ombrometer (noun): a rain gauge
Tom watched his granny from the kitchen window. She rose higher on her right-step than her left. When they replaced her hip, they must have fitted her with the wrong size. She made her lopsided way to the centre of the sheep-grazed grass, where a copper cone was dug into the earth. Inside was a glass vial which gathered rainwater.
‘Four-point-four millimetres,’ she said into the phone, back in the kitchen; or ‘twelve-point-six’ or ‘barely a millimetre today’.
Tom would look over the rim of the cereal box he was pretending to read and wonder who it was on the other end of the line. Why did they care how much rain had fallen on that field? There would be a few words of small talk and then his granny would say goodbye and hang up.
For the rest of the day, while Tom was at school, his granny would be occupied by her embroidery. Over the years, the things that she stitched had been growing smaller and smaller. When Tom was really young, she made quilts that could draped between two chairs as a tent. Then she’d downsized to cushion covers, barely big enough to use as Native American headdresses, before shrinking again, to napkins and handkerchiefs. She sat at the kitchen table, the beam from the lamp reflected in her thick glasses, working as quickly as her trembling hands would allow.
Then came a week when she couldn’t get her thread through the eye of the needle. The doctor sent her to bed, so Tom had to heat her soup, peel her oranges and, in the morning, carefully carry the glass vial back from the field.
He thought that he’d finally have the chance to speak to the person on the other end of the line. Instead, though, his granny asked him to turn her radio down and stretch the upstairs phone across until the flex was a tight-rope between the chest of drawers and the bed. Then she coughed her measurement, listened for a moment, made a noise in her throat and hung up.
‘Your grandmother’s looked after you all these years,’ the doctor said. ‘Now it’s your turn to look after her.’
His granny’s turn had started three years ago, after the car crash. Tom didn’t have many memories of his parents, but he could picture the way his mum’s blonde hair drifted across her face when it was caught by the wind and he could hear the three ways his dad said ‘kiddo’; with his voice deep to tell Tom off, with a wee note of laughter, and with a soft whisper before bed. His mum hadn’t called him ‘kiddo’, but his granny said that she’d often call him ‘sweetheart’ or ‘Tom-Tom’. He couldn’t remember that, though.
Tom did ask the doctor how long his turn would be, but all he got was a half-smile and a pat on the arm. Mrs Martin next door, though, told him that she’d deliver some shopping for them every Tuesday and Friday, to keep them stocked-up, and Tom’s schoolteacher asked him to bring his dirty uniform by her home so that she could run it through the washing machine. So they muddled-through, as his granny would have said. And every morning, the flex was pulled on the upstairs phone and the measurement was croaked into the handset.
For weeks, Tom watched his granny take the vial, squint at the marks on the side of it, and then take the phone from him. She always had to shift across the bed, raising a groan from the mattress, and then she would repeat the measurement to herself, with her lips moving, before lifting the receiver. It took a total of nine seconds, from the moment Tom handed her the phone.
In the school holidays, Tom decided it was time to listen in. After delivering the vial and stretching the flex across, he raced downstairs and lifted the handset in the kitchen. His timing was perfect. He placed his hand over the mouthpiece and listened as she dialled.
‘Met Office,’ a voice answered after three rings. It was a female voice. There was a pause, then Tom heard the side of the conversation he was used to: his granny giving her name and the measurement. There was the noise of a keyboard tapping, then a ‘thank you’. Tom heard the phone being put down upstairs. The line was silent for a few seconds.
‘Hello?’ the voice said.
‘Is that Tom?’
Tom nodded, then realised it couldn’t be heard. ‘Yes.’
‘Ah, I thought so. How are you, sweetheart?’
He put the receiver down carefully, making sure that it didn’t clatter or ding. His sobs were also quiet, held in his throat. He didn’t even sniff, but instead wiped at the trail of snot and tears with his sleeve.
Every day, after that, Tom had a whispered conversation with the woman in the Met Office after his granny had hung up. She asked how his granny was keeping and what he was learning about in school. She told him that the rainfall was higher in the south of England that week than it was in Scotland, which was unusual. She said ‘look after yourself, sweetheart’ before they said goodbye.
Tom had never found out her name; which meant that he didn’t know who to ask for on the day a male voice answered. It was all he could do to not blurt out the question while his granny was still on the line. He held it back, though, until he heard the phone being put down upstairs.
‘Wait!’ he hissed into the phone. ‘Where is she today?’
‘Hello,’ the man said. ‘Is this Tom then?’
‘It is, yes.’
‘We talk about you every day. It’s nice to speak to you.’
‘Is she ok?’
‘She’s fine, it’s just my turn to talk to you if that’s ok?’
Tom didn’t answer.
‘Are you managing ok?’ the voice asked. ‘Looking after your granny and all that?’
‘Glad to hear it,’ there was a pause. ‘Sounds like you’re doing a great job, kiddo.’