Prayers, Pipe-smoke and the Problem Page

I have a bit of a soft spot for Woman’s Realm. Not that I buy it. Oh no, that would be… a no-no. Mostly I get a heap of them, back-dated, in a Tesco bag. It’s a bit like one of those drug-dealer exchanges on motorway slip-roads. Betty passes them over to me in the car park of Mum’s care home. We meet up there before the Visit, cars parked neatly side by side, both of us dreading the Going In and longing for the Coming Out. It sounds awful, doesn’t it? Not wanting to go in? I feel a bit better because Betty feels the same. I email her in advance.

Are you OK for a visit to Mum this Sunday, usual time and place?

And inevitably she emails back something like: I’m game if you are or If you can do it, I can.

I realise she is not coming to see Mum, now, but to give me the courage to see her.

Older than Mum, she has been with us both since before I was born. She knew me when I was an awkward bump. She used to look after me every Friday evening so that Mum and Dad could go out. A single lady, she told me recently she was terrified every time that Something Dreadful might happen to me whilst I was in her care and it would all be her fault. And yet she is reassurance itself.

It has always seemed to me that Betty could cope with anything. She is the very embodiment of Keep Calm and Carry On. But I sense that she is out of her depth in this nightmare of a place, and with the nightmare Mum is becoming. Too close to home, I guess, to be sat amongst those who are the same age as you or younger; in constant peril of being mistaken for an inmate and hoisted into a wheelchair or forced to drink yet more cranberry juice from a plastic cup.

Mind you, the inmates mistake me for an inmate sometimes. And other times they mistake me for the person who knows where their lost suitcase is, or the person who has come to cut their toenails, or the person who speaks fluent Italian. I made the mistake last week of trying out my few phrases of Italian on Maria, whose word-of-choice is Bella! (Mum’s is Well…)

Yole vole lavare quista camichetta? I ventured, remembering the phrase from a long-ago BBC Learning Zone programme. Non parl… speak Italian… much.

Poco? She pinches her fingers together. She has no teeth. Her chin all buts the end of her nose, like the witches in fairy-tale book illustrations.

Si, molto poco.

Bella!

La sciarpetta?

Poco.

And then a lady from the church arrives to bring her communion. We watch as the priest-lady sets out a tiny cross on a white handkerchief. It has been ironed into quarters. She takes out a prayer book, and a little silver container of communion wafers. She has just gone through the exact same service for the only other Catholic lady in another room. We listen to the prayer for the sick, and to other prayers. We listen as she says In the name of the Father… and Maria crosses herself and mumbles in nomine patris…Bella! I find the prayers soothing, though they are not intended for me. I wonder if I should start reading the Bible a bit, knowing I probably won’t.

Betty, I sense, does not find the prayers soothing, rather the opposite, and yet she is the nearest thing to a Guardian Angel I have ever known. She guarded Mum and now she’s doing what she can to guard me. But she is fidgeting and trying not to look at the door.

Well occasionally in moments of extreme stress I do buy a Woman’s Realm. Woman’s Realm is to me what chocolate – or Baileys Irish Cream – are to other women: comfort reading, because the magazine reminds me of Nan.

Every Sunday I used to go along the road to Nan and Grandad’s for Sunday Dinner and Sunday Tea. A whole day’s respite, if you counted Sunday School first, from having to keep out of my father’s way and from having to protect my mother from anything that might set off her Nerves again and have her lying on the sofa with her eyes shut, clutching a handkerchief in hands that shook and shook.

Every Sunday – well, I’ve written about it before – but while Nan was cooking our Sunday Dinner I would hang around with Grandad in the living room. He would fill his pipe with St Bruno Flake and fill the whole room with a thick fug of aromatic, if unhealthy, smoke. He would idle through pink back-copies of The Carpenter & Joiner and I would read Nan’s Woman’s Realm.

I was supposed to be reading it only for a cartoon about a family of little robins – Mummy Robin, Daddy Robin and… Other Robins, but I didn’t understand the cartoon much. What I liked to look at was the knitting patterns – lantern-jawed husband-material posed stiffly in black and white, showing off their new blackberry-stitch cardigan – babies surrounded by lacy layettes, a halo of little shawls, bonnets, cardis and bootees of infinite complexity.

fair isle.jpg

I seized my chance to create one of these challenging little lacy things – a cardigan, it was, complete with buttons and knitted buttonholes – for my youngest sister when she was expecting her first child. It didn’t go down too well. Apparently the modern baby wears the baby-grow.

I read at least sections of those endless romantic serials, wondering why there was such a scarcity of stern, broken-hearted Highland Lairds in my part of Kent.

And, of course, I read the Problem Page. It was always at the back, so easy to find. From readers’ letters I learned, after a fashion, the facts of life. My innocent requests for the Meanings of Long Words forced Nan to explain, albeit in a whimsical and euphemistic manner, Certain Things to me that might come in useful later (though not very useful, as it turned out). I doubt if Mum would even have mentioned them.

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