I hadn’t heard from my mother for a month. Normally she left a voicemail once a week, informing me of her and Stanley’s whereabouts, occasionally asking how I was and even more occasionally asking after my own husband. Then, all of a sudden, she announced she was in London. Could we meet for breakfast? I wanted to say no, I didn’t have time. I’d love to, I said. Can’t be too picky when you’re one parent down.
I left the flat in a rush, winter coat unbuttoned, wet-dog hair. I mostly bathed in the evening, but the night before Jamie had surprised me with sex. We were flagging back then: he at the beginning of a new book, me mentally exhausted by boundless research. It was nice, even if it didn’t last long; the soggy hair was a souvenir.
My keys jingled as I locked the front door, the (ever-so-slightly soppy) wooden heart keyring he’d given me as a stocking filler that Christmas bouncing against the cracked skin of my knuckles. Slowly down the steep stone steps because of the slippery surface. Faster on the pavement, where the ice had become slush, gritted with salt. The sound of half-melted snow crunching beneath my rubber soles made me wince. A warm-up for the prickly encounter ahead.
We were living in our first flat – the split-level off Caledonian Road – and my mother was staying at the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel. We didn’t have a spare bed, and even if we had I wouldn’t have offered and she wouldn’t have accepted. I suggested a coffee shop around the corner from me that sold lots of pastries. She suggested another around the corner from her. I’d have been on time if she’d listened.
Anyway, I decided to walk down Caledonian Road rather than catch the bus. A huddle of middle-aged Ethiopian men were sitting outside Costa smoking cigarettes and sipping sweetened coffee from paper cups. A postman trundled by, mailbag in hand, and gave them a knowing wink. I narrowed my eyes at him. A stale whiff of the ocean as I passed the Asian supermarket, barely alive fish bobbing in a murky tank.
As I walked, I applied the finishing touches required in the rare event of an IRL mother-daughter meet-up. I hooked a simple chain out of my purse and fixed the clasp at the back of my neck. Dragged my fingers through my damp hair, shaking any loose strands onto the chewing gum-pocked pavement. Would he want me again this evening? We hadn’t done it two nights in a row since our honeymoon. I wondered whether my mother would be able to tell, and applied some peachy lipstick.
A Lycra-clad cyclist swerved towards the curb.
‘Watch it, fuckwit!’ yelled a man through the cracked window of his off-white van.
‘Yeah?’ The cyclist craned his neck to look back for a brief moment before spitting on the tarmac and pedalling fast. ‘Fuck you!’
Another beep. A prudish father covered his son’s ears.
I plugged into my iPhone. Everyone moved to the music: some kind of symphony.
Down by the canal I paused to look at the houseboats, even though I was six minutes late by now and my mother would be wondering where I was. Not because she was concerned about my wellbeing, but because she was hungry and having to wait was hell on earth for her. Parked top to toe in the mossy water, the floating homes reminded me of salty sardines in an oily can. Beside them, men and women were talking, texting, hand-holding, pram-pushing. A dog was barking so low and loud I could hear it over the tinkling piano in my ears. I pulled out one earbud and spotted the hound, its leg cocked against a rubber ring.
Round the bend and down the slope to King’s Cross, past grand and grotty terraced houses, the majority divided into flats. At the traffic lights, I waited beside a pale-faced man whose nose was the same shade of crab-apple red as the signal. Together we strolled across the faux piazza in front of the station, weaving our way between strangers like two pieces of thread. He sneezed into his sleeve and I glanced up at the clock: ten past. When I looked back, he’d unravelled. I shrugged. It happened.
My mother’s choice of coffee shop was more of a restaurant, with white tablecloths and waiters and waitresses all in black. Against this monochrome backdrop I located her immediately: there, wrapped in a cashmere coat the colour of her favourite confectionery, Parma Violets. A silk scarf wound around her neck once, then twice; enough slack for each end to drape limply over her chest. Pinkish-red beads dangling from her lobes like freshly shucked pomegranate seeds. A matching bracelet.
She looked different. Older, obviously, though instead of going grey her hair, once auburn like mine, had magically turned a brilliant shade of white-blonde – funny how that happens to so many women her age. It looked quite natural until I compared it to her wrinkled forehead (no Botox yet). She was in full make-up as always, but she looked tired, her eyes ferrying big bags. What about her eyesight? She didn’t notice me until I was standing next to her, and even then I had to give her a poke.
No one calls me Camilla. I’m Milla to most, Mils to Jamie. I felt the corners of my mouth rise on cue. A well-versed smile.
Her chair legs scraped against the parquet floor as she rose abruptly and gripped me by the shoulders. ‘What’s that?’ She squinted at my face as though it were scrawled with my spidery script, leaning me backwards into the light to get a better look.
