Saw Margaret Beckett on telly, mum tells me. She’s looking very old – she must be. . . She never really got what she deserved did she. Always criticized for how she looked – how she dressed. Not everyone can be glamourous, mum says. You don’t think of people getting old do you, she says. Then I saw her on tv – and she was old. Got all her marbles still. What are you doing with your hair, mum asks me – it’s looking good – all curly at the front – not how you usually have it.
The thing about getting old, mum tells me, is that you’ve got to have some money at the back of you. You need it when you’re older. Of course we didn’t have much money – couldn’t invest in things. Have you heard about Andrew? He won’t be made an admiral. I feel sorry for his daughters – one’s getting married, isn’t she – and now that won’t be on the telly. They shouldn’t be called princesses really. It’s the queen I feel sorry for, mum says, the shame he’s brought on the family – I’m sure there’s some truth in it – that young woman, the prostitutes. It must be difficult for the queen. But you don’t know what the full facts are do you – you never know the truth.
How’s Irene, I ask. She’s got this thing, mum says, I can’t remember the name – she told me – I can’t remember. It’s a life sentence. She’ll have it for the rest of her life. She’s 82 I think – or is she 83? She’s on steroids – they’ve put her on steroids – because she’s got pain all over her body – every part of her. She’s had her shoulder done, but now her knees are going. Can’t walk. She’s dreading not being able to drive – not to be able to get away from Barry. And if she fell over at home – Barry would be useless – he can’t use the phone – wouldn’t be able to ring anyone. And he couldn’t lift her up. She was thinking of moving the bed downstairs, but Barry didn’t want that. Though they haven’t slept together for years – not for years. They always had luxury bedrooms – not like ours used to be. You know, they had matching curtains. She always had everything she wanted.
She was always a ball of fun was Irene, mum tells me. I think, she says, that her problem started with her nerves – when she left Barry – started with her nerves then. You know, the man she saw from the line dancing. That must have been when she was in her 60s. Dad didn’t like her for doing that – the way she treated Barry. But he wasn’t any fun, always depressed.
There’s a couple at the flats – he lost his wife some time ago – I don’t know when, and her husband died five years ago – and she cooks for him sometimes. And people are always asking me – Noreen asks me – do you think it’s possible to have a relationship without sex – between a man and a woman – surely it’s not, that’s what Noreen says. How should I know what they do – of course it’s possible to be just friends – that’s what I say. Do you think it’s possible that they’re having sex – I mean, she’s 82 – and he’s in his 70s?
It’s none of our business what they get up to – they might hold hands or something, I don’t know. But they all want to know. That’s the problem with living with a lot of women – they all want to know what’s going on. That’s why I don’t like it there. And I was talking to Kevin the other day – he got me a special plaster for my heel, you know, where the boot has rubbed it – and he was saying that when you’re with old people it makes you old. That’s why I don’t like it there – they’re all old.
They say you can remember the past more when you’re older, mum says, but I don’t find that. I suppose I just remember the future. I can’t remember much about my mum and dad. My childhood. I was trying last night. In bed. And I couldn’t remember anything. You can remember some things about them surely, I say. Only very general things, she says. I remember I hated school. I regret that now – but I was having the fits.
Jackie rang. She’s a good friend. She talks for an hour, then at the end she says I haven’t asked how you are. But she was ringing to see if I’m alright. She’s a good friend. Loves herself. Likes to talk about herself. You seem to be in the role of listener with quite a few people, I say. Yes, she says, a lot of my friends are like that. How’s Matthew, I say. Oh, she says, he’s the same. His back, I say. His whole body, she says. He’s got rods inside him. His hands and arms are painful. Walks with two sticks like he’s on skis, you know: mum moves her hands back and forth, pulling invisible levers. Worships the ground she walks on, mum says. Does everything for her. Jackie doesn’t know how lucky she is.
One of the carers who visits people in the flats – Carrie – isn’t able to work, mum tells me: she’s had a bunion removed. Hasn’t been able to walk for two weeks. Must be difficult for her as she’s a workaholic, mum says. I was talking to one of her assistants, mum says, one of the women who work for her: she isn’t an agency exactly, I don’t know what the arrangement is. They don’t wear tabards. I think they should wear tabards, if they’re visiting peoples’ homes.
She doesn’t drive – the assistant. She said she had to get up at five to get to the places she has to visit. She walks or goes by bus, Carrie normally drives her, but now she can’t – the bunion. Get’s up at five. Working all day, and doesn’t get back home till ten some nights. And when she gets home she finds the house is a mess, the kids haven’t done anything, and they expect her to cook for them. She says she’s exhausted. I don’t know how she does it, mum says. And she can’t make much money – how much do they get paid? I don’t know, I say. And she must be spending a lot on bus fares. She can’t make very much at all. That’s life, isn’t it.
She never stops talking, Deirdre. And what she tells you, she tells you again a few minutes later, mum tells me. Didn’t I have a good birthday party, she says, wasn’t everyone so nice, she says – over and over. And she’s so nosey. I tell her – you’re too nosey I say. We’ll be sitting in the lounge and she’ll see a car arrive in the car park, and she’ll say who’s that lady. And I say I can’t turn my neck Deirdre because of the arthritis. I don’t know who it is. And she says I’ll have to ask Miriam. She’s got to know. I see her every Monday, and I get her ready for the tea and cakes on Friday. Sounds like you’re in the role of carer then, I say. Yes, I am, mum says. On the Monday it’s always so warm in her flat and she’s so repetitive that I start to fall asleep. Are you falling asleep she says. I tell her, mum says, that I’m a bit tired.
It’s a funny time of life, the one I’m going through, mum says. There are quite a few funny periods in life, I say, how is this one funny. As you get older it gets more funny, she says. How, I say. You realise there isn’t long to go, she says, and thinking about that is depressing. I mean, she says, I’ve been very lucky, and I’m still healthy – touch wood. But you think about it. That it’ll soon be over. I think, she says, that it might be an advantage – not having all your marbles. It might be, she says, that they don’t think about it as much. That might be a consolation. They might not be tormented by questions, she says. Are you tormented by questions, I say. Well you know, she says, you think about stupid things you’ve said or done – why did I say that – you have regrets, things you wish you’d done. I try not to get depressed, she says – I think about the family, and how lucky I am: things could be worse. The problem is that people are living too long, she says. I heard this man on the radio – he was 90, and he was saying he didn’t see much reason to celebrate being 90: you’re less healthy, less able to think, less everything really.
The man with the bad knee at the gym tells me things will gradually get worse – that’s getting older. He’s 70. Somehow the topic of inequality crops up – briefly. He tells me that if all the wealth was spread out equally tomorrow, within a year, he says, all the blokes who’d made fortunes before would be out in front again. Just a theory, he says.
I wish you’d seen the hoover, mum says to me. It was completely white. I didn’t know what it was at first, I don’t think I’ve ever seen moths before. They must like it in the airing cupboard because it’s warm. They breed. Eggs. I sprayed them, she says. They’ve eaten some of the carpet. Imagine the things that must be under there – they’ve been down for over twenty years, since the place was built. Deirdre’s got them too. She’s got her husband’s old clothes – she couldn’t part with them. They like one of his woolly cardigans. I couldn’t keep dad’s things, she says, I couldn’t bear having them around. Some of the things you bought him for Christmas that he never wore – slippers – they went straight to the charity shop, she says. It was just before Christmas.
