In her talk the artist began by saying she hadn’t been interested in art until she married an artist. She realized then that art was a lot of fun. He was making money, and that helped when she decided to study art. She was grateful to him, she said.
The artist said that she didn’t know what would have happened with her work if it hadn’t been picked up on so soon after she’d left college – the Royal College, she said. Fortunately she knew David – he’d been at the college – and she bumped into him shortly after she’d left, and he said he happened to be opening a gallery – Gallery 17 – and he invited her to exhibit there. She’s been with that gallery since. Though she does do things for other galleries – which sometimes annoys David.
The audience – mainly young women – asked a few questions. One asked the artist whether she felt she’d been discriminated against because she was a woman. The artist thought not – though she was aware of sexism: she felt there were more obstacles for her arising from her age – she didn’t start studying art, or being involved in art, till she was in her 30s. She was 40, she said, when she was at the Royal College. She said she’d observed a lot of opportunities going the way of young artists with pep – she couldn’t be young, attractive, and have pep, not at her age. You’re invisible when you’re over 45, she said.
Mum tells me the latest about Jane and Helen (people are ill and dying – the road’s gone to pot since you left, Helen said). After talking about what Jane said on the phone mum says to me, would I be right in thinking that other people bore you? I don’t think you would be right, I say, I think I’m interested in other people. Sometimes, she says, I wonder if I bore you – me going on, she says. No, I say, that’s not true. You’re not a loner are you, she asks. I don’t know, I say, it depends what you mean by loner. You like your own company don’t you, she says, you’ve always been able to amuse yourself, she says – that’s good that is. A loner, she continues, is someone who finds it hard to mix with people, hard to start up a conversation. I think back to the artist’s talk the other evening – saying hello to the person behind the reception at the gallery, then not a word to anyone else. I don’t know – I think I can talk to people, though I’m not brilliant at it, I say. Your dad was like that, mum says: I don’t think you’re like how you used to be, she says, you’ve changed a lot, she says. You know, she says, sometimes I think there’s another person inside you, wanting to get out. Oh yes, I say, and what is that person like, I say. I don’t know, she says, what we could have done to bring that person out. A different school probably, she says.
I suggest to mum that we should go down to visit Jane – Jane isn’t well, or at least her hip is bad – two bones are rubbing against each other apparently. What was Jane like when you rang her, mum asks. Same as usual, I say, puts on a brave face – says it doesn’t hurt when she lies down, so she can sleep ok. She can sleep ok, mum says, it doesn’t hurt when she lies down – she’s always been a good sleeper Jane has, mum says (another way in which they are very different). She seemed keen, I say, that we go down. I was thinking soon after the new year, I say. Mum looks off to one side. She’s not keen I can tell. They say the weather’s going to be bad in January, she says, and February. Jane said, I say, that she’s only got the one spare bedroom now, so I can go on the settee. Oh, mum says, I didn’t realize you were thinking of staying. It’s a three to four hour drive, I say. I couldn’t sleep in that room, mum says, that’s where me and dad used to sleep – I’ll go on the settee, she says.
When I arrived at the gallery only Rebecca and the writer were there. The writer, who would be leading the session, introduced herself – have you come far, she said, on this cold day? Only from Selly Park, I said, 15 minutes in the car. And you? Barcelona, she said, via London.
Other people arrived and we sat around the table, introduced ourselves properly – name, favoured personal pronoun, a description of our writing training and of the last thing we’d written. The writer said she had – herself – tried to escape her own academic training: she didn’t want to be confined by it in her writing. She wanted to allow for ways of giving her body a voice, and for non-rational, non-sensical modes of writing: she thought that writing could be over-edited – she preferred to find something through the writing that may be, initially, beyond what she knows. She said we would do some exercises – writing and physical – to wind us up, whip us up, she said, to a point where we might be able to write ourselves out of whatever training we’d had, to write outside of that.
First we were to choose from a number of sheets of paper that she’d brought along – some having short texts on, some images, some a combination of the two. I chose one that had a text in which a ‘we’ addressed the reader (‘you’) with an apparent concern that the reader may not understand the text – they may get something – it may resonate, or it may not. However the reader would find – in the appendix that they’d supplied, it said – explanations of some of the possible textual obscurities: not simple, not complex, not faceless – labyrinths, portals. Having read this I was to write a response – of any kind – whatever sprang to mind. I found myself reacting to the combination of the engagement with the reader, the desire to be helpful – the appendix – and the authoritarian tone and presumptions – ‘you will’ think/do such and such – and the rather grandiose, quasi-mystical vocabulary, like ‘portal’. We read our texts, and the written responses. The writer smiled and was interested in what we said. My text, she explained, was from a manifesto – an artistic one.
Now for the physical. We moved into the gallery space and stood in a ring. The writer had brought along two texts, Tender Buttons by Gertrude Stein and something by Etel Adnan – each had short passages having tangential relations to headings. The writer talked about how Stein had used language to describe objects, but those descriptions seemed to be obscurely related to the object named in the headings. The writer said she’d been in Barcelona recently interviewing Etel Adnan, which was a very intense experience, especially when Adnan (in her 90s) had read some work that dealt with her own death. We passed the books around the circle and read marked sections aloud. Now we were instructed to walk round the gallery in any direction – then we were told to change direction, then again, then speed up, then slow down: while walking we were to make eye-contact with whoever we passed, then to avoid eye-contact. We walked while thinking about our stomachs. We stopped walking. In whatever place we found ourselves we now wrote for ten minutes. Then we supplied individual words that the writer listed.
We moved back to the table. The listed words were now to be used as headings, each on a separate piece of paper – we wrote short responses to the headings and passed them around. Eventually these, along with the earlier individual pieces of writing, were read out. The writer was pleased. They were amazing pieces.
The session was over. Rebecca had provided some food, which we were welcome to have. The writer said we could have an informal chat. She chatted with two or three of the young women – about Etel Adnan, Clarice Lispector (she blew my mind, said one of the young women, when I read her), and about the work they were doing. She asked them if they were coming this evening, to her sound piece – they said they were: she said she was particularly glad they were coming.
Mum says there is something coming from the west, and something coming from the east, and they’ll meet in the middle where we are, and so the weather will be mixed – dry and cold.
Something’s happening on the screen – the Brexit deal has been ratified. They’ve signed the Brexit withdrawal deal, I tell mum. Have we joined, she asks. No, the deal means we’re leaving – sort of. I tell her that the owner of this place – the owner of this place, Wetherspoons – he’s a supporter of Brexit. This place. Owner. Brexit. Mum looks at me blankly – she doesn’t know what to say. I ask her how Noreen is. Through a mouthful of fish she tells me that Noreen’s ok, she’s been to the hospital and they’ve adjusted her tablets, and mum can’t understand how Noreen gets to go to the day-centre for nothing – it must be that she’s on benefits: well her daughter is a social-worker. But Noreen is forgetting things more often, and do you know, mum says, when you walk behind her you can smell the urine, mum says – she has that old person’s thing, mum says, incontinence. I didn’t like to tell her, mum says. And this is the problem, mum says, that I’m seeing what I’m going to be like in a few years’ time, or sooner. You’ve just got to make the most of it, she says, and eats another chip.
On the way to town in the car mum tells me about the visit of the disability woman – mum isn’t really sure who she was/is, she was told to ring her – by Miriam, the manager of the flats – and so she did. Mum explained that all she wanted to do was to visit the day-centre that Noreen goes to a couple of days a week, but she couldn’t afford to pay to visit it. The woman went through some forms with her, mum tells me, but she isn’t that hopeful of getting any help. She asked if I considered myself disabled, mum says. She couldn’t believe how young I seemed, mum says – she said her mum, who’s 66, seemed older than me, mum says: that’s good isn’t it. I suppose it’s better, mum says, to be quite fit and healthy than to have a disability and get benefits. Mum tells me that the woman said she was lucky – mum that is – to have a son like me, one that sees her often: she said that many of the old people she visits hardly ever see family. But that’s understandable, mum says – old people are a pain aren’t they.
When we get back to the flats Jean is waiting by the lift, holding on to her zimmer. We get in the lift. I’m struck by how friendly mum is with her – we didn’t get a dressing-gown she tells Jean, we decided to get one of those gilets: seems they must have already discussed her shopping plans (and this is the Jean who mum claims to be wary of – musn’t tell her too much of your business, or everyone will know). It’s difficult buying for the children isn’t it, mum says – you never know what they want. Jean agrees – just give them money. Her son is 60 she says.
I had a text from Martha – she was sorry she hadn’t been in touch, she’d been unwell: but she’s ok now, she said, if I want to meet for coffee sometime. A few days after the text we meet. She looks ok, and says – again – that she is, in her way that suggests she doesn’t want to talk about it. So we talk about my recent exhibition in Nottingham – I tell her it went well, and she is pleased. She asks about mum. I’m seeing quite a lot of her, I say – in fact we’re going over to Derby tomorrow, I say, for the scattering of my dad’s ashes. The funeral people rang a few weeks ago – they’d been trying to ring mum on her old number, but she’s moved obviously. So eventually they got round to ringing me. Mum was upset. Thought they’d have just dealt with the ashes – it’s brought it all back again, she said. So we’re going over – apparently mum had said she wanted to be there.
In the car on the way over to Derby I tell mum about meeting Martha. She told me about some of the Catholic funerals she’s been to – her husband’s Catholic, I tell mum, Irish origins. They often are, mum says. Martha said they have several ceremonies – it’s quite an ordeal, I tell mum, including having the coffin at home. An open coffin, mum says. Not always, I say. It depends how they died, mum says. It’s amazing how quickly the body begins to deteriorate, she says – you haven’t got the refrigeration at home, she says. Not unless you’ve got one of those chest-freezers in the garage, I say. It’s a dreadful thing, the deterioration, mum says, I hadn’t realized, she says.
I’ve got a Charlie Haden cd on in the car – spirituals, hymns and folk-songs (seemed appropriate). What’s this tune, mum says, oh it’s Amazing Grace. And with that she starts to warble – I once was lost but now I’m free, di dum de de de deee, I can’t remember the words, di dee di dee di dee dee dee.
When we get to Allenton mum reminds me of our regular shopping trips – part of the ritual of my visits to the old house in the past few years. It’s a grim place isn’t it, Allenton, I say. It’s not that bad, mum says, it’s not as bad as Kings Heath, she says. I wouldn’t say that, I say. You know, she says, I don’t think you like Derby (I wouldn’t say that, I say), in fact, she says, I don’t think you’ve ever liked it. I could fall out with you, she says. We need to take a left here don’t we, I say. We go the same way as when we went to the hospital, she says, then turn right at the end – towards the crem.
We pass a park. Which park is that? Normanton Park, she says. I used to take you to the swings there, she says. It was a nice park – no water or anything but nice. Not far from Jane’s mother – when I used to visit her I used to go through the park, she says. It had a nice café. It’s all covered with graffiti now.
When we get to the crem we go to the reception. We’re a bit early, so we’ll have to wait a while. There’s a group of people already here, waiting for the scattering of someone’s ashes. Mum sits next to one of them, a woman with crutches who is sat next to a cabinet of urns, and various other commemorative containers for sale. The woman next to mum asks her about her bag – that’s a nice bag, she says, are they Dachsunds on it: have you got one, she asks. Oh no, mum says, I’ve never liked dogs – I’d never do one any harm, but no, I don’t really like them. This ends the conversation. A man arrives and the woman next to mum starts to talk to him – about Christmas trees: he sells them, he says, and this weather – it’s chucking it down – is good for them.
Soon the waiting group go off, with a thin man carrying a copper-coloured canister. I sit next to mum. That was funny, I say, when she asked about the bag. Don’t make fun of me, mum says (I wasn’t – I say), it was stupid wasn’t it. Why can’t I just keep my trap shut. She mimes zipping her lips. I should think before I say anything, she says. I can’t help it – it’s the way I am.
She has given this opinion about dogs before – usually in that same way, as a mini-unit of discourse (the not liking but not harming ideas together), as if there are these nuggets of opinion that are triggered as a chained unit, as the occasion requires, and – according to mum – without much thought. While I’m thinking this she says you’re not like that – you think before you speak, you don’t just come out with any old rubbish, not like me. You can be very cutting, she says, very hurtful. I’m not sure what to say to this, or why she’s said it now, so I laugh – you just come out with it, but I plan it, and that makes it worse eh?
The thin man is at the door, holding a canister by the handle, like a paint-tin. His hair is wet. Sorry to keep you waiting, he says, at least it’s stopped raining. We head out with him, across the main entrance area, onto some grass. Have you come far, he asks. Birmingham, I say. That’s far enough, he says, on a day like today. Have you decided where you want the ashes to be scattered, he asks. We haven’t. We stop. As you can see, there are a lot of trees here – by the road, and going up over the hill there: he indicates the horizon. I ask mum what she thinks – how about this one here, she says, that’s a nice tree, a nice shape, and it’s close: we don’t want to walk far. So we stand by this tree – just by the main entrance – and I move mum a bit so she isn’t down-wind, while the thin man stoops and moves the canister in figures of eight by the base of the tree, and a thin smear of grey ash is painted on the grass: it takes longer than I imagined. Mum holds a tissue up to her face. When he’s finished the thin man turns to us and says the ash won’t stay there, like that – it will be absorbed into the earth. He says he’ll leave us here – we can stay for as long as we like. After he’s gone, mum crouches and touches the ash, says goodbye. She doesn’t want to stay any longer. She’s disappointed that there were no words, no ceremony of any kind – she’d thought there would be a minister there, who would say something: that’s what the funeral people had told her. In the car she sobs into the tissue. I wait till she’s ready then I start the car. The sun has come out and I’m driving into the glare from the rain-soaked streets. Did you feel anything, mum asks. Yes, I say, I felt sad. Depressed really. Sad and depressed.
At the pub quiz my son asks me about the book launch. It was a non-event, I tell him. I left after half an hour. He looks sad and puts a sympathetic hand on my shoulder. Typical – in my experience – of Extra Special People things, I say. I got there at half six – it was supposed to start at six , and I thought arriving a bit late would be cool. There was no one from the writing group there – maybe they all arrived later – apart from the intern who runs the group, facilitates it. There was another event on – the gallery is more than a gallery, it’s many things, or some such shite (that last bit wasn’t part of the evening’s title). So the book – Publication Happens (like shit happens I suppose) – was presented on a table in the corner – a pile of books on a table, and then in the main gallery area there was the exhibition, the main event, and there were the usual array of young people around, most of them volunteers at the gallery I would say. And Gavin Wade – he runs the place – he was mingling with them: showed some young woman round the exhibition, like a salesman showing off the wares. Never said a word to me, no acknowledgement at all. To be fair I didn’t speak to him. No I’ve never spoken to him, or he to me. So I texted a bit – you know, leaning nonchalantly against the wall, and this fat little Somali girl comes up to me and says would you mind taking your foot off the exhibit: my foot was just about touching this puddle of plastic on the floor – well if they will put the stuff on the floor. So – as I say – I stayed for half an hour, collected my free copy of the book (free because I’m in it) and left.
I wake up from a war dream and put the radio on. A woman is speaking. She says she was adopted in 1969. She’d been born in Vietnam and given up for adoption in the UK. How this happened I don’t hear. She talks about her own child, a mixed-race child she says. She says that when she was younger she had dreams about dismembered bodies, which she thinks is because of Vietnam, though she was a baby when she left. She says she felt – despite the obvious reasons for her adoption – the adopted person’s sense of rejection: did my mother not want me? She has never been back to Vietnam, nor had any contact with her birth family – she was happy during her upbringing, and felt loved by her parents here. She says she has felt a sense of guilt regarding her adoption, without really knowing why she felt somehow guilty – but this she thinks motivated her to try hard, to want to achieve: I‘m interested in this idea – I hadn’t seen my own doing of degrees in that way, but it makes sense – that I could have been motivated in a similar way – and it provides something of a parallel between me and mum, with her need to please, always helping others in order to justify her existence (though this guilt has obviously motivated us in different ways).
Mum sits in the comfortable chair, by the window. She can’t sit for long in the other chair, she says, it’s too hard, and after a while it hurts her bum. Mum has her eyes shut while she talks – it’s almost like she’s talking in her sleep. It’s the Christmas Tea on Friday afternoon, she says. She’ll go if she’s recovered from this cold – she doesn’t want to pass it on, and she’s got to look after herself. People don’t like Muriel, who organizes the tea every Friday, because she acts like she’s the assistant manager of the place – but she only wants to help, mum thinks, and she’s been here for twenty years, so it’s her place and she would want to be involved in organizing what goes on wouldn’t she? I don’t comment, mum says, it’s best not to – it’s difficult when you’ve got a group of women, all saying things about each other.
We pay 50p a week for the tea – every Friday – mum says. That’s those of us who go. If people don’t normally go they have to pay on the day. We take turns to buy cream-cakes, mum says. It must be my turn soon, she says, because I haven’t bought them yet. There’ll be thirty people there on Friday. They come in boxes of five – so that’s six boxes, mum says, six in each. You don’t have to get them from any particular place – the Co-op, Asda, Marks and Spencers, it doesn’t matter. We had some nice tarts last week – and I said to Phyllis, where did you get these from, they’re very nice, and she said don’t tell anyone, my daughter got them from the Pound Shop.
Mum helps with the tea – carrying the cups, taking them to the women in the lounge. Because the woman who makes the tea – Kath – she’s got a problem with her eyes, something at the back of the eyes – what’s the word – so she can’t see very well. She spills the tea, and she can’t tell if the cups are dirty, mum says, so I clean them. Muriel is getting cobs – I think, mum says – for the Christmas Tea. There’ll be fifteen people there so she’ll need a few, though I don’t think I’ll have any, mum says, because it’ll spoil my tea. You don’t want food at that time. You don’t eat as much when you get to my age – when you get older: this is something you’ll find, she says to me. And what you eat changes too. Sandwiches are a problem. Because of the crusts. Dentures. I suppose that’s why Muriel is getting cobs – I think that’s what she’s getting.
No I didn’t sleep very well. I’m going through a phase, I tell mum. This time of year, she says. I was awake at two, I say, and I put the radio on – to stop myself from thinking: it doesn’t seem to work though. What are you thinking about she says. Oh just about my life, you know. So I put the radio on – and this has happened a few times this week – whenever I put it on there’s always someone talking about adoption, some story about adoption. Mum leans forward in her chair (the comfortable one). I tell her about the Vietnam woman, about the idea that you can feel guilty about being adopted without knowing why, and that this guilt can be motivating – I did four degrees after all (it occurs to me as I’m telling mum about this, a. that it’s probably a mistake, and b. that a nebulous undefined guilt could be motivating also in finding/doing more definite things to be guilty about).
After listening to me mum nods. We didn’t ask for any of this. We have our cross to bear. No one in the family ever said anything about you being adopted, she says. I didn’t want to talk about it, she says. I didn’t think it was right – what difference does it make, she says. Well, it does make a difference doesn’t it, I say. Yes, she says, it does. I’ve got Colin haven’t I, she says, (her half-brother), and that’s like a joke – he upsets me. By which, I think, she means his existence, that hasn’t led to a connection with her birth-family. And last night, I say, going back to the radio, there was something about this company in America that does DNA testing – this bloke was talking about his daughter wanting to have one, and this leading to his wife confessing that the daughter wasn’t his, and this then leading to divorce. And there was this group of women – only women it seemed – all of whom were in the same position as the daughter, having found out about but not having known their birth-father – and they met regularly, finding some consolation in meeting and talking about it. Not adoption as such – but similar. Mum nods. Jane used to use the word, and that used to upset me. Adopted. She had a friend down there who was adopted, and she would always bring her up. That used to upset me. Dad was never bothered about it. But I’m sensitive, mum says. I don’t think I’ve ever told you this she says. I think I know what she’s going to say. I think you have I say. I don’t think I’ve ever told you, she says, about when you went to Ireland. No you have, I say. And dad said that you were going to find out about your birth-parents – he’s going to find out about his birth-parents he said. She leans further forward. But you’re not Irish are you? I shrug. That’s not what you were doing was it? Oh no, I say. She stands up and steps over to me, puts her arm around my shoulders (I’m sitting on the settee): as far as I’m concerned, she says, you’re mine – I never think I didn’t have you. I stand up to go. I can’t watch those midwife programmes, she says. Everyone says they’re good – but it would upset me.
I’m supposed to go to college. I think I am – I’m not really sure. I leave home, but on the way I decide to call in on Mark E Smith. He invites me in and we go into his front room, which is dark because the curtains are closed. There are a couple of other people there (I don’t know them), looking at records and cds – no-one asks Mark to put the light on or open the curtains. Mark recommends a few cds, then plays us something he’d been working on, a piano piece. I tell him I like it: it’s a descending minor scale, reaching a major chord at the bottom, and then going back up again. I ask how he played the scale and accompanying arpeggios together on the right hand – he doesn’t explain. Then the phone rings, and Mark answers it – before he does I know it’s the college, ringing to find out why I’m not there. As he mumbles into the phone I can see that Mark’s mouth is becoming flooded with saliva (starting to drool out over his bottom lip): it’s hard to make out what he’s saying – it seems he keeps repeating something, something like he’s taken over this bad dreamer.
Mum sits in the armchair and, eyes closed, tells me about Noreen. Yes she’s a lot better. She’s a tough one. Mum had been with her to the wulfrin clinic. She’d probably been taking too many tablets, and that’s why she was bad – her ankles were swelling – they’ve gone down now. She has the carers coming in every day – so they should have known. At the clinic they brought up her incontinence, mum says – it was probably her womb, they said, having had four children. Mum pulls a face to indicate that the womb wasn’t right after that, pressing down. You can smell the urine, mum says. They tried to give her some pants, but she didn’t want them. When you’re in her flat, and she gets up from the armchair, you can sometimes see a dark patch where she’s been sitting. She goes to bed at night, then finds she wants to get up and go – but often she doesn’t make it in time. One of her sons has replaced the carpet in the bathroom with lino – easier to clean. Her daughter is a social worker, mum reminds me, and Noreen doesn’t get any benefits – that’s what she says – so she doesn’t know, mum says, why she can go to the day-centre and I can’t. But she must get benefits. Her daughter is a social worker. The worst thing – about Noreen, mum says – is that she doesn’t wash her hands – after she’s been to the toilet. I can’t stand that, mum says – even if you don’t go you should wash your hands.
Muriel is wanting mum to take over organizing the Friday afternoon tea and cakes, mum tells me. Mum thinks there’s too much involved though – she doesn’t want to be a trudge, she says. I’ll take the teas round, and clean the cups – I’ll be a dogsbody, but organizing and keeping track of the money is too much.
Phyllis used to be a teacher – she probably has the organizational skills required. You don’t regret it do you, mum asks. Regret what? Going into teaching. The problem is, mum says, that you have to do something to know you shouldn’t have done it. If you’d known you never would have gone into it – not at that place (the college) anyway, that place wasn’t right for you. But you enjoyed some of the teaching – didn’t you?
We can’t do anything about it now, she says, there’s no point regretting things. It’s in the past. It’s done now.
