A teacup by Jim Tegman

Fiction

Tea with Mrs. Hindley

by Jez Conolly

Pages from the private journal of Derek, a fifty-something loner who chronicles his afternoons spent in the company of Mrs. Hindley, a woman whose dark past Derek helps to keep hidden…

Tuesday afternoon. Half past two. Here we are again. Turning up at the page in between sips of tea. Setting down my innermost thoughts. It’d be nice if there was something juicy and scandalous for me to record for posterity, but I don’t really have much along those lines today. Let’s see: I paid my papers at the newsagents early yesterday evening. So there’s that. Their delivery has been very good over the time that I’ve been with them, although of late my Guardian has more than once been converted into little more than nesting material thanks to the careless gusto of their spotty little Herbert of a paperboy. Fair thrusts it into the letterbox he does. By the time I pick it up off the welcome mat it’s come to resemble one of those Mexican piñata things thumped repeatedly by a bunch of greedy children. I let it slide though, it’s not worth falling out with them over. Besides, I’d miss the social interaction that they provide. I try to have a natter with whoever’s on the till whenever I pop in, as I did yesterday to settle up my account. I’m handing over a ten pound note when Bernice, the young lady behind the counter who takes my money, issues a non-sequitur.

“I’m thinking of becoming lactose-intolerant, Derek.”

She’s about nineteen or twenty, seems to have been on a gap year for two years and has more facial piercings than you can shake a stick at. I’m thinking there are yet more such punctures ‘down south’, as it were. I’m sure I can hear all manner of ironmongery rattling about when she moves. She’s like a walking wind chime. God forbid she ever stands in a draught.

“what’s brought all this on, Bernice?“ I asked her, pocketing my change. 

“All of the top social influencers are lactose-intolerant” she replied, ending on a high rising terminal shrill enough to crack a paving slab. Oh of course, silly me I thought to myself, diverting my gaze away from her many heraldic tattoos and on to the generous display of chocolate bars before me, at the same time pondering just what her father would think of all this. Her real father, that is. I knew him before he passed on. He was her mother’s milkman. So you could say that Bernice was the original twinkle in the milkman’s eye. An eye that was put out with a sharpened clothes peg when the man Bernice now calls ‘dad’ found out about his wife’s shenanigans. Her real dad, the milkman, survived the attack. He carried on delivering for many years after the incident involving the peg. Evidently you’re allowed to drive a milk float if you’re registered blind. He died not too long ago, in that four-vehicle pile-up at Bradley crossroads. All very sad. Bernice’s ‘dad’ got six months for the assault. 

In my usual fashion, I orchestrated a parting shot as a way of extracting myself from the whole lactose-intolerance conversation: “I understand the soya alternatives are very good… this Topic’s past its sell-by date… well Bernice, I must get on”. I’m not really one for gossip. Which is a bare-faced lie of course! I wouldn’t write myself off as an inveterate curtain-twitcher, that was mother’s preserve, but I confess to squirrelling away all the scraps of hearsay that come my way. My mind’s like a filing cabinet. The local shopkeepers are an excellent source of information. I’ve been soaking it up for donkey’s years. All those illicit bunk ups behind closed doors. All those unplanned pregnancies and hurried terminations. Bernice was one of the lucky ones. People round here just don’t realise what a hotbed of sin and subterfuge Keighley is. You might think of me as a fishwife in man’s clothes, but I consider my appetite for local tittle-tattle to be all part of my ongoing attempts to ‘keep busy’. I know they bang on about it a lot in the papers these days, but I do find my well-being benefits when I remember to ‘keep busy’.

“Distraction is the best medicine, Derek.” That was what Doctor Chowdhury told me. “Occupy yourself, young man. Take up a hobby perhaps.” A hobby, for goodness sake. I had a stamp album once. Not terribly absorbing, if my memory serves me correctly. Does doing jigsaw puzzles count? I don’t think it does particularly. I tried assembling a thousand-piece Taj Mahal not so long ago. Take it from me, it was enough to put a glass eye to sleep. I keep this journal-writing going obviously, but if I had to define it, I’d say it’s more of a daily routine than a hobby. It’s good for me though, there’s no denying. I honestly enjoy it. Getting stuff off my chest by writing things down. I reckon you could call it the pen and paper equivalent of Buttercup Syrup. You can’t beat it. It’s a therapeutic outpouring, is what it is. A catharsis, I believe is the proper word. It doesn’t matter what I put. It’s not as though anybody else is ever actually going to read this, is it.

