Mum’s Little Black Book
My sister is so bossy; she clutches her handbag in a firm grip. Her beady eyes spy a short, balding man wearing an airport uniform and a pair of huge, thick rimmed glasses.
“Hey, how much longer is our plane going to be delayed? We can’t be late!” she waves her boarding pass at him.
I don’t bother to watch what follows or listen to their conversation; he has a low, squeaky voice and my sister is a bit deaf. Destined for disaster. Instead, I stare up at the flight board and see that our plane just says ‘delayed’ beside it. I don’t think Naomi haranguing the poor airport worker is going to make it suddenly be ready to board. I grab my phone from my bag and text my brother Charles to let him know we are still at the airport. His quick reply tells me he is not pleased. I start to play a game of Candy Crush Saga to take my mind off what is waiting for us when we get to Spain.
“Well, he was no use at all! I can’t believe the lack of customer service these days!”
She marches over to where I am sitting and plonks herself next to me nudging my arm and I know my game is over. I try and placate her and, in my head, I am pleading for the signal for us to board our plane to flash up.
Four hours later we have flown from a bitterly cold and wet Bristol to arrive in a warm and quiet Spanish Airport in Alicante. Charles is waiting for us to take us back to his house, he looks tired and drawn. His tan is looking a reddish brown and his greying hair is stuck up as though he just got out of bed. He doesn’t say much because Naomi is moaning about the flight delay, the fact she feels too hot and the general state of the universe. He’s a good driver though and we arrive at his place without incident. My older sister Bess, practical and sturdy is the best way to describe her; is pleased to see us.
“You’re here! Go in and see mum, she’s been sleeping this morning, not eating or drinking much these last 24 hours. I think she is near to the end.”
Naomi strides in and I follow feeling gloomy and not sure whether I want to see my mum in her final hours.
“Mum, it’s Naomi and Harriet here!”
My mum rouses slightly, looks straight at us and says,
“Hello Flossy”, then goes back to sleep.
I sit on the edge of her bed as there is nowhere else to sit in the tiny bedroom. I place a hand on one of hers and she pulls hers away, typical manoeuvre mother, I think. I don’t try and hold it again and turn to look at Naomi who is now in tears. She rallies and says in jilted tones,
“Can I get you anything mum?”
We don’t expect an answer, but she says,
“Baileys and get me my little black book.”
Bess had appeared at the door and hears this; she is a nurse and decides that as mum is pretty much 'end of life', a little Baileys won’t hurt her.
“What little black book does she want Naomi?” I ask.
“Who knows, she used to have a black address book; or did she have one for all her lovers when she was young?” she replies narkily.
Bess enters with a large beaker of Baileys and a straw, so I ask her the same question.
“I’m not sure, you don’t suppose it’s the one she used to write all our little funny sayings when we were kids do you? I came across it in her handbag when I was looking for something the other day.”
I move out of the way so Bess can lean over to get mum to sip from the straw. Mum seems barely conscious but manages to take a sip, lick her lips and comment how lovely it tastes.
She doesn’t want any more than two sips and her eyes haven’t fully opened. She sinks back into the bed and takes her last breath.
We look at each other and Bess rubs one of our shoulders each as she stands between Naomi and me.
“Well, that’s that then!” Naomi cries and starts to sob noisily.
Bess takes her out of the bedroom, and I give mum a kiss on her forehead and silently wish her well in the next world. I leave as Charles’ voice at the door says,
“I can’t go in. I don’t want my last picture of her as a dead person.”
He doesn’t mean to be uncaring, it’s just his way of coping. He has been looking after mum for the past two years. He will be the most cut up out of all of us. I rub his arm as I pass him and give him a little reassuring smile.
It’s now the following morning and my siblings are all hungover having finished off a large bottle of `brandy between them; I am teetotal. The vicar is due in an hour and none of us are showered and dressed. Breakfast is toast and coffee, I get in the shower instead of eating and my mind seems blank, other people’s deaths I decide numbs my brain as if it is me that has died. In fact, I pretty much feel numb all over. Mum and I didn’t have much in common, we didn’t share genes even; I am adopted. I am a black Hispanic woman who has been taunted all her life, having been brought up by an American white Caucasian family living in England. I get ready as quickly as I can muster and pull on a dress. Charles and Bess seem to be joking about something as they are giggling when I emerge into the lounge again.