While me and Stephen are putting the exhibition up a man and a child come into the arts centre. The man talks with Nick – who runs the centre – and then comes over to have a look at what we’ve put up so far. He looks at a few of my colouring-in pieces. They’re dogs, he says to the child – I think he’s a boy, probably five or six. And there’s a dog in this one too. He looks over at us – were these done by the kids at the school. I suppose I should admit to them. No, they’re mine, I say. Stephen smiles. Have I said the wrong thing, says the man. No, I say, it’s a valuable bit of feedback, thanks: I must be channelling my inner child. They – man and boy – leave. Looks like I’m operating at GCSE level, I say to Stephen. The arts centre is attached to the school, he says, so that’s why he thought that. We fix the cardboard boxes with the shredded junk mail and the shredded Frieze magazine on them to the wall – they look surprisingly good. Am I too flippant, I say to Stephen – I say things and people don’t know how to react: either they get it and it’s too flippant, or they don’t get it and don’t understand. I have a similar problem, Stephen says. I just wonder if I’m always saying the wrong thing – that I never say what you’re supposed to say – you know, getting the tone wrong, not playing the game: like at work – when I was there – I just couldn’t say or do what I was supposed to. Do you think I take things too personally? Yes, he says, I think you do – I do too, he says.
Mum doesn’t like the chair from Dunelm that we ordered on-line. It was delivered at 9, she tells me. I was in my dressing gown, she says. It was just a little man, on his own, carrying this big box. He didn’t open it – I had to do it myself. And when I got it out of the box I was bitterly disappointed – bitterly disappointed, she says. It’s too – it’s too – white, she says, too bright. Too gaudy. It doesn’t go with the room at all. And it’s not very well made – just feel this cushion, there’s not enough support there. I don’t want it in my room – it’s alright for a conservatory, or a nursery, but not for here. What do you think about it, she asks. I like it, I say. She sits in the comfortable chair. Well you’re modern, she says – it’s not my kind of thing at all, she says. No problem, I say, send it back. Do you think I’m silly wanting to get another chair – I’ve tried this one over there and the settee under the window, I tried that yesterday, she says. Do you think it’s wrong of me to want another chair? Not at all, I say, if you want one we’ll get another – it’s probably best to go to the shop rather than order on-line, so you can see it properly, I tell her. Yes, she says, then asks again whether she’s silly to want another chair. She had some tears yesterday, after it arrived. She was very disappointed. And the funeral was a year ago yesterday. She was thinking about that morning – me and the family stuck on the motorway because there’d been a crash, and her thinking that we wouldn’t arrive in time, and the ushers – or whatever they’re called – standing outside by the hearse, in the cold. They were good, I say, and we were only a few minutes late. It could have been worse. At least you didn’t have a crash, she says. It’s just me, she says. I wish I wasn’t so. It’s in the past – you’ve got to think of the future, she says. You’ve just got to get on with things – not upset others by showing how you feel. I wish I wasn’t so sentimental, she says, more like you. You’re bound to feel this way, I tell her – you shouldn’t forget and you should show how you feel. Yes, she says, it’s right to remember – it shows you care.
So were you happy with the exhibition, mum says (it was yesterday, while she was unboxing the chair, and thinking about the funeral, that we – Stephen and I – had driven over to Evesham, centre of the art world, to put it up). Yes, I thought it looked good, I say, and Stephen said he thought it was good too. It’s not like the MAC, I tell her, it’s a small place – the middle of nowhere really. Mum is pleased I’m happy about it. She tells me about Miriam’s nephew – he’s doing Illustration at Bristol. Miriam showed mum one of his drawings yesterday, and you should have seen it, I wouldn’t have believed, she says, that it was a drawing, it was so life-like. Amazing. He doesn’t do it from life, he copies photos (a lot of people do, I say) – you should have seen it: absolutely unbelievable, what it was like. Miriam said that he’d sold one of his drawings for £1000. He’s only 18. She wants him to do one of her. Doesn’t copy things. Amazing.
Have I seen any of the Richard Billingham photos of the Black Country, Stephen is asking me, the landscapes. He tells me he likes them, because of the unconventional composition – the sense of non-composition in fact, with odd cropping, the sense that the camera has been pointed at nothing in particular, no defined focal point. I do remember seeing some of these, some time ago, and liking that seeming attempt to capture the peripheral, an everyday-ness – something that’s there but doesn’t matter, at least not in terms of conventional or dominant accounts of what is significant. Something to do with the elusiveness of photography as well, I say to Stephen, its unmoored quality – something is pointed at, but the meaning of it isn’t fixed. Stephen remembers seeing the photos from the Ray’s A Laugh series – before Billingham was famous: they were at Sunderland at the same time, Billingham in the year after him (they spoke once but nothing important). We’ve talked about these photos before, and now, as before, we disagree about them. I saw them at the Ikon Gallery, and then I had the feeling – which was also articulated by Stewart Home in his Art Monthly review of the exhibition – that they were intrusive and exploitative. Stephen won’t have this – as far as he is concerned they are personal pieces, family photographs, with the feelings and authenticity that derive from that context: they are rooted in the relationships that the photos come out of. They are also good photos aesthetically. I don’t disagree with these views. The photos could be seen, sympathetically, as a presentation of a disorderly domestic interior – one disordered by alcoholism – an account of living conditions – this family, or this type of family, in this place, or this kind of place. And it’s the ease with which – once the photos are presented in a public context, and perhaps particularly in the context of an art gallery – they become examples, documents of types, that makes me feel (made me feel) uneasy about them. Perhaps it is the gallery context, and a feeling that Ray is falling about or throwing the cat for the entertainment of a middle-class audience, confirming the otherness of shambolic under-class lives, self-inflicted poverty. Perhaps it’s the intimacy and intrusiveness together that makes the photos troubling and affecting. I ask Stephen if he’s read the thing I’ve put on my blog – Long November. Is that the long thing – have you put that on – the one with ‘Stephen’ in it? No, I say, I haven’t put that on, but this is something that follows on from it – it’s much the same. I’d be interested what you think of it, I say – in the light of the Billingham stuff – because – having said he’s exploitative, I suppose you could say exactly the same about my piece of writing.
Mum thinks Helen will come over from Derby, but that will have to wait till the weather gets better. Perhaps in the summer. She says that Helen said she’s got used to her not being there now. You have to realise that people have their own lives to lead, so Helen may never come over. Though she wants to see where mum lives. To see the flat. Mum can’t take pictures of it on her phone.
Mum thinks she can’t go over to Derby, to see Helen and Irene, not just yet. It’s too soon. I’m vulnerable, mum says, it would be difficult to see the house. Though she sometimes looks at photos of it.
The thing that she doesn’t like about where she is now is that it’s like an old-people’s home. Too many old people. If only there were younger people here, a bit more vibrant, she says. She doesn’t want to be mixing with old people all the time: but what can she do – she is old. They say that years ago – when the place first opened – there were professional people living here: it’s changed since then. This’ll make you laugh, she says: Muriel has asked me to be on the committee. I’ve never been on a committee in my life, she says. I’m not sure what it involves – I don’t want to get too involved: I’ll be a dogsbody. Muriel says they need another person for the committee – I’m not sure what it does – and everyone said to her, why don’t you ask Barbara.
That’s good, I say, to be recognized in such a short time. I’ve only been here six months, mum says. As long as it doesn’t involve doing speeches. Muriel gets angry, mum tells me, because they’re not grateful – all these old women, and the things she does for them, but they’re never grateful. It’s always this tea’s too cold – take it back. That’s what they say. And then Muriel says I’m going to lose it – that’s what she says – I’m near the end of my tether, I can’t do this anymore. That’s why, mum says, she wants me to do it. But I don’t want to get involved. That’s what everyone says – don’t get too involved.
Driving through Moseley. The old houses look nice: Mum is surprised they haven’t got rid of the large chimneys – that’s what people do these days. Window ledges need cleaning.
Mum had a dream last night. The tablets make her sleep, and she had a dream last night, of the old house. And her mum was there. Her mum and dad were there. And, no, this wasn’t a nice dream, because she wondered if they were calling her. No they didn’t say anything, they were just there. Her mum looked like she did when she was young. And she was wearing an apron.
Mum tells me she had a phone call from Frances – she knew it was mum’s birthday coming up. Frances said that Eric was giving up work – this week: he’s 93 you know. Still drives. She’s not looking forward to having him around all day. He gets at her more these days – still expects his dinner on the table. He says to Frances – I don’t know what’s come over you, you’re not the same as you were. Well, she’s not the same – she’s older. They’ll be with each other all the time. She’s not looking forward to it – she’ll be ringing more – I don’t want to go down that route, mum says.
I don’t know what one of them will do when the other one goes, mum says. They’ve moved to this new complex, you know, near Aston. I know, I say. They’ll be a bit cut off when he stops driving. They’ve got no need to worry about money though – they must be rolling in it: the boys are still carrying on with the accountancy business, though Michael has retired, and Simon won’t carry on, not now his dad’s giving up. Simon is 62. I said to Frances, mum says, you’ve got no money worries have you – the boys are well-off. She asked about you – is he still working she said. I told her, mum says, that you’re doing supply teaching (which I’m not), though the government makes it difficult for you: which she wouldn’t want to hear – they’re true blues.
When we get back to the flats mum asks me if I can hear the dog barking. I can. What kind of dog is it, I ask. Mum doesn’t know – a little one, are they called Scotties – I’ve never really known much about dogs. It has these nice little eyes, that look at you. Jean told me, mum says, that it’s been in the lounge. I don’t think that’s right – dog’s aren’t really allowed in the building anyway – and what if it does a whoopsie there? I wouldn’t harm one, mum says, but I don’t like them – really, mum says, I’m afraid of them. And I don’t like all the licking.
We had to go back into the house, but I didn’t want to – I was scared. I looked up and saw that the top floor windows had all been sprayed with paint, from the inside. The woman with the children started up the steps to the passageway that went by the side of the house: as she climbed the steps she lifted her dress up – she wasn’t wearing any underwear.
As I was looking at her arse ascending, a car zoomed past me and onto the front lawn, going right over the large black dog that had also been looking up at the house. The car carried on past the side of the house, out of sight – I could hear the young men in it laughing. I turned to you and said, the bastards, they’ve killed the dog. But when I looked back I saw the dog was where it had been, exactly the same – just standing there, looking up at the house. You explained to me that it was ok, the dog doesn’t have a back-bone – it had folded down, and after the car had passed over it snapped back up again, snapped back into place.
Down in Linda’s flat on the first floor. She has a door out onto the grass. This is the kind of thing that mum would have wanted – the only problem with where she is, she can’t just open the door and walk out on the grass. Or sit there and have a cup of tea – that’s what Linda does. Mum is sitting across from Linda, leaning forward, listening to what Linda has got to say. There is a zimmer frame by Linda’s armchair – on top of it a box with various medicines in it. Linda asks me to put the light on. Her white hair is quite thin. She has red patches on the skin beneath her eyes. I’ve never seen her before.
I never wanted to come here, Linda says. I had to come after the hospital. They said to my son that I couldn’t go home – because of the stairs. He’s like you, she says to me, the only one – he looks after me. Just like you look after me, mum says. I was very angry, Linda says. I wanted to go home. I didn’t want to come here. But I’ve got used to it now. You get used to it don’t you, mum says. It’s hard to explain though isn’t it, she continues, it’s hard to put it into words – what it’s like to come here, how you feel. I just wanted to shut the door, Linda says – you know what it’s like out there – she nods her head in the direction of the corridor, then raises her hand to imitate jabbering mouths. I didn’t want to come here – but I’m used to it now. You’ve got to make the best of it haven’t you, mum says – that’s all we can do: make the best of it. Linda agrees. Well thanks for bringing the chair down, she says (that’s why we’re here – mum has given Linda an old chair): enjoy your lunch, she says.
There was a Tory minister on the Andrew Marr show, I tell mum – talking about Brexit. He said he couldn’t rule out martial law if it’s no-deal. Martial law – you know – the army on the streets to keep public order. Mum makes a face. I’m just going to have another potato, she says – I’ve enjoyed it.
Back at mum’s flat. Coffee. With a bit of brandy in. She’s cleaned the carpet she tells me. It looks alright, I say. There are just a few bits, she says – some paint near the door, and behind where I’m sitting, she says. I can’t see anything. No-one would notice, mum says, probably – but I do, because I’m looking at it all day.
The man in the chair was having his beard trimmed, but that didn’t stop him from talking. He had done a degree in acting he said. He loved acting, but he hadn’t been able to make a living out of it. He had been with an agency for four years, but it got to the point where he was getting no work – so what was the point. The barber said that there were many creative people in Moseley, but hardly any of them made a living out of it – they all needed a day-job: musicians did some teaching, and there was good money in that he thought. You need to be versatile these days he said – look at Bonnie Tyler: she was a musician, now she’s on Eastenders.
The bearded man said he works at the arts centre, the MAC. He’d been there for quite a while – four years. Buildings and security. His girlfriend works there too. It’s a big building so they don’t see each other much when they’re there, and they have different shifts. She’s tired of it. She works behind the counter at the café. And the customers are – well – interesting, said the bearded man.
Mum’s eyes are closed. There is a small moustache of latte above her top lip. She has told me about Deirdre, and how her daughter sees her every day, but she – the daughter – has come to resent her brother, who rarely sees his mother, but then he lives in France, so it’s difficult. And anyway, mum told Deirdre, boys are different from girls. And Noreen’s children – there are four of them – visit her, but they never take her out, and they’ve never taken her to their houses. Noreen told mum this – never taken her to their houses, not in the ten years she’s been in the flats: and she doesn’t like it in the flats – she doesn’t want to be there, though she’s never told them that: it would upset them – they thought they were doing the right thing for her.
Now mum is telling me about being a parent. She is authoritative. When children are young you get some feedback – a lot of feedback – and love. Then when they get to nine or ten – mum pauses: her eyes open and her mouth now stretches out like an elastic band – when they get to nine or ten, that’s when they change: they become more separate, and you don’t get so much back. It’s very hurtful. You don’t realise, she says to me, what you’re parents do for you, until you’re one yourself – you must know this, she says. But it can be very hurtful, she says.
In BodyCare, Kings Heath. Do you want anything, mum asks me, have a look round. I wander off. An Asian man – bald, bearded – comes up to me: is that your mum, he says softly, and puts his hand on my arm. Yes, I say, you know what they’re like. Still holding my arm he says, you must look after her: treasure her – he gestures in mum’s direction (she’s behind a display of skin-care products) – she is your heaven, he says. I look over at the skin-care products. Sorry to be nosey, he says. He has a kindly face – sincere. They look after us don’t they, he says, mothers. We wouldn’t be here without them. And the pain. We were with them – inside them – for nine months, and then they gave birth to us. I nod. I lost my mother, he tells me, and then it was too late. The things I should have done. She was ill – she went into hospital – and then she was gone: so quickly. Then it was too late. So you must look after her. Thanks, I say to him, I will. He gives me a brotherly hug – then off he goes.
I thought it was someone you used to work with, mum says. No, I say, it was just some bloke telling me I need to look after you. Some religious thing. He was telling me that mothers are very – that you are – very important (I can’t bring myself to say heaven).
History. It’s funny we’re talking about this, mum says, because of what Kevin said to me the other day – he’s a nice man Kevin, you’d like him. I’ll tell you what he said in a bit, she says. Her fish and chips have arrived. Do you remember Swarkestone Drive, she says. Not really – I’ve got an image in my head – a council house wasn’t it, in Sinfin? No Sunnyhill, she says. I used to take you in the pram from there, every day, to my mothers. When I was looking after her. Three-quarters of an hour the walk was. Used to do the hoovering and the washing. She thought the world of you. I can see you on the settee, mum says. She had a tin of old buttons, and you used to play with them. We didn’t have much else in those days. Then she got cancer – breast cancer – I don’t know if she even knew what it was, no-one talked about cancer in those days. She went to the hospital for the treatment and they used to paint her – there wasn’t much they could do in those days. Then I used to take you to see Grandma Smith – and that was a long walk too – I was always walking in those days. And after a while you could pedal there on your bike. I was always doing things for people – looking after someone – first my mum, then Grandma Smith, then my dad, and then your dad. That’s what I was put on this earth for – that’s what they told me. But looking back – I think I could have done so much more – something different. But I wasn’t very interested in school – it wasn’t really a very good school. I talked too much. And I think about the age difference between me and your dad – 9 years. I wonder about that. I hear people complain that their husbands don’t do very much around the house – well, your dad never did anything, I had to do everything. I’m not complaining. And the last few years – our social life just ended, because he was ill – we couldn’t do anything. I wasn’t myself then – I couldn’t be myself.
And what about Kevin? Oh, Miriam was telling me, mum says, that he was talking about me – to her – the other day. And he said that he thought I’d fitted in very well. That I was a caring person – that I looked after people, which I do. He’s a very nice man, mum says, you’d like him.
Would you have done anything different, mum says. I suppose, I say, that the one thing that might have made a difference would have been to have continued on from the MPhil – you know, to make it a Phd. Then at least I would’ve been teaching in a university context. You could do that though couldn’t you, she says – you’re qualified. No, not really, I tell her – you have to do these things at a certain time in your life. As Patrick says, if you haven’t done the right things at the right time you can forget it.
Mum thinks things have gone downhill – in the country that is. She doesn’t know what or when it started – but they have: gone downhill. I can tell you when mum, I say – 1979: Thatcher – she’s what’s made the country the nasty place it is. Mum tells me that prices are going up: she’s noticed that a lot recently. She likes a tin of tomatoes occasionally, and she’s noticed that the ones at the Co-op have gone up – the small ones – from 25p to 39p, in the last week: that’s a massive rise, percentage-wise, she says.
When you look at any family, there’s always some sadness, mum tells me. But some families seem to have more than their fair share of sadness. Life is unfair. There is the example of her former neighbours – Irene and Barry: apart from their marriage, which has been troubled (her affair with the line-dancing man, now deceased), there is also their son’s combination of severe autism and brain damage such that he needs round the clock care (he is now in his 40s), and Barry blames himself for his condition, having been told by the doctor that his genes were responsible (and Barry was always a depressive – his dad committed suicide ((threw himself from a bridge onto a train track)); Barry was a hard worker, mum tells me, but kept himself to himself – never had any mates at work – just got on with the job). And now Irene has this thing – which makes her skin go tight – painful – if you look at the sides of her face, you can see the skin pulling back. The story of Irene and Barry crops up regularly in conversation – partly because mum speaks to her on the phone quite often. Likewise the story of Jane and Phillip (these aren’t real stories – or at least they aren’t told in a developed, structured fashion – or if there is a structure it is that of the recurrent talking about these people, occasions, on which, perhaps, different details may emerge, or certain details are briefly focussed on, leading to a conclusion along the lines of that’s how she (Jane, say) is – you can’t change people – it would be a boring world if we were all the same.
And what do you think about the baby, mum asks. The baby? What baby? You know, Harry and Meghan, mum says: there’s a good chance it’ll be coloured, mum says – she isn’t sure how she feels about this.
Mum has her hearing aids in. She tells me that she saw a really good film last night. Based on a true story, she says. Her eyes are closed as she tells me about it. She can’t remember the title – something like the red and the black, or the scarlet and black, she can’t remember. Gregory Peck played a Catholic priest, in Rome in 1943. He was helping prisoners of war. His name was something like monsieur flah – she can’t say it, but it was Irish. Something like monsieur flah. And the Germans were so horrible – torturing people. Christopher Plummer was in it too. Mum likes Christopher Plummer. Was Audrey Hepburn in it, I ask. They couldn’t go into the Vatican – the Germans, mum says. There was a white line on the square outside, and if you crossed that line they could shoot you, but if you didn’t they couldn’t. Some of the rooms in the Vatican were amazing. Mum can’t remember the name of the pope, or the name of the actor who played the pope – whoever he was, he was old. And she isn’t sure about what Catholics believe – why would they refuse blood transfusions, if that’s them. And Gregory Peck was helping the prisoners escape, and the Germans didn’t know it was him. It was based on a true story. Mum wishes she’d seen it from the beginning. She’d watch it again – it was that good.
Mum has been on the phone all morning she tells me. Jane rang. Nothing to say really: the weather’s bad. Sue rang. Mum tells me she didn’t have much to do with Sue, not until dad died – Sue’s husband had died before dad, and when she rings she wants to talk about it. It’s a bit morbid. She believes – Sue does – that she’ll see her husband in the after-life. Mum doesn’t believe. But she doesn’t say that to Sue, she doesn’t want to upset her. Mum can’t believe in it, she tells me. She once said that to Jane – I can’t believe they’re all waiting up there, she said. But Jane did believe (which I was slightly surprised about – doesn’t sound like Jane (I can’t imagine her wanting to see Phillip again) – though I didn’t say, because mum was in monologue mode). Dad agreed with Jane – though he, mum says, was the least religious person you could imagine. But then he always agreed with Jane – that’s why I didn’t like her, mum says. Though she’s a good person really – cold but good.
Mum had spoken to Jane on the phone on Sunday. She noticed then that Jane was slurring her words a bit, and now she understands why. Mum has had a call from one of Jane’s ex-neighbours who’s told her that Jane is in hospital – they thought it was a stroke: on Monday. This is her third, mum tells me, I must remember the other two. The woman on the phone – Valerie – had visited Jane in hospital. She said Jane was talking – so it can’t have been a really bad one – and that Jane had asked Valerie to be her next-of-kin. Well, mum thought that she was Jane’s next-of-kin, and she’s slightly put out by this, as well as being upset about Jane. Valerie asked mum about whether Jane had made any plans for the end – whether mum knew anything about that, because Valerie will have to organize things if the worst comes to the worst. Mum told Valerie that she didn’t really know anything about that – we never talked about those things, mum says, Jane didn’t like it. Valerie asked if Jane has made a will. This mum did know about – she did it some time ago, when Phillip was still capable of signing the document. Mum said she felt a bit wary about talking about it – it seemed to her that it was not Valerie’s business to know. Mum wants to help, but she’s up here. She wants to wait and see what happens over the next few days – before going down to visit. Though Valerie said that Jane had told her not to tell mum that she was in hospital. Which mum thinks is a bit funny. This has unsettled me, mum says. It makes you realize how old we are. She won’t be able to go back home – Jane won’t – mum thinks. They know she lives alone, and she won’t be able to look after herself. If only Jane had made more connections down there – if she weren’t so alone.
Mum’s eyes are closed as she tells me about the woman from Yorkshire who will visit Jane in hospital tomorrow. This woman, originally from Yorkshire, now living near Jane, phoned mum, and told her that she was going to visit Jane in hospital, and she was going to be very direct – blunt (she’s from Yorkshire) – and she was going to ask Jane what her plans are, regarding her survival and/or death. This woman, mum tells me, has seen Jane every week, once a week, for coffee, over a period of years. Jane can’t stand her daughter, who talks constantly but means well, mum says. So like the ex-neighbour she has had contact with Jane for a long time, but – she said to mum – she wouldn’t say she knows her well: she’s secretive, Jane is, did you know that, she said to mum. It seems mum did know that. I bet she tells you she’s alright, says the woman from Yorkshire – well she isn’t.
