It’s just after ten fifteen when the ward manager tells me my mother’s dead.
‘Passed on’ is the expression she uses, which seems a bit whimsical for a health professional and I almost expect her to say she’s gone to a better place but instead she offers me a cup of tea.
I refuse. It seems to me that I’ve just had one but that’s not actually true. Mother had just poured my breakfast cup when she put down the pot, held her hand against her chest and said, “ Oh dear. I feel quite strange.” Then she stood up, knocking against her chair so that it fell over backwards, and collapsed onto the carpet.
That was at one minute to nine – the radio announcer was telling us about the phone-in at nine thirty – and now here we are. Or rather, here I am.
God knows where Mother is.
I’m in the new Friends and Relatives Room. Oddly, it was Mother who officially opened it, only last week. In her capacity as President of the League of Friends, who raised most of the money.
No-one expected her to provide, as it were, one of the first users.
It’s quite comfortable in here, I suppose. Nice easy chairs in blues and greens. Pale green carpet and curtains. Arrangements of potted palms, although there are, perhaps, too many of these. It’s a bit like sitting in a dry corner of a rain forest.
I wonder how many people have used it in this short time. This is not a large town and we have retained our hospital only because it is a ‘centre of excellence’ for something I can’t remember at the moment.
But people hurt themselves, even in a small town. And, like Mother, die of what are called ‘natural causes’. And it is August. Peak visitor time. When children slip on rocks. Drivers misjudge curves or distances. Elderly people trip on unfamiliar curbs or pavings.
Am I sure I wouldn’t like tea, the ward manager is asking.
Mr Morrison is coming, she adds.
This time I accept the tea, which comes with digestive biscuits.
Did I have breakfast? I feel very empty. But not faint. And I’m not shaking.
Actually, I feel extraordinarily calm, observing things very clearly. As if someone’s adjusted the focus on a pair of binoculars, throwing everything into sharp relief. Only it’s not just vision I’m talking about; it’s understanding as well, so that I feel vividly aware of everything that’s happening. As if a layer of uncertainty has been lifted.
The ward manager’s still talking. My mother won’t have suffered, she says. It’s a dreadful shock for me, of course, but wonderful for her.
I don’t want to appear argumentative but Mother was only sixty five and very active. I can’t feel she will have found it in the least wonderful.
A younger nurse comes in. Mr Morrison’s coming, she says, holding the door open so he won’t have to do this for himself.
Mr Morrison’s coming, the ward manager repeats.
So many SS’s. They sound like a pair of snakes.
I can hear him in the corridor. Mr Morrison. William. My fiancé. He’s talking in his deep voice, to a student perhaps. Groups are shipped in periodically to gain experience in geriatric care – and now I remember, that’s what it’s a centre of excellence in. Some special form of treatment to do with old age.
I’m not sure where William fits in. He’s a gynaecologist, which I associate with pregnancy but, as he’s often told me, it’s more than that. Half of Mother’s friends have had what they coyly refer to as ‘gyny problems’. Sometimes, as I watch him eat at our table, it seems rather grotesque. Thinking where those large-fingered hands have spent their working day.
‘Darling!’ he says, coming into the room. ‘Darling, I’m so sorry!’
He’s a large man, William. Broad built and appearing still broader because he wears a waistcoat. So much dark, discretely-striped material.
He holds my head against his chest, which smells of warm, expensive cloth. For a moment this surprises me and then I wonder what I expected. Sweat? Or, this being a hospital, disinfectant?
‘There was nothing more we could do,’ he tells me and I think that there is nothing I would have expected him, as a gynaecologist, to have done but assume he is speaking on behalf of the hospital. Although it was the paramedics who did what they could. On our dining room floor.
I feel pretty sure Mother was dead before they got her into the ambulance.
