The Terror of Malakhstan

Plankton is the publishing “company” owned by Alfons, Peony’s sexual partner (not boyfriend). I’ve looked up the web site and there appear to be seven books already published by them. I won’t lie. They’re not my kind of read. I don’t really belong on their list. But Peony has been telling Alfons that he has to expand and that humour is the way forward.

I was drawn to a thriller called Absorbed. Its blurb read: British agent Mike Pamflett is captured by terrorists in remote Malahkstan and re-educated in their cause before being shipped back home. Can he stop himself reeking havoc on the streets of Totnes?

“It’s spelt ‘wreaking’,” I told Peony.

“I’ll let him know,” she said. “He’s foreign, remember. His English is patchy. It’s a one-man band. He has to do the editing, cover design, everything.”

“He edits the books himself?”

“I just said so.”

“You also just said his English was patchy.”

“He’s enterprising.”

“Do you know what enterprising means?”

“No idea.”

“Oh and one more thing, the picture he uses for his logo is of krill not plankton.”

“Oh it’s all small marine life. What does it matter?”

*

And so she dragged me in to meet Alfons at his work place, which is a smallish room above a DIY shop on the high street. (I really thought he might be based in town and got a little dressed up.)

“I’ll hang about if you don’t mind, Alfons,” said Peony. “Me being the agent.”

He nodded his approval and his fine, transparent hair fluttered about his temples.

“I have read your books,” he set off. “They are very funny and charming, are they?”

(Don’t be put off, as I was at first, by the way he ends his sentences. He can’t seem to help himself and no one appears to have put him right so it’s probably too late for me to try.)

“Thank you,” I said. “And I’ve had a look at your list and I’m not sure…”

“You’ve read some of our books? No wonder our sales figures showed that unexpected leap, are you?”

“Always happy to help a local business,” I said. “I found myself absorbed by Absorbed.”

“You liked what you read, are you?”

“It was a unique piece of writing. You can’t help but wonder what the author, Julius Pettigrain, will come up with next.”

Alfons showed some pleasure at long last and actually I wished he hadn’t. It was rather revolting and involved him snorting. Which emboldened me to add:

“You know the book is riddled with spelling mistakes and there’s barely a nod to proper grammar. Who edited it?”

“Well I did,” he said.

“What about the author, though? He must be illiterate. Although a perfectly competent story-teller, I suppose.”

At this he slapped his hand on his desk top and, still apparently jovial, declared: “I am the author. And I have chosen a very manly English name, isn’t he!”

*

And so I have come away with a commission in the form of some paid work. Peony, my agent, sniffing out a new line of business, got me to commit to re-editing the books, all of which appear to have been written by Alfons under a series of ludicrous pseudonyms. He will pay me – and Peony seems to think that she secured something remarkable here – a fee of £122 to re-edit the lot. It will cost the fool thousands to get them reprinted but his vanity should cushion that particular fall. I might ask John to redesign the covers while I’m at it. He’ll almost certainly come up with something more interesting than the knives, blood and breasts that are the current theme.

When we got home I very sweetly asked my daughter:

“Peony, is it alright if I sack you now or should we let your imaginary contract run to the end of the month?”

“Tuh,” she said, dismissing the very idea. “It’s a job for life, Mum, don’t worry about that. Oh and don’t forget that I get a cut of that £122.”

Mother emerged from the living room and met us in the hall. She had a look of triumph about her.

“You’ll never guess what,” she trilled. “That cadaverous half-wit of a doctor, Lorenz, appeared on our doorstep while you were out, no doubt coming to seek forgiveness. I sent him off with a whole colony of fleas in each ear. I told him he’d never be welcome in this house.”

“Oh,” I said and only I heard the tear of exasperation in my voice. “But it’s my house,” I protested weakly.

“Yes!” she proclaimed. “And I told him you felt exactly the same way and would throw a shoe at him if he ever dared come back.”

A Famous mother.

Tags

“Your mother’s famous,” I told Peony. “And it’s thanks to you.”

(Peony can’t hear sarcasm. Her father had the same hearing issues.)

