She wouldn’t have the roses I brought for her, said they reminded her of blood.   And it wasn’t any good my heaving a sigh and rolling up my eyes like that, she knew, she had the gift.   Why, look what had happened to Flo only last week?

What had happened, I asked her.

“Well, Flo and me was having a cuppa, just chatting when I saw that old crow walking across the yard.   I knew then.   That means death, I says to Flo, and she went white as a sheet, and said Oh Marge, who could it be? her having her old man’s parents a real millstone round her neck”.

“Who knows, I said, but the very next day Flo comes round, all of a twitter, and says, her eyes popping out like chapel hat pegs, Jim’s died.   Well, Bert’s lot are called Maisie and Tom, so I knew she hadn’t got let off the hook, like.   Which Jim? I says.   Old Jim Barnstaple, she says, dabbing her eyes with her hanky.   Well, he was her next-door neighbour.   There you are I says, them crows are never wrong.”

“Ma”, I said to her, trying to stop the flow, “Jim Barnstaple was 90 if he was a day”.

“Them crows are never wrong” she said as she stirred the tea the nurse had brought her.   “This tea’s disgusting.   They don’t mash it properly, water’s not hot”.

I sipped my own tea the nurse had given me, seeing as how Ma was in a side ward.   She was right about that, at any rate.

“Come on, our Maggie, drink up and I’ll tell the tea leaves for you”.

I was about to open my mouth and tell her I wasn’t mithered with all that superstitious stuff, when I looked at her, properly.   She was so small and frail, propped up on the pillows.   Her stout, no-nonsense winceyette nightdress had slipped, showing her bony collarbone, and her hands looked like transparent bird claws.

I swallowed the tea and handed her the cup.   Ma carefully swirled the residue round, and then drained off the liquid into the saucer.

She was very quiet for a bit as she stared at the bottom of the cup.

“Well, our Maggie, you’ve got a long journey ahead of you.”   Not too difficult, I thought, she knows I have to get back to Manchester tonight.   “And I can see children, little ones, 2 boys, I reckon.   And sorrow.”   I snorted silently to myself.   Chance would be a fine thing!

She handed the cup back to me, and I stacked it on the locker with her own.

“I’ll have to be going, Ma”“I know, me duck.   Ta for coming”.

Suddenly I couldn’t see as my eyes misted up.

“I’ll come again, Ma, you get better now, and do as you are told!”   She smiled.

I gave the roses to the nurse at the end of the ward, and asked her to do something with them, but not for my mother.    Then I found my car and started the long drive homewards.   Ma must have seen what I saw in the teacup.   That odd arrangement of the leaves they called ‘death’.   But she hadn’t said anything.   And neither had I.

The Hospital phoned me a few days later.   Your mother has made a good recovery, they said, but we feel she will be unable to live on her own for a while.   Perhaps a home?

I knew how much Ma would hate a home, so I set off again to see what I could do.   We finally agreed she would try a home “just for a week or two” whilst I sorted out what could be done, if anything, to the two-up, two-down cottage she had lived in for more than 50 years.   Not a lot was the conclusion I came to.

I went to see Ma in the Home I’d found for her.   She was as chirpy as a sparrow.

“They mash the tea properly here” she said.   “Flo’s been to see me, and that fellow there” – she pointed a long bony finger at a balding man asleep in his chair – “He was in the same class as me at Park Road Juniors.   Reggie, they called him.   He’s turned out better than what he was then, snotty-nosed urchin he was, never used a handkerchief”.

I smiled at Ma.   She smiled back.   “I cheated them tealeaves, didn’t I?” she said.   “Load of old rubbish really.   But don’t let on to Flo, she thinks there’s a handsome fellow waiting somewhere for her”.

And her old familiar, cackling laugh made me laugh too.   I reckoned Ma was what they called a ‘caution’.

© Gillian Peall



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