by Ellie Slee // @sleeful
Artwork by Rhia Cook // @rhiacookmakes
I never met my grandfather. He was born in 1897, and was 60 when he had my mum with his much-younger third wife. He was an actor, at first vaudeville and pantomime and, in later life, television. He met my Nan on the stage; she was a chorus girl and he was the Dame.
I know his head shots by heart. When I was 19, I went on YouTube and found a 40-year-old clip from a show he was in; a ripple shot through me as I heard his voice for the first time. I scour eBay for his signatures and they arrive in anonymous envelopes, protected inside of the sellers’ old birthday cards so they don’t get crushed in the post. But the way I know him best, the way I remember him every day, is in the way I butter my toast.
I leave the toast for a minute, so it’s cooled, but not cold. It doesn’t matter what kind of loaf it comes from, but I like there to be pools of melted butter, with little islands that won’t melt; my mother’s influence. Then I take my knife and slip it into the straight crust of the bread, making a quick, neat slit. It comes out perfectly clean, and then it’s ready to dip it in the jam.
It’s that ingenious little slit that belongs to him. I’d watched my mum do it maybe a million times before I tried it myself as a teenager. I was amazed at the efficacy, and I couldn’t believe that this wasn’t the way that everyone dealt with their toast, although the slimy streaks of margarine in a thousand jars of marmalade told me it was a well-kept secret. ‘Who taught you this?’ I demanded, waving my beautiful butterless knife in her face.
‘My dad!’ she laughed, and the ripple shot through me again, because in that second, and all the other seconds she’d done it before, he was there, had been there, in our kitchen.
And yet, the fact that he was there made the absence of him even bigger somehow, a chasm, a void of information. My mum’s dad taught it to her, but who taught it to him? Maybe the slit was Victorian, shown to him by the maiden aunts who raised him. Or perhaps he learned it by watching a fellow actor in a hotel one morning, as they ate boiled eggs and blearily went over the previous night’s show. Or what if he was the inventor of the slit? Was my grandfather some kind of breakfast genius?
I suppose it doesn’t matter, really. I didn’t get to meet my grandad, but I carry the myths of him with me, and also this funny little knife trick, which is so much more than mythical, which is real. I make my daughter toast every morning, and every morning, when I stick the knife into the edge of the bread, I see his headshot in my head. And then I wait for the day when, incredulously, she asks me where I learned to do a thing like that.
Ellie's piece was originally published in our fifth issue: Rituals. Pick up your own copy of the magazine in our shop now.