If he met her, I know he’d find her charming. Doesn’t everyone? But I won’t taunt myself with doomsday prophecies. I won’t let her gate-crash my dirty weekend.
As we gobble up tarmac on the motorway, I pinch myself. I’ve waited eight weeks and eighty lonely summers to be swept off my feet.
“I’d like to take you away somewhere,” he said. “My treat.”
My heart was booming, but I maintained an outward calm. As if I picked up propositions at Tesco’s deli counter, with my fifty grams of Cheshire and my slice of boiled ham. “Thank you, Tommy. I’d love that.” I didn’t mention it would be my first time.
I could have told him. He’s a sympathetic sort. He’d know of girls schooled to save ourselves for marriage, virtue banked for sunny days. Our mothers didn’t tell us what to do with unclaimed capital. They assumed their darling daughters would be wives like them.
Our mothers swore by courtship economics: a lady cloaks her real self with a comelier veneer. Never show your face without make-up. Never reveal the natural colour of your hair. Never express an opinion. Never admit your age.
Some rules are eternal. Time turns others on their heads. My once-prized virginity is shameful now I’m eighty-three. So I’ve added another step to my bedtime routine. When I’ve put away the dental floss and cold cream, I’ve practised with a dildo and a tube of KY jelly. If my mother knew, it would disgust her. The thought sustained me through a rigmarole as peachy as a cervical smear.
Of course, I dreamt of pleasing Tommy. He’d hate to hurt me, but a man has needs. Although we’ve touched no more than hands and lips, I know he’ll want more.
Giddy with my daring, I reach across the gear stick to stroke his thigh. He flashes me a smile and reroutes his gaze to the road. Mirror-shoulder-signal before overtaking, and cruise control at a steady sixty-nine, he’s a careful driver. I’m in safe hands.
I was a bag of nerves this morning, hovering in the hallway with my pink trolley-case, as time ticked on. I couldn’t mistake the date, it being Mum’s birthday. Was the whole escapade a joke? A decade younger than me, Tommy could have his pick of widows, bachelorettes and divorcees. Why select a dusty spinster from a long-forgotten shelf?
Such a magical beginning, in the books, discs and knickknacks section of the Oxfam where I volunteer once a week. Tommy brought a box of 78s in vinyl and shellac and we bonded over Glenn Miller. After our chat, he decided to keep them. For helping him realise how precious they were, he offered to buy me lunch. I assumed we’d nip into the Angler’s – they do a pensioner’s special on weekdays – but Tommy fancied Chinese. We wrangled with the chopsticks, splattered sauce on the tablecloth, noodles missing our mouths. But I wasn’t embarrassed. It was part of the fun.
Now the traffic slows, the display boards on the gantry flashing 40 above all lanes. Tommy sighs. “Seems the stars are aligned against me.”
I repeat what I said this morning when he finally arrived to collect me, blaming poorly-flagged diversions down one-way streets. “Don’t worry. We’ve got all day to get there.”
He jiggles the gearstick. The car slinks to a crawl. “Not really. I’ve reserved a table for afternoon tea.”
“Let me ring up and cancel. There’s no point getting frazzled. Besides, if we stop for lunch I won’t have room for tea.” He doesn’t answer. Have I offended him with my indifference to cucumber sandwiches and clotted cream? “Tommy? Do you want to give me your phone?”
“Let’s hang on, shall we? See how it goes.”
“Whatever you think best.” I force a smile. “Still keeping our destination a secret?” All I can deduce from the road signs is we’re heading north.
“All in good time, my dear.”
My dear! As if I’m precious. My dear! As if I’m his. I ought to be thankful I’m claimed, but it weighs on me like itchy blankets from the dark age before quilts.
I slip off my shoes, stretch out my legs, not bothering if it looks ungainly. I feel as spent as a child on Christmas evening. Is this thanks to guilt about Mum, or qualms about Tommy taking charge?
