“What did you want to give me this for?”
Dorothy was pulling her sandwich apart instead of eating it. Beth knew her mothers face so well that she didn’t even need to look up from the papers she was proof reading to visualise the look of disgust on it.
“You asked for ham. That’s ham.”
“There’s green stuff in it.”
“Lettuce you mean.”
“I’m not daft you know. That’s not lettuce. It tastes funny.”
Wearily Beth put down the papers and held out her hand for the sandwich. This was a duty visit, something she had only allowed herself to fit in because she had thought watching the families down on the beach would keep her mother occupied while she got some work done. It had taken forever to get her sorted out, into the wheelchair and across the road from the home onto the seafront and she had pretty much had enough.
“Let’s have a look.”
Dorothy watched suspiciously as Beth put the sandwich back together.
“What’s that when it’s at home?”
“Like lettuce but different.”
“Rabbit food, that’s what it is. I can feel my ears growing on me.”
Dorothy pulled a rabbit face, pushing her front teeth down towards her chin. In spite of herself Beth laughed.
“Take it out if you don’t like it.”
“I know what Arthur would have said to me if I’d given him something like that to eat.”
Beth sighed. She was going to have to ask. She looked up at her mother, who gave a small self satisfied nod.
“He’d have said ‘what’s this muck’ I can just hear him now. He’d have pulled a right face. “
Beth’s father’s eating habits had been a constant embarrassment to her while she was growing up. He had lived on apple pie and carnation milk. He had put carnation milk in his tea, along with three sugars, and the brown congealed milk around the holes in the tin had made her feel ill.
“Have you had something to eat?”
“Don’t want anything. I had a huge breakfast.”
“You have to eat you know.”
“I do eat.”
“When I’m hungry. I’m forty three years old mother, it’s about time you accepted that I can sort out my own meals.”
“All right. I’ll shut up, You read your bits of paper. I had a magazine somewhere.”
Beth gave her mother the magazine from the bottom of her bag and settled down to her reading, but the few minutes of peace didn’t last long.
“There’s one here looks like she could do with a good dinner. If she were standing sideways there’d be nowt on that page. Reminds me of our Sarah.”
There was a pointed silence. Beth stared intently at her papers, knowing that her mother was looking for a reaction. She really didn’t want yet another rehash of the conversation they ended up having on every one of her visits. Ever since Sarah had been born her mother had been convinced that nothing Beth did for her granddaughter was quite good enough.
“How is she then?”
“Your daughter. Who do you think?”
Of course Sarah could have been in touch with her grandmother and told her some news herself, but she would never get criticised for that. Sarah could do no wrong, Beth thought angrily.
“Last I heard she was fine. Hasn’t she been to see you?”
”She’s got a lot on.”
“So have I.”
The truth was that Beth didn’t really have much idea of how her daughter was. There had been talk about going off to South America after her exams with her new boyfriend, but she hadn’t really listened. If she wasted her time trying to take on board every silly idea that Sarah came up with she would get nothing done at all.
“Kids need listening to.”
“She’s twenty one mother.”
“All the same.”
Beth put down her papers. The only way to stop her mother talking at her was to give the same half baked reassurances that she ended up giving every time they got to this point. Sarah had a boyfriend, Sarah was eating well now, Sarah was working hard. Sarah was fine.
“How do you know she’s eating well?”
”Stop it mum. She’s perfectly all right. No different to any of the others.”
Dorothy slumped into her wheelchair and thought about the others. She watched them through the windows of the home after dark, going up and down the seafront under the strings of fairy lights, shivering with these little tops on. Full of drink. Falling over, some of them. She explained it all to Beth.
“Don’t exaggerate mother.”
“I’m not exaggerating. If you lived here you’d know.”
Beth thought back to the time when Sarah had been small. The time when she had sat with her, after she had had a bath, brushing her hair and plaiting it while she did the same for her rainbow pony. Sarah would tell her all kinds of things then, make promises and plans that never happened.
“I don’t hear a lot to be honest. I seem to hear more about her friends than work.”
