When I was a child my mother taught me how to colour. For Christmas and birthdays there would always be the Bumper Colouring Book. I remember a smiling snake, and another with a motorcyclist leaning sideways. “Cornering at Speed” it was called. Funny, the things you remember. My mother taught me to colour very carefully, cover the space evenly and never, ever let the crayon stray over the line. I became a neat colourer, but in the end I lost interest in colouring. Moved on to other things – the tin telephone exchange, perhaps, or the cheaper (or maybe more girly) version of Lego, called Sticklebricks, or making ballerina dresses for dolls out of paper doilies, or those fluted paper cups for baking cakes in.
I had forgotten the joys of colouring until today, when Betty and I visited Mum in the hospital, as usual. Betty produced a sandwich bag with two slices of currant cake, which she has smuggled out of a retirement party. One of them got eaten. I gave Mum a colouring book and some crayons, since she had been saying she was bored. She pushed them away. She pushes everything away, on principle I think. So – more to avoid talking – or do I mean thinking? – than anything else, I coloured a lion’s nose purple, and it’s tail a sort of sludge colour. No response. We leafed through the pages, showing Mum the pictures. Betty coloured in a mermaid, upside down. The face turned out an unlikely shade of pink, which clashed with her yellow hair. “Sunburn,” said Betty. “A rather nasty case.”
Then slowly Mum picked up a crayon, and started to colour the snow on a mountaintop purple, it was perfectly neat, and not once did it cross a line. She could still do it. “Well done,” we said. She put away the book and the crayons and the remaining piece of cake in a plastic bag and knotted it so tightly she would probably never be able to undo it. Then she took us to see a colouring she had done with the rest of the ward. It was pinned up on a notice board – an Easter Greetings card, with a lop-eared bunny and a zig-zag patterned egg.
She had signed it “Very Old Lady.”