And now I am old

I said, `Mummy, what's it like to be old?' She said, `Inside, I'm still 25.' Then her eyes filled up and a drop of water fell down her cheek. Two weeks later she died, alone
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Thirty years ago, my mother travelled up from Liverpool to stay with me, something she did every four months or so. It was winter and she wore her beaver fur coat, a garment so heavy in weight that she tottered under its load. Every time her taxi halted outside, I ran to the door with love and pleasure in my heart. An hour or so later, the feeling had evaporated and I wondered how I would get through the next four days: not because the love had gone but rather that it was blocked up; stemmed by circumstances.

Nothing either of us did, or expected, hit the right note. I hadn't the proper cutlery; my hair needed cutting, perming; the curtains needed washing; the children were lovely but that was accidental rather than a matter of upbringing. She always brought her ballgown, although she knew it was beyond the dreams of avarice that we'd be going to such an outlandish event; she didn't notice the clean sheets on her bed; she played Rummy with the children and openly cheated; she said her lamb chop was overcooked. When I moved too swiftly, the tulle on her ballgown, hung from the top shelf of the bookcase, billowed out in reproach. Perhaps you can only really love your parents when you're little - dependent. Later on, it's adult versus adult.

Two days later we went to Brown's Hotel for coffee because she liked going to posh places. I couldn't really afford it, but I used the child allowance. If I'd have said I was short of money she'd have told me to come home. The day before she'd taken a bus to the Hilton in Park Lane, bought a newspaper, and insisted it be put in a carrier bag imprinted with the name of the hotel. When she got home she flashed the bag and boasted of how a gentleman caller had taken her out for tea.

We sat there in Brown's talking of this and that. Yes, the floral displays were very nice: I might have a book published soon, maybe, nothing definite; the editor was rumoured to be having a breakdown. Her bridge partner, Minnie, had thrown a wobbler at the Wine Tasting Night; my brother Ian was doing very well in his law practice in Montgomery. He was up for Mayor. Tommy Sutton was on the way out... stomach troubles; she blamed the cow midden outside the kitchen window. Did I remember Charlie White and that night the hay fork had gone up his nose?

I could tell by the look in her eyes that my hair was too lank. God knows, if we hadn't been related we'd have had nothing in common. Then, I said, out of nowhere, only not really, because I wanted to hurt her because she was hurting me: "Mummy, what's it like to be old?"

I didn't know her age; it was a closely guarded secret. Now I think she would have appeared to be in her early sixties; in reality she was 71, had a dicky heart and a show-off personality; the latter trait, having no outlet, she shuffled on to me.

There was a man in Brown's, at the next table, who had something wrong with his leg. He kept bending down and scratching. I was watching him when my mother made a funny sound, and when I looked at her I saw her eyes had changed. She was really concentrating on me, as if I was really there. For a second she was not my mother but someone real, someone outside of me.

She said, "Inside, I'm still 25", and her mouth worked as though she wanted to tell me something else, but no words came. Then her eyes filled up and a drop of water slid down her cheek and splashed on to that wretched fur coat; it hung a moment - I watched it - and soaked away. Two weeks later she died, alone, her teeth under the pillow and pounds 3 in her handbag and her world.

I saw her dead in the Chapel of Rest in Formby, Lancashire. She was lying down in what looked like one half of a cardboard Easter egg with a paper frill all round. Her nail varnish was chipped, and when I kissed her she was so icy, so hard, that the tear I dropped on to her cheek bounced on to the floor.

I've been more fortunate than my mother. She was a product of the early part of the century, a time when women relied on men for financial support, for status, for a reason for their existence, in that they were the bearer of children and the keeper of the home. In my youth, if you weren't engaged before you were 20, there was obviously something wrong; you were destined for the shelf.

Somewhat dusty, I got married at 21, and two years later Colin Wilson wrote The Outsider, a book about how the artist must be free - my husband was a painter, on canvas rather than walls - and after reading it, though I expect there were other pressures, not to mention my immaturity, he walked out. Not financially - that's the difference between then and now. He gave me a house, all the furniture and pounds 7.10 shillings a week maintenance, a provision so generous that the divorce courts thought there was some kind of collusion.

Once he'd gone, I started to write more diligently, though not with the idea that I'd make any money. In those days filthy lucre was an extraordinary, miraculous by-product of creative activity. The years passed, books got published, my daughters and son grew up, left home and had children of their own.

And now I'm old. One hundred years ago, 50 even, a woman of my age, 64, would have been considered ancient. I dye my hair, as did my mum, but the dyes have improved; have five false teeth - my Mum had not a single real tooth in her head beyond her 19th year; liver spots on the back of my hands; wrinkles; and a tendency to ask for a drop of brandy without the slightest feeling of faintness. Two hours after getting up, I feel tired and am apt to doze off while watching television, but I can work, if writing can be called that, into the small hours of the night. I believe the brain is like a muscle, which atrophies if it isn't exercised. My mum may have thought she was 25 in her head, but that was because it was then that she stopped being curious, introspective. Her fault, bless her, was just that she let life get the boot in. Also, she'd run out of money.

In my case, the one drawback to growing old is the inescapable knowledge that it leads to the grave, although I have been anticipating such a trip for the last 30 years. As all my relatives kicked the bucket from cardiac arrest around the age of 70, I reckon I now have about six years to go, which is a pity because a dicky heart makes for a swift exit and I would much prefer to linger, pencilling last notes and murmuring farewells.

Best, before vanishing on to that darkling plain, it would be satisfying to recite those lines, however inaccurately, of the poet Matthew Arnold: Ah, love, let us be true to one another... for the world that seems to lie before us like a land of dreams, hath neither truth, nor hope, nor certainty...

Comments