No Substitute

I squirmed and struggled out of my suit, and hung it in the wardrobe. It was still quite new, but it wouldn’t have too many more outings left. There weren’t that many more funerals to attend. In due course, it would get its final fling. I would wear it to my own funeral, and then we would go up in smoke together. A fitting end for a fitted suit that had never seen better days. I made a mental note to pick out a suitable tie, and then promptly forgot about it.

I was more comfortable in my every-day tracksuit pants and sweat shirt. I needed to sit down and catch my breath, having dressed myself. Then, I slowly made my way to the day room. There were hand rails all the way, so, in a fit of pique, I abandoned my walker and slowly and stubbornly made it to my usual seat.

“You’re back then,” Fred said.

No, I got in beside him and joined my brother in hell, I wanted to say. “Yes, I’m back.”

“How was it?” Brian asked.

I just farewelled my last known relative. I’m now the last of my line. It was fucking awful. “They gave him a nice service. His friends did him proud.”

“You missed jam roly-poly,” Fred said, “It’s still stuck to my teeth.” He sucked at his top set.

“Did you go back, afterwards?” Brian asked.

“No. They were all his friends, gay mostly, I would have felt uncomfortable.”

“We should have come with you,” Brian said.

“The three musketeers on one last adventure,” Fred added.

That’s what they called us at the Good Shepherd Nursing Home. Rarely did a day pass when we weren’t together, although our best adventures were long behind us. Like the time we staged a break-out and went to the cinema and the pub, only to find a police search in progress when we got back. Or, when we led the revolt against cold lunches, by sabotaging the staff microwave, so they would have to eat cold lunches too.

“How come we never met him?” Brian asked.

“We weren’t close. I haven’t seen him for over twenty years. Last time I saw him was at Dad’s funeral. Dad disowned him, when he came out. I had to choose one or the other. I couldn’t abandon my father. He came to Dad’s funeral, I went to his. The ledger is square.”

“Would you like a cup of tea and a biscuit, John? You missed lunch, you must be famished.” Julie was my favourite carer. She was patient and always seemed happy, unlike many of the sour pusses that worked here.

“That would be nice. How about a pot and three cups?”

“You’ll get me shot,” she laughed. I knew she would still do it.

“Bill Thompson went to his mother’s funeral last week,” Fred said.

“She must have been a good age,” Brian noted.

“Ninety-three, I believe,” Fred replied, “What happened to your mother, John?”

Despite being all for one and one for all, mothers was a topic that we had not broached before, with good cause from my point of view.

“She died when I was five, a brain tumour. I barely remember her.” It was true. Without a faded black and white photograph, barely bigger than a postage stamp, I would not have known what she looked like. As much as I racked my brains, I could not remember what it felt like to cuddle her, or even how she smelled. Every day of my life, I had watched other children, teenagers, and then adults with their mothers and felt the bitter pain of jealousy stabbing at my heart.

“I lost my mother when I was forty-eight,” Fred said, “It was a terrible thing then, it must have been awful at so young an age.”

“The neighbours baked pies. I remember that. People brought us food. People I had never seen before. They gave me toys. It was like my birthday and Christmas all at the same time. I was so happy.”

Julie returned with the tea and a plate of biscuits. She had pulled out all the stops, and raided the assorted creams.

“What were you so happy about?” Julie asked.

The worst thing about living in a home is your loss of privacy. The staff all get to inspect and prod your bits. A confidential conversation is a rare thing indeed.

“His mother died,” Fred said.

“And you were happy?” Julie was incredulous.

“I’d be happy if mine died,” Brian muttered, almost inaudibly.

“I didn’t know she had died. I don’t think I even understood what death meant. I enjoyed the presents and the attention. I thought she had gone away for a trip, and would be coming home. My father was locked up in his own grief, and never spoke to me about it. Eventually, my brother put me straight. He was five years older than me.”

Julie sniffed and wiped a tear from her eye. “That’s so sad. I’ll get you some cake as well.”

