Some people collect keyrings or bookmarks or novelty teapots. My grandmother collected smiles.
She lived in a narrow street that was too tight-fisted to allow its houses even an inch of garden. Only the thin front door separated her from the broken town. Whenever I tumbled straight off the pavement and into her front room, I immediately forgot the dejection outside.
Her house was the cosiest, happiest place I knew. Her best smiles were framed and hung against the patterned wallpaper. The picture frames were flimsy plastic, but the smiles beamed down, beautiful and dazzling just the same. There were more smiles arranged on the dresser shelves and the mantelpiece—kindly ones, happy ones, a few that were almost laughing.
My favorite was the slightly mischievous smile that sat on top of the radio, hinting at the fun we could have if only my grandmother would take her eyes off us for a minute.
She must have had a wonderful life—she had been able to save all these smiles, but still had plenty to wear on her face when I ran to her for a hug.
When we visited, she and my mother would settle down with a pot of tea and a packet of chocolate digestives, and gossip among the smiles. I would sit, fidgeting, for a few minutes to try and be polite. Then I’d ask her.
“Nana, can I play with the grins?”
“Of course, sweetie.”
And then she’d lift the drawer down from the dresser and set it on the rug beside me.
The drawer was wide and shallow, and laid inside it were all the smiles not on display. The crooked, the wry, the rueful—and a few knowing ones, right at the back, that she told me not to touch.
I would lift them out, carefully, one at a time, and smile back at each one. I’d try them on for size, feeling my face stretch a little to fit the grown-up smiles. I’d pick two and compare the effects in a little mirror, trying to choose which one I preferred. Some days I loved the almost-sad smile, other days the lopsided crazy smile that twitched as it lay on the newspaper that lined the drawer.
When it was time to go home, I was always reluctant to put them back and return to the miserable town outside. Once, I tried to sneak a gap-toothed child’s grin home with me, but Nana spotted it and smacked my hand sharply.
“You don’t need any smile but your own, dear.”
I hated leaving Nana’s happy front room and seeing the hard, pinched faces in the streets and alleys outside.
One day, coming out of the bathroom, I heard a faint chattering noise and followed it. On the floor, beside the bedroom door, a smile poked out from under the rug. I picked it up, gently, and tried it on. The face looking back at me from the glass was not happy at all; it was sad, and strained—the smile an unnatural curve of no joy. I pulled it off again and ran back to the front room in tears.
“Nana, Nana! One of your smiles got dropped on the floor and I think it’s broken.”
She whisked it from me, smoothed it out, and set it on the little coffee table before pulling me onto her lap for a cuddle. Rocking on the glass tabletop, the smile still looked rigid and unhappy. I stared at it, wondering when my Nana had needed that smile.
“Ssh, love, ssh,” she said as she stroked my hair. Her face was kind, and motherly, as it always was. “What are all these tears about?”
I explained. It hurt me to think that once upon a time she had needed that stiff, fake smile.
“Oh, don’t worry, dear. It wasn’t mine.”
I looked up at the mischievous smile and realized that Nana never looked like that. Nor like the laughing smile near the fruit bowl. And the big cheerful smile that hung over the fireplace was surely a man’s.
My own mouth curved into a rictus of fear. Not one of those smiles was hers; every single one was stolen from another’s face.
No wonder the people of our town were so miserable.