My Easter, like my Christmas is almost exactly the same as it always has been, the same church services, present our eggs to each other at roughly the same time, my mother and I, eat the same food, salmon on Good Friday and Spring lamb on the Sunday. My brother got married and left home, my father died, vicars have died, but apart from that the festival goes on unchanged.
There is also constant, incessant tension and bickering between us which seems to start from the moment I enter the house, her domain. Once this warfare was mainly focussed on Dad, but now it falls on me. I escape by doing exactly what I did as a teenager; stay in my bedroom most of the time with my books and radio. Last Easter I wrote a radio play about these visits home, the bond between us, how it never seems to change, improve or weaken.
Our semi-detached house, in Codsall village, in Staffordshire, often brings back unhappy memories of childhood. Every school day morning started in the kitchen with my brother and I seated at a small Formica table while she laboured in front of her eye-level grill. We always had to have a full cooked breakfast. Or she’d be bent over the sink, the tendons in the back of her neck flicking the V at us, and Dad.
He’d sit there for hours before trundling off to work at the local council office, which was just up the road. He be seated rather grandly with his Daily Express propped against the milk jug, moustache bristling over his bowl of Kellogs.
He looked vast in his red plaid dressing gown, large, flat bare feet in open leather slippers, but I knew from early on, that despite his size he wasn’t important. He was just a consort. She was the one who reigned over us.
This time going home would be different. I had wanted things to change and now I knew they would, not by my marriage, which should have happened but didn’t, the distraction of grandchildren, financial success, nothing I had done had ever impressed or overthrown her. But I knew that the tectonic plates under our lives would shift, because I had this enlarged lymph node in my groin.
We embraced each other at the door. I held her bony body close for a few moments longer than I usually did, and we did not start our usual highly contentious conversations about where to put the cat’s litter tray, and what we were going to have for lunch. I just put the tray down and poured in the litter, she asked me if I would fancy bacon and egg for lunch and I said yes.
I just felt like sleeping. I had come home and I could really rest there, escape from the whole anxiety of what had happened in far away London. In the afternoon, at the first sound of the Count Down theme tune, the music to Flog It or Egg Heads, I usually headed to my bedroom, but this time I stayed in the living room with her.
This room once known to our more common but more relaxed neighbours as “the lounge,” was a place where lounging had never been encouraged. Instead we used to have our “tea,” the main meal of our day there when I was growing up, sitting round a large drop leaf table. Everything on it, apart from the tea, milk and sugar were home made. But when it was all cleared away, the washing up done and all the cutlery put neatly back the cutlery drawer, this room evolved slowly into Dad’s domain. The ceiling was still tawny with his nicotine although he’d been dead for years.
He’d sit there, in a chair now occupied by Maisie, night after night companioned only by his paper, his fags and his telly. I hardly ever saw him move. Mum did all the decorating, dug the garden, mowed the grass, cleaned the windows, while he just sat.
“I don’t buy a dog and bark myself,” was one of his sayings. It was one of those saying that put me off marriage. The fact that I had never married was one of the many subjects my mother and I never discussed.
The next day, following the usual form, we decided to go to the short service held every Good Friday morning in Codsall Village square, next to a statue of Sir Charles Wheeler, Codsall’s only famous resident. This is followed between 1 and 3pm by a the church service of prayers, hymns and meditations commemorating the three hours that Christ was on the cross. I have always found that service moving and used it to pay my respects to political prisoners who have died over the centuries. I wonder exactly how many there have been?
My mother and I lingered in “Flappers” coffee shop, a place of nick knacks and books of local history and I realised that I didn’t want to join in anything. I certainly didn’t want to go to the service of the cross, I felt far too emotional. I realised I was dangerously close to tears, something my mother would hate. I would probably make it to the Easter Sunday service, if I got a grip on myself.
I hesitated to say I didn’t want to go to the Friday service. “I feel too emotional,” I said, and was relieved that she accepted my excuse, although it did seem like a sign of weakness. I had disappointed her, but she let it go.
Once back at home we were both left waiting for the call from the Haematology clinic, which I was told would come between Thursday and Monday. They had my mobile and my mother’s number.
By Good Friday afternoon there had still been no call so I called them. Bad mistake. The hospital switch board put me through to an African nurse somewhere who said that the whole clinic was closed until Tuesday. There was no one there to make any calls. I told her that the doctor had said they would call, and I was on the list to have an operation on the Tuesday or Wednesday at the latest. She said she had a list but my name was not on it.
As the weekend crept on, with a semblance of our usual rituals, I felt overwhelmed with fear. It was the shock of that clinic, having something that only other people get, and the increasing sense that this was a bad dream which wouldn’t stop.
I took my usual walks around the village, following my favourite muddy paths and wet tracks over fields. I made the usual visit to where a great tree fell down when I was in nursery school and visited it on our nature walks. It is just lumps of rotting bark now. People walking their dogs said, “hello,” and “Morning,” to me. Apart from the “Heritage Homes” springing up in every small space, it’s still a pleasant place to live. The kind of area where men and boys still stand up on buses for women.
It was wet and I roamed about drenched with anguish. When people find out they will despise me or pity me I thought. They will think I deserve this in some way, or that it could never happen to them.
