Oh gawd. Woke up with the most terrible hangover, panting for water, heart beating, sweating . . . very unlike me. Haven’t had one like this since the sixties. (And now I remember it, I didn’t feel too hot after my retirement party, either, at the school, but that was because the booze was provided by the science master who had prided himself on Making His Own Beer.)
Managed to crawl out of bed and have a cup of coffee and a piece of toast, and overcome with great desire to have five fried eggs, but even though I’ve had two, nothing makes a lot of difference. It being New Year’s Day, a strange silence has descended over London, which makes me feel as if I am the heroine in a very bad film in which I’m the only person alive in a world which has been struck by a strange kind of sleeping sickness. Looked out of my window to the street below and there is absolutely no one about. Hardly any cars, either. Everyone’s away I suppose. And when I looked out of the bedroom window – nothing there either. Well, there isn’t usually anyone around at the back, of course, and I would be most surprised to see anybody mooching around my lawn on New Year’s Day, or any day come to that, but there isn’t even the sound of a distant chainsaw or screaming baby or the pounding thump of a far-off radio.
Must say the garden looks particularly squalid. I suppose the viburnum will be out soon, but it can’t be soon enough. The garden’s one of those long thin affairs, with grass in the middle and overgrown with bushes and trees at the sides. Last summer it looked as lush as a tropical rain forest, but nothing looks good on New Year’s Day. It’s just a grey swamp of mud and desolation, with the odd fat pigeon standing around wondering if he should make the huge effort of taking off to escape the claws and jaws of Pouncer, my cat, and Pouncer sitting there equally weary and bloated, wondering if he can be bothered to get himself into his wiggling position to make a move on the pigeon.
I shall go back to bed. With any luck I’ll wake up fizzing with life and full of beans. With even more luck I’ll sleep until next week, when life will be back to normal.
The world is slowly waking up, and so am I. I’ve decided to do something I haven’t done since I was about ten. Make a list of New Year’s resolutions. So here goes.
1 Never drink again, and certainly never mix champagne, red wine and rum punches. (I’ve only just begun to recover. The old brain cells are starting to return to life, like the bubbles at the bottom of a pan of boiling water.)
2 Have a facelift.
3 Try acupuncture to see if makes any difference to my increasing stiffness. I’m starting to walk around like one of those little wooden Dutch dolls that were so popular in Victorian times.
4 Sort out the entire house room by room, chucking things out. I have far too much stuff.
5 Write a diary. (Which I’ve already started doing.)
6 Start painting again.
Penny, my great friend who lives round the corner, suggested I should make ‘travelling more’ one of my resolutions, but I’m old enough to know now that travelling doesn’t get you anywhere, if that doesn’t sound ridiculous. I’ve often thought that going away would do me good and ‘get me out of myself’, so I’ve packed my suitcase and rushed off to Timbuktu, say, and when I’ve got there I’ve opened my suitcase and out has popped the same old self I wanted to get away from.
So, frankly, I’d rather stay at home.
It may seem odd to put ‘Have a facelift’ so high on my list, but at the New Year’s Eve party a creepy old man (I say ‘old’ – he was probably my age) came up to me and said in what he thought was a seductive and flattering voice, ‘You remind me of a Burmese princess’ and I realised exactly why I’d reminded him of a Burmese princess, and it wasn’t because I looked gorgeous, Eastern and sultry. No, the seductive slit-eyed look had been achieved only because my eyelids droop over my eyes so much.
And why am I starting a diary again? I did write one when I was sixty, but it fizzled out after a year for the simple reason I was ludicrously happy. And if one’s tiptop happy, why write a diary? It would be so boring. Imagine: ‘Monday: great day. Tuesday: Sun was out, felt marvellous. Wednesday: Saw Penny, she is really nice. Thursday: gave a great dollop of cash to charity and felt a warm glow. Friday: ‘How lucky I am to be alive!’ and so on.
Anyway, when you’re full of beans, there’s no time for writing a diary because you’re so busy doing jolly things like arranging suppers with friends, putting bulbs in pots for Christmas and tucking them away under the stairs, chortling at reruns of Laurel and Hardy on YouTube, repainting the spare room, thinking about sorting out all your photographs from ages ago into neat albums (notice I just say ‘thinking about’) or simply sitting with a loved one doing . . . well, not very much. When you’re with someone, it’s not having them around to do things with that’s nice. It’s having them around to do nothing with.
