My mother is sleeping, stretched out in her new chair. I turn on her TV, volume low, kneel down and feed the cassette I’ve brought into her VCR. Like my mother the machine is old and doesn’t always co-operate, but I’ve caught it on a good day. It swallows the tape without complaint and begins to run. I ease back towards the settee and settle down to watch.
The images flicking across the screen are black and white - cleaned up, but still grainy. A xylophone plays a rising scale, and that ancient paper flower, long-forgotten but instantly familiar, begins to unfold. I’m four years old again, sitting cross-legged on the floor, a jam sandwich in my hand, red jam-stains around my mouth.
I watch with mother.
Mum moves in her chair and my finger finds the pause button on the VCR handset. I don’t want her to see this, not yet. Perhaps never. I’m not sure why.
She twitches in sleep and I study her face, note the small movements around her mouth, the to-and-fro tick-tock of her eyeballs beneath their lined lids. Her head nods back down towards her deflated breasts in a series of little bobs, a fuzzy grey ball on a pipe-cleaner neck. Her jaw drops, her mouth hangs open. She starts to snore softly.
I give it a few more seconds, making sure, quietly thumbing through the little booklet that came with the video tape.
All I really wanted from the newsagent was a box of chocolates to top up her groceries, but I got side-tracked by the cut-price displays. Cheap books, cheap videos. I wanted a comedy of some kind: maybe Steve Martin, or an old Blackadder, or one of those ridiculous Police Academy skits. But then I saw it - Watch with Mother, Little Weed on the front beneath the BBC logo - and I was on my way to the cash desk before I’d finished checking the rest of the contents. It seemed appropriate.
I close the booklet and listen to her snores. They’ve slowed, become more regular. I press pause again. The VCR grumbles, but starts.
Monday, says the screen - correctly, as it happens - and then: Picture Book. Yes. I remember. Monday was always Picture Book. This time it’s Busy Lizzie, the cartoon girl with the magic wishing-flower on her frock. She could have four wishes, no more, but always tried for five. After the fifth, whatever she’d wished for and got was undone. She never learned.
Today she wants long hair; wishes for it, gets it. Then she wants it even longer. She wants a mirror. Her hair is still growing, too long and too heavy. She wants a cart to pull it around in. She wants and wants and wants...
‘Don’t do it,’ I whisper. ‘Just don’t.’
I hear my own voice floating on the room’s geriatric air, trapped between Mum’s high whistling snore and the sad, low, slow tock of her wall clock. But Lizzie isn’t a free agent, no more than I am. We’ve both got scripts to follow, roles to play. She tries for more and loses the lot. I shake my head.
The presenter comes back on.
‘Wasn’t that a silly thing to do, children? Isn’t Busy Lizzie funny?’
‘No,’ I tell her. ‘She isn’t.’
‘Now, can you guess what we’re going to do next? I’m going to show you how to make something! I shall need my ruler and my scissors. Where can they have got to? Have you seen them, children?’
I shake my head again.
Sausage, the little wooden dog-puppet, comes walking across her table. He has her ruler and scissors in his mouth. Sausage talks, after a fashion. Doggy-talk. He tugs a smile out of me, even though I’m a big boy now and can see his strings.
The presenter demonstrates how to make Picture Book Paper Lanterns. She’s young, dark-haired, with a lovely, liquid oh-so-English voice. It dawns on me that she looks a little like my wife.
The programme ends, and the screen flashes up the word Tuesday. I push the handset’s stop button, deciding I don’t want to see any more until tomorrow. Like I told the warden, I’ll be here all week, helping Mum to settle in. I’ll watch them on the days they were intended to be seen. Like buying the tape in the first place, that seems appropriate.
I turn off the TV, find my place in my book and begin to read.
* * *
In the evening, she starts talking about Dad again.
I’m drinking a can of Stella, grateful for the slight buzz, still thinking about Busy Lizzie and her magic wishing-flower.
‘If you had four wishes, Mum, what would you wish for?’
I don’t know why I asked her that. It was stupid.
She picks at the sleeve of her blouse and doesn’t meet my eyes.