“She’s right enough. Let the poor lass alone.”
Dorothy got out of her chair and manoeuvred herself over to the sea wall using her sticks. It was a treat to be out. To be able to see beyond the silver railings that normally marked the edge of her world.
“Have you seen the belly on that bloke down there?”
“Hawaiian shirt. Dressed up like a bloody rain forest. He should have more sense at his age.”
Beth got up and went to lean on the railings protectively next to her mother. She didn’t want somebody hearing. Her mothers opinions were loud and unrestrained these days and not everybody liked them.
“He must be sixty if he’s a day.”
“Well he’s allowed to do as he likes then, isn’t he?”
“Not if he’s upsetting folks.”
“Who’s he upsetting?”
“Me for a start.
Beth laughed and tried to propel her mother back into her chair.
“Give over. I’m all right here for a minute. I spend my whole damn life sitting down.”
“Are you still seeing that bloke you were friendly with?”
“Simon? Yes. Well, more or less.”
“More or less? What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing serious, you know.”
Dorothy frowned. She didn’t know anything any more really. Things had changed and left her behind. It had been very serious when she had started courting Arthur. They didn’t use that word now, courting, and no wonder. It sounded respectful, and there was nothing respectful about what she saw going on around her. Arthur had been her first proper boyfriend. She had been nearly twenty when she first saw him and still thought babies grew under gooseberry bushes. Well maybe not that exactly but near enough. She had certainly believed her friends when they had told her that you could get a baby by kissing. Arthur had said it was all right so long as she didn’t put her tongue in his mouth and laughed like a drain. He had soon taught her a few things. They learned all sorts far too fast these days. When her father had found out that she was walking out with Arthur there had been hell on.
“I remember when I was courting your dad we both had to be back home for ten o’clock. We lived at opposite ends of the village. He got me back home for two minutes to ten and dashed off home. Next morning he told me he’d got back three minutes late. His father had locked the door and he wouldn’t let him in.”
Beth wondered why her mother had started talking about when she was young.
“What did he do?”
“He kicked the door in, he was that mad. And they made him pay for a new lock as well.”
“But this was when? The late nineteen forties?”
“Not in our village it wasn’t.”
“I’d never have put up with it.”
“It was what you did in them days. Different world now.”
Beth shook her head.
“Not much fun.”
Dorothy smiled to herself secretly. There had been fun all right. There were real bands, not like what they called bands later on. A big crowd playing in a dance hall making a wall of sound you could fair feel and singers who could carry their voice over the top of them. It was proper dancing then, none of this jigging around and waving your arms about on your own. Dancing with partners. Of course they’d mostly had to listen to it on the radio. They’d never have fitted a big band in the village hall but she had seen them and she remembered. Fun? They didn’t know what fun was these days.
“He wasn’t a bad catch your dad. Steady job, not bad looking, and he’d asked me. You didn’t pass up your chances so easily back then- they might not come again.”
That was a dig at her, Beth thought. Her mother had always said she should stay with Geoffery.
“You must have loved him?”
“Far as I knew I did.”
Beth had loved her father. She didn’t have any doubt about that. It would have been strange if she hadn’t, since he spoiled her rotten.
“He used to get me four bars of chocolate every Friday.”
“I remember him fetching you home that bloody rocking horse. Flicka you called it. Awful old thing with rusty springs. Somebody had knocked hell out of it before you ever saw it and you carried on.”
Her parents had been married for forty six years. Beth couldn’t imagine being with anybody that long. When she had tried to ask her mother for advice about her failing marriage she had been told that she needed to learn when to keep her mouth shut. Dorothy had always thought that the sun shone out of Geoffery. Which it didn’t.
“You used to bake with me.”
“I did, and you were a bossy little thing too. Standing there next to me in your frilly apron making grey jam tarts. You used to eat most of the pastry before it ever got near an oven. Will you fetch me my chair love, and an ice cream?”
Beth wheeled the chair up behind her mother and placed it so that she could still see through the railings and over the wall. The tide was coming in and the crowd on the beach was becoming more and more packed together. When she came back with the ice cream she could see that her mother was waiting to tell her something.