When he proposed this weekend getaway, I took it for granted we’d compare diaries for a convenient date. So I bristled when he announced he’d booked it. I kept my counsel, but he read the frustration on my face.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “I should’ve run it past you. But the suite looks perfect on the website and this was the only available slot.”
I’ve never stayed in a suite. Always a single room in a B&B. “Don’t break the bank for me.”
“For us, my dear. For us. But I’ll cancel if you’re unhappy. I’ll lose the deposit, of course.”
I didn’t want Tommy losing money. And I so wanted to be an us. But it was Mum’s birthday. Unable to explain why that made a difference, I pretended Betty had tickets for Gilbert and Sullivan. Tommy still looked miffed. “I suppose she can pass mine on to someone else.” To be fair, I’d said in the Chinese restaurant I stayed in most weekends.
Whereas Tommy hasn’t a spare moment, jetting here, there and everywhere, visiting his children and grandchildren, and managing his rentals in France and Spain. Churlish to insist a man with a business and a family synchronise his schedule with the whims of a woman with only a weekly commitment at Oxfam and lawn bowls in the summer months. No friends apart from Betty. No relatives apart from Mum.
I mustn’t get uppity and sour our weekend. Not after denying Betty my company at a fictional performance of The Pirates of Penzance. Not after squandering my pension on a vibrator and lacy lingerie. I stifle a giggle as the traffic speeds up again. Maybe I can enjoy a man deciding for me. Maybe I will manage afternoon tea.
It took two strong coffees to summon the courage to walk into Ann Summers. Coffee that comes crowned with foam and backboned by a tot of whisky. I expected to feel like a vegetarian in a steakhouse, but it was closer to browsing in John Lewis. Half the doodahs there are a mystery.
When an assistant approached, I thought she’d redirect me to the local library. Yet if she was surprised to encounter an octogenarian on the premises, she didn’t show it. She was politeness personified, the way I imagine Tommy’s children and grandchildren to be.
He let me see their pictures on Facebook, proud as a peacock. And why not? It must be wonderful to create a living, breathing human being. Playing God. But if they were damaged, would you be the devil? Just as well marriage and children passed me by.
I hope to earn a stake in Tommy’s offspring eventually. He’s hinted he plans to introduce us, but they live so far away. If this weekend works out, I’ll apply for a passport. Be primed if Tommy needs a partner for a family wedding or big birthday. I’ve even considered potential outfits for winter and summer; soothing thoughts as I thrust that replica penis up my fanny.
“How hungry are you?” he asks me now.
Did he hear my tummy rumbling? Breakfast was hours ago: a digestive biscuit and a pot of PG tips. “I am a little peckish.” We might find a country pub near the next junction. With exposed beams and a log fire. Instead, Tommy eases the car onto the service-station slip-road. “If we grab a sandwich and get off sharp, we’ll make that booking. If that’s all right with you?” What can I say? He can’t do a U-turn.
As he helps me from the car, I stumble, but Tommy catches me. “Damn hip,” I say. I wobble to the concourse, trying not to drag on his arm.
Inside, franchises clamour for attention. Dazzling lights suck moisture from my eyes. Tommy steers me towards a smell like pollock and chips at the Angler’s, and parks me at an empty table. “Sorry it’s so basic. I promise you’ll have every luxury at the hotel.”
“I’m not fussed about luxury, Tommy.” The luxury is being with you. “According to my mother, a service station is where a holiday begins. When it opened, we took a coach trip to Watford Gap.”
He looks at me as if I’m an idiot. A senile fool. As if I’m a generation older, not ten years. Swapping his frown for a smile, he asks what sandwich I fancy. I don’t mention I’m cutting back on bread.
Watching him weave between the tables to the counter, I imagine he’s as fatigued as I am. When we reach the hotel, I could give him a massage. Unpick the tension knotted in his neck.
I slide my fingers under my collar to ease the strain in my own shoulders. Why did I mention my mother? Like unlocking a wildcat’s cage. Surely Tommy won’t ask where she lives or how she is. He’ll assume I’m an orphan, like most OAPs.