And nothing was what I did a lot of with my darling Archie for quite a while after I’d rediscovered the old love of my life at the grand old age of sixty. He was a man I’d been crazy about ever since I was a teenager, but who I’d lost touch with when we’d both married different people. Once our marriages were over – I was divorced from David and Archie’s wife had died – we found each other again. And though the cuddly nights together were gorgeous, we also spent a lot of time just mooching about. We’d often go for walks near his vast Victorian pile in a remote corner of Devon, tramping through the parkland, into the fields and round the farms nearby, in complete silence. Not that awful kind of seething-with-resentment silence, the sort of silence after which one person says, nervously, ‘What’s the matter?’ and the other person answers, ‘Nothing!’ in a loud and furious voice – thank God those days are over! – but an easy, companionable silence.
Sometimes we’d chat a bit and joke, and make plans for the future or ruminate over the past – I’d tell him about the ghastly times I’d had with David (now one of my bestest friends) and the ghastly times David had had with me, and he’d tell me about life with his late wife Philippa with a mixture of such pain and affection in his voice that I couldn’t be jealous. (How could I, when she’d made Archie’s life so happy?)
Sometimes we’d talk about my son Jack, his wife Chrissie and my adored and adorable grandson Gene – and we’d shared the joy of the marriage of his daughter Sylvie to Harry, her childhood sweetheart.
Now, right from the start Archie and I had decided we would never live together. Both of us were savvy enough to realise that it would have been a dreadful idea, particularly as, since I’d got divorced, I’d learned to be happy on my own. (Oddly, this is something it’s very difficult to unlearn. Once you’ve got used to being in command of the remote control, and sitting in the driving seat of the car and deciding what to have for supper and how far apart to space the plates when stacking the dishwasher and at what point you think the dishwasher is full enough for a wash, and how thinly to chop up the carrots and where to buy the fish and when to turn out the light in bed and making all those decisions that are so important in life, it’s hard to relinquish control and share.)
Sometimes I think we actually turn into a different shape when we’re single. From our edges being all bumps and dips while we were searching for a partner, and constantly looking for another piece of a jigsaw puzzle to fit into, we become smooth and round and self-contained. And much less capable of slotting neatly into someone else’s personality. Unless, of course, they have a personality like a great round vacuum which is, of course, not a very attractive personality in any case. But Archie and I often spend weekends together. He comes up to my Edwardian terraced house in Shepherd’s Bush in London, or I go down to Devon – always packing my electric blanket, and wearing my special Heat-Tech underwear from UniGlo on top of a silk vest and pair of under-leggings, and woolly knickers.
Unlike me, Archie has lots of money, but like a lot of grand country people really hates spending it on anything as decadent as heating. So you go into his vast and gloomy stone kitchen and it’s awash with all the latest gadgets, and spotless slate worktops, and the bedrooms all have swagged chintz curtains (albeit hanging by a thread), but the actual house is perishing. Indeed, if I ever find myself doing the cooking down there, I wear a hat and a scarf and my overcoat, and I once cut down a pair of woollen gloves to make mittens to wear indoors. Sometimes I even put the oven on and leave it open, just to get a bit more heat. And I’m such a naturally cold-blooded person that the temperature only has to be one degree under freezing that, if I shield a sneeze from others by covering my face, I need a kettle of boiling water to provide enough steam to prise my frosty fingers from my icy nose. I have about as much circulation as an inland lake.
I should take up knitting, but after the huge effort of making Gene, my grandson, a pair of tiny socks on four needles, when he was born, I don’t think I could ever wind a piece of wool round another pair of needles again. So complicated!
So, there’s been no diary-writing for a time, anyway. After all, one keeps a diary not only for comfort but also in the weird hope that someone might come across it hundreds of years later and one might be heralded as the new Mr Pepys, though whether old computer files will last till another century is another matter. Perhaps I should get a quill pen and start writing this by hand rather than banging away on my laptop. Jack gave me this thing for Christmas, in an effort to drag his poor old mum into what I still call the twentieth century – though of course it is now the twenty-first. And I am determined to get the hang of it, even though the keyboard appears to be made for people with very tiny fingers, like goblins. Secretly I rather prefer the cranky old computer I have in my workroom.