Miriam told me something, mum says. She said not to repeat it. You’d better not tell me then, I say. It’s to do with that chiropodist – you remember me telling you about him, she says to me. I don’t, I don’t say. We heard he’d had a car accident and that was why he wasn’t coming any more. Well Miriam says he contacted her to say that he’d just felt ill one morning, really ill. Like a stroke or something I suppose, she says. He was admitted to hospital. Now he’s not coming any more – he’s not doing it any more. I don’t know whether he’s retirement age, I’m not a very good judge of ages, she says. He always looked well turned out in his white coat he used to wear. It’s a shame. That’s life. It’s hard work, dealing with peoples’ feet, the cutting, the bending over. He used to visit quite a few of the people in the flats. When you get older it’s hard to cut your own toe nails – the bending down. It’s not really that though, she says, it’s the scissors. The scissors they make these days. They’re not strong enough, she says, not for cutting 80 year old nails – they’re hard.
Me blood pressure’s a bit high, mum tells me. The nurse said she’d let the doctor know. I told her about the nose bleed – I was right to do that wasn’t I?
The nose bleed was a few days ago. I don’t get them often, mum told me, I can’t remember the last time I had one – must be …
Blood everywhere, she had told me, over the bathroom floor – six in the morning: it was freezing cold. Must’ve gone on for twenty minutes. Me heads not felt right since. Fuzzy.
I thought I might be having a stroke, mum says. I don’t think nose-bleeds are a sign of that, I say. I thought it might be a stroke, she says, then things would get a lot worse. I’ve been very lucky – healthy – over the years. Her tone says I’ve had a good run, but now it’s coming to an end – inevitably. But there’s a lot of people worse off than me, she says, you just have to look around (I glance at the other customers in the coffee shop: young mothers with toddlers mainly).
Muriel has given up organising things – like the Friday afternoon tea and cakes, mum tells me: she’s retired. Deirdre said they’d given her £25 and some flowers – and they gave her husband a bottle of wine. Deirdre’s daughter couldn’t believe it – thought it was too much. But I don’t think it’s enough, mum says, not for all that organising – for twenty years.
Sharon is taking over, along with Anna, the woman with the dog. I can’t warm to her, mum says, she’s a bit bossy – wants things her own way: she used to be a teacher. They’ve organised a fish and chips night. Eight people have signed up for it. Are you going, I ask mum. Oh no, she says, I can’t eat at that time – seven – it’s too late for me. They should have thought about that. But good luck to them, she says, I hope it goes well.
She is a bit dictatorial is Anna, mum says. We were talking about the Friday afternoons. I don’t know what they’re going to do with them – I think Anna was surprised to see how much Muriel did, keeping records, the money. I’m not boring you am I, mum says to me. Oh no, I say. Someone said what about the people who don’t come down, or can’t get out – can’t buy cakes? I’m not buying cakes for them, Anna says. They have carers don’t they – if they want to be part of it they can get their carers to buy the cakes for them – when it’s they’re turn. I piped up with what about biscuits instead of cakes, mum says. I’m not buying them for them – that’s what she said. But carers aren’t paid to buy cakes are they, mum says to me.
I had a phone call from Helen, mum tells me, and she says she gets quite a few nose-bleeders. My heads still a bit funny. I mean I’m better since moving to Birmingham, physically – not lifting your dad. My backs better. I’ve always had headaches. I can still taste blood in my mouth, she tells me. But I think I’m alright. I’m very lucky – things could be a lot worse. And the nurse said if I look like you when I’m your age I’ll be very happy. That’s what she said. I was very pleased about that, mum says.
Life is funny, mum says. There a plenty of things you can’t do anything about, so it’s no use worrying over them. At times I think I could kill myself – the things I haven’t done. Sometimes I think I wasted my life. But I had you. We wouldn’t have met, with a different life. And you’ve got the kids. The one thing we regretted was not sending you to Repton. You had the brains. You’re wasted I think. But we didn’t have the money.
I might have ended up meeting Jeremy Clarkson, I say – he went there. Luckily I missed out on that. I hate Jeremy Clarkson, I say. Mum nods. We didn’t have the money. We’ve not done too bad – given our difficult starts in life. We’ve not done too bad have we. It’s all about connections, and which bed you’re born in, isn’t it, she says.
I saw on the newspaper headlines that Meghan has fallen out with Camilla – I don’t know what that’s about, do you?
Margaret and Lynne go to this church place on Monday, mum tells me, for some dinner. They say I should go. Lynne said they had lamb this Monday, and it was mmm … Margaret is in her 90s, and they’re both a bit miserable – so I won’t go. It’s at a church you say, I say. Mmm the food is excellent, mum says. They’re both so old, she says, I don’t want to.
It’s the fish and chip night tonight. I can’t eat fish and chips at that time, mum says. I won’t sit there with them while they’re eating fish and chips – it would drive me barmy. I’m not sure about the two of them that are running it. I’m staying aloof, mum says. I’ll help anyone, but …
I wonder what those flats are like, mum says, as we pass a block of flats on School Road. A lot of flats are in a state, she says, run down – I’m just going on what I see on tv. My one regret is that I don’t have a downstairs flat.
But I feel safe there. You should see Margaret’s flat – oooh, it’s … she had a designer in. The only thing I don’t like is she’s got one of them showers … the water it … the water runs into the floor: I don’t like that.
Margaret is very tight. She takes some Tupperware with her on the Monday. She’s got money though. Lives in the past. She refused to pay a taxi driver when he took her to the QE – thought he was charging her too much. She lives in the past.
There’s a clot up there, mum tells me, I can feel it when I put the cream up. The worst thing, she says, is that I can taste the blood still in the back of my mouth. I’ve brought a cloth with me just in case. I might be being silly, but I can’t help it – I’m sensitive, she says. You’re different – you’re not sensitive. You’re not hard – you’re average, she tells me.
It’s because of the way I came into the world, she says. Your dad never wanted to talk about it. These days you’d get counselling probably – probably that’s what I should have had, but they didn’t have it in those days. You expect too much from people – that’s what your dad says – you expect them to give back to you in the way you give to them, and they don’t. He was right about that – but I can’t change the way I am can I, she says. I was always made to feel that I should be grateful, to have a home – that’s what I was told. That I should thank god every day. I never wanted you to feel like I felt, she says to me, of course I couldn’t talk about it with your dad. He just said Andrew’s ours, and he didn’t want to say any more about it. But I’m not like that, mum says, he didn’t understand how I felt. I can talk to you about it, she says to me, because we’ve got it in common – I feel we’ve got a bond. I feel I was meant to have you, she says: there isn’t a moment goes by when I don’t think I had you.