She licked her thumb and spread a swab of warm saliva across my cheek. ‘Did I never tell you the clue to lipstick is in the name?’ She laughed. My smile waned. Her eggy breath told me she’d already eaten.
‘Must have slipped your mind.’ I swiped a napkin from the table and dragged it across my cheek without unfolding it.
‘Sit, sit.’ No need for a hug, let alone a kiss. She gestured to the chair opposite with a flick of her bony wrist.
I unfurled my fingers from the back of the chair beside her and edged around the table. Pushed off to the side was a china plate streaked with gooey orange. ‘Isn’t this lovely?’ I said.
She clawed an adolescent boy with a silver tray. ‘Another coffee.’
He didn’t raise an eyebrow at her even tone. No rising note at the end.
‘Actually, I’ll take a fresh mint tea if you have it?’ I overcompensated and sounded strange.
He looked a tad nervous, tugging at his apron. Still, he didn’t waver. ‘Yes, of course.’
My mother was gaping, eyes glistening.
My choice of tea or the pleasantries? ‘What is it, Mother?’
‘Are you finally pregnant?’
I sucked in my tummy as she lowered her gaze. ‘No, just off caffeine.’
‘Why what?’ I rolled my shoulders back and down.
‘Why are you off caffeine?’
‘I don’t know, it makes me anxious.’
‘Oh, Camilla, if only it were that simple.’
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’
‘I’m just saying, you can’t go blaming all your problems on caffeine.’
‘All my problems?’
‘One fresh mint tea?’
‘Thank you.’ I decanted some boiling water from teapot to cup. It had barely brewed, but I needed something to focus on other than my mother’s sour face.
‘You should have left it longer,’ she said, wiggling her fingers at the pallid water. My father’s engagement ring relegated to her right hand and dwarfed by Stanley’s rock. ‘Look, it’s very weak.’
I took a sip, too soon, scorching my taste buds. ‘That’s how I like it.’
Nice segue. ‘Busy researching his next book: historical fiction.’
Her phone dinged.
‘He’s at the British Library. Shall I tell him to join us?’ I asked.
Now she was hard of hearing.
She’d never liked him: Scottish, a writer, the only child of highly educated and happily married parents. Never read a single word he wrote. Met his mother and father only twice: once at our engagement party, a second time at what she called our ‘little registry office wedding’. When we started dating, she asked how I expected to give my children a decent education when my future husband would never be able to afford school fees. When I told her we didn’t plan on having children, she didn’t speak to me for weeks. What did she expect? I wasn’t exactly inspired by my own upbringing. Dead dad and a boarding school better known for its bad food than its exam results. Not exactly a childhood filled with warm and fuzzy feelings.
I looked up and found her texting. I wonder where she learned that. Okay, mouth corners up. ‘So, Mother, to what do I owe the pleasure?’
‘Hm?’ Still prodding at her screen. Maybe still learning.
My cheeks began to ache but I held the smile steady. ‘MOTH-ER,’ I said, loud and clear, pronouncing each syllable, ‘WHY DID YOU WANT TO SEE ME?’
She exhaled noisily, as though she’d been holding her breath for the past minute and had plenty of saved-up carbon dioxide to share. ‘Does a mother need a reason to want to see her daughter?’
‘This one does.’
I drank some more tea, which was admittedly lacking in flavour. Or maybe that was due to the defunct taste buds. It smelled minty. As I gulped it down I kept hold of my cup, observing her over its rim. She and Stanley spent their days flitting between Kent, the South of France and, when the ski season began, Austria (she’d laze around in the spa while he skied – or rather tried to remain upright on skis). My mother wouldn’t embark on a journey to London for nothing.
‘Well, actually, there is something.’
Aha. ‘Which is?’
‘You see, darling—’
‘Darling? Shit, must be serious.’ Had Stanley done a runner?
‘Camilla, would you please let me finish.’
Again, no inflection, but at least she managed a please.
‘Right. As I was saying. The thing is, I’m unwell.’
‘You mean you’re—’
‘That’s right. I’m dying.’ As she said it, she pulled a plastic tub from her handbag, cracked the lid and shook two pills into the palm of her hand. A pair of lilac pills to match her lilac coat. The real thing?
‘Mother, are those Parma Violets?’
She paused, mouth open wide. Or perhaps I imagined the disc-shaped sweets lolling on her pink tongue. She threw her head back, stretching taut the slack skin on her neck, and dry-swallowed. ‘You heartless creature.’
‘Mother, I’m terribly sorry if you are dying.’
‘If I’m dying? How could you doubt me?’
