You Can’t Exactly Stroke a Fish

Or can you? You just said it, but is it strictly true? Maybe someone, somewhere has stroked a fish. There may even be a profession of fish-stroker similar to horse-whisperer or chicken-sexer. My mind is heckling me.

To give the above some context, Godmother Elect and I are sitting once again in Mum’s nursing home room. Mum is watching TV, or so the Home would have us believe, just as they would have us believe she has been reading that ancient, water-stained copy of Woman’s Weekly on her little wheelie-table, or leafing through that disintegrating book of colour photos of lakes and castles . Window dressing!

This morning on TV it’s property porn. You know the kind of thing – New Homes In The Country,  Splendid Homes By The Sea, Coast or Country Which Will You Choose? Iceland or Azerbaijan Which Will It Be? I must admit I used to like them, a bit, but the novelty’s long since worn off. Mum doesn’t care what she watches. Her eyes follow the flickering screen. How thin she is now.

GE and I spend the statutory ten minutes trying to engage/include Mum in conversation. That’s a nice birthday card, Mum. Who’s that one from? It’s from the Home. Somebody in the office has run off a sheet of A4 paper on a colour printer and folded it into a four-leaf card-shape. They have scribbling her name into the box on the front in crayon. Infant-school writing. Everybody gets that same card. Sometimes Mum gets the birthday cards of such of the other residents as can still shuffle about. They tend to circulate around the corridors.

Godmother Elect and I then do what we always end up doing and relapse into adult conversation whilst keeping an eye on Mum and rescuing her teetering plastic mug of tea at intervals. Today I was telling GE about my Befriender visit yesterday to an old lady, and being taken out to admire the koi carp in the pond in her back garden. GE and I agree that koi carp are very beautiful creatures and compare notes as to the likely price of even a medium-sized koi at an aquatic centre. GE, a dog person through and through, said that fish were all right but she couldn’t really warm to them as pets. No, I said, you can’t exactly stroke a fish.

So, that’s the context. I still find it difficult to say meaningless stuff. Hence the heckling. The strictly logical side of my ‘wiring’ objects to it even now. But I do know it’s the proper thing to do…

(Sorry – distracted. Charlie-over-the-the road has been scanning the bar codes of his delivery round parcels, topless, as usual. He has been ignoring loud claps of thunder and the flashes of lightning following imminently upon them. The parcels are set out on his driveway, as usual, ready to go in his car. And now the rain comes, falling in sheets and torrents on everybody’s mail order goods, as the bangs and flashes continue. A torn plastic cagoule now covers Charlie’s almost-nakedness but nothing covers the parcels as he rushes about trying to rescue them. And there are hundreds. I do love a good disaster. But poor Charlie.)

…but I know it’s the proper thing to do. When I was a child people assumed, and I suppose I assumed too, that I was shy. In fact I was socially unequipped, which isn’t quite the same thing. Lacking any instinctive knowledge I became a keen observer of Homo Sapiens, and even more so of Homo NotVeryMuch Sapiens, like poor Charlie. I observed that they spoke a lot of rubbish most of the time but it didn’t seem to matter. After a while I worked it out – it doesn’t matter what you say when you are forced into the company of your fellow humans. It only matters that you say something.

Later still, at teacher training college, I learned that this kind of thing is known as phatic conversation. Phatic means words or actions whose purpose is to show the other person that you are friendly, not dangerous, that you like them, or might like them, that you want to be friends.

It’s also known as ‘stroking’, ie ‘That’s a lovely dress you’re wearing, Ivy. Where did you buy it?” or “I wish my kids were as well-behaved as your three!” or “That’s just fascinating. Do tell me more…” Apparently there is a kind of unspoken tariff for ‘strokes’ too. On the whole one earns one in return, but on occasion it can be more complicated. It depends how much you want the other person to like you, how much you have to gain from them – or even how frightened you are of them. You are exchanging nicenesses.

All this is – or was – foreign to me. For a long time I laboured under the misapprehension that if I were to say something stupid/meaningless/dull/trite I would be ruthlessly judged and found wanting. I must be interesting – the Oscar Wilde of small talk – or keep quiet.

So most of the time I said nothing. This is not the same thing as being shy. I did want to talk to people, just misunderstood how the thing was done. You don’t have to be perfect straight away. You start with the fish-stroking and lovely dress stuff and then, if and when you get to know people well, you can say stuff that means something and, if you’re lucky, they will say stuff that means something back.

Ah well, you live, you watch, you learn.