So no, I don’t need to take up a hobby. What I need, and prefer, is to be relied upon. I don’t think Doctor Chowdhury knows me very well at all. Also, I’m not terribly sure about the ‘young man’ bit. I’m not a young man. Not anymore. I haven’t felt young for years. In fact I’m not sure I’ve ever felt particularly young. I remember being at Bramhall Street Infants and wanting to shake my head most judgmentally at how all the other children in the class were behaving. Boisterous, not doing as they were told. There was me, silent, observing, inwardly tutting. It doesn’t bother me though, being thought of as a fuddy-duddy by my peers for so long. Mother always told her friends that I had ‘an old head on young shoulders’. I needed it at school, let me tell you. Especially senior school. All those taunts of ‘granddad’. The side parting and the sensible lace-ups probably didn’t help.

I always felt old. Now I’m getting on for being old. I’ve sort of caught up with myself, if you see what I mean. In another five years I’ll qualify for my bus pass for goodness sake! Fancy that. I don’t know where the time goes, really I don’t. It feels like only yesterday I was helping mother on and off buses. Quite the stalwart of our local Baker’s Oven she became in her final years. I think she liked it in there because the width between the tables allowed her to slot her walking frame through and park up while she busied herself with her requisite scone, individually wrapped pat of butter and little pot of raspberry jam. Towards the end I had to pour her tea out for her from the miniature stainless steel teapot, but she could always find the strength to bring the mug up to her mouth, as well as frown at me over her spectacles when I sat across from her and wrote silently in my journal. Chances are I’ll have been noting down just how beige and depressing Baker’s Oven is. If it was up to me we’d have been at the Italian-run independent cafeteria across the road, enjoying continental pastries or some such. I did manage to get her in there once, admittedly under sufferance. For half an hour at least, nursing a cappuccino, in a cup instead of a mug, I felt very much the man about town. Then mother messed herself on the ride home, which she blamed on the black olives in the mouthful of panini I foisted on her, and I had to do all the apologising to the bus driver, and after that we stuck to Baker’s Oven. We saw Doctor Chowdhury in there once, minding his own business with a date and walnut flapjack and one of those expensive herbal infusions. Like me, never married. He’s nearly seventy five now. Due to retire soon. I presume he couldn’t afford to retire any earlier. I suppose I must seem like a comparatively young man to him, being the best part of twenty years his junior. A ‘whippersnapper’, that was mother’s word. One of her favourites. These tablets I’ve been taking since she died help me to keep some focus, but I still have to apply myself most days if I’m to stop dwelling and be productive. I’ve a tendency to drift off a bit, you see. I’ll try not to. 

What I find works best is to be around people who are most definitely older than me. That way I can at least feel young by comparison. And useful. Take for example the weekday afternoons that I spend with Mrs. Hindley. Monday to Friday ever since mother and father’s funeral. Good heavens, what a day that was. They looked so lovely together, their coffins side by side like that. I did them proud, even if I say so myself. The wreaths were beautiful. Enough to sink a battleship. Hard to believe it’s getting on for three years now since I found them both dead, sitting together facing each other in the conservatory. They’d split the contents of a packet of tranquillisers, bless them. Ativan. Fourteen each. They hadn’t even needed to finish the cups of tea I’d made for them before I’d popped out to run some errands. Just a couple of mouthfuls to wash the pills down, that was all it took. I remember thinking at the time what a waste it was, pouring the rest of the tea down the sink and leaving the washed cups to dry on the draining board.

Sorry. There I go again. Come on now Derek, concentrate.

The arrangement that I have with Mrs. Hindley suits me just fine ever since I reduced my working hours down to just mornings after the breakdown. When I knock off at midday and make my way round to her house, I’m apt to pick up a sandwich from Atkins the bakers, which I normally consume en route. I have a favourite bench in the park with a nice view of the bandstand and the bowls pavilion. With Mrs. Hindley’s fastidiousness in mind, the lunchtime sandwich is consumed with all due care and attention, comfortably away from the premises. There’d be hell to pay if I should ever bring any crumbs in with me. They’ve a tendency to congregate in the folds of my wind-cheater, so I always make sure to stand up and pat myself down once I’ve finished eating. The times I’ve been round at hers and I’ve glanced up and she’s staring down at one particular spot with her ‘what’s that I can see on the carpet?’ face on. Cue dustpan and brush and yours truly on his hands and knees. There’s never anything actually on the carpet. I think she’s just making a point. But that’s fine. It makes me feel wanted. You see, I’m apt to ingratiate others, which to some might come across as a character flaw. Father sometimes looked at mother and referred to me as ‘your son, the doormat’, but I consider doormats to be useful. Every home should have one. Even if all they serve as is a landing platform for a mashed-up copy of the Guardian.