“People always bring food,” Fred said, “I wonder if there’s any of that jam roly-poly left? It would go nicely with a cuppa.”

Brian seemed lost in his own thoughts as he poured the tea.

The three musketeers had fought bravely to have mugs provided. I never think that you get enough of a drink out of a china cup. We had gone so far as to undertake violent protest. Every day for a week, one of us had broken a cup. The matron had been watching old British sitcoms on pay TV, and we were given plastic beakers for our trouble. The cups hadn’t been Royal Doulton, and certainly didn’t have hand-painted periwinkles.

“Never cry over spilt tea.” The words were out of my mouth before I realised that I’d verbalised my thoughts.

“I didn’t spill any, did I?” Brian said. “I was very careful.”

“No, sorry,” I said. “I was just thinking. My father always drummed into us, ‘Big boys don’t cry!’ I never saw him cry. I wasn’t allowed to go to the funeral. I don’t even know whether she was buried or cremated. Seventy years on, and I have never shed a tear.” Was I a cold heartless bastard? I hadn’t cried for my father either, nor today for my brother. Yet the hurt still burned in my heart.

Julie was back. Her make-up looked smudged and she was still sniffing. How was it that a complete stranger could cry for his loss and yet he had never been able to?

“There’s no cake left, but I brought you some jam roly-poly. I don’t know what I’d do without my mum.” Julie plonked down the plate and left with a sob.

“Oh, yummy,” Fred said with a grin.

Brian muttered something that sounded similar, but I’m sure I heard ‘mummy’.

“I cried for a week when my mother died,” Fred said, stuffing his face. “I still miss her and talk to her sometimes. She was always there for me, never judged me, and loved me unconditionally.” He sprayed crumbs. “Whenever I needed someone to love and comfort me, she was there. Her jam roly-poly would knock this for six too.”

Brian looked uncomfortable. He stirred his cup for the umpteenth time.

Fred continued to eat and speak. “I had a good marriage. Jessie was a fine woman and a good friend, but it was always my mother I would go running to.”

“Your mother got on with Jessie, I suppose?” Brian finally joined the conversation.

“Yes, my mother always said she was like the daughter she never had.”

I hadn’t had a mother. I hadn’t had a wife either. The best years of my life had been given to caring for my father. They had words to describe things these days. My brother had been homosexual, while I had been asexual, not by choice but by circumstances. I couldn’t remember being cuddled by my mother. I had never been cuddled by a woman.

“I need to tell you both something.” Brian was quiet and hesitant. He stopped stirring his tea.

“You wanting your slice?”

“No, please take it Fred,” Brian said with a sigh.

“What is it, Brian?” I asked. I wondered how many cuddles my brother had had in his promiscuous life. He had been old enough to remember Mummy.

“I have never mentioned this before. I’m a bit embarrassed about it now. The thing is…,” he paused and looked at us. Fred was still stuffing his face like there would be no tomorrow. I was reflecting on how unfair life was and wondering if Brian would ever get to the point.

“The thing is,” he said, “My mother is still alive. She’s eighty-six. She had me when she was fifteen. I never knew my father. She brought me up single-handed. It was a terrible stigma in those days, being a single mother, being a bastard.”

Fred almost choked on his roly-poly. I brushed the crumbs off my tracksuit pants.

“So, what happened?” I asked.

“When did you last see her?” Fred spluttered.

“She was more like a big sister than a mother. I could never understand why the kids at school had mothers who looked so old.” Brian was in full flow now and seemed relieved to finally be telling his story. My mother had been thirty when she’d had me; thirty-five when she died.

“We got on really well. I guess that she gave me more leeway than many mothers. But she could be strict too, and we had firm rules about stuff.”

“So what the fuck happened?” Fred rarely swore unless he was really worked up.

“You know that I was married to Elsie for thirty years and she died five years ago. We married fairly late in life, I was thirty-six and she was fifty, so we never had the chance for children.”

“I see where this is going,” Fred grinned, “They say men always marry someone like their mother.”

