“Do you know what happened the day my mother was diagnosed with her condition by your Dr Henge?” I spluttered at poor Dr Lorenz. “Shall I tell you? Have you any idea? She bloody well moved in with me! She said she was scared and couldn’t be left by herself. What if she collapsed and there was no one there to help her? She needed round-the-clock care and I was the one who had to give it. Not my brother. Not the state. Not some private nurse. But me. I had to endure her ever since. She has taken eight years and carved them out of my life. She has sat like some cashmere-clad imp in my front room for all that time and passed judgment on my cooking, my cleaning, my appearance, my friends, my world, my writing. And when I could take no more and showed I was rattled, she would cough a little, hold her side, lean a tad in one direction and tell me that her condition was playing up. Where is Henge, the old bastard? I want to wring his turkey neck!”
Lorenz leant forward and looked searchingly into my eyes, fearful, calculating.
“Wanting to wring his neck is a perfectly understandable urge right now,” he said. “Better than any other course, like, I don’t know, legal action perhaps. Violence might be more effective.”
“Violence! You just wait and see. You haven’t the first idea.”
“Yes, that’s the spirit. Legal action is so lengthy and disappointing, isn’t it? You’re not the type, are you?”
“What?” I snapped distractedly.
“The type to go to the lawyers.”
But I wasn’t really listening. I found, to my surprise, that I was crying, noisily and copiously. And as I wept, my immediate past life was tottering about like some sickly old drunk before my eyes.
“Dr Lorenz,” I whispered. “My own mother has ruined my life.”
He looked me in the eyes, his sympathy bubbling to a boil, you could tell.
“Well you can’t blame her,” he soothed. “She didn’t know. She thought she was really ill. It’s all our fault really. And what about poor Mrs Harkness? If anyone’s got a right to be bitter, it’s her. Incidentally, she’s showing no signs of taking legal action.”
“Oh shut up about your bloody legal action,” I snapped. “Why should you care if I sued the hospital or not?”
He gave this some thought.
“I don’t know,” he admitted eventually.
“What good could money do me or even your sympathy, come to that? I have been in a state of constant stress for the past eight years, a slave to her whims. Oh don’t get me wrong… she’s my mother and I do love her, but nature never intended us to live together. It’s wrong and perverse and goes against all laws of human relations. It’s ground me down, Doctor. Can you understand that? There isn’t a day when she doesn’t tell me what a dead loss I am and if I don’t listen she seeks me out to tell me. And there’s been no escape. She was a teacher, you know. A very good one, but she got sacked for telling pupils not to overreach themselves. Have you any idea what it’s like to be exposed to that level of rancour for eight solid years?”
He looked at me sideways, his head bent as though shying away from missiles.
But he had the decency to consider my question.
“Yes,” he murmured. “Yes, I can understand that. Funnily enough my own mother wanted to move in with me when my wife left a couple of years ago. I absolutely put my foot down but god knows she put up a good fight.”
“She should have got Dr Henge to diagnose her,” I told him.
“I what!” I bit back, my nerves alight. “I should pull myself together? Grow up? Stop complaining like some wronged teenager?”
“No, I wasn’t going to say that.”
“No, I wasn’t going to tell you what to do at all.”
“Well I… I was going to say that you are an exceptionally entertaining person and I wondered if you would join me for a drink. There’s a pub next door.”
I didn’t stop to hear how my heart suddenly jolted.
“It’s eleven in the morning.”
“So?” he asked.
“Are you told by your legal department to do this as a last resort?” I asked, suspiciously.
“No, no, not at all. In fact, I will probably have to face the music if I’m found out. But I thought I’d ask you all the same.”
I was gentle in the end, probably thanks to that drink. I looked solemn and sympathetic when I broke the news. She went through the stages of grief pretty rapidly, lingering on denial.
Dr Lorenz had warned me to go easy on her. “This will come as a shock to her. She isn’t seriously ill. The news could kill her.” And we had laughed uproariously.
After an hour or two of deepest mourning, as we sat silently beside each other with the telly on mute, she got up, listed to the side, righted herself, and left the room.
“Poor old girl,” I thought. “Perhaps we can enjoy a better friendship now, on a level footing. Maybe we’ll be able to rediscover what we love about each other.”
She returned after 10 minutes.
“I’ve been on the phone to your brother. I’m spending Christmas with him.”
“What? Why? You’ve always spent Christmas here? I don’t understand.”
“I can rely on him not to gloat.”
“I’m not gloating. Surely it’s good news that you’re well. Can’t we just celebrate as normal people would? Anyway, we don’t know where he lives. We just know he’s lodging somewhere.”
“It’s scandalous that you have no idea where your own brother is living.”
“Well, he never volunteered the information. And besides, I wasn’t interested. How can he possibly host Christmas, Mum?”
“Apparently his landlady is very accommodating.”
I could have said so much to that but I didn’t. My face clearly did, though.
“That’s right, glory in it. But Charlton said that as long as we are together, him and me, Christmas would be special this year. We don’t need plenty of space or money or good food. We just need each other.”
And she was off to pack a suitcase I didn’t even know she owned.