‘I’m afraid I really can’t come home with you,’ William’s saying when I take notice again. I’m sitting in one of the nicely upholstered chairs and he sits opposite, holding both my hands. ‘I’m operating at eleven. I’ve got a full list and…’
‘It’s all right,’ I tell him. ‘I understand.’
‘I’ll call you a taxi.’ He stands up without letting go of my hands so that I find myself, unexpectedly, getting up as well. ‘And I’ll get someone to phone Mrs Rogers. She’ll stay with you until I get back.’
‘It’s all right,’ I repeat. ‘And please don’t bother. I can get a taxi myself.’
If I’m sure, he says. He really ought to prepare for theatre.
I tell him I’m sure.
I’m not to worry about anything, he says putting out his hand to squeeze my shoulder. He’ll deal with it all. Post mortem. Death certificate. Coroner. Undertakers.
I mustn’t upset myself.
But perhaps, I’m thinking, I want to upset myself.
Perhaps – seeing as it’s my mother who’s just died – I should be upset.
But oddly, I don’t feel upset, as, without phoning for a taxi, I skirt round the day-care ambulance arriving at the front entrance and walk down the drive. I feel… almost light-headed. As if I’m escaping from something.
It’s a lovely day now. Hot and sunny and hardly a cloud in the sky.
First thing this morning it was misty but Mother said it would clear by eleven. It was that sort of mist, she said.
The hospital is high up on the outskirts of the town and I walk along roads that are almost silent, apart from birdsong. The gardens are full of birds. Shapes darting across lawns and flower beds and into the hedges – beaks full of grubs.
It gets busier as I near the centre. Houses become shops, most of them with racks of postcards, paperbacks or brightly coloured beach toys outside. As well as shoppers, there are families heading for the harbour and beach below the town and the street is clogged with slow-moving traffic, looking for somewhere to park.
It’s noisier too. Children squawking. Music – if you can call it that – throbbing from shops. Sounds of shots and sirens from the arcade at the end of the street.
I can’t hear any birdsong now, except for the gulls, which I don’t count. Nothing drowns the sound of a mewing gull.
I feel so detached from it all. Everything seems so clear and yet it’s also as though it’s nothing to do with me. As if I’m not really here at all. Just observing.
But I must be here because one of Mother’s friends waves from across the street and winds her way over through the halted cars.
‘Jane!’ And she’s beaming so I know she hasn’t heard. ‘How are you dear? I wondered if I could cadge a lift with you and Marjorie on Saturday. To the fete. If you’ve got room…’
‘Of course,’ I say. ‘That’ll be fine.’
I’ll have plenty of room, I think, as I go on down the street. Marjorie, my mother, won’t be with us.
I suppose I should have told her but it didn’t seem possible somehow. Not in the middle of the pavement, with a young woman with one of those double buggies trying to get past and an ice-cream van playing ‘When You Wish Upon a Star.’
This is where I should turn off for our close. Where I always turn off. But I find myself walking on down the street and onto the stone promenade that leads past the harbour to the beach which, on such a sunny morning, is already crowded with happy holidaymakers in their encampments of windbreaks and multi-coloured bags. The sand is strewn with semi-naked sun bathers, while more athletic types race about flinging quoits or batting balls on elastic. At the water’s edge small children splash or cling to bright-coloured inflatables, filmed by parents hovering like paparazzi.
A world I’d forgotten, although I live so close. The tourist industry being something we residents have to accept and try to ignore.
Now, and for the first time in more than twenty years, I walk down the stone causeway, avoid two girls who have, for reasons I cannot imagine, spread their towels on its hard surface, and step onto the sand.
It’s hard to find a space among the loungers and games pitches and I suppose I must look strange – a middle-aged woman in a white polyester blouse and pleated skirt and without so much as a towel to sit on. I’m wearing tights on as well. Mother doesn’t – didn’t – I must get used to this – like to see me with bare legs, even in the garden.
It looks common, she would say. Unladylike.
We’re not ladies today Mother, I’d tell her. We’re women. And women dress for comfort.