Kiss it better

Canadian sister and I were talking, transatlantic fashion, about how much we missed Mum. Mum’s in a home, and she does not know us. I visited her today and she asked, in a rare half sentence, where The Daughters were. I am guessing that in her mind The Daughters are not the lumpy, grey old badgers that come to visit her but spotty, insolent teenagers or pigtailed infants.

The television was on loud. People being pompous about food, drizzling this jus or that jus on this or that. We agreed that we both particularly hated cooking programmes.

Finding her propped up in the armchair, my Adopted Godmother (or Godmother Elect) and I lowered ourselves onto Mum’s squishy orthopaedic bed with our feet on the squashy blue plastic ‘in case of falls’ mattress. Every time one or other of us moved, or stood up to make Mum a cup of tea or find her a jacket, both bed and fall mattress gave a fart and a chorus of desperate sighs. It was how we felt.

Last night Canadian sister told me how she felt when she learned her husband of forty years had cancer. She said she wanted to tell Mum, straight away. She knew Mum couldn’t do anything about it but she had to tell her all the same. But she couldn’t tell her. Mum was past understanding anything anyone said. She had tiptoed off without bothering to say goodbye, it felt like.

I told her something I had not realised until I said it, that although Mum had spent most of her life annoying me in one way or another I often longed to talk to Old Mum about New Mum. If only she would come back just for one day so that I could ask her what to do, even though there is nothing at all to be done.

When you lose your parents it’s weird. It’s not like you become a grown-up, suddenly. Here you are, still a five year old inside the elderly carapace you hardly recognise in the mirror, but now you’re abandoned, cast back upon your own inadequate five year old resources. All the bad and sad stuff that has always been inside you, all that stuff that will probably get better someday all the while Mum and Dad are in the world – suddenly they aren’t in the world, in any meaningful way. And then all the bad and sad stuff starts to creep and snuffle its way out. Unchecked. Unbalanced. No one to kiss it better.

When we were children, if we fell over and cut our knees she would wash and bandage them for us. “Mummy kiss it better,” she would say, and the magic always seemed work. It occurred to us that it’s not important whether or not a parent – or anyone else – has any actual power to help you. It only matters that you can tell them. It’s just somebody being there to listen.

I suddenly remembered a time when my parents were both alive but old and, as the unmarried daughter, I seemed to have to go around everywhere with them. We went to a museum once. Admittedly it was raining and all three of us arrived at the reception desk in dripping rain-hoods, looking like drowned rats. ‘Three Seniors?’ the woman enquired with not even a trace of face-saving irony. Dad even bought me a walking stick exactly like his though I didn’t (and still don’t) need one.  How depressing I found that museum visit. How I wish I could turn back the clock and relive it now, torrential rain, walking stick, stupid receptionist and all.

He was only expecting a manicure

Could forgetfulness be some kind of germ – catching, transmittable, etc? I only ask because… because….

Well, as you know my mother’s got dementia. I’m not at all sure she knows who I am now – if she looks up at all when I go in, it is with a vague sort of puzzlement. I might be anybody, from cleaner to carer to relative to friend. The important thing is, can I reach her water jug? Can I untangle her sheets?

And of course, you start to check yourself – daily, hourly, by the minute. Why didn’t that fact spring to mind? Why was there that slight hesitation over someone’s name? Have I just done something peculiar? Would I know if I had?

The other night the new lady came round from next door. She introduced herself. After she’d gone I went straight through to the kitchen, scribbled “Claire” on a slip of paper and taped it to the fridge. Gotcha!

Next night she came round again. We were talking about a workman who might be needed to do a repair on her house. “He does know you want to see him,” I assured her. “I told him that your name was Claire.”

“Ros,” she said.

At least it’s not just me. Yesterday one of my elderly neighbours very kindly offered to help me with my many cats if ever the need arose. “I’ve written my number on a piece of paper,” she said. “You have only to call me and I’ll come straight over.”

“That’s so kind of you,” I said, “but aren’t you allergic to cats?”

“No,” she said. “I love little moggies.”

Now a few years back she told me she couldn’t take in a particularly muddy, flea-ridden and unneutered stray kitten herself, though she would have loved to, since she was allergic. Started sneezing and coughing almost straight away, she did. (That’s how I got George.) Several times she’s come to the door and I’ve invited her in and she’s dithered in terror on my doorstep. “Oh no, I couldn’t. I’m allergic, you see. Start sneezing and coughing almost straight away…”

Has she forgotten the allergy or the fib? Or could I over the years somehow have fabricated an entire narrative, in several successive parts, about my neighbour and her allergy to cats? Either way, I’ve got to think of a way for her to feel useful and wanted now that she no longer has her disabled sister to care for – which I suspect is what she really needs – without letting her loose on my rambunctious and precious moggies, at least in any unsupervised capacity.

