Wednesday, 11 June 2014

The Night Blooming Cereus

I sit and watch as she removes a pint glass from the cupboard and places it on the side. She is telling me about a mutual acquaintance that I have asked after, a woman who was a terrible snob and never had a relationship that we know of in her entire life. She walks to the freezer and removes a tray of ice which she bangs out and in to the sink.
'I think she had a boyfriend when she was fifteen or so but he turned her over for someone else and she swore off men after that.'
'How old is she now?'
'Must be in her seventies,' she says in her smooth Judi Dench timbre.
She refills the tray and puts it back in to the freezer before pulling out a bottle of ginger ale which she opens and places next to the glass now half full of ice.
'How sad,' I say.
She moves over to another cupboard and pulls out a bottle of Teachers Whiskey. I watch as she unscrews the lid, feels for the rim of the glass and proceeds to fill it to the three quarter mark. She then adds a dash of ginger. A flourish.
'What did you say?'
'I said it's sad.'
'Mmm. Can you imagine going to your grave without a single fuck? Awful,' she says and sips her drink.

And that's the best way I can think of to introduce you to my ninety seven year old grandmother.
It's odd to call her that, I've never done so really. To me she has always been 'Mutti' which is German for mummy. The reason we call her this is one of about 250 interesting stories I could tell you about Mutti. More probably.
Writing about her is like trying to count grains of sand.
She is my fathers mother and she was born in Norfolk but for the past forty years has lived in Spain in a villa that she designed. In between those two places she has lived in the Maldives, Bahamas, Mexico, America, Canada, Saudi, Madras, China....the list goes on. She is a teacher and her IQ is 183. When I was about seven she made me promise that if she ever went senile and had no idea what she was doing I would bring her back to the UK - “Because I assure you I would have to be completely insane before I'd agree to move back there” - That hasn't happened and it's quite obvious to me now that it never will. But old age is crafty and wicked in other ways. She has cataracts in her beautiful blue goat like eyes. She's had laser surgery twice in the last five years but within six months her sight went from perfect back to blurred. The doctor sighed and said; 'I'm sorry but your eyes are over ninety years old, they're just not supposed to last that long.' And so she continues to do her cryptic crosswords with a giant magnifying glass but she can no longer write me letters which is a great loss to me. For the past thirty five years I have frequently felt a skip of excitement at the sight of one of her white envelopes with the small gold sticker on the back containing her address and a little black palm tree.
And now she is going deaf. She finds it so frustrating that she often responds to something I've said with; FUCCCCKKKKKK! Say it again!
She's going for a hearing test though and we hope that maybe with hearing aids her ears will hold out a bit longer. The downside of retiring to a foreign country is that nothing is free.
Those two problems aside she is otherwise remarkably sprightly. I watch her bend over, pick up one of her dogs and throw her on the sofa.
'She has arthritis, poor thing,' she says before sitting herself cross legged on the chair next to her.
Over the years I have brought a number of friends to visit Mutti and some have returned independently referring to it as a 'pilgrimage to Mutti'. She remembers them all and recalls details about them that I have long since forgotten.
She loves being read to and when I was younger I'd often read an entire book to her over the course of a weekend. Yesterday I sat next to her on the sofa with my mac on my lap and one arm around her shoulder and screamed the first two chapters of my book in to her 'good' ear. Today I'll arm myself with a pint of water and scream the next two chapters too. Because, as she quite rightly says, we shall not be defeated. She runs her hands over my tattoos like they're brail.
I have a terrible filing system in my head where memories and events are stored. I can't remember a lot of things and I certainly couldn't give you dates or years. But I have a shockingly good memory for words and can usually recount a conversation I had years ago with great accuracy. I've inherited this from Mutti and whilst she can now only read with the aid of a magnifying glass and a blinding light she frequently quotes things to me with word perfect precision.
We were having our early evening lifter when she said;
'Do you remember this one; “I sit beside my lonely fire and pray for wisdom yet: For calmness to remember or courage to forget.”
Mutti gave me a notebook when I was four in which she had written out some quotes and poems she liked or had written. She told me she had always kept these notebooks and I should do so too. That every time I read or heard something I loved I should copy it in to the book. I have six now.
'Yes, of course I remember,' I said.
'I choose courage,' she said. 'There's no point remembering the things you can't change. Do you still keep notebooks?'
'Yes, but I've started transferring them to my skin now.'
'And why not,' she laughs.
We talk about her adventures and my hopes and hours pass.
'What's that flower out on the patio?' I ask.
'What colour is it?'
'Hibiscus,' she says. 'It's the flower of Hawaii.'
'It's beautiful.'
'Did I ever tell you about my Night Blooming Cereus?' She asks.
'I found it whilst I was living in the Bahamas. It's a cactus flower, white, very beautiful. I'd always wanted one. I planted it in the garden. They only bloom for one night a year. When that night came around I would always have a great party, lots of people would come, the press too, and we would get drunk and watch it unfurl. It's extraordinary to watch a flower unfurl its petals, you don't normally catch them at it.'
Mutti has witnessed a revolution and watched friends killed in front of her. She has escaped an island under gun fire. She has hung on to a rope ladder underneath a helicopter as it flew her to safety. She's met the Dalai lama and knitted clothes for the children he walked to safety from Tibet. She taught Omar Sharif English. She has literally sat in the eye of a hurricane (Betsy) then watched it tear the edge of an island in to the sea. She has outlived two of her children. She has eaten goats eyes and bollocks. She survived a brain tumour and taught herself to speak again. She has spoken eleven languages fluently. She set up the first educational system in the Maldives. She has travelled over dodgy borders with her jewellery hidden in her bra. She has had thirty eight trashy romances published, each one written over a weekend when she needed a bit of cash. She saved a child's life. She was in a spitfire that crashed in to a field. She saw Judi Dench play Juliet when she was sixteen and remarked that the girl had a future. She's seen Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix play live. She had the courage to leave her husband at the age of forty during a time when the law was against her and go on to travel every corner of the world.
Yesterday afternoon she asked me to climb a ladder and fetch a folder out of one of her cupboards. I did as asked and handed it down to her, brushing the spiders that hadn't managed to escape off the cover. She pulled out a yellowing manuscript and handed it to me.
'That's my autobiography,' she said. 'You can have it if you like.'