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by Charles Lacey

Chapter 4

I was still puzzling over how I was going to tell my parents that I was in love with a boy. By now Mum had started to make pointed comments about girl-friends which made me rather uncomfortable. Going to an all-boys school, and with my only real outside interest being the gym and the odd athletics fixture, I didn't have much opportunity to meet girls. Well, that suited my book very well. I suppose if I'd really wanted to find a girl-friend I could have joined the local youth club, or gone to dances, but quite frankly I couldn't see the point.

Then one Tuesday evening it happened. Grandad had gone outside to get the car out, and I was saying goodbye to Sanwar in the hall as I had some homework to finish and wasn't going with them as I usually did. Of course you can't say goodbye to the one you love without giving him a kiss. And it was at that moment that the door of the downstairs loo opened, and out came Mum. She had a ringside view of Sanwar and me. There was an awful silence before she spoke, and when she did it was in an icy tone.

"John Hemming… did I just see you kissing that boy?"

If she called me by my full given name rather than my nickname it meant she was really cross. But there was no point in denying it.

"Yes, Mum."

"It's… it's disgusting. How dare you do such a thing? He's to leave this house now, and you are to have nothing to do with him ever again. Is that clear?"

"Mum, I…"

"I mean it."

Dad heard raised voices and came out to see what was going on.

"Edward, I have just found your son kissing this… this youth."

Dad went white, then red.

"Jack, is this true?"

I nodded. There was no point in denying it. My heart was beating hard and fast.

"You'd better both come into the sitting room."

Well, I got both barrels from Dad. I was a disgrace to the family name, and what I'd done was disgusting… and so on, and so on.

"However," he concluded, "at least it's only a phase you are going through. From what I hear, some boys do go through a … homosexual phase… before they settle down. You'd better find yourself a girl-friend as soon as possible."

Grandad had come back in to see what was keeping Sanwar. He heard what was going on and stood quietly next to Mum, his hand on her shoulder. When Dad had run out of steam, Grandad spoke softly to Mum. And when Grandad spoke in that quiet voice, everyone stopped what they were doing and listened. I could understand why he'd been such a success as an army officer.

"My dear, there's nothing to worry about. I've watched Jack and Sanwar together and it's been very clear to me that they love each other… no, no, my dear, please hear me out. Some boys do go through a phase when they are attracted to other boys. I don't think that is the case with Jack."

"But, Father, it's… well, it's unnatural."

"It would be unnatural to you or Edward, because it's not in your nature. But if I'm right, and I'm pretty sure of my ground, it's entirely natural to Jack and Sanwar. I remember a couple of young lads, just private soldiers they were, in my regiment; they were very close indeed, and I was certain that they were sleeping together. Two better or braver young men never existed. The whole of the regiment liked and admired them."

"But, Father, that was…"

"And I'll tell you something I've never told anyone. Perhaps we'd better all sit down."

We did so, Sanwar and I on the settee and Dad in the other armchair with Mum in an upright chair next to him. The look on her face would have curdled milk but at least she was listening. He was her father, after all.

"As you know, I've had two heart attacks and I might have another one at any time, so I may not be around for much longer, and perhaps you should know about this. I've never told you about it, as it happened long before you were born. But I think now is the right time for you to know, and I think it will help you to understand Jack's nature."

He paused for a moment.

"When I was a boy in India, I had a friend, a great friend. His name was Pradesh and he was the son of my father's Bearer."

Sanwar looked up at hearing an Indian name. Mother looked at Sanwar, then at Grandad with a mixture of interest and hostility.

"We did everything together. We shared a tent when we went off together. When we could, we even shared a bed, for we loved one another dearly. But when we were about Jack's age he met with a dreadful accident and died. I was heartbroken, the more so as it was at least partly my fault. I think I must have cried for a week. But my parents sent me back to England, to boarding school, and I never went back to India except for a couple of years with the Army, and that was in Northern India, close to the border with Afghanistan. That was before Partition, of course. It was a very long way from where I'd lived as a boy."

By now he had everyone's rapt attention. He was a great story-teller, was Grandad.

"Well, I grew up, and I married my Hannah whom I loved dearly, and we had a very happy life together with our family. When Hannah died, we'd been married for nearly thirty years. We both took our marriage vows seriously – people did in those days, and I hope still do – and I was completely faithful to her. But there was still a corner of my heart that held my beloved Pradesh. And what I have to tell you now is this: there still is."

