I think I was nine, when I first found my grandad’s teeth.
Me and my brother couldn’t stop laughing. They came with a little key that you could wind up, and walked around on little feet. Chattering together in silent laughter, the rows of teeth clacked against each other as they paraded around in a little circle. I suppose we’d seen them before, in comics or TV or something, but somehow having them right in front of us was so much funnier. Johnny set them on the dresser, and they pushed aside some little thimbles that had belonged to our grandmother before she passed away. One thimble fell off, clattering to the floor, and we both erupted with whoops of laughter.
But it didn’t last long.
“What the hell are you-” our grandad began as he stormed into the room.
I knew he would be mad. I’d been on the wrong side of my grandad’s temper before, and whenever grandma was involved - god rest her soul - his anger became tenfold. He gave me a clip around the ear and pulled Johnny onto his feet.
“These aren’t yours,” he snarled, snatching up the teeth, and reaching for the thimble. As he bent over though, he must have hurt his back. He shot out a hand and winced in pain. Johnny’s eyes met mine. You know when something is funny, because it shouldn’t be? Well, to me and Johnny, right then and there, it was hilarious. We both sniggered into our hands, and got our heads bumped together by our grandad. He could be a mean old bastard when he wanted to be. The teeth got locked away, and I picked up the thimble for him, which was promptly placed back in its precise position.
“For a comedian, grandad sure is miserable,” I said to my dad when we were safely in the car, out of earshot. My head still hurt from where he’d slapped me. Johnny was pouting too. None of it seemed as funny now.
“Well, he’s not a comedian any more. Hasn’t been for a long time,” my dad said as we pulled away from my grandad’s drive. He adjusted his wing mirror. “People change. He wasn’t always so grumpy, you know. I don’t think I’ve seen him smile since your grandma passed away.”
“That’s why he got mad,” said Johnny, rubbing the front of his head where we’d unintentionally headbutted. “We knocked off grandma’s thimble. But it was an accident!”
“I’ve never even seen grandad smile,” I said, folding my arms. “He’s just a grumpy old fart.”
That made my dad chuckle. “I suppose he is. But he used to be different. You know, I’ve never met anyone who could make me laugh like your grandad could.”
“He’s never made you laugh!” I protested.
“He used to,” my dad said, “Used to make me laugh til my belly hurt. Like I say, people change.”
But for me and Johnny, we never saw grandad change. As we grew up, he just stayed the same. Grouchy, quick to anger, boring. How he was ever a fun-loving comedian completely eluded us. He was family, sure, and I suppose we loved him in our own way, but whatever love we had for him never felt returned, even in the smallest way. Neither of us looked forward to going round to see him, not like our other grandparents on mum’s side. As he became more and more decrepit, it only became more of a chore. As children, we’d entertained ourselves, but as adults, trying to have a conversation with the man was like trying to draw blood from a stone. It wasn’t just me either, our whole family slowly became less patient with how much of a liability grandad had become. Even at Johnny’s wedding, he was miserable. Sat on a table on his own, all those kind souls who wanted to keep an elderly gentleman company quickly found some excuse to leave, shaking their heads as they did.
Eventually, as his body began to fail him, discussion turned to ‘what to do about grandad’. He could no longer look after himself or his house, and increasingly frequent visits were really starting to take their toll on my father. Mum refused to go around any more, after one insult or another hurled her way became the final straw. Nobody else would see him. Me and Johnny tried to help out where we could, but only for dad’s sake. And every single time, grandad would make you feel like the biggest arsehole in the world for trying to help. He’d moan about everything, insult our entire extended family, accuse us of stealing or “trying to squeeze into his will”. Even sitting down, trying to watch TV with him was an effort. We’d channel hop, and he’d tell me why every single option was terrible and he’d rather turn it off. Then when it was off, he’d complain about being bored - right in the middle of a conversation. Whenever I left, I had to fight the urge not to slam the goddamn door.
