My mother is sleeping,
stretched out in her new chair. I turn on her TV, volume low, kneel
down and feed the cassette I’ve brought into her VCR. Like my mother
the machine is old and doesn’t always co-operate, but I’ve caught
it on a good day. It swallows the tape without complaint and begins
to run. I ease back towards the settee and settle down to watch.
flicking across the screen are black and white - cleaned up, but still
grainy. A xylophone plays a rising scale, and that ancient paper flower,
long-forgotten but instantly familiar, begins to unfold. I’m four
years old again, sitting cross-legged on the floor, a jam sandwich
in my hand, red jam-stains around my mouth.
in her chair and my finger finds the pause button on the VCR handset.
I don’t want her to see this, not yet. Perhaps never. I’m not sure
in sleep and I study her face, note the small movements around her
mouth, the to-and-fro tick-tock of her eyeballs beneath their lined
lids. Her head nods back down towards her deflated breasts in a series
of little bobs, a fuzzy grey ball on a pipe-cleaner neck. Her jaw
drops, her mouth hangs open. She starts to snore softly.
I give it
a few more seconds, making sure, quietly thumbing through the little
booklet that came with the video tape.
All I really
wanted from the newsagent was a box of chocolates to top up her groceries,
but I got side-tracked by the cut-price displays. Cheap books, cheap
videos. I wanted a comedy of some kind: maybe Steve Martin, or an
old Blackadder, or one of those ridiculous Police Academy skits. But
then I saw it - Watch with Mother, Little Weed on the front beneath
the BBC logo - and I was on my way to the cash desk before I’d finished
checking the rest of the contents. It seemed appropriate.
the booklet and listen to her snores. They’ve slowed, become more
regular. I press pause again. The VCR grumbles, but starts.
says the screen - correctly, as it happens - and then: Picture Book.
Yes. I remember. Monday was always Picture Book. This time it’s Busy
Lizzie, the cartoon girl with the magic wishing-flower on her frock.
She could have four wishes, no more, but always tried for five. After
the fifth, whatever she’d wished for and got was undone. She never
wants long hair; wishes for it, gets it. Then she wants it even longer.
She wants a mirror. Her hair is still growing, too long and too heavy.
She wants a cart to pull it around in. She wants and wants and wants...
it,’ I whisper. ‘Just don’t.’
I hear my
own voice floating on the room’s geriatric air, trapped between Mum’s
high whistling snore and the sad, low, slow tock of her wall clock.
But Lizzie isn’t a free agent, no more than I am. We’ve both got scripts
to follow, roles to play. She tries for more and loses the lot. I
shake my head.
comes back on.
that a silly thing to do, children? Isn’t Busy Lizzie funny?’
tell her. ‘She isn’t.’
you guess what we’re going to do next? I’m going to show you how to
make something! I shall need my ruler and my scissors. Where can they
have got to? Have you seen them, children?’
my head again.
the little wooden dog-puppet, comes walking across her table. He has
her ruler and scissors in his mouth. Sausage talks, after a fashion.
Doggy-talk. He tugs a smile out of me, even though I’m a big boy now
and can see his strings.
demonstrates how to make Picture Book Paper Lanterns. She’s young,
dark-haired, with a lovely, liquid oh-so-English voice. It dawns on
me that she looks a little like my wife.
ends, and the screen flashes up the word Tuesday. I push the handset’s
stop button, deciding I don’t want to see any more until tomorrow.
Like I told the warden, I’ll be here all week, helping Mum to settle
in. I’ll watch them on the days they were intended to be seen. Like
buying the tape in the first place, that seems appropriate.
I turn off
the TV, find my place in my book and begin to read.
* * *
In the evening,
she starts talking about Dad again.
a can of Stella, grateful for the slight buzz, still thinking about
Busy Lizzie and her magic wishing-flower.
had four wishes, Mum, what would you wish for?’
know why I asked her that. It was stupid.
at the sleeve of her blouse and doesn’t meet my eyes.
your father, your father and your father,’ she says. A single tear
slides down her cheek, moving in and out of the papery folds and wrinkles.