There was a long silence.

Mum looked at Grandad, then at the floor, then at Dad. This was a side of her father she'd never known about. Eventually she spoke in a voice I'd never heard her use before.

"But, Father, what are we to do about Jack?"

"My advice to you is this: accept that Jack and Sanwar love each other. It may last a few weeks, it may last their lifetimes. No-one can know yet, but if you want my honest opinion, I think it's going to be a long-term thing. Given the appalling state of prejudice and misinformation that is current, it's probably best that they don't show it in public, at least until they are adult and can accept the consequences. But there's not so much love in the world that we can afford to lose any of it. And now I'd better take Sanwar home. We can talk more tomorrow."

He stood up and Sanwar stood with him. I went up to my bedroom, my heart still going nineteen to the dozen. Thank God for Grandad, I thought. And I'd never, not in a million years, have thought that he might have been like me when he was young, or had a relationship with a boy, British or Indian. It occurred to me to wonder whether he'd had any relationships with boys when he was at his boarding school.

The next morning we were all very quiet over breakfast, and I was glad to get off to school. That evening, after supper Dad told me to stay at the table. We sat there, Mum, Dad, Grandad and I. Mum said, "Last night, we sat pretty late talking over you and Sanwar, and trying to decide what to do. We can't stop you seeing him, given that he's in your form at school. We can't get you separated without telling the Headmaster why, and we certainly don't want it getting around the school. Or round the hospital either. Your father has a position there to maintain; come to that so do I. So for now I suppose we have to accept this… relationship. And we'd very much rather that we knew where you are, and what you are doing, than you go behind our backs."

I began to breathe again, cautiously.

"Now, Jack tell me the truth. When you go to the Khuranas' flat with Sanwar, are you genuinely doing homework together?"

"Yes, Mum."

"And is that all you are doing?"

"No… mostly, but not all. We can't do anything else much because Sanwar has to share his room with his little brother and he runs in and out the whole time."

"Alright, I don't want to know the details. Do Sanwar's parents know about you?"

"Yes. In fact, Mr Khurana gave us his blessing. He says that his religion accepts … the way Sanwar and I are."

"Does he indeed? Well, we are Christians in this household, at least in name. Perhaps we ought to go to Church more often, not just at Christmas and Easter. I just hope Mr Khurana realizes the need for discretion."

"He does. He's said as much to us."

"Very well. Your father will speak to him at work, when he can find the opportunity. And I will say this in your favour: since you and Sanwar have been doing homework together your marks have picked up a good bit.

"You must understand that we – that your father and I – don't like this situation. Your grandfather seems to view it rather differently. We can only hope that when this… this ridiculous infatuation ends, you'll both come to your senses and look for a more normal relationship."

There was nothing I could say to that. I sat waiting to hear what would come next.

"So we have decided that on one evening each week Sanwar may come here and eat dinner with us, and stay overnight. Since your grandfather is using what was the spare room Sanwar will have to have the other bed in your room. And there's to be no… no hanky-panky, do you hear?"

"Yes, Mum."

"And your father will speak to Mr Khurana and see if there's one night a week when you can stay there. There may not be, of course. I understand that they are not well off and it's only a small flat. But if you do go there to sleep, exactly the same thing applies. There's to be no… no nonsense of any kind. Now, you'd better go upstairs and get on with your homework."

I went up to my room, my mind still in turmoil. I found it very difficult to concentrate. But after half an hour or so of wrestling with quadratic equations I started to settle down a bit. Thank the Lord, they weren't going to try to separate us. That was the most important thing, by a very long way. And the thought of again sharing a room with Sanwar, even once a week, and even with a prohibition on 'hanky-panky', was a very pleasant one.

I wondered what sort of conversation Dad would have with Mr Khurana. The following evening, I found out. I'd been told to come straight home, so that's what I did. I was still pretty nervous, as you can imagine. Dad got back around six o'clock, as usual. I heard him open the door and come in, but then I heard other voices. I shot out of my chair and down the stairs. There were Dad and Grandad, with Mr Khurana and Sanwar. When Sanwar caught my eye, his face broke into the most joyous grin I had ever seen. It was a struggle for us both not to rush into each other's arms. But we did stand close together and linked our fingers out of sight of everyone except Grandad. Mr Khurana was also wearing a big smile, and even Dad was only trying to look severe.