So I hope you won’t feel bad of me when I say it was almost a relief when the day finally came to put grandad in a home. It was a nice one, if that makes it any better. One of those that comes with a brochure. Dad had to sell grandad’s house to scrape together the money to pay for it, but the sale would make sure grandad was comfortable and living in moderate luxury for his remaining days. Not that he appreciated any of it, mind you. It’s never nice when someone loses their independence and has to be confined to a retirement home, but this place had its own bistro restaurant, a swimming pool, even a bloody spa. Grandad would bitch and moan about “being forced into this hellhole” that was nicer than most holiday resorts I’d been to. It was hard to feel sympathy for the man. He also turned out to be something of a celebrity amongst the other residents.
“Eric Diddly!” a toothless old man exclaimed to me, the first time I went to see grandad. He nudged me with a bony elbow. “You remember him, doncha?”
“Yeah,” I said with a little laugh, as I pulled out a chair on my grandad’s table. He was sat alone, I noticed. “He’s my grandad.”
“Saw him in ‘75. Never laughed so hard in my life! Diddly dee! Diddly dee!”
He curled a gnarled finger as he said it. I didn’t know what he was referring to, but whatever it was, it snapped my grandad out of his sulky silence.
“Piss off, you old prune!” he barked.
The toothless old man’s smile drooped a little. “Not so funny now though, is he?”
“I said piss off!” my grandad snapped, hunching his chair to angle himself slightly away from the toothless man. It was comical in its own way, these two old men bickering like toddlers. But it didn't bode well for my visit. Small talk always soured quickly with grandad, and it looked like he was already in a foul mood; arms folded and wrinkled features twisted.
“Hi granda-” was all I managed before he cut me off.
“I don’t know why you bother coming here. I wish you’d all just let me die.”
I’d not even sat down. I cleared my throat and tried to reassure him that nobody wanted that. I didn’t know whether I was trying to convince him or myself. He didn’t buy it either way, and resumed his frosty silence.
“Looks like you’ve got some fans here,” I tried.
“Rotters, the lot of ‘em.”
A chorus of “diddly dee!” came from the table next to us, with a ripple of childish giggles from the elderly residents.
“Well, you’re still making them laugh…”
That earnt a dismissive huff, which typically meant that particular thread of conversation was over. But I was curious, and didn’t want to spend my visit sat in silence.
“What’s that diddly dee thing they’re all saying?” I asked.
Setting his jaw, grandad’s only response was a slight adjusting of his shoulders.
“Look, it’s obviously bothering you,” I said, trying a different tact. “Tell me about it.”
Grandad’s lips pursed, and he sighed a deep breath before meeting my eyes. “Used to make props and things. Part of my act. One of them was this little finger, it waggled and said ‘diddly dee’ in a stupid little voice.”
Echoes of “diddly dee” struck up on some of the tables around us. Whatever it was, they’d obviously found it amusing to remember it after all these years. I tried telling my grandad this, but he wasn’t having it.
“It was always the stupid ones people drank up the most. And the ones that were actually genius got overlooked. ‘Do diddly dee’, they’d say. A ten year old joke, and they’d have me doing it every night. A joke isn't funny when you hear it ten times. Or a hundred. Imagine a thousand. ‘Do diddly dee! Do diddly dee!’” my grandad said in a bitter impersonation of his fans. For the first time, I got a glimpse into his perspective. A one trick comedian who got outshined by his act. An old memory leapt out at me.
“I remember one of your props!” I said with sudden enthusiasm. “Those wind up dentures. Me and Johnny found them when we were kids…”
Some flicker of recognition passed my grandad’s eyes, before they went dull again. He nodded. “My ‘false teeth’. Last prop I ever made. Those dentures actually belonged to my father. Your great-grandad. I’d finally earned enough money in my act to afford a proper pair for him. The real deal, so they said. Well, he had one meal and choked to death on his food.” Grandad shook his head, and his wrinkled eyes welled up. For the first time that I could remember, I felt genuine pity for the man.
“Always blamed myself,” he said into his lap. His arms unfolded and dropped to his sides. “You try to do something good in this world, and it just bites you in the arse.”
I reached out to touch his arm. “That wasn’t your fault grandad. Just a horrible accident.”