I pull a tissue out of my pocket and go to her.
his hands,’ she says.
* * *
her new chair. We bought it because we thought it might help her swollen
ankles, and it does, a little. She tugs a lever and the front panel
flips up, lifting her legs and supporting them. She spent the first
hour or two playing with it, a ninety year old kid with a new toy.
Now she sits with her legs up every day after lunch and dozes off.
I wait until
she’s fully asleep and then turn on the TV. The VCR acts up at first,
but eventually I get it started.
is Andy Pandy, and I’m disappointed. I never liked him much, even
when I was little. Now I can see why. He prances about the garden
with Teddy for a while, then they go off to play with each other in
their basket. I think about what the kids I teach would make of this
stuff. They’d tear it to shreds. I close my eyes and imagine the lunchtime
games in the playground, inventing far worse scenarios than they ever
could. Or maybe not.
and Teddy are out of the way, Looby-Lou comes to life. The woman narrating
the story sings a song. Looby-Lou dances.
we go Looby-Lou
we go Looby-Lie
we go Looby-Lou
a Saturday night…
I sit through
the whole thing, only turning the tape off when Pandy and his crew
have finally finished waving at me. I try to get back to my book,
but for the rest of the afternoon I’ve got that stupid song rattling
around inside my head.
* * *
TV together in the evening - real TV, not videos. It doesn’t feel
right to play her the tape, and I keep it hidden, like I used to hide
my copies of Penthouse and Playboy. I remember the day she caught
me, walking into my bedroom unexpectedly when I thought she was out
shopping. I’d have been about thirteen or fourteen, but I can still
feel that hot rush of shame, still see the disgust in her eyes.
sex,’ she says. ‘That’s all there is on the television these days.
Especially that new one, that Channel 5. I don’t know what the world’s
My mother likes Eastenders,
Coronation Street and Emmerdale Farm. We watch Animal Hospital and
Vets in Practice, but when the news comes on with pictures of death
squads in Columbia, earthquake victims in Turkey, she tells me to
turn the damn thing off. I make her some supper which she hardly touches.
She goes to bed even earlier than usual.
I sit alone
in her living room, wondering about taking a walk, maybe calling in
at one of the local pubs, but I feel I shouldn’t leave her alone,
not just yet. Besides, I’m not in the mood. I phone Rita instead and
we talk. I tell her she looks like the woman on Picture Book. I tell
her how to make paper lanterns. I tell her how much I miss her.
* * *
up in an evil mood, and I know I’m in for a difficult day.
is like a tomb,’ she says, a thin rope of egg running yellow down
her chin. ‘It’s like a bloody tomb. Everyone’s just waiting to die!
I hate it. Why did you make me move here?’
gets like this I remember the worst bits of the past. I remember my
eleventh birthday, my sister getting herself killed in a car crash.
I remember Mum crying, all of us crying. I see myself going towards
her, trying to put my arms around her, needing comfort, yes, but also
wanting to give it. I see her push me away, so hard I nearly fall.
want you!’ she says. ‘I don’t want you!’
In the afternoon,
while she takes her nap, I watch The Flower Pot Men. They have their
own song. It’s a hell of a lot better than Looby-Lou’s.
and Ben, Bill and Ben
the end I feel my eyes filling up, and when Little Weed says ‘weed’
I finally start to cry. I do it silently so as not to wake my mother,
because I know what she’d say if she saw me. And I think the little
house knows something about it, too.
* * *
breakfast one of her neighbours calls, shuffling awkwardly through
the front door in her Zimmer frame. She looks like a puff of wind
could carry her away. Mum introduces us.