Mum hadn't told me, but Dad had rung her from work telling her to expect two extra for dinner, and not to cook beef. She'd done a roast chicken with stuffing and lots of vegetables, followed by apple crumble and custard. And, joy of joys, Sanwar and I were allowed to sit side by side. More than once I felt his calf rubbing against mine and whenever our hands were not occupied with eating, they were joined together, hidden by the edge of the tablecloth.

Over the meal the conversation kept to neutral topics; the badness of the government, the ongoing strikes and industrial unrest, some more of the latest news stories. Margaret Thatcher was certainly beginning to make her presence felt! After dinner Sanwar and I did the washing up, and then we all sat together in the lounge. There weren't enough chairs for everyone, so I brought in a dining chair and sat on that; Sanwar sat on the floor leaning against my knees. Then, to my surprise, the conversational lead was taken by Mr Khurana, and it was quite a speech that he made.

"First of all, Mrs Hemming, may I render my great thanks for your wonderful hospitality. My wife asks me to convey her sincere apologies for not being able to be here with me, but she has the younger children to look after, and there is no-one we know that could baby-sit except for Sanwar, and he is more needed here. In addition, she still has very limited English.

"It is a very great privilege to be at the table of Dr Hemming, who is greatly respected and liked at St Luke's. And it is a further privilege to share that table with Dr Hemming's son. On the occasion when he and Sanwar first met, Jack bravely rescued him from some bullies. On the second occasion that they met, I have it from Mr Hartley, the surgeon, that if Jack had not found Sanwar when he did, and taken prompt and effective action, Sanwar would very probably have died, and even if he had lived he could have been very badly disabled. Your son, Dr and Mrs Hemming, is a most honest, courageous and kind-hearted young man and I am sure you must be very proud of him."

I put a hand on Sanwar's shoulder. He turned his head and smiled at me, and put his hand over mine. Mum looked as if she were going to say something, but she kept quiet.

"It has given my wife and me the greatest gladness to see what pleasure our sons take in each other's company. I know that many people would condemn their relationship, but I do not do so; I rejoice in it."

Grandad looked at Mr Khurana, who returned the glance. Grandad nodded slowly to him, but didn't say anything.

"We cannot know how long their relationship will last. It may be days, or weeks, or a lifetime. But while it lasts, I have not lost a son, but instead – I hope you will understand my feeling – that I have gained one. Dr Hemming, Sir, and Mrs Hemming, I hope you will also feel that you have gained a son, one who I know from experience to be a very gentle, intelligent and good natured young man. I beg of you, rejoice, as I do, in their friendship."

There was a long silence, and then Mum, Dad and Grandad all started to speak at the same time. But it was Grandad who kept going.

"Mr Khurana, though I am not the head of this household, I can call myself the most senior member of this family. I thank you for your wise and thoughtful counsel. I have only this to say…"

He stood up, and beckoned to Sanwar, who also rose to his feet and crossed the room to where Grandad was standing. I'd never loved or respected Grandad more; his quiet dignity was like a shining light to us all.

"… Sanwar, Edward, Joan, Jack, my dear family and friends. Today is a very special day, one of the happiest days of my life, and one I never expected to have. For today I have gained a new grandson."

He took Sanwar in his arms and held him firmly for a few moments, and then dropped a kiss lightly on the top of his head. Sanwar looked him in the face, smiled and held out his hands to Grandad, who took them in his own and clasped them for some moments. Then he came back, his eyes shining, and sat on the floor, again leaning against my knees, my hands on his shoulders.

"My wife and I seem to be in something of a minority here," said Dad. "But this is very new ground to us."

"It was to me, too," said Mr Khurana, "until my wife put me right."

Mum looked at the floor, but Dad made "tell me more" noises.

"When he was a boy, my wife's father was a servant in a British family. His mother was their Ayah, their… nurse, I think you would say. Her duty was to look after their children. But my father-in-law, as he was to become, became a friend rather than a servant to one of the boys. Indeed, they became very fond of one another and spent much time together. Until one day the English boy was sent back to England, to boarding school. My wife's father was never told why, but he thinks it was because the boy's parents disapproved of his being too friendly with a servant. For many weeks and months my wife's father hoped to hear from his friend, but no letter ever came.

