There is a period during which the light in the room changes. I hear the susurration of Mother mumbling and other voices, one of which may be mine. Then quiet. And a bird-like, blue-mottled hand on my shoulder.
Are you going to keep a girl waiting?
I turn on the chair. Mum has a different night-dress on, a sleeveless blue scrap that has been through the wash too many times. It clashes with her tired pink slippers in a way that the Frances Potter of years gone by would never have allowed.
Come on Oscar, she says, outstretching a palsied arm. It’s time to dance.
I stand and take Mother in my arms, the Fred and Ginger of the care-home world. We sway gently from side to side to some unheard music and after a while she rests her head on my shoulder.
This is nice. We haven’t done this for a long time.
No, I manage. Our arthritic waltz turns slowly around the room. Even though she thinks I'm Dad, this, for a moment, feels like the first connection I've had with Mum in weeks, maybe months. And it’s the first time I've danced, however slow and laboured, since Emma. It is nice.
Mother cranes her neck up and kisses me lightly on the cheek, once, twice. Then she’s whispering in her tremulous old-lady voice.
Come on Os. Peter’s out, we've got the house to ourselves.
All pretence of dance is lost. She’s kissing me on the mouth, parting her lips. I grab her by shoulders and push her back, trying to think of something to say but my mouth is full of the taste of stale tea, medication and toothpaste, not words. There is no shock or hurt in Mother’s eyes though – only a playful sparkle.
It’s not like you to be so shy. Come on – let’s really dance.
And before I can stop her, she’s reached forward with one claw and rubbed the flaccid lump between my legs.
I shove and she sprawls, thankfully on to the bed. Backpedalling I bang clumsily into the door, stumble, nearly fall. Then, feet scrabbling for purchase, I am out in the corridor and running, running. I reach the double doors but don’t stop, even though I can hear her calling after me. Except it isn't me she’s calling for, lying there on her stranger’s bed, but Dad. As her calls of Oscar start to fade I imagine her hitching that night-dress up over her knees, and keep running.
I don’t remember getting back to the car, let alone driving anywhere, but I must have done because I am at The Tree, sitting beneath its dappled shade. From the length of the shadows, I have been here a good while. The taste of Mother has gone but my lips feel numb and I wonder whether I have been rubbing (pinching?) them. I shudder then, as I recall her touch, the touch that was meant for Dad, and wonder what will displace that from my mind.
My mobile is lying on the grass next to me. A quick scroll through the call log shows that I tried to call Emma just after three o'clock A little disconcerting, not least because her number has long since been cancelled and reallocated by the mobile operator. But anyway... displacement.
I step back through the phone’s menu structure, and into my contacts list, then scroll down until I find the number Laura had given me – seems I've listed it as Camb Class L. The number rings fours times, then diverts to voicemail. I hang up without leaving a message, then, in a blizzard of frantic fingers, I type a message.
Sorry for the short notice. Are you available for an hour's in-call today? Peter
I hit send and sit to wait for a reply – it comes within five minutes.
Hi Pete. So sorry, I don't work Sundays. Hope we can get together real soon. Lxxx
It crosses my mind that at £150 an hour I’d probably want to get together real soon too. Just not on a day of rest, obviously.
My left leg has gone dead from sitting for so long, and when I stand up it is flushed with pins and needles. I limp back to the car, rubbing my thigh as I go. Seems I left the keys in the ignition too.
On the drive home I'm conscious of rubbing my lips with the back of my hand, but can’t stop myself from doing it. It’s time to dance. A mile from home, I nearly collect a pushchair being dangled over the edge of the zebra crossing by Mr Sandhu's. The mother screams at the back of the Polo but I don’t stop or even slow down to wave a shame-faced apology. We've got the house to ourselves. I pull up outside the house and run to the door, fumbling with my keys. Once inside, I head straight for the kitchen – I'm hungry but I can’t face cooking. Instead, I hook vodka from the fridge. Let's really dance.