Colin turning up made it worse. It’s better not to know anything at all, she says – like you. But I knew I had that family there – his four daughters who I’m an auntie to, but they didn’t know I existed. And when we went to his wedding, and the sisters wouldn’t have anything to do with me. Only the carer – my mother’s carer – came up to me, and told me I was just like my mother. They were both midwives, my mother and yours. My mother must have gone through a lot when she was carrying me – that’s probably why I am the way I am. Better not to have known anything, mum says – I never wanted you to feel the way I felt: you don’t do you?
I’m sorry to talk about it, she says, I feel ashamed. There isn’t any need to feel that way, I say, it’s good to talk about it. Get it off your chest, she says. It’s funny, she says. It’s funny, I say, that it’s something that stays with you – seems impossible to get over, I say: that’s why it’s good to talk about it. I feel ashamed though, she says.
Do you remember Madge, she says, you probably don’t. She was a friend – lived round the corner. She was adopted too. We were friends. She rang me up to ask if I knew anything about her family. I don’t know why she thought I knew anything – I didn’t. Then later she told me that she’d found her birth mother. Went to visit her. And when she opened the door she just told her to go away – didn’t want anything to do with her. It’s the stigma, mum says – there was a lot of shame about it in those days – being born out of wedlock. I never wanted you to feel anything like that – people saying things to you about it.
… The Sound of Music. And what about takeaways – will people be able to get them, mum asks.
We haven’t had any snow have we, she says.
In the queue at M&S mum chats with the woman in front of us (later, as we walk through the car park, she says I’m sorry, it must be difficult for you, with me gobbling – that’s the way I am). Did you see that nurse on the tv, mum says, oh yes, the woman says, awful. It makes me ashamed, mum says, that people are like that – the panic buying. There was nothing at the Co-op, says the woman. I went in for biscuits. There was nothing there, she says. Empty shelves.
I’d volunteer if a could, mum tells the shop assistant at the till – but I can’t, I’m too old: I’m over 75.
The thing that really worries me, mum says to me, is that people will turn to drink, with all this time at home. If it gets depressing you turn to drink don’t you.
Sarah rang, mum tells me, you know, the one your dad drove to the hospital – she liked your dad. Just wanted to see if I was alright. Worried about me. And how is she, I ask. Oh, alright, mum says. She’s put weight back on. She’s lost two stone, and now she’s put it back on again. Comfort eating. And she’s got rheumatoid arthritis in her feet. Can’t walk. She’s in a wheelchair. Husband has to push her around.
Hazel is not a very nice person. I haven’t heard of Hazel, I say to mum. I was talking to Hazel earlier, mum says, and I found that she’s not a very nice person. She was saying that she was in the washing room, and someone else was in there, and this woman said to Hazel is it your slot to use the machines, and Hazel said I’m not telling you if it’s my slot or not, it’s none of your business. But you shouldn’t be using the machines if it’s not your slot, mum says.
She agrees with me about Anna though – thinks she’s a bit bossy, wants things her own way. She thinks it’s all going to end in tears. Well, the tea and cakes has finished now – they’re only allowing three people in the lounge at any one time, and as long as they’re sitting far apart.
Noreen and Gwen had a go at each other though, on the last one. Perhaps it’s a good thing that they’re in for a period of isolation then, I say. And Muriel upset Martin, mum says, told him off about something in front of the others. He was fuming afterwards – said she’d always been awful, since she first arrived in the place twenty years ago – telling people what to do. Sticking her five ha’porth in from the start.
You know, mum says, what with everything that’s happening, it’s depressing – you really do think your time has come. I really do think it’s the end, she says.
Someone passed me on the street, and said are you ok. And I said, yes I am, mum says. And in the Co-op, there’s this young lad who looks after me, and I said you haven’t got any paracetamols have you. And he said just a minute. And he went away. Then he came back, and he said, we’ve just had a delivery, and so I got two boxes.
Do you know, mum asks, how much it costs for a packet of Strepsils in Boots? No, I don’t, I say. Five pounds, mum says. It’s hard to believe, she says, it shouldn’t be allowed.
But it’s the things people say around here, mum says. I was talking to the window cleaner, she says – we’ve had all the windows cleaned. Big man. Covered in tattoos from head to foot. But he goes to church – a good Christian. And he was saying, all this what’s going on – it’s not god, it’s people that have brought it about. And this woman was talking. You know, mum says, how it says the world is going to end in flame. Well she was saying that this is it.
I’ve got one thing to say to you, mum says to me – don’t drink too much.
Chris rang, mum tells me – you remember, he was at dad’s funeral. Wanted to see if I was alright.
I’ve had a few phone calls – people concerned about me. He’s had a knee replacement, and now he can’t walk. It hasn’t worked.
He says there are a couple of people not far from them who are in their 90s – so they’re vulnerable. But anyway, he says, they’ve had their time. I don’t think he should say that, do you?
Not a soul about. Not a soul, mum says.
No one, not a soul.
I haven’t seen anyone, she says.
That’s typical of Sunday though, I say, at the flats. Sunday, she says – always the worst day to be on your own. Always the worst day.
You know what, she says, I saw this thing on telly – a keep fit thing – and it was showing that you can keep fit by lifting cans of lager. And it was saying that this is a good time to tidy your house up – a lot of people, when they’re working, they get home and they’re too tired to do it. Too tired to do any house work. But now …
I’ve been so lucky, she says. So many phone calls. People calling to see how I am. Helen rang. She’s been self-isolating. She says that Irene’s car has been on the drive for weeks. Doesn’t go out any more. Irene rang a week ago actually. She’s finding it difficult. She’s talking to Barry. He isn’t entirely with it, but at least they’re talking.
I put the cans of lager on the counter. How’s it goin, says Kav. Ok, I say, nothing serious – how about you? He sighs. I’m worn out, he says, tired out. I don’t know how much longer I can go on like this, he says. The bloody staff, he says – they won’t come in. This bloody stupid government, he says – they think they can stay at home and get paid 80%. They ring me up … I can’t come in, I’ve got a cough. Kav mimes a shop assistant coughing weakly into a phone. They think they can stay at home and still get paid.
I’m not paying them, he says – he scans the cans of lager: he’s wearing rubber gloves. Same at the other bloody place (Kav has two jobs): I spoke with my co-manager, I said I bet this bastard has some time off – and sure enough, he comes into the office, and he’s coughing – oh I don’t feel right, I don’t feel good, I better go home, he says.
When I came to this country, Kav says, I said to my dad – I’m not going on the dole – ok, I’ve been on it twice – but twice in over twenty years. Some people sit around all day, and they don’t contribute anything to the country, he says: this country is going to the dogs.
They don’t contribute. Not you, he says, putting the lager into a bag (I don’t need the bag, I say, but he insists). That bloody college, he says, they fucked you over. But you worked. I tried my best, I say. You worked, he says, you made your contribution. Not like those bastards.
I’ve had a lot of phone calls. mum tells me as we walk around Moseley. I’m very lucky, she says, that people care. I had a call from Alice, she says. I don’t think I’ve heard of Alice, I say. She does the keep fit across the road, mum tells me, Tuesday afternoons – she’s 50 odd I think. She was worried about me – wanted to see if I was alright. She said all we can do is pray. She’s religious.