Mother didn’t see that at all. She dressed very formally. Always. Even in the house. A lady, she said, should always be prepared for an unexpected visitor.
Like Death, I suppose. She met him wearing a clean, blue blouse, tweed skirt and cream court shoes – although one of them came off when she fell.
The woman on the sun-lounger next to me is hardly dressed at all. She wears a top that reveals her midriff and shorts that reveal her thighs. She looks about my age, although, as she probably makes more use of cosmetic creams and oils, she may well be older.
She has copper-coloured hair pushed back by a pair of sun-glasses on the top of her head and she has a cool bag, a wind-break with a little parasol attached to one upright, a purple beach bag overflowing with towels and one of those thick paperback books people read on holiday.
A wet man comes up the beach and is obviously the occupant of the vacant lounger beside her. He has broad shoulders and a very hairy chest and his trunks are designed to reveal, rather than conceal, the bulge of his penis and testicles.
He stands wiping vaguely at his wet chest and displaying himself.
Not to me, I imagine. I am a skinny, middle aged woman whose hair is speckled with grey because Mother does not approve – did not approve – of tinting.
I met Gavin on this beach.
I was seventeen and that summer my friend Jenny and I spent most of our time here, swimming, sun-bathing and, yes, looking for boys.
Gavin hired out the deck chairs. We would see him when we went up to the amusement arcade, which was what we did when we weren’t swimming or sun-bathing.
Most boys preferred Jenny, who was darkly pretty and had bigger breasts, but Gavin liked me best. I was more interesting, he said.
I really loved Gavin, who was similar in build to the man whose bulging testicles I’ve just been eyeing, with fair, curly hair, that bleached white in the summer as his skin burned brown, and beautiful, dark green eyes. When the summer was over he started work in his uncle’s boat yard and I went back to school but we would meet two or three times a week, which was when we planned our future.
Gavin had it all worked out.
He would have his own fishing boat, like his father, and we would marry and live in one of the stone cottages overlooking the harbour. We would have four children – two boys and two girls, although I don’t know how he expected to guarantee this – and I would stay at home to look after them. His own mother had died when he was eleven and he and his father and older brother lived in a noisy, untidy, very masculine way and he had nostalgic memories of home baking and flowers on the table.
I’d been to their house several times before I took him home to meet Mother. I liked his rough, cheerful father and their home, which was clean, even if it wasn’t tidy, and the casual, friendly way they welcomed me.
Mother’s welcome was neither casual nor friendly.
When I explained that I’d ‘met a boy I liked,’ she invited him to Sunday tea. Which was a disaster from start to finish and I can’t imagine how I can have been so naive as to expect otherwise.
Mother wore her flowered silk and laid the dining room tale with the Honiton lace and the Royal Doulton and Gavin sat in his clean jeans and tartan shirt and didn’t spill his tea or drop the fragile cup with its narrow handle – but I was terrified that he would.
And he did squash Mother’s dainty sandwiches in his big hands and drop cake crumbs on the carpet.
And he had been helping to strip down his brother’s boat all morning and had black stuff under his nails which I couldn’t help noticing because Mother so obviously did.
And, conversationally, he and Mother had nothing in common.
She talked about the Townswomen’s’ Guild and the Hospital Friends. She asked what his father did and told him that mine had been a solicitor. She asked about his mother – although I’d told her she was dead – and somehow managed to convey the impression that it was perfectly respectable for her to be a widow but somewhat suspect of his father to be a widower.
Then she talked about my A levels.
Poor Gavin said more or less nothing.
‘I think you can do rather better than that, darling,’ she said after he had gone.
Mother didn’t stop me seeing Gavin – in fact she invited him to the house quite regularly. She just made it clear he wasn’t suitable.