“What are you two laughing about?” I ask
“Bess just farted and said it was mum!”
“He’s lying, it was him! Honestly!!”
I laugh, the family humour is usually all about farts, taking the piss out of each other and my mum’s lack of cooking skills. I am glad they can laugh, and I counter with,
“I still rather we called them Puskies, do you remember how mum used to lift her buttock before letting rip and then blame the dog when we were younger?”
They laugh and when Naomi appears, she joins in, despite herself. I suggest we had better compose ourselves as the vicar is due. They like to bury the dead quickly in Spain, within five days.
The vicar is English, looking after his community of ex-pats. He is a tall, pappy, father like figure with a mild manner and engaging smile. We are sat along Charles’ sofa which fills the small lounge. I am sat at one end and the vicar sits next to me on a plastic chair brought in from the patio. He asks how we all are, and we soberly nod and reply appropriately as he tells us about stuff I can no longer remember. I don’t think I was paying much attention. As he finishes what he needs to say to us, he goes to get up and I lean across towards him and say in hushed tones,
“They’ve just told me I’m adopted; I don’t believe it!” I put a pained expression on my face.
He looks alarmed and says goodbye to the room as he makes a quick exit and tells us they will be arriving to collect mum soon.
My siblings think my comment to him is hilarious and I am quite proud as it just happened unplanned and made me giggle inside.
After a walk and later that evening, we are in good spirits, it has been ages since any of us have spent any time together without partners and kids.
That balmy evening, Charles decides it’s time to share out mum’s jewellery and little effects. It’s like a bloody snatch raffle, I ask for a couple of little bits and then he produces mum’s little black book. He starts to read from it.
“April 1968 Harriet, Mummy F off, Daddy F off, Bibby F off. December 1969 Bess, I don’t want to wear God’s stockings, he smells. March 1970 Charles, Why did the chicken cross the road? To get a burger.”
He reads all the way through to the end, every comical memory my mum wanted to keep in her little black book. It is reassuring and lifts our spirits as it reminds us of what a funny mum she had been. Her last entry has us all puzzled and crying though. Charles reads it out,
“January 2014, ‘$20,000 for one of my babies as they make me laugh louder than I have ever laughed before. The winner is in my will. Let all my children know, even in death that I love them and thank them for the many laughs we have had together.”
We are all a bit teary eyed at this and Charles choked out the last sentence with a bright red face.
“She’s probably laughing at you blaming your smelly farts on her still, even when the poor woman’s dead.” I say looking at Charles and trying to lighten our moods again.
“I’m going to copy all the pages of her little black book for us all to have a copy of these memories.” Naomi says and takes it from the table.
“Funny how she talked about dollars after living in England all these years and latterly in Spain. I could do with that, help me with getting all those university fees for my two paid off.” Bess sighs.
“I really need a new car, mine is on its last legs and I need a holiday!” Charles says wistfully.
Two months later when we are contacted by a solicitor, we are gathered in their office in Portsmouth to listen to my mum’s will. He drones on about how she wants her estate left and it seems it is pretty much equal shares. He pauses and says,
“I believe you have probably read her little black book; she had instructed me to sell a certain very rare, platinum, diamond ring which has been held in a safe in a bank in Boston. It was an engagement ring from a man she met out there when your father was away working in Ireland. Your mum was going to leave your father for him and then he vanished from her life without a word. She kept the ring to accumulate value and give to you Harriet. It was worth $20,000 and that is what it has been sold for. It has been her secret for many years. The reason it has been left to Harriet is because your mum met a pregnant woman in Boston not long after this man disappeared, she was worried about being able to look after her baby when it arrived as she had been left by the baby’s father. Turned out the baby was fathered by the man who had proposed to your mother. That baby was you, your mum adopted you knowing you were his baby and whilst she grew to despise him; she always loved you and thought it was really funny that no-one knew her secret and especially not her husband. She has left the money to you with the caveat that you use some of it to track down your natural mother and go and see her in Boston. She has left some information she also kept about the woman.”
We are all open-mouthed, speechless.
“So, your dad could have been our stepdad Harriet! That’s awesome!” Bess breaks the silence and laughs long and hard at the look on my face.