Birmingham August 10, 2007Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.
One of my aunts has died. An OK death, as deaths go, because she was 150 and in pain. So breast-beating and the throwing of selves onto funeral pyres has been kept to a minimum. Still, an excellent chance for a bit of a gossipy reminisce with my mother.
My mother has cottoned on to 2007 and globalisation and has started asking me to replenish her wardrobe thinking, probably rightly, that what I can buy here will be a lot cheaper than the same item she can buy in London. On one of her recent calls, when I assumed she was ringing to find out if the Russian had a visa – no – or if we’d decided to extend our summer stay exponentially and would in fact not bother with coming home in between and just stay on till Christmas, there was a hint of being-willing-to-make-a-demand in her voice. Being a mother of at least three hundred children – I’ve given up trying to keep up with how many siblings I have. Yes, god was involved – and of a certain age, the brashest thing she’s probably ever done is ask someone to put the kettle on for her. (Mind you, she’s also cottoned on galore to the Russian being able to cook. While my siblings sat around waiting for Sunday lunch on one of our visits – the Royal Albert Hall has to be hired out for such occasions, natch – the Russian only just managed to keep his polite-guest face on as he found himself peeling carrots (while the men checked Ceefax for football scores and the women talked curtains) (we like to obey tradition in my family. You can’t believe how pleased everyone is to have a poof on board).)
“Y’know them shoes Birkenstocks (B-I-R-K…)? I’ve had a pair but they’re after breakin’. And they’re fierce comfortable and I asked your sister to get me a new pair but you can only do it on the computer and then what if they deliver while I’m out? And they’re German and I think they’re cheaper in Germany. I’ve had gold ones but I don’t want gold. I want beige. Size 40. (I was deeply impressed at this point that she knew her Euro-size. The Russian was deeply impressed that any woman had such big feet. I explained it was our good peasanty stock. Probably cover ground more quickly in times of hunger or something.) I’ll give you the money when you come for that wedding. Youse’ll stay for a few months, won’t youse?”
The Russian and I found ourselves in the environs of the Birkenstock-trading establishment this afternoon. Found the sandals. Beige. Size 40. Ludicrously cheap. Oh, but, bugger, a buckle. “I think she wanted just a plain strap. She didn’t mention a buckle. I’ll text her and then she’ll ring tonight.”
We left the shop. “Fffffff,” vibrated my phone. A text. From my mother. Who has been asking me to teach her to text for ever. “With,” said her message, with professional texting brevity. And this from a woman who, last time I witnessed, would hold her mobile at arm’s length in case it gave her a disease and pressed the buttons to make a call with the dexterity of a two-year-old at a piano.
“Bought,” I texted back, seeing if it was a fluke and I’d got the number wrong by a digit and a wrong-number person was playing along.
“Thank you,” my phone fffffffed back.
The Russian and I decided beer was in order to cope with the rigours of the day. The Russian dashed off to wash away the dirt of the city. I texted my mother again. “You’ve learnt to text, or do you have an assistant?” “It’s me,” replied sister number 312, who I’d actually forgotten existed. “We’re just back from Auntie’s funeral in Birmingham.”
Deciding, rightly, that texting is an unsatisfactory channel of communication, my mother rang this evening. I could hardly hear her for the first twenty seconds as she guffawed about the excitement of our texting sagas. “And then the phone went off again – hysterical laughter – when I was only after putting it away. And we were on the train. I got the train from Euston and changed at Willesden Junction and then got the train to Richmond and then the bus came just as I was coming out of Richmond.” If there’s one thing my mother loves more than funerals, where she can have the satisfaction of having outlived some other dead loser, it’s buses. “And I got a seat. And then I was just after getting in and your sister (no. 903) rang. She changed at Reading and…”
“So how was the funeral?”
“It’s a lovely church. And there were bagpipes. And then there was a lovely spread after at the club. Tea and coffee. (Coffee means posh.) And cold meats.”
“And did you see Birmingham?”
“‘s awful grotty.”
“I thought they’d done it up. Does the Bullring still exist?”
“Oh, sure, it’s still grotty.”
“And was this cousin there?
“He was, and his wife. She’s lookin’ awful old.”
“How many children have they got? Were they there? What are their names?”
“And what would the children be goin’ to a funeral for? They don’t go to the funerals. Sure I can’t be rememberin’ their names. They’re very nice. Fierce good-lookin’ altogether.”
I drifted back to the early 1990s. One of the last times I’d been to Birmingham, where all of my father’s family lives and who, them being our exotic relatives, with a different accent and all, kept me and my 1033 siblings amused in our misspent London youths, between bouts of taking drugs and skateboarding, by talking like Pig from Pipkins. This trip involved my ex. His family is a tad different from mine. His father is a pianist. His mother a shrink. My father was not a pianist (by a long chalk). My mother is not a shrink (regardless of the insightfulness you may have gleaned from this post). We ended up in the same school by my parents trading up and his mother slumming it. The ex’s father was performing at Birmingham’s posh new concert hall (which my mother probably found grotty). We drove up to Birmingham with my mother. She dashed into a grotty provincial taxi, no doubt, and headed to my aunt and uncle’s place for saveloys, pickled onions and pop, and we dashed on to some Beethoven concert or other. We popped backstage afterwards to see the ex’s father, who greeted us queenily. His girlfriend, who played some blowy instrument or other, was too socially inept to say hello. We were introduced to Simon Rattle. “‘ere, Si, ‘s a fuckin’ funny surname, innit?” I hollered, before we dashed off to rejoin my mother and aunt and uncle to wallow in vinegar.
“Yow all riiiiight, nephew BiB?” inquired my aunt at the door, shuffling her decorative Zimmer frame out of the way. (We never gave her displays of illness any credence.) “Oh, and is this yer frieeeeeeeend? You’re very welcome. Have a saveloy.”
My ex did his best to look at home in his surroundings. He burped and smashed a few windows to be like other working-class people before smiling politely and looking around for approbation.
“Would yow like a noice cup of teeeeeea, BiB’s friend?” the stone-cold, snow-white, saccharine liquid being dutifully provided with a side order of pickled onions by my angelic but getting-on-for-senile uncle. “So, was yow concert noooice?”
“Oh yes, my father was playing The Emperor. We’d never heard it played quite so fast before. Sir Simon must have been in quite a hurry. Ah ha ha. Ha ha ha,” my ex said urbanely to an arena of blank looks. He burped.
“Birmingham’s grotty but a lovely place for a day out, isn’t it?” my mother commented in the car on the way home.