‘Your father, your father, your father and your father,’ she says. A single tear slides down her cheek, moving in and out of the papery folds and wrinkles. I pull a tissue out of my pocket and go to her.
‘You have his hands,’ she says.
* * *
She likes her new chair. We bought it because we thought it might help her swollen ankles, and it does, a little. She tugs a lever and the front panel flips up, lifting her legs and supporting them. She spent the first hour or two playing with it, a ninety year old kid with a new toy. Now she sits with her legs up every day after lunch and dozes off.
I wait until she’s fully asleep and then turn on the TV. The VCR acts up at first, but eventually I get it started.
Tuesday is Andy Pandy, and I’m disappointed. I never liked him much, even when I was little. Now I can see why. He prances about the garden with Teddy for a while, then they go off to play with each other in their basket. I think about what the kids I teach would make of this stuff. They’d tear it to shreds. I close my eyes and imagine the lunchtime games in the playground, inventing far worse scenarios than they ever could. Or maybe not.
When Andy and Teddy are out of the way, Looby-Lou comes to life. The woman narrating the story sings a song. Looby-Lou dances.
Here we go Looby-Lou
Here we go Looby-Lie
Here we go Looby-Lou
All on a Saturday night…
I sit through the whole thing, only turning the tape off when Pandy and his crew have finally finished waving at me. I try to get back to my book, but for the rest of the afternoon I’ve got that stupid song rattling around inside my head.
* * *
We watch TV together in the evening - real TV, not videos. It doesn’t feel right to play her the tape, and I keep it hidden, like I used to hide my copies of Penthouse and Playboy. I remember the day she caught me, walking into my bedroom unexpectedly when I thought she was out shopping. I’d have been about thirteen or fourteen, but I can still feel that hot rush of shame, still see the disgust in her eyes.
‘Sex, sex, sex,’ she says. ‘That’s all there is on the television these days. Especially that new one, that Channel 5. I don’t know what the world’s coming to.’
My mother likes Eastenders, Coronation Street and Emmerdale Farm. We watch Animal Hospital and Vets in Practice, but when the news comes on with pictures of death squads in Columbia, earthquake victims in Turkey, she tells me to turn the damn thing off. I make her some supper which she hardly touches. She goes to bed even earlier than usual.
I sit alone in her living room, wondering about taking a walk, maybe calling in at one of the local pubs, but I feel I shouldn’t leave her alone, not just yet. Besides, I’m not in the mood. I phone Rita instead and we talk. I tell her she looks like the woman on Picture Book. I tell her how to make paper lanterns. I tell her how much I miss her.
* * *
Mother wakes up in an evil mood, and I know I’m in for a difficult day.
‘This place is like a tomb,’ she says, a thin rope of egg running yellow down her chin. ‘It’s like a bloody tomb. Everyone’s just waiting to die! I hate it. Why did you make me move here?’
When she gets like this I remember the worst bits of the past. I remember my eleventh birthday, my sister getting herself killed in a car crash. I remember Mum crying, all of us crying. I see myself going towards her, trying to put my arms around her, needing comfort, yes, but also wanting to give it. I see her push me away, so hard I nearly fall.
‘I don’t want you!’ she says. ‘I don’t want you!’
In the afternoon, while she takes her nap, I watch The Flower Pot Men. They have their own song. It’s a hell of a lot better than Looby-Lou’s.
Bill and Ben,
Bill and Ben,
Bill and Ben,
Bill and Ben
Flower Pot Men…
Towards the end I feel my eyes filling up, and when Little Weed says ‘weed’ I finally start to cry. I do it silently so as not to wake my mother, because I know what she’d say if she saw me. And I think the little house knows something about it, too.
* * *
Just after breakfast one of her neighbours calls, shuffling awkwardly through the front door in her Zimmer frame. She looks like a puff of wind could carry her away. Mum introduces us.
‘This is Nora,’ she says. ‘Nora, this is my son, John. The one I was telling you about.’
‘I’m pleased to meet you, Nora,’ I say, shaking her hand, trying not to pull her over.
Nora giggles, a shrunken Baby Jane in a Zimmer playpen. I wonder if she and my mother take it in turns to bounce on the new chair when I’m not around.
