Happy 60th Mum: An imagined conversation
I make my way onto the drive. The soft crunch of gravel — speckled whites, elephant greys — alerts her to my presence. She sees me from the kitchen window and even though she darts off sharply towards the front door, I know from the side of her face that she is smiling.
She opens the door, a serious face of stern concentration as she struggles with the rusty, bothersome latch.
“This bloody thing”, she says, shaking off her hand in the air.
“Happy birthday, Mother”. We hug and she squeezes me tightly, much as she has done these past few years. The kind of embrace that suggests every one could well be the last.
“What have you got there?”, she is dismissive and curt, pointing at the Tesco carrier bag of goods I carry in my left arm.
“Oh you know me, Mother. No expense spared”
I kick off my boots without undoing the laces and leave them in the porch. I don’t do this anywhere else. It is a strange regression whenever I return to the home of much of my childhood. I am instantly comfortable here at Whitebridge Avenue. It will always be my home. Where I can, even on a nondescript Thursday evening — and my own Mum’s 60th birthday- leave my shoes in a heaped mess, where I can pilfer my Dad’s beer and where I can help myself to the still exciting snack cupboard.
“Here you go”, I say, handing her the bag and chuckling, knowing how much she despises fuss. She is distracting herself with dusting the impeccable ornaments and knick-knacks that adorn the dining room, presumably for the 46th time that day.
“Oh, you know I hate presents. You didn’t need to get me much”
I receive a peck on the cheek and smile warmly.
“Don’t worry. It’s absolute bare minimum. There was a sale on at the garage”, I say, before helping myself to a bag of crisps. Salt & Vinegar, I laugh to myself, delighted at snaring Dad’s favourite snack. The last packet too! Double victory.
She laughs and puts the bag down on the kitchen counter now. I scan the CD player and its surrounding discs to see what has been on the McFaull jukebox lately. I clutch the usual Dylan, Young, The Who triumvirate and look up.
“Bloody hell, Mum. You’re absolutely on one”
“What do you mean?”, she says, genuinely perplexed, as she darts in crazed rushing motions, sweeping the floor, entirely unbothered by the frankly, rather aggressive charging into my feet.
“Lift your feet up”, she barks in between the manic back and forth. I watch her, mesmerised by the technique. We’ll make an Olympic Curling champion out of Anne McFaull yet.
“I made you some soup”, says the speed-frenzied woman. She points to a bubbling, simmering industrial-sized vat of Lentil & Bacon soup. She is a wonderful cook. I could smell the thick, unctuous, buttery-ness as soon as I walked through the door. Warm and comforting, like an old tatty jumper that always fits. That smell is home.
“It smells amazing Mum. Secret ingredient? What’s it called again? Some exotic thing”, I tease, an in-joke on account of the genuine awe she seems to have over her addition of mustard to the mix. She will forever forget she’s told me about this mythical ingredient.
“Mustard, ya cheeky swine”, a smile forms on her face, playful and still, like river bobbing idly on a spring day. She is happy I am here.
“I may as well grab a beer then”, I say as I open the garage door. The play button on Highway 61 Revisited is pressed as I move. A deliberate announcement of the prodigal son returning. I am here to not only wish my Mother a happy birthday but, far more importantly, I am here to drink my Father’s beer and play his music at full decibels. I am marking my territory.
“Help yourself”, says Mother. She is now mopping.
In he stomps. Even his footsteps onto carpeted floor are thunderous. “Get your hands aff my beer! And my crisps!”
“Hello, Father”, I bellow triumphantly and take a well-earned victory swig.
“Did your favourite son even get you a present? It’s your Mother’s birthday you know”, he teases, only half-joking. He has text me throughout the week reminding me. I, as I was ever so pleased to respond, had remembered for at least 3 years running now. I was an adult.
“But of course”, I say and gesture to the gleaming, quite magnificent Tesco carrier bag on the counter. It flails and sways with the wind from the open cowboy doors leading to the garden. The sun alights her ivory-white sheen into glossy shimmer. I do all I can to refrain from thunderously roaring “Behold!”. Like I say, adult.
“Oh wow”, he says, sarcastically. “Tesco value beans again is it tube?”
“Oh for God’s sake”, Mum says, getting agitated at the continued fuss and now forced to endure a different kind of fuss to alleviate this nonsensical fuss caused by the two leading idiot men pervading her life.
“Oh they’re lovely Stuart”. And she means it. Her tone lifts at lovely, in a way that’s hard to convey. Like on a summer’s day, where the skies are clear and all you see is the crystal clarity of pale, baby blue stretching and enveloping the day. Her lift and lilt is so simple and yet so utterly wholesome and lovely. It is the most subtle and most welcome of sounds.
“Ach”, I dismiss. “I know you like Sweetpeas”.