He nodded, but I could tell it didn’t change the way he felt. “Before his funeral we got the dentures back. We couldn’t get a refund - they were custom made. But the mortician said some people kept them, as souvenirs. Well, that did make me laugh. Souvenirs... The murder weapon that killed my dad, propped up on a shelf somewhere. I figured maybe I could put them to some use. Make people laugh. Figured that would be something. So I started working on my ‘false teeth’. Poured my soul into it. After a while, I even started seeing the funny side. The irony of it all. After years of soft foods, my old man could finally chew his food, but died trying. Face down in a half-finished steak dinner. He’d always said if he was ever on death row, that would be his last meal. I spent days making them. Welding bits together, fixing all the little mechanics. Sometimes I’d just start laughing, and not be able to stop. Jokes would bubble to the surface of my mind, and I couldn’t shake them loose. Kill ‘em with kindness. The Last Supper. Truth being hard to swallow. I don’t even remember finishing the teeth to be honest. I just woke up and they were there. Finished. But as I wound them up, and watched my dad’s teeth rattle around on the table, suddenly it wasn’t funny anymore. Nothing was. I’ve never found anything funny since.”
Grandad trailed off, and I realised I’d been holding my breath, leaning forwards. Noise seemed to flow back into the room as the magic of the story melted away. I tried to think of something to say, but nothing came. Eventually grandad said “You can go if you want. I know I’m a burden.”
“No, I’m staying. Grandad, this is the most we’ve ever talked about something. Why haven’t you ever told me this before?”
He shrugged, and I could tell he was barely listening. Eyes downcast, lost in thought.
“I’m going to get us something to drink, and you can tell me about your other props. Not that one, and not the finger either. The good ones.”
Grandad looked up at me then. After a moment, with a hoarse voice, he said “I’d like that.”
I rose from my seat and asked him what he wanted, looking towards the nearby cafe. He said “coffee,” before grabbing my sleeve and hissing “but make it an Irish.”
At first I thought he was joking, but I stopped chuckling when he pressed a key into my hand and shot glances at the nearby carers. When he was sure they weren’t looking, he whispered. “I got a hip flask in my room. It’s inside the globe. Bring it out before you get the drinks. Don’t want my coffee going cold. If any of the nurses ask, tell ‘em you’re getting me a magazine.”
I decided not to ask how the hell my grandad was managing to smuggle in liquor. He resented the carers more than the residents, and he hated the residents. He hated everyone, as far as I could tell. Still, this was the first time I’d ever had anything close to a connection with the man, and I wasn’t about to ruin it now. Besides, he was a grown man. If he wanted a drink, who was I to object? He was in a care home, not a prison. I gave him a curt nod and walked out of the dining hall.
It didn’t take long for me to find his room. Everything was sign-posted so clearly that even the partially blind and deranged could find their way. This place could have passed for a luxury hotel. I passed a library, a fitness class and a couple of old chaps in wheelchairs playing chess. Not a bad way to see out your final days, I thought. Grandad’s room was just as pleasant and grandiose, well furnished with lacquered oak cabinets and a huge window looking out over the pristine landscaped gardens.
I quickly spotted the globe my grandfather had told me about. A golden sphere of the world, hinged at the equator. It was inside a glass fronted display cabinet, beside some familiar looking thimbles lined up in a neat little row. Flicking the brass clasp on the globe, I lifted the northern hemisphere, revealing a hidden compartment. Grandad’s hip flask was inside, along with two half-finished bottles of scotch. As I lifted out the hip flask, I noticed a small key, and didn’t think anything of it until I saw a tin box, behind the thimbles.
“No way!” I muttered to myself, reaching for the box. It was the same one we found the false teeth in all those years ago. Locked, but with a hole just about the right size for the little key I’d found in the globe. I tried it out of curiosity, and the key worked, unlocking the box with a mechanical click. Telling myself I’d just have a little peek, I lifted the lid, and sure enough, my grandad’s wind-up dentures were tucked snuggly inside. His ‘false teeth’. I couldn’t help but grin like a cheshire cat, and soon enough I was chuckling at the old memory of me and Johnny, winding them up and watching them parade around, dentures click-clacking together. That’s when the idea struck me. It would be hilarious to bring them out, show them grandad and the others. He’d said nobody ever appreciated his other props, and this was surely one of his greatest. It was certainly making me laugh, even if it was mostly from nostalgia. I scooped them out and stuffed them in my pocket, with the hip flask in the other, shut the box and globe, and headed back down the hall towards the cafe.
