CJ Stone's Columns: The Home Front
Accommodationally challenged after a disastrous foreign trip in 2007, CJ Stone was forced to take refuge with his parents. It was the first time he’d lived with them since his teens, and he was surprised to find himself in a war zone. Following are CJ’s bulletins from the front line in the eternal war of age and sex.
- The Empire of Things by C J Stone
All these stories appear in my new book, the Empire of Things. Buy it here.
1. Bangers 'n' Mash
It was bangers 'n mash night. Bangers 'n' mash and the six o’clock news. Mum said, “What did you used to do before there was telly?”
“Are you getting at me again?” Dad squeaked in an offended tone, almost banging his knife and fork on the table. “I used to read and listen to the radio if you’d like to know.”
“Well I’m fed up with looking down your ear’ole,” she said.
There’s three of us at the kitchen table: Mum on one side, with her back to the telly, Dad on the other - even now craning his head around again to catch some local news item about a mother-of-two who’s won a modeling competition, giving Mum a glorious view down the hairy funnel into his inner ear - and me, opposite, trying not to laugh.
“So what did YOU do before there was telly Mum?” I asked. “You’re always watching the telly too.”
“I used to talk,” she said. “He never had anything to say even back then. Always just sitting there like a great big fat lump.”
Well it’s true… or partly true. Dad watches a lot of TV. He’d turned it on in the kitchen even as his dinner was being laid on the table. He does the same thing every night, making a great to-do about the process, turning it on, picking the channel, adjusting the volume, even as Mum and I are tucking into ours. Until then he’d been watching a program in the other room. Mum said, loud enough for him to hear, “He hangs around like a schoolboy waiting for me to call him in for his dinner.”
He doesn’t like silence our Dad. He always likes to fill the empty spaces with something glaring and noisy. Generally that thing is the TV. If he’s not catching the news, or watching an afternoon movie on Channel 5, then he’s playing something he recorded last night or the night before or something he recorded while he was watching something else. But then, what else is he supposed to do? Sometimes he just looks very tired. Tired to his bones.
They are both in their late seventies now. Still squabbling after all of these years. It’s the squabbling that keeps them alive. But it’s the rule of the house: Mum is always right.
She has a certain tone. A certain way of looking at the world. For years I used to think it was me. I’d lived in fear of that withering look, that note of scorn. Even when I was a grown-up that look would have me quaking like a schoolboy before the headmistress’ office. It’s only in the last couple of months that it’s struck me. She can’t help it. It’s just the way she was made.
I’m a 55-year-old-man living at home with his parents.
I’m thinking of joining one of those on-line dating websites. I’d put it up as my personal ad: “55-year-old-bachelor living at home with his Mum.”
The women will be queuing up in anticipation.
She even does my washing for me. I try to stop her but she’s always rifling through my drawers when I‘m out, fiddling with my underwear.
If you ask me she has an unhealthy interest in the state of my underwear.
She’s also always asking me if I’ve got a woman in my life yet. Once she asked me it in Tesco in a very loud voice. Everybody turned round to look. I must have flushed a healthy state of scarlet, shushing her as I did.
“Please, Mum, not here.”
I’ve refused to go to Tesco with her since.
I say, “No Mum, there’s no woman as yet. Who would want me? You’d be standing outside the bedroom listening in.”
“Well I have to know what’s going on in your life. It’s my duty.”
You’re probably wondering how I got here. I won’t go into all that now. Life has so many twists and turns, so many ups and downs, it’s like a roller-coaster ride at times. The roller-coaster of mundane middle-age. Even six months ago I had no idea that this is where I would end up: that very soon I would be living back at home with my Mum and Dad.
I also had no idea that it was a war-zone. So I’m a war-correspondent now. These are my domestic bulletins from the home front.
It’s a kind of trench warfare rather than an all-out attack. Dad is usually sniping from a fox-hole. The big guns are all on her side. He keeps his head down mainly, defending himself with hobbies and with routine. He has a lot of hobbies and a lot of routines.
Turning the TV on as he’s sitting down to dinner is one of them. Is it a hobby or is it a routine? It’s hard to tell with our Dad. Both have the same quality about them, a kind of dogged persistence, a head-down, measured, unswerving sense of purpose, an unwillingness to adapt to change. Everything he does he always does it in the same way, at the same time, in the same order.
