Nine cups of milky Nescafé Gold Blend a day; a low-tar cigarette smouldering; a hot-water-bottle always on her lap; the Times crossword almost completed at the Formica table; knitting on the go; and novels — she always read the last page first. She was one of that generation of women who didn’t go to university but were incredibly well-read and knew poems by heart.
This was Kathleen, the mother of Nicholas Royle, novelist and professor of English at Sussex University. In a remarkable and moving memoir he has captured and preserved a loving, kind, impatient woman — and perhaps, with her, all of our mothers in the sweet predictability of their sayings and habits.
These were her catchphrases: ‘ouijamiflip’ for ‘thingummyjig’; ‘the state of the place!’; ‘spend a penny’; ‘spick and span’; ‘all’s fair in love and war’; ‘too late she cries!’ And her core advice (she was a nurse in her working life): ‘Never lose the common touch.’
She had a wonderful, therapeutic capacity to listen to others, and especially to young people. When Nicholas brought a girlfriend home he waited patiently for her to come up to his bedroom, but she just went on sitting at the Formica table, deeply engaged in conversation with his mother. Kathleen cared so much about all living things that if anyone even gave her a bunch of flowers she rushed frantically to get them into water.
If only it had been all like that. But unbearable tragedy struck. A lump appeared on Royle’s younger brother Simon’s arm when he was 20. Seven years later, in 1986, he was dead from cancer. The two saddest sentences Royle ever heard his mother speak were ‘It’s the same thing’ — which was what she said to him on the telephone to explain that Simon’s cancer had returned with a vengeance after remission — and, later, ‘I’m losing my marbles’.
The death of her son triggered dementia, reminding us that we’re all closer than we dare imagine to this state: bereavement can lurch us into it. That his lucid mother, who had always been ‘a bloodhound for lunacy in others’, should fall victim to this appalling condition Royle still finds hard to take in. How to express the horror of it? And how to pay homage to his mother who suffered from it? He does so by allowing his own language to fall empathetically into a kind of dementia-ese. His sentences fracture, the commas go, words that sound like each other are put together:
“Grief at her son gone in his mid-twenties drove her into any and every bush and ambush in mental and physical flames drowning buried for miles in every direction.
It can be beautiful, like poetry, but sometimes it goes too far, and you have no idea what he’s talking about. For example:
“Two ‘I’s parked in dateless dark. It’s a lot. Each a slot. I see you. You see no son. The day is done. I am in translation. Into the nothing you see. We park apart. Under the hill. All the dancers. It’s too much of a lot and no lot at all. Richard III carried a car park on his back. Five hundred and forty years later his lot acquires scheduled monument status. What is my mother’s lot? How is it to be borne? All lots are lost. The odds is gone.
That bewildering outpouring is brought on by recalling the worst moment of his life, which was when he visited his mother a few days before she died and she didn’t recognise him. You can see why both he and his sentences might go to pieces as he tries to evoke that dreadful moment.
If you respond well to this kind of disjointed prose you’ll love the whole book. But I much preferred the beautiful, simply described traits of the vivacious pre-dementia Kathleen — the one who, having just finished Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea, ruthlessly pronounced it ‘drivel!’