I’m just going to reproduce the whole interview. It seems easier than explaining all the wrangles that led up to it. It appeared yesterday on an American book blog called Wuvvly Books.

I know.

Tempest Could Whip Up a Storm!

We hadn’t heard about Mrs Tempest’s Marriage Bureau. Had you? But once we were alerted and we got a copy, well we couldn’t put it down. This is why we love it:

1 It’s short.

2 It’s got some crazy cussing in it.

3 It’s about old people for a change.

Let’s talk to the author, HA Ferdinand.

WB What inspired you to write Mrs Tempest’s Marriage Bureau?

HA My stupid dog. Mr mother. My arid life. It’s just a story, actually. I wasn’t serious about what I just said. I’d read about the inter-war marriage industry and thought I’d place a marriage bureau in a modern setting. Hilarity ensued, as they say.

WB Does it reflect your own life?

HA No.

WB Has the response been good to the book?

HA It has a small following, I suppose. I don’t do much publicity. Perhaps I ought.

WB We don’t get a lot of the British humor or vocabulary. What’s a barrister?

HA They’re lawyers who work in the higher courts. They wear wigs.

WB No way!

HA It’s not really relevant.

WB Why is Miss Smalls yellow?

HA Well, she’s not really. It’s just that she’s a bit different, a bit of an angel. Oh I don’t know how to answer such specifics.

WB While we’re on the subject of angels, do you love Jesus?

HA I’m sorry?

Wuvvly rating: very wuvvly!!!

I won’t bore you with the book review – you can look it up yourself if you’re really interested.

“Now, sit back and watch your sales rocket,” Peony told me.

“Most books on that site seem to get a very, very, very wuvvly rating,” I pointed out. “I just got one very.”

“Surely a very wuvvly is good.”

“I don’t know. I’ve honestly no idea. I don’t even know if that was a good interview or not.”

“Mum!” she declared and put her hands over her ears. “Just cut out all the negativity, willya. You’re being talked about. What more do you want? Anyway, next stop Plankton Books.”

Peony and her hard head.

“I’ve been giving this a lot of thought,” said Peony, pacing about the living room, “and I need a job where I can be at home to look after John whenever he’s here but which might bring in some decent moolah as well. Also, I wanted to give something back, Mum. Help you out.”

I’m about to say: “I’m intrigued,” but actually I’m not.

“Go on then,” I sigh.

“What do you need that you haven’t got?”

“A device for travelling back in time and circumventing this conversation.”

“I’ll tell you what you haven’t got. Readers.”

I feel vulnerable suddenly.

“Peony…”

“So what do you need?”

“Readers?”

“Yes, well done. Readers. You’re just waiting to be discovered.”

“No, I’m happy being ignored.”

“And how do you get readers?”

“I’ve got a few already, thank you very much.”

“You need an agent.”

“You’re going to find me an agent? How on earth do you propose to do that? Anyway I’m not sure I really want an agent.”

“Oh Mum, don’t be so bloody dense. I’m going to be your agent.”

And with that ta-dah! she stopped pacing and fell into her grandmother’s unusually vacant armchair, which was brave given its soft and marshy nature.

“Peony, does the world really need another literary agent?”

“Who cares? You need one. Think of everything I can do for you. I can manage all the nasty stuff you don’t like doing, like selling yourself. You hate all that. I can call around and get you into places and have your books featured on web sites and just spread the word. And you can give me a little smidge of what you earn to keep me going.”

“Wait a minute. So, as well as living off me entirely for nothing, you now also wish to draw a salary?”

“Commensurate with my success as your agent.”

“You’ve got to be kidding.”

“You’ve paid off the mortgage. You can afford it.”

“I paid off the mortgage by working extremely hard to do so. Now listen. How on earth are you going to cut it as a literary agent when you rarely open a book?”

“Not true. I’ve been leafing through that one on your bedside table, the one by the Norwegian bloke who remembers every cough and fart of his childhood.”

“And?”

“I’m struggling. Anyway, I’m not trying to be a critic. Agents aren’t critics. They’re business people. Fixated on success, just like me. Mum, it’s time for me to change direction and take up a new career path.”