I sat in the church yard at the back of the church, a favourite spot for me, on a bench which looks out over miles of farm land and is supposed to be the highest spot between there and the Ural Mountains.
“Stuff and nonsense,” says my mother about that one.
When I was a teenager I used to drink cider there with a gang of local boys. And sometimes lie down among the graves for some heavy drunken petting. Kids were expected to drink in those days, it wasn’t an issue.
When my oldest friend got married she had her wedding pictures taken around that seat. When I was forty I sat there and wondered if I would ever get married. I also used to sketch there.
My father’s parents have their ashes buried in the small grave-yard just below. I went out of the old gate, green and damp with lichen, and down what used to be called “the old school road.” We used to troop down there as infants in our school crocodile, to look at the pussy-willows and catkins in Spring, and collect holly before Christmas.
Tears came into my eyes. I felt there was no courage in me. According to the Swedish writer, Dag Hammarskjold, one has to “fall back into God,” but he adds that God gives man consolation but only when he has no other consolation left.
What is that about? Why doesn’t God offer consolation more freely, come forward to offer it and is there anyone alive who would turn it down? Apparently it doesn’t work like that. You have to really ask for it, and anyway always being a last resort must be very hurtful. Now all I could think of was getting the call from the clinic, the date of the operation to remove the lymph node. Then the scene where I saw the doctor to get the results. I saw him giving me bad news and my breaking down. That was my main agonising fear – breaking down in front of the doctor. For some reason that idea gave me particular anguish. I reached inside myself again for courage and found that it just wasn’t there.
My mother and I went to the 8am service on Sunday morning. Until only last year she was driving there, giving lifts and opening up the church and acting as a sides-man. Scraping the ice of her car windows at 6am on winter mornings.
The psalm for Easter, 118, which is easy to remember, seemed rather relevant to me.
“I shall not die, but live, and declare the works of the Lord.
The Lord has punished me sorely, but he did not give me over to death.”
But would he give me over to death, was this the beginning or the end? Those lines went on reverberating in my head.
At home peace was maintained. Between us, actually in the same kitchen without fighting, we made something different for Easter Sunday lunch. A vegetarian pie, with a cheese sauce, in choux pastry. I put too much egg into the pastry mixture and it came out leathery like one of her Yorkshire Puds. She didn’t criticise and we both quite enjoyed it anyway.
I had been getting some text messages from Terry, my ex-boyfriend and in my weakened state decided to reply to them.
“Oh, he’s surfaced again has he,” said Mum, who sees men as U-boats. At least my men.
By Sunday night I was worrying about the drive back to London, the struggle to get another appointment, to find out what was going on, why I had been told to go back early when I wasn’t even on a list.
As my mother and I said goodbye, I had the curious thought that I could still probably cope with my own death better than I could with hers. I needed her to be alive for me as much as I ever did.
Back in London on Monday night, I found that a letter had been sent telling me to turn up for the operation at Charing Cross, on the Tuesday morning at 7.30am. Not to eat or drink anything for at least twelve hours.
I was at the hospital, which is like a vast, gleaming city, by 7am, with a pile of newspapers. There were more blood tests, I was taken to the ward, took off my clothes, put on a gown, lay on a bed, read the papers and waited. I drew the curtains round my bed to make a private tent. On the bed opposite a woman made a constant rustling sound, like someone folding plastic sheeting. I had a look and she had dozens of small packages piled up on the bed, which she was constantly wrapping and unwrapping. I asked her what she was doing.
“I find that as one gets older, one’s afflictions increase, so one has to bring more things into hospital,” she said in a gentle but very husky voice. She had a strangely rough face and I thought that perhaps she was homeless.
In the late afternoon a nurse asked the packing woman bluntly when she was leaving. She was vague about it. I heard her say she had been having treatment in the gender clinic upstairs. I had another look and saw from her wrists and throat that she was in fact a man. After she left I lay in my tent listening to someone else making mobile calls, each one with a bleeping noise. When I had a peek at her, she came over and insisted on showing me her breast, or what was left of it, and a line of blue dots across her chest and under her arm, where they had taken out her lymph nodes.
So far, in my experience of NHS hospitals, there is always a nutter in the bed opposite me. Perhaps they of course say the same.
At 5pm a young girl doctor came and told me, very apologetically, that my op had been cancelled and I could stay the night or go off home. What was I going to do there for the night I wondered? A hospital is a city that does not sleep, neither does it have any curtains at the windows, or any bars, restaurants or places of entertainment at night. I went off home but was told to return by 7am the next day.
I was back there at 6am. “Oh, you are the one who went off on night leave,” said a nurse. “Night leave?” that was a new one on me. I took up my position again, lying on the bed. But this time I asked about every hour whether they were going to do the job? No one knew. “You are quite high up on the list,” someone said.
At 11am I had the operation to remove the lymph node. No one was happier than I to lie on my bed turned into a trolley outside those operating theatre doors.
As I woke up, a young nurse congratulated me. “You did really well to secure a bed,” she said, as if it was a real achievement. They just dont have enough beds apparently. I wonder where they have gone and how had I done it exactly, perhaps by just turning up early, lying on it, and of course by pestering.