After dinner is over Mum gets up and starts putting the dishes away. Dad says, “You go and sit down love, I’ll do this,” but she carries on anyway, just long enough to annoy him. This is also part of the daily ritual.
Dad likes to have control over the washing up machine. So Mum sticks a few plates and cups in, rattling them about, and then he very pointedly takes them out again, one by one, unloading it completely before reloading it again. There are certain places for certain dishes and no one else knows where they’re supposed to go. Only him. This is his territory.
So Mum gives up and goes into the living room and I make her a cup of tea while Dad fills the washing up machine. The cup of tea is my contribution to the routine.
After that I go upstairs to play with my computer.
Can you see how undignified all of this is? Not only am I living at home with my Mum and Dad, but I’m turning into a bored teenager at the same time.
2. A Surprise Attack
It was about 8.00 in the morning when Mum came down the stairs. Dad was late. But there was an extra twinkle in her eye. You could see she was relishing the morning’s adventures.
She said, “He’s in for a surprise when he gets up this morning. I’m going to make him change his own bed,” and she let out a throaty chuckle, rubbing her hands with glee.
She’d obviously been planning it.
“I’m going to say, ‘When I made those marriage vows I don’t remember promising to make your bed for you.’ He’ll hate it. No matter how many times I show him how to change the duvet cover he always gets himself into a knot.”
This must have been a Tuesday or a Sunday. All the other days are already occupied by Dad’s impenetrable defensive routines.
Monday and Friday it’s golf. Wednesday it’s bowls. Thursday he makes his wine. Saturday it’s the shopping. Monday afternoon he goes to the bank to collect cash from his account. Always from the bank, never from a cash-machine. Always the same amount.
The night before golf he goes to bed early - at ten o’clock rather than his customary 10.15 – but not before he’s made all his preparations. The car has to be loaded with his electric trolley and his golf bag, and the car put away. This is usually done in the afternoon, which puts the car out off commission for the rest of the day. He doesn’t like to leave the car on the drive or go anywhere in case someone notices the clubs glinting temptingly in the back, so he tucks it up neatly in the garage instead.
Then, just before he goes to bed, he lays out his flask, his gloves, his mobile phone, and a banana. I always know it’s golf day when I see this enigmatic assemblage in a little bundle on the kitchen table, like some sort of a surrealistic commentary on the meaning of existence.
Why a banana? Why anything?
It’s a kind of warning to the rest of us, like one of those triangular road signs indicating hazards ahead. “Warning!” it says. “Routine in Progress. Move Carefully. Do Not Distract Golfer From His Arrangements.”
In the morning, he gets up at precisely 7.15, gets dressed, comes downstairs and makes himself a cup of coffee while filling the flask with boiling water; after which he goes back upstairs to clean his teeth and collect his e-mails.
I think this is what describes my Dad best. Not the routines. We all have our routines. It’s that hot water in the flask while he gets on with the rest of his business – not wasting a moment of his precious morning - so that the coffee later in the day, on the green, or wherever it is he drinks it, will be at the optimum temperature when required.
This is both my Dad’s genius and his weakness. He plans everything like a military campaign. Meticulous down to the last detail, calculated and precise, you know that he’s worked this all out in his head years ago, each move being timed and slotted in with an exact formula, like forward planning in a battle strategy.
The problem is that once he’s set these plans in motion it takes an almost supernatural effort to break him out of them again.
Take breakfast for instance. Breakfast on non-golf days takes place at 9.15. It consists of cornflakes, tomato juice, and a handful of pills, both medical and dietary. It’s at this point that he’ll watch one of his tapes: a cowboy movie with John Wayne, say, with lots of shooting and shouting, the volume turned up to some unbearable level (he’s quite deaf these days) or some creaking 1950s stop-gap animation movie which Dad still thinks is the height of cinematic sophistication.
This takes place in the kitchen. But you have to be very careful if you walk in on him. He’s in such a state of concentrated abandon – completely lost in this other world - that he physically jumps with surprise, like he’s forgotten your very existence. He IS John Wayne at this moment, the tough guy with the heart of gold, growling out some laconic, pithy commentary while he shoots down all the bad guys in a blaze of guns and glory.