And finally, as they say on the News. Late this afternoon I telephoned the vet’s receptionist . “Could I make an appointment for Rufus to come in and have his claws clipped by the nurse?”

“Certainly,” she said. We discussed possible dates as she leafed through the diary. In the background I could hear somebody muttering “Anal glands, anal glands.”

That’s odd, I thought. Maybe there’s someone standing behind her, trying to remind her of the urgent anal glands of some other furry client.

“Yes,” she said, “Rufus can come in for his anal glands on Saturday morning.”

“Um, where are you getting anal glands from? Poor little chap, he was only expecting a manicure…

“Not anal glands?”

No, really, just his claws.”

“Oh dear! Where did I get anal glands from?”

Who knows? How did Ros metamorphose into Claire between the front door and the refrigerator? And where did my neighbour’s allergy disappear to?

It’s a mystery.

The Kama Sutra Mystery

My Uncle and Aunt invited me down to Devon when I was sixteen. I was to stay for a week. To this day I’m not sure why they suddenly took it into their heads to invite me. Childless themselves, maybe they were assessing me for an inheritance. If only that had worked out. Maybe my parents had secretly begged for me to be taken off their hands.

I doubt if my Uncle and Aunt were enchanted by me either – a sullen, awkward lump of a teenager with nothing to say, who insisted on going to church on her own on Sunday and spent most of the time holed up in the spare room of their narrow Victorian mid-terrace hammering away on a black Imperial typewriter she had found there. What was I writing, I wonder? Something terribly creative but not terribly good, probably.

My Uncle was blind – well, as good as. He had those creepy gobstopper glasses. Green glass, perfectly round. At that point he was still keeping up his bicycle round as a door-to-door collector of insurance premiums. He had an inner map of all the streets in Exeter, and navigated using this. When I visited years later, with my new husband, we managed to get ourselves hopelessly lost in some godforsaken suburb of the city. I had come down on the train when I visited before, so I had no idea how to drive there. We telephoned Auntie for help but Uncle answered and proceeded to talk my then-husband through the entire route to their house in the town centre from memory; which still doesn’t explain how he managed to stay on his bicycle when he couldn’t see more than an inch in front of him.

Uncle was bold, quite fearless and seemingly unaware of danger. Walking with him on the quayside at Brixham one afternoon, my Aunt and I were in a constant state of fear, ready to retrieve him as he strode towards fallen ropes, anchors and bollards as if they couldn’t possibly exist, and somehow managed to avoid them all. Later, though, he wasn’t so lucky. Someone had left open a pavement hatch leading to a coal-cellar, and down he tumbled.

On the night of the moon landing he stayed up all night in an armchair, leaning forwards, his nose pressed almost against the glass of their tiny black-and-white TV. ‘Your Uncle will be in a very bad mood by morning,’ my Aunt warned me. ‘Best we stay out of his way.’

They were an odd couple to look at – she a gawky, big-hipped, toothy six footer – far taller than other women of her generation – he a small, round man with a West Country accent thicker than clotted cream. They had met at night school somehow – quite how I don’t know, given the geographical separation between Devon and Kent – and married when my Aunt was over thirty and well-settled into the old-maidhood for which she seemed to have been designed.

Instead, Uncle whisked her off to Devon to spend many years running round after her mother-in-law, who despised this unexpected ‘foreign’ giantess of a daughter-in-law and quickly developed dementia. Years later, Uncle also got dementia, so Auntie was destined for the double whammy. But in between these two episodes of horror there would be a good few decades of peaceful companionship. My Aunt was a patient woman and content with very little – visits to the allotment; a part-time job in the Post Office; a never-to-be-realised fantasy of one day retiring to Herne Bay, where she would open a genteel cake shop on the sea front, and a series of semi-adopted neighbourhood cats, all known as David.

It may have been that night or another when I discovered paperback copies of The Kama Sutra and The Perfumed Garden in the bookcase, in my attic room. Full colour illustrations  of exotic, glassy-eyed men and ladies doing strange things to one another with oddly abstracted expressions. They were concealed by a row of dull Fabian Society pamphlets and thick layer of dust.

