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Granny is searching in the coal fire. Flames flutter through the cast iron grate as smoke signals rise. I watch her face with too much make-up on the wrinkles around her eyes and small balloons of rouge on each cheek. It’s her eyes, with a blue-greyness that hold me, so intent on interpreting the broken smoke blankets billowing from the fire.

Her voice takes on an Irish lilt as she describes the farm in Galway where her father lived and in his mind all of the years on Tyneside. She wears a starch-stiff pinny and slippers with half-a-fur halo that give her bunions comfort.

She examines the fire as my breath stops. Lost in a mythical past travelling to Ireland she never visited and begins to speak in a hushed voice. This was our secret. Granda was out. We are conspirators, ‘There’s money’, she said and carefully felt the palms of her hands and added, ‘Definitely’. I did not speak as she whispered, ‘A pot of gold from America’.

Granda had a part-time job after retiring from working in the shipyards on the Tyne. He worked as a labourer in a bakery and from the little he said I gathered he burnt bread for whatever reason in a furnace that sometimes singed his eyebrows. There were always more questions than answers with Granda. He was not due home for an hour as me and Granny silently hunched by the fire.

You had to be careful with how much coal you placed on the fire. Too many coals dampened the flames that eventually sprung like a golden heart from the centre of the fire. Her belief she could read the smoke trails was undeniable. Had her mother or father given her this captivating skill? She was completely absorbed. I began to think she was some kind of mystic. I had no knowledge of those who said they were able to predict events and see the past and certainly the future so clearly. Granny was the first.

It was nearing Christmas. Nights were cutting in. It was near-dark at three o’clock. The curtains were still open but lights in the house were all off. There was only the stuttering light from the coal fire through the room where Granny believed she could see the future.

In what seemed an eternity she had not really spoken, the odd word was all I had to hang onto like a desperate man about to fall from a ledge. I see wisps of smoke, even now, drifting leaf-like toward the black abyss of the chimney. Her eyes tightened at the knock on the door.

It was too early for Granda and it wasn’t the rent collectors’ day. We sat open-mouthed; my mouth began to dry. Granny moved in tiny fearful steps. The knocking continued, then she scattered toward the door. I stood perfectly still until I realised the fire was burning my leg.

She returned with a stranger; a man, dressed like the tailors’ dummy in the outfitters that always had me amazed. It was her brother John from America. I was introduced. Granny cried.

I stared at Granny, my belief in her mystic powers cemented forever.

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