“Have you seen what he’s doing now?”
“Hawaiian shirt. His wife’s turned up. They’re paddling. She’s standing in the sea holding her dress up, smoking a fag, while he tries to force this inner tube thing over the kids head. It’s screaming blue murder. Poor little beggar. You’d think they’d let it finish its packet of crisps first.”
Beth’s phone announced the arrival of a text with a single harsh trill, breaking into the disembodied sounds drifting up from the beach. When she saw her daughters face change as she read it Dorothy looked at her sharply.
“Are you all right?”
“Nothing. It’s ok.”
Beth threw herself down onto the grass next to her mother.
“That was Sarah.”
“I thought we’d got through all this. She wants to leave the course.”
“Well that’s all right isn’t it?”
“No, it’s bloody not all right. I’ve been working my backside off for years so she could get somewhere. Seven grand a year that school cost, and now she’s going to give up. Selfish little madam. Have you any idea how many people she beat to get a place? She could have done anything she wanted and now……..”
Beth’s voice trailed away and she hid her head in her hands.
“I was so proud of her.”
Dorothy held out her arm and shook her head. Her daughter was just out of reach, as she always had been.
“I know you were love. Right from when she was little. I’ve never seen anybody make so much fuss over a kiddy acting a mince pie in a school nativity.”
Beth sat quietly, staring at her phone and blinking back tears. Sarah was just in a state about her finals, that was all. If she got her head down and put in some serious work for the next few months she’d be fine.
“It’s not worth crying over love. It’s her choice. Let her get on with it.”
Dorothy had no time for studying. It would be nothing special that course. A lot of know alls talking too much for their own good. No fresh air. You just come out at the end of three years covered in dust, owing money to all and sundry, thinking that life is something you read about in books. She had told Beth not to waste her money on books and she hadn’t listened and look where it had got her.
“No wonder she sent me a text. She knew what she’d get if she spoke to me directly.”
“So long as she’s happy, that’s all that matters. You can’t live your kids lives for them, much as you’d like to.”
“Leave it mother, you’ve no idea. Shit!”
“Now then, I’m not having you talking like that. There’s some Revels in that bag. Go and have a look.”
“I’m not six any more.”
“You’re not the only one who likes them. Have a look.”
Beth found the sweets and they helped themselves. Dorothy rolled hers around in her mouth, savouring it, while Beth chewed miserably.
“Most things look better with a sweet in your mouth.”
“Why can’t she ring her bloody father? I’ve no idea what’s the matter with her. Let him try to sort her out. If he can.”
Dorothy didn’t want to talk about Geoffery. It usually led to an argument. People were too ready to give up these days. Never mind worrying about whether you could spend the rest of your life with somebody. If you could imagine yourself being with them tomorrow you weren’t doing so bad. If she’d thought like that she’d have ditched Arthur almost before they got started and missed out on forty six years of a mostly happy marriage. She had spent weeks making herself a new frock. It had had little cuffed sleeves and a big skirt. When she had turned up at the front door of Arthur’s house he had taken one look at her and told her not to go in the kitchen or she would match the curtains. She would have done too. His mother had bought material from the same shop. He thought it was funny and the more he laughed the angrier she had got until she finally ran home in tears and didn’t speak to him again for three weeks. He had had to talk her round by bringing her the first root of his early potatoes. Very nice they were too after eating mash all winter. Better than a lot of sloppy talk that he didn’t mean. She had finally had her revenge on those curtains mind you. After his mothers funeral she had taken them down and ripped them to pieces to make dusters.
“Your dad used to bring me potatoes.”
Beth’s eyes widened. What was her mother going on about now? Potatoes? Sometimes she seemed to spend most of her time in the past and it was becoming a worry. If this was the beginnings of dementia they wouldn’t keep her on at the home.
“I don’t think Geoffery will be sending me any potatoes mother.”
“Roast potatoes are my favourites. Mind, have to get them eaten straight away. Out of the oven, onto your plate, and into your mouth Arthur used to say.”