This is where Mum can launch a surprise attack. She has her own routines, of course, but she’s much more adaptable, much more open to change. So while Dad plans his day like a military campaign, she uses guerilla tactics to undermine him, ambushing him in the midst of his drill like a rebel army sweeping down from the hills.
Hence the bed-changing arrangements today. Hence the look of mischief on her face.
“Eddy,” she says, walking in on him even while is engaged in a standing battle with the man with the scarred face, “I want you to change your bedding this morning.” And she goes into the well practised routine about what she did and didn’t promise in her wedding vows. John Wayne
Dad, meanwhile, is completely surprised, completely flummoxed, unable to resist or argue or even to think of anything to reply.
What would John Wayne have said?
Something strong and clever, no doubt, something menacing, grinding his jaw and looking the other guy straight in the eye while he goes for his gun. But that tough guy has nothing on our Mum.
The best our Dad can come up with is, “can’t I watch my movie first?”
But, of course, she’s completely ruined it for him now.
Later on I see him, red-in-the-face and flushed to his roots, his hair all awry, after struggling with the duvet cover for half-an-hour, a look of defeat in his eye.
“Mary,” he squeaks despairingly, “I can’t get the cover over. Can you help me?”
And she tuts and takes it off him, bundling on the duvet-cover with quick efficiency while casting me a glance that speaks of triumph.
3. The Wrong Bus
I was lying on my bed when they came in, huffing and clattering and rattling the doors about.
When I came out of my room Mum was on the landing, flouncing, swinging her arms and hips.
“We got on the wrong bus,” she said. “It was awful! It went all around the houses. One and a half hours on the bus. The worst of it was not knowing if it would get here or not.”
I said, “Why didn’t you talk to the bus driver?”
“We didn’t like to,” she said.
“What do you mean, you didn’t like to?” I laughed. “You only had to ask him where the bus was going.”
“We thought he might be cross. Anyway it was his fault,” she added, with a backward nod over her shoulders while drifting into the bedroom to get changed. “He made us get on the wrong bus.”
Meanwhile Dad was labouring up the stairs behind her looking flushed and exhausted.
“It was her fault,” he said conspiratorially, with a wink, once she was out of ear shot. “I knew it was the wrong bus before we got on.”
“So why didn’t you say something?”
“I was just following your Mother,” he said.
I went down stairs to make them a cup of tea.
Eventually they joined me. They were still huffing noisily but good humouredly, the ordeal over at last.
Dad said, “I just spoke to Roy next door. I told him we’d got on the wrong bus, so it’ll be all up and down the street by now. ‘Stan and Molly got on the wrong bus!’”
Mum said, “there was this little fat boy pushing in in front of me. I was all confused. You can’t smack little fat boys these days, can you? More’s the pity. I was too busy watching what he was up to.”
There’s two buses from Canterbury, the nearby city. They do a loop in either direction. One of them comes straight here, the other one goes the long way round via Herne Bay, taking in half of the countryside on the way. You can tell which is which as soon as you leave the bus station. One turns right, the other one turns left.
I said, “why didn’t you get off once you saw it was going the wrong way?”
Dad said, “I thought it might be going a different way. I thought we should wait to find out.”
This is what they’re like. Mum gets on the wrong bus. Dad follows her, even though he says he knows it’s the wrong bus, and then keeps them on it because he thinks it might be the right bus after all but going in the wrong direction. Both of them blaming the other and neither of them daring to ask the bus driver.
But they’ve moved on by now. All this talk about buses has led our Mum onto a conversation about another time they caught the wrong bus, which has led to a discussion about their various friends - some of whom had been with them when they’d caught the wrong bus the last time - which has led her on to thinking about one of their friends in particular who they went on holiday with once.
“Never again,” said Mum. “She goes to bed too early. Do you remember Eddy? Eight o’clock and it’s, ‘Oo I’m tired, I must go and lie down.’ What’s the point of that? What’s the point of being on holiday and going to bed at eight o’clock? It was a beautiful hotel too. It was like a holiday camp only more up-market. We didn’t go in the chalets, but they were beautiful. And the food was lovely. And then she says, ‘I don’t like this,’ looking down her nose at it. And I said, ‘So where did you used to go when your Alfie was still alive,’ and she said, ‘We used to go camping.’ But, like I said, she wouldn’t be going camping now would she, not at her age?”
