by Judith Field
At times when the situation at home frayed my nerves, I tried to work out what was the worst thing about it. You know, sort of break it down into manageable bits. It wasn’t having a mother who was 3000 years old, but who looked about 80 and didn’t mind attracting attention. It wasn’t having to keep quiet about hearing the weather as music, some tunes meaning rain, and others wind, so that I heard background music to everything I did. No, it was not being able to sing, in case anyone heard. That was the worst thing about being the result of a fling between a Greek siren and an English tourist.
After I was born Mum took me to England to look for Dad, couldn’t find him, decided to stay. I had to sing when I was at school and, although no sailors had dashed their ships onto the rocks, it had made passers-by walk into trees. We moved house often.
Mum was lucky. It was easier for her to pass for human, even if it was a version that’d make Medusa want to tear her hair out. At the age of 3000-and-something (‘What’s a year or a few hundred when you’re immortal, koritsi?’ she’d say) her power had faded, but it still had a few unwanted effects.
Didn’t I know it? I slapped the letter down on the kitchen table. ‘Mum, you’ve been barred from the Senior Citizens’ Institute. Again.’
Now that I’d retired, we had all day to wind each other up. There wasn’t a lot for elderly people to do, in a quiet English town like ours. The Institute was the one thing that got Mum out of the house. I felt like a cell door was clanging shut behind me.
Mum put on her reading glasses. ‘Give the letter ‘ere, Lucy,’ she said, through a mouthful of toast. You could still hear her Greek roots in the way she spoke when she was upset, when the effort of trying to pass for human grew that bit too much for her. All gutturals and no letter H. ‘Urry up – I ‘aven’t got all day.’ She picked the letter up. ‘“Your mother’s inappropriate behaviour… other members to consider…good name of the Institute”. Mean-spirited lot! Won’t give you a piece of their soul. Good riddance.’
She pulled a notebook, a pen wedged between its pages, from under her cup. Tea slopped onto the table. She scribbled won’t give you a piece of their soul.
‘I’ll use that for my homework for the poetry class at the Institute.’ She smiled and nodded, sounding English all over again. ‘It’ll knock their socks off, miles better than the load of doggerel they churn out. Call themselves writers! Some of them can’t even read.’
‘But you won’t be able to go, remember?’ I groaned, dabbing at the spilt tea with a cloth. ‘And what do they mean, inappropriate behaviour? I thought you were going to try harder, this time.’
‘Did you? If you must know, it was at that Italian place. They kept us waiting for our sweet so I started a sing-song. Gave them a few verses of Giovinezza. That’s one you don’t hear nowadays – nothing wrong with my memory.’
‘Singing? How could you?’ I said, my heart pounding. ‘Everyone must have been staring at you. You might not have the powers you once had, but you didn’t remember that it’s a fascist song! You might as well have gone all the way and sung the Horst Wessel Lied.’
She laughed. ‘As if I would! German is much harder to sing in. I never managed to get German sailors to come near my rock, I’m no Lorelei.’ She stood up and leaned across the table. ‘You know what your trouble is? No feel for language. And not a musical bone in your body. Take after your dad, you do. Wherever he is.’
My throat tightened. ‘That’s not fair. You know I would love to sing, but I daren’t. Can’t risk people finding out.’
Mum nodded. ‘Suppose so. Just can’t run the risk of them turning on us. This lot of yokels, it’d be burning torches and pitchforks like in the old films.
‘Don’t be daft. That wouldn’t happen.’ It wouldn’t…would it?
‘Don’t be so sure. What people don’t understand they fear, and that turns to hate. Next thing you know…if you’d seen the things I had…’
I wasn’t in the mood for another repetition of what Mum had said to such and such a hero, and what he’d turned round and replied. I stood up and got the vacuum cleaner out of the cupboard.
As the wheels squeaked across the floor, I could hear Mum going on in the background.
‘…and did he open a mouth! Odysseus! Now, there was a man who didn’t like singing either. Just like you.’
‘You haven’t been listening,’ I snapped. ‘As usual. I love singing – other people’s. Just not yours when you’re trying to crank it out of your ancient throat. Anyway, being musical is all very well, being a bloody nuisance is another matter.’ I heard my voice grow louder, and higher pitched. ‘You’re lucky they didn’t call the police. If they had, where would we be? Locked up. It’s hard to pass for human when you’re standing in front of a judge. I should know, I did it every working day of my life.’