"But I am certain, and my wife thinks the same thing, that the old man would love to see his grandson, and his grandson's friend. I know that the air fare would be very expensive, but I could manage to pay Sanwar's. I hesitate to ask, but would you be willing for Jack to go to India with Sanwar? And if so, would you be willing to pay for his fare?"

Grandad had been sitting very still, his face intent, listening to Mr Khurana. Now he spoke. "I can't answer for Jack's being allowed to fly to India with Sanwar; that is a matter for his mother and father to decide. But if he is permitted to go, then I will gladly pay for return air tickets for both boys."

Dad and Mum looked at each other. Finally, Mum nodded and Dad shrugged his shoulders. "We give in. Yes, Jack may go to India with Sanwar to see your father-in-law. And you heard my father-in-law; if he is willing to pay their fares then we will certainly not stand in his way."

Sanwar and I looked at each other. His eyes were shining, and I'm sure mine were too. I'd always felt that I'd like to travel. We'd had a couple of family holidays abroad, one in France and one in Austria, but this was very different. And if my beloved Sanwar and I were going to be able to travel together, it made it a thousand times better. India! And travelling by air, as well! When we'd been to France we travelled by ferry, hiring a car at Calais. And on our holiday to Austria we'd crossed the Channel to the Hook, then travelled by train (admittedly in a sleeping compartment) to our destination. So this was going to be a tremendous adventure. I imagined myself telling some of the other boys at school, but realised that if I said I was going with Sanwar it would only draw some nasty comment or other. But I could always talk to him and Grandad about it, and I did.

And so it was decided: we would go to India for three weeks in August. Though his grandfather had only one spare bedroom in his house, which meant that we would have to share it, neither my parents nor his made any objection. We both had to have some injections to immunise us against diseases like Diptheria and Yellow Fever. We also had to take bitter-tasting Quinine tablets with us to protect against Malaria. Dad's colleague Dr McIver dealt with that for us. Dad also insisted that we make our own travel arrangements, though he did keep an eye on us while we were doing it in case we left out something important. We had to get Passports, of course. It was pretty easy in those days; you just needed a sponsor, someone in a good position in the community to certify that you were respectable and well behaved. The Hospital Secretary, Sir William Tomlin, provided the necessary certificates for us. Dad's bank arranged for us to change some money (which Grandad had quietly given us, telling us not to tell our parents) into Indian rupees.

The flight from Heathrow was long, and exceedingly dull. We both had books in our cabin baggage, of course. The business of taxi-ing and then taking off was very exciting; nothing had prepared me for the tremendous thrust of the engines required to take off. And as the aircraft rose the fact that the floor was no longer level gave me a moment of vertigo. The changes of pressure were something we had anticipated and we had a tin of barley sugar sweets to suck which helped very much. Once we had levelled out the stewardess came round with drinks and snacks; we each had a cup of coffee and a sandwich, and then settled down to read our books.

Little by little, the monotonous drone of the engines and the tedium of the journey began to tell on us and we started to nod off. I was the first to go, sliding sideways in my seat, my head resting on Sanwar's shoulder. But then he dropped off too, and his head collided with mine, waking us both up again.

But even the longest journey comes to an end eventually, and we heard the Captain's voice over the loudspeaker, telling us that we were preparing to land at Delhi airport. The descent certainly gave us both butterflies. However well we knew that the Captain knew his job, and he'd done hundreds of landings without mishap, we were nervous. However, the Captain brought us safely to earth and we stepped out of the aeroplane.

The heat hit me like a padded sledgehammer, and once we were off the airfield and onto the bus to take us to the city centre the noise and the crowds were equally disturbing. Sanwar took it all in his stride, and we got to the station without mishap, and onto the train to take us out of the city to the village of Kunari where his grandfather lived.