These trees are so old, mum says. It’s good for trees round here, I say. Jean said she used to live on this road – Beesley. Expensive, I say, Billesley. She didn’t approve of you seeing Deirdre on Monday, I say. No, mum says. She saw me in the corridor – she said did you see Deirdre on Monday – I said yes. She rolled her eyes and tutted. Well if it’s alright with you and Deirdre’s daughter – there wasn’t any physical contact, and we sat far apart. I wonder what these houses are like inside, mum says, I’d love to see inside. Maybe when this is over, I say, you could take up burglary. I bet they don’t have downstairs toilets, she says.
You know, she says, that this situation is going to lead to a lot of comfort eating. Comfort eating and drinking.
I leave the staffroom with the new member of staff. I say new, but he’s quite old, older than me, with thinning white hair. He’s wearing a Hawaiian shirt. As we walk through the corridors I’m struck by the way the college is very much like a shopping centre – rooms that look just like shop-fronts, crowds of people. I ask the new member of staff how he’s finding the college, and I’m aware that I’d like him to confirm my own point of view. I also feel some pleasure in having a kind of seniority here – of experience of the place at least. It’s ok, he tells me – it’s going quite well so far I think, he says. Slightly put out at this I say – you don’t feel that although things seem to be going smoothly on the surface, there’s a sense of something quite horrible lying in wait. He says yes, I do feel that now you mention it. I am enormously gratified that he recognizes the truth of my perception – I must talk to him again. But for now he’s due to teach a lesson. Psychology, I ask. Oh no, he says, I thought I said, it’s …. I don’t catch what he says because of the noise of the crowd. He gets into the lift – turning towards me he says, my name’s Happy by the way. Happy? I say. The lift doors are closing. Oh, I’m Andy, anyway, I say. Though the doors have now closed I can hear him say anyway, rather quizzically.
Helen rang, mum tells me, and she said she’s worried about me. She’s going to ring me every day. I’m quite upset actually, mum says – she says she doesn’t want to lose me. At this mum’s face crumples slightly.
She’s never shown her feelings has Helen, I seem to attract that kind of person, mum says – a lot of my friends have been like that. Dad was like that – he didn’t express his feelings very much. You’re a bit like that.
Helen said she’d been going for walks, mum tells me on the phone. She can get as far as the old canal – you know, pushing her walker. She said some bloke spoke to her – he said, god you’re an old one. And he was getting on himself. That was upsetting. Well, mum says, she hasn’t been able to have the tints put in her hair – she must be very grey. She said that Derek (her son) has been dropping shopping off for her – he doesn’t go in. Helen said to him, did you and Petra (his wife) do the shopping together. He said no. Just like that. Just no. Blunt. She thinks they’re not getting on. This isolation is going to cause a lot of trouble – you know, in relations.
Irene rang. She hasn’t been out for three weeks. She’s ok though – she’s got the garden. All the usual aches and pains. Her hair must be looking awful.
I didn’t see the news this morning, mum says, I missed the Andrew Moore Show – so I don’t know what’s going on. I didn’t go for a walk, she tells me, I’m worried about me nose – you know, if it bleeds while I’m out. I had a clot in me mouth yesterday.
No don’t come over, mum says on the phone, I’m not feeling too good. I’m feeling cold, she says – I’ve not got a temperature. I’ve got me fleece on, but I’m still cold. Have you got the heating on, I say. No, she says, I’ve got me fleece on. And the cough is there a bit more today, she says, a bit more of a tickle. I’d like to go for a walk, she says, but I don’t think I should risk it. You get to thinking, she says, that this is it – you’re going to die. Well, I say, I. It’s stupid of me, she says – you just don’t know do you? Well, without a test, I say – they’re not testing enough are they. I saw Deirdre yesterday, mum says – her daughter’s seeing her everyday: stopped the carer from coming – she’s doing everything for her mum herself. Making work for herself. She gets up at seven – doesn’t go home till gone five.
I know I’m being stupid, mum says. Of course not, I say. But you can’t help but think about it – I’m scared actually.
It’s best not to know, mum says. Best not to know. No.
Best not to know. No. No.
Some of these restaurants. You don’t know.
When I go to a restaurant, she says, I never sit near the kitchen.
I don’t want to see what goes on inside. It’s best not to know. No.
Some of them aren’t as clean as they ought to be.
Best not to know.
If you knew you wouldn’t eat anything.
Did you see Tony Blair on the telly, mum says to me. What he said made a lot of sense, she says. And he spoke in a … in a very dignified manner. Very dignified. Didn’t criticize the government. A lot of people hate him, I say. It’s his wife they hate, mum says – what did she do? She’s a barrister, I say. She was just out for the money, mum says. He’s aged though, mum says, what is he – in his 70s. I wouldn’t have thought so, I say, probably 60 odd – wasn’t he the youngest prime minister since Pitt the Younger, you must remember, I say. Yes he’s aged, she says – it wasn’t that he looked old, it’s just that he’s got these big bags under his eyes.
You’ve got to look after yourself, she says. Do things that will benefit you so you’ll last for the next 20 years – not running, I don’t agree with running, she says. Don’t let yourself go, she says, don’t let your standards slip: that can happen in times like these.
… I think she thinks they’re a bit superior. She said she thought that all this criticism of the government was wrong, they’re doing their best. Well, I said, I think this shortage of protection is a disgrace – having to go to Turkey to get it – when we have our own manufacturers. She didn’t know what to say. I said, I’m sorry, we don’t agree, it’s probably best if we don’t talk about it. So she moved on to tell me about Irene. I suppose you know about Irene, she said. I said I didn’t know about Irene. There was an ambulance there last night, and someone was taken away, but she couldn’t see who.
Oh dear, I say to mum.
I told her I wouldn’t ring Irene – I wouldn’t bother her at what was obviously a difficult time. So I rang Helen to see if she knew anything. Helen said she’d seen the ambulance but she couldn’t see who they took away. She said she’d ring Irene and get back to me. So later she rang me. It was Barry they’d taken away. He’d had this pain in his leg. Could hardly walk – he normally uses a stick, but he was having to use his walker. They went to the GP and he said he didn’t know what it was – you’ll have to go to hospital he said to Barry, so they can do a scan. So off he went. But Irene said he was starting to show signs of dementia – she’d noticed it over the past few days – well, probably longer.
… they came over a long time ago … the children were born here … the father is in his 90s, he just wants to die … he’s given up … he’s very ill …
I don’t want to go, mum says, as I drive her back from Sainsbury’s. You don’t want to go, I say. I don’t want to go – back to the flats I mean.
I spoke to Irene on the phone, mum tells me. He’s out of hospital – Barry – back home. They brought him back in the ambulance. Didn’t wear masks or anything. And he had to walk to the house – I’d have thought, mum says, they’d put him in a wheelchair. They didn’t find anything – the scan. But his diabetes is bad – in his feet – starting to go up from his feet. Towards his knees. If it gets very bad you have to have your toes off – it turns gangreney. And they confirmed he’s got signs of dementia.