I read them, of course, then hid them again. It added a certain spice to the week and I learned quite a bit, though nothing that was to come in very useful, really. Whatever Cosmopolitan said, there never seemed to be a lot of call for all those contorted and excruciating positions… ah, well. I did memorise a number of words that have come into their own recently in Scrabble, so they weren’t wasted.

But the mystery remains: which of them had been reading The Kama Sutra and The Perfumed Garden, given that Uncle was blind and Aunt so very school-girlish and corseted?

And why, exactly?

Sprightly!

There are some words you somehow never expect to hear said about yourself and “sprightly” is one of them. It’s one of those Catch 22 words. On the one hand it’s a compliment, because who would want to be the opposite of sprightly, whatever that might be. Sluggish? Creaky? On the other hand, whoever called a young person sprightly? Nimble, perhaps. Quick? A live wire? A bundle of fun? But sprightly seems to imply that you have reached, or are about to reach, the age and stage of not being sprightly. Sprightly implies a certain surprise as to your physical condition.

There are words and phrase that only old people seem to merit. There’s Dear. And then there’s good for your age or some variation thereupon. My dentist recently remarked that my teeth were in about as good condition as could be expected for my age. You’ve still got your own, she said. You can eat with them and they’re firmly attached. I mean, they’re not going anywhere…

Now, where would my teeth go? Would I wake up one morning to discover that all my precious gnashers had leapt out of my mouth overnight and were lined up on the duvet swinging their tiny suitcases. Well, they would chorus, toothsomely – we’ll be off. Sayonara!

And today, not one hundred yards from that dentist’s surgery, a lady in a blue carer’s uniform described me, to me, as seeming to be quite sprightly still. Not even sprightly, but a qualified sprightly.

I had gone, in desperation really, to my local charity for the aged. I knew I needed people to talk to – social interaction as they now call it. I knew I had been sitting indoors on my own for at least two years talking to the cats, talking to the TV, talking to this blog… and basically it wasn’t doing me any good. Furthermore I had endured four years, five maybe, of first creeping, then galloping, then all-consuming dementia with my mother and I didn’t want it! How hard could it be to be taken in a coach to the beach for ice creams, to decorate a wooden spoon, to make a paper hat, to sing along to crooners from twenty years before my time? Surely I could throw a bouncy plastic ball about or reminisce, when required?

Social interaction is one of the things they say you should do to avoid the dreaded D-thing – along with exercise, not smoking, not being overweight and intellectual challenges. I thought back over my mother’s long life and she seemed to have done almost everything right – she never smoked, never drank, was never more than an ounce overweight; was always determined to offer you a saucer of orange segments rather than something nicer, like biscuits.

Until earlier this year, battiness notwithstanding, she could walk for an hour and a half, out into the traffic and over busy main roads with never a glance to left or right, at a pace that left daughters and pursuing social workers puffing to keep up. All her life she had walked, she had cycled, she had spent long days in the garden, out in the mid-day sun like mad dogs and Englishmen, heaving up tree roots or whatever. She was just one huge accusation to her weary and slothful progeny. And still she got dementia.

The only thing she did fall down on was the social interaction. Increasingly deaf (though there is a question now as to how much was deafness and how much a cover up for a growing inability to process language) and profoundly shy, she had avoided other people all her life. Dad did the talking, always. After Dad died I printed out lists for her and marked things with pencil X’s – things she might like to join – deaf groups, knitting groups, chatting groups, book groups – all which she filed, neatly, without even reading.

And now here I was, going the same way if I wasn’t careful. And there I stood, in the middle of the day care centre, surrounded by very, very old people at circular tables, drinking breakfast tea and eating, by the smell of it and from the pale blue haze that hung in the room illuminated by shafts of winter sunlight, very burnt toast. Burnt toast makes me cough.

It was no good. Try as I might I was going to stick out like a sore thumb here. It said Over 50s on the website, but no one here was that young. Or sprightly. I could have been any one of their daughters. I started to back towards the door, politely, and that was when she performed a lightning change of tack, that cheery lady in the blue uniform.

You still appear to be quite sprightly, and you can drive. We’re desperate for volunteers…

And away I went, with a sheaf of forms to fill in and return at my earliest convenience.

