It was a good Christmas, quiet, (not much screaming) and sociable (we visited my mother’s friends) Most of the time I felt a real delight at being there, walking on the same carpets, seeing the same tree lights and arrangements of cards hanging down the chimney breast.
On Christmas Eve I crossed the fields at the top of the village to visit a friend. He has advanced prostate cancer. Two years ago doctors told him he had 18 months to live, but he is still going fairly strong and they are keeping it at bay. He’s cool, doesn’t make any fuss or show any fear, but his brain once occupied with physical work is more and more activated towards finding lotions and potions via the internet. His kitchen surfaces are scattered with bright little pots from Holland & Barrett. He is pursuing the mysterious Vitamin B17, which American pharmacologists say is not a vitamin, the properties of crushed apricot kernels and getting them to work with some enzyme found in pineapple. He has also supplied himself with pure water, putting a filter system under his sink.
He will do everything he can to save himself, but human nature being what it is, when he first had the symptoms of cancer he ignored them in favour of driving his Porshe around the Italian lakes.
I was only there for coffee but he drove me to Tettenhall, a posh suburb of Wolverhampton, to visit some of his friends. Sitting up high in the 4 X 4 which actually has mud on its flaps unlike the same vehicles I see in Chiswick, I was able to survey the surviving south Staffs countryside.
His pals were an architect and wife, with a big home, full of drawings and maps and machines for making giant photo-copies of plans.
As we arrived he was watching Leonard Cohen on TV. I was surprised as I don’t expect that in the Midlands, and he didn’t expect me either, surprised that I was also a fan.
“She’s better than the ones you usually bring,” he said to my friend.
The walls of the kitchen were lines with architectural drawings of Rome, and mountain peaks where he goes walking. His wife fed us delicious canapés. I didn’t know what they were but they squirted cheese and melted in my mouth. This was really like Christmas, hospitality from unknown people, and a bit of an unexpected adventure. It was like being young again. But so was my growing feeling of unease.
My mother was getting the lunch and she would have it ready by 12 noon or at best 12.30pm. I had not told her I was going out for so long and didn’t have my mobile. I rang her from the house. Her voice sounded remote, her speech was clipped and abrupt. She was not pleased.
In the warm kitchen we were all drinking too much wine and more delicious little knob things and home made mince pies were appearing. But we had to get going.
At 1pm I felt such relief when I climbed down from the car but in the kitchen she kept her back to me turned to the stove. She put my lunch on the table in silence, deeply offended that I had gone out like that, and worse, was late.
I remembered when I was young how this silence signalled terrible danger, I was out in the cold and the world was about to end. She seemed to hold the power of life and death over my brother and the kitchen was particularly her domain.
I offered to take her out for the afternoon, to a garden centre. She didn’t want to go. “It’s too late now,” she said angrily, “specially if I have to cook another meal tonight.”
This business of cooking, she doesn’t have to do it at all. But no one else has ever cooked in her kitchen, or I think, opened the fridge without permission.
But the mood passed, she did not sustain it. Things would be OK this time.
I exhaled and realised that the old anguish I used to bring home with me, about not being married, and not giving her any grandchildren seemed to have melted away. It just wasn’t there anymore. I realised this when I was speaking to my brother’s girl friend, joking about finding romance when I became a pensioner, and I realised that it didn’t matter any more. That long anguish had given up on itself at last, packed up its siege weapons and gone away. A neighbour’s two young daughters came round and we enjoyed talking and playing with them. We did some drawing and there was an uncomplicated enjoyment at seeing them.
Maybe my anxiety and feeling of failure had been driven out by a greater fear, because I now faced the strong possibility of death from cancer. Over Christmas I wasn’t conscious of that very much, just odd violent twinges. I’d left the last check-up feeling very confident, but then I’d looked through last year’s diary and seen the words from a doctor talking to me on the phone: “Very few people have long remissions,” she’d said. “Most people come back for a second and third round.”
Then what? Well we know the answer to that. So she was saying quite matter of factly down the phone that my life was going to be very short – but she was not seeing me or my notes, just going by stats.
Then there was the anxiety about my mother’s age, the nagging thought that when she dies she will take Christmas with her. As we watched “Pointless” and Celebrity Mastermind, death seemed to be stalking us both. In the day time I felt good and remained cheerful but evenings were more tricky and at night there were some grotesque dreams – children whose arms suddenly extended into snakes.
My friend with cancer came back for lunch on Christmas Day. All cooked by my mother as ever, with all the trimmings.
“I hope I didn’t keep Jane out for too long and make her late yesterday,” he said joshingly.
“Don’t worry about that,” she said. “I am very flexible about these things.”