It’s been a quite a long time since I last visited her. Too bloody long, actually.
When I blink and think of her, she is frozen in place at high shutter speed, a tiny firecracker of a woman who would stride in to Camp Hill Primary School, clasping my little hand, and demand to read to my class (to the bemusement of my Prep teacher, who very wisely allowed this elderly dynamo to entrance our class for half an hour).
Now, as I struggle with the spring on the low gate, it feels like someone else's life. Other children’s sun-faded drawings are stuck to the sunroom glass. The pencil scratch marking my height has long ago rubbed off the front yard lamp post.
My mother is by my side, pleaded along for the visit, just in case. In case of what? If I'm honest, I've asked to her to come with me in case the woman I am visiting has finally grown old.
I push the black plastic button on the wall and a startling string of clangs bursts from inside the house. I’d forgotten the assault of that doorbell.
“Darling girl!” A familiar silhouette, dwarfed by the doorway. Heather Chatfield, or Chats, as I quickly dubbed her as a 6 year old.
She was my mother’s English lecturer, and my childhood provider of endless Tim-Tams and endless aggressive enthusiasm. She is now seventy-eight. Her faded blonde hair is arranged in vague curls around her head, and her open mouth reveals worn down bottom teeth.
“It’s our girl! And mother!” trills her deep theatrical tone. She has the voice of everyone's Aunty Beryl who smokes ten packs a day and sounds like a bloke, crossed with Bob Downe.
“Now give me a hug.” she orders, and I bend almost double to embrace her tiny figure. She holds me at arms length and purses her lips. “Let me look at you, aren’t you a beautiful girl - isn’t she beautiful, mother? Come in, now - will you have a cup of tea?” She bustles into the house and we follow. The darkness inside feels familiar; a stillness of decades in every ornament and stagnant piece of furniture.
The grandfather clock still blocks half the passage, and my Year 7 pottery sculptures (including an incredibly un-lifelike replica of an icecream sundae) still adorn the television. Chats steams through the lounge into the piano room and perches on an embroidered chair. I wonder if the piano’s Middle C still plays two notes at once. For those of you playing at home, neither of the notes are actually Middle C.
“Every time I get one of your letters,” she begins, “I go down to the
Chats presses her hands into her lap. “I don’t regret a single smoke, if they told me I was going to die tomorrow I’d buy a huge pile of them -” she throws her arms wide, “ - and smoke myself to death!”
“I don’t understand all these people clinging desperrrrately to life,” she continues, “Half the ladies down at the Red Cross are grumbling about getting old and how their medicines are prolonging this and that - I think every day after seventy is a bonus, darling, and I won’t be claiming I didn’t get enough time.”
As we finish our cups of tea she presents me with a flat, green book. “This is the latest one darling, I thought you might like a copy before you go.” Chats writes English text books for primary and secondary schools, and now, as she approaches her eightieth year, she has finished another. “Because you’re off to university this year, aren’t you? Oh, you are a clever girl.” Her lips draw back in a sneer. “Not like those girls who think they’re intellectual giants because they can say -” she bursts into a whirlwind of quotation; arms sweeping, r’s rolling, ' - ‘O wearrrry night, O long and tedious night, abate thy hours! Shine comforts from the east! That I may back to
Chats detests ‘lazy language’. God help me if I ever ended a sentence with 'with' (unless I really couldn't think of any other word to end it with). Once, aged seven, I was vigorously told off for starting two consecutive sentences with the word “Then”.
Then it’s time to leave. Then it’s hard to leave, too. But there are relatives who hold polite conversations about school to be visited, relatives who, unlike Chats, will probably not announce things like: “I’ve given up wearing a bra now, darling. I don’t see the point any more.”
We stand at the gate, and her gently trembling hands wrap around my wrists. Her blue eyes shine a bit too brightly from her pink face. “You’re a dear, clever girl, and you must visit again soon. Not very many people like me, darling, so the ones who do I drag close to me. Kicking and scrrrreaming!”
She huffs a laugh and leans closer towards me. “Don’t you let anyone stop you from doing what you want to do.” She wiggles my arms up and down. As I smile and turn to leave she pulls my face down to hers and cups her hands against my cheeks. I swallow, it feels like her eyes are pressing against my own. She square her small shoulders.
“People might try, you know. They might try to stop you doing whatever it is you want to do. Remember darling girl, if one door closes - beat it down.”