When life’s little troubles came knocking at my door like a posse of Jehovahs witnesses, I decided to retreat to my mother’s house for a couple of days. She has plenty of room, and the old house stares out over steep green fields towards a huge expanse of sea and sky. There, I would be able to read in peace and tranquility and allow the fresh, salt air to massage my furrowed brow. But our mind’s eye never matches reality and this impromptu visit would be no exception.
First of all, I forgot to pack spare socks and underpants and had to pop into Dartmouth on the way. It would seem that I was the second gentleman that day to have committed such an error, the shop assistant cheerfully told me. I agonised over the underwear sizing as they were non-refundable, she said. I made my choice, opting for the larger size, then drove to the beach at Blackpool Sand; Mum had visitors and I didn’t want to interrupt.
As I marched along the empty beach into a stiff sea-breeze, my troubles immediately began to fade. The waves drew in, then heaved back onto the pebble beach as if purging my mind; rushing forward, then retreating with a fizz. Black rocks stood firm against the spray, and behind them towered rolling hills of cloud, illuminated by the fading light. I could think of nothing but the crashing of the waves, the rushing of the wind, and the touch of salt spray falling fresh onto my face.
Just the job, I said to myself, as I jumped, with renewed vigour and optimism, into the car. It always amazes me – the recuperative powers of nature. Mum’s visitors were still parked outside when I arrived, so I made myself scarce, not wanting to break the rhythms of my fragile peace.
Dear mum is rather like the old house itself: She feels the cold and is in constant need of repair. Whilst her eyes are still sharp from a cataract operation, the lids close over them on a frequent basis, overcome with drowsiness. She is unsteady on her feet and uses a wheeled frame to get about the the place. Her hearing is frustratingly intermittent; Like an AM car radio, it crackles and tunes out at the important bits. I would tend to her needs then relax, I decided. I had picked up some stir-fry vegetables and chicken for dinner and told her to rest in the cosy room she calls, the snug, whilst I prepared it. If you’ve ever attempted to cook a stir-fry on an AGA stove in a small pan, you’ll be in possession of the valuable wisdom of experience. Sadly, like most errors of judgement, we must learn them for ourselves. There was no sizzling sound or waft of steam as the food hit the little pan and I began to feel impatient as the meal took much longer than anticipated to prepare, spilling over the sides of the pan every time I gave it an impatient prod. Eventually, we sat down to eat.
After dinner and I had washed up, it was time to make a cup of tea. Even boiling a kettle takes an age on the AGA, so it was quite late when we finally sat down to talk. Mum has always been a great listener: It’s her gift. Perhaps it is no coincidence then, that she has lots of friends who are great talkers. ‘Now tell me,’ she said at last, lending her ear. Right on cue the phone rang, as it so often does, to interrupt. In order to hear the phone, Mum puts it on loudspeaker so that any bystanders are forced to listen to the other end of the conversation, which is always, by far, the greater part of it. The fact that her hearing is not what it was, seems to be no deterrent to those friends and relatives whose gift it is to talk.
Indeed I intercepted one such call recently and finding that mum was out, the caller decided that I would have to do and proceeded to give a comprehensive account of her medical history. The subject matter for octogenarians consists mainly of a briefing on the current state of play of various pre-existing ailments, the results of any official medical investigations and speculation about the diagnosis of any new symptoms. Unable to talk or read, I decided to go and make sure the kitchen was tidy, slightly irritated that things were not going to plan. Twenty minutes later I sat down again next to mum. She is acutely aware that her hot-line tends to light up at the worst possible moments but is too polite and dutiful to cut in and tell her callers when it’s inconvenient. Within seconds of terminating the call, her chin fell to her chest and she was fast asleep.
I picked a book off the shelf to read but still couldn’t concentrate so flicked on the TV. I had forgotten that the volume was set somewhere just below the frequency deemed a nuisance to the residents around Stanstead airport and she opened her eyes again with a refreshed smile, as if waking to a particularly sweet and melodious dawn chorus. In truth, she doesn’t get much kip at night and it is plain to see why.
‘Oh dear! Was I asleep? Shall we have a drink before bed?’ she said. I nipped off to fulfil my duties in the Ovaltine department and wondered if my safe-haven might not be so tranquil after all. She decided then to tell me that she had heard clear footsteps in the bedroom I was about to sleep in, knowing there was no one else in the house. Offering no further explanation, she went up to bed. Thankfully I’m not of a nervous disposition and I climbed into the cold bed and studied the pattern of the lighthouse at Start Point as the intermittent light illuminated the room: One, two, three flashes, then the same count of darkness: I was out for the count.