‘Well, we’ve sort of been here before, haven’t we? The life-threatening common cold, the deadly stomach bug—’
‘Look, Camilla, I’m dying. I caught it too late.’
Caught it. My throat tightened, making it hard to breathe.
‘And my dying wish is to see my grandchildren.’
There it was. I exhaled and went back to my tea.
‘It isn’t much to ask, is it.’
No inflection, no please.
‘Stanley thinks it might even help. That it could extend my lifespan, spending time with youngsters. He read an article on the internet.’
‘Well, have you ever thought about volunteering in a school? How about a nursery? Maybe you could try your hand at midwifery?’
She guzzled some water, presumably to dislodge the sweets stuck in her throat. Not suitable for children under thirty-six months.
‘Are you going to ask how I am, Mother?’ Corners up.
‘Camilla, I just told you I’m dying.’
Again, my throat tightened – involuntarily. ‘I’m well, thank you. Almost there with my thesis.’ To make up for my croaky voice, I wiped my forehead melodramatically with the back of my hand.
‘I don’t know how you can stand it,’ she said, rolling her eyes. ‘Working with those filthy rats.’
I relaxed into my chair. ‘You never know, my work with those filthy rats might just cure one of your fatal diseases.’
‘This isn’t a joke, Camilla.’
‘And how’s Stanley?’
‘Stanley’s concerned about me. As should you be.’
‘Well, do send him my regards.’ My love, however, he did not deserve. How eager he was to replace my father, one of his oldest friends, slipping into her bed while Dad’s side was still toasty warm. My stomach flopped at the thought that I used to call her new husband Uncle Stan. I downed the dregs of my tea, now tepid, and picked up the menu. ‘Shall we order?’
‘I’ve already eaten. You were late and my blood sugar was low.’
‘Of course it was. You don’t mind if I get something, though, do you?’ I waved to the waiter and asked for the Dartmouth crab and avocado on toast, please. ‘Oh, and a freshly squeezed orange juice, thank you.’
‘Anything else for you, Madame?’ He looked at my mother, pen poised.
I handed him the menu, followed by my mother’s yolk-stained plate.
She scrunched up her nose. More wrinkles.
‘So, Mother, how long are you in London?’
‘I leave straight after breakfast.’
‘Hitting the slopes?’
‘My doctor says I need to rest.’
‘Well, you know what they say, you can sleep when you’re dead.’ I winced as the last word left my lips, wondering whether I’d taken it too far.
She played along and closed her eyes, giving me a preview.
Our juices arrived.
‘I hate grapefruit juice, too bitter.’
She took a swig. ‘Only to some people.’
When she picked up her phone again, I excused myself and went in search of the loos. The restaurant was full, which was unsurprising since it was a Sunday morning and brunch was now a thing. As I passed the open kitchen, I caught the scent of fried bacon. It made me nauseous, which was weird because I love bacon.
Waiting outside the loos, I overheard the chatter of a mother and her young daughter. The mother was explaining why we all have to wash our hands with soapy water even if they don’t come into direct contact with our wee.
The sound of a dryer, then the sliding of a bolt. The little girl trotted by on an invisible pony, clicking her tongue.
‘Apologies,’ said the mother, smiling with her eyes as well as her mouth.
‘No need.’ I don’t normally like children, but this one was sort of sweet.
I didn’t really need the loo, only some respite, but I sat down and sure enough there was a short stream. I washed my own hands with soapy water, and tore off some loo roll to dry them with. Then I looked at myself in the mirror.
What if my mother really was dying? What if this was the last time I’d see her, and my final words to her turned out to be cruel? Still, I felt nothing, desensitised, numb. Even tried to picture her lying in a hospital bed, little tubes tunnelling into her nostrils, to summon a tear or two. I laughed at myself, falling for her hypochondria, then arched one eyebrow at my laughter: who’s the crazy lady cracking jokes in the loo? I tossed the loo roll into the bin, and that’s when I saw it: a crinkled wrapper, translucent in the middle, purple at the ends. In pink capital letters: PARMA VIOLETS.
Now I know my final words to her were cruel. I walked back to the table and called her a liar. When she told me I was in denial, that I’d never learned how to grieve, I held the wrapper up in front of her eyes. Ha, I said, I have proof.
She told me it was her fault. That she’d carried on after my father’s death as if nothing had changed. She’d thought it was the right thing to do: I was only a child.
I handed her the wrapper and she ironed it out with her thumb. Folded it once, twice, and put it in her handbag, a memento of our morning. She left just as my breakfast arrived. The crab was good, the avocado bruised.
A month later, my mother died. I learned at the funeral that she’d been diagnosed stage four in the autumn.
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