My auntie Billie (the tomboy of the family) has written a letter full of wonderful memories and Dad has read it to Mum – using his magnifying glass, stumbling sometimes over unfamiliar Devon placenames. We think Mum hears it, though her eyes remain closed. Later she moves restlessly and tries to speak. Her mouth is dry so we give her water, poking the straw between her side lips. Two faint words sounding like cake and biscuit are repeated over and over. I so want to dash down to the shop and get some celophane wrapped slice of fruit cake but know that this would likely choke her. She holds her hands and new incoherent phrases come tumbling out as Dad urges Diction Monica! Articulate those consonants in his best director’s voice.
Two hours we sit spellbound by my mother’s changing face and her attempts to communicate. You have such expressive hands, Monica, says Dad.
Suddenly three questions emerge clearly from Mum’s lips: Where am I? What am I doing here? Where am I going? In the face of these unanswerable questions it is easier to retreat to the now open treasure chest of memories.
Mum hardly remembers Torquay – her birthplace – and as a child I feel we always seemed to deliberately avoid it as a place that had been irredemably spoiled. But the story of Billie riding in the removal van from Torquay to Exeter was always a fixture in family memories – as were the bicycles lined up outside the house for Sunday excursions. These memories are so visual that they seem to become my memories too – except of course I see the actors as much older in the way I knew them. So on that ill fated bicycle excursion when it bucketed with rain, I can still see the drip drip drip of water falling from Grandad’s cap onto his nose and his silent resignation – the memory so vivid as if I were there, though of course it stars the older Grandad I knew.
Do the banisters in the Exeter house still bear my mother’s teethmarks? The pleasures of a large family is that there is always an aunt or uncle ready to spill the beans on the naughtiness of your parents. The inconvenient misdemeanours of an only child can remain a frustrating secret for his or her children. Though I expect Auntie Billie could tell a tale about how Peter and I disappeared for an entire Sunday morning only to be found by Uncle Reg in his car touring the Woolston foreshore.
Auntie Billie mentions Dad driving a sporty little car. I must have been very young then. I never associated Dad with sporty cars.
Billie’s picnics though were always the stuff of family legend – it was as if she brought a magic hamper on every trip. I can just imagine us tucking into such a spread on the floor of the Whiteparish cottage after trip to Nomansland was rained off.