“I could have got you flowers but I know you prefer beer”, laughs my Dad, as we clink bottles and laugh uproariously. Her smile is big now. Her eyes wide and as vivid blue as ever, like the hue of some vast ocean, forever unexplored and full of quiet, unexplored danger as much as gentle, understated beauty and purity. The lines on her cheeks crinkle like ridges on an oak. She looks, for a moment, like I imagine she did as a child. So sweet and bursting with innocence and sensitivity. I love her, of course. She is my Mum. But in these moments, the gong of love is sounded loud and true within us, and we are reminded of our capacity for love. When we choose to hear the boom and sonorous echo of adoration and impossible love, it radiates through us. At this moment, she is coursing through my veins and we are one. I hug her, catching her off guard. She looks flustered and then relieved and then sounds worried.
“What’s wrong?”, she mumbles into my shoulder.
“Nothing. I just love you”, I say. And no words ever spoken have ever been more so.
“How are my boys?”
“Are you doing the washing now?”, I plead, exasperated.
“I’m multi-tasking. How are my beautiful boys I said?”
“Alright, mate, easy”, I retort, joke-defensively. “Well Hunter is still the laziest sloth on the planet. We’ve told him he needs to come here and pick some apples with his Nana”
“What did he say to that?”, she is half-cackling, separating whites from colours and loading into the machine.
“He asked if he would get any money”.
“I’ll give him £10”, she earnestly states.
“Will you balls!”, I cry. “He can get fucked”
“Sorry. He can piss right off”
“I hardly think that’s better”, she says.
“Oh I see. Your son swears and gets reprimanded but your grandson watches you pick up a load of apples and gets a tenner? Absolute joke!”
Again, we laugh. There is a short silence.
“He’s an amazing boy”, the words ooze out of her, dreamily, as though she has been transported somewhere. “And what about my little menace?”
“Buddy?”, I chuckle, bristling at the impossibility of answering such a benign topic about such a multi-faceted maniac. “He’s as feral as ever. He was saying ‘Where’s Nana’ a lot today. He’ll come and see you tomorrow when H is swimming”
She roars again, that gurgling cackle, so heady and electric with life. “Buddy is very good at picking up the apples”, she pauses, her face contorting to momentary displeasure before continuing. “Although, he did like to tip them all out and start again”.
Dad emerges again and ladels himself a bowl of soup. I wander through to the dining room, checking the cards that are strewn everywhere. They are in between French chefs, vinyl records, endless photographs. So many photographs. My graduation. Mum’s Mum. Dad’s Dad. Hunter and Buddy. Family holidays. Stuart and Sarah. The four of us. Mum and Dad. Their wedding day. Mum and her siblings. Sue, Dave and Jonathan. Photos smother the house, drenching it in life, love and pulsing memory. There are lives here and they continue; they endure. The cards come from the known and recognised. Aunty Janice, Barbara & Sue, Diane. There are lovely heartfelt messages from Sarah & Sam. There is a nonsensical one from me and a sillier one from Dad. There is also, I discover as I naughtily snoop in my parents’ bedroom, a sincere, heartfelt one from Dad. It says:
“Happy birthday to my wonderful wife
You are my best friend and I love you more now than ever
John x x x”
The cards speak and they say ‘you are loved’.
“Sarah’s not long gone. It’s a shame you missed her”, she mutters as we sit now, listening to chirruping birdsong and the fading day decompressing. “You worry about them more as you got older you know”. I nod but am unsure why.
I watch the cigarette smoke float high above the trees. The sun is coming down behind the rising, sweeping Sycamore trees in the distance. She sits on the concrete step facing them and our back garden, cigarette in hand. I perch myself on the bottom step facing side-wards, both at her and the departing day.
There are gulls far from here but their trembling call echos and reaches us. Those stately trees, swaying even on a night as still as this. They are mesmeric and awash with history. With lives lived, squandered, conquered, blessed, cursed and lost. They’ve seen it all and they’ll see more yet.
“What am I going to do with my life?”, she icily drawls, and I feel the dark shadows creep. “Become a prostitute?”, I quip. “Dad wouldn’t object to anything if it paid for his beer”. This time she does not laugh. She does not hear me. She is elsewhere. In a place I doubtless would not wish to visit, let alone bask in. However these days she spends a lot of her time drowning in this secret swamp of seclusion and desolation.
“You were always brilliant”, she snaps herself out of her funk and deflects. If Mum could save even a slithering of the love she bestows upon others, she would temper her own troubled, tortured, self-loathing soul.
“Oh don’t be ridiculous, Mother”, I dismiss glibly. “Remember when I got third degree burns trying to hold onto that lamp? I thought I had superpowers and could hold the actual sun in my palms”
“I remember, alright”. A deep inhalation and slow exhale. The smoke purrs in the dwindling daylight, and I watch on, enraptured in the hypnotic dance. I’m also aware it is almost time to go. I do not want to leave. “Your Father was not amused. 3am and he was driving a screaming you to A & E”.
“Yes. Put a plaster on it remains Dr John McFaull’s cure for everything”. I swig from the beer and feel a rumble in my gut as it is almost time to go.
We sit some time in silence. A comfort for us both, as it always is, as it always would be.
Eventually, we hug tightly at the door. Once more, it feels tighter than before and, as I turn to wave her goodbye, a sadness permeates through me, bouncing from my gravel-strewn foot up into the pit of my stomach. Every hug feels like the last one.
Happy birthday, I mouth, as she turns away.