Gift: A Son's Story (Birthday)
Her birthday was on the Monday. She looked bright when she got up and said she was feeling the best she'd felt for ages. Such a contrast to the evening before. She put some different clothes on for the day, made herself up a bit more, used the tongs on her hair. I'd given her a card before breakfast and now it was time for her present.
I'd been worrying over it for about a week, wondering what to get. I wanted it to be something small and personal, but nothing that was obviously special and extravagant in case it caused her any anxiety. Why has he spent so much this year? Is it because he knows it's my last? In the end, I'd wandered into Briggsy's Emporium on the Saturday, knowing instinctively that I'd find something there without knowing what. Briggsy's - the biggest second-hand place around, housed in the old music-hall theatre - was owned by an old friend of ours, Bill Briggs. He'd opened his first shop not long after we'd moved into Herne Bay, and we'd always gone to him for decent furniture, or special little gifts. I hoped to see him that day, but he was out doing collections.
It was an amazing place. Part antique shop, part museum, part art gallery. He had everything, from old Airfix models and stamp albums to four-posters, pianos and closet wardrobes. He also had a huge collection of jewellery. I mooched around the cases for a few minutes, and then saw what I'd come for. A silver leaf-pattern necklace with a matching bracelet. Perfect for mum, who loved silver. I bought them without a second thought.
"Oh, look..." she said, opening the box. "These are beautiful. Thank you."
I helped her to put them on. The bracelet was small and slender, but she'd lost so much weight that it looked like it might slip off. The width of her hand, though, prevented it. She slipped the necklace over the top of her blouse and looked at it in the mirror.
"They're lovely. So pretty."
I waited for the usual Why did you waste your money? But instead, she simply said "Where did you find them?"
"I got them at Bill's. Where else would you get nice things like that?"
She smiled broadly, turning the bracelet around on her wrist and fingering the fine silver leaves.
"Lovely," she said. I gave her a hug and kissed her on the cheek. "Thank you very much."
"That's alright. Now... a cup of tea?"
I made us both a cuppa and we sat quietly drinking. Mum hadn't bothered with the TV. She seemed in the mood to talk, instead. She was using the mirror to do her hair, but kept tilting it to look at the necklace.
"I must go down and see Bill and Karen sometime. Haven't seen them for ages."
My mind wandered back twenty-five years. He still had the small shop then. It was just around the corner from where we lived.
"Do you remember how he helped dad out when he was on the streets?"
"That's right," she said. "Let him kip in the back of the van some nights. Like everyone else, he took a shine to your dad. They always hit it off. He gave dad a bit of casual work, too. Cash in hand. You knew where that was going to go. It didn't come to me, anyway."
I chuckled lightly at the memory. It triggered another one.
"Remember that story he told us. About when he took dad with him one day on a collection - over at Westgate, I think it was."
"Vaguely," she says. "What was it now?"
I thought she might have remembered, but I was glad she wanted reminding. I loved the story. It was quintessential dad.
"It was an elderly retired couple. A bit stuffy. He'd been in the army - a captain or something. They arrived there and the couple took one look at Bill with his long hair, and dad - unshaven and unkempt, looking the worse for wear - and sized them up straight away as a couple of shysters come to fleece them. He let them in, but there was no 'Hello' or anything. Dad always took the hump at rudeness, and seemed about to say something - but Bill managed to keep him quiet. He had a look around at the stuff and it was all good quality. Dad had a look around, too. Apparently, the couple followed him closely, noses in the air. Then dad saw this photo of the old chap from his army days - all done up in uniform, medals, stripes on the shoulders - so he says to him 'Is that your good self in the photo, sir?' The old boy stiffly said it was. So dad asked him what regiment he was in. I don't know what he said, but I remember Bill saying that dad realised straight away that he had one over on the old chap. Apparently, he stood up straight, looked the bloke in the eye and said 'I was in the Household Cavalry, myself.' Bill said the change that came over the couple was like someone letting the air out of a balloon. Straight away, all the stiffness went. Dad went on 'You wouldn't know it to look at me now, of course. Old soldier fallen on hard times.' Then he took a photo out of his pocket and showed it to the couple. Him in his uniform, at Knightsbridge Barracks. I've got that photo, and he never changed much. You could always tell it was him. Anyway, the next thing the old girl is asking Bill and dad if they want a cup of tea. Dad straight away says, as you might expect, 'That's very kind of you, my dear... but I don't suppose you've got anything stronger, have you?'"