All the way down the corridor, little giggles would burst out of me as I imagined my grandad’s reaction. I couldn’t wipe the stupid smile off my face, and as people’s eyes drifted over to me, that just made it so much funnier. I must have looked like an idiot, and seeing people’s confused expressions just made it harder to keep my own face straight.
I’d managed it by the time I got to the cafe though. I knew I had to play it deadpan to get the best reaction out of grandad, so I suppressed my amusement as best I could. Coffee first. I made a show of considering my options in the queue, but really I was just trying to hide my smile, smothering it with a hand. Once I was first in line, I took my time with the order, weighing up each option slowly. Just a little joke, to amuse myself really, and I felt my lips twitch at the edges when an old man behind me dramatically checked his watch and sighed.
“Got somewhere to be?” I asked him, and bit my tongue to stop myself bursting with laughter right then and there. The thought of these old people in a rush to live out their final days struck me as cartoonishly comical, but I wrestled with myself to keep it all bottled inside. I didn’t want to ruin the joke; the big reveal.
“Sorry,” I muttered, frowning to myself. That was actually quite rude, what I’d just done, and the old man’s narrowed eyes and the tuts that drifted from the others in the queue actually managed to straighten my expression. I collected our coffee and walked over to grandad’s table.
“Top o’ the mornin,” I said in a squeaky voice, wiggling the cup as I passed it to my grandad. When he looked at me with a blank expression, I pointed at his drink and said “It’s an Irish-”
“Irish coffee, yeah,” he said in a grating voice, cutting me off. “Give me the flask, will ya?”
He was too intent on the flask to see my widening smile. Once he’d taken it, he immediately glanced over his shoulder and began unscrewing the cap. Whilst he was distracted, I gripped the dentures and wound them around a few times.
“That’s not the only thing I found…” I said, unable to keep from smirking openly. With all the flourish of a magician, I dropped the dentures onto the table and boomed loud enough for the whole room to hear. “Your false teeth!”
As soon as the dentures hit the table, they began to waddle in a tight circle on their little feet. Hinged at the jaw, they gnashed together, as though trying to eat an invisible celery stick in quick little bites. Grandad’s eyes went so wide I thought they might pop. All the laughter I’d been holding down erupted from me in a great belly laugh, and by now everyone in the room had turned to look at the commotion.
“NO!” Grandad screamed and lunged forwards with wrinkled hands outstretched. But the table was too big, and he couldn’t reach from his seated position. As he landed on the table, the impact made the teeth jump into the air ever so slightly, pushing them even further out of reach. It was all so slapstick, I had to clutch my sides to stop from doubling over. Murmurs of concern rose up around us, and the thought of how this must look to all these old codgers only made me laugh even harder.
“No! Kyle, please!” my grandad pleaded, slumped over the table like a beached whale. “You need to put them back! You have to put them back!” He clawed himself up, wincing in pain, forcing himself to stand despite old injuries. It was hilarious. Little peels of amusement began to drift from the tables closest to us. Chuckles and giggles. The teeth walked until they toppled off the edge of the table, bouncing on the carpeted floor, landing upside down, little feet wriggling in the air. That got a throaty laugh from a nearby chap, who pointed his walking stick at the teeth and nudged his neighbour in the ribs.
“You don’t understand what you’ve done!” my grandad bellowed, stomping towards the teeth with desperate intent, gripping the table for support. “Where’s the tin? We need to put them back in the tin!”
Struck by sudden inspiration, I saw an opportunity and took it. With both hands I pressed down on my end of the table with all my strength, forcing it down on my side and springing my grandad’s side into the air. The quick shift caught him off balance, and he toppled like a sack of bricks, landing on his hip. Pain etched across his face, and I slapped my thighs, unable to stop the eruption of laughter. It was perfect comedy. It got a mixed reaction from those around us though. The closest ones all turned to each other and began chuckling, but I heard some of those across the room take a sharp intake of breath, or cry out. Some of the carers even crossed the room to help my grandad. Tough crowd.