So yes, I suppose you could say that I’m a bit too much of a people-pleaser. Case in point; I’m used to getting my ear bent by Joan Dutton in the bread shop, while she’s making up my daily cheese and pickle on white farmhouse. All those tales of her kidney stones and her mother’s legs and her recently deceased Jack Russell, the poor little wretch. I’m not particularly interested in all of this but I always put myself out to be the good listener, at least for however long feels socially acceptable. There’s Joan, regularly attempting to cry on my shoulder, while inwardly I’m planning the moment when I can safely deploy my ‘well, I must get on’, before getting on. I don’t like upset. When Joan’s offloading on me I often think to myself you should try getting upset about the flies on the cakes in your front window, you stupid woman, that’s something to get upset about, which eventually comes out as ‘well, I must get on’.

But, once again, I digress. 

I suppose, in a funny way, you could say that Mrs. Hindley has become the ‘hobby’ that occupies what free time I now have – Doctor Chowdhury should be proud of me – but I like to see it as mutually beneficial. It’s certainly not a chore. In fact I very much look forward to my weekday visits. I got to know her when I was about eleven, so you could say she’s been on the periphery for most of my life. Mother struck up a friendship with her when she started attending the over-fifties keep fit classes at the disabled centre along Paddocks Lane by the level crossing. Mrs Hindley had been attending for a number of years and so was able to show mother the ropes as it were. She even lent her a spare pair of Indian clubs, for the swinging of. After a while their friendship progressed to that level where I was being encouraged to refer to Mrs. Hindley as ‘Aunty Barbara’, despite her being no blood relation. Also despite her first name not being Barbara. As a matter of fact it’s Nelly, although she doesn’t know that I know. I found this out through some adolescent eavesdropping of my parents’ late evening conversations when they thought I was asleep. Had my ear pressed through the spindles of the bannister. Father always said I was the reincarnation of Anne Frank, what with my avid journal-keeping and my almost uncanny ability to remain silent and undetectable. He fancied I’d either end up in the SAS or become a librarian. Wrong on both counts, of course!

It was by this method of domestic surveillance that I also learned ‘Aunty Barbara’ was the only daughter of a pig farmer, who sadly took his own life during the deprivations of the nineteen thirties. Like far too many in his profession, he went off one day to one of his fattening pens and duly put the business end of a shotgun in his mouth. That was of an evening, and it was the young ‘Aunty Barbara’ who found his remains around midday of the following day, his pigs by then having eaten most of him. All that was left, apart from the gnawed and tattered remnants of his clothes and a right royal dispersal of skull fragments and brain matter sprayed up and stuck to one wall, were his legs below the knee, still stuck upright in his wellington boots. Evidently pigs turn their snouts up at the taste of vulcanised rubber. Imagine poor Mrs. Hindley senior, having to formally identify her dead husband based purely on one look at his lopped-off trotters, on a tin tray at the police station. I’ve never actually talked to ‘Aunty Barbara’ about her father’s premature demise, but I’m sure there’s something in us both being only ones and the first to find our dead parents that somehow binds us together, although her experience was obviously a trifle more extreme than mine. You’d think such an unpleasant event would have left her with a fair degree of mental scarring, but I fancy the reverse happened. In the time I’ve known her she’s more than once displayed a rather morbid sense of humour. I don’t really care to speculate as to why she is the way she is, but perhaps if one grows up surrounded by animal slaughter and entrails, one eventually becomes inured to various forms of dismemberment and the sight of blood and body parts. Of course this all fascinates me now, given my line of work, but when I first learned about this childhood experience it just left me curious as to what made Mrs. Hindley tick.

She lives on Sycamore Avenue, has done long before I came along. It’s one of the few remaining leafy parts of the town after the Luftwaffe repeatedly unburdened itself at random and cut a swathe en route back to the Fatherland after flattening Preston in the winter of nineteen forty one. The house is one of those suburban mock Tudor semis that shot up all over the place between the wars, and although spacious, certainly now far too roomy for one old lady, it is happily nondescript, rather anonymous even, with just the right amount of homely neglect to provide me with little odd jobs to perform. Which I’m more than happy to do – as I say, it’s important to keep busy – and Mrs. Hindley is happy enough for me to attend to these tasks. If I’m not hacking at her privet I’m beeswaxing her parquet. To some I’m sure it would all amount to painting the Forth Bridge, but personally I like knowing that there’ll always be something for me to attend to. 

