In which we meet Perci’s Mum and Perci teaches us some history.
WARNING: Those of a teary disposition may want some tissues to hand.
Mum was sitting up in bed when I arrived on the ward. She had a book in her lap, something tatty from the hospital library. If it hadn’t been for the slight droop of her left eye and the corner of her mouth and the slackness of her left hand she might have looked fine.
I leaned over the bed and kissed her on the cheek, she smelt floral soap and a few extra splashes of perfume, and I sat down on the uncomfortable blue chair.
‘Nothing interesting… just… supermarket tat.’ Mum often paused to take a breath to try and cover that she had to think about forming words.
When she closed the chick lit with one hand the foil cover flashed so brightly in the sun I saw spots.
I glanced about for nurses on the prowl and dug about in my bag. I pulled out a copy of The Female Eunuch, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and a well thumbed collection of Homer. None of which were mine, especially not the second. She grinned lopsidedly and started flicking through them with one hand.
‘Tessa offered me a dress.’ I put the chick lit on the top of the cabinet next to a vase of wilting flowers, a jug of water, and a bowl of fruit consisting mostly of grapes and bruised bananas. ‘It’s a nice one.’
I didn’t miss the slight tightening of her good hand on the books. ‘Will you… wear it?’
‘We ordered one.’
She patted my hand; her skin seemed cool and little brittle. ‘It can… be cancelled… I suppose.’
It just felt odd. Not completely wrong; biologically-speaking Tessa was my mother but Mum was my Mum. Tessa hadn’t cut my sandwiches into dinosaur shapes, or watched Bambi with me a hundred times, or played Frisbee with Dad and I. Or even stuck plasters on my scraped knees; usually scraped trying to play football with Dorian, to say I wasn’t very good was to be generous.
When I think about it Dorian and I wouldn’t have even met if it wasn’t for our parents. Mum and Dorian’s Dad worked together at the same school; Mum taught history and Dorian’s Dad taught English. They had known each other before we were even born; and they both named us after characters from their favourite books. Unintentional cruelty perhaps; but there were worse names. Even Dad and Dorian’s Mum had been on the school governors together when we were at primary school.
Where had Tessa been?
Suddenly I felt exhausted. It seemed years ago that Mum and I had been in the dress shop while I tried on an impressive variety of dresses in white and cream. Some looked like over-iced cakes; others that were so slim and tight you’d have to bounce down the aisle; and some with more attachments than a Swiss Army Knife.
A few weeks later, after her first stroke, she had pressed a to-do list into my hands; it was written on pink paper from the hospital shop. One of the points had sent me to the key for her desk and then to the file with details of her life insurance, a photocopy of her will, and her funeral arrangements.
I hadn’t told her that I’d sat in the middle of the bedroom floor and sobbed until Dorian called to ask about caterers.
I’m not sure I liked the practical approach she had developed. There had been a note in the folder: ‘I sorted everything out after your Dad died, so you don’t have to worry. Love Mum xx.’
I sniffed and she stroked my hair. ‘Weddings are… stressful.’
‘Yeah.’ I forced a smile. ‘Would you believe Dorian actually picked out a suit?’
‘When good old William The First passed through Nottingham while crushing a rebellion he decided it needed a castle. So they corralled some locals into building a mott and bailey. But it hasn’t been a castle since William Cavendish cleared it and built a ducal palace. And that’s been a museum and gallery since eighteen-seventy-eight.’
Tessa nodded vaguely as we did a circuit of the grounds looking across the rooftops of Nottingham. ‘What about Charles The First?’
I paused a looked up at the sandstone walls. ‘He was only here a few days and it was already a wreck. It spent more time in Parliament’s hands fending off the Royalists. But that’s got no romance, so no one remembers it.’
‘Really… really? You’re kidding me.’ She clapped her hands together, overzealously feigned enthusiasm.
I winced. For some reason it reminded me of little kids. ‘Well, the palace was burnt by a mob in eighteen-thirty-one. Got to watch those mobs.’
For some reason I wanted to impress her, to show her I’d earned my PhD but could still be interesting.
I didn’t tell her how Dorian and I had sat on the grass during long summers eating picnics and going to the exhibitions because locals got free access. And I didn’t tell her how he’d proposed in the cafe. We’d been to a Wedgwood exhibition. We were sat eating cake and drinking coffee when he said, ‘we should get married’. There was a pause as I tried to capture crumbs with my fork, then said, ‘okay’. No great romance there either.
‘Doesn’t the church look nice from here?’
‘Hm?’ I hadn’t even noticed she’d wandered over to the perimeter wall. ‘I suppose so.’ I walked over and stood beside her. I think she was taller than me but she always wore tottering heels so I couldn’t tell.
‘Were you pretending you weren’t with me?’
‘You know, I did a lecture for the Nottingham Historical Society on The Marshes here once.’
She combed her bob back behind her ears. ‘I, I don’t know how to be with you. You were a little baby when they took you away. Now you’re a beautiful, smart woman… I’ve never been expected to be smart.’
We stared out across the cityscape in silence.
When I was told I was adopted it hadn’t mattered to me. I didn’t wonder who my biological parents were, or who I was. I was who I always had been. I just assumed they didn’t want me, so I didn’t want them. But here she was now.
‘If I wear the dress will you come?’
‘Yes, yes. I’ll come whatever.’