Mr Nanutawi was there to meet us. He was a tall man, very upright, silver haired and with a great dignity which was not impaired by the presence of two huge scars which disfigured one side of his face, running from under the hairline to the side of the jaw. I couldn't imagine what had caused them; they must have been from very deep cuts. I had to remind myself that it is rude to stare. But the old man – Sanwar addressed him at first as Grandpapa, later as Papaji – took us to his house and showed us to our room. It was small, but had two beds, a wash-stand and a chest of drawers. We unpacked, had a good wash and changed our clothes into shorts and loose white shirts before rejoining Mr Nanutawi. He brought us cold milk to drink, and Indian sweetmeats. We gave him presents we had brought from England: some of Mum's shortbread in a tin with a picture of Buckingham Palace on the lid, a framed photograph of Sanwar's family, a bottle of malt whisky (we had checked beforehand whether he drank alcohol!).

Mr Nanutawi was the kind of person in whose company it is impossible to be ill-mannered or badly behaved. Not that either of us would have wanted to, but he had such presence that I remember thinking that he would have made a wonderful schoolmaster. I was puzzled by his scars but felt that it would not be right for us to ask him about them; no doubt he would tell us if and when he thought it appropriate. He had lived on his own since the death of his wife; a woman from the village came each day to clean and make him a meal, but otherwise he lived quite a solitary life.

One thing that surprised me very greatly about Mr Nanutawi was the way in which he seemed to accept the relationship between Sanwar and myself. It was as if he found it entirely natural that two boys should become close. And we were very close indeed. If I haven't written much about our sex life it is because there were aspects of it which were so very personal to us that it would seem like a betrayal to do so. We were completely uninhibited when alone together; sharing a bed whenever we could, standing side by side peeing (and not only watching one another, but holding each other's cocks from time to time, though that needed some care as the streams tended, shall we say, to get a bit out of control!). Just doing 'boy things' together, but without unnecessary modesty. The one thing we had never tried was anal intercourse. We'd discussed it – of course we had – but decided to leave it until we had our own home. Neither of us had the slightest doubt that we should live together permanently when we were adult.

But Mr Nanutawi was a fount of information about his country's history, its customs and its faiths, and also its legends and folk-tales. So we heard about the Beggar and the Five Muffins, The Legend of Gwâshbrâri, the Glacier-Hearted Queen, the story of Walidad the Simple Hearted, and many more. In his rich, gentle voice he told us of the Hindu gods and goddesses. Although he was happy to drink alcohol, always in moderation, he was a strict vegetarian and gave us only vegetarian food. It was strange after being so used to eating meat at almost every meal, and most of the spices were unfamiliar, but I soon came to like it and, indeed, took many recipes home, along with packets of spice that we bought in the bazaar. And after we returned home it took a while before English food ceased to taste very bland.

It was towards the end of our stay that Sanwar, greatly daring, asked his grandfather to tell us how he came by his scars. He looked searchingly at each of us in turn, and then said, "Yes, I think you should know."

"When I was very young, indeed younger than you are now, my mother was the Ayah to an English family. Their name was Browne. Their father was Colonel Browne; there were four children named Hilda, Arnold, Arthur and Patricia. Hilda was the eldest; she was rather "bossy" (as I believe is the English expression) and she was sent away to school in England. The second child, Arnold, was a little older than I. He too was sent to England, to a boarding-school. Patricia was the youngest; she stayed with her parents, looked after by my mother. But Arthur and I became great friends. He was just a little younger than I, but always very lively and adventurous. He had great joy in shikar, in hunting for the many wild animals that India holds. But he did not hunt for sport. He would kill a wild bird, or perhaps a wild boar, if it was needed for food, but otherwise he would shoot animals not with a gun but with his camera. Ah! Many were the times when I had to rescue him from some difficulty he had created for himself. But we were the firmest of friends. Indeed, we loved each other as brothers, or as closer than brothers. It makes my old heart very glad to see the two of you similarly close and loving with one another.

"Yes, on many occasions while we were engaged in shikar Arthur and I shared a tent and slept the night through, if it were not too hot, close together. And, like you two, we had no need of modesty or shame between us; our love allowed us to share everything. It was all most improper, of course; my mother was a servant and it was not my place to be the friend of the son of my employer, but he and his wife were kept constantly busy with his work and the social duties that came with it, and they were happy to leave their two younger children to the care of their to the care of their Ayah and her son. So Arthur grew up to be lively and fearless, loving and kind, but not always one to take advice. And so it was that one day we had gone into the jungle. Arthur had a camera with which he wanted to take some pictures of a tiger.