Still, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. The part I enjoy the most is simply keeping Mrs. Hindley company. It does me as much good as it does her. I find the inside of her house has a strangely calming effect on me. There’s not a bit of chaos to be found. Everything is arranged most precisely, quite meticulously in fact. It’s as though she decided on the position of everything in her midst some time ago and that’s that. Woe betide anyone who so much as moves an ornament. This does rather lead to the wholesale settling of a slightly chalky residue on exposed surfaces, which clearly doesn’t bother her in the slightest. In fact I think she likes it that way. When it comes to her nicknacks she clearly hasn’t a duster to her name. It’s a bit like living in a museum. Or perhaps a mausoleum would be a better description. She’d hate it if she knew I’d written that! At the risk of waxing Dickensian, there’s more than a touch of the Miss Havershams about her, minus the cobwebbed bride cake. Come to think of it, I’ve never encountered any webs in any of the rooms, or spiders for that matter. I seem to think they’re simply not allowed in. If they were, I imagine they’d be under strict instructions to take their shoes off before creeping around, much as I’m expected to park my sandals in the storm porch whenever I arrive, then pad about carefully in my stocking feet. I look at her when I’m round and I sometimes think I can see a fine layer of dust on her, like a first bloom of mould on some overripe fruit, and then I remember it’s just the face powder that she has me cake on to her repeatedly. 

I always let myself in every afternoon when I go round, announcing myself with a bright and breezy ‘only me!’, which of course these days is met with nothing but a stony silence. I don’t take it personally. I mean, who else goes to see her to say ‘only me’? There’s only me who says ‘only me’. Nobody else bothers. That’s one of the challenges of getting old. People forget that you even exist. Especially when you’re very old like she is. She once said to me “when you get past ninety you stop counting.” 

Anyway, I’m not looking for an acknowledgment from her. I know she’s going to be sitting there in her favourite mulberry-coloured armchair, waiting for me. Exactly where she was the day before. And the day before that. You catch my drift. These days she’s a rather sedentary old bird. I suppose to some, Mrs. Hindley would be considered ‘well preserved’, a phrase I often reckon to be patronising or damning with faint praise, but in her case it’s accurate. Perhaps ‘good for her age’ is a more appropriate term, although I’d probably add the caveat ‘despite everything’. Put it this way: it would be a considerable stretch to describe her as ‘spry’. Let alone ‘nimble’. Mother often referred to her as ‘Methuselah’, or ‘The Immoveable Object’ which I think had a lot to do with her characteristic obstinacy, although of course mother would never call her these names to her face. Like me, she had no wish to offend, although to all intents and purposes such labels were a fair reflection of the fact that Mrs. Hindley has long fought a stubborn losing battle against the ravages of time. 

During my afternoon visits, when I sit across the room from her, she puts me in mind of one of those Galapagos giant tortoises that you sometimes see Attenborough pestering with his cameras. Quite apart from having a top speed of zero miles per hour, she undoubtedly resembles one around the neck. Despite her generous wattles she remains convinced that her face is remarkably unlined, which I can only put down to selective glaucoma on her part because from my angle she has more folds and creases than a pair of well used gardening slacks. During the early days of my helping her I was frequently required to lather her generously in ‘Oil of Ulay’, the pink unguent that had seemingly been around since Adam was a boy. More recently, I think ever since ‘Oil of Ulay’ changed its name, she jumped ship and came to espouse various Clinique products, thinking this to be her ‘bit of posh’, only she misread the name which then passed into a repeated mispronunciation, and more than once in the past I’ve been asked “can you get me some of that Clinker cream from Boots please Derek, if you’re passing?” She’s not asked me recently though. Generally speaking, she seems more resigned to her fate these days. It’s a case of fill the cracks in as best as one can and hope for the best. So I lather her with her posh cream and then the face powder comes out, which of course sticks like the proverbial to a blanket, leaving her got up somewhere between Marie Antoinette and a jam doughnut, which I appreciate is an unkind comparison. Rest assured, I keep it to myself. 

Falling apart at the seams she may be – who isn’t? – but that’s not to say she doesn’t still possess some physical attributes that belie her advancing years. So far she has managed to avoid joining that legion of senior citizens, spending their final days at the ‘last chance saloon’ of the ‘fractured pelvis’ geriatric ward, clutching their handbags and repeatedly asking “where are my keys?” until inevitably their time comes for last offices. I’ve often joked to her about the resilience of her pelvis. “It’ll be on display in a museum one day” I’ve said, which I appreciate relegates her to the realms of the Prehistoric era. Whenever her pelvis has cropped up, a short rather one-sided conversation has ensued about the benefits of a life without childbirth. After a few minutes’ chuntering on about episiotomies and “all that blood and screaming” I start to feel a little queasy and so try to manoeuvre her back to the museum quip. “There’s Elvis’s pelvis and then there’s yours, Aunty Barbara. Imagine that!” There of course the comparison ends, although it must be said that she is apt to spend long periods of time on the toilet. She can sometimes nod off mid-ablutions and more than once I’ve had to rub her feet afterwards to get some colour back into them. We have an arrangement whereby she leaves the bathroom door unlocked. No blushes spared, no standing on ceremony. We’re both well used to it.