The chap with the walking stick though. He got it. In all the commotion, he’d picked up the false teeth, and was now setting them on his table. They resumed their lap, silently chattering away, waddling comically, and now the whole table was laughing appreciatively.
As my grandad was pulled to his feet by the carers, he made despairing grabbing motions for the teeth, wincing in pain as he put all his weight on his leg. “Please! Anyone! We have to stop it! We need to stop it quickly!”
The hopeless urgency in his voice even had the orderlies laughing now. Great whoops of laughter burst from the table around the dentures, and spread out in great ripples to the surrounding audience. I slapped the table. Pounded it and wiped tears from my eyes as I watched my grandad limp around the table, trying to catch the little walking teeth. He was so slow they actually managed to outrun him!
“Kyle!” he pleaded “Kyle! Please, somebody help me please!”
He was crying now. Begging. What a performance! The whole room was in on the joke! A woman on the table cackled, head rolling back, and all the old folks around her pointed at her, laughing even harder. Someone snorted, and fell off his chair laughing. Oh god. It was the funniest thing I’d ever seen.
Just as my grandad was about to reach the teeth, one of the carers snatched them up, and held them out of reach. Dropping them onto another table, she poked her tongue out at my grandad and held both hands up to her ears, waggling her fingers. Those around my grandad blew raspberries at him, or put their thumb to their nose and gave taunting gestures. My grandad sagged on the table, hopelessly lost. Looking at all the smiling faces around him, as if searching for an answer that wasn’t there.
Well, it was too much for me to take! I buckled to my knees, pounding the floor with a fist as great barks of laughter leapt out of me. I wasn’t the only one. A man with no legs slid from his wheelchair, toppling to the floor. Oh, that was just hysterical, and the whole room pointed to this latest joke, sides splitting and ribs tickling. The legless man was laughing hardest, I think. That’s what made it so funny. You can’t beat a good clean gag.
The funnier I found it, the more everyone around me laughed. It was contagious! My throat rasped with it, chest heaving, eyes watering, barely able to draw breath between each bout of involuntary laughter. I couldn’t stop! Somehow that made it even funnier! Haha!
Someone put their hands on me and pulled me onto my feet. I was laughing so hard I could barely stand. It was my grandad. Face intent, still crying. I gestured at him to the room around me, and pulled a smirking face, as if to say “get a load of this guy!” Great audience. It spread from me like electricity. I didn’t even need words to communicate any more. They just... got it. Just as well, I couldn’t have told a joke if I’d wanted to, I couldn’t have stopped laughing, and that would have just made me laugh even more.
My grandad was saying something to me. Shouting in my ear, but I couldn’t hear him over the deafening roar of chuckles, hoots, cackles and giggles. Shrieks of laughter. Howls of it. Great trembling peels that would not stop.
He shoved me, pained step after pained step, and I was laughing too hard to stop him. All eyes were on us. The main attraction, with fun little sideshows at the tables around us. One old bat had collapsed onto the table, all the breath squeezed out of her. Dead as a dodo!
As my elderly grandfather pushed me out to the hall, the doors flapped shut behind him, muffling the noise enough to hear him.
“Go! Kyle, please, you have to get out of here!”
I could really appreciate what a hoot it was back in the dining hall. The laughter bounced off the walls, a true comedy club. That was where I wanted to be, and I took staggered footsteps back towards the double doors. But with surprising strength, my grandad forced me back. Well, that was funny. Me, in the prime of my life, and my grandad acting like the bouncer to his own show! I clutched my sides, unable to stop him from pressing me further down the hall.
“Go!” he roared, teeth bared with the effort.
Despite being tickled by it all, sure enough I soon found myself kicked out of the show. My grandad shut the retirement home doors behind me, and slid a walking stick between the two handles, holding them shut with him on the inside. Some of the crowd had spilled out of the cafe now, rolling about in the corridor, leaning on each other, their faint laughter barely making it through the entrance doors.
“Go! Go home!” My grandad’s cracked voice was dampened by the glass, but I just made him out over the noise behind him.
Now there was an idea. Mum and Dad would love this. I could bring the whole family. It was a family show, after all! My throat rasped, but I was still laughing to myself, almost hoarse now. I waggled a finger at my grandad. “Now there’s an idea!” that finger said. Someone behind him got it, and shot one back at me before collapsing onto the floor.