Anyway, back to the diary. It’s a place you can write all the stuff you can’t tell your friends, where you can go over the top or be really mean about your nearest and dearest without hurting them. It’s a good pal, or a chum as we used to say when I was a girl, which now seems like millions of years ago though actually I was ten in 1957. And a pal or chum is what I’m starting to need now that things aren’t quite as – well, how can I put it? – quite as superlatively brilliant as they were when I was sixty. And because, while I’m still delighted not to be young and believe I’m happier now than I’ve ever been, things haven’t worked out in quite the ecstatic way I was hoping for at the end of my sixtieth year.
What do they say now instead of ‘chums’ or ‘pals’? Mates? Guys? I’ve got a friend who, when she sees me with someone else, even with another woman, always shouts ‘Hi, you guys!’ It always makes me feel a bit peculiar, as if I might have suddenly sprouted a moustache or gone bald in the last five minutes.
Now, why am I not as all-singing and all-dancing as I was? For one thing, I’m now nearly sixty-five – in only a couple of weeks in fact – which is rather nearer seventy than it was before. I’ve certainly ratcheted down a couple of notches. (When you’re older, and you suffer some great blow like a major operation or even a very severe dose of flu, you never quite get back to where you started. It’s a kind of ten steps back and only nine steps forward situation.) The other day I caught myself talking to myself. Actually, I never realised quite what an interesting person I was until this started. But still . . . In a way it’s quite a good thing, this encroaching loopiness. I never used to exercise, but now my heart is constantly getting a work-out just by racing round the house looking for my glasses or panicking that I’ve left my bath running.
The main problem has been Archie. About two years ago, I realised that Archie was actually starting to behave rather oddly. It began with him forgetting my name. We laughed it off as a senior moment, but then I noticed a bit of paper on his desk one day on which he’d made a list of the names of all the characters he knew: Hardy (his dog), James (our mutual friend), Philippa (his late wife), Harry (his son-inlaw), Mrs Evans (his cleaner), Marie (that’s me), Sylvie (his daughter), Gene (my grandson), Jack (my son). David (my ex). It looked suspiciously like a reminder list. I was also slightly miffed, to be honest, to see that I was so far down. And the other thing was that his writing looked peculiar. Not quite as strong as it used to be. A bit wiggly. Or, to be really honest, shaky. Jolly important as you age to keep your handwriting strong and certain. Before I write anything these days I always take a deep breath to make sure my elegant italic looks full of purpose and intent. You don’t want it looking all quavery. Dead giveaway.
The next thing Archie did that struck a note of deep anxiety was to buy a very rare and expensive new rosebush for his garden and become furious when it died. First he’d been convinced that Hardy had peed on it, but just before he fired off an enraged letter to the company which had supplied it, I passed it in the garden and noticed a bit of polythene poking up through the earth around the base of the dead bush. I could see at once what the problem was. He’d planted it with the polythene packaging still on! Was that the act of a man in full possession of all his marbles? I don’t think so. This was a man who used to win prizes for his roses; a man who was so scrupulous about his gardening that he actually used to double-dig, and anyone who’s done that knows this is serious stuff.
And since the rose bush episode I’ve been noticing other heartbreaking things about him. For instance, after a day out shopping recently, he came back to my house wearing a brand-new loden coat. Now many people wouldn’t think anything of anyone buying a loden coat. I mean why not? Very warm and green and full. But I understand Archie well enough to know that he’s not a loden coat-man. Only certain men like loden coats. And Archie isn’t one of them. He’s a hairy-old-fishing-coat-from-Savile-Row sort of person. He doesn’t possess a jacket that hasn’t got leather patches sewn onto the elbows. Indeed, it’s quite unlike him to buy anything new at all, being of a generation, like myself, which finds forking out for a new anything rather extravagant, particularly if we have some old rag hanging in the cupboard that can be repaired instead. I’ve been known to dig out the sticky remains of my lipstick from its little tube with a pin, and then smear it on my lips with my fingers, rather than go out and get a new one. And I’ll never ever throw a chicken carcass away. I devil the legs, boil up the bones for stock, and once managed to eke out a bird for ten days. It’s the spirit of austerity that still clings on from childhood. Make do and mend.