‘Oh dear,’ she’d say with a little laugh each time after he’d left. ‘I do wish that young man of yours would learn not to…’
So that I too started to notice the things Gavin hadn’t learnt not to do. Like scrunch up his table napkin or drink his tea with a gulping sound. Which was when we started to have arguments.
I shouldn’t be just sitting here, I think, and scramble up, feeling embarrassed and brushing sand from my skirt. Everyone, I feel, is watching me although this is evidently not the case as a girl hitting a shuttlecock backs straight into me. I must get home. There are things I should be doing.
I leave the beach sounds behind me and take the short cut which leads to the narrow lane behind our close. I wonder if Bea Rogers will be waiting when I get to the house.
I can picture her – broad face crinkled with concern, hovering in the front porch or peering anxiously from the gate. Jane! Darling Jane! You poor thing! Where have you been? And whatever did you walk for? Why on earth didn’t you get a taxi?
And so it will start. Already I have got things wrong and must be cared for. Cocooned in sympathy. Prevented from taking action.
I must wait for William. Who will see to everything. Who will give orders by telephone in his deep, commanding voice. Who will squeeze my shoulder with his pink, bulging fingers that have been inside the bodies of half of Mother’s friends. Who will press his thick, wet lips against mine and leave his saliva cold around my mouth.
Gardens in our close are full of shrubs and trees. I see no-one as I approach our house and no-one, it seems, is waiting for me. It is, of course, Tuesday. Bea’s shopping day. William’s secretary may not have been able to get hold of her.
I can hear the phone as I hurry up the path. And now my hands are shaking and I have trouble fitting the key in the lock but the phone is still ringing when I get into the hall.
I watch it until it stops. Then, almost immediately, it starts again.
At the same time I hear the front gate open, footsteps on the gravel and then the front doorbell rings as well.
‘I can hear the phone,’ a voice says and it is Bea Rogers, who has a throaty, almost mannish voice. ‘She should be home by now, surely?’
‘She may be upstairs resting,’ another voice suggests. Jean Beswarick, a neighbour. ‘I do hope she’s all right.’
The bell rings again, very loudly, reverberating round the hall as the phone, at last, is silent.
‘Where can she be?’ Bea says. ‘She can’t sleep through all that, surely?’
I am squashed into the alcove next to the front door where we hang our coats, my face pressed into Mother’s Burberry which creaks and smells of waterproofing. I’m crouched on top of my heavy walking shoes and one of them is biting into my calf.
And I’m still shaking. There’s a window high up in our front door and Jean is tall and may be able to see through it. I press back, hiding my face in the Burberry. She is the enemy and mustn’t see me.
‘I can’t see anything,’ I hear her say, as the doorbell rings again. ‘Oh dear. Poor Jane! I can’t think how she’s going to manage without dear Marjorie. They were so close!’
And I feel my eyes water and my nose prickle as if at someone else’s grief.
I can hear Jean weeping now and Bea makes gruff, comforting noises, pressing the bell yet again, so that I cringe back further among the coats.
‘Thank goodness she has William to look after her,’ she says briskly. ‘Such a shock for the poor girl. Let’s go back to your place and I’ll phone him. He’d better come round. He may have a key.’
She gives one last press on the bell and then I hear their footsteps on the gravel again. Jean is still sobbing.
Gavin cried when we broke up. I held him in my arms as he sobbed against me and felt miserable myself in that terrible, bunged-up, teenage way – but also powerful to be the cause of so much emotion.
It wouldn’t work I told him. Repeating what Mother had told me so often that I believed it.
For I was at Secretarial College now and had certificates.
I was doing well enough to go in for legal secretarial work, which pleased Mother. Presumably because this would position me nicely for marriage to a solicitor – or at least a well-heeled client.
‘Don’t be silly dear,’ she had said when I told her of Gavin’s plans for our marriage. (I didn’t mention the cottage and the four children.) ‘He won’t be able to keep you for a long time.’ ‘If ever’ she meant. ‘And I certainly won’t give my consent.’
