Remind Me Who I Am, Again – An Extract
My mother and I are going shopping, as we have done all our lives. ‘Now Mum,’ I tell her. ‘Don’t start look at the prices on everything. I’m paying. If you see something you like, try it on. You are the mother of the bride, after all.’
In recent years my mother has become a poverty shopper; she haunts jumble sales looking for other people’s cast-offs. I don’t like to think of her trying on someone else’s shoes which she does not because she is very poor but because footwear is fixed in her mind at 1970s prices. Everything she sees in the shops seem to cost a fortune. ‘You paid £49.99 for a pair of shoes?’ she would cry. ‘They saw you coming.’
‘But Mu-um, that’s how much shoes cost these days.’
‘Yes, but where do you go looking?’
In my childhood, my mother had aspired far beyond her station to be a world-class shopper. Her role models were Grace Kelly and Princess Margaret, Ava Gardiner and Elizabeth Taylor. She acquired crocodile shoes and mink stoles, an eternity ring encrusted with diamonds, handbags in burnished patent leather. In her shut-up flat in Bournemouth were three wardrobes full of beautiful, expensive garments all on wooden or satin hangers, many in their own protective linen bags – a little imitation Chanel suit from the Sixties that came back into fashion every few years; her black Persian broadtail coat with its white mink collar and her initials, RG, sewn in blue silk thread in an italic script on to the hem of the black satin lining, surrounded by a sprig of embroidered roses; her brown mink hat for high days and holidays.
And so today I want the best for her, as she and my father had always wanted the best for us. ‘The best that money can buy’ my father always boasted when he bought anything. ‘Only show me the best’ he told shop-keepers.
‘So we’re looking for a dress?’ A nice dress. The sales are still raging through the summer’s heat, hot shoppers toiling up and down Oxford Street. We should, I think, find something for £60 or £70. ‘John Lewis is full of them’ a friend has said. She has an idea of the kind of dress someone’s mother would wear, an old biddy’s frock, a shapeless floral sack.
‘I don’t think that’s her kind of thing’ I had told her, doubtfully. But then who knew what was left? Could my mother’s fashion sense be so far eroded that she would have lost altogether those modes of judgement that saw that something was classic and something else merely frumpy?
‘I’m not having a dress, I want a suit’ my mother says as the doors part automatically to admit the three of us, for tagging along is my nephew, her grandson, who also likes to shop.
‘Okay. A suit. Whatever you like’
And now we’re in the department store, our idea of a second home. My mother has never been much of a Nature lover, an outdoors girl. We used to leave the city once, years ago, when we motored out of town in the Humber Hawk, parked in a lay-by, ate cold roast chicken from silver foil, then drove home early so my father could watch the racing and my mother refold her clothes. By the Sixties we considered a day out to be a drive to the new service station on the M6 where we enjoyed a cup of tea as the cars sped along to London below. My mother has never got her hands dirty in wellingtons, bending down among the flowerbeds to plant her summer perennials. Or put her hands to the oars of a boat or tramped across a ploughed field in the morning frost or breasted any icy waves. She shrinks in fear from sloppy-mouthed dogs and fawning kittens. But show her new improved tights with Lycra! They never had that in my day, she says admiringly on an excursion to Sainsbury’s looking at dose ball washing liquid.
And no outing can offer more escape from the nightmare of her present reality than shopping for clothes, the easiest means we know of becoming our fantasies and generally cheering ourselves up all round. Who needs the psychiatrist’s couch when you have shopping? Who needs Prozac?
Through the handbags, gloves and scarves and utilitarian umbrellas. Not a glance at fabrics and patterns for neither my mother nor I have ever run up our own frocks at the sewing machine, shop-bought always being superior to home-made in our book. Why do an amateur job when you could get in a professional?
Up the escalators to the first floor where the land of dreams lies all around us, suits and dresses and coats and skirts and jackets. And where to begin? How to start? But my mother has started already.
At once a sale rack has caught her eye with three or four short navy wool crepe jackets with nipped in waists, the lapels and slanted pockets edged in white, three mock mother-of-pearl buttons to do it up. My mother says she thinks she is a size twelve. She tries the jacket on right then and there and it takes fifty years off her. She stands in front of the mirror as Forties Miss, dashing about London in the Blitz, on her way to her job in Top Ops. She turns to us, radiant. ‘What do you think?’
‘Perfect.’ The sleeves are too long, but this is a small matter. We will summon the seamstress and she will take them up, her mouth full of pins. As my mother folds the sleeves under I steal a covert look at the price-tag. The jacket is reduced to £49.99, and this, in anybody’s book, is a bargain.
