My boy rang the other night. He said he and his wife had bought tickets to see Ed Sheeran at the O2 arena in London. ‘How much were the tickets?’ I said. They were over £400 the pair, he said, and I was about to say in a strangulated voice, ‘How much?’ Then I remembered that I had recently added my name to a ballot which, if I am chosen, will vouchsafe me the privilege of buying tickets to see the Rolling Stones in Marseille in June — if Ron Wood lives that long. And some of those tickets are on sale at a similarly exorbitant price. I try not to be a blatant hypocrite when speaking to my son and I stopped myself in the nick of time.
However, this Ed Sheeran business was merely a prelude to his telling me that his wife is three months pregnant, and my ‘no hypocrisy’ rule went straight out of the window. Instead of rejoicing as I should have, I said that he and his wife were mad to think of having a baby given their circumstances, and went on to enumerate some of the potential difficulties. This naturally upset him and we ended the call on unfriendly terms. Afterwards I criticised myself for being a sclerotic old fool and wished I could have taken the call all over again and sounded glad. Then I sent him a text saying this. He hasn’t replied.
I’m back in Devon, cooking for my poor old mum, who could beat the prophet Job hands down in an afflictions contest.
‘Guess how much two tickets for an Ed Sheeran concert cost?’ I said one lunchtime to break the silence as she prodded a lump of meat disconsolately around her plate. ‘Ed Sheeran is a pop singer,’ I said. ‘Go on. Have a guess.’
She raised her head and concentrated her mind. I could see the wheels turning. Pop singer. Two tickets. Shocking price.
‘Twenty pounds,’ she said.
If I thought that my 61 years had lately detached me from present realities, here was a far worse case. I felt almost youthful and idealistic again. She thought again then threw out the most outrageous price for a pair of tickets to see a pop singer that she could possibly imagine.
‘Thirty pounds,’ she said.
‘Higher,’ I said.
She increased her guess by increments of ten pounds until she reached 150, then I told her £400. Her depression deepened visibly.
When next I imparted the news about another great-grandchild on the way, she lamented that £400 would be better spent on a new pram — one of those old-fashioned four-wheelers, I suppose she meant.
Another silence. When she spoke next it was to articulate something that had been bothering her for a while, or so it seemed. ‘Why don’t you get a job?’ she said. ‘But I’ve got a job,’ I said. ‘Not really,’ she said, ‘not a proper one. What’s France like for jobs? Is there a school near where you go? You could ask them for a job.’ ‘Doing what?’ I said, testily. ‘Janitor? Why not?’ she said. ‘Or they might let you teach the little children English. You’ve got to do something, you know.’
‘But according to you I don’t speak proper English.’ ‘You don’t. But it still isn’t too late for you to learn.’
I changed the subject. ‘I’ve spent hours making that. Are you just going to push it around the plate or are you going to eat any of it?’ ‘I can’t eat any more.’ ‘But you’ve hardly eaten any of it.’ ‘I’m sorry. I’m not hungry today.’ ‘You weren’t hungry yesterday, either. You’ve got to eat.’
And then I shut up. Why should she eat if she doesn’t want to? She was right about a job, too. Eight hundred panic-stricken words every Tuesday isn’t what most people would call a proper job. In fact most people have told me this.
I removed her plate and scraped the contents into the recycling bin and put it in the dishwasher and washed up the saucepans. Then I drove to town. She needed another batch of hearing aid batteries from the health clinic and her pension money from the post office. The post office counter is at the rear of the small Spar supermarket. I collected her money and bought a plain chocolate Bounty bar from Lucy at the grocery till. For Christmas last year Lucy bought me a little plastic megaphone that changes your voice. It has five settings.
‘And how’s your Mum?’ said Lucy. (She looks after hers, too.) ‘Any jobs going Lucy?’ I said. ‘She says I need to get a proper job.’ Lucy rolled her dark eyes dismissively. And it was marvellous how one expressive gesture of a grounded woman behind the counter in Spar could change everything for the better.