“What direction are you changing from exactly? The closest you’ve come to a career was selling your old Barbie dolls on Ebay.”

“Yes and separating them into individual lots realised a much higher return. And I did that despite promising them that they’d never be parted from each other. I feel really bad about that but that’s the kind of hard-headed business woman I am.”

“You’re head is entirely soft, my dear.”

“I’m ignoring that, which is proof of my steel. These days writers can get publicity in all kinds of ways. For kick-off, you’ll need a blog.”

That’s a good start. Clearly one of my devoted readers.

“Also we have to think laterally about people we know and how they can be of help to us. You’d be surprised how much good a well-placed recommendation is. I bet if we had a proper brainstorming we could come up with all kinds of people who could help. What about that boyfriend of yours then?”

“I don’t have a boyfriend.”

“Yes you do, I saw you both taking Ken Tray for a walk in the cemetery the other day. Is he a recovering alcoholic? Are you on some mercy mission? The poor bastard looks dreadful.”

“Peony! Dr Lorenz is a consultant at Kings College Hospital.”

“Are you sure he’s not a patient? It looks terminal, whatever he’s got.”

“I don’t ridicule your boyfriend and God knows I’ve got enough material to work with. He hardly looks at the peak of condition.”

“Alfons? He’s not my boyfriend. I’ve told you, he’s my sexual partner. Get with the times.”

“Well go exploit him then and leave Laurence out of this. What does Alfons do anyway?”

“Alfons…,” she began and her eyes widened and her jaw dropped. “He’s …”

“Well what?”

“Huh!” she said in wonderment. She shook her head, too. Kept shaking it. “Well I never,” she mused. “It genuinely never occurred to me.”

She was tutting and laughing all the while and slapped the arm of the chair.

“Well?” I demanded. “What is he?”

“He’s… well he owns his own publishing company. He specialises in publishing and marketing self-published writers with promise.”

“Peony,” I said sourly. “I love you but you’re an idiot.”

What career exactly?

What career exactly?

New Year. New Peony scheme.

An awful lot has happened. I would tabulate but I haven’t the necessary skills. So a list must do.

1 John is back, the sweetheart, and almost his first enquiry was after the progress of my book. “Not great,” I told him and he seemed genuinely disappointed. He has started school and Peony and I take him in the mornings. I suppose that makes him permanent. His mother is toying with Morocco, apparently.

2 Peony introduced me last week to a pasty young man with very thin, white hair.

“Mum,” she said, “This is Alfons. He’s my new sexual partner.” She said this in his presence.

In his presence, I told her: “You see, why did you have to call him your sexual partner? Why the sexual? It’s really not necessary. I mean, are you trying to draw a distinction between him and all your many business partners?”

“Don’t be sarky. No, I’m just stressing that I’m having sex again. Good innit?”

We both looked to Alfons for his endorsement of her good fortune but he remained mute.

3 Mother has given up telling me she’s going to move into an old folks’ home. We both knew it was just talk and I’m glad it’s all over. She told Peony:

“Guess what, sweetheart? They’ve found a cure for my condition. I have improved enormously. (Though I’m still frail of course.) ”

“Grunma, that’s absolutely superb news. How clever of them and of you.”

Later on, when we were alone, Peony said to me: “How funny. I’d always assumed she’d made it all up. So she was genuinely ill after all. Well I never.”

“Yes, well. Doctors, eh,” I said.

 4 Doctors, eh. Doctor Lorenz has called me once more, “to see how the old girl is coping with the bad news that she’s fine”.

“Is that really why you called me?” I asked, my heart in my mouth.

“No, of course not. I wondered if you wanted to go out to the cinema or indeed a restaurant. You might not want to join me in a restaurant, however, and I would understand that. A cinema is awkward, isn’t it. A walk? Is that an odd concept? A walk? I rather like a walk, actually. Erm… a museum, perhaps. Lots to talk about in a museum. Nothing personal necessarily. Something sporty? Badminton?”

“Any of the above,” I snapped at once. “Just anything.”