When Jack stayed the other night, just before Christmas – he was on his way back from a trip to New York and his car conked out in Shepherd’s Bush before he could get home so he spent his jet-lagged night with his ma – he said in the morning that he’d slept fine except that there had been a rather uncomfortable ridge down the middle of the bottom sheet. I told that him that it was because in some ghastly recession in the seventies, I decided to resort to an old wartime habit of my mother’s when the centre of the sheet was worn, and I’d cut it in two, swapped the sides around and resewn it. My son gave a snort, partly of laughter and partly of disgust.
‘Mum!’ he said. ‘You may be broke, but for heaven’s sake, you can surely afford new sheets! Go down the market, it’ll only be a tenner! I’ve now got a red line down the middle of my back that will take days to disappear! What will Chrissie think I’ve been up to?’
But I digress. Back to Archie’s loden coat.
‘That’s very nice!’ I said, lying my head off, when he showed it to me – it was one of his weekends in London with me and he’d been to a sale in Regent Street. The coat was billiard-table green, with narrow leathery binding round the collar, a thin chain instead of a top button, and it had a split in the back with a bit more material in the pleat so that it swung out when he walked. It featured small buttons in the shapes of tiny barrels and, worst of all, there were two Sherlock Holmes-type flaps across the shoulders. Funny, those flaps. However tall a man is, those flaps always take about a foot off his height. The problem was that there was far too much material involved. The coat was slightly too long for Archie – even the sleeves – and he looked like a mixture of a small Hollywood millionaire and an insect, the big sort you find in rainforests. Not a good look.
‘Do you like it?’ asked Archie, attempting an unsuccessful twirl. ‘I thought it had a kind of Alpine chic.’
‘It certainly does,’ I replied, though what Alpine chic is I have no idea, except that it obviously must involve a lot of layers and thick material not only to keep you warm but also to cushion you when you fall on your bottom in the snow. And why would Archie want Alpine chic when he appears to be impervious to cold? Perhaps even he was starting to realise how freezing it was inside his house. Perhaps he was planning to wear the coat for cooking in.
Anyway, he wore this wretched coat all the time, even in the house, while he stayed with me. And just before he left for Devon, he said to me, ‘I love this coat! I thought I’d grow a beard to go with it!’ As he said this, he gave the strangest laugh I’ve ever heard. And then I knew that something was deeply wrong and a cold shiver went down my spine. I mean, I’ve heard Archie on the subject of beards. ‘The only gentlemen who ever looked good in a beard were George V and Edward VII,’ he said once. ‘A beard is the sign of a weak man or a scoundrel.’
So I’m very worried.
I’ve been looking at the Christmas tree in my sitting room, and roll on Twelfth Night, I say. It just looks a bit sad standing there, its job over, and with all the presents gone from beneath it. Also the room, which is quite small and cosy, needs good lighting, and the tree, despite its fairy lights, doesn’t give off quite enough. Maybe I’ll just take it down anyway. Can’t bear to tell anyone, but last year was the first time I bought a false tree. I just couldn’t face sweeping up the needles for months on end. And no one noticed! Of course it didn’t smell the same, but Christmas trees have stopped smelling like Christmas trees years ago. Or is it just my failing nose? False trees are brilliant. After you’ve used them, you just fold them up like an umbrella and bung them in the back of a cupboard till next year.
This morning I rang my dear old friend Penny, round the corner. While we were gossiping, I brought up the subject of Archie’s coat.
‘I’m really worried,’ I said. ‘Archie’s forgotten my name, planted a rosebush in its bag, bought a loden coat and now he says he wants to grow a beard. I think he’s getting Alzheimer’s.’
Penny was very scathing. ‘You always look on the black side,’ she said. ‘For heaven’s sake, we all forget names! And why shouldn’t the man buy a new coat? And as for a beard, he’s probably fed up with shaving! That’s the reason most men grow beards. Can’t be fagged to get out the old lather and strop.’
‘But he’s got an electric shaver!’ I protested.
‘Oh, don’t be so stupid, Marie,’ said Penny dismissively. ‘Archie’s one of the brightest oldies I know. Alzheimer’s! Tosh! Honestly, you’re so picky, and sensitive. You’re the one who’s getting Alzheimer’s. You know paranoia is one of the first symptoms. Anyway,’ she added, just to make everything worse, ‘you’ve never been able to bear people wearing things you don’t like. You’re such a control freak.’