Mum was chuckling. "That's right. I remember it now. That was your dad all over. Cheek of the Devil."
"Bill thought dad had blown it for them then. But no... the woman apologises for her thoughtlessness. She toddles straight off and gets dad a whisky. The old boy has one, too. Bill said that in the end, they were there for over an hour. Cups of tea, cakes, more whisky. And dad held court the whole time. He told them all the stories. How he'd served on the Queen's Wedding, the number of colour ceremonies he'd trooped. And the coal hole story."
"I'll never forget that one," mum laughed. There were tears in her eyes. Not all of laughter, I thought. She loved that story.
"How did it go again?" I asked. I knew it well, but she loved telling it.
"They were in the barracks one winter night, and it was freezing. So your dad and Gordon went to nick some coal from the officers' quarters. Dad got down into the coal hole while Gordon kept watch. When dad had a bucketful, he handed it up through the hole to Gordon - but he'd vanished. There was just this pair of shiny boots standing there, right in front of your dad's face. It was the RSM - glaring down at him. Dad got put on a charge for that caper. Gordon came off worse, though, for deserting a comrade."
We were both laughing by then. I took it up again.
"Bill said dad charmed the socks off them. He was gobsmacked at how dad had managed to turn that whole situation around, and get that couple eating out of the palm of his hand. They agreed the price Bill had offered them for the things he wanted. They got it all loaded, and as they left the old chap slipped a twenty-pound note into dad's coat pocket. They then saluted each other!"
Mum chuckled and took a sip of tea.
"Yes... that was your dad," she said. "Never a dull moment. It was just his demons he could never get on top of."
Later that morning, a couple of mum's neighbours - Sue and Barbara - called in to see her with cards. Barbara, a couple of years younger than mum, had been one of her closest friends on the estate for several years. After mum, she'd lived on the estate the longest. She and her daughter, Linda, had a flat in the next block. Sue lived in the flat above theirs, and helped Barbara out when Linda was at work. Barbara was still able to walk down to the town, but didn't like going out anywhere alone any longer. Sue had walked her into town that morning to buy mum a small gift.
"You didn't have to spend your money," said mum, pulling at the wrapping paper.
"I know I didn't," said Barbara. "But I did, so there. Hold your noise!"
It was a large cup and saucer with a matching teapot. The teapot fitted neatly inside the cup. Tea for One it said on the pot.
"That's lovely," said mum. "Thank you."
"I think this calls for a cuppa," I said.
I made us all tea while they sat and chatted. Mum was so pleased to see them.
"I kept thinking I would call over to see you, but I haven't been too good lately," said mum. "I'm on the mend a bit now, though."
"Good," said Barbara. "You keep it that way. You can always give me a ring and have a chat, anyway. You know that."
After they'd gone, I made mum her favourite lunch as a special treat - relaxing her diet a bit for one day. It didn't do her any harm. A plaice fillet, a few fried potatoes and some peas. A slice of lemon and a big dollop of tartare sauce to go with it. And salt and vinegar, of course. She ate everything, plus some trifle for dessert.
"I just can't believe how Barbara's changed," she said. "It wasn't so long ago that she was out and about on her own. She was always so robust and active."
I didn't say anything. She made her own connection.
"All of us old ones seem to be going the same way. Funny how suddenly it happens."
"I think you're doing remarkably well," I said. "Plenty of life in you yet."
I hoped so, anyway. I really did.