Dad just nods sagely to all this, smiling to himself. He knows he’s not expected to join in.
But this reminds me. They’re going on holiday again soon. I mention this and then make a joke.
“Now you’d better be good boys and girls,” I said. “I don’t want you spending the whole of your holiday squabbling like a couple of school children.”
Mum rears up, glaring.
“It’s not me, it’s him,” she says, with sudden sharpness. “We wouldn’t have to argue if he did as he was told. Most men do as they’re told you know.”
Later we’ve got the TV on and there’s a reference to social services and to being taken into care. Mum always does the crossword while she’s watching the TV, glancing up from the paper to do so.
There’s a sudden glint in her eye.
“I could have you taken into care,” she says, looking at me.
“That’s a good idea,” I say. “I could do with being taken care of.”
“What’s that?” says Dad, looking slightly puzzled. He’s always a little slow on the uptake, this being a consequence of his partial deafness. But whenever he hears us laughing he always thinks we’re laughing at him.
“Into care Dad. She wants me to be taken into care,” I say, raising my voice so he can hear.
“It was me last week,” he says. “She said she was going to have me taken into care.”
“Yes, and you know what you said? ‘You’re my carer,’ you said. Well excuse me Eddy, but I’m not your carer.”
And she starts laying into him again about all his little foibles, his quaint little habits, his this’s and that’s, while he tries to defend himself lamely, giving her more and more ammunition with every bruised reply.
“You know we got on the wrong bus today?” she says eventually.
“Just like our wedding day. I got on the wrong bus that day too.”
4. A Bad Cold
It’s about 2.30 in the morning when I bump into him, padding out of the bathroom in his slippers, still half asleep. He always seems ready to jump when we cross paths at such a late hour, looking timid and confused.
I step back a pace to allow him to pass, but rather than going back to bed he fumbles his way downstairs instead, groping with his arms like a zombie on its midnight crawl.
The following morning there’s no sign of him at his usual time. A dour silence emanates from his room.
Mum says, when I get downstairs, “Have you been going through the medicines?”
“Only they’re all out all over the place.”
Sure enough, there they are, all those brightly-coloured bottles of pills and potions for every imaginable ailment (and some which don’t yet exist) scattered about on the kitchen work surface like a toddler’s discarded toys.
Dad’s obviously been going through them in the night. What can be wrong?
A hour later and he still isn’t up. Mum decides to wake him up with a cup of coffee. She takes it in to him, tiptoeing into the darkened room, to be greeted by a heart-rending groan of anguish.
“I’m not well, Molly,” he says, his voice quaking with self-pity. “I’ve got an awful cold.”
There’s something gloriously pathetic about our Dad when he’s ill. You’d think he was dying of some terminal illness rather than just suffering with a cold. He shuffles about like an invalid, his voice a thin croaky whisper, full of barely suppressed emotion. He wants you to feel sorry for him. You WILL feel sorry for him.
Mum just tuts and rolls her eyes. “He makes such a fuss,” she says.
That evening he refuses to eat his dinner, and in the morning, when I get up, there’s his customary glass of wine lying abandoned, untouched, on the kitchen table, looking forlorn and lonely.
He must be ill, I think. I’ve never known him to leave his wine.
Later he goes to the doctor. After he gets back I find him in his bedroom playing computer games.
“How was the doctor Dad?”
“I wanted antibiotics but she said I’d be better in a couple of days,” he says, tetchily. “All she does is give me lectures about my diet. I’m not interested in hearing lectures.” And then he adds, with terse finality, “She’s not a very good doctor.”
Her failure to properly comprehend the depths of his pain is proof enough of her complete lack of medical expertise. He gives a thin little cough of discomfort, as if to confirm the reality of his illness.
The trouble is you can’t really tell if he’s ill or not. Mum gets ill but you know she suppresses it. She bears it with womanly fortitude. With Dad it’s all on display. That cough gets worse and worse. He takes to holding a handkerchief in front of his face and coughing into it, going bright red as he does so. Coughing at the dinner table, just as we’re about to eat.
“Oh Eddy! Do you mind? Not at the dinner table.”
“I can’t help it,” he says. “I’ll go and sit in the other room if you like.”
“No you won’t. You’ll sit there and eat your dinner. Just try not to cough over the food.”