5 Nobody knows about Dr Lorenz. There’s nothing to know anyway.

6 Charlton stayed one night then fled. I don’t know how he copes with such a nomadic lifestyle. Apparently he’s sought out an old girlfriend. Mother is, of course, bereft.

7 Peony has just this minute told me that she has an announcement to make. Alfons – who is part Swedish, did I tell you? – is at work right now and anyway doesn’t live here (though I’m sure that’ll change at some point) and she has been up in her room all morning, tapping away at her lap top.

“It’s about you, Mum. You and me. I’ve been dossing around the Internet seeing what’s what and I’ve come up with a truly inspired idea. In one swift move I will solve all our problems.”

“What problems?”

“Just sit down and hear me out.”

So that is what I’m about to do.

Doh Boxing Day.

Connie had her head in her hands.

Connie had her head in her hands.

I was heading for a repeat performance of Christmas Day and my hand was reaching to switch on the telly, when a shower of knocks fell upon my front door.

I opened it to find Connie with her head in her hands.

Once I’d pried her hands away I saw the empty eyes and I was scared.

“I can’t,” she said.

“Can’t what, Connie, for goodness’ sake?”

“I can’t,” she repeated. “I just can’t.”

“Please tell me what you can’t do?” I begged.

“I can’t deal with them any more. Please, please take them back.”

You know who she was talking about as well as I do.

“Where are they now?”

“They’re in my car.”

“Bring them in,” I told her.

It turns out that Charlton has been her lodger all this time. She’s been going on for a while about how excited she was to have this “attractive” single man sharing her home. I never picked up on it because it was all happening around the time of my getting the wrong end of the stick about Mother.

Charlton and Mother trooped in the house separately. Apparently they had rowed bitterly over Christmas dinner and when Mother had stormed off she had done it into Connie’s room, there not being many other places to storm off into in her flat. Charlton had gone out. Connie was left with a lot of washing up and nowhere to go and lie down.

I should have felt sorry for her but the truth is she’s had plenty of warning from me not to go meddling with my family.

“Go home,” I told her, like some reassuring lawman about to take on the outlaws alone. “Enjoy the peace. And wash the sheets thoroughly.”

“I will,” she shuddered.

Peony called much later to say sorry that they hadn’t shown up, that she and Justine and John had all fallen asleep on the sofa after breakfast and woken hours later. They made me think of a ball of hamsters in a pet shop.

“You sounded so happy yesterday, Mum. But not today. What’s up?”

“The party’s over,” I told her.

The party’s over.

Ah Christmas Day.

I switched on the telly at about ten in the morning.

I switched on the telly at about ten in the morning.

On Christmas Day I switched on the telly at about ten in the morning and only abandoned it briefly to put my Marks’ Christmas dinner in the microwave.

Dr Lorenz texted “Happy Christmas” at around 2pm. I struggled over how to reply and finally left it at: “Thanks. Likewise.”

Lyre sent her greetings by text around then. Dear girl. Haven’t seen her for a while. Radio silence from Connie, who is usually so fastidious about these things.

I slept between three and three thirty.

Peony called just after four to say she was really sorry that she hadn’t joined us this year but that she and Justine wanted to give John all their attention. It’s more likely they didn’t want to run into Justine’s parents.

“Does Grunma mind my not being there?” she asked.

“Err, no.” I said.

“Sweet. See you tomorrow then. Say happy Christmas to Ken Tray for us.”

“God! I’d forgotten all about him!”

I pushed Ken outdoors and he sniffed around the place for a happy hour while I watched the rest of Monsters vs Aliens.

At ten I ate some chestnut puree out of the tin (it had been intended to go into a Christmas log) and took my new Persephone classic up to bed. I wondered why my cheeks hurt so much and looked in the bathroom mirror. I was grinning and had clearly been grinning lavishly all day.

What I said to the Doctor. (And what we did about it.)

“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.

“Ha! You…”

“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?”

“No, I wasn’t going to tell you what to do at all.”

“What then?”

“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.

What the Doctor said.

Dr Lorenz is tall and slim and apologetically greying; somewhere in his forties, latter end, I’d say. He clearly runs or some other such exertion because he seems fleshless but I wouldn’t say he was glowing with health. Looked a little sallow to me. He eyes were so sad, he might have been a recreationally-kicked dog in another life.