And Irene isn’t too good either. On eight steroids a day. Eight steroids – I’ve never heard of that amount before, have you? She says she’s putting weight on – well she would on that amount of steroids. Her face has ballooned. And her hair is thin.
She’s never looked after him before, and now she’ll have to. So I don’t know how she’ll cope. I wished her all the best, mum says – I said me and dad had always been fond of Barry: I didn’t say fond, but something like that – you know what I mean. He used to go to the match with your dad.
She said the neighbours have been good – you know, in our old house – very good, helpful. I said we couldn’t have … we could have sold it to coloured people, and it wouldn’t have mattered. But they’ve been very good.
He’s a funny-looking man, isn’t he, Trump, mum says. Funny-looking. I mean, she says, I don’t judge people by what they look like – we can’t all be good-looking, and I should know, she says. He’s got this funny pout hasn’t he – his lips. I’m nothing to write home about, she says. Have you cut your hair again, she says, it’s looking good today – not all sticking up. No, I tell her, I haven’t cut it – I must have slept on it correctly. I’m nearly out of batteries, she says, touching her ear – there’s going to be a lot of people stone deaf as a result of this lockdown.
How old is he – Trump, she asks. I don’t know, I say – 70 odd? It’s a difficult time, she says. Heather rang. She said she’d noticed Mark – you know, on the corner – was having trouble bending down to do the plants. And he’s showing signs of Alzheimer’s – that’s what she thought. His wife has got asthma – they’re self-isolating. She’s got this posh sports car – I don’t know what make – a proper one, with the pull-down top – and she can’t go out in it. Hasn’t been out in it for two years, but she still has it serviced – what’s the point?
It’s a difficult time. Heather said – he’s 84, you expect these things. Well I’m 86, mum says. You know you really feel that you’re getting towards the end – that this is it. It’s hard to not think about it. It’s the worst time, she says. Your mind changes when you get older, she says. In what way, I ask. You question things, she says. What things, I say. Oh, you know – why you’re doing something – you’re less secure. You go to the fridge, she says. You worry about where you put your bank card. I can’t plan anything. I think more about the past, she says. It’s hard. Your dad said, you say something once and that’s it – you don’t need to say it again. I’m a talker, mum says – you’re like your dad.
It’s hard not to think about it, mum says. You need to make an effort to dress up, she says – try to forget about it. Keep going. You shouldn’t let your standards slip.
… I’m not sure what the saying is – a son is a son till he gets married, but a daughter is a daughter for life – something like that.
Helen’s daughter-in-law has never got on with her – hardly ever sees her. Derek takes shopping over once a week. Never takes the kids though – I think Helen resents that, because they see the other grandparents. Of course Helen doesn’t show her feelings, but I bet she resents it – he could at least drive them over so they could wave through the window.
Deirdre’s daughter is very good. Looks after her mum. Every day. Does too much really. I’m not keeping you am I, mum says to me.
Oh no, I say.
Her husband. I think they’ve been married for 25 years – from what Deirdre said. I nearly fall asleep when I go to see her – she talks constantly. Her mind is razor sharp. It’s just that she says the same things over and over. What she had for dinner – that kind of thing.
Her husband. I was surprised. He just wasn’t … it’s hard to explain … if you saw … he wasn’t what I expected. He’s one inch taller than her. That upsets him. He thinks he should be taller. He’s one of seven – so I suppose …. He’s got a marvellous head of hair – pure white. Marvellous. He’s 62. He’s older than her.
That woman was trying to push in the queue, mum says – some people try it on.
I blame your dad, she says. Oh yeah, I say, you blame him – for what? The way you are, she says. I think we should have … he should have … there were times when. You know those times when dads try to interest the kids in something. They show them something. He was not like that … he didn’t open the bonnet and show you underneath, she says. Is that a metaphor, I say. He didn’t open the bonnet, she says. And gardening. We always did the garden. You never did the garden for us. Well, she says, we did it for you, didn’t we – we did too much for you. It’s too late to change it now isn’t it, she says. I’m not opening that bonnet, I say, I can tell you that.
Are you ok for money, she says, do you want some money. I … er, well, I say. I give you money don’t I, she says. Yes you do, I say. Do you need money, she says. Well, I say. You’re not going to refuse it are you, if I give you some. Your dad would think I’m stupid, she says, you’ve got to be careful with money – though we’ve got money now haven’t we. Here, she says – it’s a nice one isn’t it. Turner, I say.
… the repetition – that I can stand, mum says. I can stand the repetition, yes. It’s the nosiness that I can’t stand. The nosiness. She’s so nosy. She wants to know everything. Her mind is still sharp. She wants to know. She was asking about Elise’s stomach. Elise has got a stomach problem, mum tells me. She’s 95. She doesn’t look well, actually – not eating properly, because of the stomach. Deirdre wanted to know about it – what’s the matter with her stomach. I said, mum says, I don’t know – I don’t ask questions. I don’t ask questions. I think it’s inflamed. I told her to eat little and often – I said, Elise – eat little and often. And the last time I saw her she said it was feeling a bit better – that the eating little and often had helped. That was nice.
You know, mum says, I was thinking the other day. I was thinking – that Phillip is 100, he must be 100. He was born five years before dad – he was born in 1925. Four or five years. And he was thirteen years older than Jane, and she’s 88.
The age difference made the difference I think, mum says. They were happy to start with. Honeymoon in Paris. I don’t know why she married him – it might have been to spite her mother. You know, she said to me after he died – she said I bet you think I treated him badly: well I did – that’s what she said – I did, and I have to live with that every day. If he’d been a dog she would have shown him some affection. She once hit a dog – clipped it – in the car – I think it was her that was driving. And she went to visit the dog every day after that – see how it was. But she wouldn’t look after Phillip, Not towards the end. She wouldn’t do the things I did – with your dad. She couldn’t show her feelings. I seem to attract people like that. No, she couldn’t show her feelings.
Well, I say, she could show some of the more negative ones, from what you’re saying.
No, mum says, she couldn’t show her feelings. Cold. Unless you were a dog. She was a good friend to me though, mum says. Like sisters we were. Until towards the end. Like sisters. We used to walk arm in arm, or holding hands. Though when homosexual came up – which we’d never heard of, never heard of it no – then we stopped. We laughed about that.
You never really know someone do you, mum says – you never really know. People are strange aren’t they.
A middle-aged woman jogs up the middle of the road. I don’t like these coloured trainers, mum says, they don’t appeal to me. Alright if you’re young I suppose. Yours aren’t coloured are they, she says to me. Black, I say. Black, or white, she says. You’ve got to be careful with white, she says, as we walk down the street. Especially white trousers. Some people used to wear white trousers at the bakery (mum once worked at a bakery in Derby) – used to wear white trousers, and the problem was you could see their underwear through them – you could see their pants. I’ll keep that in mind, I say.