Featured Image: Ronald Searle “Gay and Sprightly” 1994

Memento Mori

My sister sent me an email, advising me that she had moved Mum into her new Home. So far so predictable but at the foot of the email was one of those little grey paperclip things and hidden behind the little grey paperclip thing a disconcerting photo, of my mother peacefully asleep in her new bed, in her new room, and my sister with her hand resting on Mum’s forehead being photographed by – whom? Godmother and I agreed, there was something spooky, even gruesome about it.

It’s not that I do not know what my mother looks like now, in her 87th year and suffering from dementia; how her face has thinned and yellowed and her smile has gone. I saw her only last weekend after all. I fed her a belated Christmas Dinner and wrote a post about it. It’s worse than that. It’s two things:

Firstly (my sister couldn’t have known this, but if she had it wouldn’t have stopped her) it reminded me so much of the painting on the cover of one of my old paperbacks of metaphysical poetry. It’s a mourning painting. Sir Thomas’s fine white hand beneath a frill of stiff white lace, rests on a skull. People are ranged around in their best-black-and-lace, looking mournful but resigned. The deceasing lady is propped up on many pillows, only her head and shoulders visible. And unfortunately, my sister had managed to mirror that exact pose in her smartphone snap.

Secondly, it reminded me of all those wildlife programmes where a vulture inspects the corpse of some recently slaughtered elephant or wildebeest – avidly, thoughtfully – as if debating whether a sprinkling of salt and pepper, or maybe a handful or two of chives might be a good idea.

The fact that associations like this are made my mind is shocking, even to me. Why do I – why even can I think such things? Couldn’t I switch off this poeticising, or in this case anti-poeticising, facility when appropriate? The answer is no. This sort of brain doesn’t switch off; there’s no editing what goes into it, no stopping it from ‘seeing’. And what it has seen can never subsequently be forgotten. It’s what makes people like me able to write. It’s what forces us to write, to exorcise what we cannot but see and know. It’s what makes living difficult.

Whilst on the subject of death (might as well get it all over in one post!) I am reminded of those roadside floral tributes, and my parents’ attitude towards them; also to funerals.

My mother in particular despised those bunches of flowers people nowadays tend to sticky-tape to lamp-posts or thread through the links of chain-link fences at the exact spot where a close relative had died. She hated how the flowers were renewed, month after month, year after year, “littering up the place”. What she really hated, I think, was the naked expression of grief. To my parents a death meant a cremation, as soon as possible. It meant a funeral service in a modern chapel with no embarrassing tears or screams of anguish, as characterless and forgettable as possible. After that, that was that, done with. The person, done with. Rarely mentioned again.

I like the flowers. I sometimes walk along the seafront passing all those memorial benches people have donated, and stop to read how Gerry loved to play the guitar or how Sid the taxi-driver is now driving the angels around in heaven, in a shiny white taxi. I love the bunches of flowers and imagine the relatives coming here, with a fresh bunch and a fresh card, and having a little chat with Gerry or Sid.

I like graveyards; when I worked in an office I used to eat my lunchtime sandwiches in one. On a sunny, summer’s day there is less to be afraid of in a graveyard than in the whole of the rest of the world. The dead enjoy your company. They appreciate a little chat every now and again. And did you know that you can talk to any dead person in any graveyard? They will always make themselves available even if what remains of their bodies is on the other side of the country.

I always found this sanitised modern death difficult. I longed for great black Victorian hearses, pulled by black horses and festooned in black lace. Brought up in the lowest possible church, and that most conformist of social groups the upper working class, my instincts are entirely Catholic and Gothic. I need those swinging censers, the trails of incense, the solemn faces, the cascades of tears, the wailing and the beating of breasts. I need the man with the black hat walking in front of the coffin with his mace and his black-crêpe streamers.

And I need a place to go to be with that person. I do understand the allure of the exact spot where someone died. I know that the lost one may still in a sense be there, exactly there.  Magical thinking, of course, but I know that where they went up they may, in a sense also, if earnestly implored, and if they choose, come down. Their ghost is anchored there. This is their own place, their little ‘corner of a foreign field that is forever England’ as that poem puts it.

Let us not deprive people of their magic, if magic is what they need to process the horror and the loss. Let’s not sanitise it all and cut out the ritual, if ritual is what people crave. My parents would have said – but the dead person isn’t there any longer – what’s the point of going to all that expense and – more importantly from an upper working class perspective – making all that unnecessary and embarrassing fuss and show – showing off like that?

But rituals are not intended for the dead, they are for the healing of the living.

Featured Image: Sir Thomas Aston at the Deathbed of his First Wife: John Slouch

Christmas Dinner on New Year’s Day

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.