Now, if there’s one thing that makes me hopping mad, it’s people telling me I’m a control freak. Particularly shambolic, utterly hopeless, untidy and so-called ‘spontaneous’ people like Penny. Just because her life’s a mess and mine is a meticulously filed set of folders in alphabetical order, she accuses me of being a control freak. Naturally I do not see myself as a control freak. I see myself as someone who has got their act together and remembers people’s birthdays and gets the trees in the garden lopped every five years, has all her skirts and dresses arranged in different sections in her wardrobe, has working smoke alarms in every room and who always at Christmas gives the dustmen, the newspaper boy and the milkman cards with ten-pound notes inside them. And who remembers their names, I might add. Unlike some, i.e. Penny, who is always surprised when the dustmen chuck all her rubbish over her front garden ‘by mistake’ because she’s forgotten to tip them again.
Now Twelfth Night’s well and truly over, the sitting room’s all back to normal again and not a Christmas tree, paper chain or card in sight. Took me about an hour to erase all evidence of Christmas from the place, and I nearly fell off the ladder as I was dismantling some holly lights, but what a relief it’s all over. Looking through my cards as I swept them from the mantelpiece, I found a very odd one from someone which read, ‘With loads of love from Angie, Jim, Bella, Perry and Squeaks. Don’t know if dad told you about our latest addition! He’s so cuddly! Do come down and meet him, soon! Ring us! Loads of love . . .’
Another signed herself ‘Anne’, but which particular Anne she was, I have no idea. And there were a couple of people who just put a squiggle at the bottom, whose names I couldn’t even decipher.
Now, Jack rang this morning and invited me to lunch this Sunday. Very sinister, this. Most normal mothers would be thrilled to hear from their sons, and usually I’d jump at the chance and be round there like a shot with presents for all the family, but there was something in his voice that made me feel extremely wary. I think that the older we get the more sensitive we are to the nuances in people’s voices, a sort of radar. I certainly have invisible antennae like snails’ horns, when it comes to voices. Even on the telephone, I can tell at once whether people are happy or cross, ill or well, envious, resentful or bored. Sometimes I wish I weren’t quite so sensitive. Because I often get it wrong and am convinced someone is absolutely furious with me and planning never to speak to me again and it turns out that they’ve merely mislaid their front-door keys.
Anyway, this invitation to lunch was particularly suspicious, not just because of Jack’s voice but because I usually only have supper with the family when I drop Gene back after he’s been to stay. Not lunch.
But I was made even more wary when he said there was something they wanted to tell me. I had the same feeling as when, at the school where I taught, the headmaster would say he wanted to ‘have a word’ with me. Wonder if it’s connected with Jack’s recent mysterious visit to New York? Or Chrissie’s? She said it was to do with her job.
To distract myself from this vague anxiety, I went into the kitchen and started cooking like mad – Penny had given me the recipe for a lemon drizzle cake and I thought I’d make it and take it round when I went to see the family. Oh, the longing, when you’re on your own, to be able to cook for people, to do things, to nurture! I suppose that’s why people love gardening so much when they get older. Instead of looking after the kids, they’re out talking to the wallflowers and asking them if they’d like some more water and whether they had a good night’s sleep, and saying: ‘No, I don’t think it’s wise that you lean that way, and what about using this stick for a while to ensure you grow straight? And did you say you were being bullied by a whole colony of ragged Robin? Don’t worry . . . I’ll deal with it . . . yank! All gone! Better now?’
Just as I was getting the cake out of the oven, there was the sound of a key in the door and it was Michelle, my French lodger, back from her Christmas break. A few years back, she fell in love with my Polish cleaner Maciej, and they returned to France to live together, but now he’s in Poland studying something and Michelle has returned here to brush up her English, which, frankly, could do with a bit of brushing up. Rather brilliantly, she suggested taking over Maciej’s job so she could get her old room at a reduced rent, which suits me fine. (My cleaning days are well and truly over. I think there’s a moment when you’ve hoovered your sitting-room floor for the hundred-thousandth time and you say, ‘That’s enough! Someone else’s turn!’)
She gave me a big kiss and a hug – she’s almost like a daughter to me, or at least a niece – and I helped her upstairs with her huge suitcases. Then I asked if she’d like to share some soup as a welcome-back gesture.
‘Oh, ze garden is looking so triste,’ she said, as she wandered to the window, and stared into the darkness.
‘It is,’ I said. So I’m going to order some plants for spring.