‘Now I need a skirt and blouse. I’ve got to match the navy.’
She disappears between the rails and I am anxious for it is not hard to lose sight of her, she has shrunk so in recent years. Five feet two all my life but I doubt if she is that now; perhaps she is under five feet. Her grandson, at eleven, is taller than her. How long it will it be before he can lean his chin on the top of her head?
She’s back quickly with her selection. The navy of the skirt and blouse she has chosen match each other and the jacket exactly, which isn’t the easiest thing in the world to do so that I know that her perception of colour is quite unaltered and whatever else is wrong with her, there is nothing the matter with her eyes. I take the garments from her as we walk to the changing rooms, for everything apart from the smallest and lightest of handbags is too heavy for her now. A full mug of tea is too heavy for her to pick up. In café’s where they serve coffee in those large green and gold cups from France, she is stymied, remains thirsty.
What she gives me to hold is a Karl Lagerfeld skirt and a Jaeger blouse, both substantially reduced, at £89.99 and £69.99 but not within my £60 budget I had estimated when the old biddy dress came to mind, which hang from rails ignored by my mother. She has obeyed my instruction. She has not looked at the prices. Half submerged in whatever part of the brain that contains our capacity to make aesthetic judgements, her old good taste is buried and my injunction to ignore the prices had been the key that released it. A young woman of twenty-five could attend a job interview in the outfit she has put together.
In the changing room, she undresses. I remember the body I had seen in the bath when I was growing up, the convex belly that my sister used to think was like a washing-up bowl from two Caesarean births. The one that I have now, myself. She used to hold hers in under her clothes by that rubberised garment called a roll-on, a set of sturdy elasticised knickers. She had been six and a half stone when she got married which rose to ten stone after bearing her daughters, and she would spend twenty years adhering to the rules of Weightwatchers without ever noticeably losing a pound. She more or less stopped eating when my father died, apart from cakes and sweets and toast with low calorie marge, on which regimen she shed two stone and twice was admitted to hospital suffering from dehydration.
As she removes her skirt, I turn my head away. It is enough to bear witness to the pornography of her left arm, a swollen sausage encased in a beige rubber bandage, the legacy of a pioneering mid-eighties operation for breast cancer which removed her lymph glands. The armpit is hollow.
The ensemble is in place when I look back. The pencil skirt, a size ten, is an exact fit but the blouse (also a ten) is a little too big, billowing round her hips, which is a shame for it is beautiful, in heavy matte silk with white over-stitching along the button closings.
And now my mother turns to me in rage, no longer placid and obedient, not the sweet little old age pensioner that shop assistants smile at to see her delight in her new jacket.
Fury devours her. ‘I will not wear this blouse, you will not make me wear this blouse.’ She bangs her fist against the wall and (she is the only person I have ever seen do this) she stamps her foot, just like a character from one of my childhood comics or a bad actress in an amateur production.
‘What’s the matter with it?’
She points to the collar. ‘I’m not having anyone see me in this. It shows up my neck.’
I understand for the first time, why, on this warm July day as well as every other, she is wearing a scarf knotted beneath her chin. I had thought her old bones were cold, but it is vanity. My mother was seventy-eight the previous week. ‘Go and see if they’ve got it in a smaller size’ she orders.
My patient nephew is sitting beneath a mannequin outside watching the women come and go. There are very few eleven-year-boys in the world who would spend a day of the school holidays traipsing around John Lewis with their aunt and their senile gran looking for clothes but let’s face it, he has inherited the shopping gene. He’s quite happy there, sizing up the grown ladies coming out of the changing rooms to say to their friends ‘What do you think? Is it too dressy?’ or ‘I wonder what Ray’s sister will be wearing. I’ll kill her if it’s cream.’
‘Are you alright?’ He gives me the thumbs up sign.
There is no size eight on the rack and I return empty-handed. My mother is standing in front of the mirror regarding herself: her fine grey hair, her hazel eyes, her obstinate chin, the illusory remains of girlish prettiness, not ruined or faded or decayed but withered. Some people never seem to look like grown-ups but retain their childish faces all their lives and just resemble elderly infants. My mother did become an adult once but then she went back to being young again; young with lines and grey hair. Yet when I look at her I don’t see any of it. She’s just my mother, unchanging, the person who tells you what to do.
‘Where’ve you been?’ she asks, turning to me. ‘This blouse is too big round the neck. Go and see if they’ve got it in a smaller size.’
‘That’s what I’ve been doing. They haven’t.’