Dorothy missed choosing her own dinners. She was just thinking her way through her mothers apple dumpling recipe when Beth’s voice broke into her thoughts.
“Do you get decent food in the home?”
Dorothy thought about this.
“The food’s all right. It’s the miserable old sods you have to eat it with that are the problem.”
“You shouldn’t say things like that.”
“Some of them are a lot worse off than you.”
“It’s life and you have to make the best of it, not sit there sniping. We can all do that. I’m upright and I’m breathing. There’s plenty in the grave would swap places with me.”
A chill ran down Beth’s back. Her mother often talked like that these days and she didn’t like it.
“I told one woman to shut her face the other day. She comes in every week with a bloody great dog. Wanted me to start patting it. There was something about therapy on her badge. If it’s not that it’s wartime reminiscences morning noon and night. I know we had to eat powdered eggs thank you very much, I don’t need reminding about it every other Tuesday.
“A lot of them probably like it.”
“And I don’t want to sing either.”
“Or make plaster models of sheep.”
Beth wandered over to the railings and watched the man in the Hawaiian shirt being buried by his children. She knew how he felt. Twenty years before she could have asked her mother for advice but not now, her head was full of all kinds of nonsense.
“What are you going to do about our Sarah then?”
The question needled its way into her head, as it was meant to. Our Sarah. Not your Sarah. Not a twenty one year old who was in the process of trashing every opportunity her mother had slaved away to put in front of her. “Our” was her mother’s way of staking a claim in the whole mess so that she could interfere. Well she needn’t bother.
“It’s not up to me is it?”
“Not much I can do about it. If she wants to mess up her life that’s her privilege.”
“Course you can do something about it. When did you last see her?”
“A month or so ago. It’s been manic at work and she’s been busy.”
“Was she all right then?”
“Far as I know. She wasn’t going to tell me if there was something wrong.”
“I didn’t ask.”
“I can’t believe she’d just walk away like that.”
“Maybe she’s had enough.”
“Rubbish. Of course she hasn’t had enough. She just thinks she has. They all go through it.”
“If you say so.”
Her mother fell silent and when Beth looked back at her face she could see the secret knowledge announcing itself smugly.
“Has she been to see you?”
“No. I told you.”
Dorothy reached down into her bag.
“I didn’t show you my book did I? You want to have a read of it when you get fed up of your bits of paper.”
Dorothy held a lurid paperback up making her eyes stare wildly at her daughter.
“It’s called Bride of the Rat God. Devious little buggers them rats.”
“Where did you find that?”
“They have all sorts over there. Beggars can’t be choosers. What’s she going to do if she packs it in then?”
Beth watched the man in the Hawaiian shirt being dug out by his children. One of them was feeding him a hot dog and there was a happy noisy chaos around him that she didn’t remember from her own childhood or Sarah’s.
“Travel round South America. With this Josh.”
“When we were first married we used to go to the Lakes every Spring and Autumn to see the leaves. Sometimes there’d be a bus trip up onto the moors, or somewhere with a bit of scenery. I didn’t mind it, but I like my own bed at night.”
“It was nice mind you.”
Beth watched her mother. Her eyes were beginning to droop and she looked tired. Perhaps she should take her back in if she had had enough.
“What did you say to Sarah mum?”
“I said she had to do what she liked. Do what made her happy.”
“Did she talk about giving up the course?”
“She might have done. I don’t remember.”
Dorothy did remember. They both knew that.
“I had no idea.”
Dorothy closed her eyes. There were a lot of things that her daughter had no idea about but it was no use saying so. She had been a bright lass. She remembered her at the same age that Sarah was now, full of herself, always telling you how to pronounce stuff and trying to get her father to grow asparagus. Working all hours God sends. What Beth had never understood was that Sarah wasn’t like her. She had hated that university from the moment she got there. Oh, she had been right as rain while she was top dog in high school with her mother behind her pushing. Once she got to university and found out there were a lot of other top dogs every bit as bright as she was who knew how to stand on their own two feet she had caved in. Couldn’t cope. And that was when the phone calls had started. Beth was looking at her, horrified.
