The summer I turned eleven, before I started secondary school, my grandfather insisted on buying me a fountain pen. Not just any fountain pen, but one with a left-hand nib.
‘The boy’s going to need one,’ he told my mother. ‘Might as well get him one that suits.’
Like everyone else in my generation, I’d learned to write with a steel nib dipped in an inkwell at my scarred wooden school desk. It seemed completely normal at the time, just the way things were. Looking back through time, it seems ridiculously Victorian, as if learning had barely moved on in more than half a century.
We weren’t even allowed to write in ink until we were nine. Before that it was pencil. Perhaps they believed we’d make a mess and we weren’t to be trusted until we reached that age. More likely it had simply always been that way.
Writing in ink, joined-up letters in ink that sat on the paper and dried into the page, held terrors for me. As a left-hander, it was almost impossible to write without smudging my work. The only way was to curl my hand around like a crab’s claw and write upside down. I did that with pencil. It worked. But the term before we began using ink, the teacher told me I’d have to change, to write in the same way as normal children. Her words, and I never forgot them.
For the two weeks of the Easter holiday, I practised at home every day with a cheap fountain pen, grateful that I hadn’t been ordered to become a right-hander. I mastered it, after a fashion. It was awkward, I felt ungainly, cramped, and I went home from school every day with ink on my left hand. But I did it. It’s still the way I write today, although my script has become small and spidery, a mix of printing and cursive that developed when I was working in ballpoint and taking so many notes during my ‘A’ levels. Of course, these days I rarely pick up a pen of any kind. All ballpoints don’t come with left-hand nibs.
I wondered when my grandfather mentioned this special nib: could it be the answer to my problems? Would it mean my hand didn’t blot what I wrote? I had no idea if it worked, but why hadn’t anyone told me about this secret before?
How did my grandfather even know about it? Was it some special knowledge given to old men?
My grandfather was forbidding. He had gravity, a presence to cow a room. He was a man who believed in the old ideal that children should be seen and no heard. Rotund, with wisps of white hair, rarely smiling, and wearing the small glasses with oval metal frames that only old men wore, he looked a little like the illustrations of Dickens’ Mr. Pickwick.
He probably wasn’t even seventy, but to a boy that seemed like Methuselah, an unimaginable age. He’d been born when Victoria was on the throne, he’d seen two world wars, although he’d never fought; his eyesight was too weak to be a soldier and from 1914-18 he’d served as a Special Constable.
Perhaps I already knew that then. Perhaps I didn’t and it just accumulated with the detritus of facts I learned later. Either way, it wouldn’t have mattered. His life was so far removed from mine that I couldn’t even begin to comprehend it. He lived in Alwoodley, and expensive suburb on the fringes of Leeds, in a house with wooden panelling in the hall and heavy furniture that always smelt as if it had just been polished. Only later did I understand that he rented the place, although he could probably have afforded to buy it. But he came from a generation and background that didn’t own property.
It must have been a lonely life; my grandmother had died suddenly four years earlier. He wasn’t one to fend for himself, and I’ve no idea if he was comfortable with his own company or cooking. Probably not, because not too long after he performed the old widower’s trick and married his housekeeper, a woman my mother never approved of because the tea she made was only ‘wet and warm’.
He’d made the promise of the special pen, and my grandfather was a man of his word. Seven days later, when he came for his Sunday lunch, he handed me a small box once the meal was finished and the dishes piled away in the kitchen.
‘Thank you,’ I said, hope rising inside me, running my fingertips along the lid. It was plush, expensive, deep red, with a rough nap that felt somehow satisfying and right. I turned to my mother. ‘Can I…?’
Before she could answer, my grandfather spoke again.
‘I’ll show you how to fill it.’ There was no kindness in his tone, just straightforward, brusque words. Instructions, talking down to a child. He pulled the box back in front of him and opened it, taking out the pen, the cap still screwed on. I felt disappointed, cheated. I wanted to be the one who handled it first. It was my gift. ‘There’s a lever here. Put the nib in the ink, pull the lever down three or four times and it’ll fill the reservoir.’ He illustrated it for me then handed it back again. It was done now. He’d lost interest.
In my room I lifted the pen, feeling its smoothness, its heft. I removed the cap, thinking I was going to learn some special secret, some arcane magic to make left-handed life easier. What I saw was a nib whose tip curved to the left. That was it. Nothing more. Disappointment welled up inside. For a week I’d built up an idea in my head only to find…this.
I dipped the nib in a bottle of Quink and filled it the way my grandfather had shown me. Wiped it all clean with blotting paper and took out a lined exercise book. Bringing the pen down I held my breath, then write. One line, two, three.
It made no difference at all. The way I had to grip the pen meant that the back of my fingers still rubbed the fresh ink. The loops and swirls didn’t look any crisper or firmer. It was nothing. There was no magic. An old man’s knowledge couldn’t change my world at all.
I didn’t say that when I went back downstairs. I said it was great and thanked him again, trying to sound as if I meant it. But I used that fountain pen for a year after I started at the big school. A few months later it was in my hand as I wrote the story in three paragraphs we’d been ordered to compose and realised for the first time exactly how fiction was put together.
Sometime later I bought a Parker pen with a smaller, sleeker nib that worked better, and the special pen was retired. Then, when I hit the sixth form and we could use ballpoint, it went in the bin with all my other fountain pens, happily consigned to history.
After my grandfather remarried, my mother wouldn’t entertain his wife in our house, and we went rarely went to see him. Each visit felt like an endurance test rather than pleasure. By the time I reached eighteen, I’d stopped going.
In 1979 my mother sent me his obituary from the newspaper. Grand Master of his Masonic Lodge, secretary of his golf club, a few other local honours. I kept it in my wallet for a few years, until it fell apart.
There’s plenty of truth in this. All the facts are correct, although it’s strange to suddenly realise that more than fifty years have passed since my grandfather gave me that pen. It probably cost a fair amount; that was his way. He probably believed it would make a difference, and it was his gruff kindness.
And I did use that pen to write the three paragraphs (about someone defusing an unexploded bomb) that switched on a lightbulb and started me on the path to where I am today.
But there’s more, of course. I can only guess at my mother’s feelings; I never heard the conversations she and my father had about it. I can be certain, though, that she never raised the subject with her father. That simply wouldn’t have happened. We were all trapped inside our generations and behaviours.
For no obvious reason, the thought of the pen slipped into my mind a while ago. The tortoiseshell shininess of the barrel and cap, the gold colour of the clip, the awkward, ungainly curve of the nib itself, and it triggered a flood of things. Memories, feelings.
There’s no deep meaning to this beyond a few things that seem better out than in. But typed on a screen, not written in pen on paper. An old man’s knowledge might not always be worth a lot.