It’s unusually warm for December, as though the season’s made a mistake and is surprised to be here. Someone’s dropped a red rag over Mum’s fence. It bleeds into her lawn, like a wound. I let myself in.
No reply, just a muted rustle. I eventually find her, upstairs in her bra and pants, by the open door of the airing-cupboard. She’s surrounded by possibly every other pair of knickers and bra she owns; discarded white skins lie on the floor all around her, as if there’s been some kind of arctic cull.
“I can’t find any pants.” She resembles a dejected snowdrop. “I didn’t hear you, you never knock loud enough.”
I finish dressing her, put her hearing aid on four. It whistles, disparagingly, back at me.
“Have you had your hair developed?” I nod, guiding her towards the stairs. “It’s nice, but it doesn’t suit you.”
We get halfway down, she pauses for breath. “How old are you, now?”
“I’m fifty-five, Mum.”
“Sixty-five! Bloody wars. So how old am I?”
“Oh, not so bad then.”
We arrive at the bottom of the stairs. There we are, in the gilt-edged mirror. Next to her, I look 35. Well, almost. In the hall, her shoes are lined up, like miniature coffins.
“Have you spilt something in the kitchen, Mother?”
“What? You do mumble!”
I point to the damp patch on the carpet; in the shape of a spaceship. Was it a lucky escape with the kettle, or is it one of her ‘little accidents’?
“Well, how careless of you!’” Her face is contorted in apoplectic shock.
I sit her in her dining-room chair. “I’m going to do your feet.”
“Why, are you tired?”
She looks at me as if she’s never seen me before in her life.
“Mum, don’t you think you’d be happier in a Home?’”
“Good God, no! I’m not living with a load of old folk.”
“But wouldn’t you like to be looked after?”
“Certainly not, I still dress myself and I can still cook all my own meals, and what not.” She pauses, dramatically. As if she expects to be applauded for her line.
The doorbell rings. “Roast lamb today, for your mother!” The Meals on Wheels lady hands it over.
“Who was that?”
“Your lunch, Mum.”
“They need to change the cook, she can’t make pastry for toffee.”
Mother has always expressed her displeasure at almost everything; past, present and future – with the exception of tutus, small pink flowers, and the queen. I wash her feet, put her slippers on.
“Eye drops first, Mum, before you eat.”
I miss, chemical tears trickle down her cheeks. I give her a tissue, she grasps it. It’s a dead dove in her hand.
“Don’t drown me! Have you had your hair done? It does look nice.”
Smelling her bad-fish breath; mingling, incongruously, with the fragrance emanating from the bowl of potpourri I bought her, I ask her to open her mouth.
“I think I’ve lost another tooth.”
There’s a miniature ancient ruin of a city, where a few brown and broken structures cling together, for safety. The silver wire of her denture plate shines resiliently amongst the decay, like recently surfaced treasure.
“We need to go to the dentist, Mum, maybe you need more false ones.”
“Oh I’m not bothering with all that; it’ll come out the other end.”
“Tablets now,” I say in my nursey voice.
“Are you trying to poison me?”
She ‘chokes’, histrionically, rolls her eyes, and swallows the small pills as if they’re golf balls. I put her dinner on a tray.
“Pop it under the grill, will you? I think I’ll have a little read first.”
“Which do you want, Mother?” I proffer two books: Poems Of Patience Strong and a Mills and Boon paperback. She puts her glasses on, screws her face up, and scratches her scalp; as if she’s deciding whether or not to invade Russia.
“Ooh, I think I’ll have this one; I just fancy A Passionate Virgin.”
* * *
“I could do with some Marsanta, you know.”
“They stopped selling that forty years ago, Mum.”
“Well they are silly devils, then.”
She pauses, looks at me, quizzically.
“You look a lot older than that.”
She stares fixedly out of the window at the trees in her garden with melancholy, rheumy eyes. She appears to be witnessing some miracle taking place, but is unable to comprehend what. Her pouty mouth twitches; the only movement it’s ever been able to make that faintly resembles a smile.
I look at the mail on her table: Would you like to change your future in three easy steps? Join our bank today. We promise to meet all your needs.
“Don’t throw those away, will you?”
I shake my head, knowing that I will; knowing I’ll feel like a traitor. Doreen, Mum’s life-long friend, rings.
“Tell your mum Evelyn’s in a psy-cro-attic ward. Tell her now.”
“Mum, Evelyn’s in a psychiatric ward.”
“Oh, that’s nice.”
“And tell her she’s refusing to eat; all she’s eating is compost – tell her now about the compost, before she forgets.”
“All Evelyn’s eating is Complan, Mum.”
“Well, how damned stupid!”
“Have you told your mother?” But she puts the receiver down, before I’ve time to reply.
“I’ve never liked Doreen,” says Mum, scowling, “she’s a bit smutty.”
She glances at the newspaper headlines, while I try to remember those mandatory questions the doctor asks to see if someone’s eligible for residential care.
“What’s the date, Mother?” (Turning the paper over, to hide the ‘clue’). I have to check it myself, first.
“It’s Saturday,” she replies, regarding me with suspicion.
“Sunday, but the DATE.”
“It’s 10th September of course, I’m not daft.”
“It’s December, Mum.”
“Oh well, not far out. You’re not trying to get me put away are you?”
“Who’s the prime minister?”
The words spill, tentatively, into the air around us, while I rack my brains trying to think who the PM is. Gordon… no, Clegg, or someone…
“Lloyd George, or is it Churchill? I wasn’t born yesterday, you know. Pass me that tube will you, and my hand-mirror. I think I’ll put some foundation on.”
She angles her face, like a debutante; while I quickly search for the doctor’s number. I’ll be able to travel the world, swim with dolphins. I’ll explore underground caves and coral reefs, build a tree house, ride wild horses, sky-dive, live with orangutans…
“I’ve just remembered,” she says, prodding the paper, “it’s David Cameron – and I hope he sorts out the debt crisis.”
I hand her the broken and battered tube of foundation. On it, is written: SHEER GENIUS.
Hear Melanie Amri reading Sheer Genius at the launch of The Real Story project on October 19, 2011 at The Deaf Institute, Manchester: