I hadn’t paid much attention to the hotel dining room today, being more concerned about getting my mother safely into her seat, until I sat down and saw that familiar smile and tilt of the head as she chuckled with her Saturday afternoon chums over lunch. I hadn’t seen her for about twenty years since we once bumped into one another after my daughter was born and although I’d written to her about ten years ago to commiserate about the death of her husband, we were no longer on speaking terms.
But once, a long time ago, because I was dating her son I spent a lot of time in her house.
Her husband was away at sea for a lot of the time and she basically had two lives. In one she was a virtual single parent to a boy and a girl and lunched and played bridge with lots of different women. They met regularly over card tables, drinking their gin and smoking their cigarettes. Her hair was permanently tidy in a Queen Elizabeth kind of way and she wore those twinset and pearl combos with below knee skirts and clicky clacky heels. She looked old fashioned even then.
The other woman she appeared to be was the loving wife who adored her husband and attended to his every whim when he came home for a few months. She had never had to work as he was a chief engineer and the house was most definitely her domain. She always dropped her female friends whenever he was at home and they seemed to understand that this would be the case and I don’t know if that was because their husbands also worked away from home or if there were just so many of them that one more or less made little difference to the bridge and rummy parties.
And the house, that pearl amongst properties on the same street, was a beacon of light for so many reasons. There was a Japanese cherry tree and a laburnum in the front garden so that the path seemed decorated by the petals. Every year, presumably because she was bored, she painted the walls magnolia, starting in one room and working her way round like it was some mini Forth Road Bridge. She had bought for the front room a top quality carpet and a three piece velvet suite in shades of sage green and the table lamps were onyx to go with the onyx card table, nested tables, crystal decanters on silver trays and the discrete onyx cigarette box. The lounge was her pride and joy and no-one in the family was allowed to eat or drink in this room. It was for entertaining guests so that anyone who arrived could be given a fulsome welcome. There was a family room at the back of the house where a series of complementary armchairs dotted the room and there was also a dining kitchen with pine table and chairs where most family meals took place. As an Über housewife she used a cotton bud to polish the inside of her locks as well as the external brass and she also ironed the sheets on the bed so that there were no creases at all. As a teenager I found it all quite over the top.
She was one of the first people I knew who cooked up lots of food at once and froze it, neatly labelled for future meals. You were always guaranteed a glass of homemade ginger wine or a scraping of homemade blackberry jam. Where she excelled though was Christmas dinner. It was one of the times that you were allowed to go through to the formal dining room and the Dubarry cutlery, Edinburgh crystal and Royal Doulton glimmered by candlelight while the food in the hostess trolley was served at precisely the right temperature. These meals always seemed to end with a boozy sherry trifle and liqueurs.
We used to laugh a lot and I thought that we were friends, especially as she trusted me enough to look after her teenage daughter while she joined her husband on board the ship for a month, but it was ephemeral because when her son and I split up after being together for nine years she made it clear that her loyalty would be only to him.
So, today when I saw her I knew we would not stop to share a memory – so I’ve shared it with you instead.