There was no doubt in my mind when I was five-years-old that my mother was old; this was because she didn't like skipping or running and she never thought that having jelly was much fun. If I'd thought about this at all I'd probably have thought that I didn't want to get old and that she had a pretty dull life. Later, I realised that she enjoyed drinking stuff from a green bottle and that she looked forward to that in the way that I looked forward to jelly. But green bottles were what old people liked and the smell wasn't good and I'd never be interested in them. It was what old people did and she was old – she was at least 36 years old.
As a teenager I knew that my mother wasn't just old but she could probably compete with dinosaurs in the Natural History Museum. If I'd bothered to spend any of my time thinking about anything other than me, myself and me and how I fitted into the world then I'd have wondered what the point of her life was. Really, how she managed to get herself from A to B was a complete miracle. She may have held down a full-time job and done all sorts of other things but they were mostly dull and boring and people must have made allowances for the fact that she was soooooooo OLD. Really old.
There was a 3 minute period in my teens when I did the sort of thing that makes teenagers scream that their parents are going to kill them and I was amazed to discover that not only did my mother not kill me, she was sympathetic, but more to the point, she made things okay again. Clearly this was a blip and she'd managed to get with the programme of what it was like to be young but she was still really old and had no idea.
Maybe it was when I was in my late twenties but I 'm not sure of the exact time but suddenly she didn't seem really, really old. We actually had proper conversations that didn't end with me slamming a door and telling her that 'you've got no idea what it's really like'. I probably didn't call her stupid either, which was a great move forward in our relationship. Instead we would talk about things in the newspaper or what had been on the news or about recipes or friends. Over a few years we would meet regularly in London and spend a day shopping and eating. She had friends in London and it was a good place for us to meet up.
For years our days would follow a pattern but there would always be thread of difference within this. We would have morning coffee and then shop and this would be followed by lunch. During the afternoon we would discuss the possibility of going to the theatre but we never did this – it would have spoilt it if we had. The important thing was to chat about what we could have seen and whether or not we would enjoy it. The differences in our day were that I always had to find different coffee shops and restaurants for us to spend our time. My mother delighted in the new and she would enjoy going back to her friends or to my father and tell them about the new tea rooms I had found or a new restaurant. Although my mother loved afternoon tea we had long decided to give this a miss and go for early cocktails instead followed by dinner in somewhere new.
One year I met her from her train and suggested a spot for our morning coffee and she tutted and shifted her handbag around and grumbled that she would rather go to Valerie's in Covent Garden. 'What was wrong with that', she asked. So, we went to Valerie's and had coffee and then moved onto shopping in Covent Garden. One of the rituals that didn't change was that she liked to buy me something from Monsoon – she liked the bright colours and she liked me in dresses and this was a favourite thing for both of us. We wandered down to Monsoon and she clicked her tongue at the prices and at the patterns and she didn't think there was anything that was 'at all pretty'. To her it was all over-priced and rubbish and she had no interest in me trying anything on. She was ready for her lunch and as we passed the theatres on the way to the restaurant she carried on the clicking and tutting and saying how it all looked like rubbish and that she'd gone to the theatre in Edinburgh but it had hardly been worth the effort.
The lunch menu troubled her because she didn't know what jalapenos were and she didn't know why people had to 'mess around with food'. This was the woman who weaned me onto garlic now fussing over new things. We ate a lacklustre lunch where she pointed out most of my failings and criticised the restaurant and the other diners. Later we walked a little and shopped a little and then decided, in a rare moment of agreement, that it was the cocktail hour and we should find a bar. We took the tube and I can't remember which station we reached but the escalator was broken and it was a very steep escalator. There was no lift and I remember about half way up the steps she stopped and looked broken; she was pale and wheezing and clinging onto the rubber of the escalator. Around us London moved in its way with people leaping up and down these immobile metal steps while my mother's mouth melted in the way that mouths go when one is about to cry completely against ones's will. I realised that my mother was old; she had become old and I felt so angry I wanted to yell at her not to be old. Instead I shouted at the young man who was running past us and being grumpy because we were in his way. I took her arm and we walked slowly to the top of the escalator and found a bar and some gin. I hated the fact that my mother really was old.
This week I've spent a lot of time with my mother-in-law, a woman who I have a lot in common with and who I like very much. After a couple of days with her I realised that I was spending a lot of my time feeling cross with her and that she seemed to be very exacting about things in a way that she had never been before. She didn't like the restaurants or the lunch or the various things that we had arranged. Everything was an irritant and then I realised that she too was getting old. And I don't like it any more now than I did before.
And I still think that it won't happen to me.