‘Don’t talk to me like that, I’m still your mother even though you’re 62. It was their own fault – they shouldn’t have kept us waiting for that fancy ice cream. Some of the old dears were asleep! Had to do something to wake them up. Sometimes, you’ve just got to sing.’
‘I’d query that, in your case. Sometimes, it’s better to keep your mouth shut.’
Mum shrugged. ‘It’s a shame you’ve had to bottle it up all those years. You might have a great voice. You used to like singing, when you were a little girl. As long as we were indoors with all the windows and doors shut. What was that one you were always listening to, when you weren’t so little?’ Mum banged her hand on the table several times, as though trying to drive the memory out of her head, ‘Oh yes – “My Way”.’
‘Don’t remind me how old I am!’ I shoved the breakfast things into the dishwasher.
‘You know,’ Mum said, ‘you could join the Senior Citizens’ Institute. Do you fancy spending your spare time listening to that lot going on about who’s got cancer, who’s gone blind and who’s died?’
I huffed. ‘Spare time? I’ve got more to do now than when I was working!’ I wished this cliché that so many people spouted, about retirement, was actually true. All the things I’d never had time for before had lost their appeal. ‘You give me more than enough to sort out. You’re worse than any of the criminals I had to try to defend.’
‘That’s a judge.’
‘OK, sorry Your Honour.’
‘And that’s…never mind. Anyway, I’m sure the folk at the Institute weren’t as bad as all that, you used to like going.’ I put my hand on Mum’s arm. ‘Sorry, I didn’t mean to rub it in. But Harry next door’s coming over later to show me how to use my new laptop. Maybe I’ll be able to google something else for you to do.’
She raised her eyebrows. ‘You’ve been seeing a lot of Harry lately. Fancy him, do you?’
‘Mum!’ I felt my face grow warm. ‘He’s nearer your age than mine, or at least the age you look. You know it’s nothing like that. He went to a “Computers for the Over Sixties” class at the Institute, that’s all.’
‘Don’t change the subject. You’ve got the hots for him. And why not – there’s no law against you having a smidgen of fun, is there?’ Mum put another slice of bread into the toaster.
‘Oh…shut up! And just don’t make any more mess.’
I pushed the vacuum cleaner out into the hall. Mum whispered ‘Stuffy old spinster’ as I passed her on the way up the stairs. I wondered if other people found their elderly parents had become their children. A smidgen of something would make all the difference.
‘…so now just click on that, and Bob’s your uncle, Fanny’s your aunt.’ Harry said, taking a bite out of a biscuit as Mum came into the kitchen.
She switched the kettle on and got two cups out.
‘Tea, you two?’
‘Don’t you want one, Mum?’
‘No thanks. I’ll need to be getting out to the Institute, it’s poetry this afternoon. Oh bugger, I forgot – not for me, it isn’t. Rotten so-and-sos.’ She sat down at the table with a thud and shoved her writer’s notebook out of the way.
‘Don’t suppose I need this now. May as well chuck it out.’ She picked up the packet of biscuits and rummaged in it, scattering crumbs across the table.
I gritted my teeth and told Harry what had happened, as I cleared up.
He thumped the table with his clenched fist, making the laptop jump.
‘I call that a diabolical liberty! You go along there, Lucy, and get them to take your Mum back. You’ll have them twisted round your little finger, just like you did with them judges.’
‘The Committee’s meeting later this afternoon,’ Mum said.
I frowned, running through some ideas in my mind. Me, on my own in the house. Me, sitting with my feet up, a good book in one hand and a glass of Ouzo in the other.
‘Go on, pull out all the stops,’ Harry said. ‘Your poor old mum, stuck indoors with nothing to do all day, and-’.
‘- OK, I’ll give it a go.’
Mum stood up. ‘Thanks. I’m off for a little lie-down. A poor old thing like me needs to be fighting fit for when you give them what for.’
I smiled. ‘It’s meant to be more a case of using the art of persuasion. Now, Harry, I need you to show me how to do something else with the laptop.’
The sky was blue and cloudless as we walked up to the building, but it sounded like rain to me. Mum, Harry and I walked in and stood in a row outside the committee room. Mum gulped. I took a deep breath, picked up my large bag and knocked on the door.
