Gift: A Son's Story (Push)
A few years earlier, Ivy - one of mum's friends in a neighbouring bungalow - had transferred to a flat in Longacre Court: a council-run sheltered living community near Whitstable. They had communal lounges and gardens, plus on-site 24-hour support workers in case of any emergencies. Mum had been there to visit Ivy a few times and thought it might be a good idea for her, too, in case the bungalow ever became too much. She went so far as to put her name down, but didn't take it any further. Not long afterwards, Ivy had sadly died... and mum thought no more about it. Early that summer, though, a flat had become available. Nicole, Lynn's daughter from before she met Russell, knew the woman who managed the complex. She pulled some strings, and mum was offered first refusal if she'd wanted it. By now, she was using her scooter or walkers most of the time, and mobility was becoming a concern. But she was adamant.
"I've decided... I still want to stay here. My friends are all here. The neighbours look out for me. You're close by. And I can still manage."
But Nicole pushed on it. She told mum she ought to see the place first before turning it down. I thought that seemed reasonable. I didn't think there was any harm in it. So mum said she'd have a look. I think it was as much about keeping Nicole happy as anything, though. She felt an obligation because Nicole seemed to have put herself out. As far as I was concerned, Nicole was too much like her mother: pushy, know-it-all, liking to be seen to be in control. But I went along with it.
The viewing appointment was set for one afternoon in early June. I turned up at mum's after work to wait for Nicole, who was going to take us. Mum was sitting there in the living room, with her coat and shoes on and her walking stick ready. But she was tearful.
"What's up, mum? What's happened?"
She lifted her glasses and wiped her eyes with a tissue. "I feel like I'm being pressured into this," she said. "I know Nicole means well, and I'm grateful to her. But I've decided... I don't want to do this. So it seems silly to waste people's time. I want to stay where I am now."
It was all I needed to hear.
"Right. In that case, we won't go. I'll tell Nicole you've changed your mind. She'll understand."
Mum blew her nose and calmed down a bit. "Good," she said. "I'm glad that's settled."
She got up and went to the bathroom. While she was in there, Nicole arrived. I put her in the picture. And I was wrong. She didn't understand. She became angry - flouncing into an armchair and banging her keys down on the carpet.
"I don't believe this. After all I've done. I've set up the appointment specially. I've had to arrange childcare for the girls this afternoon and everything."
I'd not seen her behave quite like this before, though I knew she could be bossy and arrogant. She was like her mother in that sense, too. But I expected a little more understanding on this point, so I pounced back.
"Come on. We'll have no more of this. I won't see mum upset, and I don't want any guilt-tripping or emotional blackmail being used."
Which was when her gasket completely blew. Maybe I had over-spoken a little. But that's what happens when emotions run high.
"You're not even a parent, Kevin Marman," she said, petulantly. "So what right have you got to say things like that?"
I gazed at her, nonplussed. "What's that got to do with anything? I'm a son. And as such, I don't want to see my mother upset. She doesn't want to move, so that's all that matters. If it comes to it, I'll care for her myself. I'm a care worker."
She sneered from behind her blonde curls, looking ready to spit at me.
"And you haven't been a care worker for very long, either."
"Eleven years," I said. That shut her up. I could have continued with Whereas you've been a hair-dresser all your life. But I didn't want to lower myself to that level. It seemed spiteful and pointless to me. I wondered if she was just sparking off because of my history with her mother. A bit of getting back at me by proxy.
At that point, mum appeared from the bathroom again, smiling.
"Hello, Nicole," she said. "Has Kevin told you..."
"Yes!" she pouted. She picked up her keys. "But I still think you should at least see the place before making a decision. I've made all the arrangements for you."
I was about to let rip again, but held it and looked at mum. She seemed quite a bit brighter. She still had her coat and shoes on. Before I could think about what I was saying, the people-pleaser in me came to the fore. I just didn't want there to be any more of a scene - even if it meant Nicole getting her own way.
"Listen, mum. As Nicole's here, why don't we go anyway. It isn't far and we won't be long. It's a breath of air if nothing else. And you don't have to do anything you don't want to do after that." I glanced at Nicole, who was staring at her nails. "I'll back you on that all that way, whatever anyone else says."