‘You’re right,’ she says. ‘He is, isn’t he?’
‘What did she mean?’ I ask after Nora has gone. ‘He is what?’
She looks at me and shakes her head.
‘I don’t know,’ she says, her head tilted away. ‘They’re all three sheets to the wind in this place. Give me a few weeks, I’ll be just the same!’
* * *
Bit by bit, her VCR is giving up the ghost. I almost have to hammer the tape into the slot, and it takes me nearly fifteen minutes to get the bloody thing to play. When it does it rattles and squeaks like a Victorian steam-engine. It makes so much noise I have to turn the sound up on the TV so that I can hear Rag, Tag and Bobtail. I worry about the volume, but Mum’s out for the count. Has been for most of the day.
Rag is the hedgehog, Tag the mouse, Bobtail the rabbit. I remember their names all right, but in my head I’ve got Rag and Tag the wrong way round. Rag spends most of his time looking for water, using a forked stick as a divining rod. Bobtail’s babies find a muddy puddle to play in.
I discover something, something I didn’t realise as a child. The babies are a single hand, a white glove with little bunny heads stuck on the end of each finger. That explains why you never saw any of them out on their own, why they always stuck so closely together. The families I knew when I was a kid weren’t like that. Mine certainly wasn’t.
* * *
By lunchtime I’m climbing the walls. I wheel her to the pub on the pretext of getting some fresh air. She says she doesn’t want to go, but once she’s there she has half a Guinness and a packet of crisps. I have a couple of pints myself, getting the buzz back. What with that and the thought of going home in the morning, I feel a bit like a schoolkid at the start of the summer holidays.
We get back to her flat at about two o’clock and she installs herself in her chair, feet up. Three minutes later she’s snoring, louder and deeper than usual. I settle down to watch my tape.
The old VCR sounds worse than ever, but I’m determined to see this thing through to the end. There’s just The Woodentops to go.
Half-way through, just as Baby Woodentop is throwing his blanket out of his pram for the fourth time - poor Mummy Woodentop is at her wit’s end - three things happen at once: the video jams, there’s a shout and a crash from the corridor outside, and my mother jerks awake in her chair.
‘John?’ she says. ‘John?’
‘It’s OK, Mum. I think someone’s fallen over, that’s all.’
‘Fallen? Who’s fallen? Where?’
I hurry to the front door and yank it open. Mum’s friend, Nora, is lying crumpled in the corridor, her Zimmer standing over her like a guard who’s failed to do his duty and knows it.
She calls from the living room. ‘John? What’s happened?’
I check Nora’s neck for a pulse but can’t feel a thing. I wonder about mouth-to-mouth.
‘It’s Nora, Mum. She’s had an accident. Press your button for the warden.’
* * *
Later, after all the fuss has died down and the ambulance has taken Nora away, I try to retrieve my video tape from the VCR. It’s ruined. The machine has yanked it inside and ripped it to ribbons.
Mum is sitting in her chair, agitated, flipping up the foot-rest, dropping it down, flipping it up again.
‘It’s not fair,’ she says. ‘It’s not bloody fair. She was my friend. I’ve got nobody now.’
I go to her, put my arms around her.
‘That’s not true, Mum,’ I say. ‘You know that’s not true.’
She stares up at me, and although she doesn’t speak I hear her voice.
‘I don’t want you!’
She starts crying and I know I shall have to stay. I hold her and wait for the tears to stop, then ask if she’d like a cup of tea and a biscuit. She nods.
‘Do you want a bit of telly on?’
She nods again.
I phone Rita while I’m waiting for the kettle to boil, tell her I won’t be home tomorrow after all.
‘I understand,’ she says, but she’s distant, preoccupied. ‘Call me when you can.’
The kettle boils and switches itself off.
Back in the living room Mum is sitting in her chair, watching a documentary about elephants. I smile at her, and she gives me a half-smile back.
I put her tea and her biscuit on the table beside her, then take my place on the settee. I stare at the TV screen, half-aware of a baby elephant rolling in the dust, safe, protected by a shifting forest of adult legs.
I hear the clock tick.
I sip my tea.
I watch with mother.
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