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