Mum already seemed to have decided, anyway. Like me, she carried guilt about letting others down. Anything for a quiet life! That's how it had generally been with Lynn over the years. Some people seem to know when others can be manipulated into doing things their way. That's how I'd often looked at it, at least. I'd been wrong-footed enough times. It annoyed me that I couldn't stand up to it and be a bit more assertive. But it's difficult when you're dealing with someone who knows how to pull all your strings at once, and leave you tied up in knots with them.
"Alright," said mum. "Come on. Let's go and be done with it."
I knew as soon as we arrived that nothing was going to change. It was a relief. I'd been worrying that if it was nice, it might pose a dilemma for mum - the last thing I wanted for her. But she didn't take to the manager from the moment she met us at reception, and neither did I. There was a stiff, no-nonsense manner about her that spoke more of business necessity than genuine care. She made me think of all the people I'd ever met who were associated in any way with Lynn - and those people now seemed to include her daughter, Nicole. Her tone to mum seemed impatient and patronising. She strode ahead of us self-importantly as she gave us the standard sales pitch - her high heels stabbing the institutional carpeting.
"As you can see, everything is nicely-kept and well-maintained. We have regular afternoons in the lounge, where we have activities like bingo and sing-songs. You'll be encouraged to join in."
Mum smirked. I've met your sort before, she seemed to be thinking. Same with me. Patronising and bossy.
We reached the elevator and went up to the first floor, where the vacant flat was. We crossed over a bridge which spanned the lounge, then came to a long corridor lined with front doors. It was a little odd. They looked like street doors - each with their own little signs and arrangements of artificial plants, plus a small window to one side. Otherwise, it was just like an hotel corridor, except a bit wider. We came to the flat and went in. The first thing I noticed - and I knew mum felt the same - was the dullness. Compared to the bungalow, it was like stepping into a cell. The outside light mainly came from the living room window, which overlooked a wooded area at the back instead of the sea on the other side. The kitchen was an enclosed side room, very small, without windows or much in the way of appliance space.
"Most people have their fridges in the living room," said the manager. "It can be more convenient that way, actually."
I wondered if this woman had ever been an estate agent - well-versed at making a cupboard sound like a penthouse apartment. I no longer needed to look at mum to gauge her reaction. The rest of the brief visit was just about going through the motions to be polite. When we descended to the lounge again, a support worker was laying the tables for an evening event. I asked how far their duties extended. I'd been thinking that this was the one real positive about it.
"Ah," said the manager - her business-like tone dropping for the first time. "We are actually undergoing some restructuring, so we won't be having the support workers for much longer. It's the old story, I'm afraid. Money. Or lack of." Then she rallied a little. "But the fact remains we still have a closed and friendly community, with people looking out for each other. And every room has an emergency call button. You'll have a pendant, too."
No different from what mum already had, in other words. I smiled politely, and so did mum. We didn't say any more.
Nicole and I managed to remain civil with one another, as if nothing had happened. I was prepared to forget it, but I wondered if she felt the same or whether she was putting on appearances. On the ten-minute drive back, she was perky - talking positively about the closeness of the beach (not much closer than mum already was), and the shops (actually, a lot further than mum already was)... and the fact that it was nearer for Russell and Lynn to get to (five minutes instead of ten - whereas it would be much further for me, not having a car, and I was the one who tended to call in on mum most often). Mum gave positive responses - but said she was going to sleep on it before making her decision. Nicole, to give her her due, said that seemed fair enough.
When she dropped us off, Nicole asked me if I wanted a lift home. I said thanks, but I wanted to do some shopping in town first. She put her arm around my back and we brushed cheeks. It felt more like we were a couple of nervous dance partners, each missing our footing. When she'd gone, I put the kettle on and made a cup of tea while mum took off her coat and shoes and settled into the chair for the evening news. I sat with her as we watched the headlines. Then I finished my tea and got up.
"Well?" I asked at last.
"Well, what?" she said. "I'm doing what I said I would. I'm staying put."
Later that evening, I texted Nicole to apologise for what I'd said - even if an apology hadn't really been necessary. I said that emotions were running high, and I knew that we both wanted the best for mum.
I waited for a similarly-worded reply. Maybe with a suggestion of stepping down from the high horse. It didn't come until three days later. It was short and to the point.
I assume as I've heard nothing more that nan has decided to stay put.
I was inclined to reply in similar style. But again, I didn't rise to it.
Yes, that's right. Thanks for all you've done xx.
And that was the end of it.