Thanks to mother’s gossip grapevine I also learned that Mrs. Hindley was widowed in the late nineteen seventies. Her husband Len ran the local paper shop for a long time. Not the one with Bernice and her out-of-date Topics that I frequent now, you understand. Where Mr. Hindley’s shop used to be has been all sorts of things since he died. Currently it sells ‘vaping products’, whatever they are. I don’t remember much about Len, other than the rumour that his hair turned completely white overnight when he was only in his thirties. I believe she lost him prematurely to a very aggressive form of throat cancer, but being young at the time I was spared the gory details. Having said that, mother used to comment on the unpleasant odour she noticed on the Daily Mails that got delivered. She reckoned to have that innate sense that is most often associated with police dogs trained to locate drugs at airports or those pigs used to sniff out truffles in the woodlands of Provence. “I can smell death” she declared on more than one occasion in the weeks before Mr. Hindley passed away, dragging her nostrils across Lynda Lee Potter like the bloodhound equivalent of Doris Stokes. I have a vague memory of her taking me in to the sweet shop and a man with white hair and an electrolarynx pinching my cheek the way old people do to children and selling me a lucky bag in exchange for my pocket money, and I recall chewing a fruit salad on the way home and getting told off for asking mother why the man with the white hair had such a funny voice.

All that’s left of Mr. Hindley now is his top set of dentures that Mrs. Hindley keeps in her handbag, which as mementos and keepsakes go is a little left field, I’ll grant you. However, mine is not to reason why. I only know about the dentures in the handbag because there was one occasion about a year ago when she had me ferreting around inside it for some mint imperials. They must have worked their way down to the bottom of the bag, because I had to take a number of things out to get at them. These I rested in a line on the arm of her chair; a face powder compact case, a half-empty box of suppositories, a half-squeezed tube of some unidentifiable sting cream and last but not least these false teeth. “That’s what happens if you eat too many sweets” she warned me, as I put the teeth back and helped myself to a mint from the paper bag I had eventually located. “My Len couldn’t leave the cinder toffee alone, and now them teeth’s all that’s left of him.” It struck me at the time that the dentures were very narrow, more likely suitable for a lady, but I didn’t dwell on it.

She and mother did have one mutual friend once, some time ago now. Mrs. Hindley’s next-door neighbour. Jean I think her first name was, originally from Spalding, where the tulips come from. I can’t now remember her surname, probably due to the fact that Aunty Barbara always referred to her as ‘the Lincolnshire poacher’, her being the first person in the nineteen seventies on Sycamore Avenue to own one of those water beds, which, if you believe the gossip, she recklessly teamed up with an electric blanket during the winter months. She was rather leathery was Jean, far too many visits to the tanning salon in town during the Thatcher years I suspect. Less Saint Tropez, more Chicken Tikka. Long-time Treasurer of the local WI, found dead in the swimming pool of her Algarve time-share with her eyes pressed into her head. Despite this, it got about that the coroner’s report had indicated she’d choked to death on a sardine vertebrae, although quite how you get from sitting at the dinner table to floating face down in the pool, with your eyes pressed into your head, is anyone’s guess. Anyway I remember Mrs. Hindley being very quick to latch on to mother at Jean’s wake, and while it’s nice to comfort fellow friends over the pork pie and ham sandwiches, and probably wise not to dwell on the fact that she was found with her eyes pressed into her head while people were eating, I couldn’t help thinking that sorting out the details of their coach trip to Llandudno before the buffet caterers had cleared way the dirty plates was a tad premature.

So as I was saying, Mrs. Hindley is at her happiest when I just sit with her. We can do this perfectly contentedly for an hour or two of an afternoon, me writing in my journal usually, as I am presently, her with her knitting in her lap. Although Lord only knows what she’s making. Whatever it is it doesn’t appear to have progressed very much recently. Some suggestion of arthritis in both of her thumbs has been mooted in the past, from ‘overuse’ apparently (whatever that means), which has led her to down tools of late. This same affliction has robbed her of her ability to manage her cardigan buttons, hence muggins here has to regularly do her up if there’s a chill. That cardie’s on and off like a tap. We’re having an off day today, as it’s quite mild.

Once a week I bring her one of those puzzle magazines – photo on the cover of a woman in her twenties despite the publication’s retiree demographic, I never understood that – she can’t manage the cryptic crosswords, frankly even the easy ones are a struggle. Wordsearch, forget it. She’s not much help at any of the puzzles to be perfectly honest. I usually end up reading all the clues out loud then writing all the answers in for her. “Honestly Aunty Barbara, sometimes it’s like I’m talking to myself.” Deaf ears.