“I guess you could say that I was a mummy’s boy. I was still living at home when Elsie asked me to marry her. My mother had devoted her life to looking after me. I can hardly ever remember her having boyfriends. I was an only child. She said Elsie was wrong for me, that she was too old, almost the same age as her. We had a huge fight that went on for days. In the end, she gave me an ultimatum, her or Elsie. I chose Elsie. I haven’t seen my mother since.”

My father had given me an ultimatum, my brother or him. I had forsaken my brother and devoted the best of my life to my father’s selfish wants and needs.

“Didn’t you ever try to patch it up?” Fred was asking.

“Elsie always said it was best to let sleeping dogs lie.”

I couldn’t remember my mother. She had been stolen from me.

“Not even a Christmas or birthday card? Surely a Mother’s Day card?”

“Elsie said …”

I have never made love to a woman in my entire life.

The red mist was rising in front of my eyes. I pushed myself to my feet, sending Brian’s full cup of cold tea flying together with the plate containing the remnants of the roly-poly. I leant on the table and fixed Brian in a cold stare.

“You bastard. You really are a bastard. Do you have any idea what it’s like to go through life without ever remembering your mother? Can you understand the grief that Fred felt when he lost his mother? You are seventy-one and you have had the great good fortune to have had a living mother for every day of your sorry life. Yet you have abandoned the mother who looked after you for thirty-six years, who gave up her life to love you, and for what? You traded her in for a new model. What were you, bored with her? How could you? How could you squander your mother’s love? I would have given anything to have a mother. I would…”

“What’s happening here?” Julie rushed up, bucket and cloth in hand. “You’re not starting that stupid mug campaign again, are you?”

The blood had all drained from Brian’s face, which was now the same colour as his hair. Fred was starring open-mouthed and the blood had gone to his cheeks, so that he looked like a Christmas-card Santa Claus, with his unkempt beard and long hair.

“What is it?” There was concern in Julie’s eyes now.

I let go of the table and slumped back down into my chair. The years left me. I closed my eyes. I was in a tin bath in front of a roaring fire. I had a toy submarine and Mr Huggy, my teddy bear, was sitting on a stool watching me.

“Time to get out now, the water’s cold.” The voice was feminine, warm, and familiar.

Two strong arms lifted me from the bath and wrapped me in a huge soft towel. They rubbed me dry and then sat me in her lap, pulling me close to her body. I looked up into her face. Smiling blue eyes shone down at me, framed in long blonde hair. Her skin was pale and her nose was tiny and cute. She laughed, displaying perfect white teeth, and her eyes seemed to join her lips in the joy she was experiencing.

“I love you so much, John. You are worth more to me than all the tea in China.”

She hugged me and I felt her heart beating. Her hair smelled fresh, like summer flowers. Her body had that special smell. There was only one word to describe it, Mummy.

The dam burst then. All of the years of bottled-up grief exploded. I shook and I sobbed and I cried for a long time.

When I came back to my senses, I thought that I had still lost them. I was cradled in a woman’s arms, my head on her shoulder. Her hair smelled good.

“There, there, John. It’s been a difficult day.” Julie said as she patted my back.

I disengaged myself, embarrassed. “I’ll be fine now, thank you.”

The show over, the other residents returned their attentions to knitting, cards, or staring into space.

There was an awkward silence as Fred and Brian looked at me. We were disturbed by the screech of a fast-approaching wheelchair.

“I thought I’d find you all here. Fancy a game of bridge?” You could rely on Darty getting here this time everyday, after his rehabilitation exercises. You could almost set your watch by him. He was much younger than the rest of us, but social services had nowhere else to put him. We were teaching him everything we knew.

“Did you ever know us to refuse?” Fred said.

“It will make a nice change,” I said.

“How about you, Brian?” Darty asked.

Brian still looked very pale around the gills. I was certain that there were tears in the corners of his eyes.

“Do you mind waiting a few minutes?” he said. “There’s an urgent telephone call that I need to make.”