The man I loved
It was only after her mother’s death that Cristobel began to visit the care home. Why? Because before that she hadn’t imagined her mother’s demise could be imminent. To many, the death of an 86 year old in a care home might not come as a shock, but Cristobel’s mother hadn’t appeared to be planning things that way.
Care homes are a way of life now, not just a place to eek out the end of your existence. You generally embrace this kind of communal living for far longer than you do student halls of residence. Also, Cristobel had viewed her mother as a fighter, so why shouldn’t she fight death? She fought against immigration, the closure of the library, three separate proposals for new housing estates, and most of Cristobel’s life choices. Sadly her final fight was the wrong one to pick – not with death itself but with the doctor who predicted it.
During her mother’s final days in the care home, while she still had enough consciousness to resist the inevitable hospital bed, Cristobel finally spent sufficient time there to realise that other people’s daughters were also having too much fun for regular visits. And so guilt prompted the start of her weekly trips. In reality, they by no means happened every week, there was still too much fun to be had, but at least they happened.
They normally took the form of a women’s tea party. The conversation topics were varied and never failed to provide Cristobel with entertainment, even if not always in the way intended. Today’s topic was successful marriages, prompted by Jane’s announcement of her son’s divorce. Cristobel handed out tea in china cups while she listened to the failings of the former-wife.
Betty shook her head of wispy curls. “Not like in our day.”
“I was 21 when I married George, and we’ve shared everything since. You don’t get enough marriages like that any more.” As they spoke, George was snoring gently in the twin bed next to Jane’s.
Sure, that was a success, Cristobel thought, but what came in between the wedding and the twin beds mainly consisted of house work and compromises.
Caryn helped herself to another custard cream. “My niece is married to a lovely young man, but before that we almost gave up on her. She had lots of bad relationships. Three different men I think.”
In the company of the older generation, Cristobel chose her battles based on what she could tackle without causing offence. In general it meant she spent a lot of her time listening, and this time, when she did speak up, she did so gently. “Just because something didn’t work out, it doesn’t mean it was bad.”
“What’s that dear?”
“I’m saying, it’s okay that not everything lasts.”
Betty lifted her teacup to her lips with a hand that permanently trembled. It wasn’t clear whether nobody had heard or nobody had chosen to understand. Cristobel looked at the five gwomen, each of them concentrating on their tea, and she knew this was something she could make them grasp. She paused, and looked at the door as if it could tell her whether anyone under the age of 75 was planning to enter. The good thing about speaking to care-home residents is that they are deaf, forgetful and confined to the building. Your secrets are safe.
“Look.” Cristobel pulled out a photo from her wallet, her hands still shaking less than Betty’s. “This is Cristobel junior.”
“Cristobel? That’s a funny name.”
“It’s Cristobel’s name, Janice.” There was undisguised annoyance in Betty’s voice. Even in old age, she was not blessed with patience.
Janice looked up to Cristobel with milky eyes, though it was hard to say what she remembered.
Betty drew the photo close to her nose. “She’s pretty as a picture!”
“It IS a picture, Betty, but yes, she’s beautiful.” Cristobel retrieved the photo from Betty’s arthritic fingers.
“I guess you can say it was a good marriage when you have healthy children at the end of it,” Jane conceded.
“My Laura had two lovely twins with her husband, and he ran off with someone else before their first birthday. Worst mistake of her life marrying him, it was…”
This was the start of a monologue from Margaret, and Cristobel knew better than to stop her. Instead, she focussed on the picture. Cristobel junior had brown eyes that bore an eerie resemblance to her father’s, and in this picture they were highlighted by one of her early attempts at make-up.
Margaret eventually ended her diatribe with a question for Cristobel. “You’re not with her father any more?”
“No, we were together a long time ago. But every time I look at her picture I know that what we had is important to him.”
Nobody seemed to know how to acknowledge this, so Caryn reached for the photo. This time Cristobel parted with it reluctantly – it never spent this long out of her custody.
“Is the father American?” Caryn asked.
“It’s very American to call your child after yourself.”
“Actually, she’s not my child.” Five pairs of eyes turned to Cristobel, even Janice was momentarily alert. The colour rose in Cristobel’s cheeks, but she held their gaze. “The only man I ever loved has a wife, and a daughter he named after me.”