I spoke to Dr. Chowdhury about her non-responsiveness some months back and he suggested finding new and innovative ways to engage her memory banks. He pointed out to me that sometimes what’s left of their grey matter benefits from a bit of a prod on a regular basis. So for a while I brought along with me a photo album full of snaps which I’d show to her. The contents were a mixture of shots, some taken by father of Aunty Barbara round at ours drinking tea in the back garden, some showing the girls from the keep fit class performing in their signature brown tights and leotards at the charity gala in aid of the Spastics Society, some from that Llandudno trip, then some more recent ones that I took myself of her during an outing that we had a couple of summers ago to Middlesham Round, the Neolithic stone circle run by English Heritage. It’s that pile of old stones jammed up against the drive-thru KFC about five miles on from Bedale. That was back before the breakdown of course, when I was still allowed to drive. I do remember how chauffeuring her from A to B certainly threw her rapidly deteriorating mobility into sharp relief. I thought mother was bad on the buses. Owing to some unspecified injury she sustained some years ago, she was left with, not a limp as such, more an exaggerated gait on account of her inability to bend her left leg at the knee. Getting her in and out of my Morris Traveller was always fun and games; it worked best if she sat directly behind me in the back seat with her left foot jutting between driver and passenger seat, not a problem if she remembered to point her toe westwards towards the glove compartment but occasionally problematic when I changed down a gear to negotiate a tight bend. I remember it as a very warm day; after pulling up in the shingle car park, changing from driving brogues into clambering pumps, applying some sun cream and filling my haversack with thermos flask and sandwiches, I had to witness the spectacle of Mrs. Hindley reversing out of the car with all the grace reserved for a quarantined rhinoceros. After half an hour of pottering around the broken circle of granite slabs and a cover-to-cover read of the information leaflet – ten pence duly dropped into the honesty box – we eschewed a lap of honour and plumped instead for the picnic lunch, parking our behinds on a handily toppled lintel, which was when I took the photographs of her. Sweating cobs she was, a combination of the heat of the day and a bout of mild anxiety.

“I’m having my other cataract taken out next week Derek, is this ham from the butchers or the supermarket?“ 

Her way of asking me to drive her to the clinic and hold her hand when they wheel her through for the operation. I got roped in to taking her to get her first one done, and thought back to her post-operative nonchalance (‘it’s like shelling peas, you should try it’) which contrasted with the hour of nervous diarrhoea that we had to deal with beforehand.

“Would you like some company when you go to the hospital?“ 

I felt duty bound to ask, knowing full well that the offer of companionship was effectively assumed. As I swigged the last dregs of tea from my flask cup I perused the ancient ruin before me. She’s not a bad sort I thought. A week later, thanks to cutbacks, I was left to wheel her out of outpatients in an antediluvian wheelchair and all the way back to my car in the frankly enormous hospital car park, and I swore then it’d be the last time she used me as her personal taxi service, but as it was, not longer after, they took my license off me, so it all became rather academic. 

Now I’ve gone and completely lost my thread. Oh yes. Afternoons, these days.

We’ve been known to play parlour games to pass the time, such as ‘I Spy’, or on occasion ‘Animal, Vegetable, or Miserable’ as she once called it. I have to do all the guessing of course, and then she’ll lose the thread and before you know it we’re staring out of the window again and I can feel the unspoken pressure coming off her about the state of her back garden which I keep putting off tending. We can’t manage ‘Charades’ any more, and even when we could she would get one of her heads if I was ever too animated, so more often than not it’ll be dominos, which I always let her win. Only once did I beat her, and I paid for my outburst of victory with a vow of silence from Her Highness that only came to an end when I offered to cut her toenails for her. That was back when she was relatively compos mentis. At that stage she knew her way round her TV remote control. Nowadays it’s about as useful as a cat flap on a submarine. I remember coming in once, she’d obviously had some quiz show or other on the box.

“Now then Derek, you’ll know this, what’s the difference between a trumpet and a cornet?”

“I’m afraid brass isn’t my forte, Aunty Barbara.”

“Well, a fat lot of good you are” amounted to her thanks, followed by “of course I always preferred a wafer to a cornet”, which to my mind is the sort of random, out-of-the-blue ‘senior moment’ act of mental gymnastics that suggests the rot is setting in. Personally I don’t think television is a particularly suitable pastime for the elderly. I managed to talk her out of watching the afternoon programmes a while back. All those adverts for over-fifties life insurance. I’d tell her, “you don’t need another free pen Aunty Barbara, you’ve got plenty of pens.” People enthusiastically getting in and out of stairlifts or orthopaedic bathtubs with big grins plastered all over their faces, I mean, it’s all too stimulating for her. Televised sport is anathema to her, I’m very pleased to say. We tried the snooker for a while but it soon became apparent that she took against the ill-fitting waistcoats and the constant sound of audience members coughing (“it’s like being on a TB ward”), so we jumped ship and had a stab at Wimbledon that same year. Well that led to a properly barmy diatribe from her nibs about the ‘good old days’ virtues of the pre-war game. What was it she said?