And so it goes on, for several more days. Dad is unable to move a muscle, he feels so ill. He confines himself to his room, that persistent, niggling little cough the chief evidence of his existence, only emerging every so often to take some food or to get a drink, shuffling down the stairs and into the kitchen like a tortured ghost on its eternal wanderings through the afterlife.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” he whimpers, as we pass in the hall one day.
I say, “It can’t be a cold, otherwise why hasn’t Mum got it? Why haven’t I got it?”
“I don’t know,” he says.
Eventually he makes another appointment to see a doctor and comes back looking pleased.
“I got Dr Collis this time,” he says.
Dr Collis is a male. In my Dad’s terms, that means he’s a Real Doctor.
“He’s given me antibiotics. He said I might have heart palpitations. I have to go for tests. He said we have to be sure. I knew something was wrong.”
You see, the illness wasn’t the real problem. He was depressed too. No one ever takes him seriously. Having his illness confirmed has obviously cheered him up. He can really enjoy being ill now.
But heart palpitations! He’s taken to stopping on the stairs halfway down and clutching his heart.
“I think I’m having heart palpitations,” he says, in a voice like a wounded soldier just returned from the battlefield.
So even as he’s getting better, he’s getting worse. The cough has gone away to be replaced by something more sinister, more undefined.
Mum is finding it all too much and has taken to talking about his illness in a loud voice whenever he leaves the room.
“He always did make a fuss you know. We went on holiday once and he just lay in bed all the time saying he was ill. He was in bed for four days watching the TV, leaving me on my own. I didn’t know what to do.”
And then Dad pops his head a round the door, looking like a guilty toddler – you know he’s overheard - and, in a low, pathetic whisper, asks her if she wants a cup of tea.
“I feel terrible, you know,” he adds, turning to me, as if to counteract her attack.
“Do you remember that Eddy, when we went on holiday and you went to bed for four days leaving me on my own?”
“No, I don’t remember that.”
“Well you did. Four days on my own. It was horrible. And you just lying on your bed groaning all the time. I’m fed up with your illnesses.”
“I can’t help it if I’m ill Mary,” he croaks
“Well you’d better hurry up and get better,” she says.
Miraculously he starts to get well after that.
5. Mum Goes On Strike
Most of the time it’s more a state of stubborn siege rather than all-out war. Dad has his routines, Mum has hers, and as long as they don’t contradict each other or get in each other’s way there’s no problem. An uneasy peace reigns throughout the territories. She might lob an explosive comment like a hand grenade at his defences every so often, but this is more for her own amusement than for any strategic purpose. She does it because she can’t think of anything else to do.
But – occasionally - something comes up which has them at it again: in a full-scale bloody battle, no prisoners, all-out war.
The last time I saw this was when my sister was preparing to go on holiday and they’d agreed to look after the dog.
Mum wanted the carpet cleaned. It’s a cream carpet and, she’s right, there were shadowy stains and scuff marks creeping about where people had, very inconsiderately, put their feet down: using it like a carpet of all things. It’s something they do about once a year. They hire a carpet cleaner and Dad pushes it around and about, up and down the living room and into the hall, shoving back the furniture to do so. It’s a great big effort, I know - it’s a hefty piece of machinery - and Dad is dreading the work. I can’t help as I’m going away.
Dad said, “Let’s wait till after we’ve had the dog.”
“No Eddy,” she said. “I can’t wait till then. The carpet is in a horrible state. Look at it. It’s in a mess. I want it cleaned now.”
“Be reasonable love,” he said, before launching into a long, complex and entirely logical explanation of why it made more sense to wait a week or two. He needn’t have bothered.
It was that “be reasonable” that did it.
“’Be reasonable,’” she repeats, scathingly, mocking his tone, while he’s in the kitchen clattering about in the dishwasher. “’Be reasonable.’ I don’t like it when I’m told to be reasonable.”
Well I can see my Dad’s point-of-view. What if it’s raining that week? The dog will be running in and out with muddy paws all over their nice clean carpet. They only have to delay it for a while. And Mum sounds like a petulant teenager with her “I want it NOW” attitude.