I went over to Jack’s and Chrissie’s for lunch. We had it in the kitchen, and Chrissie cooked an enormous sea bass which was very nice, and I brought the cake and we were all having a jolly time and, when it was over, Gene, who’s now five, showed me a picture he’d done of the whole family – one of Chrissie looking completely gorgeous, like some beautiful fairy, another of Jack looking slightly mad but very big and butch, and one of me looking completely crackers, hair on end, huge pair of glasses falling off my nose, wild staring eyes and no neck.
He put his small hand on my arm as he showed me the pictures. ‘I’ve done bags under your eyes, Granny,’ he explained kindly, pointing to three lines he’d drawn under each eye, ‘because you’re very old.’
‘Thanks, darling!’ I said, giving him an affectionate kiss. ‘I can see when you grow up you’ll be sweeping the girls off their feet! But I haven’t got bags!’ I said, pointing to the lines.
‘They’re to show you’re a granny,’ said Gene. ‘I’ve seen it in comics.’
‘It’s not very flattering,’ said Chrissie, laughing. ‘Granny doesn’t have bags under her eyes!’
‘All right,’ said Gene, staring at me hard. Then he said crossly. ‘But now I’ve got to do another picture of you,’ he said, padding over the special drawer where he keeps his art things.
Over pudding – my delicious lemon drizzle cake and cream – I asked them how Chrissie’s trip had been to New York and this is when the conversation suddenly went a bit silent and Chrissie left the table to do some washing up, and if it had all been a film, some sinister music would have started playing, with low droning violins and a throbbing drumbeat.
Jack looked down at the table and then he pushed his chair back and said, ‘Well, that’s what we wanted to tell you about, Mum.’
Of course at that moment I knew exactly what was coming and my heart sank into my boots. He didn’t have to say another word. Everything suddenly fell into place as if I’d known all along but had just hidden it from myself. Chrissie had been offered a job in New York and they were going over.
‘How long for?’ I asked, as lightly as I could, trying to hide the catch in my voice.
‘Don’t jump to wild conclusions, Mum,’ said Jack, rather snappily. ‘We haven’t even told you what it is!’
‘Chrissie’s been offered a job in New York,’ I said.
‘How did you know?’ said Chrissie, turning from the sink.
‘Sometimes you just know these things,’ I said. Though actually I didn’t really know how I knew at all. I just knew I knew. ‘Well, anyway, yes, that’s true. But there’s nothing to worry about.’
‘Nothing to worry about?’ I said. ‘But I’ll never see you again!’
In my racing mind I’d already got them living in New York forever, then moving even further away to California, and Gene growing up with an American accent, wearing a permanent baseball cap either backwards or sideways on his crew-cut head and chewing gum, and us all being completely unable to recognise each other when we did finally meet. Every ten years if we were lucky.
‘Honestly, you’ve got us living there forever and never seeing you again before we’ve even thought about it properly!’
The immensity of what they were about to do suddenly hit me with huge force. I burst into floods of tears.
‘But you’ll all be saying “Gee whizz!” I heard myself wailing.
‘What, Mum?’ said Jack, pushing his chair forward and leaning over the table to hold my hand in his. ‘We’ll all be saying what?’
‘G-g-gee whi-whi-wh-whizz,’ I hiccupped, choking, between sobs. For some reason this seemed the saddest thing I could think of. ‘Gee whizz, darling,’ I added, in a more composed voice, in case he hadn’t understood.
Jack started laughing and so did Chrissie. ‘We’ll never say “Gee whizz”, said Jack, and at that point I realised how silly I must have sounded and started to laugh myself. Everyone was very sweet and pulled out their handkerchiefs and Gene came over and said he knew his alphabet now, and Jack said ‘What is gee for, then? Or “g?”’ he said, making the sound.
‘God,’ said Gene solemnly.
‘And “a”?’ said Jack.
‘Apple,’ said Gene.
‘And “w”?’ said Jack (and under his breath, to me, ‘Listen to this’).
‘“W” is for wabbit,’ said Gene.
‘Mum, don’t worry . . . we’re not going till May . . . and anyway, we’ll only be gone a year at most . . .’
‘But you might stay on,’ I said, miserably, trying to pull myself together. I felt that I’d known this was coming all along, and suddenly all my grief had just burst out at once. ‘You might stay there for ever and ever and I’ll never see you again . . .’ the tears started welling up again.
