mothers


This is Tom’s mother from Promises Made Under Fire. Very different kettle of fish from Mrs. S.

Mother met me at the station, full of smiles and news. Father’s back playing up, her head much better, thank you, scandal about the neighbour’s son, who’d somehow mysteriously moved to Ireland.

“And your friend Ben—he asked me to apologise for his not being here to meet you but the silly boy’s gone and got mumps.” She slipped her arm in mine. “So he’s strictly persona non grata.”

She didn’t need to add why—any of my platoon could have told you the risk to a man’s wedding tackle. What the hell had I done to get such a run of luck?

“Have you any plans? Apart from rattling around at home?” Mother squeezed my arm, her hand seeming so tiny against my uniform coat. I patted it.

“I’ve a commission to fulfil. No, don’t worry.” I patted her hand again. “It’s not the army. You remember Foden?”

Of course she did, the way she paled at the mention of the name and gripped my arm tighter. She’d have remembered my tears, too. I hailed a cab and carried on. “He left a letter asking me to make some visits on his behalf. Least I can do.”

“You always were a good lad,” Mother said as we bundled into the cab and gave the driver our address.

Good lad I might be, but I wasn’t looking forward to doing this particular duty. “He wanted me to visit his mother,” I said, looking out of the window, unseeing. “Do you think I should write to her and make an initial introduction, rather than just turn up on her doorstep?”

“It would depend on her character. If it were to bring her distress rather than comfort, she might prefer one dose of it.”

Only one dose of discomfort for me, too; I’d forgotten how wise Mother was. “I have no idea. She’s a cook, up in London.”

“A cook?” A brief look—surprise tinged with quickly hidden disdain—crossed her face.

“It will have hurt her as much to lose her son as it would the lady of the household.” The anger I felt shocked me.

“I’m sorry. You’re quite right. You’ve always said that bullets don’t make any social distinctions.” She suddenly produced a mischievous smile. “And since the ‘to do’ with the lad next door, even Father says you can’t tell how brave someone is from the school he went to. He’s very proud of you, you know.”

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Ah, mothers. Every hero has one—or does he? It’s a sad fact that for most of the time in which historical fiction is set, it wasn’t uncommon for mothers to say a final farewell to their sons rather sooner than we’d hope in today’s world of antibiotics and modern hygiene.

And as if childbearing itself weren’t perilous enough in less enlightened times, there’s the further danger of narrative demands—after all, where would Harry Potter have been, if his parents had lived? Not, one suspects, the star of seven ever-more-bricklike tomes. In fact the number of fictional orphans is so suspiciously high, one might be tempted to suspect some sort of juvenile murder ring going on.

But never fear. The fictional historical mother isn’t extinct, merely somewhat endangered. And often, due to the smaller circles in which people moved in former times, rather more closely involved in her son’s life than might be the case nowadays, both in happy times:

PoachersFall_postcard_front_DSP

Mam came bustling down from upstairs, looking bright herself in her Sunday best. “Oh, that’s a beauty, Danny. Will you stay for supper with us now?” There was a furrow in her brow as she said it, so Danny reckoned he knew what the answer had better be. – Keeper’s Pledge

And also in times of worry:

“Mam, you know me and him have been, well, close?”

She nodded, tight-lipped. It wasn’t something they ever spoke of.

“I think it’s over, Mam. I can’t risk my job, not when like as not he’ll be looking for a reason to fire me. What’d we do then?” He tried to keep his voice steady, Lord knew, but the pain was too great not to let it show a little.

“Oh, Danny.” Mam put down her sewing and rose to lay a gentle hand on his arm, then gathered him to her. “Oh, love. Hush now. Don’t you worry. I’ll not say another word about it. You just do what you think is best.” – Keeper’s Pledge.

And maybe this close involvement, with children staying in the area their parents had grown up in, helped sons see a fuller picture of their mothers. Including the astonishing fact that mothers were once young themselves. Here’s Danny from Poacher’s Fall and Keeper’s Pledge talking to Philip about his mother:KeepersPledge_postcard_front_DSP

“[Mam’s] always loved having a bit of mistletoe in the house come Christmas. Says it reminds her of how she met my da.”

“Oh? That was at Christmas? At a dance, I suppose?”

