The prickling sensation that something was wrong started when I got off the train – seven months’ pregnant, lugging my big bag, waddling through the ticket barrier at the familiar suburban station. I looked for my father’s face, but instead saw my brother’s. ‘Where’s Dad?’ ‘He’s had to take Mam to the hospital.’ ‘On Christmas Eve?’
Mam barely ever went to the doctor; she certainly didn’t go to the hospital. Christmas Eve was the day of hunkering down. The front door would close to the world at mid-morning, and we would turn in on ourselves. The rest of the world could do church, or pub, or extended family, or whatever the hell it is other people do at Christmas; we didn’t really care.
‘Why is she at the hospital?’
‘These headaches she’s been having. They’re not going away. Dad’s really worried.’
We reached home – the house my parents had moved in to when Mam was pregnant with me. I walked into the kitchen and saw a packet of Mr Kipling mince pies on the side; shortcrust had never seemed so sinister. My mother was a stupendous cook, and spent the pre-Christmas week nursing syllabubs, steeping herbs, marinating steaks. And yet here was Mr Kipling, which could only mean one thing: dad had been doing the food shopping.
Looking back, that was the last time I ever went home for Christmas. At the hospital, Mam was being told that there was a shadow on her lung on the x-ray, and that she needed an MRI. In mid-January the consultant would tell her that she had Stage IV lung cancer that had metastasized to the brain: two fat tumours were causing the crashing headaches that had put a stop to her shopping. Later, she would stand in front of her wardrobe and laugh quietly, pulling packets of paracetamol out of every pocket in every piece of clothing. ‘You would have thought I would have worked out that something was up.’
‘I can’t die now. My daughter’s about to have my first grandchild.’
‘When’s the baby due?’
‘In six weeks.’
‘We might just about be able to get you there. But you won’t survive much beyond that.’
But she did. She saw her first grandchild born, and two years later she saw the second one. Of the first one: ‘This one is clever.’ Of the second: ‘This one, not so much. But he’s a pickle.’ She outlasted the consultant’s prognosis by over five years. The nurses at Charing Cross used to say: we’ve never seen a lung cancer patient with a file as fat as yours. The files are usually very thin. And Mam would laugh, and say, have you checked the name on that bag of chemo? Because there was that time that you nearly gave me someone else’s.
When I was in my twenties I adopted a runaway cat who turned out to be pregnant. As labour approached, I went around the house trying to find her a place to have the litter: all the books said, the queen will want somewhere quiet and dark, away from humans. So I opened cupboard doors, lifted up valances, showed her little spaces between pieces of furniture. And she would have a sniff, and I’d walk away and find her trotting behind me. After a while I realised that as far as she was concerned, I was her safe place – she was going to labour on me.
And now every Christmas I’m a bit like that cat. The tree is up, and the presents are bought, and the meals are planned. I’m a very lucky woman with no major troubles or worries. It’s just that I can’t go home for Christmas.