CORNWALL, it’s 10am, my mother’s house.
I arrived late last night from London and was put in the back bedroom, which is comfortable in every imaginable way apart from the fact that its roof is a local meeting point for the Cornish seagull, an oversized bird infamous for its harsh and penetrating squawk.
But there’s no satisfaction in complaining about a bad night’s sleep to my mother who without complaint, has tackled 20 years of insomnia head-on by listening to the BBC World Service all night, every night, and views sleep as a luxury or even, I sometimes suspect, an indulgence.
Besides, she’s just told me she’s been up since five.
“So,” my mother says, from over by the cooker where she is spooning coffee into her percolator, “what did you get up to in London?”
“I met up with John,” I say.
“Nice gay John?” she says.
“Yes,” I say.
“Did he take you to the opera again?” she says.
“No, he took me to the British Museum,” I say, “to see the Elgin Marbles.”
“Not those lumps of old grotty old rock?” she says.
“Yes, those,” I say.
“How dreadful,” she says, “either he’s never seen them before or he’s just too cultured for his own good. Which is it?”
“What he really wanted to show me was the reading room,” I say, “but it was closed.”
“Good lord,” she says, “you poor thing. I get museum legs just thinking about it.”
“Museum legs?” I say.
“Bored legs,” she says, “lethargic and fidgety at the same time.”
“I also saw the film Dunkirk,” I say.
“What did you think?” she says.
“You wouldn’t want to see that film if you had a heart condition,” I say, “it was very loud, with lots of suspense, then deafening bangs. Also, not much dialogue.”
“Well you’re hardly going to chat when you’re standing around waiting for a bomb to land on your head like those poor soldiers had to,” she says, “I mean, I was only five during the war but I remember dropping to my knees with Grandma to say the ‘Our Father’, when the Doodlebugs flew over. The bomb made a terrible buzzing noise that went silent suddenly, a few seconds before it landed. So if the buzzing stopped directly above you, you knew you only had seconds to live before it fell on your head.”
“So Grandma would drop to her knees to pray while she waited for death?” I say.
“No,” my mother says, “she dropped to her knees to pray that the bomb would keep going and fall on someone else’s head. Then when it had, she said ‘poor devils’ and got up and got on with things. She was a pragmatist, like me.
“Anyway,” she says, “enough about the war. What else did you get up to in London? Did you meet up with that lovely little ballet dancer friend of yours?”
“Yes,” I say.
“How is she?” my mother says.
“Lovely as ever. Up, down. Usual story — sound as a bell but all over the place. Wondering what the point of it all is.”
“The point of what?” says my mother.
“Life,” I say.
“An artistic temperament is a terrible affliction,” my mother says.
“I’m not sure you can put her temperament down to having once been able to do the splits,” I say.
“Well either that or she’s a bit slow,” my mother says, “I mean, is she a bit slow or something?”
“Mum,” I say.
“Well,” Mum says, “she’d be less inclined to wonder what the point of it all is if she’d ever had a Doodlebug hovering over her head.”
“Mum,” I say again.
“Honestly,” she says, “the point of being alive is being alive. Anything else is just made up.”
The point of being alive is being alive. Anything else is just made up
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