Look at that orange, mum says. Is it orange, she says, no. Yes it is, I say, quite a yellowy orange. I don’t like it, she says – cars shouldn’t be that colour. I don’t think cars should be white – shows the dirt. I don’t like green – there are different shades, but I don’t really like them, she says: I’ve never been a green person. I hate these bright colours that people wear. Of course I’m a short person, she says, so I have to be careful. I’m a brown and beige person – that’s the way I am. People are different. I don’t like blue, she says. Blue is a cold colour I think. Marge and Dennis had a blue room with a blue settee. They liked blue. But I’ve never liked it. Blue and Green.
I bought some cream for Elise, mum tells me. Three pounds from Aldi. It would have been seven or eight from Boots. She gave me some cream. She said shall I give you more cream? I said oh no – you’ve given me enough – I’m going to Aldi, they have some there – I’ll get you some. So I gave her some. She wanted to give me the money, but I said no – I said, if you want me to get more, then you can pay me.
She’s looking a bit better. I was a bit worried about her. She is 95. She was saying that she thought her time was coming. But we all think that. When you sit on your own in the flat it crosses your mind. Not always. I don’t always think about it. It’s just when you’re on your own. You think about it. And things you should’ve done.
You didn’t mind me ringing you, did you, mum asks me. Did you ring me, I say. I mean text – I texted you, she says. I just had to tell someone, she says.
The text had told me that Irene had rung, and her daughter, Debbie, is going to adopt a four year old girl. It made me cry, mum tells me. It brought it all back. I’ve had quite a connection with Irene, she says, because of adoption – it was after we adopted you that they decided to adopt Debbie.
Irene didn’t know much about it – the adoption of the four year old girl, mum says: she’s got a name, but Irene doesn’t know what it is yet. The adoption hasn’t been completed yet – it must be difficult, what with the Covid. It’s such a … such a … good thing to do, mum says, I’m very proud of her – Debbie. They must have thought about it – Jess is five, so I suppose they thought a sister of a similar age would be a good idea. Then there’s the whole problem of how much love you show to one or the other – it has to be the same really.
Yes, Debbie was adopted at five weeks, same as you, mum says. I said to Irene on the phone, I said I never feel that Andrew was adopted – I always think of him as mine: Irene said she felt the same about Debbie. I … er … what was it I was going to tell you – there was something … perhaps it’ll come back to me.
I always think we’ve got a very strong bond, mum says to me, me and you, because we’re both the same – we both had that unfortunate start in life: but look what we’ve got now, she says, look what I’ve got – a bad start, but a happy ending. I never wanted you to suffer like I did – the stigma – you didn’t did you. Your dad never understood how I felt – he never wanted to talk about it – he just said Andrew’s ours and that’s it. He didn’t understand how I felt. I think the doctor was right – when I spoke to him. You know what he said, about my mother – that she must have suffered when she was carrying me – the stress, an illegitimate baby – she must have suffered, and that’s been passed on to me: that’s why I am the way I am. And Colin didn’t help – a little information is dangerous. He said my mother would have loved to have seen me – well why didn’t he arrange it? Why? I was seventeen. I was in bed, and dad came up and said, there’s someone downstairs to see you: it’s your brother. And that was the first time I met Colin. He joined the military. They liked him, my mum and dad. Dad went to see my mother, you know, and she said never come and see me again – she said she was having a bad time with her husband – he didn’t want to be reminded she’d had an illegitimate child.
He invited us to the wedding – Colin. I don’t know why we went. There were the four sisters there – my mother’s sisters. And they never said anything to me. Nothing.
I suppose, I say, you were hoping to find out something – about your mother. Yes, mum says – someone told me that she was a nice woman. That her mother was horrible, but she was nice. She was a midwife – same as your mother.
It was a soldier, mum says. I don’t know anything about him. Other than that his surname was Tuke. I’ve accepted it now.
Do you think you’ll hear from Colin again, I ask. I’ve got no interest in him, mum says – it doesn’t matter. Oh yes, mum says, that’s what I was going to say: Debbie – Debbie doesn’t know anything about her … her family, you know, where she comes from. Who, I say, the girl she’s adopting – surely she’d. Oh no, mum says, not her – her own family, Debbie’s. How do you know, I say, she might have done some research. Oh no, mum says, she would never hurt her mother like that – no, she would never do that. And if she did – she would never tell her. She couldn’t. It would hurt her too much.
… I don’t see why they spent all that money to support them – I mean, there are thousands of people who go missing all over the world, do they get that? Is he still working at the hospital? I don’t know. It’s sad …
… had to have the dog put down – she fell over it – broke her arm …
… diverticulitis has come back … Helen was telling me about her neighbours, mum says, you know, the ones on the left. She said you wouldn’t recognize them – well her – you wouldn’t recognize her. All her teeth are loose. And she can’t visit the dentist. So she can’t chew anything. It must be awful. Can only eat slops I suppose. So she’s lost a lot of weight. A stone and a half. I said to Helen, has it aged her. She said, you wouldn’t recognize her. And she’s a tall woman – hairdresser – always made an effort with her appearance. She once said, mum says, that she wasn’t happy unless she could feel her ribs – that’s not right is it – something wrong with her.
Yes, Helen’s diverticulitis has come back, mum tells me. You remember. She had those stomach pains. Derek took her up to the doctor. She was a bit mad with him. Derek. He said have you got your mask and gloves. She put them on and he took her up. Then when they got there there was the voice at the door – said have you got an appointment; and she pulled her mask down to answer. And Derek said what are you doing – taking the mask off like that. Well, she was mad at him. It was a bit embarrassing. She said to me – I think he takes it all too seriously. You know, he wipes the handle of the car door after she’s been in it. He’s doing it for her I suppose.
You know, it’s been half a year since my birthday. I’m not feeling as good. My memory. It’s not as good as it was I think. I think – I think my age is starting to cut in. It’s been a duff week – I’ve been feeling … I don’t know … it’s hard to say. Hopefully it won’t get much worse. Touch wood.
I always thought, mum says, that some message was going to come – that I would get a letter, saying I’d inherited a lot of money. You know, a fantasy. But it was Colin who turned up. I saw my mother’s house – when would that be? Perhaps it was when we went to the wedding. Anyway, it was just an ordinary house. There was a picture of our wedding on the mantelpiece in the room – where would she have got that from? Colin I suppose. So she obviously had some good feelings about me – if she’d got the photo up. So why would she not want to see me? Sometimes I torture myself with thinking about these things. Best not to think about it.
Have you ever wished we were not your parents – that you had different parents, mum says to me.
Of course not, I say.
It’s probably just something that girls think about, she says, a girl’s fantasy.
Is it better, mum asks, to have your mind working – when you get older – or not? I’m not sure, she says. Would it be better to not know what’s happening. I don’t know. Still, she says, you might appreciate some things – I appreciate some things, she says. There was that man on the radio – it was his 90th birthday and he was saying that it wasn’t a cause for much celebration, not for him: I’m 90 he said, what can I do – I can’t do anything. People should be allowed to kill themselves if they want. Go to Switzerland. You need money for that.
I’ve started to notice changes in myself, she says, in my mind. I’ve been very lucky, and I’m very grateful. But I have noticed some changes.
What kinds of changes, I ask.
