Mother is asleep on her bed, a biscuit clenched in her right hand. Her right hand lies on her heart. She looks like an effigy on a tomb gently holding an important family relic, which she hopes will come with her into the future.
‘Once she’s got hold of a Hob Knob, she won’t let go. She’s like a terrier with a rat,’ I say to the nurse who’s escorted me to her bedroom.
The nurse is not sure if I’m joking or if I’m just being a facetious prick. Faced with the touching or the terrible, I become trite. I blame my father, mother, brother and private education among many external and extraneous factors for this reluctance to face my emotions directly.
‘She didn’t sleep well last night,’ says the nurse. ‘Perhaps you should let her wake up in her own time?’
I sit down in her armchair and put my hand on her left arm which has almost fallen off her bed.
My daughter is looking at me like a poker player who knows they hold a winning hand.
‘Did you know when you were a baby you wouldn’t let anyone push the pram except your mum,’ says my daughter. ‘Even your dad.’
‘Oh yeah?’ I say, swigging casually from a can of zero alcohol Danish lager. Danish lager is the latest accessory in my rebrand as a post Brexit liberal Boomer.
‘If your father came anywhere near the pram you’d scream,’ she says, smirking.
Oh dear, this sounds seriously Oedipal and not what I want to deal with right now. I may need a can of something stronger than zero alcohol lager to make it through this conversation.
‘Granny gave me a picture of you in your pram doing your ‘Mr Angry’ face. Do you want to see it?’
‘I do’ says my wife, dropping her spoon into the risotto and speeding towards my daughter faster than a Ferrari.
‘The risotto will burn if you stop stirring it,’ I say.
‘Let it burn,’ she says.
My daughter smiles triumphantly and hands the picture to her mother, like a paparazzi handing over a picture of Prince Andrew in a mankini at a beachwear party in Mustique. She knows she’s hit the jackpot.
In the picture, I’m strapped into a metal pram as chunky as a first World War tank. I’m trying to look behind me to see who is pushing my pram. The look on my face would freeze water or terrify a Tory MP into obeying the Nolan principles.
‘Nothing’s changed,’ says my wife. ‘That’s still your Mr Angry face.’
Looking at the picture, what I want to know is why am I wearing ballet shoes and which hard-hearted, cack-handed descendant of Sweeney Todd cut my hair so that I look like a miniature medieval monk.
Mother’s eyelids flutter open. She has a cataract in one eye, so it takes time for her to adjust to the light when she returns from her dreams.
‘Is that you?’ she asks.
‘I think so,’ I say.
‘Have you seen your father lately?’
My father died in 2007. I used to tell her the truth when she asked about him – that he was dead. But she wouldn’t believe me or even accused me of lying. Either way, the truth upset her. So, now, I lie and say he’s fine. Or ignore the question and change the subject. It feels cowardly. But it’s a fudge which works for both of us.
‘Would you like a cup of tea?’ I ask.
Tea, biscuits and chocolates are my friends when it comes to changing the course of the conversation.
‘You know I hated being called Nora,’ says Mother, out of the blue. Norah is her first name.
‘It’s an ugly name. James Joyce was married to a woman called Nora. But I hated it because it was Irish. It’s sometimes spelt with an h at the end and sometimes without. NORAH. NORA. It always looks so ugly. Ugly on the page. The way it was written, everything about it even the sound. I didn’t want to be reminded of where I came from. Do you see?’
‘I think so,’ I say.
‘How do you feel about it?’ asks my wife.
‘No, the whole situation.’
‘Like I’m a reluctant detectorist,’ I say.
‘Unwillingly discovering fragments from the past?’ says my wife.
‘Is that good or bad?’
‘Some things are best left unknown and unsaid, aren’t they?’
‘Sometimes,’ she says and turns the light off.