The stone bench on which I sit overlooks a Cornish harbour where yachts bob about, their masts clinking in the breeze.
Mum’s house. I’ve come alone. I breathe in the sea air, rolling a cigarette; a holiday treat I intend to smoke out here with my coffee.
A distinguished-looking gentleman walks past with an immaculate dog. I say good morning, puffing smoke out of the side of my mouth. He looks startled, glances back over his shoulder.
I’m wearing a fake fur over pyjamas. It’s a genteel neighbourhood but it’s possible he thinks I’m a woman who’s had a busy night with the wrong sort of clients.
Upstairs, Mum says. “Course he didn’t, don’t be silly you look lovely, perfume’s on my dressing table darling — you stink of smoke.”
I get dressed feeling unusually serene. I haven’t felt this relaxed since… the last time I came. I slept like an angel last night in the spare bedroom; an airy, fragrant haven with bed linen that smelled of lemons, and a volume of poetry she thought I’d enjoy.
“Staying with Mum is ‘lush’,” my youngest sister says. Lush is right. And fun; this morning I meet Mum’s friend Annie for the first time, big and bonkers with a Bichon Frise.
We’re sitting in a café. The Bichon Frise is sitting on her lap wearing a quilted cardigan with a fur collar.
“I saw a programme last night on the television,” Annie says in a refined accent. “It was about a man who had testicles growing out of his head.” “Really?” Mum says. “Testicles? How awful. Poor man.”
Maybe, I think, when you’ve lived long enough, nothing surprises you.
“It was a programme, dear, called Embarrassing Bodies,” she says.
“I don’t know what I’d do if I had testicles growing out of my head,” she says, looking worried. I roll another cigarette surreptitiously under the table for later. “Oh, roll it on the table, dear,” she says. “I don’t mind smoking; my husband smoked himself to death.” I roll it on the table.
“Cut them off,” she says. “Cut what off?” I ask. “The testicle. The doctors cut them off.” The conversation segues arbitrarily to gardening, sexism in the workplace, house prices and briefly health. Both agree they are fit as fiddles.
Later, Mum’s friends arrive for dinner. I meet Sara, who’s in her late sixties. She’s an artist and environmentalist; she doesn’t believe in driving or flying. Or bras. Mum has warned me about this but I’m still unprepared for her stupendous bosoms, which swing freely about under a polo neck. They have a mind of their own until we sit down, where they settle comfortably in her lap. There are two widows besides Mum, and two couples in their seventies at the table. Conversation is warm, sharp, bouncy, broad and kind. All have lively, flexible minds. They talk about everything, from Barabara Hepworth to the Hindu Kush. I go to bed at 3am, brain buzzing. “Must Google Barbara Hepworth and go to the Hindu Kush,” I think as I drift off to sleep between lemon sheets.
“I haven’t been that stimulated in years,” I say to Mum in the morning. “Nice evening, wasn’t it?” she says and asks if I want to meet her at Mass later or do I want a lie in?
I arrive late and find her at the front with them, chatting while the priest approaches the altar. I glance at the priest once and then twice. “Christ,” I say to Mum. “you even have a hot priest. No wonder the church is full.” “The young mums love him,” she says and points at a pew of mothers all done up and twinkling at him. I think, even Mass is fun over here.
Mum is nonchalant after Mass, when she tells me there are fireworks in the harbour this evening. I haven’t seen fireworks for 15 years. We have drinks in the hotel opposite and watch them explode; luminous, sparkling confetti against the inky black sky. I feel a lump in my throat; they’re so beautiful. I meet more of Mum’s pals and lots of charming elderly gentlemen who keep smiling at me. “I feel like Madonna,” I say to Mum.
The elderly gentlemen keep smiling. Mum says they’re delighted to clap eyes on a woman half their age that believes in bras.
“Enjoy the peace and quiet?” My husband asks when I get home.
Peace and quiet? I think.
“Old people have all the fun,” I say.