Nora,’ she says. ‘Nora, this is my son, John. The one I was telling
to meet you, Nora,’ I say, shaking her hand, trying not to pull her
a shrunken Baby Jane in a Zimmer playpen. I wonder if she and my mother
take it in turns to bounce on the new chair when I’m not around.
right,’ she says. ‘He is, isn’t he?’
she mean?’ I ask after Nora has gone. ‘He is what?’
at me and shakes her head.
know,’ she says, her head tilted away. ‘They’re all three sheets to
the wind in this place. Give me a few weeks, I’ll be just the same!’
* * *
Bit by bit,
her VCR is giving up the ghost. I almost have to hammer the tape into
the slot, and it takes me nearly fifteen minutes to get the bloody
thing to play. When it does it rattles and squeaks like a Victorian
steam-engine. It makes so much noise I have to turn the sound up on
the TV so that I can hear Rag, Tag and Bobtail. I worry about the
volume, but Mum’s out for the count. Has been for most of the day.
Rag is the
hedgehog, Tag the mouse, Bobtail the rabbit. I remember their names
all right, but in my head I’ve got Rag and Tag the wrong way round.
Rag spends most of his time looking for water, using a forked stick
as a divining rod. Bobtail’s babies find a muddy puddle to play in.
something, something I didn’t realise as a child. The babies are a
single hand, a white glove with little bunny heads stuck on the end
of each finger. That explains why you never saw any of them out on
their own, why they always stuck so closely together. The families
I knew when I was a kid weren’t like that. Mine certainly wasn’t.
* * *
I’m climbing the walls. I wheel her to the pub on the pretext of getting
some fresh air. She says she doesn’t want to go, but once she’s there
she has half a Guinness and a packet of crisps. I have a couple of
pints myself, getting the buzz back. What with that and the thought
of going home in the morning, I feel a bit like a schoolkid at the
start of the summer holidays.
We get back
to her flat at about two o’clock and she installs herself in her chair,
feet up. Three minutes later she’s snoring, louder and deeper than
usual. I settle down to watch my tape.
VCR sounds worse than ever, but I’m determined to see this thing through
to the end. There’s just The Woodentops to go.
through, just as Baby Woodentop is throwing his blanket out of his
pram for the fourth time - poor Mummy Woodentop is at her wit’s end
- three things happen at once: the video jams, there’s a shout and
a crash from the corridor outside, and my mother jerks awake in her
she says. ‘John?’
Mum. I think someone’s fallen over, that’s all.’
Who’s fallen? Where?’
to the front door and yank it open. Mum’s friend, Nora, is lying crumpled
in the corridor, her Zimmer standing over her like a guard who’s failed
to do his duty and knows it.
from the living room. ‘John? What’s happened?’
Nora’s neck for a pulse but can’t feel a thing. I wonder about mouth-to-mouth.
Mum. She’s had an accident. Press your button for the warden.’
* * *
all the fuss has died down and the ambulance has taken Nora away,
I try to retrieve my video tape from the VCR. It’s ruined. The machine
has yanked it inside and ripped it to ribbons.
Mum is sitting
in her chair, agitated, flipping up the foot-rest, dropping it down,
flipping it up again.
fair,’ she says. ‘It’s not bloody fair. She was my friend. I’ve got
I go to
her, put my arms around her.
not true, Mum,’ I say. ‘You know that’s not true.’
up at me, and although she doesn’t speak I hear her voice.
crying and I know I shall have to stay. I hold her and wait for the
tears to stop, then ask if she’d like a cup of tea and a biscuit.
want a bit of telly on?’
Rita while I’m waiting for the kettle to boil, tell her I won’t be
home tomorrow after all.
she says, but she’s distant, preoccupied. ‘Call me when you can.’
boils and switches itself off.
the living room Mum is sitting in her chair, watching a documentary
about elephants. I smile at her, and she gives me a half-smile back.
I put her
tea and her biscuit on the table beside her, then take my place on
the settee. I stare at the TV screen, half-aware of a baby elephant
rolling in the dust, safe, protected by a shifting forest of adult
I hear the
I sip my