When I taught journalism my fellow lecturer and I joked that we should offer a course in excuses for missed deadlines, a tool that every journalist needs.
My excuse for missing my (own) Monday deadline this week: contact from The Tenant whose anger has ruled my life for the past four months. He had, fortunately, decided to collect his mountain of belongings, but, given the history, even relatively benign interaction with him is enough to make me adopt a foetal position under the bed from where no writing emerges.
As Brenda Ueland (in If You Want to Write, first published in 1938 and still going) explains this is a mistake. She tells the story of a violin teacher who wrote her book on music every night between midnight and 5 am.
One day she came to me with a very bad cold. “Oh lie down quick,” I exclaimed, “and I will get you some hot lemonade and put a shawl over yourself.”
She opened her eyes wide at me and said, almost with horror in her voice:
“That is no way to treat a cold! No, I slumped a little yesterday and so I caught it. But I worked all night and it is so much, much better now.”
Now, you see, Ueland concludes, I have established a reason for your working at writing, not in a trifling weak way but with affection and endurance.
However I am still learning this and what I am posting this week is an old story, gone through again.
Happiness (unpublished) is from the days when women’s magazines still printed light fiction instead of the current trend in (although I believe sometimes equally fictitious) ‘true stories’.
“You have no idea how nice it is to be finished with all of that,” my mother said rubbing lip balm vigorously into her upper lip.
There are rules governing conversations with my mother. The first is that she always begins in the middle of a thought; the second is that if you ask what is talking about she gets to talk about whatever it is as long as she wants. Even before my father died that could be a very long time — “after all you asked.” But if you restrain your curiosity longer than she can restrain her desire to talk, she only goes on as long as you look like you want to listen.
She finished her upper lip and turned a little, examining herself in the mirror. She looked a very good sixty. There were lines of course — she had held forth at length on why plastic surgery showed a lack of fortitude — but her figure was still outstanding and her clothes enviable. I can count on the fingers of two hands the times in my life I had seen her with so much as a hair out of place.
She started to rub lip balm into her lower lip. “Do you think I should go back to lipstick?” she asked meditatively. “No,” she answered herself, “it’s such a relief that it’s done and dusted.”
I gave up. “What?” I asked.
She smiled triumphantly. “Love and the rest of it, of course.”
I should have guessed. We were at my cousin’s wedding, more accurately, the wedding breakfast — indifferent food at a hotel so close to the airport that the best man’s speech took an extra twenty minutes because he had to stop every time a plane flew over.
Between the planes and the tribute band — tribute to whom I was afraid to ask — there wasn’t much getting-to-know-you going on in the ballroom. Not that I thought you’d want to get to know the new in-laws. A part from a few ageing Rockers, I didn’t think anyone did Hippy any more. But there they were: men in pony tails and suit that hadn’t been out of the back of the closet in twenty years, a few even wore beads for Heaven’s sake. The women tended toward flower prints and flat shoes. I worried about my cousin, her MBA newly minted, marrying into a family like that.
Our family was on its third generation of strait and narrow banker. If you saw us in the street you’d believe we ran funeral homes. Earlier I asked my cousin if they dressed that way for some sort of in-joke. She appeared puzzled, shook her head, and looked adoringly in the direction of her new, and very good looking, husband. He was talking to an uncle but looked adoringly back.
I had noticed that uncle before, you couldn’t help it. No beads, thank god, but a Santa Claus stomach and a laugh that could be heard across the room, planes and tribute bands notwithstanding. I couldn’t imagine anything could be that funny. But when he laughed everyone who heard him smiled.
I realised I was drifting and turned my attention back to my mother, expecting to find her in full flow. But she was standing by the door back to the ballroom. I thought I knew the reason for her unusual restraint. Love, the romantic kind, had not been kind to my mother. My father was not, to understate, the domestic type In the end he didn’t even trouble to hide his affairs. My mother wasn’t a martyr, no sighs or rolling eyes. She liked doing what she called ‘the right thing’: welcoming strangers, helping neighbours in times of need, pouring oil on troubled waters. And in her marriage she explained that is what she had done — ‘the right thing’. Only in marriage I don’t think ‘the right thing’ had made her exactly happy. I wasn’t sure when I had heard my mother laugh.
I held the door and we went back to the ballroom. The band — maybe they were an ABBA tribute, but I’m not sure — were going furiously. Five or six couples from the new in-laws were up and dancing, the men windmilling their arms and the women standing more or less out of harm’s way gently rocking back and forth, eyes half closed. Our side, those who weren’t scrambling at the free bar, were looking on with a variety of expressions, none complementary. One of our ten-year olds and his sister had taken to the floor and were doing a fair invitation of the windmilling couples. I don’t think it was out of admiration.
The bride was standing in a corner with her brother. She didn’t look happy and had one hand on his arm. From the way she was nodding in the direction of her new in-laws, I guessed she was trying to make him cross the divide and dance. But he, with a large drink clutched in one hand, was shaking his head.
“Not very promising,” my mother said, taking it all in. “I’ll see you later.” She marched across the floor straight to the uncle with the belly laugh and the next thing they were dancing. Fortunately the band was on a slow number so he didn’t endanger her with the windmill routine.
I said a little prayer and picked one with beads. It turned out he wasn’t at all a bad dancer. His day job was insurance, but I stopped paying too much attention to his life story because we had closed in on my mother and the uncle and I began to hear a joke that the uncle was telling.
“Newly wed couple,”the uncle said as we turned away and back. “Honeymoon.” We turned again. “Didn’t come out of the cabin for five days.” Turn. “Finally the landlord knocks on the door.” Turn. “We’re living on the fruits of love the groom shouts back.” I stopped my partner so I could get the punch line. “The landlord answered, ‘I guessed as much. But would you please stop throwing the peelings out the window. They’re choking the chickens.’”
Not bad I thought even if he was laughing at it himself, but it was my mother’s response that surprised me. She threw back her head and laughed. She was laughing so hard she had to sit down. The uncle sat next to her, patting her hand. Then my partner spun me around at the beginning of a fast song and I lost track.
It was an hour before I caught sight of my mother again, still with the uncle, still dancing. If I hadn’t been looking for her, I might not have recognised her. Her hair, which had been neatly pinned up, tumbled around her face, and her mouth — red, glossy lips — was shaped in something like a grin.
Four hours later, as the band was packing up and the uncle was handing her into the car, I swear I saw a smudge of the same red on his mouth.
“Well,” my mother settled back into the seat, “perhaps not quite.”
I didn’t ask.
And two notes:
On the visual: for the Greeks joy and frivolity were represented by one of the three Graces, Euphrosyine, depicted dancing in Botticelli’s Primavera.
On feedback: I see these as sketches which at some point will become better. One of my dearest (and dearly respected) friends said she would not have finished We Ate Chinese if she hadn’t felt an obligation. The problem as she saw it was that there was not enough information about the old woman to make her interesting. This is helpful and comments about anything I post will be gratefully received and considered.