If only, mum says to me, Jane had moved back up to Derby, after Phillip had died. Then they could have met, a few times a week, taken the dog for walks. Jane has said, mum says, that she regrets not having moved back up. But it’s too late now. Mum can’t imagine how Jane will cope when – if – she comes out of hospital. She’s always prided herself on her independence – it’s always been I’m alright: mum thinks there’s something like arrogance in this – thinking she can cope alone, that she wouldn’t get old.
The woman from Yorkshire said that Jane has declined since the dog died – you can see she’s gone downhill, mum says. She seems a lot older, and she’s very thin – you wouldn’t recognize her Barbara, the woman from Yorkshire said. The woman from Yorkshire said she was going to ask about the will – is there one? Mum told her that there was – that Jane had made one some years ago. Mum isn’t sure about the interest that the woman from Yorkshire shows in Jane’s money and what will happen to it – she doesn’t want it to go to the government, she’s told mum.
Mum is upset about Jane. She thought about her first thing this morning, she tells me. She feels helpless – that these people are helping Jane, or at least visiting, but she should be doing that, and that’s what these people imply, according to mum, when they ring her. How can she do anything when she’s up here – and Jane doesn’t want her to know she’s in hospital, which mum finds hurtful. This has unsettled me, mum says, I can’t stop thinking about her, about what I should be doing – I’m very het up about it, mum says.
Helen was a bit depressed on the phone, mum tells me – you know she had those melanomas removed, she says, well she’s got to go back in, because there’s a problem with the one that was on the side of her nose – they’ll probably have to dig deeper, mum says, the latter phrase being one she’s used before when talking about Helen’s melanomas – they’ll have to dig deeper – and as before it makes me cringe. It’s a bit of a worry, mum says. She doesn’t know why Helen doesn’t go private to avoid the wait – she’s got the money.
Mum says she was doing all the washing up and taking the tea round at the Friday afternoon tea and cakes – which she doesn’t mind doing. Muriel got very angry – she’s not very well Muriel. While mum was taking cups of tea to people Noreen and Deirdre were saying things to mum like do we need to call you her ladyship, now you’re on the committee – just having a laugh, but that’s what Muriel got angry about – them saying things like that: she hasn’t really got a sense of humour, Muriel – and she’s not very well.
The beast – as they call him – is at the door, his face up to the frosted glass: he’s returned again, and the troops in the hallway all love that, because he’s on their side, and he’s an example of how it’s possible to survive against the odds, to keep on surviving and returning.
Meanwhile the tour guide – dressed in white robes – is giving a farewell speech to the group, sat now in this pub garden: he’s shown us the various landmarks, taken us to the good restaurants.
He seems to be trying something different with this speech – something poetic, perhaps avant-garde – and while he’s speaking people start to leave, walking right past him. I feel sorry for him, though I don’t see why he can’t change his mode of address, given the reaction.
No-one’s listening: defeated, he comes and sits by us. He says he feels sad that it’s ended this way, and sad because, really, the tour is a metaphor for life – you see the sights, develop relationships (or not) with your fellow tourists, and then it ends, you have to leave: and the manner of your leaving matters.
Mum is feeling guilty. She doesn’t know – if she went down to see Jane, to stay with her for a week, to look after her, as she feels she should do – whether she could stand it. She doesn’t know whether she could stand being with her for – say – a week. She feels guilty about this – troubled: she tortures herself with these feelings. It didn’t used to be like this she tells me – she and Jane used to be like sisters – Jane used to be open with her, told her everything. Now she’s cold. She keeps her thoughts to herself. What brought about this change? The death of Phillip – since then she’s been cold. She did say she felt guilty about the way she treated Phillip, especially toward the end – she couldn’t cope with his illness, his being ill: she couldn’t stand anything like that. She wouldn’t have it, mum says, that he had Parkinson’s – but I’m sure he did. He went to a day-centre – he hated that, mum says. I remember him saying, mum says – around that time – that he hated the sight of her – Jane – and she hated the sight of him. Very sad. And another thing is the dog – since the dog died she’s been in decline: that was the beginning of the end, mum says. But it’s really unsettled me, mum says, Jane – it makes you realize that you’re old. You can’t do anything about it. Jane’s ears must be burning, mum says. Next time let’s not talk about her – I’m sorry to go on about her, mum says to me, it must be boring for you.
She talks about Sharon, who lives in the flats, first floor. She’s looking after her husband – they only got married recently, since he’s been ill – and he’s got Parkinson’s. He’s ten years older than her. She’s young – in her fifties. It must be very difficult for her. You don’t know what people go through do you – you don’t know what goes on behind closed doors. She does all the looking after him herself – just like mum used to do with dad – so mum knows what she’s going through: you only know if you’ve experienced something similar. Those eight years – looking after dad – it was very difficult. But my conscience is clear, mum says. But Sharon’s husband – when they first came to the flats – this is what mum’s heard – he was a handsome man – worked for the BBC – did things with electric wires – mum doesn’t know what it was he did, she doesn’t know about those things. He was clever and handsome. Now he’s – he’s deteriorated – his hair is all – she has to shower him. He can move. But his immune system has all gone. It’s a terrible thing. You just don’t know what’s around the corner – what life will throw up at you. They got married so she would have legal rights, mum tells me.
Do you write in books, mum asks me – little books: notepads. I do, I tell her. Me shoulder’s been playing up, she says, and I needed some Ibufren – so I went into Poundland in Kings Heath, and it really is very good – I was very impressed, she says. They’ve got stacks of books, notepads – about this big (she holds her hands about six inches apart), with tear-off pages. I was thinking of getting some, she says.
Mum is sat in her chair by the window. I’m a bit put out, she says. The woman from Yorkshire (Dorothy) rang this morning – she said I hope it’s not too early: I said no – it was half-past eight, I was in bed, mum says. I was a bit put out. She told me there was a meeting – yesterday, at the hospital, before she visited Jane – and they’re saying there’s some improvement. She still can’t get to the end of a sentence, but she’s improved. So either she’s going into respite care in Clacton – or if she continues to improve they may let her go home. Well Dorothy said to her she didn’t think she would be able to cope at home – she said that to Jane. And Dorothy’s daughter, who Jane doesn’t like, has been visiting – three times a week – and she’s saying she can’t do it anymore: she can’t afford the petrol (it’s 14 miles each way), and she’s working, and she’s in the process of moving house – so it’s all too much. So Dorothy said to Jane that she thought she wouldn’t be able to cope at home. And Jane said – and this is why I’m a bit put out – Jane said, oh Barbara will come down and look after me. And Dorothy said, I’m just ringing to warn you – not to come down – don’t even come down for a few days – because you don’t know what you’re getting into. You’ll come down for a few days and you’ll end up staying and looking after her – that’s what Dorothy said. Either that – Dorothy said – or she’s just saying that to the doctors so they’ll let her go home.
She’d hate it in a home, mum says – and she’d hate people – carers coming in to look after her. She’d have to have the bed downstairs – she wouldn’t like that – there’s no way she could make it up those stairs. So I feel bad, mum says, guilty – but I can’t look after her – and Dorothy says, you’re as old as Jane – you could pass away before she does, that’s what she said. I’ve just got my life to where it’s a lot better than how it was over the past eight years – I can’t go through all that again, mum says, looking after Jane. But I feel guilty, she says – I can’t stop thinking about it.
In the car on the way to Dunelm – it doesn’t have a coffee shop, people have told her, but the one in Derby did – mum tells me about Friday, when she sat next to Deirdre, and asked her if she’d seen the photos of the wedding, Muriel’s granddaughter’s wedding, and did she (Deirdre) know that it was a gay wedding. A gay wedding, Deirdre exclaimed (though not loud enough for Muriel to hear) – you could see she was shocked. A lot of them, mum says, commented where’s the bridegroom, on seeing the photos.
It doesn’t bother me, mum says. I don’t know, she says. She says she never knew anything about it – not until after she was married. It didn’t occur to her. She remembers reading something about Noel Coward, and thinking then. And there were these two men who came to the dental practice where she was a receptionist, and one of them had to have some teeth out, and after it’d been done she went to get the other one from the waiting room, and when they were together they put their arms around each other – I don’t like to see that, mum says. It bothers me more with women, she says, in a funny way. I don’t know why. It’s just.
I had no idea about it. No one said anything nasty about the photos – they wouldn’t. They’re all old though aren’t they – and they’re not up with these things, with the culture today. It’s the way it is isn’t it.
I think you should think about how I feel, mum says to me. Should I, I say. Yes, she says.
She has a cold she tells me, and she’s feeling a bit upset. At the café she tells me that yesterday Colin (half-brother) rang while she was at the doctors with Noreen. She told him she couldn’t speak now. He said he’s sent her a bleeding Christmas card, and he hadn’t heard anything from her – she might be dead. This was rude, his way of starting the phone call. She told him to ring back later. Well, he rang this morning, mum tells me. And she told him that he must realize how difficult it’s been for her over the past year – how difficult Christmas must be, I bet you didn’t even think about that, she said to him. He admitted that he hadn’t thought about it.
But him ringing has opened up worms, mum says. It’s painful for me. It brings it all back. All the wounds are opened up. I feel like I’ve been punished twice she says. This is because she was adopted, and then Colin contacted her out of the blue – all those years ago – and then invited her and dad to the wedding, and that’s where she was snubbed – they didn’t (three sisters) want to know, mum says, it was like I was some freak. Nobody said, it must have been difficult for you Barbara, all that you’ve been through. You’d think that the sisters would know about me. And Colin never told his children about me. And then he rang up to tell me that my mother had died – I don’t know why he did that. I don’t like using that word – mother. I had the best mum and dad in the world, she says – it’s just. It’s strange. I don’t know, she says. Her face crumples and she starts to cry. No tissues. I give her my hand. It just seems that my life has been, she says, a cock-up. I think you should think about how I feel, she says to me. Should I, I say. Yes, she says.
It’s best not to know anything about it, she says, meaning her origins, in the context of no real relationship, just the occasional phone-call from Colin. I wanted to protect you from all that, she says to me. Dad never saw it as a tragedy – that we couldn’t have children. But it was all I wanted, she says. He didn’t understand my feelings, then we had you, she says, you were five weeks old – it was just like you were ours, she says, we never thought any different. I ask her what dad was like at the wedding – how he reacted to it? She can’t remember. He was different. He didn’t understand my feelings, she says. But I’m stupid, she says, I’m a bit crazy – I can’t help how I am. I’m over-sensitive, she says: dad always said, you’re too sensitive – you should realize (he said) that people are different to you, you can’t expect them to feel the same way. Nobody’s interested, she says. He was hard, she says, a bit like you, she says – didn’t show his feelings. It’s a way of coping, isn’t it, I tell her. I think back to the many scenes – at home – of her all emotional, and dad just sitting there, impassive, perhaps smiling slightly, composed and silent, waiting for it all to pass.
Mum says she’ll have the nut roast, she’s had it before and she liked it – you get a lot of vegetables. Her hearing aids are working well. Your hearing tends to get worse as you get older.
She tells me that she spoke to Jane on the phone yesterday. This was after Valerie rang. Valerie had visited the hospital, and said that Jane seemed a bit better, was out of bed, sitting in a chair – very thin though: her face was ok, but her arms were very thin. Walking with a zimmer. She ate a bit while Valerie was there – a sort of chicken pie, without the crust: she ate two-thirds of it. Valerie noticed that what Jane was given to drink was this thick liquid, and she asked the nurse why it was so thick. The nurse told her that after someone’s had a stroke the drink can go down the wrong way, and this stops that. So Jane has had a stroke – that hadn’t been confirmed. Valerie said you could see that Jane didn’t like them talking about it – the illness. Valerie said she was being quite stroppy – with her and the nurses: that’s Jane – she’s very stubborn, a difficult patient I would think, mum says. So what did she say on the phone? Oh, her voice sounded the same, mum says, just her usual self. I said we’d be down to see her when she’s improved some more. I said I wished I was her neighbour, then I could come round and look after her – she said she wished I was her neighbour too. So that’s good.
After lunch, on the way out, mum says I’ve got one question for you. Oh yes, what’s that? Are you ashamed of me, she says. I mean, do I embarrass you, she says. Of course not, I say, why would I be ashamed? Because I’m not very educated, she says, and you’re very educated, and the people you know. I talk rubbish, she says. Dad could hold his own with you. I’m not a reader, she says, we never had newspapers, at home, when I was young – I didn’t know what was going on in the world: I wasn’t brought up to know those sorts of things. In some ways it’s best not to know, I say – no, I’m not ashamed, I say, I understand.
In the van Stephen tells me about how things are going at the college. I tell him that I still dream about the place, only the dreams have altered to take into account the reality of my no longer being at the college – that is, they tend to focus on an insecurity over whether I should be at the college: in them I feel that I might be required to go in, and I attempt it, but – as is the way with dreams – I don’t get there.
The gallery is on a side-street, off a road consisting of fast food places and estate agents. It’s a small place – used to be a workshop the founder and curator (as his card says) tells us. He shows us pictures on his phone of what it used to be like – when he and his ex-partner acquired it five years ago. I notice that the nail on the little finger of his left hand has black nail polish on it. There’s a church over the road where we can go for coffee, he says, and to use the toilet, though they might try to convert us – they tried to convert him. And with that he’s off: Stephen had said that gallery volunteers would be putting his work up, but it seems like we will actually be doing it, there being no volunteers here.
There’s also no screwdrivers amongst the hanging equipment in the gallery, so we head off round the corner, and then into the city centre, looking for a DIY store. There are plenty of empty shops – and the Carillion building is to let I notice. We pass a few second-hand musical instrument shops – a legacy of the city’s illustrious musical history I suppose. There are two down-at-heel shopping centres, and in one of them we find Poundland, where they do have screwdrivers: I hear someone say that Jack was very happy, wasn’t he, with his squeaky gnome; Stephen hears you’re not having it – granddad to grandson, Stephen thought – you never fucking played with the last one.
Monday afternoons. Deirdre. Always says the same things. Deirdre and Noreen. They like to criticize Jean. And Gwen: she’s losing it. What else have they got to talk about. They don’t know what’s in the news – when you’re 89 it doesn’t go in. Mum tells me she asked Deirdre about her surname – I’d been reading that book set in Birmingham: she has the same surname as Deirdre – and I wanted to know if the names were spelt the same. She said oh no. Then it was straight onto herself – she’s got a ball of black wax in her ear.
I hate those coloured trainers, mum says, as we drive past Sainsbury’s in King’s Heath.
Jane. The house must be worth a bit. How will she be able to go back there – the stairs, her clothes are upstairs – she wouldn’t be able to cope there. She’ll be seeing a social worker soon.
I’ve never really known what she’s feeling. She keeps her feelings to herself. On the phone, mum says, I said you’ve given us some sleepless nights. She just laughed. Phillip was very sensitive. She was cruel to him. Very cruel. There was her mum’s house, which they sold – and Phillip inherited his aunt’s house – they had money. She’s well off – never wanted for anything. She doesn’t show her feelings. But she’s a good person.
What do you think of this German shampoo – have you heard of it? Ald – something, I can’t think of the name, mum says. And those sprays to colour your hair – would you use that? Maybe your hair will go completely white, she says to me, not salt and pepper. I’ve always told you to look after it – to put oil on it – the scalp. Now it’s started to go. You wouldn’t listen to me. You wouldn’t listen to your mum. People don’t.
Should I get a rectangular rug, she says. I can’t have floorboards – which I wanted. My hairdresser – she’s a large woman. Not fat – I hate it when people say that. There’s no hanging fat on her – she’s well-proportioned, you know what I mean. She said they have rugs at IKEA.
Mum tells me she’s reading the Kathleen Dayus book – the one set in Birmingham: it mentions Moseley. She worked so hard. She was such a hard worker. Enameling. Or something. I don’t really know what that is, mum says. Life was very hard – it must be around the time of my grandma. Very hard. How it was for the working class in those days. Chamber pots. At one point she sees a naked man – and she’s looking at his – his willy. And she uses this word I’ve never heard: p-h-e-r, something like that: have you heard of it?
Towards the end of the private view evening of Stephen’s exhibition the Curator and Founder of the gallery hands me the magazine that he and his fellow studio occupants have produced, Contemporary Other. I have a flick through. Nice quality paper- it’s well-produced, I say. They are against the idea of it being a coffee table item.
He has had a bit to drink – red wine. This has been a successful evening, a good turnout, he says. The work is fabulous. Black holes, he says, black holes on white walls. He likes this one – pointing to the large painting with the big yellow square – he thinks of non-places, and the one next to it, where a green wall directs us to the dark void. Like a close-up of a side of a spaceship. The yellow square though – it’s a garage door, I say – reminds of the blank stare of a Byzantine icon: it’s a transforming of the quotidian landscape into something uncanny, something that regards us – this machine-like face of the house, the living quarters, the barest template of a restricted world – yet despite its bareness, its simplicity, it remains mask-like, a mask that hints at something hidden that can never be known, because this mask is all there is. He goes off to the sink where the bottles of wine are kept – pours himself another glass. The tall man in the leather skirt goes over to him and they strike up a conversation.
Stephen is happy with the evening. He’s had some good conversations: people have responded to the paintings. His lips are purple: partly the red wine, partly the freezing gallery.
Yesterday Valerie rang to say that Jane had rung her and said can you come to collect me now from the hospital. And Valerie said are they letting you go home, and she didn’t think that was a good idea – are you sure, she said to Jane, that you’ll be able to cope at home, I don’t think you will. And so she said she wouldn’t collect her. Jane wasn’t very happy about that – she hung up.
Then Dorothy rang to say that Jane had rung her and asked her to collect her from hospital. Dorothy said that they – she and her daughter – were just about to have their evening gin and tonics, and anyway she didn’t think Jane should go home just yet – she’s been in for four weeks now. Sharp words were exchanged – you know, mum tells me, what I said about Dorothy, that she’s a bit blunt.
Well today Jane rang me, mum says – which is good, the fact that she rang me – and she said she’d been moved to a home near Walton – you know Walton-On-The-Naze – ah yes – not bad – and it’s partly a home and partly respite care, so that seems like a good thing, and she’s been in hospital for four weeks now, so they’d want her to go. Thin as a rake. I told her, mum says, that this is a good thing, that she wouldn’t be able to cope with the stairs, not in her state, but she didn’t agree – she thought she could manage the stairs.
This hot-cross bun is very big – almost a tea-cake, mum says, but not very much butter. It’s bad for you, I tell her. I’ve always had butter – used to get Country Life, but now I have the cheapest, from Aldi. I ask her about Jane. I think I told you, she says, that she rang. She’s not very happy where she is. And Valerie rang, said she’d been to see her – you can visit any time you want at this home she’s in. The food’s better. She’s not walking, just sitting. She’s dressed. Though Valerie saw her legs – one’s completely bandaged and the other one is very red: she’s still got the ulcers on them. Surely the hospital must have noticed them, I say. You’d have thought so, mum says, I asked her if she was having any treatment – she didn’t say, just said the hospital hadn’t said anything about what was wrong with her. I always thought she’d outlive me – always been very fit and healthy – apart from the last fifteen years. Walking the dog. Never had antibiotics. Not till recently. Never had a smear test. She wasn’t bothered with any of that. She doesn’t like to think about it. Never had a smear test. I didn’t ask her, mum says, whether she’d had a stroke – she doesn’t like to talk about it, she can’t handle illness. But this is something I’ve dreaded – I said so to your dad, years ago, about what would happen. It’s all in the lap of the gods isn’t it.
As is frequently the case when talking about Jane mum goes on to reflect on Phillip. Jane treated him badly. Gave him a bad press. Her mum never wanted her to marry him – but it was only later, when she got to know him, that she realized what her daughter said about him wasn’t true. I don’t know, mum says, how old she was when she died. In her sleep, peacefully. Yes, he’d been promoted – came to Derby, to the station, to manage the cellars – there’s photo of him in the car park there, next to the station. And Jane’s mum was taking in students – and that’s how they met. He liked his job. I can’t remember, mum says, why they went to Essex – must have been another promotion. He would have made a lovely dad – but it wasn’t to be – she never wanted children. That’s life isn’t it. I said to her on the phone, mum says, who’d have thought that we’d end up like this – me in a flat in Birmingham, and her down there, in that home. Yes, who’d have thought it she said. I said to her that I thought she’d declined since the dog died, mum says. She’d said that to me before. She agreed. Nothing to get up for in the morning anymore.
You know when you bent down the other day, mum says to me, and I could see the top of your head. I can’t see it normally because I’m small. Have you seen those coloured mousses, she says. I think your hairs going to go white, she says, completely white – which is very distinguished.
In the car on the way back from town mum tells me about Carrie, one of the care workers who comes in to look after some of the old ladies. Some people don’t like her, but I, mum says, take people as I find them – she’s always been friendly to me: of course when you get a lot of women in the same place they’re bound to get on each other’s nerves. She’s separated from her husband, Carrie. I don’t know, mum says, if they’re divorced or not. He’s in hospital, mum tells me, and he’s not showing any signs of improvement – so they’re going to take him to London. His head’s five times bigger than it should be. Five times bigger, I say, how can that be? It’s swollen up, mum says. I suppose it must have, I say. Carrie used to be a nurse, and she said she’s never seen anything like it. His mother fainted when she saw him. Carrie won’t let the children see him. He’d just started a new job – he was on his way back home, and he was set upon by these Asians. They kicked his head in. Asians. Kicked his head.
Do you think that when the history books are written that she’ll be seen as the worst prime minister, mum asks me. It wouldn’t surprise me. Someone said on the news that she’d been dealt a bad hand and she’s played it badly, mum says. They’re not a united party are they, she says, haven’t been from day one. We should have listened to Enoch Powell, she says, don’t you think? No, I don’t, I say. You don’t? I just think that a lot of what he said is coming true.
You’re talking more, aren’t you, mum says to me. Am I? With me, your mother – you’re talking more – I’m learning you how to talk. I talk to other people as well, I say. Not intelligent talk I mean, she says, small talk.
Look at that kid, wandering off. Is he with anybody? I point out his mother (I assume) at the table across from us. You can’t believe they’re going to get bigger can you, Mum says. She likes the photos on the wall, Handsworth 1979 the text beside them says. Look at that face – the lines – the expression, she says. That’s life that is. I tell her a bit about Handsworth (I don’t know very much). I mention reggae. You have to accept things you don’t like, she says, you can’t like everything – but you have to accept that other people like things you don’t: that’s something you have to learn.
Older people are set in their ways – set in their thoughts. It’s difficult for some of these young people today, because it’s not what you know it’s who you know. If you’d gone to a different school, mum says, if we could have afforded to send you.
David Cameron’s looking better, he’s lost a bit of weight. He was on telly last night. And his wife has done incredibly well with her fashion business. I point out that she’s even more blue-blooded than him. Harry’s changed everything, mum says, with the throne – marrying her – an ordinary person. And her father being such trouble. Well royals have caused a lot of trouble over the years haven’t they, I say. They think it’s twins, mum says – she’s looking quite bulbous. I think it’s due in April, probably around the time of your birthday, mum says.