Oh, you know – there’s the unsurety – you feel unsure about things. It’s hard to put into words. You know when you get there. You feel scared. You don’t want to be a burden. It’s difficult when you’re on your own – when your partner has gone. That’s what produces a big change. When you can come home and talk about things. It wasn’t the same though in the last ten years with dad – looking after him. We didn’t do very much.
Gwen’s carer told me that Gwen was getting quite agitated, mum tells me. She can’t understand why she can’t go out. She’s got worse since the lockdown. More agitated. She’s quite rude to the carer – but they’re quite hard if they’ve done it for a while. Hardened. You never know what you’re going to find when you go through that door. I always wanted to be a carer, but I couldn’t have done it – I wouldn’t have been able to switch off, I wouldn’t have been able to sleep with thinking about them. I’ve got too many emotions. I’m full of feelings. That’s what I’m like. Your dad used to say you expect too much from people … you expect to give … to get the same back from what you give. And people aren’t like that. That’s what he said. I suppose he was right. I can’t help it though – I love people – well, I don’t love them, you know what I mean.
… she really loved your dad – had his picture up, framed. She’s down to 15 stone. She was 17. Has to be pushed round in the wheelchair.
Dad was like a father to her. I never met her dad. He passed away. Her mum was very nice.
I thought she might have committed suicide. She was diagnosed as schizophrenic. She threw herself in front of a bus. That’s how dad met her. She used to have that treatment, what’s it called … where they have wires …
ECT, I say.
I don’t know what it’s called, mum says.
ECT, I say, electro-shock therapy.
Something like that, she says. She had that. Dad used to drive her back after that. She was sick in his car. It was a good thing – of him, to do that driving. He got quite good money from it. We helped you with that. I wished I could drive so I could do something like that.
Everyone liked your dad, he was a good man.
There’s one thing I regret though, mum says. I wish he’d taken more … showed a bit more … that he’d showed you under the bonnet. Got you interested in that. Said, this is the engine. So you’d be interested in something like that. You never mowed the lawn. I did that. I suppose we did things for you. Well, it’s too late to do anything about it now. You can’t change people can you – you are what you are.
It’s funny the things you remember when you’re older. I remember going up to the school – your school – to see the teacher. It was always me who did that. I suppose your dad was at work. They said they wanted to see me – some problem – I can’t remember what it was. You sat at the back of the classroom. You weren’t asking questions – that’s what they said. You weren’t joining in. You must have just sat there and absorbed it. You were clever. But you didn’t ask questions. Anyway, it was alright after I’d been. I said the teacher should ask you questions. Then you’d say something.
Which school was this, I ask.
Junior school, she says. It was the head teacher I spoke to. He was good wasn’t he.
He had a nervous breakdown, I say.
Yes, he was good, she says. You’re not a shy person are you? You weren’t shy. You’re like your dad – it’s amazing really. You’re like him. I’m the gobble-chops.
I looked in the mirror today, mum tells me, and it was just like looking at a jigsaw puzzle.
A difficult one, I say.
Helen was mad about the Baden-Powell statue thing, mum says. He did a lot of good, I told her, mum says, but, if you look at the history, he was racist.
A fan of Hitler wasn’t he, I say.
Oh yes, he did a lot of good, mum says.
There’s a new series starting tonight, mum tells me, that looks good. I’m not sure what it’s called, she says, I can’t pronounce it. She hands me TV Choice. Ah, The Luminaries, I say. Looks good. Have you seen that there’s a new series of Talking Heads, I say, you know, Alan Bennett. Your dad liked that kind of thing, she says, he liked those funny programmes, that you like … what were they called … I can’t think. Funny programmes. He had a sense of humour, mum says. He liked those stand-up things. I don’t like them, she says, they don’t appeal to me – they seem … they just seem … put on: it all seems false – that it’s really planned. I can’t stand that Michael Mcintyre.
I never really knew your dad, she says. You never really knew him, I say – how do you mean? I never really knew him, she says, it was … he had … all those operations he had, you know, the hernias, the aneurysm, and having that muscle taken from his leg and put into his stomach when he was a baby … the doctor used to say he was a miracle … it was a miracle he was as healthy as he was … that he lasted as long as he did.
He used to say to me you’ve already told me that – don’t tell me again. That was if I repeated something. You’re like him, mum says, you keep things inside – I let it out. I don’t know which is best. Sometimes I’d say things I’d regret … I’d worry about it: he said forget it, you’ve said it, the damage is done, no point worrying about it. I got the impression that he worried about things, I say. He worried? she says. Yes, I say, but he didn’t say. He kept it inside, she says. I thought he worried about work, I say. Work? she says – he never brought it home: well, once, but I don’t know what that was about
… there’s these bits all over the place, mum says, I keep finding them, and I don’t know where they come from. Yes they’ve got the little girl. Four. Curly blonde hair. Her name is like that on the side of buses – Alvi … Elv … I can’t remember. Pretty name. I said to Irene tell Debbie how proud I am of her. She’s already got trouble though, with Jess being jealous, if mum gives the little girl some attention – and who goes first into the car.
And how is Irene, I ask mum.
She can only walk because she’s on steroids, mum tells me. She’s made an appointment at the hairdressers – having her nails done. She spends money on herself. Always has done. She’s getting a bit depressed being stuck with Barry – they’ve never spent any time together before. He’s so depressing. Well, I imagine she spends all her time in the conservatory, while he’s in the front room. She probably has the telly on in the kitchen all day. Likes to read. She’s ordered those tablets from America.
What tablets, I ask.
She can’t get them here any more, mum says. I can’t remember what they’re called. What are they called? They make your skin look good. And your breasts stick up more. Stop them sagging. When you get older they tend to sag. When I take my bra off, mum tells me, mine sag down to my belly. I’ve always had big breasts. Unfortunately. Never liked them. Wish I could have done something about them. But you can’t really, can you. They’re what you inherit. Not unless you’ve got a lot of money. Dolly Parton had hers done 60 times. Breast reduction. They were too big – you’ve seen her. They hurt her back, so she had to have them done. And Dorothy down in Essex – you know, Jane’s friend. Jane was completely flat-chested. Dorothy had hers done. She hadn’t got much money – she had to go in front of the Board. This was about twenty years ago. She had them reduced. But they’ve grown back again. Grown back. You wouldn’t have thought that was possible would you.
Oh yes, HRT, that’s what they’re called.
Jane had a good education, mum tells me. Helen is quite educated. Is Helen educated, I say. Well, not educated – a good brain, mum says, quite good – better than mine – I’m a bit … a bit … below average.
A lot of my friends are like that, she says. I’ve been lucky with my friends. Irene is like me – she has a sense of humour. Helen used to come over every Wednesday afternoon – we used to have a laugh – good friends for fifty years. She was never a people person though, mum says, didn’t really like people – a bit like you.
… the roots go down to here – a long way. Very difficult. She’s going to get a bridge. I’ve seen them do that, mum says. They drill holes in the healthy teeth, then they fit a piece of wire between. A marvellous procedure. Expensive. Irene had a bridge – she got some money from the council though, when she had it done: Carrie says she won’t be able to. Expensive – over £2000, mum says. That sounds like a bridge too far, I say. Irene spent a lot on her teeth though, mum says. She’s always spent a lot on herself. It must be difficult for her – from going out every day to being stuck in with Barry for months: depressing.
