Outside Mum’s window the sky is iron grey. The chill strikes even through my winter coat, my thickest scarf, the extra cardigans. I am wearing so many layers today I resemble a padded black cube, with legs. Mum seems to be suggesting a picnic. Recently she has become convinced that, whoever we are, we must be entertained. She struggles to explain her plans, the arrangements she is mentally making. If she could walk, she seems to be saying, we could put her into the front seat of a car. We could go out, and sit on the grass and eat our picnic. At least, that’s what I imagine she is saying. I seem to need something nobody else does – to impose a narrative on the anxious, incomprehensible, stream-of-consciousness stuff that actually comes out. Godmother is more down to earth: ‘Too cold for a picnic today, but they’ll be bringing your fish and chips soon’.
‘I think the fish must be swimming here’, she mutters. ‘Where is it?’
Godmother simply tells the truth. ‘Is my Mum still alive?’ Mum asks me, suddenly. I turn to Godmother, silently asking for help, the loss of Nan suddenly flooding back in.
‘No. She died a long time ago,’ says Godmother.
Mum considers this. ‘Is my Dad alive?’
‘No, he’s dead too.’
‘Him?’ She points at her brother’s photo – there he is in 1949 in tropical uniform, film-star handsome. Cyprus, maybe.
‘He’s still alive,’ says Godmother, seeing me nodding.
‘But very old now,’ I add. (And never bothered to visit you for the last twenty-five years, I think, though you waited and waited and always believed he would.)
‘And him?’ She points at Dad’s picture, the one of him in his seventies, in that veterans’ cycle race, leaning into the curve of a corner as he goes whizzing by.
‘That’s my Dad,’ I say, foolishly. ‘Your husband.’
She looks puzzled. ‘Is he still alive?’
‘No, he’s dead too,’ says Godmother. ‘Shall I go and make you a fresh cup of tea?’
Mum nods vigorously, then starts to look dubious.
‘Go quick,’ I say, ‘before it turns into a no.’
Mum points at Gordon Ramsay on the television, being beastly to someone because their restaurant isn’t up to scratch. Something about him – maybe the red, constantly-mobile face – seems to have caught her attention. At least she doesn’t ask me if he’s still alive.
At the Over 50s lunch a lady called Daphne has taken charge of me. She is helping me with my Bingo.
‘No,’ she tuts. ‘Turn that sheet upside down then you won’t be tempted to put anything on it. Look, I’m turning the blue sheet upside down. You don’t need it yet. Out of sight, out of mind. No – you’ve just done the line but you’ve still got the house – don’t go throwing the whole book away!’
Truth to tell, I am exaggerating my helplessness a bit because it’s so unexpectedly nice to be nagged. I had forgotten what that was like, the way Mums talk to you.
We all have to sit in the same seats, every time, even though it’s a huge great pub. This I discovered earlier, when I sat in the wrong one. ‘Oh no. You’ll have to move along one.’
‘I just didn’t really want to sit under that potted tree. The leaves are sort of sharp and dangle down your neck…’
‘Well we’ll move the table out a bit, keep you more or less away from the tree. But that’s your seat now. Don’t give Her a chance to have a go at you. Once She starts…’
Gosh, I think. It’s like being back at school. Have I really reached this age only to be forced to sit for several hours in a corner seat half obscured by a potted tree of vicious temperament because somebody tells me to?
An old man two seats down (exactly where he was last month) tells a very off-colour joke involving falling into a bucket, with some tits. He laughs uproariously, mouth wide open.
‘Don’t you get started on those jokes of yours, Cecil. There’s a young lady present.’ It take me a minute to realise they mean me.
Back at the home, Mum’s asking, over and over again, ‘But what about me? What do you want me to do? What shall I do now?’
Oh Mum, I think. Ask me if I went and cut my own fringe again, because it’s all up one side and down the other. Offer to make me an appointment with your own hairdresser round the corner. ‘That one you were in the same class at junior school with’.
Tell me off for sneaking pieces into your jigsaw puzzle behind your back.
Ask me if I’m putting on weight and suggest that it’s plastering all those great chunks of butter on my toast that does it.
Tell me you’re worried about me and my raggle-taggle lifestyle. Tell me I’ve always been a worry to you, really.
Tell me you’d like me to get you a new book in that historical series, but the paperback, mind you, not the hardback: mess up the look of your bookshelves, hardbacks do.
Tell me you’d think I’d have something better to do with my time than play Bingo with a lot of old farts in a pub in the back of beyond somewhere.
Tell me anything, anything at all. I’m listening so hard now.