Noreen isn’t very well, mum tells me – her leg – not the bad one, the good one has swollen up now, probably because she’s been putting pressure on it to compensate for the bad one. Her children visit but never take her out.
Dorothy rang. Jane is going home on Thursday. She can’t walk – not without a zimmer. Someone will be coming in, a carer. And physio. She should sell the house, mum says, and move to a flat – like the one Dorothy and her daughter are in, in Weeley, near Clacton. You remember Weeley, mum says to me – Philip’s mum used to live there, I took you there when you were very young, she knitted a top for you: lived in a barn – a glorified barn, in Weeley – she went blind.
Jane won’t sell the house though. Dorothy thinks I should suggest it, mum says. She’s still concerned about the will – whether Jane has made one. She’s going to ask Jane about it. She’s going to say it isn’t fair to us three – to her, me and Valerie – to not know what Jane’s plans are: but I can’t ask her about it – there are things that she doesn’t want to talk about, she’s stubborn. Dorothy says she’s going to give Jane a piece of paper and tell her to write down what she wants to do – whether someone should have power of attorney. It’s not fair to the three of us she said, not knowing. Dorothy said her daughter had given her a lecture – she said she’d said you can’t look after her – Jane that is – though she’ll expect you to, you can hardly walk yourself. Dorothy said she’d told Jane she wouldn’t be able to drive her, because of her legs – and Jane said, what not even a short distance.
There’s no way, mum says, that Jane will be able to get up those stairs – and she won’t have the bed downstairs. I think it’s bad, mum says, that the hospital have just let her go home without visiting the house and seeing if she’d be able to cope – she’d listen to them, but she doesn’t listen to us.
Mum isn’t feeling very good today, because of what they’re saying about Jane: Dorothy and her daughter. They collected her from the home, and took her home. Dorothy says she’s an ordinary person – she has no savings, not now they’re buying the bungalow (she and her daughter together – the daughter is around my age, never had a boyfriend – or girlfriend). So they took Jane home and did some washing for her – the daughter had turned some things off at the house, which Jane wasn’t very happy about. They took her to the shops. Jane said, on the phone, that it was M&S – and she’d bought them all something to eat. But it wasn’t – it was Sainsbury’s Dorothy said. And when they were there they went to get some petrol. Jane paid for it, but she said here’s £20 – that’s for all you’ve done for me. Well Dorothy and her daughter were quite put out – hurt. When they went home they worked out all they’d spent on travelling to see Jane three times a week at the hospital – and it came to more than that. They’re not made of money. The daughter said to Dorothy it’s got to stop – they’re not Jane’s servants. And they said you’d be shocked if you saw her – she must be size six now, and her legs are bandaged up – she’s a proper old lady. They don’t think she’s eating – she bought a pie to eat, but they saw it in the bin. They think she lied to get out of hospital – said there was someone to look after her. Though we don’t know for sure. I can’t go down for a while, mum says – if I saw her like that I’d have to stay.
Mum tells me she met the woman whose flat she looked at before she bought this one – the woman who wanted us to pay an extra £20,000 for all the furniture as well, and it wasn’t worth that, and you wouldn’t want her furniture anyway. She’s still there. This woman was asking about the grass at the front of the flats and who was responsible for it – was it the council? Mum told her she thought it was the council. And she said, well it’s in a terrible state. And mum said that was because the government have cut the money they give to councils. And this woman – who turns out to be horrible – wouldn’t hear of that, and said the problem was all the money we’re giving to foreigners, to people overseas, and mum said she disagreed – though I don’t really know, she says to me – she disagreed, but this woman wouldn’t listen. I’ll try to avoid her from now on, mum says.
She’s not herself today mum tells me. All the Jane stuff is getting to her. She can’t quite put it into words – I don’t know, she says. She doesn’t like people calling her friend. They’re calling her. And it makes you realize – you’re old. She knows what Jane’s like, but she doesn’t like to hear it. She thinks she tells porky pies. She’s hard – she’s always been hard. But she wouldn’t hurt anyone – only psychologically. She was never mean – but giving Dorothy £20 pounds and saying that’s for all you’ve done for me. And Dorothy’s not well off – she’s moving to that bungalow, and now she’s got nothing in the bank: that’s what she said. You know, mum says, that she – Jane – never had a bond with her mother – never any affection – I can’t understand it. She married Phillip to get at her I think, to upset her. But then when she died – Boxing Day, Jane was just taking a cup of tea into her in the morning and she found her there – when she died, she just went to pieces. Told the undertakers not to park the hearse out the front of the house – but they did, and she went to pieces. Was it that she was so upset, I ask. Oh no, mum says. The only time, mum says, I ever saw them holding hands – Jane and Phillip – was when they were walking behind her coffin at the crem.
It would make a good story, if you could read it, mum says. Jane and Phillip. Of course there was the vicar she had a crush on – I wonder if that’s it – but then she married Phillip. He was lodging with them – at her mum’s house. And he had a car. And his family had a boat on the Norfolk Broads. But she was always ashamed of him – how he looked. He wasn’t a handsome man. It might have been if – through some freak of nature – they’d had children, that she might have been different, she might have softened. She gave more affection to the dog than she did to Phillip. She couldn’t understand why I wanted children – why I wanted you. If we’d adopted a dog she would’ve understood that. But I don’t like people calling her – it’s getting to me – I shouldn’t let it, but it does. I’ve been her friend for all those years. We were inseparable. Why did they become friends, I ask. Opposites, mum says, and moves her thumb and fingers back and forth – her chattering mouth. She’s never been the same since Phillip died. And when the dog died there was nothing to live for.
Any more news, mum says, she seems to be making people angry. Brexit. They’ve been angry for a while, I say. More angry though – she seems to be making a mess of things, mum says. Not just her, I say, the whole country’s stupid. I heard Farage on the radio this morning, I say, I really can’t stand that man – such a charlatan – pretends he’s a man of the people, public school millionaire. Yes there’s something not right about him, mum says. What do you think of people with too many teeth, she says. There’s something wrong when they smile, and show their teeth. I think it’s best if you don’t show your teeth when you smile.
She tells me she accompanied Noreen to the clinic again – two hours they had to wait. This should be the last time though, the doctor thinks she’s better. Though she’s got diabetes as well. She’s changed a lot, mum says, in the nine months I’ve known her. Her face has changed. I don’t know. She’s got more Jamaican. She was a big fat mama, but now she isn’t – but her face is different. It’s the nose – it’s a bit more negro.
In the car on the way to the pub. There was something on the news, mum says, about Brexit, but I wasn’t really listening – I can’t say what it was. Something. I wish I knew more about these things. I don’t really take notice of the world – of what’s going on. I wasn’t brought up to take notice. I wish I was. It’s too late now. I know the difference between right and wrong – that was drummed into me. And I’m Labour through and through – I think if I was made to vote Conservative I just wouldn’t, I wouldn’t vote. What worries me is all the families – the families that aren’t right.
At the pub. I feel sorry for all the children, mum says, all the children in the world. She looks out of the window. They don’t have it easy – they’re up against so much. All those people who have children, and they think nothing of it – they don’t know what it’s like when you can’t. When you yearn for children.
Of course I never think I didn’t have you, she says to me. I feel so isolated, she says. You don’t mean now do you, I say. No, she says, all along – I never wanted you to feel that way. I could cry, she says, I can feel the tears welling up. The not knowing whether there’s somebody out there – that you’re connected to – being cut off from them. You’ve got Colin, I point out. I wish I’d never known about Colin – those kids that I could have been an auntie to – those two sisters, who didn’t want to know. I could never talk to your dad about it – he didn’t understand, didn’t want to know. He just said we’re happy now aren’t we.
I talk too much – and he didn’t say much: He was just like his dad – he never said two words when one would do. A nice man – that’s where your dad got his bad health from. He didn’t want to talk about it – said it once, didn’t want to say it again. He didn’t understand my worries, mum says. Your worries, I say, what were you worried about. I don’t know, she says, it’s hard to put into words. She closes her eyes. It’s – it’s the wondering – about your life – about what would have been different, how you’d have been different. I’m too sensitive, she says, you’d think I’d be harder with what I’ve been through. I’m ashamed of myself, to say these things – I’ve had a good life, she says. I wouldn’t talk about these things with anyone else – it’s just between us two.
And you’re a bit sentimental too, aren’t you, she says to me – underneath, she says, you’re softer. I just wish you hadn’t gone into teaching, she says – if we know now what we knew then. But there’s nothing you can do about it now – it’s happened hasn’t it: you can’t change the past.
Jane rang this morning, mum tells me. Said she was hoping to drive again soon. Really, I say, because she told me she didn’t think she was able to. Well she isn’t, mum says, but she wants to – she needs to, because she’s so isolated down there – her own fault. But she couldn’t get into the car. She’d need her walker to get to it. Then she’d have to put it in the car. So she wouldn’t be able to get in. And if she got in she’d need help getting out. But I can see, mum says, why she wants to drive. She can’t accept it, getting old. All the time that’s gone past: people can’t believe you’re 57, mum says to me. I was watching Britain’s Got Talent last night – there was nothing much on. I watched The Guns of Navarone before that. I don’t know whether it’s true, but it held me. A lot of people being blown up. But that Simon Cowell – you know what I think about stubble. He had – she grimaces – the most tatty jeans on, and this t-shirt, and he had stubble: he just looked scruffy, a bit of a cut. A what, I say. A bit of a cut, mum says. A cut – I’ve not heard that before, I say. Anyway, mum says, he went and sat in the audience – he couldn’t bear the act that was on, pressed his buzzer straight away. There was this couple who met at an ice-rink. He was lifting her up. Very strenuous. They were quite good. And there was this girl from Malta – wrote her own songs – and she had a wonderful voice – the way she could hit the high notes. Got a standing ovation. But that attractive one – is it Amanda Holden – she looked like she’d had a lot of work done. It must be difficult, mum says, when you’ve been attractive – glamourous – to let it go. It’s the hands though, mum says, laying her hands on the table, the hands are where you can see it – age. Mine are all right now – at the moment – but you should see them later on, at night, all the wrinkles. I look in the mirror sometimes, mum says, and I say is that really me.
Listening to Lambchop made driving around Kings Heath more dream-like – not unpleasant.
The barber says he hasn’t seen me for a while, am I ok. I tell him I am. He’s ok he says, am I? Yes, I reassure him. Sorry about the mess, I say, gesturing towards my hair as I sit in the chair. So, you’re ok, he says, I see you about, though you haven’t been here for a while. No, I say to him, I wander around. And you’re alright, he says, you’re still here. Yes, I say to him, I’m not dead. You want it tidying up, he says – these bits: he pulls at long curls. Yes, I say.
He does it all with the shaver – no scissors. He’s from Lebanon. Came here 20 years ago. Goes back from time to time. It’s not as bad as it used to be. He doesn’t (I can tell) really want to do too much talking.
I’ve never seen her cry. She haunts me. We always end up talking about Jane don’t we, mum says.
You should use some mousse, she says, on your hair – give it a bit of colour, black or brown.
When I meet with Stephen for a drink there is usually a phase of the conversation that deals with the college, where I used to work, and where he still works. Usually I ask him how things are going at work – he gives me an account and I chip in some (em)bitter(ed) comments. On this occasion he tells me that his friend – Dave – who has recently relinquished his management role, to return to main-scale teaching, in part it seems because he’d become sickened by what might be called the management culture in the place, that Dave now offers some useful insights into that culture, things we’d suspected but that were here, with Dave, from the horse’s mouth. For example, that he – Dave – had taken part in interviewing prospective teachers and he could confirm that he had been told by senior management to give the NQT the job: on the grounds that they were cheaper than the more experienced interviewees, and more malleable. For example, also, that managers – when they gather together in their management spaces – spend their time making derogatory comments about members of staff. For example, also, that the management at the college – this management – have a strong sense of themselves as a group as against the rest of the staff – a class for themselves as it were. For example, also, that procedural deviances, shall we say, go on in various forms, the particular form that Dave has experienced himself – in the sense of having been subjected to – being that of bullying, by a senior manager. Little to be done about it it seems, as yet, except keep a written record of the instances of bullying, for future use perhaps: protecting/arming oneself is a requirement of the job.
Have you had your hair cut, mum asks me. Yes, I say, I went to a different place from the usual, which isn’t open on Monday. He’s Lebanese, the bloke I went to.
He’s levelled it off nicely, mum says – you can’t see the bald spot at the back.
You know I said that Linda was in hospital, mum says, well she’s died – you remember Linda, we took a chair down to her flat. She was downstairs for the tea and cakes on Friday. It’s overshadowed the baby a bit. I said to Louise – you know Louise don’t you, the one I go to the fitness with – I said to Louise, mum says, isn’t it sad about Linda. And all she could talk about was money. She’d been to lunch – she’s with the church, she goes to church – she’d been to lunch and she said it was freezing cold at the church hall: you’d think, she said, given all the money we give them, that they could put the heating on. I asked her whether her lunch was nice, mum says – she said it was.
I’m going with Noreen to the clinic tomorrow, mum tells me. You know I met her daughter when I was walking round Moseley – and she told me that her mum was starting to show signs of dementia, and she just wanted to thank me for helping to look after her. I said that I wouldn’t know – that you can’t tell. Though that might explain what she was like at the tea and cakes on Friday. You know – I told you – I was in the kitchen at the time so I missed some of it. Gwen was sitting there – she likes to hold a cushion – and Noreen and Deirdre were talking and laughing – about the old music, you know – and Noreen laughed loudly. And Gwen doesn’t like it when Noreen laughs loudly, so she told her to shut it. Then Noreen said to her, you shut up, go away and drop dead. So Gwen went out. And Muriel went out after her and brought her back, and I sat with her for a while – come on Gwen, sit down, it’s alright. Noreen doesn’t like Gwen – I don’t know why. I don’t know.
I was in M&S, mum says, choosing something for me dinner, and I had a tap on the shoulder, and I turned round and it was Kevin. Well he’d chosen the same ready-meal as me – salmon. He said I’ll think of you tonight when I’m eating me salmon. He said he’d been in the flats since they opened – 20 years: he came with his dad. He said, do you know what Barbara, in all those 20 years, he said, I’ve never used the oven once – it’s uneconomical, he said, much cheaper to get these ready-meals. He also told me, mum says, that Gwen moved into her flat the same time he moved into his – his dad’s – and you wouldn’t believe, he said, what she was like then. How intelligent she was – she used to go to Spanish classes – I said, mum says, I’d heard she was intelligent. And she used to tell them about all the things she was doing, and having worked for the government. And she dressed so nicely, he said – she still does, I said. It’s so sad, he said, to see her now – what she’s like now, with the Alzheimer’s. It’s sad.
I’m standing on the patio. Back at the old house. I’m waiting for mumndad to get back – they’ve been on holiday.
When they arrive (I’d been worried about the plane flights, and how they’d cope on holiday, being so old) they look ok, slightly younger in fact – Dad maybe 85 ish, only stooping slightly: mum, standing a bit behind him, has a look I recognise, somewhat withheld, keeping something in. Looks like you’ve had a good time, I say. It was ok, dad says, but he wants to know how the cricket is going – Geoffrey Boycott is playing. Geoffrey Boycott, I say, is he even alive – if so he must be in his 70s. Dad fiddles with the kitchen sink – why is he so crotchety, (a word I’ve never heard him use before), he says to mum.
Noreen bought me a vase – I’m not sure what it’s made of – it doesn’t seem to be pot, so I’m not sure you can put water in it, you’ll have to have a look, mum says to me. She said, mum continues, that she gave it to me to thank me for my help – she said you can’t buy friendship. So she bought that for you, I say. Yes you can’t buy friendship, mum says, that’s true.
Oh when I was at the wulfrin clinic yesterday – Noreen had gone in to see the doctor – and there was this woman in the waiting room – you should have seen her. I’ve never seen anything like it – well, I have – but her legs – they were hanging over the boots she was wearing, they were that big. She was enormous. I’ve never seen anything like it. I felt very sad for her. She was young too. She said that they – the doctors – weren’t going to do anything for her unless she lost weight: she needed to lose five stone. But she couldn’t. She’d got four children, and she had to cook their dinners. I said you’re probably comfort-eating. She said I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. She said she couldn’t do any exercise because she was too big – moving is difficult. She said they said she was either going to have to lose weight or she’d have to live with the pain. What pain? Her knees – all the weight on her knees. She said she was going to live with the pain. Very young, only about 60 – her face looked young. I felt very sad for her.
Mum wants some new shoes she tells me. They don’t have the shoe shop she wants to go to in Birmingham though. She’s never had expensive shoes she tells me – £60. There are shoes these days that cost that much. When she was younger – she can’t think when – she had housekeeping money, and it would’ve taken a whole week’s housekeeping to buy a pair of shoes like that. Jane had nice shoes – always had nice shoes. But now she can hardly walk. Three layers of bandages on her legs. The zimmer – she can’t move without it. Wouldn’t be able to drive. And I’m not sure, mum says, that Dorothy would want to drive her anywhere – she’s a bit of a liability you see, mum says. Do you remember when she had her first stroke, mum says to me. I don’t. We were in Swadlincote, shopping, mum tells me. We were in Morrison’s. She’d gone off, and after a while someone came to me and said you’re friend isn’t very well – she collapsed – she was lying down on the floor in Morrison’s. They took her to Burton hospital. This must be about ten years ago – dad was still driving. Yes, Burton hospital. Then she stayed with us for four weeks and I looked after her – you remember. I nod. Then the second stroke – that was when we were shopping in Sainsbury’s. Really, I say, so she tends to have strokes in supermarkets. Not the last one – that was at home, mum says. That’s because she shops online now, I say. It’s a bad situation, mum says, I can’t see how it’s going to end. She just sits in the conservatory all day. Best thing she ever did, mum says, buying that conservatory.
All of her organs stopped working, there was nothing they could do. She died in her sleep, peacefully.
One thing that makes me sad, mum says, is that she died alone – with no-one she knew there. She had a good life – she did what she wanted to do. I can’t think what’s going to happen next, we’ll have to wait and see. There’s all that stuff in her house – all the lovely furniture – what are we going to do about that?
Mum doesn’t want to talk about Jane. In the car she starts to tell me about what Carrie said. She was Linda’s carer. She was in Linda’s flat with. Mum has taken to stopping talking at junctions – she doesn’t want me to be distracted. She was in Linda’s flat with her daughter – Linda’s daughter. They were clearing out some of her things I suppose, mum says. And Carrie said. Another junction. Carrie said that they were in there when there was a knock at the door. Two loud knocks. And she went to the door – and there was no-one there. Well they. They – Carrie and the daughter – were both quite disturbed. And Carrie said, it’s Linda – Linda who was knocking: she wanted to let them know that she was there. You know, mum says, there are people who say the flats are haunted. They’ve seen people in the flats. There are people in the flats, I say. No – figures – people, mum says. There are people who think that when you die your spirit leaves the body. And they’re up there looking down – looking after us, mum says. I can’t believe that, she says. It would be very crowded up there. Margaret says that when she goes to bed she can feel her husband with her, over her – he’s dead, but she can feel him with her, snuggling up. When people get older they start to believe these things, mum says.
Back at mum’s flat. Coffee. Mum’s eyes are closed as she talks. And Louise – no-one likes her. I never say anything – she comes with me to keep-fit – but no-one likes her. You know on the Friday. People have been saying that the second cup of tea is cold. That’s what they said this Friday. That’s because of Louise, mum tells me. Normally we have a cup of tea and then some cakes. Then we have another cup of tea and some cakes – that’s how Muriel arranges it. Well recently, mum says, Louise has been doing the tea. And what she’s been doing is putting more hot water in the pot for the second cup of tea. Just adding more hot water. It’s like she’s economizing on tea-bags – using the same ones again. But it doesn’t matter about economizing on tea bags, mum says, because we all pay for them, so we don’t need to economize. I don’t know if Muriel had a word with her. But people were saying the second cup of tea wasn’t very nice – it was cold.
Mum is worried what’s going to happen now – now that Jane has passed, as she puts it. The will. The house. Dorothy and her daughter. Who is going to do what? It will take a while to clear the house out. And what are we going to do with all that lovely furniture? I suggest giving it to a charity. Mum thinks that might be an idea – there’s one for battered wives she thinks. And another thing that’s sad, mum says, is that there isn’t even anyone to send a sympathy card to.
How is mum feeling now, about Jane? Her feelings are mixed – it’s hard to explain, she says, it’s hard to put into words. Today she will make her circuit of Moseley four times – one more than usual. This will either help her think about things, or put things out of her mind. Either would help.
It’s a combination of things. There is the question of her responsibilities – what is she meant to do. She can’t do much up here. It seems the solicitors are organizing the funeral, and they are the executors of the will, not mum, as she had thought. But mum feels she should be doing something – Jane was her friend for over 50 years after all. Then there is the will, and what will be in it. Some guilt arises from thinking about the will, because there are expectations – both of us (mum and I) have them: hers that Jane will have left something to me, mine that she will have left it all to the dogs – though hoping otherwise. Then there is the fact that someone who was a significant part of your life is gone – and the other fact, for mum, that she is the same age as Jane, that she is old, and death is around the corner. And walking again around Moseley may get that out of mum’s mind.
Mr Weller said the bird would need to be cleaned up before slaughtering. In the crate it didn’t so much look like a bird as a tangled pile of old bicycle-tyre inner-tubes. It looked like it had been plastered in soot. Try not to look into its eyes while you’re washing it down, Mr Weller said, it can make things more difficult, establish a connection.
I thought it might struggle when I put it in the sink and turned the tap on, but it seemed very placid. I scrubbed the long neck and the bird was as good as gold – in fact I think it was enjoying being cleaned: the water was warm and I was as gentle as I could be. After I’d washed it all over and dried it with a towel I picked the now completely white bird up and carried it – holding it in my arms like a baby – over to show Mr Weller. He examined it as I held it, lifting side and tail feathers and looking underneath. There are little particles of dirt, he said, still there, under the outer layer of feathers – you’ll have to do it again, he said, showing me some black dots of dirt embedded in the feathers underneath. We need it to be completely clean, he said.
Back at the sink the bird thanked me for the care I was showing: it was good that it would be nice and clean for its birthday. I held it close to me and I was filled with a terrible sadness at the innocence of the thing – it had no idea of the real reason for my cleaning it: somehow I’d thought that it would know, and that its placidity was a kind of acceptance. I realized then that I couldn’t carry on, that this wasn’t the right place, the right kind of work for me. So I went over to Mr Weller – he was standing at the slaughtering bench, I could see a few of the tools there waiting – and I told him I couldn’t do it, this job. He was disappointed, he said – he looked me in the eyes and said he was disappointed, but not surprised.
A stream of anxiety-driven words: who will actually be there, she didn’t know many people, and Dorothy and daughter won’t be because (the daughter says) Dorothy won’t be able to take it – she’s old, and not well: there’s no point putting it in the paper: who will go in the car – will it be just us two: what about the music – mum seems to remember Jane saying she liked What A Wonderful World, but mum doesn’t want people sitting there and thinking that’s not what Jane was like, because she was like that, the Jane I knew, mum says: and Jane’s old neighbours rang – didn’t have a good word to say about her, and I don’t like that, mum says, it’s not the Jane that I knew: and will we stay down there, and will we have something to eat, all of these things are going round and round in my head, mum says, I can’t help it, it’s silly, but that’s how I am, you know how sensitive I am.