So we continue to admire the skirt and the jacket and wait for the seamstress to arrive, shut up together in our little cubicle where once, long ago, my mother would say to me: ‘You’re not having it and that’s final. I wouldn’t be seen dead with you wearing something like that. I don’t care if it’s all the rage. I don’t care if everyone else has got one. You can’t.’
My mother fingers the collar on the blouse. ‘I’m not wearing this, you know. You can’t make me wear it. I’m not going to the wedding if I’ve got to wear this blouse.’
‘Nobody’s going to make you wear it. We’ll look for something else.’
‘I’ve got an idea. Why don’t you see if they have it in a smaller size.’
‘I’ve looked already. There isn’t one. This is the last …’
‘No, I must interrupt you. I’ve just thought, do you think they’ve got it in a smaller size?’
‘That’s what I’m trying to tell you. They haven’t got one.’
Her shoulders sag in disappointment. ‘Anyway’ I say, to distract her, ‘the seamstress will be along in a minute to take up the sleeves.’
She looks down at her arms. ‘Why? They aren’t too long.’
‘That’s because you folded them up.’
She holds the cuffs between her fingers. ‘Oh, that’s right.’ She looks back at herself in the mirror, smiling. ‘I love this jacket. But I don’t like the blouse. Well, I do like it but it’s too big round the neck. Why don’t you nip outside and see if they’ve got a bigger one?’
‘I’ve been. They haven’t. I’ve told you already.’
‘Did you? I don’t remember. Have I ever told you that I’ve been diagnosed as having a memory loss?’
Now the seamstress has come. My mother shows her the blouse. ‘It’s too big round the neck’ she tells her. ‘Can you take it in?’
‘No, Mum, she’s here to alter the jacket.’
‘Why? There’s nothing the matter with it.’
‘Yes there is. The sleeves are too long.’
‘No they aren’t.’
‘That’s because you’ve turned them up.’
‘Well, never mind that. Go and see if they’ve got this blouse in a smaller size.’
And so it goes, like Alice in the garden, on the path that whatever she does always leads straight back to where she started. We are through the looking glass now, my mother and I, where we wander in that terrible wilderness without landmarks, nothing to tell you that you passed here only moments before.
We pay for the jacket and the skirt which are wrapped, the jacket remaining, ready to be collected absolutely no later than the day before the wedding, which is cutting it a bit fine but what can you do? We leave John Lewis and walk a few yards to the next store which is DH Evans.
Up the escalator to the dress department and on a sale rack is the very Jaegar blouse! And there are plenty of them and right at the front what is there but a size eight.
‘Look!’ I cry. ‘Look what they’ve got and in your size.’
My mother runs towards me, she really does pick up her legs and break into a trot. ‘Well, they didn’t have that in John Lewis.’
‘They did but it was too big and they didn’t have a smaller one.’
‘Did they? I don’t remember.’
She tries the blouse on in the changing rooms. The fit is much better. She looks at the label. ‘Jaguar. I’ve never heard of them.’ Her eyes, which could match navy, sometimes jumbled up letters.
‘Not jaguar, Jaegar.’
‘Jaegar! I’ve never had Jaegar in my life before.’
‘You must be joking. You’ve got a wardrobe full of it.’
‘Have I? I don’t remember. Have I told you I’ve been diagnosed with a memory loss?’
‘Yes’ I say. ‘You’ve told me.’
‘And now’ my mother announces, ‘I need a jacket and a skirt.’
‘We’ve bought those already.’
‘Where are they then?’
‘The skirt is in this bag and the jacket is being altered.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘What colour are they?’
‘Well, that’s lucky’ she says pointing triumphantly to the blouse, ‘because this is navy.’
My mother wants to take the tube home, a tube and a bus, for a taxi is an unnecessary extravagance. ‘I’m fresh’ she says. But I am not. A moment always comes, towards the end of these outings, when I want to go into a bar and have a drink, when I wish I carried a hip flask of innocuous vodka to sip, sip at throughout the day. Most of all I want it to stop, our excursion. I can’t put up with any more and I fall into cruel, monosyllabic communication. Here is a taxi and do not think for a moment, Madam, that despite the many burdens of your shopping, however swollen your feet or fractious your child, that you are going to take this cab before me.
‘Get in’ I order. As we drive off up Portland Place I am calculating how much her old biddy outfit has cost. It has come to £229.97 which is more than I have paid for mine and has beaten out all of us, including the bride herself, my sister Michele, on designer labels.
My mother holds onto her two purchases, from which floral prints have been rigorously excluded.
She looks at us both, her daughter and grandson. ‘Just remind me’ she says. ‘How am I related to you?’