He was in grey suit trousers, an off-white shirt and a dirty blue tie.

“As you know,” he said after the awkward formalities, “I’ve taken over from Dr Henge. He’s been the consultant dealing with your mother for the past eight years. He retired. He was old, you see. Very old actually. Time to retire, when you’re old.”

“He was pretty ancient,” I added.

“Yes, yes, ancient. We’re none of us immune from age. Ha! Not that you seem anywhere near retirement age. You work, do you?”

“No, I took redundancy from the law firm.”

He turned white at once.

“Dear God you’re a lawyer. I knew it! I knew it would come to this.”

“I’m not a lawyer. I was what you used to call a legal secretary and I did it for what felt like five thousand years. Dr Laurence – sorry Lorenz! – might I ask why you’ve called me here? I’ve had a hellish week since you called. I’m the type that likes to deal with things head on. I don’t like having to imagine what might be. I know I have something awful to confront and I’d rather you just told me. If you don’t mind my saying, I’ve already deduced that you might be the type to beat about the bush a bit. Please don’t be offended. I rather we both dived into that bush together. Head first, as it were.”

He looked at me with an expression of suffering.

“We both dived into the bush?”

“Oh do excuse my way of expressing myself. I write awful books.”

“Ah.”

“So?”

His very knobbly fingers danced over each other.

“Shall we dive, Dr Lorenz?”

“You write books, you say?” he tried.

“Why am I here?”

And so he had no choice but to cough it up at last.

“Dr Henge had a number of regular patients, of course. He was very respected in his field. Our hospital is a world leader in dealing with this condition.”

“Well that’s a relief to hear.”

“He kept extensive files and notes about treatments and tests and progress and everything he needed to have a close knowledge of his patients. He was scrupulous, was Dr Henge. Old Dr Henge.

“He was godlike in my mother’s eyes,” I told him. “She talked about him all the time. His diagnosis explained so much for her, made sense of her life.”

“It did?” he squeaked. “Your mother suffer a lot does she?”

“Oh Doctor,” I sighed. “She does. She does indeed. And the most awful thing about it is that I’ve been so flippant about it. It became my cross to bear, more than hers, in a way. I can’t tell you how low I’ve been since you’ve called. I’ve done all I can to make her happy and feel loved. I did the right thing, didn’t I?”

He looked abashed.

“Erm, yeah, why not?” Then after a deep breath: “Back to Dr Henge.”

I waited.

“Dr Henge diagnosed your mother some eight years ago.”

“There was something wrong with the diagnosis?”

“No, the diagnosis was spot on. The cell clusters were unmistakable, as were the symptoms: ganglia, psoriasis, predisposition to blepharitis… It all points to the same condition. He wouldn’t get something like that wrong. He is an expert in his field, is old Dr Henge.”

“Really, Dr Lorenz, despite my suggesting we dive into bushes together, nothing of the sort seems to be happening. You seem fixated on Dr Henge’s infirmity. Wait a minute, my mother doesn’t have those symptoms.”

“He was top notch when it came to diagnosis. He never got it wrong. You couldn’t ask for a greater expert.”

“She’s never had psoriasis in her life. Ganglions?”

“He was just rubbish at filing.”

“What’s blepharitis? No one’s ever mentioned blepharitis.”

“He made the correct diagnosis. Only he made it of the wrong woman.”

I paused, my mouth open. My brain was still catching up on my hearing.

“You don’t know a Mrs Harkness, by any chance?”

“Why would I know a Mrs Harkness? What has Mrs Harkness got to do with my mother?”

“Of course. Why would you? Why would you?”

I just waited, not least because I found speaking suddenly very difficult.

“You see, we’re having a similar conversation right now with a Mrs Harkness who has found out some eight years late that she does indeed have the condition. Your mother – and you’ll be utterly delighted to hear this – does not. Isn’t that great news?”

Yet more silence.

“I expect you are struck dumb with joy. You’re the type to go quiet with good news, is that it?