On the phone to the funeral director – can you speak up please, mum says, I’m a bit mutton deaf. Mum explains that once the dog died Jane went downhill rapidly, nothing to live for. In fact, mum says, she – Jane – has got the ashes of two of the dogs in the conservatory: mum thinks their ashes – Jane’s and the dogs – should be together, that’s what Jane would want. The funeral director seems to put some objection to this, but after the call mum can’t tell me what it was. It seems they will allow, mum says, the ashes to go in the casket – that’s what they call it these days, a casket not a coffin, a casket – it’s a nicer, softer word, mum says. They’ll put the ashes in the casket with Jane. What about Phillip’s ashes, where are they? We don’t know.
Martin, who’s quite young for the flats – probably just a bit older than you, mum tells me – was saying that he’s just come back from his flat in Turkey: it was 34 degrees out there. You’ve been to Turkey haven’t you, I say to mum. Yes – you didn’t come with us. It was somewhere near Istanbul – I can’t remember the name of the place, mum says. We liked it. The bus dropped us off, and we had to walk down this long track – just a track was what it was – with all this scrub around it. Yes, there was like this taverna nearby where you could go and have your breakfast – dried – what would they be – dried grapes – a continental breakfast. The only problem was there were all these wild dogs around, and when you were eating in the evening they’d come up wanting some food. We didn’t like that. And there were cats everywhere. They were on the tables. They didn’t mind it – but we did.
Jane and Phillip never went to Turkey. They did go to Spain once though – Majorca. Jane spent the first day out in the sun, and then the rest of the time indoors – because she’d got sunstroke: very bad. She seemed like the kind of person who would know about something like that, I say. Well people didn’t know in those days, mum says, about melanomas and skin cancer – we didn’t think about it. I was surprised they went to Spain, mum says, because Phillip could travel free – with working for the railway: he used to like planning the routes – that was the pleasure he got out of it. It’s funny I’m remembering these things now, mum says. You’ve been thinking a lot about Jane, I say. I suppose that must be it, she says. But I can’t remember when Phillip died. I think it was 1992, I say. I can’t remember, she says: I never wrote things down – not on the back of photographs – though I must have a diary somewhere. Yes, I say, it’s useful to write things down. I thought he was at Mabel’s christening, mum says – no I don’t think he was, I say. I thought he was at Mabel’s christening, mum says, so that would make it – what – 1908? I don’t think so, I say. I don’t remember, she says – and now nobody knows.
Mum has finished her coffee. She looks up at the ceiling. I hope you’re not listening Jane, she says. It was the last 15 years or so. After Phillip died. That’s when things weren’t the same. And I used to get jealous. I couldn’t help it. She’d always had everything that I wanted – that I hadn’t got: the looks – she was an attractive woman – and she was intelligent – she went to grammar school. And threes a difficult number – someone is always left out. I remember when she was staying at ours. The football was on and I wanted to watch it. It was my house – and my team. She wanted to watch Eastenders and Coronation Street: we’d always had different tastes with television, so things could get difficult. Dad said he could record the football and we could watch it later. He always took her side. I said no – it’s my house and my team – I want to watch it. He said I could watch it on the tv upstairs, and they would stay downstairs. So I went up – but because they were watching what they were watching I couldn’t get the football. So I went back down, and eventually they agreed to watch the football. Well she sighed throughout, while I was cheering – it was a good game – we won. And he could have recorded her programmes. And she always recorded them at home when she went away anyway. And later that night he said he was sorry for having taken her side – that’s the only time he ever apologised – she never said sorry, ever. He said that she was alone, and he’d like to think if the situation was reversed that they’d have looked after me. You probably think it was wrong of me – but I couldn’t help how I felt. It’s probably to do with my background – where I was from.
Throughout this story mum’s mouth stretches in the way that is characteristic of her dealing with strong feelings. It’s a small thing, she says, it doesn’t matter very much. It seems though, I say, that you still feel strongly about it. I always thought he was on her side – that there was something between them. Three is always a problem.
On the way back to the flat mum tells me why she is as she is – sensitive. She’s told me before. The doctor said this to her years ago – when she used to have fits. He said your mother, she says, must have been very stressed when you were in her womb, and that stress has been passed on to you. That’s why I’m the way I am, mum says. I think about saying that the same must apply to me then, but I don’t say that.
Irene rang. Barry has had a stroke – a certain kind of stroke – I can’t remember what it’s called, mum says. No not a bad one. Just lost a bit of feeling in his right arm. They were out for a meal – it was Barry’s birthday last week – and Barry said he wasn’t feeling well. One of the people they were with whispered to Irene – I think Barry’s having a stroke. So they rang for an ambulance, I say. No, they went home. He was bad all night. Then the next day they went to the hospital. They scanned his head and said it was this type of stroke – a silent stroke is it? No he’s at home. She went out with the girls yesterday – left him a sandwich. But this’ll clip her wings a bit this will – she was going to Ireland for a few days, but now she isn’t going.
The director/curator of the Wolverhampton gallery that Stephen exhibited at suggested I might want to exhibit there. He invited me over to their studios to discuss it. He showed me round the studios – in an old, perhaps early 20th century office building not far from the city centre: some graffiti art, one artist who painted street scenes in neon colours (he was actually there – otherwise the studios were deserted).
The curator was quietly friendly. He told me about the various projects that were on the horizon – a performance festival, the British Art Show next year: it’ll be in Wolverhampton around the time you’re thinking of exhibiting, he says. We sit at a table with a lumpy piece of angular metal sculpture in the middle – the artist had used the exhibition space to make this and other sculptures from metal, welding – there was a fine layer of metallic dust covering the place by the time he finished. He tells me a bit about the man in the leather skirt who was at Stephen’s private view: he thinks – this man – that he’s the reincarnation of a female silent film star: his studio is peopled by various manikins, modelled on/a cross between her and him: he takes magic mushrooms and has sex with them.
The curator says he’s hoping to get a high quality art journal off the ground – serious art writing, he says. He puts a copy of Frieze magazine on the table, flicks through it. High quality, he says. We’ve got a few people interested in writing for it – including someone who used to work for George Osbourne: an interesting guy, very intelligent. You could write for it, he says to me. Sounds exciting I say, I’d like to. He’s got to go up to the university – a meeting, he says – so we head off downstairs to the street. He’ll send me the info on forthcoming events, the writing. You could get involved with the crits we have in the studios, he says, perhaps run them. Sounds good, I say. I’ll send along the contract for the exhibition too he says, then we part company. This was three weeks ago – so far he’s sent nothing. I tell this to Stephen: you know what artists are like, he says, I’m sure he’ll get round to it eventually – send him an email.
I would never have gone – we would never have gone – to half the places we’ve been to, mum says, if it hadn’t been for Jane, and Phillip. I remember being in Luxembourg – going down this long lane, to some water, and there was this boat, this tug-boat, and that was Radio Caroline – it was a radio station back then. And Paris – well near Paris, when we visited Moet and Chandon. Grape fields – and I can see you, mum says, in the fields with your little plane. And there was the time we went to – Santander, is that it, the name of the place? I don’t think you came that time. It was a long boat journey, she says, we used to take the car. A ferry, I say. I was sick on the way, she says – it was a long journey. We stayed in some very posh apartments – and went to this really posh restaurant: it was like a church inside. Then on the way back – driving to the port – it was Jane who was driving, and we got to this big roundabout. And Phillip said something to her. And she just stopped the car and got out – she said you bloody drive then. Well me and your dad didn’t know what to do. That was what she was like with Phillip. Fiery. Poor Phillip, he was very upset. Then he drove on.
You know one thing I don’t like about you, Mum says to me – it’s when you correct me. Earlier she’d told me what she thought was the number of my son’s (Daniel’s) house – and I’d told her what it actually was. Well you should know I suppose, she said.
No I don’t like it when you correct me, she says – it makes me feel like a fool. You and your family are all very clever, but I’m ordinary – average – below average actually, she says. Of course you’re not mum, I say. I’d been talking about this – mum’s sensitivity – with Daniel the night before: you can’t just say when something she says is factually wrong (something small but significant like a house number in this case), or if you do you risk hurting her feelings – she’s very sensitive, as she often tells me. It’s a class thing – at least in part – as in her comparisons of herself and Jane: oh she went to grammar school, and I didn’t – or when she talks about her background and not being brought up to know anything about the world. So this sense of inferiority carries on – has carried on, over a lifetime – this woundedness.
Which is there in what she says about Jane – clever but cold. She didn’t show her feelings – and now she brings me into it – and you don’t too, she says: some people can’t talk about their feelings, she says, they don’t know what to say: the feelings are there, she says (perhaps not wanting to over-criticize), but they just can’t show them.
I looked at the photos of me on my birthday, mum says, and I cried. I couldn’t believe how old I looked. Well. I didn’t cry but I nearly did. It’s depressing. But there’s not much you can do about it. It could be worse. I shouldn’t complain. I’m a lot better off than many people.
And you don’t take a good photo do you, mum says to me. Thanks, I say. I’ve never seen a good photo of you, she says – they don’t flatter you.
She has finished her latte. Now she stares into an imagined space somewhere to the left of my left elbow. She’s talking about the funeral, Jane’s funeral. I’m not following it all – it’s a familiar stream. Now she’s narrating what she thinks will happen. We go in while the music’s playing – the music you chose, she says to me. We’ll sit at the front. When it’s over the director of the funeral will tell us when to go out. There’s just one thing I want from you – that you have to do. Oh yes, what’s that, I say. There’s one thing, she says. I want you to promise that you’ll talk to people – at the funeral – so it won’t be me gobbling all the time. I want you to shine, she says.
I was trying to remember, she says, when they went down to live in Witham – after Phillip got his promotion – from Derby to St. Pancras. I’m not very good with dates, she says. I know you were in your cot – we took you down and you were in your cot. And we took you to see Phillip’s mother, and she’d knitted a baby suit for you. I think, I say, I can remember the house in Witham – and the dog at the time – so I suppose I went there when I was five or six. Oh no, she says, you were a baby. I could have gone when I was older I say – I remember it in fact – I stuck some chewing gum on their bannister, so that would have been when I was a bit older. Now mum is actually looking at me – with the slightly hurt, slightly alarmed, slightly indignant face that happens when her account of things is challenged.
I hope you can stand it, she says, three days with me. I’m sure it’ll be ok, I say, as long as there’s enough alcohol.
Cultural Studies. Mum wants to know what I’ve been watching on tv – she watches the same old things over and over, she says: she likes Columbo, and Midsomer Murders.
I watched The Virtues, I tell her – I don’t think you’d like it, I say, it’s about abuse, the after-effects of it – and there’s an adoption storyline too, which was quite upsetting. She nods. Summer of Rockets was very good, you might like that, I say, set in 1957. She looks doubtful. Well you watch different things from me, she says – you like plays and things, like – er – As You Like It. I was watching Midsomer Murders, mum says, and I noticed that one of the actor’s names was Atkinson, she says, and I thought, that must be the son of Rowan Atkinson – he looked like him from the side – you could see it. He’s not very good looking. He’s not bad looking. I like his work – apart from Blackadder – I never liked that, mum says. He’s a nice man. I was interested that that was his son, she says.
I watched the Queen’s birthday, she says, yesterday – it made you proud – there must have been 2000 soldiers, all marching, and standing there, and not one of them passed out. Makes you proud. I don’t normally have the tv on during the day – I don’t think it’s a good thing. Lots of them do though, she says, and I can see why – if you’re stuck inside with nothing to do.
And me radio’s gone wrong – buzzing. I’ve had it for a long time – your dad bought it – when his mum died, she left us £150, and he bought it with that. I’ll need to get a new one, she says – I can’t do without my music – it’s company for me.
Muriel told me some bad news, mum says – she said she’d only told me and Miriam. Her son’s had a heart attack – same age as you, 57. She’s very worried about him – she’s not well herself. And Noreen told Gwen to drop dead again – that’s the third time in three weeks: it spoils the tea and cakes. Poor Muriel, the effort she puts into it – she gave Noreen a lecture: you should be sensitive towards Gwen, she said, because she’s got Alzheimer’s. But Noreen’s got it too – Fran, the new woman with the little dog – she was a social worker – she said that Noreen was showing signs of Alzheimer’s: aggressive, and being childish. I didn’t like to say – it isn’t up to me – that Noreen’s daughter had said that she had got it, mum says. And Noreen said that she hated it here – that she didn’t want to be here any more – and it was only because her children put her here that she didn’t say anything to them: didn’t want to upset them. Miriam didn’t say much – she just said, Noreen, things change.
Jane’s ex-neighbour – Tim – rang, mum tells me. Mum is angry about what he said. He said he’d be at the funeral – he and his wife Sandi – but he said he doesn’t have a good word to say about Jane. This upset mum. They did a lot for her, mum says, he helped her with the car, and Sandi invited her round – but Jane never invited them back. And Sandi said she used to flirt with Tim, and he liked that, but she didn’t. People have said negative things about Jane – I don’t like that, mum says. I said on the phone to Valerie – I said she was as honest as the day was long – and she was straight John Bull – you knew where you were with her. Except you didn’t know what she was feeling – kept her feelings inside. Never showed any affection. Not for her mother even – they didn’t get on. And she fell out with her family. I didn’t know that, I say. Early on – must have said something – I don’t know, mum says: but she never saw them. She never said what happened – she didn’t talk about those kinds of things. Yes, she says, she kept her feelings inside. I said to Valerie, there was another girl inside her, wanting to get out – but she never did: she kept her feelings inside.
In the car, on the way down to Essex for Jane’s funeral, mum asks me if I’m going to wear Phillip’s medals: I’ve been left some of his things – including medals apparently – in Jane’s will. I don’t know, I say, what if there’s an Iron Cross. I don’t know, mum says, what he did in the war – or if he was in the war – or in the RAF, or anything. He was old enough to be in the war, I say. We never talked about anything like that, mum says. Jane never said anything about it – about his past. She wasn’t very proud of him. I don’t know anything, she continues, about his teenage years – or how he got his job – surely you need training to be a wine-taster – or if he went to university. It must have been a good job, mum says, and it wasn’t just wine – brandy too. He used to test us: he’d set up three brandies and ask us if we could tell which was the most expensive. But I don’t know his history – it’s sad isn’t it: we don’t know.
Do you like Marmite, she says – I’ve just seen a lorry. No, I don’t, I say. You either love it or hate it, that’s what they say, mum says. Is it made down here do you know, she asks. I don’t know, I say, are you thinking of Colman’s mustard, I say, that’s based in Norwich I think. Yes, she says, perhaps that’s what I’m thinking of. Is that still in Norwich, she says, it might have moved. I don’t know, I say – you can still get Colman’s mustard can you? Oh yes, she says, very posh mustard Colman’s is.
Most people don’t know Jane’s good side, mum says. She worked for the hospice – receptionist: she saw some things. She lived for her dogs. She used to say can you smell them – does the kitchen smell of the dog? I said no.
You’ll have to speak to people you don’t know, mum says. Jane liked Dorothy, she says, though she used to upset me by saying she’s adopted – Dorothy was adopted. I didn’t like that. She’s odd – Dorothy: hair that long – mum points to the tip of her forefinger. Dresses funny. How? No colour co-ordination. They were friends, Jane and her: Jane was sympathetic to her – Dorothy had a lot of illness. Don’t say anything bad about Clacton, mum says – they live there (Dorothy and her daughter). Their bungalow is next to the fire-station – handy if you’re on fire.
We’re spending three nights in a Premier Inn near Clacton – and near the crem. It’s just round the corner, the receptionist tells mum. In the restaurant – in the pub next door – mum says the menu is the same as everywhere else: why is it always the same, she says. It’s going to have to be scampi, she says. She’d like the minute steak, but they don’t do them as well as she likes – and she probably couldn’t manage it with her teeth. After we go to our separate rooms – you’ll want to read, she says: you’ve brought books down haven’t you? I have. But I also want to watch the Tory leadership debate – Our Next Prime Minister: the Premier Inn room seems like an appropriate frame for what passes for a debate.
This is a good turnout, the vicar says at the start of the funeral – I was led to believe that there would be fewer people than this, he says, but I can see that Jane was well-liked, and indeed loved. There are 12 of us here, 12 mourners. I spoke to some before we came into the chapel: Tim and Sandi, Jane’s ex-neighbours – Sandi told me that they used to like to talk to my dad – and Valerie (used to be a teacher), and Dorothy (who stays outside – she can’t cope with funerals) and her daughter (the latter not afraid to say what she thinks): and there are some other former neighbours I don’t speak to – a woman and her two teenage children – but mum tells me they’re lovely, and the doctor Jane used to be a receptionist for – nice of him to come, mum says – and Jane’s gardener from ten years ago and his wife.
After the service is over some of us meet at the pub next to the Premier Inn for a wake-like drink. Both Valerie and Dorothy have walking sticks: Valerie can’t walk but she can drive – I help her from her car to a seat in the pub. She gave up teaching in 1990, she tells me – she was glad to finish: it’s got a lot worse since. Dorothy believes that those who have gone can still be with us – you get a feeling of the presence of the person, or a scent of after-shave, she says, (I assume that of her husband who died some years ago). Comforting, not scary, she says. She tells me she once saw her recently deceased dog lying on the carpet in front of her – grinning up at her: grinning. But when she reached out to it, it disappeared. Dorothy doesn’t want a drink – she’s on morphine, she tells me – because of her legs: there’s nothing that can be done about them, except managing the pain. She can’t drink, she doesn’t smoke – and as she said to the doctor, she doesn’t do toy-boys. So that’s three things she doesn’t do. But she does keep her mind active and young: she plays Candy Crush on her computer, and Mahjong – she’s interested in archeology and UFOs – so the mind is ok, but she’s losing it, she says, further down. She gives some sombre truths – as she calls them – about Jane’s demise. Jane thought, she says, that she could be as she was – carry on in the same way, as if she hadn’t had a stroke: she was in denial. After the dog died, she says, that’s when she deteriorated rapidly – nothing to live for. She says the hospital rang her – towards the end – saying that Jane was agitated and wanted to speak to her, she had something she wanted to say to me, Dorothy says, and so I went – but by the time I’d got there they’d given her morphine – or something – and she wasn’t conscious: I tried whispering in her ear, but I got no response. So I’ll never know what she wanted to say to me – that haunts me.
Now Valerie is talking about what would have happened if the cleaner – the cleaner she’d organized for Jane – hadn’t rung her when she couldn’t get into Jane’s house, Jane having had a stroke, and then they had to call the police, and they wouldn’t break in, Dorothy’s daughter adds, until I got there. She seems to know quite a lot about Jane’s condition – from what she’s saying: her bloods were 2.9, she says, and her body temperature was below 34C – and that’s not very good.
Jane’s ex-gardener is sat on his own, away from the group of women (mum is showing them some photos of Jane she’s brought down), so I go over to talk to him. It was 10 years ago, when he’d last done gardening for Jane – just tidying things up really. Before that he’d worked, he says, at the cashncarry, and then he was made redundant from there, when he was 56. And then it was not possible to get another job – I got interviews, he says, but it was my age, that was the problem. So he did odd jobs, like gardening. Keeps you fit, he says, and focusses your mind – he raises his hands to the sides of his head, like blinkers I suppose: an escape from things, he says, like golf. He doesn’t play golf. The BBC News Channel is on on the wall opposite. I tell him that I spent last night in my Premier Inn room watching the Tory leadership debate – it struck me, I say, how awful it is that any of those men will be prime minister. Well, they’re all awful, he says, aren’t they – politicians: they said they’d get us out and they haven’t. Politics and religion, he says, the two things you shouldn’t talk about.
After they’ve gone mum says she thinks it’s all gone well, but Dorothy’s daughter upset her, saying things about Jane, telling me details, mum says, of what she was like towards the end. How she – the daughter – found bottles of booze around the house. All over the place: she hid these so people wouldn’t think that Jane was an alcoholic. Which I don’t think she was, mum says.
Jane’s funeral has caused mum to reflect on herself she tells me. She sat alone in her flat last night, after we’d got back from Essex, and she thought about herself, and she felt inadequate. There’s so many things I don’t know, she says – I don’t know about. When I listen to you and the kids talking, mum says – and when I listen to other people too – I can’t follow what you’re talking about. I’m not educated enough, she says – I didn’t take much interest in school, I was having the fits, she says. My parents were never interested in it – if you don’t have someone to push you then you don’t get very far. And it was difficult for people from my background to get on. You’re not inadequate though, are you, I tell her: you’re very good at relating to people aren’t you – you can talk to anyone. She seems to find this some consolation: yes, she says, and a lot of clever people can’t do that can they, she says.
What is the world coming to, mum says. She says she doesn’t like Johnson – it’s like when he talks, he doesn’t care what he’s saying, he just expects people to believe it. And the way he carries himself – he doesn’t look right – he’s a mess. I think he thinks he’s one of the lads, mum says, one of the lads. She doesn’t know what’s going to happen – she’s worried for the kids – the future. It’s not the world though that’s the problem – it’s the people in it.
She was very disappointed with John Lewis, she tells me – we went to the Solihull branch a few days ago – very disappointed. The quality. For the price. Not as good as Marks. It’s good for pots and pans and rugs and clothes, she says, but I wouldn’t buy a top from there – not for £45 – they’re not worth it. Marks is more my kind of thing. I’ve never had labels, she says. Jane used to have labels – years ago, when we used to go shopping – but I’ve never had the money. You do have it now though, I point out. Yes, she says, but you can’t change the habit of a lifetime – it’s too late to change now. The one thing I might get, she says, is a new carpet – and that lino that looks like wood for the kitchen. I asked Muriel about her carpet – she had a new carpet – I asked her if they had to take the doors off, because the carpets are so flat – I thought they might have to take the doors off if you get a thicker carpet – though I don’t want a thicker one, Muriel’s got one – the feeling when you step – your foot – I wouldn’t like it. She said they didn’t take the doors off.
Valerie rang, did I say? She said the death of Jane had affected her more than she thought it would. They used to have coffee every Monday, and she used to take her shopping too – so there’s a gap there now – in her life. And she said that what she started to think was who is it next – it could be me. This is it, mum says – I said to her, Phillip, Harold, now Jane: you just get to thinking – it’s a bit morbid when you get older – you just think, when’s it my turn.
Mum tells me that she woke up this morning and she was aching all over. Aches. She’d heard that aches can be caused by hay fever, and she thinks that’s what it is. Not just being old. Muriel was in a state this morning, about the strawberries and cream tea this afternoon. She’s got eight cream scones but she needs four boxes of eight – that’s 32 in total. She went to M&S yesterday and they’d only got this one box – she checked the date and got them there and then – and she asked this man in a suit – the manager – if they’d be getting any more in, and he said they were going to get one more box in tomorrow – which isn’t enough anyway – but he said he couldn’t keep it for her, she’d have to go in at nine o’clock. That’s what she did. But they hadn’t got any in – no cream scones at all: well it’s not good enough is it. Lisa said she should have ordered them online. I suggested, mum says, that we get some ordinary scones, and put the cream in ourselves. Muriel’s husband was angry – he said to her I’m not having you putting yourself through all this – she gets very stressed – but she wants to organize things – a bit of a martyr. Apparently she spent most of last night cutting the tops off the strawberries – I would have helped, mum says, if I’d known – though I’ve ordered raspberries anyway.