"But when we found the tiger, she took us by surprise. And we startled her. She sprang at me. We were lucky that an experienced Shikar, Colonel Corbett, was nearby; the tigress was a notorious man-eater and the Colonel had been tracking her for some time. He shot with his rifle and wounded her mortally. But as she sprang, her claws came out and caused the scars that you can see. I lost a lot of blood and was taken to the hospital where I stayed for many weeks. At first they were sure that I would die, but the gods blessed me and I lived. But my dear Arthur was sent to England, to a boarding school, and I never heard from him again. I wept bitter tears, indeed, when I was told that he was gone. None would tell me the address to which he had been sent, so I was unable to write to him. I hoped for years that he would write to me but if he did the letter never reached me. Many years later I read in the Times of India about the gallant exploits of Major Arthur Browne of the Royal Artillery, but did not know whether it was my friend, as there were no pictures.

"And so I grew up, and married, and had a son and two daughters. I was, I hope, a dutiful and kindly husband, and an affectionate father. My wife, Mahika, was faithful and loving and I did, indeed, love her in return. We had a happy family life together. But all the time, there was one part of my spirit that still called out to my beloved Arthur. Not a day has gone by when I do not think of him. I remember him constantly in my prayers. I do not know now even whether he is still alive; I have reached the age when many of those I loved best have died. But if I were able to have, as your English saying is, just one wish that could be fulfilled before I die, it would be to see Arthur once more."

There was a long silence after the old gentleman had finished his story. Sanwar and I sat side by side, holding hands. Deep in my heart I prayed that we might never need to be separated, as the young Pradesh Nanutawi and the young Arthur Browne had been separated.

Bu my mind was working furiously, because Grandad's name was Arthur Browne, and my Auntie Pat (she was really my Great-Aunt, of course, but her name was Patricia) was Grandad's younger sister. And Grandad had fought in the War, part of his service being in Northern India. And he had been a Captain in the Royal Artillery, and was later promoted to Major.

And... he had told the story of his childhood in India, and his close friend, and being sent away to boarding school. Could he possibly be Mr Nanutawi's missing friend? It seemed incredible, but it was not impossible.

Part of me wanted to tell Mr Nanutawi about Grandad, but I thought, no, let it come out in its own time, if it is right. So I kept quiet, until that night when Sanwar and I were in bed.

"Sanwar… you remember that Grandad's name is Arthur Browne?"

"Yes, dear Jack,"

"And that he had a dear friend in India when he was young?"

"Yes… he told us about him."

"Do you think that it is possible…"

"I think it is possible… it seems incredible, but not impossible…"

"Should we speak to your grandfather about it?"

"I don't know. Perhaps not, as it could raise hopes that would then be dashed."

In the end we agreed that it would be better to speak to Grandad first, and then if it really did seem as if he and Mr Nanutawi were long-lost friends, we could see if they wanted to be re-united. Not that we had any serious doubts on that score.

It was only a few days later that Sanwar and I had to return home. We'd had a wonderful time in India and certainly intended to return when we could. I'd fallen in love with the country; the colourfulness of the markets, the endless spicy smells, and most of all with the dignity and the kindness of Mr Nanutawi. But we had to return to England, to our families and our school. And what was to both of us a daily joy, we still had each other.

The return flight to Heathrow was no more interesting than the flight we had come on; in fact probably less interesting since we had done it once and knew what to expect. But it was uneventful; we spent a good half of it asleep, my head once more on Sanwar's shoulder and his hand clasping mine.

Dad met us at the airport and drove us home. He dropped Sanwar off at the flats in Wilton Street, and I went upstairs with him to see that he was safe. It was a funny thing, I reflected, that we had been to a remote foreign country, and at no time had either Sanwar or I felt threatened or that we were in danger, and yet back in supposedly law-abiding England I was immediately anxious for Sanwar's safety.

I have to admit that it was good to see Mum and Dad and Grandad again, and to be back in my own room with my books and familiar things around me. That evening I spent mostly telling them about our trip and the many things we had seen, done, eaten and drunk.

The following afternoon, Sanwar came round. Mum and Dad were out at work, so Sanwar and I spent an hour or so together on school work, and then Grandad called up the stairs.

"Do you chaps want a cup of tea?"

I called back down, "Yes, please, Grandad."

"Are you coming down for it, or shall I bring it upstairs?"

"We'll come down, Grandad. There's something we want to ask you about."

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