I slept like the dead and woke early, avowing to seize the day. By the time I’d been to the village shop for milk and we’d eaten breakfast, I announced my intention to walk along the coast path to the beach. Mum didn’t want to delay me but, nevertheless, there were some small jobs that needed attending to; ‘But only when you come back,’ she said.
We discussed the leaky shower cubicle that she didn’t want to trouble me about. Nor did she wish to bother me about moving the exceedingly heavy bed – again. I felt that I had certainly been too hasty to congratulate myself, at the last visit, for getting a qualified plumber out to repair the downstairs taps. And for completing the renewal of her blue parking badge. That had tested my patience to the very limit, incorporating the completion of an online application, an automated telephone payment and a trip to the post box. It was very nearly beyond the capabilities of a fifty two year old, let alone a nearly-deaf, eighty-eight year old technophobe. Anyway, I eventually set off for the beach in the knowledge that mum was going out to Luncheon club with her fellow pensioners and I didn’t want to be around to witness their driving.
A full three hours of walking and sitting on the beach, staring out across the expanse of sea was exactly what was needed. It was warm for November and the sun shone between the cloud, sending spotlights onto the grand, grey-green stage of the sea.
There wasn’t much on at the theatre today, but I liked it that way. Just the odd, small fishing boat and a surprising cameo appearance by a couple who stripped off and went for a swim. The multi-coloured pebble seats gave way nicely to my weight.
My mind was once again a blank canvass as I made the steady climb back to the old house, free of worldly cares. Red-faced and carrying my coat, I arrived to find Mum, clearly rejuvenated by luncheon club, in the conservatory with her secateurs in one hand, and steadied against her walking frame with the other.
‘Could you just put that in the compost bin?’She asked. ‘You don’t have to do it now,’ she added. ‘Could you just reach those roses. I can’t get at them.’ I put down my coat and patiently cut each stem above a bud as directed by mum from the doorway.
‘And can you empty that water. Not now- only when you feel like it.’ Again, I fulfilled my duties. The Bougainvillia, still in flower, needed a quick prune too where the spiny stems crowded the doorway. The petals fell to the floor prompting more sweeping up. ‘Anything else?’ I said.
‘Noooo, you go and relax now. You must be tired,’ Mum replied.
‘Oh look at that sky,’ I said. ‘I’ve got to get a picture.’
‘You’ve got a puncture? Said Mum, looking concerned. ‘Oh that’s a shame.’
‘No I’ve got to get a pict…oh never mind.’
‘Oh sorry, it’s my hearing. It is annoying,’ she laughed.
I had just put the kettle on the AGA and thought about sitting down for a moment when the daylight seemed to suddenly vanish.
‘Would you like some soup.’ I offered.
‘Oh yes, tomato please, but I can do it.’
I ignored the offer and went on: ‘There’s no tomato, only chicken.’
‘Yes, tomato would be lovely,’ she replied.
‘Would you like a whole tin?’ I said.
“NO! A WHOLE TIN,” I said, drawing a large circle with both arms. We both laughed.
That was mum’s cue to ask me to clear some leaves from around the drain outside the back door. ‘But do it tomorrow before you go.’
I shot a look, just like the one Ronnie Corbett gave Ronnie Barker in the famous hardware store sketch- ‘Got any ‘O’s?’
It was at that moment I got it! It was a test. I needed to learn the art of patience:
The volume of the television: The Aga oven: The Phonecalls: Mum’s hearing: The time it takes to run hot water: the endless little jobs- all designed to test my patience. I fetched a broom from the garage and began to sweep the leaves into a large pile in the manner of the karate kid. ‘Wax on -wax off,’ I chanted as I dragged the leaves together and cheerfully scooped them into a sack, pausing only to hitch-up my oversized, and non-refundable underpants.
There’s a saying that goes, ‘with the Lord a day is like a thousand years.’ That’s exactly what it feels like at mum’s house. Apart from patience I learned something else:
That life is rarely free of troubles and never goes the way we planned it. That our troubles and trials often run concurrently with great blessings and It’s how we respond that counts.
And it’s our job to notice those blessings and be thankful for each and every one.
There’s another old proverb that says, ‘As iron sharpens iron so one person sharpens another.’ How very true!