“I hope you’ve not put too much store on Mark coming, Mother,”
Oh dear. It’s “Mother”, not “Mum”, thought Louisa. That meant she was either in trouble, or Eleanor wanted to make sure she understood the importance of something, or sometimes both. She supposed it served her right. When her daughter was growing up she had always said “Eleanor” rather than “Ellie” in such circumstances. The irony was, she now only answered to Eleanor anyway.
She’s such an old woman. Louisa had to stifle a chuckle at the brass nerve of that thought, considering she was a hundred. Even though she’d had Eleanor late, “on the change” as folk said then, she was an old woman. It was more of a state of mind than anything to do with looks or fitness.
She loved Eleanor dearly. Of course she did. But weren’t unexpected late children supposed to be irresponsible and self-indulgent, and skittish? Fair enough, that wouldn’t be entirely attractive in a woman who had celebrated her own 60th birthday. But she hadn’t been much different when she was 16, not 60.
Louisa had been a strict mother, when she had to be, and had no time at all for meanness or wastefulness. But she had been determined, with Eleanor and her older brother and sister, not to make the mistakes her own mother had.
She couldn’t say her mother was really unkind. Widowed early, she had provided for her children, and unlike many of their generation, they had never “felt the back of her hand” as the saying went. She cared for them when they were ill, and stuck up for them if other children bullied them. They were expected to do plenty of chores, but not slave-driven. But she was one of life’s carpers. That was truly the only way to put it. And she had little sayings that made Louisa want to scream. One of them was “Do you think that table” (or it could be that floor, or that carpet, or whatever) “will clean itself?” Another, if a child pouted or just had a grimace, was “If you don’t change your face, the wind’ll change and it will stick.” But above all else, Louisa hated the phrase “Your promises are like pie-crust” – she had probably added “easily broken” at one point, but it soon ceased to be necessary.
Of course, like all children, Louisa and her siblings sometimes broke their promises, often just through carelessness or forgetfulness. But at other times it was totally unfair. Once, after a poor school report for maths (she was generally a good scholar, but not mathematically minded) she had promised her mother she’d try harder. And she genuinely had tried harder, but it was no good, especially now things like algebra were being introduced, she just couldn’t make head nor tail of it, and her next report was not a good one either. Even Mr Baines the maths teacher had given her credit for trying! But it was no good. Her mother ignored, or seemed to, all her good reports, concentrated on that one, gave one of those “more in sorrow than anger” sighs, and said, with sharp weariness. “Your promises are like pie-crust!” Another time she had broken a promise not to dawdle home from school – but it wasn’t her fault – she had run into old Mrs Rowan, and her mother had told her she must talk to her and be polite to her. But she still wasn’t home in time to help prepare supper, and her promises were like pie- crust.
I will never, ever, use that phrase with any children I have, she decided, before she even left school, and though she was the first to admit she was never a perfect mother, that most definitely wasn’t a pie-crust promise, and she kept it.
And much good did it do her, at least as far as Eleanor was concerned. She supposed there was nothing weird about it, she must have picked it up from her grandmother, though on the surface the two of them didn’t seem especially close. But they weren’t the kind of people who made a song and dance out of such matters (another favourite phrase) anyway. The first time she heard it, she didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. A schoolfriend had promised to lend her a book, and hadn’t brought it in that day. “Her promises are like pie-crust!” Eleanor said, with a censorious twist to her lips and that slight hint of a whine in her voice. In a way she sounded so much like her grandmother it was funny – and yet Louisa felt a sense of foreboding!
Andrew was twelve when Eleanor was born, and Janine was ten. They were somewhat flabbergasted to discover Mum was expecting again, but took it remarkably well and without any great jealousy. Janine, especially, was the “little mother” type, and a genuine help. Louisa had to admit that Eleanor was an easy baby. At least, she often slept through, and didn’t writhe and whimper too much when her nappy was being changed. But the trouble was – and Louisa hated to admit it, even to herself, that though she loved Eleanor, like Andrew and Janine, more dearly than life itself, as she began to grow up, it wasn’t always easy to like her.
I’m being ridiculous, she often told herself. She’s easily the best-behaved of my children. Andy has a hasty temper on him, and Jan is too come-day go-day (oh dear – one of her mother’s expressions!). It’s totally unfair to think like this! But though she told him off roundly for being mean about his little sister, inside she couldn’t help agreeing with a seventeen year old Andy when he said, “Mum, she can be such an insufferable little prig!”
Though there had never been any great argument or rift, and birthday and Christmas cards and an occasional holiday postcard were duly exchanged, Eleanor was never close to her older siblings. It was easy just to blame the age gap, but Louisa knew it was more than that.
Yet Eleanor was the only one of her children who was there on her hundredth birthday. Andy had died far too young – stomach cancer, discovered too late – and Janine, a grandmother herself now, lived in Canada. She had meant to come and was heartbroken she couldn’t, but a family crisis had turned up at the last moment. Louisa had kept up with the times, and they’d had a talk on Skype, but it still wasn’t the same.
Contrary to her brother and sister’s expectations, Eleanor wasn’t an old maid. Well, that expression was dying out now, and good riddance to it, thought Louisa. A happy marriage was a wonderful thing, but so was being independent. But Eleanor had married a work colleague (she worked for an insurance brokers) called Ralph. When she overheard someone saying at least it stopped two other folk being miserable, Louisa knew she should have intervened and angrily rushed to her daughter and son-in-law’s defence, but she didn’t. She actually thought it was quite funny – which she knew was utterly shameful!
