Small Boat on the Mantlepiece

by Alison Nicholls

Grandad was hard as nails and soft as butter. We pestered him until, after much pretence that it wasn’t going to happen, he would tell a story.

      Get the boat!

The boat lived on the mantlepiece amongst hairpins, letters, cigarettes.

Always the same tale, it began:

       There’s a one-eyed yellow idol to the north of Kathmandu

I found out much later that this wasn’t an original line, but the rest was mostly Grandad’s own… A beautiful princess imprisoned. Her two brave brothers staging a daring rescue mission, stealing a boat, negotiating the raging torrent of the river, jagged rocks and roaring waterfalls, risking their lives to get her away from the green-eyed monster.

We were enthralled, held our breath, sighed with relief when they made it home safely every time.

Fifty years on, researching my family history I discover that Grandad was the youngest of four children. When the Great War began he was 16 years old. His two older brothers were already soldiers. Both were killed in action during the same week in November 1914, aged 23 and 21.

Grandad joined up as soon as he could. Captured early in 1918 he spent the rest of the war as a prisoner. In November that year, on the fourth anniversary of their eldest brother’s death, his sister died.

With this knowledge, the story that Grandad repeated each week for our pleasure takes on a new resonance and I realise, all these years later, that the small boat on the mantlepiece held his memories then as it does mine now.


If it was in a museum the label would read:

Boat, ornamental, plastic.
Early to mid20th century.
Model of an Asian fishing sampan with canopy and three figures, one female two male. Moulded in hard plastic in imitation of ivory. Damage to the underside suggests it was originally part of a larger figure group. Used by Joseph Nicholls as a prop for storytelling to entertain his grandchildren.

But there’s more to tell.

Saturdays were the best. My sister, cousins and I, entrusted to the care of our grandparents, had free rein. Covering the entire living room carpet with Lego, commandeering the clothes horse to make a tent, converting the garden shed into a spaceship.

Watching TV cheering wildly for our favourite wrestlers and betting halfpennies on the horse races.

Sitting on the back step dipping sticks of garden-fresh rhubarb into a saucer of sugar.

Drinking fizzy pop from the biggest bottles we’d ever seen.

(Copyright: Alison Nicholls, 2023)


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