AIDA AUSTIN: It’s hard enough being a woman at the best of times, without having to worry about your husband selling you

My mother phones me at my sister’s flat. It’s 9am.

“I know exactly what you’re doing,” she says, “you’re sitting on the sofa reading, The Mayor of Casterbridge.” 

She is in the very finest fettle. 

“No,” I say, “I’m watching Fleabag on Chrissy’s TV planner. The Mayor of Casterbridge has just sold his wife. I’m giving up on him.”

“Persevere,” mum says. “Maybe I’d get on better,” I say, “if it was a book about a woman selling her husband.” 

“Stick with it,” she says, “and just be grateful for small mercies. I mean it’s hard enough being a woman at the best of times, without having to worry about your husband selling you.

“At least you never had to think about that. Imagine living in fear of being sold anytime your husband got a bit fed up with you. I mean I could have been sold a hundred times over. Anyway, what have you got planned in London?” 

“I’m going to Pollock’s Toy Museum,” I say, “ I’m trying to find music box automata. I’ve looked online but can’t find anything. At Pollock’s they might give me a telephone number.”

 “Is this for a commission?” Mum says. “No,” I say, “it’s for me. I want to make a fish go up and down. It’s more complicated than you’d think. Quite technical.”

“A fish?” she says. 

“I saw a music box about 15 years ago,” I say, “in a friend’s bathroom. You pulled a string, music played and this fish went up and down behind waves. Naive but totally charming. Been bugging me for years.”

 “So you want to make a box,” she says, “with a fish in it that goes up and down?”

 “Yes,” I say.

 “What kind of fish?”

 “A trout,” I say, “in a glass-fronted box. I’ll have to strip out an old clock-case. Can’t stop thinking about it. I was trying to work out the mechanism in my head last night. It’s become a bit of an obsession.”

“A trout,” mum says, “well, now I’ve heard it all. And don’t talk to me about obsessions.” 

She says if it’s not me and my trout, then it’s my youngest sister and jam and if it’s not my youngest sister and jam, then it’s my oldest sister and rubber - and never mind my brothers, she says, I mean god only knows what they get up to.

Mum says my youngest sister didn’t let her out of the kitchen up in Sligo for a week.

“She put me in Lola’s flamenco apron,” she says, “black and red spots, no less, with a frill at the bottom. 

“Chopping ginger till my fingers bled, never mind peeling those blasted marrows. And none of the jam set. Runny as you like. And she pours it on everything. Unblocks drains with it for all I know, or feeds it to the goats.

“Poor goats, rather them than me. She’d pour it on your boiled egg if you took your eyes off it for half a second.”

“I know all about jam from Hot Lids herself,” I say, “what do you mean by “rubber?” 

“Jam, jam, jam,” she says, “rubber, rubber, rubber - and now a trout going up and down…” 

Mum,” I say, “what kind of rubber?”

“Ordinary rubber,” she says, “head to toe, shiny black rubber. Completely covers herself in the stuff. Feet, head, half her face. I’ve seen her in it.

“And her new boyfriend. It’s how she met him. I mean it doesn’t do a man any favours, rubber, it has to be said. I saw them all in it last weekend. Very off-putting.”

My eldest sister is a doctor and responsible mother of four. They say it’s always the quiet ones.

“But mum,” I say, “what is she actually doing in this rubber?” 

“Well, really,” mum says, “what do you think she’s doing in it? I mean her patients would get a bit of a shock if she turned up at the surgery like that. Though it might liven things up a bit. 

“You wouldn’t blame her, poor thing. It’s fairly unremitting, being a doctor.”

“So what does she wear it for…”

“Wild swimming,” she says, “I mean whatever next? In the sea. Dangerous caves, apparently, the more dangerous the better, I expect. Very sociable, by all accounts.

“Though how your sister and her new boyfriend ever decided they liked the look of each other is beyond me. They must have taken it off at some point.

“I mean, how do you know if you like the look of someone when they’re all trussed-up in rubber? I mean there could be absolutely anything under there. Anything at all.”

“If I had to choose between jam or rubber,” mum continues, “I’d take jam, any day.” “At least with jam,” she shudders, “there are no surprises.”


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