch movies on Netflix?
So I rode my bike down there, and of course the shops near the bus station, well …. it’s chaos, and it’s noisy. There’s loud local music, and buses revving, and half the car park is taken over by women and some men selling fast food, newspapers, second-hand clothes, hardware and toys.
Between the convenience stores, and the butcher, and the tandoor bakery, and the barber shop and the mosque, there’s a tea shop. Out front is a hissing and bubbling twenty-litre brass kettle, with a tap at the bottom. Old men sit around wooden tables, and little blue metal teapots and white china cups hang from wall hooks.
Grandpa was with his three friends, drinking tea and playing backgammon.
‘Zachary, my boy!’
‘Hullo, Grandpa. Salamat ziz, atalari. Hello grandfathers.’
I sat on the end of the bench, and someone put a cup of sweet milky tea in front of me.
So Grandpa and I walked home again, and that night all our family went out to a restaurant that has the best Gulani food in town. We all talked until our throats hurt, about Nana, about Grandpa’s home town and his friends, about the mad things he did when he was young.
So, of course, next afternoon he wasn’t at our house when the girls and I got home from school.
‘He went to the tea shop,’ our cook said.
Good grief! He’s only got about three words of Gulsha, how does he even communicate?
So I went to the tea shop, and – surprise, surprise – he wasn’t there.
‘He’s gone to the kino,’ one of the customers told me.
The cinema! Good grief! Which cinema? And they only screen local Central Asian movies. Okay, sometimes Hollywood blockbusters, but dubbed into Gulsha.
Why can’t he stay at home and watch movies in English on Netflix?
‘Don’t worry,’ the customer told me. ‘His friends will take him to your house.’
Oh, right. Right. We’ve handed care of Grandpa to three old guys whose names we don’t even know.
So he came home about an hour after me, a bit dazed by the movie. A young Gulani couple had driven their red sports car through beautiful mountain scenery, singing all the way and stopping to dance with each other and with local villagers, or to fight off fearsome baddies. That was it.
I showed him a couple of photos on my screen.
‘Yes! Those were the leading actors.’
‘Yeah. Central Asia’s most popular movie star couple. Their kid goes to my school.’
‘He does? Really?’ He looked impressed at my close brush with fame.
On Saturday we drove out of the city and showed Grandpa the countryside – the neat farms with rows of poplars along the canals, the shepherds on horseback watching herds of sheep and cattle.
Grandpa shook his head at the undersized little cows. ‘They’re not like the fine beasts we have back home,’ he said.
That seemed to be the only criticism he had about anything in Central Asia.
We drove up into the foothills, and he admired the forests, and the views back down to the plains and enjoyed the lunch in a nice tourist hotel.
He leaned back in his chair when the meal was over, a large white napkin covering his lap. ‘I’m very glad I came here to see you. It’ll be a lot easier when I’m back home, having a picture of it all in my head – knowing how you live here, and what a grand place it is. I understand why you want to be here. It makes sense now.’
So we drove back to the city, took a detour past our school so he could see that, too, and he was very impressed.
On Sunday we drove to the airport. As we hugged him, all of us had a few tears, and then Grandpa flew back to the UK.
And that’s how my Grandpa, who had never even been to Scotland, discovered Central Asia.