My mother arrives in the early evening, bearing belated birthday presents: a picture book of 1960s fashions, and photographer Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s stunning The Earth from the Air. I explain that I have spent the day on sick leave, lolling about on the sofa and feeling sorry for myself. “Being a typical man, in other words“, is her brisk retort. A resolutely practical, unsentimental woman, she has little patience for weakness.
The three of us smarten ourselves up a bit and head for World Service. This is our third choice of restaurant; the weather is no longer suitable for sitting outside at the Martin’s Arms at Colston Bassett, and – to our great surprise – Harts is fully booked, even on a Monday. My concerns that World Service might be a shade too Urban Flash for my mother are swiftly confirmed; with no more than a couple of wry, under-stated remarks, accompanied by her instantly recognisable “I don’t think much of this but I’m far too polite to say so” expression, she scythes through its pretensions in minutes.
She is quite right, of course; this is a place which strains all too visibly to achieve a “fine dining experience”, without ever quite hitting the mark which it has rather self-consciously set for itself. It is a place where the staff feel the need to introduce the butter, for crying out loud:
“Let me tell you about today’s butter; it’s from Normandy, and we’ve seasoned it with a little natural sea salt, to bring out the flavour.” Puh-leeze, Louise.
Still, for all that, the food is pretty damned good – my smoked salmon ravioli slips down a treat, as does my beautifully smooth pan-fried calves liver and my scrummy “trio of chocolate”. By the end of the evening, the alcohol (1 gin & tonic, 1 kir, 1 glass of white, 2 glasses of red) has, as ever, provided temporary relief for my flu symptoms. In fact, I am so restored that I even suggest skipping the taxi and walking home instead.
Tuesday morning finds me in a considerably deteriorated state of health. After K leaves for his meeting at around 9:45, I finally heave myself out of bed and stagger downstairs to keep my mother company. We spend the morning drinking tea, flicking through the papers, and chatting amiably.
Mother explains that she has started writing a detailed set of memoirs about her childhood and adolescence: drafted in longhand, and then laboriously typed up on an electric typewriter. I suggest that she might benefit from a word processor; she only registers polite, tangential interest, claiming that her spending priorities currently lie elsewhere. Knowing that it will get neither of us anywhere, I decide to avoid the standard Tech-savvy Son Browbeats Tech-phobic Parent stand-off. Instead, I ask when I might be able to read the memoir (expecting it to be intended for purely private purposes), and am told that I may read it any time I like. I am intrigued; while doubting that there will be much in the way of emotional revelation, I can safely anticipate a wealth of accurate and well-researched factual detail (one of my mother’s strongest suits).
I ask why the memoir stops at the age of seventeen. (Mother married less than two years later, and gave birth to me less than two years after that.)
“I suppose that after 17, it became an altogether very… different sort of life“, I prod, smiling conspiratorially. We both know what my father was like.
“You could say that.” The smile is returned. We are on the borders of well-established territory here. No more needs to be said.
Taking a different direction, I prod further. “So, I guess that’s where boyfriends came into the picture?”
“Actually, before your father came along, there weren’t really any other boyfriends.” The smile has fractionally tightened.
“Oh. I hadn’t realised that.” I make a conscious attempt to confine both my surprise and my sympathy to within acceptable proportions. Emotional demonstrativeness has never been our particular modus operandi. Such matters may safely be alluded to – but to express them would be fearfully bad form.
After mother leaves, I return to bed – and spend the rest of the day, and the day after that, and the day after that, languishing in the sort of pointless, unproductive, ill-tempered tedium which, were it to be described in detail, would strain the patience of even my most devoted readers.