‘Well, I can’t lie – there is a remote chance we might stay on, but it all depends whether we like it or not. And I’m sure we won’t. Now you’ve introduced the appalling idea that we might all say “Gee whizz” it’s sounding more un attractive by the minute.’
At this point Gene, realising I was upset, came up and put his little hand on my arm.
‘Why is Granny crying?’ he asked his father.
‘She’s upset we’re going away,’ said Jack, ‘but it’ll be fine, Mum. We’ll be in touch all the time.’
‘Don’t worry, Granny,’ said Gene to me, repeating the words of his father. ‘We’ll be in touch all the time.’
‘I’m fine,’ I said, trying to pull myself together. ‘And you’ll have a lovely time, darling.’
‘It’s all assuming I can do the job!’ added Chrissie. ‘They may sack me after a couple of months!’
‘And I’m going to an American school!’ said Gene, tugging at my sleeve. ‘Look, Granny, look at the dinosaur I’ve just drawn! Look, can you see his teeth? And that’s you – you’re on his back, having a ride! And you haven’t got those lines under your eyes any more!’
‘Oh, lovely, darling,’ I said, trying to recover and, inside, to take all this in, and not burst into tears again and lie on the floor wailing and gnashing my teeth and begging them not to go. ‘Well, it’ll be a great opportunity!’ With a superhuman effort I tried to look on the bright side.
‘Oh, Mum, I know you’ll miss us and we’ll miss you, but you can come over and visit and we’ll be coming back, it’s not that far away. And there’s always Skype!’
Apparently Chrissie’s been offered a brilliant job, marketing her company’s beauty products. As a lifelong soap-and-water girl, if I can even call myself ‘girl’ any more, I simply don’t understand the obsession with the kind of ‘products’ that Chrissie markets, but she always looks gorgeous so perhaps they do some good. Personally I put a good skin down to genetics, but I keep my mouth shut when she’s around. So sweet – on my birthday she always gives me amazingly expensive creams, but to be honest I just pass them straight on to Michelle, who can’t believe her luck.
Anyway, I was trying desperately to convince myself it was a great opportunity for the family, and Jack can find work out there, too, and of course there was a bit of me that’s really thrilled for them and it’ll be exciting and good for Gene. And yet, on the other hand, I felt so frightful, and so immensely sad, I just couldn’t stay for very long afterwards.
‘At least it’s not Australia,’ I kept telling myself, as I drove home. I had to pull over repeatedly to wipe away the tears that were misting up my glasses. ‘New York is just a hop and skip away. You could almost go over for the day.’
Then, ‘And there’s always Skype.’
But what the hell is Skype, anyway? I mean I know it’s some sort of photo thing where you can see each other, but that’s all. I’ll have to ask James.
When I got home at five o’clock I broke one of my resolutions and poured myself an extremely large glass of white wine – I had to get a new bottle out of the elephant cupboard where all the drink is kept. I felt so bleak I had to sing a song loudly as I passed it. The elephant cupboard? It’s where Gene and I even now play ‘elephants’. Children always see their parents as parents – mum and dad. But I’m convinced that until they reach a certain age, grandchildren regard their grandparents not as grandparents but, rather, as very big children, people to play games with.
Anyway – the elephant game. It involves Gene going into the cupboard under the stairs, as I walk about in the sitting room and the corridors saying, in a loud voice, ‘I think there’s an elephant here! Oh look, there’s some elephant poo on the floor, how disgusting . . . there must be an elephant here . . . but a very pongy elephant . . .’ and there’d be a burst of giggling from the cupboard – ‘but I can’t hear an elephant, so perhaps it isn’t here . . .’
At this point Gene makes a trumpeting noise from the cupboard and I say ‘Good heavens, could that be an elephant!’ and I look everywhere, and I look behind the sofa and say ‘No elephants here!’ and then behind the chair and say ‘No elephants here!’ and Gene still trumpets from the cupboard and finally, exasperated, he whispers loudly, ‘Granny! Look in the cupboard!’ and I say, ‘Funny, I’ve never heard an elephant call me granny before, I’ll go and look . . .’ and open the door and he bursts out and we laugh and then he says, ‘Let’s do it again. You be the elephant this time . . .’ and I’m stuck in the cupboard making elephant noises.
Oh dear, oh dear. I’m crying again. All over my keyboard.
Excerpted from No! I Don’t Need Reading Glasses! by Virginia Ironside. Copyright © 2013 by Virginia Ironside.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.