“There, sir, you’d be supposing wrong. See, she was the second chambermaid here, back when old Mr. Luccombe was alive, God rest him. Maybe you’d remember her? Right pretty she was, by all accounts. Helen Braithwaite, as was.”

Philip shook his head absently. He’d never really paid much attention to the chambermaids.

“Any road, she’d been sent to ask the men to cut some mistletoe for the hall, here. And it happened it was my da sent to get it for her. Now, Da being Da, he tells her she’s to come with him to get it. So he takes her out into the woodland, out to that very oak tree I came a cropper on. ’Course, I reckon it’s grown a bit since then,” he added, grinning.

It seemed to be infectious. “So I suppose he shinned up the tree and fetched the mistletoe, whereupon she was duly impressed and agreed to let him court her?”

Costessey’s grin had turned wicked. “Well, she never did go into detail, mind. But they were wed the following Easter, and I was born in time for harvest that year.” – Poacher’s Fall.

Which leads us on to another aspect of mothers. One of the perks of having grown-up (or nearly grown-up) children is, of course, being able to embarrass them and/or anyone they bring home to meet the parents. Here’s the reserved George meeting his friend Matthew’s mother for the first time in Dulce et Decorum Est:

DulceetDecorumLG

Matthew’s mother was an unusually tall woman, thin as a beanpole and as energetic as a whippet. She greeted her son with a kiss that left him with powder on his shoulder and a faint lipstick mark on his cheek. She then proceeded to bestow the same honor upon George, rather to his discomfort. “Welcome to our home, dear. So glad that Matthew’s found such a good friend in London—a mother does worry so, particularly when—”

“Mother!”Dulce et Decorum Est

***

JL Merrow is that rare beast, an English person who refuses to drink tea.  She read Natural Sciences at Cambridge, where she learned many things, chief amongst which was that she never wanted to see the inside of a lab ever again.  Her one regret is that she never mastered the ability of punting one-handed whilst holding a glass of champagne.

JL Merrow is a member of the UK GLBTQ Fiction Meet organising team.

7-December 1855
Dear Hohenheim,

It seems that a vast period of time has passed.  Another vision ensues.  I see myself in youth, curled into the hard windowseat that looks down into the Hauptmarkt from my room, and occasionally the front door rattles  as a customer enters or leaves.  It is my birthday, and I am ten years old.  Held in my hands is the too-difficult text of Byron’s Manfred, not yet available to me in German, and so I labor over the English original.  Why must he be so metaphorical?  Can he not, for my sake, use less flowery words, so that I am not constantly jumping up to the dictionary?  As I study, a sound comes to my ears.  It is my mother, singing.  She must be brushing her hair, now.  I am drawn away from the puzzling beauty of Byron’s verse to the irresistible beauty of her voice.  She does this because she knows I am listening.

I wander down the main stair, toward the singing voice as it grows louder and more compelling to my ear, and as I do, I realize that something impossible is happening.   It is I, indeed, and I am yet ten, but the angelic voice of my mother is singing “Der Gärtner” which I did not compose until 1842! nor publish until 1851.  Then – the singer cannot be my mother, else she herself composed it in 1820 or before,  and I took it down later from memory.  But this cannot be, because I, here in the finalized Present, know that my mother never composed a tune nor invented any single piece of music, and she learned anew only what I wrote, and then only my student compositions; for my true work did not come until later.  So it cannot be.

By the time I reach the bottom of the staircase I behold the beautiful newness of the paint, the grand doors that lead into what is no longer my father’s shop but is now a concert hall!  Just as had been done to Ha’s library in the Future!  This is my house, indeed, and on what is now a stage, where once lay stacks of cartons of books and Zeitungen, there stands in slimmer guise, with wildly loose hair running free, my mother!  Practicing with a chamber quartett!  She never wore such a seductive coiffure in 1820, certainly!  This is my birthday indeed, for I see she is rehearsing this concert as a gift to me.  I enter the room, and milling about are others, dressed for the concert, listening to the rehearsal as they arrange flowers near the stage, and set the chairs in the hall.  It must be some hours beforehand.