“What did you tell her?”
“I told her to stick it out. That she were just as good as any of them and it would all sort itself out.”
It wasn’t really a lie. Dorothy had said that to start with.
“Why didn’t she ring me?”
“You don’t listen, and on top of that she was terrified of letting you down.”
“If you say so.”
“She’s been seeing this counsellor woman since last Spring.”
“Go and see her love.”
“I can’t, not until the weekend. I’ve a presentation to do tomorrow and the rest of next week is booked solid with meetings.”
“Well I think it’s a poor do if you can’t put your daughter first when she needs you.”
“I do put my daughter first. Who do you think pays her fees? I am not being made to take the blame for this.”
Dorothy looked at her daughter sharply.
“Why not? You were ready to take the credit.”
Beth clenched her fists and her lips tightened. She didn’t want to lose her temper with her mother, she really didn’t. She was frail now and not thinking clearly and she didn’t want to upset her.
“I gave her everything she could have wanted.”
“No, you gave her what you wanted. That’s not quite the same thing. When your gran first got the idea that Arthur wanted to marry me she did her level best to get me to turn him down. Said he wasn’t good enough. She went on at me for weeks till I eventually flew at her and answered back. I said he was good enough for me and that’s all that mattered.”
Beth wished that her mother wouldn’t keep going back into the past. It didn’t help.
“That’s not the same.”
“Maybe not finishing the course and doing something different is good enough for our Sarah. You can’t go on living your life for your kids. Sooner or later they have to live it for themselves as best they can.”
“We have it on in the mornings- you could do worse than watch a bit of it.”
“I had to find my own way. You took no interest at all.”
“I knew nowt about colleges or university. What was I supposed to say?”
“Go and see her- blow your presentations and your meetings. Tell them you’re poorly. Tell her you don’t give a damn if she passes or fails, then she just might do it, and if you can get a square meal down her while you’re there, all the better.”
“Damn. I can do without this.”
“You’ll go then?”
“I suppose so.”
“Cancel them meetings.”
Beth walked away, fumbling with her mobile. Dorothy wheeled herself up to the edge of the promenade and looked down at the oncoming tide. People were packing up and leaving for home. The children who had buried their father in the sand were squealing as they had water tipped over their feet before they were towelled down. Soon there would be no beach left. Children didn’t often dig nowadays she thought sadly. Most of them were too busy with computers and such like- they never got dirty. Sixty years before she would have been down there, running up and down to the sea and sitting behind a barricade of sand waiting for the tide to come in and wash it all away. No different to now really, she chuckled to herself. She had done all her running and now she was just sitting out her days behind her barricade waiting for the tide to come in.
Beth came back from making her calls and stood next to her.
“What are you muttering on about?”
“Nothing in particular. Have you got it all sorted?”
“Sarah doesn’t realise how lucky she is. She had a damn sight better start in life than those kids down there are getting.”
“They look like they’re doing all right to me. They’ve been happy as Larry all afternoon rolling around with their mum and dad like little puppy dogs. Getting spoilt.”
“Spoilt? I don’t think so.”
“Being spoilt is getting what you want.”
“She will be all right, won’t she mum?”
“Course she will. You go and talk to her. Just remember it’s her life.”
Beth turned the wheelchair round and they crossed the road together in silence. When she had been placed back in the residents lounge after saying goodbye Dorothy fumbled in her bag for the mobile phone which Beth didn’t know that she had. It was a special one with large keys. Her granddaughter had shown her how to punch in a number and answer a call.
“Sarah? Your mum’s just gone…… course she was. Only to be expected. I told you I’d have a word with her and I have. No need to get yourself worked up. She’s coming to see you tomorrow, I just thought I’d warn you. Just tell her what you told me……………..I know, but she’ll listen now. I stuck up for you, you’ll be all right. Don’t forget to fetch me those mint humbugs next week.”
“What did you want to give me this for?”