I don’t think Irene has told Jackie about the adoption, mum tells me – she didn’t say anything about it anyway. I suppose she’s not seen Irene for months – they used to meet regularly, the girls, the five of them. They haven’t met since this all started. Andrea will be … 90 now, must be 90. Somehow I think this will be the end of all that – the meeting. Jackie’s got asthma.
Helen was saying that Derek had been mad with her for having the hairdresser over – for three hours. A perm. She said the neighbours – you know, the Chapmans – she was a hairdresser: she said you wouldn’t recognise them, it’s awful. Her teeth are falling out, and she can’t eat. His legs swelled up. Two nights in hospital. He’s not eating. Or speaking. Never says anything. I think he’s just given up. They’re only in their 70s. He had a heart attack a while ago. And I had a phone call from Sandra – you know, on the corner, Sandra and Mark. She’s got asthma, and they’ve been self-isolating – but she said he was losing it: she says things to him, and you can see he doesn’t get it – of course he hasn’t been out for ages.
How old is he, I ask.
Must be … 82, she says, a bit younger than me.
You’ve done well, haven’t you, I say.
Its the beginning of the end for all of us, she says.
They pulled a long string – mum holds her hands up, measuring the distance – a long string of blood out of me nose. I don’t know what they did up there. It feels packed with snot. But I daren’t blow it because I’m afraid it might bleed. That’s what I’m afraid of. I haven’t been the same since that blood. It’s stupid really. I can’t help it though. When I go to bed I have a towel by the bed just in case.
I didn’t feel too good yesterday, she says. Why, I ask. Oh, I don’t know, she says – no particular thing. When you’re sitting alone … you know … and you feel old … you know. And there’s me nose. Doctor James said I should have had counselling. For what, I ask, your nose? I was having the fits wasn’t I, she says. And there’s my fear of being trapped – in an enclosed space. He said it was my mother – all of her fears – she must have been out of her mind with fear – they were all passed on to me.
Why enclosed spaces, I ask, why that particular fear – do you know what started it? We were in Portugal, she says, the four of us. I went to the toilet. There was nobody there. And they had these big doors. And I just couldn’t open it. Eventually Jane came in to see what had happened to me. Your dad didn’t come in. Well, Jane’s no good in situations like that. I managed to get the door open in the end. Since then. I can’t go to the toilet with the door closed. And there was being with my grandma when she was dying – I was afraid they might bury her alive … being buried alive … I’m ashamed about it. It’s stupid. I’m lucky. I’ve been lucky. Very very very very lucky.
Are you scared of anything – like that, mum asks me. Spiders, I say. Spiders and flying, I say. A spider on a plane would be awful, I say. Your hair is looking good, she says – the best I’ve ever seen it on top. Ah, thanks, I say – I’ve missed my vocation haven’t I – I should have been a hairdresser. Or an art teacher, she says. Well, I say, we musn’t dwell on the past – as you say – no point regretting things. No, she says, it’s a shame you ever went into teaching – but we can’t do anything about it now.
My hands are old, mum says, very wrinkly. You can see the veins. I can understand, she says, why film stars wear gloves when they get older, and cover their faces – the sun makes you wrinkled. But I’ve not done too bad – I’m very lucky. Things could be worse. Helen rang, mum says, and told me that Mr Chapman – you know, next door – has died. In the bathroom. Just collapsed. There’ll have to be a post-mortem won’t there, if the death’s unexplained. And he’d just been in for tests – had these tests – MRC – and they found nothing wrong. That’s not very reassuring is it, I say. I don’t know what they were testing for, mum says. He probably had a heart attack, she says, he wasn’t eating – he’d just given up I think: is there a test for that, there must be?
He was a bit younger than you wasn’t he, I say. Oh no, she says, same age. I remember him at dad’s wake, I say, he shook my hand and complimented me on my speech. It was a nice speech, mum says – I haven’t been to many wakes where there’s a speech, she says. I suppose it’s because they normally happen at the funeral, she says – we didn’t really have a funeral, which was what dad wanted – he didn’t see the point. I don’t see the point either, she says, I don’t want one for myself. You can’t not have a funeral can you, I say. Irene says she’s not going to have one, mum says – what’s the point. She’ll just have Debbie – and Barry if he’s still alive. I don’t know what Barry wants. She was going to leave her body to medical science: you just leave your body to them and they let you know when they do what they do. Perhaps she ought to have a line-dancing funeral, I say – she could have the line-dancers carry the coffin, two steps forward, one step back, then dosey doe. She’s just going to go to the crem and that’ll be it, mum says. It’s not like it used to be in the old days – they used to draw the curtains, and the women wore black for ages: now it’s just five minutes at the crem and its over, unless there’s a wake – and that’s drinking and chatting, having a good time – there’s no … things have changed. We watched a programme, mum says, me and dad – about cremation: showed you what happens.
No, I don’t want any fuss, she says. Surely, I say, ideally, you want a few distraught loved ones throwing themselves onto the coffin. In the ground, she says, oh no, I could never go in the ground – could you? – I don’t know … the animals and things … and the body: you saw your dad – his face had shrunk … and his skin was smooth. No, she says, I couldn’t be buried – and there’s being buried alive: I’ve been thinking about what you told me, about Victorian times, when they had a bell by the grave, just in case – I’ve been thinking about that. Of course I spoke to Sarah – used to work at an undertakers – and she said that when you’re in the mortuary they have a doctor come to make sure you’re definitely dead. Does he whack you on the head with a hammer to finish you off if you’re not quite dead, I say. They check, mum says, that’s what Sarah said – don’t worry about it, she said, you’re definitely dead. Well that’s a load off your mind then, I say. Sarah believes, mum says, that you go to heaven after – I don’t believe that, do you? No, I say. And Andrea believes, mum says, that you come back three times – first as animal. Then vegetable and then mineral, I say. Do religious people really believe in heaven, mum asks me. Well, I would have thought, I say, that most of them do – if they’re religious. I think I’m an atheist, mum says, though I don’t like to say it. Sarah said that there was this man called Wesley – she knew him – and he could prove there was no heaven. Oh yeah, I say, and how could he do that? He’d read a lot about it, mum says.
… I think you’re born with it, mum says, I think that’s why it develops. I’d never heard of it – sexuality – not till about 20 years ago. I think it’s something you inherit – it’s passed on – whether you like boys or girls. There was this couple that came into the dentist, and I knew then – one of them cried and wet himself after the treatment. They were very loving to each other. When I saw them in town they always came to speak to me – you see, it doesn’t bother me: I just don’t like seeing them kiss, with the tongues – that upsets me.
I don’t know, she says, I wonder how you know … who you’re interested in … how you find out … that you’re that way … how can they tell … I wouldn’t know would I. They can get married these days. Have babies.
It’s good that we can talk about these things – your dad didn’t like talking about it … he was a bit reserved in that way. But we can talk about it … I think we’re more open in that way than other mothers and daughters … I imagine we are.