I stand rapt, listening.  The casements are finished in beautifully polished blond wood, the walls shine with bright stucco, new-applied.  The Flügel on the stage shines with a rich sheen.  This Future is wealthy beyond the dreams of the greediest composer’s avarice! And this room, yet another shrine to chamber music.

Do you vouchsafe for me this vision as answer to the pages of bitter regret just past, Hohenheim?  For what could touch me more deeply, or move me more joyously than to see my mother once again, so radiant?  In voice, perfect, sweetly singing a piece I had composed specifically in her memory?

There is a joy in me difficult to contain, now, for I love her utterly.  She is the incarnate presence of the Angel, to me.  Despite her moods and petulances, she never said single word of harshness to me.  She loved me unrelentingly, constantly.  She told me once that she had prayed in song to God to send her an angelic child, to bring her inspiration to sing, and she knew when she was confined with me, that she had Song within her.  During that pregnancy she sang continually.

She, my Beloved, was my first Song, and I ill tolerated parting from her.  Oh joy, mixed with sorrow!  For here, again, she stands.  No more than five and twenty years old, and if possible, her voice more brilliantly colored.  And standing at the door, invisible in the Ghost Realm, I weep for the soul-stirring vision of her..

It is my birthday.

The moment chimes, the audience – a hundred, more! pack into the room, some with flowers in hand, with smiles, greybeard men, grey-haired women, youths, and here and there a serious-faced child – a violinist the one, another a pianist.  I can read it in their faces.  Students at the Konservatorium.

Since when has this dull town had a musical Konservatorium, I wonder?  Oh dear, it is named for me! I learn.  The house, the plaza, the school… how incredibly embarrassing.  To go from obscure neglect to a cult-like fame in death.  A man should never live to see himself become a figure of reverence.  It is not me, it was never me… erect monument instead to the faceless Angel of the Wellspring!

From Lessons in Discovery. Orlando has lost his memory following an accident and can’t remember what Jonty’s Mama is like. He has a shock coming.

“Jonathan! Orlando!”

A voice that seemed to have been designed to penetrate concrete at two hundred yards rang through the college court. It was Sunday morning and the broomstick had obviously landed successfully. Its arrival had been anticipated by the two fellows so they were lurking around to greet the pilot.

“Mother,” Jonty whispered to his companion, before saying in a tone as hearty as hers, “Mama! You’re looking ridiculously well. What has the doctor been giving you to make you look so young?” He was scooped up into his mother’s arms and had the breath squeezed out of him.

“Looking thin again, dear.” Mrs. Stewart always seemed to think that her son was on the brink of starvation, even though he was more muscular and well set up now than he had been this last year. “Dr. Coppersmith, you look positively emaciated.” She grabbed Orlando and squashed any answer out of him, too.

Orlando was stunned. His own mother had never shown any such physical affection for him and the perfume-soaked, genial embraces of this ample lady were a complete shock. He knew he’d met her before although he had no recollection of the events and he’d no time now for reflection, with Mrs. Stewart thrusting an arm through those of both her son and his thin and starving friend and insisting that they go immediately to the Blue Boar for a jolly good feed.

She was most sympathetic over lunch, a meal taken in a quiet room away from the noisy masses so that the recovering invalid shouldn’t be overwhelmed. She’d asked, with great concern, about Orlando’s condition, gently talking him through the times he’d been her guest, the pleasure it had given her to receive him. “Because it has always been a delight to us whenever Jonathan has brought you home. I think of you rather like a son now, which of course must seem very odd today when you no doubt regard me as a stranger. But one day you’ll remember everything, dear, and then it will be like old times.” She beamed.

Orlando thought how much Mrs. Stewart resembled Jonty and how lovely she must have been at the same age. A sudden, small voice in his head informed him that his friend was beautiful now and when he looked at Jonty he realised it was quite true, which was another terrible shock. He had never really considered before whether anyone was eye-catching and he’d now done it for two people within a minute.

They finished their meal with a wealth more gossip and made their way back to Jonty’s set for a cup of tea to refresh them and to give Orlando a chance to collect his thoughts.

Mrs. Stewart insisted that there was nowhere better to take a cup than in front of one’s own fire. She was now ensconced on Jonty’s sofa and her thoughts ran to old acquaintances.

“So you met old George le Tissier on Jersey. I wonder if he remembers me?”