But she’s right about one thing. It has nothing to do with reason. Since when did reason come into it? “To love, honour and be reasonable.” The reason reason is not in the marriage vows is that it’s a contradiction in terms. Not like chalk and cheese. Chalk and cheese at least share the same planet. Reason and marriage, on the other hand, are two entirely separate entities, from two completely different universes.
A bit like men and women really.
“I’ll show him,” Mum was saying quietly, her legs crossed, her arms folded, tapping her foot with rhythmic agitation, keeping her words to herself and not letting him hear. “If he can’t do his job, then I won’t do mine.”
Uh-oh. I knew that look. It was time to duck out of there.
It only took a day or two. As soon as I stepped through the front door two days later I could see it. There were crumbs and bits of fluff all over the carpet in the hall, and a scattering of toys where the granddaughter had been playing. Her toy push-chair and her doll were heaped in the middle of the floor. The door mat was all scuffed up and in the wrong position. I stepped over the rubble and into the living room and it was even worse. Leftover crockery on the coffee table. Bits and pieces lying all over the place. Discarded cushions. Cake crumbs. Biscuits crumbs. Scuff marks. And two carved wooden ornaments which normally sit neatly either side of the grate lying abandoned in the middle of the floor.
I picked one of them up and put it back before sitting down.
Mum came in.
“What have you done with the ornament?” she said, noticing straight away.
“I put it back.”
“Well you can just move it back to where you found it,” she said. “I’m on strike.”
“I thought so,” I said. “I could see it when came through the front door. Does Dad know?”
“No. He hasn’t noticed yet. But he will,” she said menacingly. “I will not be told to be reasonable. He’ll see how reasonable I can be,” she added with an entirely unreasonable-sounding cackle.
After that she wouldn’t let me touch a thing and it was a few more days of having to pick my way through the debris. The washing up got done, as usual, but that’s because the washing up is his job anyway. He always does the washing up. As for the rest, it just got worse and worse.
Even the laundry wasn’t done. There were piles of clothes creeping out of the clothes basket like some alien disease come to smother us all.
Dad just carried on regardless. Several days had gone by and he still hadn’t said anything.
I went away on my business trip.
About three days after this Mum rang me up.
“The strike’s over,” she said.
“Oh good. What did Dad say?”
“Nothing. He never noticed.”
“So what happened then?”
“I couldn’t stand it any more. So I said to him, ‘I’ve been on strike.’ ‘Have you?’ he said. He drives me up the wall he does. But I said, ‘I want that carpet cleaned or else,’ and he agreed. So that’s it. I’m getting the carpet cleaned tomorrow. You can come home after that.”
So that was that. I got home and everything was back to normal. The carpet was clean, the washing had all been done and Mum and Dad had returned to their state of customary – if freshly laundered - siege.
As for the battle, I think we’ll have to call it a draw. Yes, Mum got the carpet cleaned. But she was on strike for a week, and he didn’t even notice.
At least he pretended he didn’t.
6. Matalan Family
It was coming up for Christmas. My sister was staying with us, consequently I’d been relegated to the spare room, while Mum was having to share the bed with Dad. If they were perturbed by this new-found, enforced intimacy, then they were pretending not to bother.
My sister is the last member of our family to smoke. She lives in Tenerife, where cigarettes are very cheap. She’s comes over loaded up with cigarettes by the suitcase-full and smokes almost continuously, hovering round at the kitchen door to blow her smoke into the back garden.
Mum packed up smoking a year ago, but unlike me, she still misses it. You can see her sniffing the trail of Jewell’s smoke as she passes by, and every so often I catch them huddled together at the kitchen table trying to look all innocent. I just know that the cigarette that my sister is holding has recently been at my mother’s lips.
“If you’re going to smoke then smoke Mum. There’s no point in pretending,” I say.
“Just don’t tell your father,” she says, rescuing the recently abandoned cigarette from my sister’s fingers. “It’s just the one.”
Oh yes? I’m not sure at what point I got landed with the job of moral enforcer, but I don’t like it. There seems to be some role-reversal going on here: me trying hard not to look disapprovingly at her weakness; her trying hard not to look found-out and guilty, like a toddler caught with her fingers in the sugar bowl.
But the house is very jolly. Helen, my other sister, who lives just down the road, is over for a visit. It’s a family get-together.
The sisters are on the settee, bathed in the pale light of the winter sun, while the parents are upstairs getting ready. They are all going Christmas shopping. Helen is flicking idly through the newspaper, rattling the pages as she does so, looking for bargains.