But actually I was quiet only for a couple of heavy seconds. And then… well then I spoke alright! This is what I said…

Just give me a minute to pull myself together.

I went to see Mother’s new consultant at the hospital yesterday morning.

I’ve never had a conversation like it. It was one of those very rare occasions when your life stops a moment, allows you to vomit, and then continues – only on a different track.

It’s only me and her at home at the moment and I look across at her scowling at Graham Norton and tears line up on the rims of my eyes and… I can’t look at her, I can’t.

I have to pull myself together and think straight. I have to make decisions for her and for me. Things have changed.

Left. Bereft.

John’s gone back to his mother’s for a while. Peony’s gone with him. She said it was to help Justine out but I know she wants to keep an eye on the lad and make sure nothing untoward happens. Justine is out of whatever place she was in and is said to be most energetic and coherent. That would be a first.

But here’s the thing. I rather miss the little fellow. Oh he’s gruff and unpredictable, but we’ve been hitting it off, him and me. He does this thing where he leaps about in front of me and fires out ideas for my plots. Just the other day we were tidying up the garden when he began the bouncing business and asked me what it was like being old.

“I’m not old,” I said. “My mother is old. I am middle-aged.”

“What do middle-aged people do?” he asked, leaping all the more wildly. (It’s a good sign when he does that.) “Do they work?”

“Yes they do,” I answered, stopping to lean on my rake.

“Are there jobs for middle-aged people and jobs for young people?”

“Yes,” I said, an idea forming there and then.

“What if middle-aged people try and do young people’s jobs?”

“Oh John!” I cried. “It would end in comic disaster. What a brilliant idea. You are a clever boy. Now what shall I get you as a reward? A hot chocolate? Shall we watch some more ‘World’s Craziest Fools’?”

He had a little think.

“Can I start going to school now please? I am nearly five”

Bless him. He’s got a point, though.

We've been hitting it off, him and me.

We’ve been hitting it off, him and me.

*

I’ve just put the phone down.

Oh dear God, dear God.

I can’t talk. I can’t write. It’s happened. It’s finally happened. The biggest trial of a person’s life. Why didn’t she tell me? Oh why have I been so sceptical, so hard on her? What kind of daughter am I?

It’s easier if I just relate the conversation.

Once the male voice on the other end was convinced that I was the person he was after, he seemed at pains to stress that his call was not “orthodox”.

Only then did he remember to tell me who he was.

“I’m Dr Lorenz. Laurence Lorenz.”

“Eh?”

“You can call me Laurence, if it’s easier. Or just Dr Lorenz. Really – I don’t mind. Not Dr Laurence, though. That doesn’t work.”

“Should I know you?”

“Ah! So sorry. Really sorry. Yes, I’m your mother’s new consultant at the hospital. I’ve taken over from Dr Henge. As you know she came in for a routine test about her… her condition… last week.”

“Yes, I heard all about that. I hear about it all the time. She claims she’s worsening and that the whole medical profession is beavering away to find a cure.”

“Yes…”

“Yes what?”

“It’s about those tests.”

“What about them?”

“I wonder… I wonder if you’d come into the hospital to have a chat with me? I’ve met her and I don’t think she’s the type to….”

“To what? You keep drifting off. The type to what?”

“Well, I don’t think she’s the type that handles serious news very well. At times like this we prefer to speak to the next of kin first, discreetly. That way we can find a way to move forward together, work out a strategy as it were.”

“What are you saying?”

“I’m afraid this is the kind of conversation that’s best had face to face. Next Thursday do you? Ten?”

“Well that’s a week away.”

“I’m so sorry. I know this has come out of the blue but I’d rather we’d just talk together, you and I, first of all, before well… before letting the cat out of the bag.

“Um. As it were.”

And that’s where it ended.

Oh my mother! My beloved mother! How can I undo all the awful things I’ve done to you, unsay all the nasty things I’ve said? The harsh words I used to your face and behind your back! Oh and to this blog. My heart is breaking and I am utterly ashamed of myself. I feel I have so little time to make it up to you. But I will. From here on I will be the loving and loyal daughter you deserve.