“I preferred it when the men wore long trousers… played with wooden framed rackets strung with catgut… stood up during the breaks between games and had a smoke and time to do the Times crossword… when  the crowd didn’t shout encouragement but had a picnic and forty winks instead… when there were no tiebreaks so that matches often ran on for days… when the foreign contingent of players harked from Ceylon and Rhodesia… when the winner got the trophy and a book token…” 

It was one of those rare occasions when she was in full flow, and I didn’t have the heart to interrupt or disagree, so I just sipped my barley water and kept my trap shut. The moment eventually passed, and by the following July she’d forgotten that there was even such a thing as ‘Wimbledon’. Or ‘tennis’ for that matter.

I think these days it’s fair to say that generally she prefers something more soothing, such as listening to music. So we get out her collection of long players, I gently create an atmosphere of non-threatening jollity by tapping my foot to Roger Whittaker or humming along to the King’s Singers, and we both of us listen along. Nothing too racy, you understand. She doesn’t actually own many records so there’s not a great deal of choice. What she has are gifts from a bygone age by the look of it. For example, there’s a Ray Conniff Singers Christmas album (woman in a Santa suit on the sleeve evidently showing too much leg, according to Mary Whitehouse here) and a ‘Best of James Last’ LP (“he needs a haircut”). She has an ancient teak radiogram, which I will say has a very nice resonant sound to it, although I suspect the stylus is still the same one that it arrived with back in nineteen hundred and frozen to death. The bass tone is rich but the treble is terribly muffled, so much so that when we’re playing one of her favourites – a singalong album by Tessie O’Shea (“that large, buck-toothed woman with emphysema and a ukulele”) – it’s a bit like listening to it underwater.

I’m careful not to overdo it. Too much excitement risks impacting negatively on the centrepiece of my daily visits, that being ‘afternoon tea’. There’s more than a hint of formality to proceedings. Not Savoy levels of starchiness, but there is a definite whiff of homespun ceremony. When you’re getting on there’s a lot of reassurance to be found in predictability, although I suspect if our little routine were to be scrutinised by some psychologists they may conclude that there is a fair deal of anal retentiveness at play. They don’t know what they’re talking about. Personally I don’t think we’re that bad. What’s wrong with doing the same thing at the same time every day anyway? It’s not as though we rigidly adhere to any strict cutlery etiquette, for example. I’m not a member of the Royal Family the last time I checked! If I were to mention anything about ‘starting on the outside and working your way in’ Aunty Barbara would probably take me for some kind of cat burglar. So when I say ‘formality’ I think what I really mean is we are simply creatures of habit. Having said that, she definitely does like things to be ‘just so’ when it comes to teatime, with any deviation on my part being met with an expression of almost  Churchillian lugubriousness. We’re not quite talking ‘storm clouds over Europe’, although to say that some days it’s looking black over Bill’s mother’s would be close to the mark.

Each time I visit, it’s my job – what isn’t? – to prepare the tea things. So that’s China cups and saucers (no more Baker’s Oven mugs for me), tea leaves left to brew in the pot for six minutes before pouring, milk brought through in a jug (cow’s milk might I add, Auntie Barbara doesn’t waste her intolerance on such things), sugar in a bowl with its own spoon and a selection of biscuits arranged neatly on a plate. Her crockery has, what I call, the ‘Harvest Festival’ motif about it, common to the suburban kitchenware of the nineteen seventies. I’m thinking it was the last time she invested in any mod cons; toaster, kettle, crockery, tea tray, all derivatively decorated with rustic illustrations of wheat and old fashioned farming implements, not especially well-rendered Beatrix Potter field mice facsimiles, John Barleycorn faux-pastoral woodcut effect stencils, that sort of thing. I’m surprised her hoover hasn’t got pictures of vine leaves and bunches of grapes growing up its bag. The colour scheme seems to exist in that middle ground between the aspirational sepia of nostalgic antiquity and the prosaic oatmeal of that decade’s domestic consumerism. Not that I profess to be an expert on such sociocultural matters, but an extended rifle through a few Observer Sunday supplements is enough to furnish one with sufficient components to at least sound like one knows what one is talking about. I even had myself fooled there for a minute!

