“Two sugars and semi-skimmed dear,” Margaret whispered as she placed my cup of tea on the desk between us. Her words transported me to last Summer when my mother died.
My relationship with my mother had been strained for some years. After graduating from medical school, she wanted me to marry, settle down and become a contented little GP in a “nice” little practice on the outskirts of Glasgow. That way she would have her grandchildren close to her; she would be a willing baby-sitter. My husband and I would regularly go to and host dinner parties and every weekend would be spent with her. She had my whole life mapped out for me.
I, on the other hand, had made up my mind to go abroad to advance my training as a surgeon. Mum was not impressed. Weren’t doctors meant to be caring people? Finally, resigned to my single life and imminent departure from Britain, she turned to sarcasm. Well I suppose your father and I will manage on our own… somehow.
“Are you okay?” Margaret asked jolting me back to the present. “You look a bit …. distant.”
Margaret was my team’s secretary. We had a similar sense of humour although she was in her late sixties. We had burst out laughing simultaneously in the hospital canteen on the day I started working when an orthopaedic surgeon had asked the serving lady for “chips” not realising he had only chips on his plate already. At least he had the presence of mind to be embarrassed. He shuffled off red-faced.
Margaret and her husband had moved from Dundee when Peter’s work brought him to Southampton. He had worked on the ferry and had died some years ago but she decided to continue working as her motivation to climb out of bed each morning. Without work she had told me, she too would have died years ago. Not that she would have minded she had added; she had only ever loved one man and had shared her bed, body and life with only him.
“Penny for your thoughts?” She sat opposite me with her own cup of tea. We had tea and a chat in the afternoon whenever I was free. I explained about my mother.
“I remember when my mother died,” she said. “I wouldn’t have coped but for Peter. Not once did he let me down. We never spent a day or night apart from the day we married. He knew when I needed cheering and when I wanted to be alone. If I was grumpy, he just made me a lovely cuppa – just how I like it. I only ever told him once the way I make my tea and from that day he always made it for me.”
I asked if she had any regrets.
“I should have told him how much he meant to me, how much I cared for him. Oh, I told him I loved him more times than I can remember. But it’s caring that matters, dear. He really cared for me. He made my tea with just the right amount of milk and one sugar in a tea-cup from a set my parents gave us for a wedding present.” She paused. “And, I wish I could have given him a child.” She broke her eye contact with me at that point and looked blankly into space.
I told her it was comforting to know that she had found her soul-mate.
“When’s the funeral dear?”
“Oh, darling it’s so good to see you.”
Dad looked dreadful. He hadn’t shaved and he smelled like he hadn’t washed or showered for days. He wore a tatty cardigan over a dirty, off-white t-shirt and a pair or jogging bottoms and thick, woollen socks, one of which had a heel missing.
I looked around the flat. It was a mess. It had not been vacuumed for days, dirty dishes were piled in the kitchen sink and the entire flat smelled as if it had not been aired for weeks.
“I’ve not really had the time to tidy up,” dad continued. “I’ve been a bit pre-occupied.”
I noticed he was shuffling and he had lost a lot of weight. His voice was thin and strained.
“I’d offer you something to eat dear,” he said leading me into the lounge, “but I’ve not had the time to go to the supermarket. Still, I’m glad you came. It’s a long way from Dundee. There was talk about building a bypass …”
I explained that I was working in Southampton and the Dunblane bypass had been built some years ago.
“You’ll be tired dear… wanting your bed no doubt. Well, your mother’s made up your room just the way you like it – two pillows and your book by the bedside.”
My room was the only tidy room in the flat. It was just as I remembered it; just how I liked it. Still, I felt like a ghost.
I woke at 6.00 am after a night filled with unsettling dreams in which I was reaching out to someone drowning in the sea. No matter how hard I tried, that person was always just out of reach. When I woke, I was drenched in sweat with the memory of that nightmare.
The bathroom was filthy. In the next two hours I had scrubbed it clean and tidied the lounge and kitchen. After showering and dressing I woke dad.
“Oh hello dear. You’ll be wanting your breakfast before going off to the university. You can’t do all that studying on an empty stomach. I’ll just ask your mother to put something on.”
“Dad!” I said softly. “Mum’s not here. She’s gone.”
“Oh well, I’m sure she’ll not be long. She’s probably gone to buy some milk for your tea. I told her we were out of it.”
“No, dad. She’s gone and she’s not coming back.”
His tone changed as he walked into the lounge and slowly lowered himself into his favourite armchair, the chair that had the best view of the television.. “She never cared for me. She always said she’d leave me! But, it’s her that held me back! I had a chance to go to America, to make something of myself! But she wouldn’t go – told me she’d leave me if I went. She couldn’t leave her mother.” I thought he looked sad as he fell into silence. “But it was her,” he continued after a while. “She wouldn’t have managed without me. So I stayed. And I’m still here.”
He was clearly dementing.
Returning from the funeral parlour I flopped down in the armchair opposite dad. He had refused to say anything at the service or make any contribution to her eulogy, so I recited a poem she had always liked, a poem I had written her when I was in junior school, in the days we loved each other. She had kept in a copy of her Bible, which she had kept by her bedside. I had explained to the Minister that dad was too upset to deliver the eulogy.
“Would you like a cup of tea dad?” I asked.
“Oh that would be lovely, dear.”
“Do you still take milk in your tea dad?” I shouted through the open doors of the kitchen and lounge.
“Yes dear, I do.”
“Yes please dear.”
There was no answer.
“How much sugar dad?” I repeated.
Still no answer.
“Dad, how many sugars do you take in your tea?” I asked, walking into the lounge. He was holding a framed picture of him and mum on their wedding day. I think he had been crying.
“I don’t know, dear.”