Staggering to my car, ribs hurting, I clambered inside, still chuckling to myself. Just out my windscreen, I could see my grandad. Sagged into the doors, clamping them shut - the old folks home had a doorman! I barked out a laugh and shook my head, turning the keys in the ignition.
The only laughter I could hear now was mine, and I turned the radio off to really appreciate it. It was still funny. All of it. And it only got funnier as I met my grandad’s eyes, grim determination plastered on his face. Such a stark contrast to the faces around him, twisted in glee, some with their arms draped around his shoulder. All heaving and writhing in laughter I couldn’t hear.
My grandfather. The great comedian. The only one not laughing at his greatest joke.
Well, that did make me chuckle. All the way home, giggles of laughter would slip out from me. Sloshing over my edges. My cheeks were in agony, and seemed to hurt more and more as I drove. My whole body hurt, actually. All my abdominal muscles were cramped, torn where I’d been tensing, doubled over laughing. It wasn’t… that funny, was it?
In fact, as the last trickle of amusement left me - just a little huff out my nose - none of it seemed funny at all. Grandad had been crying and I’d… I’d hurt him. I’d caused all of it. A woman had collapsed. Because of me. Because of me.
I stopped the car in the middle of the road. What the hell had I done? Why would I even bring those teeth out to my grandad? I knew he hated them. Oh god. All those people, still in there. Laughing themselves to death.
I turned the car around. I had to go back. Somehow, I knew I had to help. To save my grandad. To save all those people.
But as I turned back through pristine hedgerows flanking the retirement home drive, I was accompanied by flashing lights and wailing sirens. The entrance doors where I’d last seen my grandad were engulfed in flames, licking around the edges and making it impossible to see inside. Dumping my car out of the way of approaching fire engines, I ran out, leaving my keys in the ignition. With growing dread, I sprinted towards the doors, not knowing what I was going to do, just knowing I had to do something. But the heat kept me back, and I still couldn’t see a thing inside.
“Grandad!” I screamed. I howled it over and over, tears filling my eyes as I ran to the next entrance. Smoke billowed inside, filling the corridor. I tried the handle, but the metal burnt my hand. Someone pulled me back. A fireman, I think, but I wriggled free from him and ran around the building. There had to be another way in. There had to…
When I saw the flames at that one too, I collapsed to the ground, head in my hands. All the fire escapes were ablaze. The irony almost made me chuckle, but it came out as a sob. I got pulled to my feet by the fireman, and dragged back to the car park. They sat me away from the growing inferno, and I watched them douse the entrances with hoses. They pulled out body after body, and I shook uncontrollably with violent tremors. My fault. All my fault.
Arson, they would tell me later. Someone had purposefully set fire to all the exits. Apparently some medical equipment had been used to start it so quickly, but it was a puzzle how the culprit had managed to start it at all the exits without anybody getting out. The alarm hadn’t even been raised by anyone inside the retirement home. They’d only been alerted when nearby residents saw the rising plumes of smoke.
Not everyone inside had died. Most had just passed out from the smoke, they said. Luckily, the fire hadn’t reached them before the firefighters had made their way inside, and the heat wasn’t intense enough to do any major internal damage, at least to most people. Some seemed to have died from the stress though. It was to be expected with people of a certain age, they said sympathetically.
My grandad was one of the unfortunate souls that passed away. Collapsed near one of the exits. When I tried explaining things, people didn’t listen. They all just put it down to shock. Guilt and helplessness mixing with the trauma of losing a loved one. Nobody believed me. No matter how much I tried to convince them.
It didn’t help that they couldn’t find the ‘teeth’ I mentioned. Or the tin box. Delusions, they told me. The mind is a powerful thing, and plays tricks on us in ways we can’t truly comprehend. My therapist went into great detail to convince me. After long enough, I started to think maybe they were right. After all, I had no proof.
That is, until one day I wore an old pair of jeans I’d not worn since that fire. I’d washed them to get rid of the burning smell, but never checked one of the pockets.
Tucked away inside, was a little wind-up key. As I stared down at it, I couldn’t help but laugh.