The mere thought of her unsettles me, however, puts a dampener on our weekend. Was I rash to come away on her birthday?
It’s more than the date that’s put me in a stew: we’re encroaching on Mum’s stomping ground. I don’t drive, but I can read road signs and Leeds is less than an hour away. Yorkshire born, Mum hankered to settle there. For thirty years, I’ve kept my distance, in case she has.
Oh, it’s preposterous at my age. At her age, too. One hundred and eight and confined to a care home. How can she harm me now?
Demoralised by silly anxieties, I’ve lost sight of Tommy at the sandwich bar. I study each grey-haired man in the queue and at the counter, each person crossing the room with a tray. He’s left me. He can’t have. He’s taken me at my word – or my mother’s – that the service station’s part of the appeal. I’ll be like that man trapped at an airport in a film I saw with Betty, rinsing my smalls in the Ladies’ sink. Already in debt after paying for the negligee and lurid pink suitcase, I’ll be destitute by morning. Tommy promised to pay for everything.
When he plonks a tray on the table, I almost beg him to take me home. Instead, I unload plastic-wrapped sandwiches and lidded polystyrene cups. “They’d run out of beef,” says Tommy. “Chicken okay?”
I could be in my quiet kitchenette spreading cottage cheese on oatcakes. Filleting a lettuce, imagining meat. “Where are you taking me, Tommy? We’ve been travelling for hours. Aren’t there any nice hotels closer to home?”
At the adjacent table, a woman with a nose-ring sniggers. Tommy walks past her to sit beside me on the bench. He takes my hand, brings it to his lips. “You’re right, I should’ve chosen somewhere nearer. I’ve upset you, when I meant to treat you like a queen.”
Already, I’m ashamed. “I’ll be fine and dandy when I’ve eaten.” My hands shake as I tear through a packet labelled coronation chicken. “It’s harder for you behind the wheel.”
“I don’t mind. It’s you that matters. Listen, I reckon it’s an hour and a half to the hotel. Can you last until then?”
Will ninety minutes get us through Yorkshire?
“Or we can jack it in altogether,” he says, “Spend the weekend at the Travelodge.”
I laugh, hoping to restore both our spirits. As Betty says, you can always act cheerful, regardless how you’re suffering under the skin.
Back in the car, Tommy reclines the passenger seat so I can snooze. I let him, but I daren’t doze off in case I snore. Besides, my mind’s too busy: in Mother’s Own Country, and on her birthday, my thoughts belong to her.
I’ve been reckless. Got carried away like a girl. Tortured myself with that damned vibrator, as if virginity were the issue. I should’ve spent today as I’ve spent all Mum’s birthdays: under the duvet with a book.
You’ll have to come in two years’ time, she cackles. It’s a biggie.
I won’t. I’ll see her, as I do every year, in the papers or on TV.
There’s nowhere to hide, so don’t think it. Them reporters have ways of winkling you out.
Some bright spark will try to stage a mother-child reunion if the oldest woman in England lives to a hundred and ten. But Tommy will protect me. Take me far beyond the media’s reach. Two years from now, I’ll feel robust enough to confess.
Will our relationship prosper, if it’s founded in deceit? My mother advised building marriage on artifice, but wasn’t that a lie?
How to explain without appearing callous? Or inferring my head’s as dodgy as my hip? It’s unnatural being scared of my mother. Obscene rejecting the woman I owe my life. My advanced age lowers the likelihood of being outed. Hers intensifies the disgrace if I am. Will Tommy ditch me if I disclose that my mother’s alive, but I don’t see her? Except as a national treasure on TV.
The tick of the indicator and crunch of tyres on gravel jolt me awake before I’m aware I’ve nodded off. “We’re here,” says Tommy. “Are you ready for afternoon tea?”
He stops the car. Through the windscreen, wisteria drapes a sandstone wall. “We made it in time?”
