A few days ago my mother passed away. It had not been as unexpected as her choice of music for the funeral (‘Happy Talk’ from ‘South Pacific’ – the musicals gene being carried on my mother’s side).
We’re not a very materialistic family – I have a handful of photographs and memories, some of which which I’d set down in ‘Paperboy’, my memoir about my childhood. Leafing through it, I lifted out these three paragraphs.
My mother seated herself on the end of my bed, smoothing out the racing car bedspread. ‘Your father is ready to kill you. I don’t know why you go so far out of your way to annoy him. Perhaps you need more fresh air. Why don’t you go and play with Ashley to Greenwich Park?’
Ashley lived a few doors down and had to walk very slowly because he had TB. He had spent part of last year in an iron lung and wasn’t allowed to play cricket in case the ball hit him in the chest.
‘It takes too long. By the time he gets there, the park is closing.’
‘You spend an awful lot of time indoors. You’re very pale.’
‘You feed me too much tinned food.’
‘Your father doesn’t enjoy market produce. He says it makes him constipated.’ My mother knew that things in tins weren’t fresh, but thought that things in jars were. Her first sighting of fresh ginger root gave her quite a fright because she was used to seeing it floating in brown liquid. She continued to buy tins until a scandal occurred involving poisoned cans of Fray Bentos corned beef.
‘I’ll cook you fresh if we can get it. It doesn’t make any difference to me, I get no pleasure from eating because I have no taste buds. I damaged my mouth in a bicycle accident when I was seven. But you’re a growing boy.’ She narrowed her green eyes at me, preparing to sum up. ‘Well, there you are, more outdoor pursuits, eat things you don’t like, make some friends, try not to annoy your father.’
She straightened the cornflower blue apron she wore every day for the first fifteen years of her marriage, and quietly shut the door behind her. My mother had a way of closing herself off from difficult conversations.
I was not allowed to mix with the kids from the next street because they lived above shops and were therefore ‘common’. Kath had a peculiar sense of what constituted commonness. Heinz Baked Beans, football, spam, The Daily Mirror, council flats, motorbikes, public displays of emotion, playing in the street, television, shouting, swearing, braces, the Labour Party, plimsolls worn with trousers, over-familiarity and failure to hold a knife and fork properly were unconscionable to someone who had been raised in a household that had only allowed reading, praying and going for brisk walks on the Sabbath. She didn’t like loud coughing either, although she was prepared to excuse Mr Hill next door, who had a cough like a duck’s death-rattle, because he had contracted it in the trenches.
On the nights when she wasn’t working Kath went to the pictures alone, returning home to seat herself on the end of my bed, where she would describe, in exhaustive detail, the plots of the films she had seen. As a consequence I had second-hand knowledge of a great many films, filtered through my mother’s enthusiastic but somewhat personalised perception.
It wasn’t until many years later, when I finally saw ‘2001’, that I understood it wasn’t really about ‘a man who uses a computer to go back in time to meet himself as a baby’. My mother had genteel, if somewhat conflicting, tastes; the first two proper films she took me to see were ‘20,000 Leagues Under The Sea’ and George Bernard Shaw’s ‘The Devil’s Disciple’. We veered between ‘Hamlet’ and ‘South Pacific’, ‘That Darn Cat!’ and ‘Becket’, ‘Nicholas Nickleby’ and ‘Monkeys Go Home’. She did not think that this was any odder than my father sitting through three quarters of an Elvis movie before watching ‘El Cid’. Kath freely admitted that her ideal film would probably have starred Mitzi Gaynor and Christopher Lee.