Mam was making chips when she burned down the house. It was the first time she’d made chips since Da had died eight years earlier. Before that she’d always made chips on Wednesdays. It’d been egg and chips for tea on Wednesdays for as long as I could remember. I suppose in the beginning it was because Da didn’t get paid until Thursday then it became habit. She stopped making chips when Da died. It was too much effort, I suppose, to make them just for her.
The firemen were packing up and Mam and me were standing in the back garden staring at the carbon-black skeleton of the house that had been her home for the last forty nine years when Howie arrived. He looked like a replica of Da walking up the path, his mouth opening and shutting as soundless words formed, making him look like a boxer who’s fought one too many fights.
He exploded as he reached us, ‘Bloody hell, Mam, how did you manage that?’
‘She was just making a few chips for tea,’ I said hurriedly. ‘It’s very common, the fireman told us most house fires start in chip pans.’
‘Start maybe, but most of them don’t get any further than the kitchen. What the hell were you doing, Mam, while the house was burning down?’
‘She was in the garden. It was a nice afternoon.’
‘It was a lovely afternoon before all those clouds came,’ Mam said. ‘Just enjoying a bit of sunshine I was when I spotted all those weeds in the flower bed. You know your Da hates weeds so I started pulling them up.’
She held out her muck-covered hands for inspection. In one were the remains of a stalk, all that was left after she’d picked all the leaves off. The rest of the weeds formed a trail on the grass at the edge of the flower bed.
The shock and frustration made Howie speak sharply. ‘Da’s dead, Mam, you know that. He’s been dead for eight years. For pete’s sake, didn’t you notice the smoke?’
‘The smoke?’ Mam looked puzzled.
Howie shrugged his shoulders impatiently, and turned to me. ‘Well, that settles it. We’ll have to do it now, what we talked about. She can’t stay on her own; she’s a danger to herself and everyone else.’
‘Oh, I don’t know, Howie, I still don’t like the idea.’
The firemen were about to leave and one of them came over to us. ‘We’ll be off now, Mrs Jones,’ and then looking at me, he said, ‘she’ll be all right tonight won’t she? She’s got somewhere to go?’
‘Oh, yes, she’ll come home with me,’ I said. ‘Thank you very much for all your help.’
Howie started speaking at the same time as me, ‘Yes, it’s all sorted, I’ve been in touch with the authorities.’
I waited for the fireman to go before turning on Howie. ‘You’ve spoken to the authorities already?’
‘They’ve got a place in High View. We can take her straight there.’
‘What, right now?’
‘Yes, we’ve had a bit of luck: an old lady died yesterday.’
‘You can’t be serious. Mam’s had a dreadful shock, she could have been killed. We can’t put her in a home straightaway.’
‘She won’t even notice, look at her, in a world of her own. And you know what these places are like, spaces are like gold dust. If you take her home with you, even if it’s just for one night, the council will try and say that she doesn’t need the place, that she’s got family to look after her, and we’ve agreed that’s not a good idea, not with us all out at work all day.’ He softened his tone, ‘Mam always said she wanted to go in a home when the time came, didn’t she? And you know High View is one of the best ones, just like a home from home, and it’s handy for visiting. If we miss this chance, she might have to go into Riverside or one of the others on the other side of town.’
I knew what he was talking about when he said Mam wanted to go in a home. We’d been sitting round the dinner table, it was before either of us were married, and what Mam actually said was, ‘If I ever go doolally,’ and Howie had interrupted, ‘what do you mean “if”, you’re already there aren’t you?’, and she’d given him one of her looks, then continued, ‘no, seriously, I mean it, if I ever go doolally, put me in a home and forget about me.’ She’d been quiet ever since she’d come back from visiting great aunt Maud in the nursing home in Brynhyfryd, but now she said, ‘There’ll be no point coming to visit me because I won’t know you, or if I do, I’ll forget you’ve been ten minutes after you leave. So just book me in, make sure it’s a good one, mind, where I’ll be well looked after, and then forget about me. I would hate to become a burden to you.’
‘Don’t be silly Mam’ I’d said, ‘you’d never be a burden to us.’
‘Tell you what, Mam,’ Howie said, ‘to save the money, when you go doolally, I’ll just shoot you, shall I?’
‘Oh, you’re cheeky, you are,’ Mam smiled at him. ‘Now, who wants the skin off the rice pudding?’
But that was then; this was now. I looked at the frail woman standing before me. Wrapped in a blanket, she looked older than her years. She wasn’t listening to us but her face bore a slightly puzzled expression, as if there was something she needed to remember. Suddenly she smiled brightly as it came back to her.
‘It was smoke,’ she said, ‘not clouds. I am a silly so’n’so. I thought the smoke was clouds. I should have realised it was no good when Maggie Thatcher appeared.’ She pursed her face in disgust.
Howie looked at me as good as to say, ‘what’s she talking about now?’ but I knew. ‘The cloud pictures, Elvis and JFK, Johnny the chip shop, Winnie from the pub, you must remember’ I said. He looked baffled. I could almost see his mind leaping ahead to the day his sister went the same way as his mother. He looked as though he thought it wouldn’t be long.
‘Think,’ I said, ‘think about the castle field.’
After school or in the holidays, if the weather was nice, Mam would take us up to the castle field. First thing we’d do would be run up the side of the hill to the foot of the castle, then roll ourselves down. Roly poly, roly poly. Mam would join in too sometimes; she loved it in spite of the others looking at her as if she wasn’t all there. The best place was just before the bushes, where the hill was longest. If there weren’t too many people and we could roll from the top, we’d be dizzy by the time we reached the bottom.
Then when we’d had enough, Mam would take us up the hill on the other side. We’d go right to the top so we could see the bay. Mam had often told us stories about the Vikings and the Normans who built the castle and we’d imagine the longboats sailing in, or pretend we were soldiers defending our land, then we’d lie down in the grass and watch the clouds.
As they drifted past we’d try and work out what they looked like. Mam could always see faces, sometimes famous ones, sometimes family or locals from the village. Once she made a whole crowd of people lie down and look because she swore she could see Elvis. If Da was on the six till two shift at the steelworks, he’d come with us and he would always see Jaguars and big American cars. He used to say, “That’s what I’m going to get when my ship comes in” and when I saw big boats coming into the bay I used to wonder if it was Da’s ship, and if we’d get a big posh car like Auntie Connie who’d married a florist, instead of our fifth-hand Austin.
‘Danny Blanchflower.’ Howie interrupted my reverie. ‘I could only see Danny Blanchflower but Da reckoned he could see the whole Tottenham Hotspur team.’ He looked at me seriously. ‘Do you think he was lying?’
I grinned. ‘Probably, knowing Da, but it didn’t matter, did it? It was fun, that was all that mattered.’ I looked at Mam. ‘Being together, enjoying ourselves, and we did that all right.’
‘I’m hungry,’ Mam said. ‘Have I had tea?’
Howie and I smiled at her and at each other.
‘Come on, Mam, let’s go home,’ I said. ‘I’ll make us some chips for tea, shall I?’