Eleanor wasn’t exactly a beautiful bride, but on the surface she was undeniably pleasing to look at. She was slight in build, but had good posture, and had wisely chosen a simple ivory dress. In her heart she thought veils were stuff and nonsense, but she also had a great regard for convention, and had a small, well-tamed veil. If only she’d left her hair down, Louisa thought, even now, as she looked at the wedding photos, not had it in that neat little bun. The whole ceremony had the air of a business transaction, and yet, as Louisa knew, in their own way Eleanor and Ralph did love each other.
Like her mother, she had a very late baby. Mark was her only child, though. Louisa often wondered if they had meant to remain childless – it certainly hadn’t seemed to call them any distress.
Both his parents were good-looking, so it was no surprise that Mark was a handsome little boy – he had his mother’s shiny dark brown hair, and his father’s blue-green eyes. He was bright, too, and what folk often called a winning child.
But Louisa sighed as she saw echoes of her own childhood crushing that winning little boy. Oh, he was never ill-treated. But there are more ways of quelling a child’s spirit than smacking him or sending him to bed without supper.
She had always determined not to be the kind of grandmother who interfered, but sometimes she couldn’t help saying, “Ellie….”
“Eleanor, if you don’t mind!”
“Eleanor, I know you’ll say it’s none of my business, but couldn’t you go a bit easier on him?”
Eleanor didn’t actually say that it was none of her business, but she might as well have done. “Mother, he has you wound round his little finger, and you don’t see his faults.”
“Of course he has faults! He’s a child, not an angel!”
“I know that perfectly well. But with respect, Mother, you’re not the one who has to see his teacher when he repeatedly doesn’t do his homework, or has to pick up after him. He might be able to charm the birds out of the trees, but he ought to have his feet more firmly on the ground!” For someone who prided herself on being practical and had little time for whimsy, Eleanor could certainly mix her metaphors! “And his promises ….” Oh, don’t say it, Louisa silently pleaded, please don’t say it. “Are like pie-crust.”
The trouble was, as Mark grew older, she could, reluctantly, see at least some of what Eleanor meant. Mark wasn’t a shallow person, but he often seemed to skim along the surface of life, not putting down any roots, not finding – or wishing to find – any stability. He was highly intelligent, but barely scraped a 2.2. In itself, Louisa didn’t think that by any means the catastrophe that Eleanor did, though it was a shame. She wholly approved of university education opening up to more and more people, but also knew it was entirely possible to live a rich and fulfilled life without having been to university at all – and perhaps Eleanor and Ralph (well, primarily Eleanor, who always wore the trousers) should not have stopped him following his heart and going to drama school.
But now, as she waited for Mark to come and see her on her hundredth birthday, as he had promised, she admitted to herself, not for the first time, that though they had probably gone about it the wrong way, they were right in saying he was no Olivier. He had joined the local amateur dramatic society, and watching their performances, Louisa, who could be clear-sighted even about those she most loved, had to admit that though he had good diction and learnt his lines easily enough, his talent was a relatively slight and – well – facile one.
He drifted from job to job, rarely struggling to find one, but often to keep one. Louisa couldn’t quite recall when she had first heard the expression “man-child” – but she rather wished she hadn’t, because she couldn’t help associating it with Mark.
Yet that only made her regard him with an even greater, sometimes ferocious but – yes, sometimes frustrated tenderness.
They’d had a heart to heart a few weeks ago, after he had lost his last job – a good one, too, in IT – after turning up late once too often.
Rarely, she had shed a few tears, and rarely, so had he. He had made two promises – that he would finally try to make something of his life, before it really was too late, and that he would most certainly come to visit her on her hundredth birthday.
Even Eleanor had to admit, that for all his faults, he was kind-hearted enough, though she always felt the need to add, “Which is all well and good, but a grown man needs to have some sense of responsibility and not think people are always going to excuse him everything.”
Louisa had reluctantly given in and moved into sheltered accommodation a couple of years ago, but it had worked out rather well. If it wasn’t quite, despite what the brochures said, like a hotel (which was fine as she was concerned – hotels were wonderful on holiday, but not as a permanent thing) it was a bright, comfortable complex, where the residents who were capable (and she most certainly was!) were able to live independent lives, just with help on hand if they needed it. She still thought wistfully of her little cottage sometimes, but was happy at Sherbourne House, and had made friends. They had gathered along with Eleanor and a couple of staff members to celebrate her birthday. She had made it plain she didn’t want any huge parties and most certainly didn’t want the press there. Though not an especial monarchist, the telegram from the Queen had been rather nice! But she wanted Mark to be there! Wanted to see him stride in, that infectious grin on his face. He had promised! Stop it, she told herself. Stop being so whiney.
“A young gentleman to see you, Louisa!” Smiling broadly herself, Harriet, the receptionist, ceremoniously escorted Mark into the room. He gave his grandmother a bear hug and handed over a huge bunch of carnations, her favourite flowers.
“I’m sorry I’m a bit late, Gran,” he said, “But for once in my life –“ he gave his mother an impish look, “I have a good reason. I had to take a phone-call to give some details – yes, they could have picked a better time, but they weren’t to know. I’ve enrolled to train as a teacher – English and Drama – as a mature student.” Suddenly his face was serious. “This is something I really want to do, and one chance I’m not going to waste.”
There was a silence in the room that was only brief, but seemed to suspend time. It was Eleanor who broke it – and Louisa felt her heart singing as she said – and she knew the words wouldn’t have come easily. “You’ll – be a good teacher, Mark. When you set your mind to it you have a real knack for explaining things.”
Perhaps a pie-crust promise isn’t always a bad thing, thought Louisa. Pie-crust is sweet and can be made with love, and the delicious taste of it lingers on your tongue and in your memory.
But for once, her own expression was sterner than her daughter’s as she told Mark, “Well, you just bear that in mind! Because I have EVERY intention of being there to see you graduate!”