‘Come!’ a voice shouted from inside.
‘Come? Pretentious malakas.’ Mum muttered. ‘That means tosser, you know, Harry.’
‘Shh!’ I clapped a hand over Mum’s mouth. ‘I don’t want you losing your own case before we’ve even started.’
I marched inside, with Mum and Harry trailing after me like a couple of geriatric bridesmaids.
The members of the Committee, sat on one side of a table, looked up as the three of us sat down opposite. As if in accompaniment to their frowns and pursed lips, raindrops splattered against the window pane,
‘There’s John Edwards,’ Mum whispered in my ear, pointing at the chairman. ‘Miserable old devil.’
‘Shh! He doesn’t look that old. Not much more than I am,’ I hissed. No age at all. And kind eyes. I stood up and took a step forward. ‘My name’s Lucy Marinos. I’m here to ask you to give my mother, Ligeia here, another chance.’
‘We know Mrs Marinos. Only too well,’ John said.
I pressed on. ‘And this is my assistant, Mr Barnes.’
I opened the large bag I was carrying, took out the laptop and put it on the table. Harry switched it on.
Mum pouted. ‘Oh, what now? That PowerPoint thing? I thought you’d have your robe and wig in there, my learned friend.’
‘Shh, Mum. This calls for something a bit different. Let me do it my way.’
John cleared his throat. ‘Well, we’ll listen to what you’ve got to say, but I really don’t think I can see us reversing our decision.’
I stood up. ‘To err is human. To forgive, divine. Hit it, H!’
Harry flicked a button on the laptop. The introduction to ‘My way’ blasted out, filling the room.
I began to sing. My voice flared like a flame, filling the air. I altered the lyrics to fit our situation, my voice swirling as I sang about two women and one kitchen. About the hours dragging once you’d retired and you had to blend into the background. A catch came to my throat as I changed the last lines ‘The record shows I took the blows – and did it my way!’ to “Don’t say goodbye, she says she’ll try – to do it your way.’ I took a sweeping bow, to applause from the committee and cheers from Harry.
‘Please?’ Mum asked. ‘I promise I won’t upset anyone. Although some people….’
I gave her a nudge.
John turned to me. ‘Miss Marinos. Lucy. Please do us the honour of joining the institute yourself. We’re setting up a glee club. Thinking of entering some competitions. I would be honoured if you would grace us with your presence, as a soloist.’
‘Only if Mum can join, too.’
The committee members frowned. Then there was a lot of whispering between them.
‘You drive a hard bargain,’ John said. ‘But, agreed. Remember, Ligeia, next time will be your third strike. And you’ll be out for good.’
‘Oh, I promise to toe the line, this time,’ Mum said. ‘You come too, Harry, do all the techie sound stuff.
John passed me a business card. ‘Here’s my mobile number. Give me a call and we can arrange to chat about what you’d like to sing. Maybe over a cup of tea.’
‘That’s my girl! I never knew you had it in you!’ Mum said, as we walked home.
‘Not till we heard it coming out,’ Harry said. ‘That song was one from the heart. What on earth made you do it?’
‘Well, it was an open and shut case. Sometimes, you’ve just got to sing.’
‘That’s right,’ Mum said. ‘Keep going and – you never know – we could end up on Britain’s Got Talent!’
‘Let’s you and me discuss it over a drink in The Lindow Arms, Ligeia,’ Harry said, ‘Tea’s for the kids. Don’t mind, do you, Lucy?’
I shook my head and headed home.
I stepped into the kitchen. My kitchen. Just me. All alone. I made myself a cup of tea and took it over to the chair next to the phone. I was only a semi-siren, but even so I’d done what I set out to do, without ending up starring in a freak show. And not a pitchfork in sight. I couldn’t make people feel something they didn’t already, but maybe I could coax the smallest of emotional embers into flame. Maybe even make myself pluck up the courage to tell a man my name was really Leucosia. I heard a song in my head. It sounded like the sun coming out.
Putting the cup down on a table, I took John Edwards’s card out of my pocket and picked up the phone.
Judith Field lives in London. She is a pharmacist, medical writer, editor and indexer. Her writing, mainly speculative fiction, has appeared in a variety of publications, in the USA, UK and Australia. She blogs at http://lunastationquarterly.com/category/columns/the-pen-across-the-pond/.