Mum is in hospital, miles away. She’s stuck there for the moment, for administrative reasons. The other old ladies on her ward mostly seem to be stuck there too. They don’t change from one visit to the next. From her breathing, one of them sounds as if she is dying, but nobody seems to be paying any attention.
Mum greets me with a kind of horrified joy, as if she has been left behind on Mars for the last hundred years, like whoever-it-was in the movie and I am the one human being she has been utterly desperate to see. Then she loses interest. I am not the one she thought I was: sweet and sour, with Mum nowadays, or perhaps sour and another sort of sour.
Once I have found a chair, of sorts, and made space for it beside the bed she gestures out of the window. Nasty, she says. Yes, I say. Raining! I do our old “rain” home sign, hands fluttering downwards, raindrop-like. She looks at me as if I’m mad. Home signs don’t work nowadays.
And then Christmas Dinner arrives. Have they been having Christmas Dinner every day since Christmas, or have they for some reason postponed it from Christmas? It looks very nice – hospital food has improved since I was last in hospital. There are even Brussels sprouts, though of an odd colour. Overdone, I think, remembering Nan’s (Mum’s Mum’s) story about when she was made a NAAFI canteen supervisor during the war, and the first thing she did – to howls of protest from her canteen workers – was to throw out all the cabbage, which was black, and had been boiling since breakfast-time. There is even a Christmas cracker. I can’t see Mum being persuaded to grasp the other end of it.
I realise I have been ignoring the old lady sitting beside the next bed. She is wearing the same hospital gown as Mum: cotton, crisp, with the hospital’s name spelled out all over again in tiny letters like the tissue paper new shoes arrive in. All the ladies are wearing the same gown.
Steer clear of the parsnips, says the old lady I have been ignoring until now. They’re hard. And now I feel guilty. I have spent so long with Mum – I was just assuming any semi-naked old lady sitting in or beside a hospital bed must be senile. I notice she has been reading something on a Kindle.
That’s a Paperwhite, isn’t it? I had one of those until recently. What a good idea for hospital.
Good grief, am I having a conversation?
Yes, she says. Books are so heavy to hold up. I’ve got this paperback, look, but the Paperwhite is easier. I asked my children to bring it in. Flat as a pancake it was, when they found it. They had to plug it in.
I expect the hospital would let you plug it in in here, too. I find I’ve got stacks of books in the house and stacks of books on the Kindle, and I end up not reading any of them.
She tells me about her late husband, who had the same kind of dementia as my mother. She tells me her name is Mary. I tell her mine is Linda. Hello, Linda, she says.
Mum always hated me talking to anyone else. If we bumped into someone in the street who wanted to talk, she would grab my sleeve and begin to drag me away saying We’ve got to go. Busy. We’ve got to go now. I’d have to make excuses for her rudeness; it was mortifying. Now, however, in slow-motion, she begins to lean against the curtain that semi-separates her from Mary.
She’s leaning, I say. I sound like a proud parent whose child has just done something utterly unremarkable, or a besotted pet-owner. Oh look, she’s smiling! Oh, he’s purring – he must have taken you.
Mary puts her hand round the curtain. She’s obviously in quite a bit of pain. Mum reaches out the fluttering tips of her fingers and Mary reaches out and grasps them. She knows Mum better, now, than I do.
And so we proceed with Christmas Dinner. I have never actually been called upon to feed anybody before. It is an infuriatingly slow and messy process; doesn’t help me being left-handed when she is right. I wish I had one of those green plastic aprons the nurses use. I end up with several handfuls of cold potato and gravy. There’s paper wipes over there by the sink, says Mary.
First a mouthful of potato, then Mum scrapes the meat slowly off the proffered fork, then a spoonful of jam sponge and gluey custard with the spoon. We go on like that for a while, the same spoon now going indiscriminately from the plate to the dish, from gravy to custard. The important thing is eating, not etiquette. She’s lost quite a bit of weight.
How did you ever have the patience to feed the three of us? I ask her.
It’s all the same to me, she says. What is the link ? Maybe there isn’t one.
They’re playing ancient pop songs on the radio, and on comes You were always on my mind. Even in normal circumstances that song tends to set me off and every time the chorus comes round the tears well up in my eyes. For some reason the song reminds me that this is actually a real Christmas Dinner. So every time the chorus comes round I pick up the un-pulled cracker and examine it with great care, noting the way the paper is folded and the tiny patterns in the stuck-on lace. I hold it to my ear and shake it, as people always do, as if curious what might be inside, and this tiny, pointless activity is just enough to un-brim the tears.
I wish I hadn’t eaten that jam sandwich in the car park I hear myself remarking in a bright, unfamiliar voice. I could have come in here and asked for a Christmas Dinner. Yum, it looks nice! Can we manage another Brussels sprout?
I hear Mary laugh from behind the curtain.