As I say, she’s very firmly wedded to the rituals and paraphernalia of the teatime routine, so much so that each time I make the tea I feel like I’m being tested for accuracy. Her cup of tea has to be, as she liked to put it, “milky sweet”, so that’s the milk in the cup first before the tea is poured – I know what you’re thinking – and four heaped spoonfuls of the granulated sugar, white mind you, none of your unrefined Demerara. Now I’m of the opinion that this is barely tea anymore by the time I’ve faffed about with it, but she insists on it being made this way. I’ve tried mild sarcasm on her; “is it time for your four o’clock syrup, Aunty Barbara?”, “try not to spill your pudding wine dear”, “you must have nougat running through those veins of yours”. That sort of thing. Which of course is always met with the Buster Keaton blank face. Despite it being my natural urge to do so, I always regret resorting to flippancy. I swear the room temperature drops a couple of degrees whenever she’s on the receiving end of my mildly acerbic tongue. I should really learn to bite it harder.

I mention how particular she can be because today, I’m afraid to say, I made a schoolboy error. I’m a bit flustered, having received a ticking off from my boss this morning – it’s not nice to be accused of being ‘slap dash’ in any line of work, least of all mine – and as a result I forgot to bring the posh biscuits through on the tea tray. Face like thunder. I thought if the wind changes you’ll stay like that you daft old sod, but I didn’t say it obviously. This meant having to go bog snorkelling in her larder for an unopened tinned assortment. It’s a veritable Aladdin’s cave in there; packets of dried goods that are so old I suspect they predate the introduction of sell-by dates, tins of stuff that probably go back to the Napoleonic era for all I know. Below the shelf where she keeps her Crosse & Blackwell cream of chicken and her jars of pickled beetroot there’s a long row of bigger jars. Each one of these contains a little baby. All of them, their poor faces compressed and impacted against the curve of their glass containers, tiny hands that never got to touch anything, fixed now in a permanent clenched prayer. As usual I’m compelled to look at them for a few moments. They’re sort of soft and round and perfect. They remind me of oversized cling peaches almost. I start to think about the lives they would have led, had they gone to term and not been so unwanted. At least here they’re all safe and together, all of these poor little pink and brown tadpoles in vinegar. She was doing their mums a favour if you ask me. Perhaps on one level Aunty Barbara felt as though she was looking after their babies for them in case they ever wanted them back. Or possibly just wanted to see them again. Except you might begin to wonder: when does a tribute become a trophy? I prefer to think that what she did was coming from a good place.

Anyway I’ve decided that she’ll have to make do with custard creams this time. I’m not getting down on and messing up the knees of my trousers just to reach for that last tin of Family Circle. She’s spoiled is what she is.

Despite belatedly bringing through the plate of biscuits, I’m now getting the usual time-honoured vow of silence, which has been triggered by lord knows what. There she is, Big Chief Sitting Bull, Lady Docker, the Queen of Sheba, take your pick, her fingers splayed in a claw grip of the arms of her chair, the back of her hands entertaining constellations of liver spots, some as big as the old ha’pennies. These continue up her arms and over her shoulders, meeting in a pattern of dots covering her shoulder blades that pepper down towards the small of her back and her buttocks, superficially resembling the scattered distribution of shotgun pellets. They continue back round to the front, following the curvilinear routes of her rib cage, right up to and including what’s left of her breasts, interrupted only by the livid remnants of my admittedly rudimentary Y-shaped thoracic incision. I keep her favourite pinafore dress washed and pressed and laid out flat on her bed upstairs, which is where it will stay thank you very much. I gave up the formality of dressing her several months ago. It just didn’t seem worth it after a while. Besides, I could never fathom the intricacies of the corselette. Nor could I get her to decide between Spice Amber and American Tan in the stocking department. She’d only be keeping up appearances for me, and I’ve seen it all before, getting mother in and out of the bath all those years.

“We’re not keeping any secrets from one another, are we Aunty Barbara?”

So I’m drinking my tea and I’ve just had a custard cream from the plate that’s on the coffee table. I’m sure to always put that table back exactly where it was every time I move it out of the way to make room for when I stretch her out on the carpet. Well out of the way mind you, her unbending leg demands a wide berth. I know from old that she wouldn’t want me to leave anything out of place for longer than absolutely necessary. I like to think that behind those stitches, particularly since the removal of the cataracts, she still has eagle eyes. Although, that being said, she let me go off yesterday with my flies undone of all things! 

“You could have got me had up for indecent exposure” I tell her as I put her back in her chair. Although I’m not really cross with her. Look at her. Butter wouldn’t melt.

I’ll finish up here then get on with washing the pots and putting everything away. I must remember to tell Aunty Barbara that I’ll be late tomorrow. Once I’ve shown my face and put in my allotted time at the crematorium, I have a post-lunch appointment with Doctor Chowdhury to review my prescriptions. I can tell that I shall have to make up for my lateness by bringing out the good biscuits.

Jez Conolly

Jez Conolly

Jez Conolly has contributed to numerous cinema books and journals. His published monographs concern John Carpenter's The Thing, the 1945 Ealing Studios portmanteau horror film Dead of Night and the 1966 John Frankenheimer film Seconds.

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