As Tommy unbuckles his seat belt, I prepare my stomach for gluten, my mouth for tooth-tingling jam. Is this what having a partner means: fasting when you’re hungry and feasting when you’re not? Yet our appetites tallied at that Chinese meal.
I’m wriggling out of the car when Tommy takes my arm. “You needn’t be so independent,” he scolds.
Now, I understand: men find strength in women’s weakness. Living alone, with no-one else to rely on, I’d blocked the principal lesson of my girlhood. Tommy would love to shield me from my mother. I only have to ask.
With his assistance, I haul myself out onto the forecourt. Rub my hip until I’m confident it won’t collapse. “Tommy, there’s something I should’ve told you.” It’s a gamble, but silence is worse: if I’m tetchy, Tommy should know it’s not his fault.
“No problemo. You can tell me over tea.”
Inside, my heels sink into the carpet. The staircase could’ve come from Downton Abbey; the coat-of-arms above the reception desk too. Tommy inclines his head towards a door. “Have a seat in the lounge while I get checked in.”
“I ought to freshen up first.”
“There isn’t time to go upstairs.” Is he indifferent to my appearance, or simply ravenous? Nevertheless, I have my standards. The receptionist directs me to the loos.
Pastel tissues, cotton-wool balls, single-use terry towels, perfumed soap and hand-cream: as sumptuous as the Ladies’ in my beloved John Lewis. Cloned by legions of mirrors, my face is more lived-in than jaded. As I embellish the exterior, I remind my reflection of the scars underneath.
Not every mother is the wellspring of loving. Mine thought loving the job of her child. And I was a dutiful daughter. Before I could talk, I’d slain my own desires.
Brushing mascara through my eyelashes, I conjure Tommy across a tiered cake stand.
Friends were unwelcome. Boyfriends taboo. I stayed at home, doing her bidding, growing stale. When I realised I wanted her dead so I could live, I cut the cord.
Having touched up my lipstick, I clamp cherry kisses on a tissue and toss it in a basket. One for every ten Tommy will give me when he hears my confession and absolves me from my sin.
Even after thirty years’ estrangement, I quake at the thought of bumping into her. Like a Venus flytrap, she’d lure me in. I’d melt into her. Be reabsorbed.
Tommy won’t let her. I exit the Ladies’ Room keen to embark on the next stage of our affair.
My hero rises from the shadows of the entrance hall. “Come on, everyone’s waiting.”
Everyone? As we shuffle along, arms linked, Tommy seems tense. Am I to meet his family? I’m glad I powdered my nose.
Opening a rosewood door, Tommy steps aside to usher me through. The chatter halts as people swivel in their seats. As I try to match them to Tommy’s Facebook photos, I hope I look agreeable.
Blinded by a camera flash, I stagger. Why didn’t I bring my stick? But now Tommy, dear Tommy, is beside me, guiding me towards a wizened woman enthroned on a high-backed chair. A glittery banner on the wall behind her: CONGRATULATIONS 110 TODAY! Didn’t he say his mother was dead?
As he leads me through a funnel of beaming faces, it dawns on me they’re not Tommy’s relatives. My mouth dries, my palms swim with sweat, but I’ll be all right, won’t I? You have to flout your fears to be free.
I can tolerate Tommy discovering I’ve held things back from him. I can tolerate Mum deceiving her own daughter about her age. I can tolerate missing my chance to tell my side of the story, as long as I can have my dirty weekend.
As I’m pushed towards my mother, a man brandishing a notebook blocks our path. A reporter to snatch a quote, I presume, yet he ignores me to pump Tommy’s hand. “Thanks, Baz, I owe you.”
Baz? Baz! There’s nothing wrong with my hearing, but Tommy doesn’t flinch. In the press, they’ll show Mum’s triumph, and my grimace, airbrushed into old-fogey versions of joy. But the internet will favour the unadulterated version. With sound effects. My plaintive howl at Tommy doing the dirty on me. Over and over, on an infinite loop.