He said I’m not having you put yourself through all this again. He was very angry.
Helen rang. She said she’d had aches. In the bones. It’s something that happens, mum says, when you’re old. She’s coming over to visit soon she said.
Carrie is a mystery – but she’s a good person, mum says. It’s not clear what her family situation is – she’s about your age, mum says to me, and she’s got four children – most of them are grown-up. She’s got something – that thing where you have to keep things clean, and you’re always doing things – which fits in with her work.
The floor was filthy yesterday, mum says, looking at the floor in the corridor outside her flat – filthy, but they cleaned it up. Who did? The workmen – they’d made a mess – and they weren’t even working on this floor. Her husband had fallen through the doors – so they had to have them replaced. Sorry, I say, who’s this? You know …. her husband is the one with Parkinson’s – he was such a clever man.
When we get out of the lift Sharon is there. We were just talking about you, mum says – how’s the new doors? Sharon is pleased with them – the people who fitted the new kitchen were useless – they said they couldn’t replace the doors because that kitchen had been discontinued, she said. But Dream Doors have been very good – they suggested doors without handles, so there was nothing sticking out – that could be harmful. Very thoughtful of them. She was very happy, she said, with Dream Doors – but the company that had fitted the kitchen – well, they were rubbish.
It’s her turn with the cakes, mum tells me. She’s doing it early – she should be doing it in two weeks time really. Seven pounds she spent on an assortment of cakes from the Co-op. Muriel says you should spend five pounds – she gets hers from Iceland. Noreen is quite mean – what happens to the cakes that get left over (there’s always some)? Mum didn’t know – she said she thought they went to the card players on Saturday. Well Noreen said to Muriel – whatever cakes are left over when I do it, I want them myself – I want them back. She’s still not very nice to Gwen – it’s a shame, mum says, that they sit next to each other on the Fridays. And Deirdre sits with them too. Deirdre said that last time she could hear Noreen muttering when Gwen arrived – oh no, she kept saying. How is Deirdre? We see her every Monday, mum says, me and Noreen, though lately Noreen never says anything to her – Deirdre thinks that that’s because she’s friendly with Gwen, well she speaks to her. Her mind is sharp – Deirdre’s – but she says the same things over and over again – I’m nearly falling asleep, mum says. She’s a talker – she’s just got to talk – and she’s got to know what’s going on: whenever someone pulls up in the car park, she’s asking – who’s that – she’s got to know. I say, I don’t know, mum says – I don’t ask questions – she’s nosey is Deirdre. That’s why I don’t like living here – what women are like. People warned me about Noreen, mum says – they said don’t get too involved: she asks me to get things for her from the shops – and I get her a few things – but I can’t get very much, I tell her, because of the arthritis – I can’t carry much. And when we go shopping together she doesn’t have money – she doesn’t carry it – her daughters give her an allowance. So I end up paying, mum says, and sometimes she doesn’t give me the money. She goes to that centre for free – you know – and she gets money off things, the flat I think – and that’s because her daughter’s a social worker: she knows about benefits.
Mum is telling me that her arms look old – she has an old woman’s arms – in a certain light. She holds them out for me to inspect. This must be that light. They aren’t level, she says: the veins stick out – and I fell over didn’t I, she says, and broke this wrist, so it’s not level.
Helen rang. She’s going to ring on Saturdays now, at four o’clock – not Sunday mornings any more. Because she feels like talking on a Saturday afternoon. She’s in a bit of a state. The man who does her gardening – and does a lot of other things for her – he went round the other day and said, Helen I’ve got something to say and you’re not going to like it. It seems his wife has been offered another job – higher up – but she didn’t want it, and has decided to retire. So he told Helen he was retiring too. He’s 67. They’ve got a house in Spain: they’re going to spend six months there and six months here. I don’t know what she’ll do – Helen – without him: he does so much for her, weeding, the garden. Three times a week. She said, mum says, I don’t know what to do. I said she should ring Jeremy, the man who used to do the gardening for us – though he’s very busy – he only came once every two weeks – does the gardens for BUPA; he’s a professional gardener, mum says to me, he’s only gardened – that’s all he’s done. She can’t do it herself now – she’s got her trolley, you know, to walk with. She stays downstairs – sleeps in the back room where Tony (her husband, now deceased) used to sleep. Doesn’t go out much. She likes it on her own – likes her own company: a bit like Jane. Though she doesn’t keep herself to herself as much as Jane – did. We always get to talking about her don’t we, mum says to me.
Poor Jane. I was thinking, mum says, about that holiday we had in Portugal – the worst holiday we ever had. Phillip wasn’t well. That was the start of his decline. He had a hernia just before we were due to go – they decided to have it done private, so they wouldn’t have to wait. She was nasty to him on that holiday – that was the one when she got out of the car at the roundabout and said you drive. It was that hernia operation that started it – his decline: he’d not had much wrong with him before that. There was a time I saw him getting out of the car – and I knew something wasn’t right, I could see it – he just didn’t look – I don’t know: and that was the start of it I think.
She used to spend hundreds on herself did Irene, mum tells me. I didn’t know – you wouldn’t know, you don’t take an interest – that you could have your teeth veneered. Do you mean, I say, that she had them covered with a thin layer of fine wood. Yes, it helps protect them – so all the things you come into contact with don’t get through – can’t harm them. Yes, she’s spent hundreds on things like that – making herself look good. And now she’s got that thing wrong with her – the skin pulling back – painful: she couldn’t do anything about that. Well, in the end you can’t avoid these things can you – there’s nothing you can do about it. Perhaps she should have had the rest of herself veneered, I say. I wonder if Mr. Proctor’s still alive, mum says – he was a very good dentist, looked after my teeth – and he painted yours – you know, when they came through bad, all black they were – rotten. He was a very good dentist – worked at the hospital.
I haven’t met Gabriel for a drink for quite a while. He usually contacts me when he’s a bit depressed, but on this occasion he didn’t seem to be. The conversation is mainly asymmetrical – I ask him about what he’s doing, his family, and he tells me something about those. However I told him about Jane. I said that she’d had a rather sad and lonely end – that she’d been pretty isolated, that she hadn’t – for whatever reasons – sought out support. He thought that this might be to do with not going to university – I told him she’d been a grammar school girl: well, in that generation, he thought, and now perhaps, university education helps with developing a capacity to reflect on what you need, understand how you might connect with others. Jane didn’t go to university. I told him I felt somewhat guilty that Jane had left me some money in her will – I didn’t think I deserved it. It’s your mother isn’t it, he said – you’re an extension of your mother.
When I meet Stephen for a drink one of the topics that usually arises is art, and our own work. Often we talk about what to do with it. Stephen suggests things I could do – opportunities he’s seen that I could apply for. My end of the conversation tends to be fairly morose, I think – the drink might encourage this. I tell him I went into this café in Stirchley – he’d mentioned it a few weeks ago. Was that depressing, he asks. It was a bit irritating, I tell him, a bit hipster-ish. They have art in the back room – a small exhibition space. When he’d been in he’d noticed that the talk amongst the arty people there was largely to do with funding – things they’d applied for: the whole careerist vibe annoyed him. When I went in there was no one there except the man who seems to run the place – he brought me my coffee – and three people staring at laptops who occupied the tables in the seating area at the front of the place. The exhibition in the back room consisted of the work of two artists, and was – the coffee man told me – on the theme of ‘the commons’: they’d advertised for work on that theme and they’d had a lot of interesting responses. There were some photos on the wall – two of pints of beer, one two-thirds drunk, beside some pork-scratchings (I think) – some close-ups of anaglypta wallpaper, a frosted window, and a window onto a small garden, and four photos of Schwarz herb/spice containers, parsley, mint etc. On a plinth in the middle of the room there were piles of cards with short texts – slogans perhaps – on them: self-progression brings communal improvement, one of them said. A wall text explained that the two artists were dealing with their own working-class backgrounds and that the work engaged with concerns about the commons in the context of neoliberalism. I could see that the photos were readable as signs of a certain sort of working-class culture, though a bit clichéd/reductive – and the close-ups of the wall/windows did give a sense of claustrophobia, and perhaps isolation, confinement within the domestic space. The coffee man told me that the artists – both of them from Northfield, though they hadn’t met before this – which was nice, he said, that they now had – that the artists would be here for a talk this evening, if I was interested. I said to Stephen that I thought the work didn’t really amount to very much. Something for the CV isn’t it, Stephen said. That’s the thing – it’s not the work itself, it’s using what you do to develop something like a career: they talk about neoliberalism in an oppositional way, but really they’re engaged in it, entrepreneurs of the self. Stephen had been in touch – through Instagram – with a painter whose work he’d liked (she’d liked his): her work was commercial, though well done, and she was selling it. Could he not tweak his own work a bit to do something more like that, something more commercial? He’d tried it before, he told me, but it wasn’t something that he felt right about: in the end, painting – which is what he gets most from doing – is a form of self-expression: if it’s not doing that – coming from yourself – he said, then there isn’t much point. So it seemed that there was a definite either/or regarding his art work – it could either be more commercially successful, or it could be authentic, and it seemed that his art functioned for him mainly in the expressive encounter between the canvas and himself, alone, listening to music, in the studio at the bottom of the garden.
Mum doesn’t like it, and she’s going to have to say something. The way Noreen treats Gwen. She was at it again yesterday – very awkward it was. Gwen came into the lounge, and Noreen was saying – don’t let her come over here, don’t let her sit near me. Gwen saw that there was something wrong and asked what the problem was – don’t speak to me, Noreen says, I don’t want to talk to you. Gwen was upset. I don’t know what it is, mum says: Noreen says I don’t want to be around people I’m not comfortable with – they make me feel uncomfortable. It’s the Alzheimer’s, they’ve both got it, and it makes Noreen more aggressive. But it’s upsetting for us all. I’m going to say something to her – but I’ve got to be careful, mum says, I think she could hit me.
I was saying to Sandra, mum says, that the main problem with being here is the women – living with a group of women. Sandra said she knew what I meant. It was the first time I’d really spoken to her – I thought she was a bit snobby, but it turns out she’s quite a nice person: said she had difficulty adjusting to Birmingham after she’d moved here from Nottingham. Bought a flat here for her mum – from Derbyshire – who’s now died – so Sandra is selling the flat.
Boris is on the TV. It’s awful isn’t it, mum says. I tell her that it seems like one of the prime qualifications for being in the cabinet is having been sacked for being a liar. And the thing is that he’s the one who’s got us into this mess – Theresa couldn’t get us out, mum says – he lied his way through the Leave campaign – you know, the £350 million on the side of the bus – mum smiles and nods blankly – and now he’s blaming others for the state we’re in and presenting himself as the saviour. Well you never know, mum says, it might not be as bad as you think. Promise me one thing though, she says – when you’re out in the sun make sure you cover the top of your head – you know, where it’s thinning: it’ll be painful if it gets burnt.
Mum’s eyes are closed as she tells me she had a phone call from Lillian – from round the corner, Sutton Avenue – a rare call, she doesn’t ring very often – and she was saying she’d been to the dentist, and the dentist noticed something on the back of her throat, and said she should get it looked at – I don’t know what it was, mum says, a bleb or something – so she went to have it checked, and now they’re saying she’s got to have it removed, and she said to them – is it cancer – and they said they didn’t know, not until it was removed. And she was saying she was wondering whether it was worth having it done – at her age – she’s 84 – whether that might make it worse – open a can of worms. I think you should avoid surgery if possible, mum says, it can make things worse.
No there haven’t been any more scenes with Noreen and Gwen. It was the raffle in support of Alzheimer’s on Friday – not Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s. Sharon brought her husband down for it. He had a big bib on. She feeds him through a bag – I can’t imagine how she does that. I made him a cup of tea – Sharon said he thought it was a lovely cup of tea. A lot of people can’t stand illness – Jane couldn’t stand illness – but I can, mum says. And he was such an intelligent man – worked for the BBC – it’s very sad. They got married at Gretna Green. A few years ago – they’d lived together for a long time before that. They got married when he was diagnosed. He said to her you should leave me – have a life. But she wouldn’t – I couldn’t leave someone in that situation, mum says. So they got married. The legal thing.
He spends a lot of the day asleep. She’s been warned that there’ll come a time when he just won’t wake up.
Over coffee mum has a period of reflection. She thinks about women today and she says they are very different – from how women used to be that is. They are more independent (though she doesn’t use that word). Even women only slightly younger than her – look at Irene, off in Ireland, leaving Barry to fend for himself. Mum thinks that a lot of the trouble in families – family breakdowns – comes from this sense that younger women have, that they can have what they want. Irene has always worked, mum says, that’s where it comes from – women used to stay in the home. You worked didn’t you, I say to her. Only part-time, she says. And women have always worked haven’t they, I say. Yes women have always worked, she says. But in the past men would have certain expectations – like expecting your dinner to be ready – and, she thinks, women weren’t as free to say what they think, you had to be careful. This thought seems to be based on things she’s heard. But she didn’t do what women today do. Of course it’s partly personality – it’s partly me, she says. My background. If I hadn’t been made to be grateful about everything. It seems to me (I’m thinking here) that mum has developed a capacity to think about her own situation – her sense of a restricted past/life – and to link that to her origins, in a way she hasn’t done before – her being adopted and, so, having to justify her existence: and her working class family with its lack of awareness, ambition, possibility. She seems less able to think about the position of women more generally – on the one hand she feels she’s been restricted, on the other she sees (or hears about) younger women living more fulfilling lives – perhaps she feels envious – and she tells me that women today get away with murder.
More trouble with Gwen, she says. On Friday. I’m in the kitchen, she says, washing the pots, so I didn’t see all of it. Anyway she was agitated, Gwen – I came out of the kitchen and she was agitated. I asked her what was wrong. She told me she had some money, and now it’s gone. And they were all saying – no Anne (her carer) had the money, she pays us for the cakes. But Gwen insisted she had the money. There was a spoon rammed down the side of the chair she was in, and she was fiddling with it. I said you’re going to break the chair Gwen, and then you’ll have to pay for it. I looked down the side of the chair, and there was a pound coin down there – we couldn’t get it out. So she did have money – and they were all saying she was talking rubbish (the Alzheimer’s). So I gave her a pound – it’s only a pound, what does it matter. Later Margaret said you shouldn’t have given her the pound – she’s always been trouble Gwen has, Margaret said: we’ve had to put up with that for years. It’s so depressing how spiteful they are, mum says – so cruel to her: you’d think they’d know, with the Alzheimer’s. That’s why I don’t like living in the flats – what people are like. If it weren’t for you – taking me out – I don’t think I could live there. Well, I’d have to I suppose, but.
Elise has been to visit her sister in Switzerland. Elise is 90, but very good, mum tells me. There are some nice people in the flats. She’s come back with a shoulder problem though – she’s been overdoing it, all the travelling.
This morning mum massaged her shoulder (Elise asked her to), and put this special pad on it – you can’t get them in this country, mum tells me, I’ve never seen one before, she says. Elise has to order them on the internet. While she was putting the pad on Elise asked mum about her religious beliefs – Elise is involved in some kind of religious organization, I don’t know what exactly, mum says: that’s why she’s travelled a lot – to do with the organization – though she’s getting too old for it now. I told her, mum says, that I couldn’t believe – couldn’t believe that there’s any life after this one. I told her about my upbringing, being in The Salvation Army, my dad playing in the band. Elise said they are a good organization – they do a lot of good.
I told her, mum says, about what’s been happening with Gwen – she said it was a shame – she was such a clever woman, Gwen – and well-off. Elise thought that she herself hadn’t been kind enough to Gwen.
Irene rang – it’s been a while, mum tells me. Her knee’s not good – she can drive but she can’t walk, not very well. What about her other problem, I ask mum. Mum closes her eyes. Her organs, she says, they’re expanding inside – that’s the problem – and when they expand it makes her skin stretch. So her skin is stretched on her face – mum moves her hands past her ears – and that’s painful.
And Frances rang. It was her 90th birthday last week. She had a good time. One of the boys came – took them to Dudley zoo. A long way to go, I say. Yes, mum says, Manchester. Well, it’s nice, she wanted to see the meerkats – she likes the meerkats. But it’s difficult with them being so old, mum says, she had to go round in her wheelchair. And Eric is 93. Still working. But he’s finishing soon. It’s going to be difficult when he does, mum says, he lives for facts – facts and figures. No other interests. Tight as anything. Apart from spending money on travelling – they’ve been everywhere. Cruises. P&O. Been everywhere. Six properties in Friar Gate. I’ve never been in his office – the building – mum says, neither did dad. They must be worth more than two million. He’s finishing with his old clients now – because he’s finishing. Yes, they must be worth a lot – but no point being envious: envy is a killer.
I’m sorry to go on about these things – the same things – must be very boring for you. Let me know if it’s boring for you.
Jackie rang. She and Matthew are coming over to visit next Tuesday, mum tells me. You’ll have to pick them up from the station. Which one, I ask, New Street? I’m going to say something you’re not going to like, mum says. Can you tidy the car up. They won’t be staying long – they’ll just come to the flat – she wants to have a nose around really, see how I’m living, mum says – and then we’ll go to the pub we go to on Sundays for something to eat. He can’t walk very well – got a walking stick – so we can’t really show them round Moseley. Still, they’ll see nice bits of Birmingham from the car. They probably won’t arrive till mid-morning, mum says, so you might have to stay with us before we go to eat – it’ll be a bit boring for you, watching us talk about things we want to talk about. He doesn’t talk much – very quiet – a bit like dad – a bit like you. He used to go off and see dad when they used to come round. She talks a lot – she’s loud. He’s quiet. He liked your dad. He’s got a bad back.
I look out of the M&S coffee shop window while mum’s talking. I can see Portia and Anthea heading this way from the crossroads in the middle of Moseley. I hold my hand up when they look in. A minute later they come over to the table. They’ve had to get away from work, from the college, they tell me – this is a minor rebellion, coming out like this. It’s so awful though, they had to get away. New people in the department – a head-girl type, thinks she knows everything (but doesn’t): you would have hated her, Anthea says to me. How are you? Doing Supply, she asks. No, I tell her, just lying down in darkened rooms, recovering. He’s a carer, mum chips in, he looks after me. And seeing my mum, I say – this is me mum, I say: mum – Anthea, Portia. Portia has seen us in the French coffee place – we like to vary things a bit, I say.
After we’ve left mum says I hope I didn’t let you down. Not at all, I say. You know, she says, talking to people that you know – clever people. You’re good at talking to people, I say, better than I am. You’ve got a lot better, she says. Since I’ve come to Birmingham you’ve improved – I see you talking to people, the people in the flats, she says. Well I was a teacher for 28 years, so I should be able to talk to people. But it’s not like that is it, mum says, look at the comedians – they can do it onstage but off they struggle. I see what you mean, I say. Anyway, it’s good isn’t it, I say, there’s hope in that – that you can change, improve – that you’re not fixed. Yes, mum says, you’re quiet – just like your dad – he didn’t talk much, but you’re getting better.
Alyona opens the door to the gallery. I see an artist, she says, and smiles. It’s obvious isn’t it, I say, carrying my piece in. She shakes my hand – Alyona, she says, Andy, I say. We’ll have a look at the work, she says, but first – she leans over the reception to get a pen – there’s a little bit of boring paperwork – only a little. She smiles. If you could fill this in – the top part has the details of when to collect your work, and the bottom part says you’ll collect it on time: we don’t want it left here for months – as some people did last time – we’re not a storage facility. I fill in the top bit, and then she says it’s only really the bottom bit she wants – the top is just the details for me. The bottom bit – if you could sign it, and put on your phone number – that’s the important bit, so it’s legal, and I can take you to court if you don’t collect. I sign it. Ok let’s have a look at the work. I put it on the floor and take the bubble wrap off – there are already some artworks here, and some people I recognise are engaged in installing work: it’s serious – a woman I don’t know – curly hair – stands contemplating a sequence of metal boxes on the floor.
Alyona is friendly, young, talks quickly, perhaps an eastern European accent, clearly here for a while in some administrative role. The pieces this size, she says, are going on this wall – she takes my piece over and holds it against the wall: what do you think – some people aren’t happy with the colour of the wall (it’s a kind of puce). You could have it on the white wall, she says, and holds it against that one. I vaguely prefer the puce wall, I say. Ok, she says, well we’ll put it up there. Feel free, she says, to come a bit earlier to the private view if you want, if you want to photograph your piece without many people around. Did you get my email, about the dedicated page for the exhibition on the website? I mumble something. Well check your spam, she says. And there’s the lunch tomorrow, if you want to come along to that – meet other members – well, really, if you want to voice your views on how we can help you. She says all this very quickly. She smiles. I thank her. The woman with curly hair is still contemplating the metal boxes on the floor.
Mum is telling me about the trip out on Thursday afternoon – she doesn’t enjoy it – the talks are boring, and the church hall is cold – but it’s somewhere to go. They get a lift from Pete. She doesn’t like him. He’s nice though, she says – a good living man. But there’s something. He’s all unshaven – mum puts her hands up to the side of her face, and sticks her lips out – all unshaven, looks a mess. He’s a talented photographer – weird photos, the kind you’d like, mum says to me – he’s shown us some of them. But while he drives he’s always telling us jokes – not very nice ones. Like he told us one about this young student, a girl, who’s about to go to university. And her mother says to her, you’re probably going to go to parties, and some young man there will ask you to go to his room with him – or your room. That’s alright as long as you don’t let him lie on top of you – and do things. So she goes to a party, and then she tells her mother about it. It was just like you said mum, she says, we went back to his room – but it’s alright – I went on top of him. That’s one of his jokes.
Someone in a bunny rabbit costume is rolling around in a patch of hay on the floor. A small audience watches the performance, including, I notice, a white-haired elderly woman, perhaps the bunny’s grandma – given that most people here seem to be family/friends of the artists. This is fucking freaking me out Mabel says to me – I don’t like performances, you don’t know what they’re going to do.
The exhibition is like a good MA show in terms of quality, and you get a sense of a set of possibilities for what art is, I say to Mabel – it seems quite a narrow range to me: much of it in the ironic/grotesque area, I say. Mabel disagrees – if I hadn’t known it was a members’ show (Extra Special People members) I wouldn’t have known why these pieces are together. This one isn’t even art, she says. We’re looking at a collage of magazine cuttings, female models. It’s the kind of thing you’d put on the wall of your bedroom when you’re 12, she says. Maybe that’s the point, I say. It’s just shit, she says.
