Paul Visits his Mother
I looked down into the street – a few tourists milling, or conferring over maps, lost on their way to the Dickens museum or the amenities of Brunswick Square. It was cold in the room. I’d switched off the heating to cut down on bills (which, to my annoyance, Alex insisted I paid). I sat down in the armchair and made a couple more calls – to Melissa, the girl before Polly, who didn’t answer, and to Aurelie, a French nurse at Great Ormond Street to whom I’d got talking in ‘Danny’s Gourmet Wraps’, a local sandwich shop, a few days previously. The number she had given was unobtainable. I’d either jotted it down wrongly or, mon dieu, she hadn’t been as interested as she’d appeared. With a further dip in my spirits, I realised the girl from the Crown & Hart had never got in touch either.
We sat eating it at the counter in her small kitchen, watching the trains rattle past at the bottom of the garden.
A discordant jangling of bells brought me to my senses. The Sunday service at St George the Martyr was coming to an end. I was supposed to be in East Sheen with my mother. Putting Alice and Andrew, and the morning’s other irritations, from my mind, I hurried out of the flat, to catch a bus to Waterloo, and then a suburban train to the outer reaches of south-west London where she lived.
I could see my mother’s face peering from the window when I arrived at the gate of her small railway cottage. I was late. I’d promised to accompany her to church and to visit my father’s grave, and I’d failed, though, when she opened the door, neither of us mentioned the transgression.
She had already cooked lunch. Shrivelling in a Pyrex dish in the oven, under a pre-used sheet of silver foil, were two lamb chops, a boiled potato cut in half, and a scoop of over-cooked cabbage – the house smelt of all three. We sat eating it at the counter in her small kitchen, watching the trains rattle past at the bottom of the garden.
She was in perky humour – or at least she chattered away as if she was. My younger brother Douglas, who despite his lack of academic qualifications, earned a tidy salary as an electrical fitter, had had a wonderful holiday in Lanzarote. ‘It was a nice hotel by all accounts, all inclusive, kids club and everything. You even got free Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.’ She had taken the faulty kettle back to Dickens & Jones and the lovely girl (‘black but couldn’t have been nicer’) had exchanged it, without even asking for a receipt. Nice Mavis, from church, had offered to host next month’s WI, ‘which is a relief because of my knee’.
‘So all good,’ I said. I had mentioned on the phone that I might have to ‘kip’ here for a bit and I knew the atmosphere was heightened because of that: her wary cheerfulness, my encroaching sense of suffocation. She didn’t bring the subject up until we had cleared away dessert (an apple crumble from Tesco Metro with Birds custard) when she tentatively asked if I would like to see my room.
‘I know it’s not what you’re used to, but I’ve made it nice for you up there anyway.’
Nice. Nice. Everything was always so nice.
I followed her up the steep stairs, not to the main bedroom (which Douglas and I shared after my father died), but to a tiny room at the back which used to be hers. In pride of place on the wall was the Times Literary Supplement review of Fragments, the paper yellowing with age behind the glass. Stuck in the frame was the tiny cutting of the Sunday Times bestseller list, the week it reached number nine. My mother showed off the improvements. Reg, her ‘handyman friend’ (interesting), had stuck on a pitiful pine shelf, secured by two puny matching brackets, for my ‘things’. She had bought a new lamp for the bedside table. Tra-la. I thanked her, without actually going into the room. All I could think was how cramped it was, how narrow the bed, how I would die of asphyxiation if I had to live here.
There were times when I was young when I hated my family for the smallness of its ambition, for its willingness to settle. My mother, who cleaned offices, emptying the same rubbish bins, scrubbing Nescafe stains from the same desks night after night, never fought against her lot, never thought her life might be worth more. And my father meekly trotted off to his job as a prison chaplain, while his contemporaries scaled the heights of the English church. (My godfather, the Canon Treasurer, was the one who pulled the strings for me to get the clerical bursary at school. It wouldn’t have crossed my parents’ mind to ask.)
I didn’t stay as long as usual. I said I ‘had work’, which was, of course, a lie. On the doorstep, she remembered Douglas had given her an article from the Daily Mail which he thought might interest me. I closed the door again and waited in the hall, the heat of the house rising, the walls creeping in, while she rummaged in her desk, and in her handbag, and in her bedside drawer, and among the pile of bills on the kitchen table until she found the folded scrap of paper in question. She watched me as I opened and read: an interview with a famous bestselling writer, whose first novel had been so successful he had found it hard to write his second. ‘Thanks,’ I said, bending to kiss her powdery cheek. ‘In fact, next time I see you, I might have some exciting news. A couple of publishers are vying for my new manuscript and there has been interest from Hollywood.’ I put my finger to my lips. ‘It’s still hush hush so don’t tell Douglas’ – thereby ensuring that she would – ‘but I’ll let you know as soon as the contracts are signed.’