Suddenly she says, having spied an advert: “You can buy a dinner suit from Matalan for £40.”
“Come on,” I say. “£40 for a dinner suit. It’s got to be crap.”
Helen says, “That’s how much it would cost to hire one. So you can buy a new one and just wear it one night.”
Meanwhile Julia, mishearing, says, “Some people wouldn’t mind laying out forty quid so that it matches the rest of the table.”
Pardon? Everybody laughs. “So they make dinner suits in coordinating colours to match your table cloth and napkins now?” I say. “How very modern.”
She thought we’d been talking about a £40 dinner service.
The whole family are great fans of Matalan whose original shop was situated not more than forty miles from where we were brought up. It’s cheap and cheerful, just like our family.
It’s where they are planning to go today: to the brand new Matalan store in the East Kent Retail Park near Broadstairs, where they will be doing their Christmas shopping for the next twenty years I suspect, buying matching dinner suits and napkins for the Christmas table, along with other useless knickknacks that will fall apart on the very first use.
I must say, I don’t like Christmas myself. All that enforced jollity. Right now I had this annoying tune going through my head: The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year, by Andy Williams. No it’s not. It’s The Most Irritating Time Of The Year. What other time of the year will you be subjected to sleigh bells in the supermarket and Andy Williams at the dinner table and other dreary seasonal offerings all day every day without so much as a by-your-leave?
Another problem is that in your desperation to get all the shopping done you go into some form of a blind frenzy. This is a bit like that battle frenzy that Viking Berserkers were said to experience, where they saw red and wanted to kill everything in sight. Only you don’t see red, you see bargains. And you don’t want to kill everything in sight, you want to buy it.
I’d already bought a wooden dragon made of cut-out shapes from a market stall in Canterbury. It was only on reflection that I realised that I had no one to give it to. My son is 28 years old: far too grown up for wooden toys.
How many more bad buys was I going to make before the season was out?
Meanwhile the ageing parents had got themselves ready at last and I was busy hustling them out of the door. I didn’t envy Dad. He was going but this was definitely a girl’s day out. I imagined him trailing behind looking lost and disconsolate, like a schoolboy dragging his feet on his way to school.
It’s his punishment. He is made to go through this every year. It's punishment. Something he did one year which Mum will never let him forget, and for which he will forever be in debt.
It was Christmas a few years back. Just like today Mum was hustling about trying to get everything done. Every year it’s the same. Mum does most of it, the shopping, the preparations, the decoration. She buys all the presents, selecting them carefully to suit the various relatives. She’s usually spot on. Dad has only two jobs. He writes the Christmas cards and he buys just one very important present: the most important present of all.
And every year he makes a fuss about it. “I don’t know what to get you Mary,” he moans.
So this particular year she was a little fed-up with this on-going mantra. “If you can’t be bothered to go into Marks and Spencer and look in the women’s clothing department for something in a size fourteen,” she says, exasperated, “then forget it.”
So come Christmas day they were handing out the presents. She bought him a nice pullover, all wrapped up in shiny paper with a bow.
He must have been feeling very uncomfortable by now. He had nothing to give her.
“You said to forget about it,” he said.
You can imagine the look on Mum’s face. She was staring at him furiously.
A red-hot silence descended. He’s been paying for it ever since.
- CJ STONE
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The latest from CJ Stone (@ChrisJamesStone). Author and columnist. Currently writing a new book. Whitstable, Kent
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C.J. Stone wrote a column for the Guardian Weekend from 1993 till 1998. It was called Housing Benefit Hill
7. A Disapproving Look
Mum used to scare me. There was a certain look she would cast down upon me, like a wicked witch casting a spell, which would stop me in my tracks. It was a look of severe disapproval. She would glance from under knotted eyebrows and pierce me with her gaze, sharp and shining like a polished blade. There was nothing I could do to resist its fierce condemnation. I would have to stop doing whatever it was I was doing and obey her unstated command, whatever that happened to be.
I used to think that it was a form of telepathy, that I could hear her thoughts.