Later at the pub she tells me that the place was full of people trying too hard – appearing not to be trying too hard, being cool and all that, but really trying too hard. Perhaps I ought to try harder, I say. No, you shouldn’t, she says, not like that. It comes out of insecurity. They’re all a certain type of person, she says, you have to be a certain type of person to be an artist, to be involved in art – a mixture of insecurity and egotism: that’s why much of the work didn’t seem to have an idea – it’s just a manifestation of a desire to be recognized, to be an individual. I tell her I’m quite ambivalent about the organization: I can see it can be helpful for some people, but I think the opportunities on offer aren’t really open – that is, they have certain people/groups in mind. Well that’s true of more or less everything isn’t it, Mabel says, and anyway, it’s not a very helpful mind-set for you to have is it? No it probably isn’t.
I bet your ears were burning, mum says to me. Jackie and Matthew really liked you. He’s a lovely lad, Jackie said, looked after us at the station, talked to Matthew – he’s normally very quiet, Matthew is, but he enjoyed talking to you about motorways. He’s a lovely looking lad, Jackie said, mum says, but – she was a hairdresser you know – she just said I wish I’d got me scissors with me, so I could tidy up that bit at the back, you know the bit where your hair is going – there are things you can do, but it’s always better to have it shorter and neater, when it’s going: that’s what Jackie said.
I drift off a bit over coffee. Mum’s lips are moving. I tune back in. What she said, mum says – she’s like a lamppost, tall and thin – mum stiffens her upper body, holds her arms tight in to her side – like a lamppost. Her hands are always twitching, mum says, when she talks to you. I can’t imagine her being a teacher, mum says – she was a teacher, you know, I’ve told you that. Well, what she said was she just can’t cope with the children of the family who’ve moved in next door – always kicking the ball over into the garden. She thought she was coming to this quiet place – her daughter lives nearby. I suppose, I say, it’s a case of live and let live. You’re sensible – I’m not, mum says, never have been – dad used to say, you can’t please everybody. But I can’t help it, she says. I get all these people ringing me up. Even Helen’s not normal – thank god you’re normal, mum says to me.
She said she was worried about the flowers in the garden – twice the size as usual, she said. She thinks they’re after her does she – the flowers are coming for me, I say. And he’s odd too – has a little goatee beard, mum says. He’s given up driving – he’s 83 – but they won’t take taxis. Mum explains to me that for them to get to town they have to catch a few buses, change at the Mitre, she tells me. With all the money they save on not having a car – what would that be, 10000 a year? – with all that they can easily afford taxis. I said to her, mum says, you should go by taxi. And she said they don’t like getting a taxi – do you know why? Because they don’t know how much to tip – that’s what she said, they don’t know how much to tip. I told her, mum says, that we always used to give them a pound. I try to help, mum says.
After coffee, at the traffic lights in Moseley, mum says, I think I’ve finally found some peace. That’s good I say. Then there’s a silence. And why’s that, I ask. I don’t know, mum says. It’s hard to explain. Do you mean you’re feeling better about being here, I ask. Yes, that’s it, she says – well, it’s been almost two years, hasn’t it, since dad died. And I suppose Jane didn’t help – she used to send a card for our wedding anniversary, and this time she didn’t: that upset me.
You know, she says, I was alone in the flat on Thursday evening – and I didn’t feel lonely: it actually felt a bit like home.
Mum tells me on the phone that she fell over this afternoon, on her walk around Moseley – at the crossing near M&S. A man with a push-chair helped me up, she says. Then she went into M&S and the first aider there took a look at her wrist – he said it wasn’t broken and put on a bandage for her. Which was nice of him, and of M&S. Now it’s not too bad, she says, just a bit sore. No don’t come over, she says. I tell her I’ll come and see how she is in the morning then.
She peels back the bandage to show me the bruise and some swelling. It’s not as bad as it could be, she says, I’m very lucky – I keep thinking how lucky I am, she says. I can’t get me trousers up though, can you pull them up? (I do it, but I have to say I feel a bit funny about it – something about being too close perhaps – and I become aware of how necessary it is for me that she remains healthy and relatively independent). She shows me her arm again – look at the shape of it, she says, how bent it is (the result of previous falls and actual breaks): at least you’re able to hold things round corners, I say.
She’s a bit wary of going for a walk today but I suggest we go for a coffee anyway – if I’m there it’s ok. Over coffee she tells me that Doreen came up to see how she was – and Deirdre gave her a bandage: people care about you, I say, that’s good isn’t it. I hope you’re the person who cares about me most, she says.
I just keep thinking, she says, how it could’ve been worse: imagine what it would be like if it was me legs – if I couldn’t walk. It’s this time of life, she says: you’re very vulnerable.
Irene was a bit cold on the phone – that might be because Jackie had come over: you know, she might be a bit jealous of Jackie having come over. Though she can come over any time Irene can.
Jackie told her it’s a nice little flat, and that you are looking after me, mum says to me. They went to the Bonnie Prince for lunch – it’s under new management: Jackie is very fussy about food, but she thought it was good. She thought that Irene seemed a bit down – well, she’s not very well, and being with Barry doesn’t help. But Jackie thought that it might be Alice who’s getting her down – they spend a lot of time together (they used to work together). Alice’s husband died a few years ago – Geoffrey – he was a very nice man, we all liked him.
Alice chose the table at the Bonnie – she arrived first – but Jackie didn’t like it, so they had to move. And Alice has a heart like a bucket – very generous. She’s well off, though she’s only got a small house – ex-council house, so not worth very much. But she’s always giving money to her daughter and the grandchildren. We don’t like how her daughter treats her – Cheryl: all she’s interested in is the money. Works in a bank. Whenever she says she’s going to take her mum somewhere – like a doctor’s appointment – she rings Irene at the last minute and says I can’t make it, can you take her. And the grandchildren only go to see her when they need money. They never do anything for her – only go over when they need the money.
She’s got a heart like a bucket has Alice – and we don’t like the way Cheryl treats her: doesn’t look after her.
I’m not going to the Christmas dinner this year, mum tells me. I don’t know. Last year you had to queue to get the food – it was a carvery – and there were 18 of us, and by the time the first had got their food the last had nearly finished. And then there was Muriel and Miriam playing post office at the end. Post office? Counting up the money – at the table – I didn’t think that was very good. Is it at the same place then, I ask. No, mum says, it’s a different place – and it’s not a carvery, and you can have anything, normal things – egg and chips, lasagne – not Christmas dinner, which might be better. But I don’t feel like going, she says. I’ll see how I feel.
I hope nobody thinks I’m miserable, mum says. I would have thought that’s the last thing they’d think, I say. I just hope they don’t – think I’m miserable, she says. Oh look, a musician.
A man, now standing at the bar, is carrying a case that looks like it could be for a musical instrument, a smallish one – perhaps a trumpet. Has he got a piano, mum says – no it’s a menu, she says.
Let me show you my wrist, she says, peeling back the bandage. Her hand – the translucent skin, heavily wrinkled – small, and claw-like, makes me think of a bird. It’s swollen here, she says. And I can see how bent it is from the wrist – the previous falls. It aches, she says, and I can’t do much with it – not strong enough yet. But it’s getting better. But I can’t help with the tea on Friday. I was disgusted on Friday, she says – well, not disgusted, that’s too strong. We were in the lounge, and Miriam was there – she’s dyed her hair you know, but she left the stuff on for too long I think, and now it’s apricot – it looks dreadful. Miriam was there, along with Muriel, and Muriel’s husband – he can’t do a lot, because he’s waiting for his hernia operation – it was cancelled last week you know. I couldn’t help with serving the tea, carrying the cups, because of my arm – and he couldn’t do anything. But Miriam just sat there chatting, not doing anything to help – and she’s the manager. It was disgusting I thought, mum says. She just sat there.
I met Kevin the other day – he was saying the weather is going to get worse, so he’d been over to M&S to stock up on dinners. He normally goes there every day to get them. He’s like an old woman really. Nice man. No, there aren’t many men in the place – there’s Kevin, and Muriel’s husband, and Martin – he’s nice. That’s it I think, only three. There might be four. There might be more, but they stay in the flats. They’re in hiding are they, I say. There might be more, mum says, they just don’t come out, they don’t mix – well that’s up to them, they can stay in the flats if they want. They don’t like to come down – to the lounge – they don’t like the gossip, the nosiness – the cattiness. It’s not easy living with a lot of women.
I’m in the back garden. Early evening – just getting dark. Mum and dad are busy, preparing for the party. I am surprised they’ve decided to have a party. I can’t remember them having had many – or any really. I’d had a bit to drink while I was waiting for people to arrive: so now, when they were starting to arrive, I was feeling drunk, in the way that I did when I was seventeen and I’d had a can of Carlsberg Special Brew on a Saturday night.
I’m meant to be helping.
I prepare the hors d’oeuvres with Professor Robert Winston. We are standing in the doorway between the kitchen and the hallway, which is perhaps not the best place for it – the preparation. As our hands reach up towards the top of the doorway he manipulates my fingers, kneading them in his hand. It seems to me that this is not – strictly speaking – preparing the hors d’oeuvres. Is this some kind of foreplay, I say to him. He withdraws his hand. He looks embarrassed, and moves away. It could be that I’ve made a mistake – Professor Robert Winston is no longer helping to prepare the hors d’oeuvres.
Walking round Moseley. It must have rained heavily in the night, mum says – it’s not cold though, she says. No it’s not too bad, I say. Yes – nice – cool, she says. You’ll have to walk a bit slower, she says. Are your legs hurting, I ask. I hurt all over, she says – well, not hurt, I ache all over, my bones, she says. I’m not grumbling though, she says, I’m very lucky – very lucky. Must be still getting over the fall, she says, it takes a long time to recover when you’re my age, she says – when you’re younger it’s easier. I’ve got to be careful, she says, the leaves on the ground are slippy. I’m not in pain, she says, I just ache.
Mabel’s ok, I tell mum: she’s going to a spa this weekend. That should be good, mum says. Jane once went on one of those, she says, Warner’s I think it was, when you pay for the weekend. She had her nails done – she had to pay extra for that though. She always had good nails did Jane. Always had nail polish. Not bright colours. Soft pinks. And her hair – she spent money on her hair. And her clothes – always had nice clothes: she was like her mum in that respect – she had nice clothes too.
She had to lie down on the floor of the car, mum is telling me, she wasn’t feeling well, but it’s not a nice position to be in with your legs up. Mum is recounting what was said during a recent phone call to Sarah, in Derby, who dad used to drive to the psychiatric hospital when he used to do his volunteer driving. She’s schizophrenic, mum says – they give her tablets for it. She’s put weight on – that’s because of the tablets: why do they give you tablets when they know they’ll do that, mum asks: that’s what it says on my tablets – they put weight on – I was reading the blister pack. She went to the doctor and he’s put her on a strict diet – he weighed her: she nearly fainted when he told her how heavy she was. She used to have shock treatment – dad took her to and from the hospital when she had that. I didn’t think they did it these days, I say. Well, this must have been ten years ago – dad was ill for ten years. She seems to be happy now though, now that she’s married. Dad was a bit dubious about her getting married – he thought Dave was probably after her money. But she seems to be happy. Dad gave her away, you remember, mum says to me – they don’t know where her father is. She adored her mother. She’s got a brother – but he disowned the family, and now he’s homeless: she saw him on the street once, but he didn’t acknowledge her. She used to live with her mother in council accommodation – rented – for people with difficulties: but when her mother died they kicked her out.
I ask if mum has heard anything from Brenda, dad’s sister. No – she’s due for a call from her, but she has never been very good at keeping in touch – like the rest of the family: when Brenda goes, mum thinks, her girls won’t keep in touch. The text message she received the other week – thanks for thinking about me, Colin – mum thinks must have been from Colin, her half-brother. She didn’t reply – he was obviously being sarcastic, because she hasn’t been in touch, not since the last time, when they had words. I think he should be thinking about me, mum says, that’s the way round it should be. Now Colin has cropped up mum takes me through her story again. How Colin – he must have been 15 – turned up at the house: her dad brought him to her room: this is your brother, Colin. That was a shock. Then there was the wedding, Colin’s wedding – your mother would like to see you he’d said, so come along. And nobody spoke to her. And there was all that trouble about an illegitimate child – worse in my day than yours, mum says to me – but you’d have thought they’d want to see me, speak to me, mum says (well, actually, I’m thinking, they probably wouldn’t). As always, when she tells me about this, I can see that it’s still upsetting for mum – her eyes are watery, her face tensed. Knowing is worse than not knowing in some ways, mum says. There are things I’d like to know though, she says. What would you like to know, I ask. I don’t know, she says. He treated her badly – the husband: that’s why she didn’t want to have any contact, because of what he might do – what he did. And my mum and dad were my mum and dad – I wouldn’t do anything to hurt them: they looked after me, gave me a home. But there are four nieces that I could have been an auntie to – but they don’t even know I exist. My grandma was horrible to me – always made me feel there was something wrong with me, always telling me how lucky I was, how I didn’t deserve it, being in this family. Dad never understood – he’d always say, we’re happy now aren’t we: forget about it, you’ve got Andrew.
I don’t like to talk about it – it upsets me, she says.
Do you like this top, mum asks. She’s wearing a black top with red dots on it. Yes, I say. You never say that kind of thing, she says. I’ve seen it before, I say – I like it: it suits you, I say.
I tell her I went over to Stephen’s Open Studio yesterday – I explain what that means (his studio, at the bottom of his garden, people can drop in etc.). All that time you’ve spent on doing your art, she says, and the money on paints and materials – you’ll never get it back, she says, there aren’t the people around who appreciate it. You need the connections don’t you, she says. I tell her I’m not particularly good at networking, making connections.
You’re happy with your life, aren’t you, she asks. You’re mainly happy? Well, I. You’re not suicidal are you, she says – you don’t feel depressed. I tell her I don’t feel depressed. At least you’ve got the children, she says, that’s the best thing you’ve done.
Kevin: nice man, a bit of an old woman. He really likes Lidl, mum tells me, thinks it’s the best of the supermarkets, because of the prices. I thought he always went to M&S, I say. He was telling me, she says, that he really likes these tinned prawns. Tinned prawns, I say, I’ve never heard of tinned prawns. Yes, mum says, and he says that at Sainsbury’s they’re £4.99, but at Lidl they’re £1.99 – that’s very good, isn’t it. It’s amazing Lidl is.
Some people say that you come back three times – perhaps as a cat, then a dog. I don’t know what happens after the third time, mum says, I don’t know where you go then.
I don’t believe in Spiritualism, she tells me, not after the bad experiences I had when I was younger.
Mark – from Derby – rang: laid-back, nice man. He said he’d altered his will to make sure Sue didn’t miss out – they’re not married, so he thought that everything would go to the family, which he didn’t want: he didn’t want Sue to not have anything. Well, he said that they were both sitting in the living room – Mark and Sue – and they heard this knocking at the window. And when he went to see what it was, there was nobody there. They’ve been hearing funny noises at other times – and a crow keeps flying past the house. Janice – that’s Mark’s daughter-in-law came round the other day and he told her about the knocking at the window. Well, Janice is aware of things – she’s sensitive, psychic – she can tell when something is there. It’s Phyllis, she said – Phyllis was Mark’s first wife, she died of cancer four years ago. It’s Phyllis, she said – I can feel her presence – that’s what Janice said – and she’s not happy, I can tell she’s not happy, about Sue having the house, inheriting the house: Phyllis doesn’t want her to have it – that’s what Janice told Mark. What do you think of that, mum says to me.
Pete has died, mum says to me. Pete? Pete, you know, Sharon’s husband – he’d been ill. The one with Parkinson’s. It’s a blessing – he had no kind of life. Sharon is distraught – she was crying yesterday. Elise told me about it, mum says. He died at the hospice – Parkinson’s, and other things, I don’t know what. It was peaceful at the end. He had no kind of life – it’s for the best really – a release. You should have seen him – he looked – he looked just – awful.
Sharon wasn’t sure she could afford to stay in the flat though – after. I don’t know what she did, mum says – he worked for the BBC: a good job – clever man, that’s what they say, I didn’t really know him. He was one of the first, to move into the flats. Elise has known him for a long time – 20 years. Sharon is younger than him – she’s old enough to stay now, she’s 58 I think, mum says. But I don’t know if she can afford it – that’s what she was worried about. He was diagnosed soon after they moved in. She stuck with him. They were married at Gretna Green.
The funeral is pre-paid, but there’s some problem with his brother – they’ve got a family plot somewhere but there’s only room for one of them, and the brother wants to be buried there: so we’ll see what happens. It’s depressing isn’t it. It’s a depressing place to live, the flats. We’re all old – it’s that kind of community.
I took Noreen to the dentist this morning, mum tells me – she asked me to go with her. Very nice dentist – private, you should have seen it: I don’t know where she gets the money from if she’s on benefits – it’s a mystery. And she hasn’t even got any teeth.
Yes I like to help people, mum says, though I have to be careful they don’t take advantage. You give a lot, but you don’t get much back – dad used to say you need to realize not everyone’s like you. Adjust your expectations: I’m starting to learn that, mum says. Not everyone’s like me, and some of them have very definite views, and they’ll tell you. I’m sensitive, mum says, I can get hurt – you say I’m sensitive, she says to me. I think that was dad who said that, I say. No it was you, she says – you say it in a nice way, she says. I don’t know why I’m like that, she says. I think you do, I say. Having to justify myself, she says. That’s it, I say. Well it was never really accepted in my day, she says, there was always some stigma about it – adoption. The illegitimacy. I suppose it was that time, she says. Nowadays you hear people say – oh he’s adopted, how lovely. Nobody ever said that to me, she says, never.
You know there’s Michelle in the flats – she’s got two daughters, and one of them adopted a girl: she’s grown up now. But Michelle’s always saying how horrible she is to her mother – how horrible the adopted daughter is– always trying to get money off her: that upsets me, mum says – you know, that they think adopted children are bad, that they’ll turn out bad.
People have children, and they don’t even want them – sometimes. It’s an experience I always wanted, mum says to me, but I’ve missed out on.
No one asks to be born do they? We’re thrown into it aren’t we. Still, she says, I think it’s fate – we were meant for each other. She holds out her hand.
Yes, mum says, I saw Deirdre again – Monday, as usual. Same as ever. Except Elise was there. You know she’s been to stay with Deirdre’s son in France. Well, Deirdre said he’d joined the Brexit Party – and she’s a fan of Farage as well. Elise said that though she liked the son – she’s stayed with him – she wouldn’t now be able to speak to him again: she’s dead against Brexit is Elise.
Mum tells me about Gwen. What an intelligent woman she used to be. She’s 92 now, so not doing badly considering. And she was at Oxford or Cambridge, Carrie – she does some cleaning for her – she said she’d seen the certificates. Of course that doesn’t mean she actually went there – it could have been a correspondence course. She was brought up by nuns you know – I don’t know what happened to her parents, mum says. That’s why she doesn’t like us laughing – she says ladies shouldn’t laugh like that. And she speaks – or spoke – three languages. That’s why she worked for the government – translating, secret things: she can’t say anything about them still.
You don’t believe what I say about her do you, mum says to me (I must have raised an eyebrow or something).
Later she tells me that the place is full of gossip – you have to be careful what you say. It’s like that when you live with a lot of women, mum says. And you don’t know whether any of it is true either.
Mum is telling me about Elise (I think). She had this blood clot in her throat, and it moved – went behind her eye. Now she can’t see out of that eye – all the gunge behind it. She can’t see very well with the other eye either. She’s 92. I suppose it could have been worse, mum says, if the clot had gone somewhere else.
She’s having this laser treatment to hoover the gunge up.
It’s a depressing time of life, mum tells me. The place is depressing.
It’s a depressing time of year – the dark.
I keep thinking how lucky I am, mum says. It could be worse.
There comes a time, mum says to me, when you feel old. You wake up one morning and you have the feeling. I’ve only had it recently, she says. You wake up and you feel it. It’s hard to explain.
I ask her what the nature of the feeling is – how does the feeling feel.
It’s hard to explain, she says. You feel lonely, she says – I’m ashamed to say it, she says. You feel that nobody’s interested in you. Did you see the Cenotaph on tv – you’re probably not interested in that kind of thing, but I like it, mum says, I find it moving: they had the Salvation Army there this time, and some spiritualists.
Mum stops to give some change to the woman sitting in the rain outside M&S – she looked so miserable, mum says to me, I felt sorry for her. I worry about food banks though, she says, they say the food isn’t going to the right people.
That scone I had at Marks last week, mum tells me – I didn’t like it. Too stodgy. Some people might like it, but it’s not for me. Not like the ones you buy.
Skadomah, she says. I don’t know if I’m saying it right. Something like that – I think that’s what she said (Irene rang yesterday, the first time in ages). That’s what she’s got, you know – the nurse said I’d rather have cancer, which I don’t think she should have said, mum says. Could end up in a wheelchair. Irene said she could feel it, inside her body – she could feel it taking over: mum raises her hands slowly to her face to show the Skadomah taking over. Skadomah, she says, I don’t know if that’s right – I’ve never heard of it before, she says, you should look it up. That’s why her hair’s gone thin, and her skin is stretching out. No, she’s not very good. And Barry won’t go out at all now, mum tells me – he just sits there in the house. Well he’s got the diabetes – that’s slowly coming up his legs; mum raises her hands slowly to her face to show the diabetes slowly coming up.
Noreen’s being difficult with Gwen again, mum says. Being horrible to her. When they’re both in the lounge she sighs and makes comments. On Friday she told her to drop dead again – she told her to go, go up to your room, she said, and drop dead. I’ve asked her why she doesn’t like her – and there are a few other people she doesn’t like too – I’ve asked her, mum says, and she can’t give me a reason. I’m not an angel, she says, I’m not a saint, and I’m not a devil – that’s what she says: she says I just don’t feel comfortable around some people. I don’t feel comfortable – that’s what she says. We think it’s the Alzheimer’s – that’s why she’s like this, getting worse. The others want me to tell her daughter about it – tell her to do something. That’s not up to me is it? I like to look after people, but that’s not up to me. I’ve done things for Noreen and she’s got shirty with me. It’s best to stay out of it, not get too involved. I’ve done my fair share of looking after people haven’t I?
It’s a depressing place.
Gwen was brought up by nuns you know, mum says. I think she must be a virgin. Never had a boyfriend. Muriel asked her – have you ever had a boyfriend Gwen, she said. Gwen said that when her mum died – that was when Gwen was working for the government – that her dad never remarried, never had another relationship. And she was brought up a Catholic Gwen was.
I spoke to Kevin in the lift, mum says. I told him I thought Corbyn was good last night on the debate. And Kevin said he thought he’d done well, yes. But he couldn’t vote for him. Not with him being anti-anti – what is it. And anyway, he said, I don’t trust any of them: you know the only one I can believe he said – Farage.
Your hair is looking good today, mum says, and your skin – I don’t know what you’re doing.
Nothing different from the usual, I tell her.
That bit at the back looks a bit thicker too, she says.
You need to look after your teeth though – you need an S and P, she tells me. All those curries and the beer has an effect. Mine are a bit yellow too, she says. You’ve got to look after your teeth – you’ve got good teeth, I always looked after them, she says, made sure they were alright: you should treat them like pearls, she says – once they’re gone they’re gone.
The man begging outside M&S says hello to me, then gets up and heads off somewhere. He’s probably going for his fix, mum tells me: heroin, or meta what is it, methadone. He smells, she tells me. If you get up close. Smells of wee. Doesn’t clean himself.
