Mother is sitting in the window leafing intently through a stack of loose leafed old photographs. She studies the picture on the front and then slowly turns it over to check the back like an archeologist gently handling an ancient artifact for clues.
Her chair has high wooden armrests and a deep seat so the chair seems to swallow her. The light on her white hair looks ethereal and she’s so absorbed it takes a while time for her to realize I am in the doorway. When she does she snaps.
‘Don’t you know it’s rude not to knock before you come into someone’s bedroom? I thought I’d taught you better than that.’
‘You did. But I knocked three times and decided I couldn’t wait any longer.’
‘You’re as impatient as your brother,’ she sighs. ‘And as rude.’
Being as rude as my brother is as bad as it can get. It puts me at the top of the table in the League of Rudeness & Poor Manners alongside Prince Philip and Frankie Boyle. But she’s right. I shouldn’t have snuck in and spied on her.
‘Would you like me to get an album for those photographs?’ I ask shifting into compliant, helpful mode.
‘There’s none left,’ she says portentously.
This isn’t an answer to my question so I am confused. Is this a line from ‘Waiting for Godot’? Or the moment dementia took control?
‘Destroyed them all,’ she says.
Acting runs in Mother’s family. Her sister was particularly successful at ‘treading the boards’, as my father called it. Mother is not beyond occasionally hamming things up, especially if she’s feeling bored or mischievous.
‘What are you talking about?’ I ask, gently.
She reminds me of one day in the early eighties when my brother came back from University and burnt all the photographs of us. He made a funeral pyre of them outside the garage while my parents were asleep. Unusually for him, he did a thorough job and set light to the negatives, too. I call him up to see if he remembers. He does, proudly.
‘Why did you do it?’ I ask.
‘What do you mean?’
‘From five to fifteen Mother cut our hair,’ he says. ‘Only she wasn’t Vidal Sassoon. Bowl haircuts. In every photo.’
Embarrassed memories begin to stir. I remember a picture of my brother and me in pajamas standing next to our beds. I am holding our cat against my chest and my brother is pulling on its tail, one eye red from the camera’s flash. Mother is standing behind us ruffling our bowl haircuts. She’s smiling, proud of us and, perhaps, even of her hair handiwork.
‘Christ, she made us look like medieval monks,’ he says. ‘If those photos had got into the wrong hands, we’d have been ruined. Girl friends lost. Friends shamed. They were so embarrassing they could have even ruined careers. I did us both a favour.’
On the book shelf opposite her bed, there’s a photo of my god father, whisky glass in hand talking to my god mother who married an Argentine diplomat and was never short of corned beef during the Second World War. I wonder why she has chosen this photo to be the last thing she sees before she goes to sleep? I wonder if she remembers the picture of me and my brother and the cat having his tail pulled, if that’s what he was doing? I am about to ask her about all these things but then I hesitate and decide that some stones are best left unturned, some evidence best left destroyed.