In those days that meant waiting until I was twenty one – even if I dared marry without her permission. Two years was a lifetime and it wasn’t surprising we started to argue – first about silly things and then about almost anything.
It wouldn’t work I told him and he cried in my arms and that was the end of ‘Jane’s little romance’, as Mother always called it.
William does have a key. And – theatre or no theatre – will come round and let himself into the house. Which means I must leave.
I come out of the alcove, my calf aching where the shoe has pressed into it. Mother’s mack comes with me and lies spread-eagled across the floor as if I have killed it.
I feel panicky. As though I am a burglar and the police are on the way. My stomach is quaking – my empty stomach with nothing in it but a cup of tea and half a digestive biscuit – and I can hear myself panting.
I rush to the cloakroom – needing to, badly. Afterwards I don’t even flush the lavatory because it will make a noise. Which is ridiculous, when the phone is ringing again, echoing round the house like a burglar alarm.
I pull on my gardening jacket, which is hanging in the kitchen, and let myself out by the back door.
Gavin married Mary Curnow six months after we broke up.
‘I’m afraid it’s what I expected,’ Mother said, looking at the picture in the local paper and shaking her head as if she were sad about it.
They moved into a cottage by the harbour and Mary, who was a hairdresser, gave up her job when their eldest son was born. They have three children altogether. All boys.
I see Gavin occasionally but we never speak.
I went to work for Paulin, Burton and Gardiner – ‘Jane’s little job’ Mother called it – but I didn’t marry a solicitor. Or anyone else for that matter. Messrs Paulin and Burton were already married, Mr Gardiner was over sixty and none of their clients were either interesting or interested in me. And then somehow the opportunities for meeting young men seemed to have passed and left me behind.
Mother’s friends often said it was a shame.
I kept my little job for over twenty years until they brought in computers, Mr Jacobs, the new partner, decided the firm should be ‘restructured’ and I decided to leave.
I’d been going to evening classes in painting for some time and it was at about this time that I started to work with oils. For the first time I found I could express what I really felt, instead of just copying what I saw in front of me. My teacher said I had ‘found my voice’ and encouraged me to work on larger canvases, using acrylics and more vibrant colours. It was the most – the only – thrilling thing that had happened to me for years. I even started to think about getting my own studio.
Mother didn’t think much of it.
Just a lot of swirls and mess, she said, when our class had its annual exhibition
‘It looks very childish, dear,’ she said doubtfully, standing in front of my favourite canvas. ‘Why don’t you stick to your pretty landscapes and flower paintings? I quite liked them.’
So I went back to water colours, which were easier to do at home.
‘Jane’s little pictures,’ Mother called them and they sold quite well at craft markets and bazaars.
Which was how I met William – at the hospital fete.
Mother was doing her bit as President of the Friends and William had come along to show how grateful the staff were and bought my painting of a vase of carnations. It wasn’t long after his divorce and he started to come to supper quite regularly.
He and Mother got on very well together.
I don’t meet anyone in the lane, which leads into Wymondley Avenue, which is also quiet. From there I go along School Lane, which is busy but it’s all young mothers collecting their children and no-one I know.
Next to the school is the parish church. At the top of the steps the north door is open and I can see darkness inside and it seems as good a place as any to hide.
It’s quiet in here as well as dark. Only a few of the pendant lamps are lit – in the Lady Chapel, the chancel and the Warrior Chapel with its faded standards. Natural light shines in through the clear leaded lights on the south side but doesn’t, in this pillared and galleried building, carry far.
I sit by one of the broad, granite pillars that uphold the central aisle and stare for a long time at the stained glass window where Christ’s disciples haul a vast catch from the Sea of Galilee. Once I hear people come in, talk in lowered voices behind me and drop coins which echo in the almost empty offerings box – cleared daily to deter thieves.