I’d love to know where they live, she says.
Mum likes to do her Christmas shopping well ahead. On the way to town she tells me that she’s noticed something recently, on her walks – and it’s upset me, she says. I’ve seen parents, with babies in prams or push chairs – and the parents look quite well-off – but the babies don’t have hats on. I think that’s wrong, mum says. Their heads will get cold, she says. I know you’ve got to toughen them up, but it’s not right – very young babies, can’t be more than a few months old. It upsets me, mum says. This is something you’ll find as you get older. Things upset you more. You get more irritable about things, she says. You don’t feel good, you feel irritable – it’s a time of great irritability. You get irritable about the way the world is – unfair, horrible. Stabbings. On the other hand you do meet some people who inspire you – they make it worthwhile. Envy is a killer though. You should avoid envy. Envy and jealousy.
I like to get my Christmas shopping done early, mum says, as we enter Debenhams, so I know I’ve got it all. You do yours late, she says to me – you’re different from me.
I tell her I remember doing it on Christmas Eve, ages ago, in Derby – I must have been nineteen or twenty. I did the last minute shopping and when I got back to the car – the Beetle – I found I’d locked myself out of it: the police had to break into it for me. And there was the time, she says, you lost your coat – at the Christmas Eve disco: someone pinched it. You see, mum says, you’ve had some exciting times haven’t you. Oh yes, it hasn’t all been dull – that will certainly console me, I tell her, as I get older and grow more irritable.
I’ve never slept well, no, mum says. Those tablets help now. I sleep much better now – because of the tablets. The side-effects are harmful, she says – that’s what everyone tells me.
What are the side-effects, I ask. I don’t know, she says. But they help me sleep.
I’ve never slept well, mum says. I was looking after my mum when she was dying. I left dad and you and spent the night with her, the night she died. I stayed up all night with her, that night. After she died I walked home – to Swarkestone Drive. I knocked on the window – it was early in the morning – then dad got up and let me in – and I told him what had happened. I slept through the whole of that day. Or was that when my dad died? I think it was when my dad died.
It wasn’t, I tell her.
I think it was when my dad died, she says.
No, I say, it wasn’t. We were at Quorn Rise when your dad died – I can remember him, there.
It’s hard to believe, mum says, that it’s been two years since dad died.
At the bank to talk about mum’s finances – she’s got too much in her current account: needs to do something with the money. We sit in a small office/cubicle while the financial advisor (if that’s what she is) get’s us tea and coffee. I don’t recognise her, mum says. It’s the same woman we spoke to last time, I tell her, but she’s lost weight.
When she comes back the advisor (Asha) asks us how we’ve been, whether mum’s settled in and such-like. It’s not home, mum tells her. I know I’m old, mum says, but it’s like being in an old people’s home – everybody’s old. Between talking about ISAs and other financial products Asha tells us that she’s been learning ancient Persian. She wanted to learn a language, she says, because she was in a relationship with this man, who turned out to be horrible – the relationship is over. Was he an ancient Persian, I ask her. He wasn’t ancient, she says. He just wasn’t very nice. She’s given up on men, she tells us (as well as on ancient Persian – she got as far as hello, how are you): the thing is, she says, I give a lot and I get nothing back – I’m a Virgo, she says. Men in Birmingham, she says, and rolls her eyes upward. Look further afield, I suggest. I’m a simple soul, she says.
You’re just like me, mum says, I give a lot, but I don’t get it back. My philosophy, mum says, is that you’ve got to treat others as you want to be treated. But that doesn’t work for you, does it, I say. Asha looks understanding. He tells me (mum glances at me) that I need to toughen up – not to expect so much. But it’s hard when it’s in your nature, mum says. What star sign are you, Asha asks. Aquarius. Ah a water sign, Asha says. She nods. Then she asks me what I’m doing these days. He’s looking after me, mum says – he’s a good lad. Also art, I say. Ah yes, Asha says, I remember you were creative. Painting and that. He does other things too, mum tells her. I tell Asha a bit about my latest work while she looks at the details about bonds on her computer screen. Interesting, she says.
Once the documents are signed – mum dates them 1919 – we get up to leave. Mum embraces Asha. It’s been wonderful to see you, she says: we’re so similar, she says. Come along any time for a chat, Asha says – well, we’ll meet in a year won’t we, when we need to review your finances.
Elise has gone somewhere, mum doesn’t know where. It could be London. The problem is that mum has been helping her with the cakes she’s made for everyone, for the Christmas party – mum has been writing a little Christmas message to go with each cake – and they haven’t finished yet. She’s gone somewhere and they haven’t finished yet. She couldn’t have gone to Switzerland could she? Her brother in law is there. He’s 94 – same age as Elise – and he’s not well at all, not well at all. They talk on – what is it – where you can see him – Skype. The last time they spoke he was saying he’d had enough, he felt so bad, he didn’t want to go on, he just wanted to go – I just want to go, he said, I’ve had enough, I just want to go. Not very good at all.
And you’ll never guess what, mum says to me – I probably shouldn’t say. No I will. I was talking to Phyllis, and she told me that Sharon – she’s been going around in high spirits, laughing, not grieving at all – that’s what the others say – she told me that Sharon is going to have four candles on the table at the Christmas party. Four candles, I say. Four candles, mum says – and, you know what she’s going to have with them? Paul. She wants Paul to be there. I saw the container in the catalogue for the funeral people – a lovely purple thing it was, like a vase, very nice. But I don’t think she should, do you – it’s going to be upsetting, upsetting for anyone who has lost their husband – reminding them. I don’t think it’s a very good idea at all, mum says.
I’m worried my voice sounds funny, mum says. Does it sound funny to you? I tell her it doesn’t sound funny. Sometimes I can tell it sounds different, but not today, I say. I worry that people can’t hear me when I’m speaking, she says. I can hear you, I say, but I can tell she doesn’t hear me. She touches her throat. It’s here, she says, I can feel it. You’ve been to the doctor with it, haven’t you, I say. He says it’s nothing serious, she says, but it bothers me. He said the acid has made the tissue at the back of the throat go soft – that’s what makes my voice sound funny, she says.
Your hair is looking good, she says, I don’t know what you’re doing with it. I think you’ll go grey, she says. I am grey, I say. No, completely, she says – you’ll look very distinguished, she says. You don’t worry about it do you, she says, there’s no need to worry, you’ll look distinguished – there’s nothing you can do about it. And you’ve got a nice face – you look young, especially when you’ve shaved. And you’ve got a good physique, she tells me, you haven’t got a pot belly. You’re 57.
Mum tells me that Irene hasn’t rung. She’s not very well. Mum has texted her twice, but she’s not been in touch. It could be that she’s jealous because Jackie came over that time. Mum spoke to Jackie on the phone on Sunday – she rings every Sunday morning for an hour. She’s a good friend. Jackie said they – including Irene – the girls – had forgotten to collect money for Mary’s birthday when they last met – you don’t know Mary do you. She’s 80. That’s a big birthday, important. She’ll probably be with her son in London, mum says, he’s got a bit of money. Done well for himself. He was an Allenton boy – some sort of contract – I don’t know – deliveries – with Marks and Spencers. Whatever it was he made a lot of money out of it – I don’t ask questions about it – worked hard, all the hours god sends – deserves it. His daughter has a good job – I don’t know what – somewhere near Burton-on-Trent.
Jean – you know Jean, you know – the one that people – hates Miriam, thinks she can’t be trusted, spreads gossip. You know. If ever I find you say any of this to anyone I’ll – mum holds her fist up to me, and for a second I think she’s threatening me. That’s what she said, mum says, to Miriam. Jean’s got three children. One in Dubai. You’ll never guess what he is – a deep-sea diver. She’s had an interesting life: cleaner at ITV – is that in Birmingham, it must be – cleaner there, and was a landlady – nearly owned a pub. She hates it here – that’s what she says: her daughter wants her to go and live near her, but she’s not sure. She – Jean – got her daughter a job with ITV – when she was cleaning there – she was there for seventeen years. She was talking to this woman there, who said they were recruiting, and she mentioned her daughter – she’d been doing something, I don’t know what. So she got her a job there – it’s who you know isn’t it. She knows the man who does the weather – and that old man, Bob.
She’s a bit of character is Jean. But, you know, when someone comes into the room, she stops talking – won’t talk if anyone’s there: she hates it there – that’s what she says.
On the way to Dunelm (she wants a new duvet) mum tells me that she thinks the nature of work has changed: these days it is fraught with anxiety – worry – not like it used to be for her and dad. In her day – mum says – you could leave work behind when you got home: you could switch off, relax, forget about it: pass into the domain of the family and be settled there. These days you have to take work home with you – you can’t forget about it. Dad never talked about work when he was at home, mum tells me – well, if something was bothering him he did – there was one time – but usually, even after he was section leader, he didn’t bring work home. People don’t enjoy their work these days.
Later, over coffee, mum tells me that she can’t remember much about her past, her early years. She’d thought that as you got older you were supposed to be able to remember things from the distant past. She sat in the flat yesterday and tried to remember things – but she couldn’t remember anything: nothing came to mind at all. She couldn’t remember much about school – she’d hated it: she didn’t want to learn – I regret it now, she says. I didn’t pass my eleven plus, she says – I’m not sure I even took it: I can’t remember. I was having the fits, she says. The doctor had said when your mother was carrying you she would have been full of anxiety – and that’s been passed on to you: that’s what he said. Mum has told me this before. I wouldn’t have had any treatment for it, mum tells me, they didn’t do anything about such things in those days. Still, my parents looked after me – they were very kind to me. That’s what you want in a parent isn’t it, I say. I did a lot for my mum, mum says. I did the washing for her, tidied the house. She used to work at the Carriage and Wagon – you know, on the Derby Road – in the canteen there. I used to walk from home every day to meet her when she came out of work.
She bought us our first washing machine. I never thought I’d get married, mum says. I was friends with Marion, we went out dancing together. I’ve always had friends who are different to me – like Jane, she was another one. Marion was very attractive – I was a plain Jane: that’s what I always thought, mum says. The men were always buzzing around her. We went dancing. Dad and his friend came over to ask us to dance. I was surprised, you know, that he wanted to. We danced for the whole evening. Then the week after we went to De Montfort Hall – Ted Heath.
The men were always buzzing around her – Marion: she had this amazing figure. She married someone from the neighbourhood – Tom something. They lived round the corner from us, at Swarkestone Drive – council house. They had a son. Tom died. I didn’t keep in touch, mum says, but I saw her at the hospital a few years ago. She was bonny – fat – she’d lost all of the glamour she used to have. She was pleased to see me – said her son had been looking at the wedding photos – it was the 50th anniversary coming up. I’d been her bridesmaid. The son said he’d never met me, and she should get in touch with people from the wedding – invite them to the anniversary do. She said she’d contact me, mum says, but she never did.
You said earlier, I say, that there was this one time that dad wanted to talk about work – something had gone wrong? I don’t know, mum says, I can’t remember anything about that. There was something – something hadn’t gone very well – but I can’t remember what it was.
I dreamt about Jane and Phillip last night, I tell mum, the first time ever I think. Phillip drove us all – in something like a mobile home – to their summer house: they had a summer house next to a lake. That’s probably the Norfolk Broads, mum says – they had the boat on the broads.
So we were in the summer house and Phillip said there was something wrong with the mobile home and he was having it repaired – he’d paid some bloke to repair it – and Jane had a go at him because she knew that that man wasn’t qualified. Philip looked humiliated. Then the summer house started to fill up with water – the water in the lake was rising: we all had to wade off through it – I had to help dad as it got deeper (I don’t mention to mum that we had to avoid Water Buffalo heading in the opposite direction). When we got back to the mobile home we found that it was just a flimsy wooden box (I don’t mention that when the mechanic arrived he had just the one eye in the middle of his forehead).
How old were you, mum asks. In the dream.
How old? I don’t know, I say, it’s hard to say. Why?
You used to come on holiday with us – down there, to The Broads – till you were fourteen or fifteen.
Yes, I remember.
There was that time that Phillip was trying to fix the boat – he was fiddling with something in the boat that was very important – something that could have been fatal.
To the boat or him?
The boat – like pulling the plug out. Anyway, mum says, Jane let him have it over that.
She used to chuck cushions at his head if he nodded off – when they used to visit us. I remember, mum says, she said to me – after Phillip died – she said I bet you think I treated him terribly: I did, she said, and I regret it. That’s what she said.
She didn’t show her feelings. Preferred the dog to people. No bond with her mother – I could never understand that, mum says. The only time she showed any feeling was when she died, when her mum died. But there was a good person inside of her, wanting to get out.
The man with grey hair, wearing shorts, comes over. Yesterday he told me he wasn’t having the knee operation – it was supposed to be on that day – because it had been postponed until the fungus between his toes cleared up. Today he tells me the same thing. I look at his feet – old-fashioned trainers: I notice his left knee is red.
He tells me it was the traveling – the fungus: from carpets in cheap hotels. He tells me at length about his years maintaining furnaces. Went to Sweden to work for some company there – he can’t remember the name of it, you forget things as you get older. Went with two Italians – what were their names?
After he retired from furnaces he spent a year in China, teaching English. Classes of 50, and they didn’t listen. But all expenses paid, you make some money – to spend on booze and dancing-girls. You might like it, he says to me. I can think of several reasons not to try it – not least what he said about the classes – but I just tell him that I’d be worried about the increased risk of fungus.
You’re calm aren’t you, mum asks me, these days, calm – in your mind? Oh yes, I assure her, very calm. The main cause of worry has gone hasn’t it – the teaching.
But you never stop worrying about the kids do you, she says, that’s what it’s like being a parent, she says. You don’t realize – until you have children – how difficult it is to be a parent. You don’t realize, she says, how much your parents do for you – not until you have children of your own – I’m not wanting praise for myself, she says. Ok, I say.
You know, she says – then she stops speaking because I’m waiting to pull out of a junction – you know, she continues, we haven’t done too bad have we, considering the start we had in life.
There was an exhibition on in Nuneaton that Stephen fancied seeing on Wednesday, his day off, did I want to go? In the car he told me he’d been for a drink last week with his friend William – you know him – and they’d had a lot to drink – and another friend, very left wing, you’d like him; they’d had a lot to drink, and he walked home with some chips, and when he got home he found he hadn’t got his key. It was half past one. The chips were going cold. What the fuck was he going to do? I thought, he says, I’ll just have to knock on the door, wake someone up, and take whatever criticism comes my way. So I knock on the door. Nothing. I do it again. Fucking hell, you’d think someone would hear. I went round the back, thinking the conservatory door might be unlocked – it wasn’t. I thought I might end up sleeping in the shed. Then I remembered I’d got the ladder – a big three section ladder – so I put that up and started to climb. But I was feeling pretty pissed, and thinking this is dangerous. And looking down I can see the dog through the window, lying on the settee, just looking up at me, and I’m signalling to him – bark, go and wake someone up: and he just stays there – after all the times I’ve taken him for walks. Well, eventually I knock on the upstairs window, and Cat wakes up and comes down to let me in. Susan was ok about it actually – which I was quite surprised about.
Stephen tells me he’s still reading the De Botton book, Art as Therapy, which Susan gave him for Christmas. I tell him I’ve read it – he did, after all recommend it to me during one of our drinks, when I was complaining about the pointlessness of my art work. He shuts the car door – what did you think? Well, I say, I was thinking of writing something about it. Didn’t you like it? Oh well, I say, it’s all very reasonable to start with isn’t it. I was getting quite a lot from it, he says. It’s got that reasonable voice, hasn’t it – and it’s very generalised. It was when he got to the Money section – I haven’t got to that bit yet, Stephen says – that’s when I started writing in the margins – things like fuck off. Oh dear, Stephen says. Why? We cross the road – the gallery is in this small park ahead of us. Well, he – De Botton – goes on about how we can get the rich to give more money to noble art-related causes – basically by giving them more awards, more gongs for donating – make them feel good – or even better – about themselves: and he says they’ve made money – been successful, because of their own qualities – being thrusting and energetic – like nurses and teachers aren’t energetic. So, that for the rich – then for the workers, he says they can look at this Poussin painting, and they’ll get this message about work – a. that you need to do it, you shouldn’t be lazy, and b. that work is often dull and uninspiring, so don’t expect too much, and don’t feel so bad if it is. Well, I just thought fuck off – this is all just about keeping us in our place – our places. It’s that approach to therapy – you know, be stoical, fit in, accept yourself and the world: being well-adjusted. I was thinking of writing something about it – I looked online, though, and saw that everyone else hated it: Adrian Searle had already stuck the boot in.
You’ve spoilt it for me now, Stephen says, I don’t think I’ll bother with the rest of it. Oh no, I say, read it – you might get something else out of it. We go into the gallery. There are three women at the reception desk, one of whom welcomes us – have you visited before – we have – oh good. She tells us the’ve got a George Elliot manuscript on display – you’ll like that Andy, won’t you, Stephen says. And there’s the shop, the woman says, pointing to the other said of the entrance hall. There are books, she says.
The exhibition is disappointing. The paintings of beekeepers are ok – I like the ambiguities: the suggestion that they are engaged in some ritual, or, in one painting, dealing with nuclear waste or contaminated material perhaps. The paintings of gardens, and a tree house, seem rather amateurish though. I’m not getting much from these, I say to Stephen. If only Alain De Botton were here to help, he says. Stephen knows – or knows of – the painter. He thinks it looks like she wasn’t clear what she was trying to do. We have a quick look round a couple of other rooms – the gallery is deserted apart from us and the three reception women – then we head out to get a coffee.
It’s market day in Nuneaton and the place is busy. It seems very white here – Stephen says he misses the diversity when he comes to places like this. And a lot of the market-goers don’t look very well. We walk past a butcher’s stall, an opened-out van, the butcher high up on a platform behind the meat, and using a microphone to address the public – I don’t know what it is, he’s saying, but no one seems to like me anymore – don’t like talking to me. Perhaps this is also some kind of open confessional/counselling session. There’s a stall selling perfumes that smell like the real ones, but are much cheaper. There’s one that just has rows of sausage rolls. Another specialising in big bags of crisps. A couple of large rugs over here – one with a tigers head design, the other a Union Jack.
The coffee place is crowded but we manage to find a table. It’s like being in a Martin Parr photograph, I say to Stephen. My friend – the artist, Andrew Tift – Stephen says, doesn’t like Martin Parr: he always seems to be mocking the working class. It’s hard not to do that, I say, if you point a camera at them, at things like that market – you can’t help but take the piss. Stephen doesn’t like this, I can tell. I’m being a bit facetious, I say, but I do think it’s hard to get away from stereotypes, hard to avoid producing something like a genre painting. Stephen thinks it is possible – with something that isn’t just surface, superficial. It’s partly the selection of images – with photography like Martin Parr’s – settings like this market which are easily readable as signs of deprivation. And who’s doing the photographing – their distance from a subject which, if seen from inside – the other side – might appear different. This carrot-cake is incredibly sweet, I say: I like the little marzipan carrot on the top.
To use De Botton’s terminology there doesn’t seem to be much dignity, or much that’s noble – ennobling – in Martin Parr type stuff: but how do you present something like lack or social deprivation – or, perhaps more to the point, why and to whom? I mean, is it wrong of me to say, I say, that I think this place is a shithole. No, Stephen says, that’s what it is. And they vote fucking Tory as well, I say – look at the state of the place – but obviously they’re ok about it: they’re just trained to accept it are they? Maybe they’re frequenters of the gallery on non-market days – after all, one of the most important things art can do for us, according to De Botton, is to teach us how to suffer more successfully. No, Stephen says, through a mouthful of carrot cake, it’s ignorance. William thinks it’s wilful ignorance – that that’s the problem with the working class. I said to him, Stephen says, you can drop the wilful – it’s just ignorance.
Did you see anything on the news about Harry, she asks. Now she has her eyes closed. She resembles an ancient Chinese woman. Today is mum’s 86th birthday. Yes, I think I saw something, I say. Did you see his speech, she says – it was very good, she says, a lot of feeling in it. He feels it very strongly – his mum.
I feel sorry for the queen, she says – it’s a difficult time. He won’t be able to go to any of their parties – birthdays – unless she invites him. I know you don’t think much of them, she says to me. I’m surprised they stayed close to their dad, with the way he treated Diana. I suppose, I say, if he’s giving you five million a year it’s worth it. Of the boys Harry seems to be closer to his mother, she says, to feel it most strongly. I just hope, mum says, that she – Meghan – doesn’t break his heart.
It must be boring for you, mum says, me going on like this. No, I say, I find it interesting. Oh no, she says, it isn’t.
Mum gets into the car. My heads buzzing, she says. Feeling a bit worn out. Feeling old, she says. She tells me that this is because of Deirdre’s party – she was 90 yesterday. All the talking, mainly by Deirdre, to mum, who sat with her from half past two till eight, when Deirdre’s daughter – Wendy – took them home. She took pity on me I suppose, mum says.
Mum livens up a bit as we drive to the pub. She tells me more about the party. You should have seen the house, she says, it’s a very big house. The size of the downstairs room – well – I can’t describe it – you should have seen it. It had curtains in the middle – I’ve never seen such curtains, mum says. Wendy‘s husband wasn’t at all as I expected. I thought – as he comes from Greece – that he would be tall – tall and good-looking, you know. That’s what I expected – but he wasn’t like that at all. Was he short and ugly then, I say. No, not ugly exactly, she says. He was short. He wasn’t good-looking. His hair was completely white – a big shock of white hair, pure white. And he had these big glasses on that were too big for his face – that’s what I thought anyway. He looked like a nutty professor, mum tells me. I’m not boring you am I, she says. Oh no, I say. And he looked so embarassed through the whole thing, she continues, embarassed at what Deirdre was saying – she talks all the time, has to have the attention – and she’s so nosey. You could see him cringing at what she was saying. Like what, I say. Pardon, mum says. Like what – what was she saying? Oh, well – there was this young Polish boy there – Wendy’s daughter’s boyfriend – very nice – tall – and she was saying to him, I had a Polish boyfriend when I was young – that’s what she said – but I finished with him because he wanted to take photos of me in the nude. Things like that – that’s what she said. It’s embarassing. And she kept asking him to tell her what he thought of the daughter – his girlfriend: how he felt about her. I should have taken some Paracetamols, mum says. All that talking. My ears are buzzing.
At the pub she tells me that she talked to Wendy’s husband for a while – he was on his own, hiding in the corner. He’d come to England when he was two – that surprised me, mum says, I thought he would have come as a young man. He bought the house not long after they got married. It was flats at the time – three flats. There was an old woman living there. She lived in the kitchen. They got along with her – quite friendly. They got rid of her in the end though.
It’s a very cold house – can’t afford to heat it – can’t afford to put central heating in – it’s too big. So we were all there – twenty two of us – freezing to death – listening to Deirdre. She repeats things. But she’s got all her marbles. The things she knows. People thanked me, for looking after Deirdre – so you’re Barbara that I’ve heard so much about – that’s what one said. Wendy thanked me, for all the things I do for her mum. Deirdre says I’m her best friend, mum says. It’s just that she’s so boring – she’s nice, a very nice person: but she’s very boring.