Extract from my memoir: News that will change my life’s course forever
Exeat 1: Three weeks into my first term, I’m summoned to housemaster Mr Berridge’s study. I rise from my breakfast of congealed bacon and baked beans, fearful I’ve broken some obscure house rule and am to receive the ultimate punishment: six of the best. Does he have a favorite willow cane?
“Graham-Pole, you are due an exeat.”
Boarders are granted one exeat at mid-term, but he offers no explanation for this unlooked-for holiday. The fly in the ointment is that it isn’t Mummy who meets me at Weston station but her younger brother, Uncle Ken, a single-handed GP with a practice in far-off Yorkshire’s coalmining country. He drives me home in a hush broken only by the gear-grinding of his 1939 Ford Anglia. I relish the silence, having spoken to no one since a brief cheerio to my new friend Daglish, as we brushed our teeth over adjacent basins in the dorm that morning.
What’s he doing here? Where’s Mummy?
At home, still no sign of her, only Aunty Joan and my three sisters. The mystery deepens: aren’t they supposed to be at school, too? After brief hellos, we squeeze into Uncle’s car headed for Weston General. My only previous visit there was for tonsils and adenoids when I was six. Coming around from the anesthetic, I had cajoled my nurse to slip me a chocolate ice cream, which I promptly barfed in bloody gobs across the bright yellow blanket. We’re ushered into a single room off the corridor in the Surgical Ward. I hide my bewilderment at seeing Mummy propped in bed in a faded yellow nightie that highlights the pallor of her face. I stand wordless at bed-end awaiting explanation. None is forthcoming. I summon a surly look as Mummy pushes a brown-paper package across the bedspread. I lean forward to catch her whispered words.
“It’s your thirteenth birthday gift, John. Do open it.”
I rip off the wrapping, gaze at the box lid depicting Field Marshal Montgomery marching his khaki-clad soldiers and army tanks into battle for the German flag, the centerpiece a single bold word, L’Attaque, the board game I’ve been coveting.
But why am I getting it two months early?
I smile to repress untimely tears as my sisters range themselves on either side of her bed. Mummy murmurs to each in turn, stopping between sentences to catch her breath. Minutes later, I am glancing back for a last sight of her as my uncle ushers us out through the doorway. The weekend passes in awkward mealtime chat. No mention of Mummy or her illness. The grown-ups find other stuff to talk about without a gesture towards the elephant trumpeting through the dining room.
Exeat 2. Spring term is barely under way before Mr. Berridge issues another exeat order. My suspicions are on full alert. Mummy’s letters and restocking of tuck box with Mars bar, chocolate digestives and peppermint creams, have ceased making their regular-as-clockwork weekly appearance. Christmas holidays had passed with visits back to Western General. One sunny Sunday, Mummy had come home on her own exeat and strolled with my sisters and me in Kimberley Woods. When it was clear she could go no further, we’d carried her along woodland paths overhung with oaks, hoisting an arm or leg each. We had gathered around the drawing room piano, Mummy’s frail, silvery soprano leading us in Loch Lomond and The Skye Boat Song.
Uncle Ken stands once more on Weston railway platform in winter coat and trilby. We exchange not a word on the drive home. There I mingle with other relatives, who offer me awkward smiles. Uncle ushers me into the drawing room and has me sit on the sofa. I stare at the crimson-velvet curtains covering the French windows.
Why are they drawn? Mummy always keeps them open, whatever the season.
Uncle sinks into her armchair, that cozy paisley place I had long ago sat astride, listening to When We Are Six, watching Mummy’s auburn curls bounce with each twist of the plot. A thousand-mile chasm opens between me and this impostor. He looks down; I follow suit. My heart glimpses something unspeakable.
“Your mother died three days ago.”
My heart is deaf. Dead. I wait for more. What more? He is tempered by twenty years of doctoring three thousand colliers, their working lives spent chipping at south Yorkshire’s coal face till the dust choked their lungs for good. Unspoken words sink and lie in the space between us, as though he has swallowed grief whole. One image will follow me down the years: fleeing the house, cross-eyed Flossie scampering ahead among the stems of Mummy’s undead-headed hollyhocks. I am stripped naked of thought in the January air.