I have always loved this window. The disciples heave with brawny arms at nets filled with flailing fish and I think of Gavin, who also has strong arms and once had a fishing boat.
No longer, though. Quotas and cheaply imported, frozen fish have decimated the fishing fleet here as elsewhere and Gavin works on the pleasure boats these days, taking trippers up the coast to see the seals.
I have watched him go out sometimes.
From the street above the harbour it’s possible to see the Sea Thrift which leaves at ten in the morning and two thirty in the afternoon, every fine day in the season. I have watched Gavin helping people aboard. His hair is still fair, although there is a lot more grey in it these days, and his body is still firm and strong.
He has aged better than his wife, who has gone back to the salon now her children are grown up. She’s put on weight and has her hair dyed a harsh, chestnut colour that doesn’t suit her. She was pretty when Gavin married her but she’s lost her looks.
I should be praying for my mother. Taken so unexpectedly. I’m not sure, actually, that she expected ever to die. She expected to remain in control.
It will have been a shock to her as well as the rest of us.
Rest in peace Mother. Please rest in peace.
I feel drowsy. I may have slept and woken, I’m not sure. Time seems to have passed and the sunlight finds its way in localized, coloured rays through the rose window above the West door. I can no longer see the faces of the disciples, although I can still see their muscular arms and the outline of Saint Peter’s thighs under his short tunic as he holds the boat steady in the waves.
Once, in Gavin’s untidy bedroom when his father was at work, we lay together on his bed and he reached in under my cotton skirt and begged me… Please, he said, and I said no, we mustn’t. We must wait.
And now I have waited more than twenty years, which is much too long.
The coastal trip takes two and a half hours. Sea Thrift will come back into harbour at five and today I will be there too.
Today I can wait on the sea wall for Gavin.
Old longing seeps like thick, sweet honey through my body. My breasts tingle and I scramble clumsily to my feet, no longer able to sit still. The verger, moving about quietly at the front of the church, glances down the aisle and starts to come towards me but I hurry out, letting the heavy door slam shut behind me.
The main street is still busy. One of Mother’s friends comes towards me but I ignore her. Someone calls my name but I don’t look round and hurry on down towards the sea and my Gavin.
People are coming away from the beach. Sun-reddened and laden with bags and fractious children. Some linger by the harbour, watching the boats, and there’s a queue for the ice cream van but as I walk out along the wall which divides the harbour from the beach I meet hardly anyone. A middle aged couple on a seat. Two boys with crabbing nets.
At the far end, where the harbour meets the sea, I can wait, alone, for Gavin.
My skin feels hot and damp after the cool of the church and I take off my jacket and let it fall. My feet ache in my tight lace-ups and I reach down to pull them off as well. Then I reach up under my skirt, pull down my tights and now I can feel the warmth of the stones under my bare feet and feel free, like a child again.
The tide is coming in. Water rises perceptibly, each wave a little higher than the last, slapping, almost tetchily, against the wall. Reflections from a golden sky fall, wavering, on the water and Sea Thrift will come in on the rising tide.
I undo the buttons of my blouse. So many little buttons, so respectably fastened. And now, without it and without my clean, white Marks and Spencers bra, I can feel the sea breeze blowing against my breasts.
I have fine breasts still. Smooth and firm. Better than Mary’s, which hang heavy and shapeless. I have kept mine beautiful, all these years, for Gavin.
So many noises out here. Gulls wailing. The onshore breeze rattling the aluminium masts of moored sailing boats. A snigger – from one of the crabbing boys perhaps. Distant sounds of the town. A siren – police car or ambulance? – I’m not sure which. Someone calling my name but I don’t recognize the voice. It isn’t Mother.
It can’t be, of course. Mother’s dead.
And so I undo the side hook of my skirt and let it slide to the ground. Then I pull down my half-slip and then, at last, my panties.
Released, I stand facing out to sea.
Soon Sea Thrift will come back to harbour and Gavin will see me waiting.