Eating Time: Part One.
I remember her as old. Ancient, even. Withered, her limbs wilting and flaccid, like a plant in drought, her fingers like dry, fragile twigs. She used to sit in her old armchair, which had moulded itself around her crumbling bones, and balance her wooden stick against her legs, the curved handle with the piece of tattered foam tied around it looped over her skinny thigh.
She was mad as a hatter. Or madder, probably. As mad as the hats themselves would have been if they could talk. And talk she did. Unceasingly, as long as she thought there was someone around to listen. She would prattle tirelessly about the neighbours’ latest gossip, or the idiocy of the current politicians. Loved scandal. But it was Anthony Eden or President Eisenhower that she gleefully disparaged, and the neighbours were long dead. She wasn’t vague or lost, though. You mustn’t think that. She argued her opinions with the vigour of her academic days, it’s just there were gaps, patches missing, which would exact a blank look from her if brought up. A lack of expression, as if her reaction had been painted there once, then whitewashed.
I asked her once about Margaret Thatcher – first female Prime Minister, I told her proudly. I must have been ten or so, and was beginning to take an interest in the world outside my small, cobbled hometown filled with florists and primary schools and drifters who disappeared periodically, annoying the local police who could do without the paperwork. She cackled and told me there would never be a female Prime Minister, because of the negative and unpredictable effects of what she called the “Moonspell”. This sounded mysterious and wonderful, and as a child I relished it. The word flourished in my imagination and quickly became another playground myth about growing up. It took me many years to realise she was talking about periods and PMT, which rather removed the mystical air surrounding her proclamation. Though I should have guessed. Her opinions and language were always earthy. In fact, I learned a valuable array of swearwords from her, to my Mother’s disgust.
But how did she come to be this tiny old jigsaw of sagging skin and caving bone and false teeth, dying in the 21st century and yet still living in 1953? She had spun the wheel of time again and again, and finally popped up here, in the blurred life of a shy, fascinated child. In her head, she still ate sponge cakes made with barely any butter because of rationing, and ran down Livery Street so her Aunt wouldn’t know she’d missed the bus because she’s been seeing that boy again. In the world outside her mind, which I sometimes think was less important than her life inside, she broke slowly into pieces.
Education had got her nowhere. Or rather, not where she thought it would, and nowhere near where she wanted to be. In 40s Birmingham, where bombs fell like roof tiles and her schoolboy brothers were sent packing, pronto, she forged her way through a degree. History with Classics. She learnt her Ovid from her Homer, her Saxe-Coburgs from her Saxe-Altenburgs, her Hastings and her Waterloo. All the while she listened anxiously for news of her nurse sister, and angrily threw away the guilt-trip letters she received from her. 1945 heralded an award for her dissertation, eclipsed by her sister’s Military Medal, marriage to a cocky young soldier (who went into his father’s business which made washing machines) pregnancy, swollen ankles and suddenly a house to clean.
By 1952, the kids were either making extra work or worrying her, she was bored with new silk stocking gifts from her otherwise white-wash husband, and the Times crossword was no longer sufficient to fill her brain. So one evening she made herself up like the woman on the front of her cookery books. The blonde, brunette, set-curls, beaming lipstick, poreless, straight-button-nosed, blue green hazel eyed enchanting woman, gazing jauntily from every cover. She set her features into that seductive hungry-tongued recipe and went to dances with her best friend from down the road. Hooked a man who could read Latin and knew about the French Revolution, and loved him in secret, in passion, in backstreet rooms-to-rent, for exactly a year.
Then guilt overwhelmed her and she cut him off – trudged back to her housewife life of laundry and trying to love her husband’s Poirot-moustache. And at that moment (she said to me once, looking straight at my eyes across her mug of strong brown tea) she decided to eat Time. To chew it up and swallow it right down, digest it into tiny bits that she could comprehend one at a time, and not have to relate anything to anything else, or find lines of cause and effect in her life, or make any heart-plucking comparisons.
She told me all this is one of her most lucid moments. Without her furrowed brow of complaint and knee-slapping cackle that punctuate her usual torrent of gossip. And I’d really like to think that maybe she wasn’t senile. Maybe that day in an Erdington pub, or on a bench in Sutton Park, when she must have said goodbye to him for the last time, she really did sift Time with her slender fingers, gulp down the best bits, and forget. Forget the in-between stuff. Blissfully forget.