“I don’t think that anyone would ever forget you, Mama.”

“Especially true in this case. Not my most shining moment, Jonathan, I positively disgraced myself.” Mrs. Stewart blushed, something that seemed out of character.

“Whatever did you do?” Their interest was piqued, their appetite whetted at the thought of what revelation might come from this lady’s lips. Jonty in particular was intrigued at the thought of his mother disgracing herself in any way.

“It was a grand ball. A very big occasion, all the handsomest young men were going to be there, including George who was a subaltern at the time. Not that I had eyes for any of them except your father—that’s why I was so excited. Richard Stewart was going to be present and we’d arranged in advance to have several dances together. Got out my best bib and tucker and set off. Within a quarter of an hour of arriving there, a young man I’d taken a waltz with, I can’t remember his name, the ill-favoured surly thing.” She glanced surreptitiously at the often surly thing on her left but he was looking remarkably sweet and kind today. “Anyway, he drew me off into a corner, said he’d never loved anyone the way he adored me, proposed a marriage within three months and when I refused to take up his offer, threatened to kill himself. I spent twenty-five minutes trying to talk him out of it. Meant that I missed my first dance with your father, so I was rather miffed. When I tracked Richard down to apologise he hooted with laughter. He said he knew the chap and that he’d done the same thing numerous times—the suicide threat was all a big bluff of course. I was livid. Your father had to hold my hand and try to get me to calm down. I was all for going and tweaking the chap’s ear, but I suppose the hand-holding made it all worthwhile.”

“It always does.” Jonty smirked slightly and there was a suggestion of a blush on Orlando’s cheeks. How odd, Jonty reflected, wondering if the embarrassment was due to subconscious memories.

Mrs. Stewart sailed on undaunted. “Then blow me down if three dances later a similar thing didn’t happen, though I remember the chap’s name this time. Samuel Parker, and he was a toe-rag. We were walking through the portrait gallery at the back of the house en route to get an ice when he plighted his troth. I gave him the old ‘thank you but no thank you’ and he pulled me behind the arras—I can see you sniggering, Jonty and it doesn’t become you—and started to take the grossest liberties. All he got was a black eye—it was a real shiner, I was rather proud of myself—and he departed. Then I had to go and find Richard again and explain why I’d been late for our next dance. Had the suspicion that he thought your dear mama was a bit of a flibbertigibbet, but he held my hand once more and called me his ‘dear little peach’. I can see you smirking again, Jonty, and if it happens a third time I will have no hesitation in taking you across my knee and spanking you. Anyway, I was furious, furious beyond all measure. So when poor George le Tissier came up all beaming with excitement and asked for my hand, I forgot myself entirely. It was pent-up anger, and I am not proud of myself. Now, are you ever going to make me that cup of tea or will you watch your poor mother sit here, wasting away parched and drained?”

“Mother, I won’t even put the kettle on until you tell me what you did that was so bad.”

“Laid him out, dear. One great big punch and goodnight sweetheart. Now that ends that trifling matter and you need to address the greater one of my desiccated throat.”

When Mrs. Stewart was watered sufficiently to be able to attempt the return journey, Summerbee, the porter, found a cab (she wasn’t inclined to fly the broom). With many a kiss, hug and wave she was sent on her way.

Here’s the old warhorse herself, Mrs. Stewart, in surprisingly mellow mood, expressing her Mothering Sunday wishes for her son, Jonty.

To Jonty, aged 4

I wish you joy, my golden child, laughter and happiness and length of days.
I wish you sunshine, in skies as blue as your eyes. Snow to play in, wind to fly kites, mud and grass and cold salt sea.
I wish you someone at your side to share them all.

To Jonty, aged 14

I wish you strength to fight whatever ails you, my boy who once laughed so readily.
I wish you courage to share it; with someone, if not with us.
I wish you the return of your smile.

To Jonty, aged 24

I wish you a sense of direction, my lad, a new beginning.
I wish you a companion to share the journey, a hand at your elbow and a smile at your side.
I wish you someone for whom you are the whole world, but who’d never make you aware of the fact.

To Jonty, aged 34

What do I have left to wish you?
I wish you health and length of days, of course, a warm hearth and a table set with food.
But you have all that any man could desire, in the person who sits in the chair beside yours.