I’m not sure how old I was. Anywhere from about 12 months old till adulthood I would guess. In all those years the effect was exactly the same, she could always stop me dead with a glance. I suspect now that my rebellion, in my teenage years and beyond, arose from the fact that I didn't want to admit that this woman had ever had such power over me. My rebellion consisted mainly of doing all the things of which I knew she would disapprove.
Later I forgot about this look and the effect it had upon me. Maybe I buried it. I left home to go to college. I traveled about the world a bit. I moved from city to city in an ongoing search for life and adventure. I grew up. I was married. I had a child. Eventually I ended up here, in Whitstable, and settled down.
I used to go back and visit them, of course, a couple of times a year, sometimes at Christmas, sometimes for one or other of the birthdays. The rebellion faded away and I became a responsible adult at last. Having a child changed my relationship with them. They stopped disapproving, and I stopped doing things to make them disapprove.
Then one year – it was Mum’s sixtieth birthday – there was a party at their house, organised by the whole family. Everyone was there. My sister, Helen, had arranged for a stripogram. There was a knock at the door and a man dressed as a policeman stepped in. He was asking for Mum by name. Mum has always had a desperate fear of all things pertaining to the Law. You could see the look of shock and confusion on her face when he came into the room where the party was, saying that she was under arrest, looking at his notebook, his cap tucked under the crook of his arm. And then, suddenly, he yanked on his belt and his clothes started to come off. Mum’s eyes became round and she flushed. She didn't know where to look. He stripped down to a g-string and gyrated in front of her face, making her get on her knees in front of him and take a rose out of his pants with her teeth. She was a furious shade of scarlet by now. It was all painfully embarrassing.
After he'd gone Mum was storming through the house.
“I bet you had a hand in that,” she said, staring at me.
And there it was again, that look, sharp as a razor. It was like I’d been cast back over thirty years and I was just a naughty boy again doing something of which she disapproved. I was stopped dead in my tracks, unable to move, pinned there by her forensic gaze, a child once more, busy making excuses: “No, Mum, um, it was Helen, honest Mum, it wasn’t me.”
Who says we ever grow up?
Later they decided to move to Whitstable. This was at my suggestion. They'd been planning to move to the West Country to be near my brother but then he had a job offer in America. He couldn't turn it down. Dad was happy in his retirement, having lots of hobbies and lots of friends, but Mum was frustrated and isolated in their suburban ghetto. There was nothing there, just a row of shops and a dusty road laden with traffic.
Something profound shifted in our relationship. I remember walking the streets looking for houses and I had a powerful sense of protectiveness towards them. I wanted them to be safe in their retirement. I could feel the protective arms of the town, like my arms, encircling them. Whitstable is a nice place to be.
They moved in some months later and were transformed by the place. All that sea air. Walks to the beach. Shops, cafés, bars, restaurants. Lots of exercise. Maybe even a touch of romance in the air. They became more tactile with each other. Sometimes, indeed, you’d see Dad sitting extra close to our Mum, looking flush-faced and relaxed. I suspected some hanky-panky had been going on.
I remember sitting in a pub with them one evening and Dad was jovial and laughing with one arm crooked casually around Mum’s shoulder and I suddenly realised that the gloom that had descended on Mum’s life had lifted. It had taken its toll upon him too. He’d been the sacrificial victim for all her quiet frustration. Now she was happy she could afford to let him be happy too.
They joined the bowls club and gained a new circle of friends. Their lives were full. Well Dad’s life had always been full, but now they had some shared interests too. They were in the bloom of life again, busy going out and getting on with things, having fun, like a couple of schoolkids on an extended summer break.
That was seven years ago now. I still had a flat of my own. I would visit them regularly to make sure things were OK. We shared the same town but we still retained a relative distance. It was a liminal time, a time of transition.
And now here I am, in their house again, cast up on their doorstep like a shipwrecked survivor, and everything has changed once more.
I came in late from the pub one night, but I was very careful not to make any noise.
In the morning Mum said, “where were you last night?”
“I was at the pub,” I said. “I didn't wake you did I?”
“No,” she said, “But I don’t approve.” And she threw that look at me again, the one I recognised from my childhood.
And you know what? It only made me smile.
- We Are Wiser Than The Angels: in Memory of Mary Stone 16/11/1930 - 20/04/2013
It is our mortality which defines our love. It is the certainty of loss that gives our relationships their meaning. If there are immortal beings in the universe they would know less than we do