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Why I wish I'd listened more to mum

In one of the most moving pieces of writing you’ll ever read, Belfast novelist Geoffrey Beattie on his late mum Eileen… and why he’d give anything to hear her voice one more time this Mother’s Day

Published 05/03/2016

Novelist Geoffrey Beattie
Novelist Geoffrey Beattie
His late mum Eileen

I miss her terribly; she told me that I would. I can't say that she didn't warn me. "Your mother should be number one. You'll regret not taking me out more," she used to say. Then the emotion and the tears would come. "I'm way down the list; I think that you care more about Louis than you do me."

Louis was my boxer dog and the object of great envious resentment. "I cannot believe that you let that dog kiss you, you let it slobber all over you," my mother would say, and I always thought that this complaint was occasioned more by jealousy than by concerns over personal hygiene. Sometimes I felt that Louis could also sense her resentment.

I would ring her every afternoon. I would be sitting in my bright, airy office in a university over in England, the laughter and the chatter of the students in the corridor outside filtering through, in this busy and self-important world. She would be sitting in front of the television in her front room in Belfast, in the middle of the day, retired from the mill now, alone.

She missed the work and the company; never wanting to retire in the first place. The laughter filtering into my office made it sound like I was at a party. "I'm not living anymore, I'm just surviving," she would say. "I'm lonely all day; you're having the time of your life."

I would feel those sharp pangs of guilt that you can anticipate, but can't avoid. They cannot be dulled even with full expectation.

I had my life, my family, my children, my career and my busy schedule, but she never understood how universities worked, or how you build a career. "What time do you have to be in at? she would ask. "No time really, unless I've got lectures or tutorials, but I have to get stuff done. It's extremely competitive."

"So, you can go into work whenever you like, but you only come over here to see me once in a blue moon. I'd be ashamed of myself, if I was you."

I tried to get back home as often as I could and she would visit at Christmas, Easter and the July fortnight, but it would never be enough.

When I did visit, I would often bring a computer with me and that would be the basis for the first argument, as I hoisted the bulking computer in through the front door.

"You're here to see me, not work. Put that bloody thing away, or I'm not even going to go out with you." She knew that I would try to mix visits home with work-related activities and occasionally it worked better.

I would take her with me. We went together to a literary awards evening sometime in the Nineties. One of my books had been shortlisted for a literary prize.

My mother had a few drinks at the posh reception and talked to Brian Keenan, who talked in a whisper after all those years locked in a Beirut cellar.

"Speak up, Brian," she kept saying to him. "I can hardly hear you; speak up, Brian, for God's sake."

Brian kissed her when they announced his name for the prize for his book An Evil Cradling. "He deserved it," she said to me, "for all those years sitting in the dark in that bloody cellar. He told me all about it. I told him that I knew what it was like. I said that I never get out, either."

We saw Andrew Motion across the room. He later became the poet laureate. He had published my first non-academic book and I'd had a drink with him in some pub in London near his publishers. I told my mother that I knew him.

He nodded almost grudgingly as he passed. She noticed it, too, and then she glanced at me to see my reaction. "He's not a very good friend of yours then, is he?" said my mother. "I notice that you haven't got many good friends, not like when you were a wee boy and all your friends would hang about our hall laughing and joking."

We walked across town afterwards to a piano bar and she told the man playing the piano that it was her birthday to get a free bottle of champagne, even though it was not strictly true (or even approximately true). He played Please Release Me for her as a special request. Some girls at the next table on a hen night were getting a little rowdy, one wanted to kiss me because she was getting married. "Leave him alone," said my mother. "The young hussies these days have no shame."

A few years later, we both went to another awards ceremony held in the City Hall. My novel The Corner Boys had been shortlisted for the same prize. I had been told that Chris Patten would be there to hand out the award and that Gerry Adams would be attending the function.

"I'll have one or two things to say to old Gerry," my mother had warned me, "after what he's put us through. There's no two ways about that. I'll have a wee word in his ear all right."

She was looking forward to the event, but I was worried about what she might say, all that day she had been getting excited talking about prize-givings of the past.

"When you and your brother were young," she said, "you won all the prizes in St Mark's from the JTC and the CLB. My neighbours used to tell me that it wasn't worth going, because the Beattie boys won everything that was going."

I had to get out of the house so I went shopping and then I realised that I was going to be late, so I rang her from town and told her to make her own way there. I would go straight from town.

I stood at the back door of the City Hall waiting for her and saw the Call-a-Cab car drive in past security.

The driver nodded at me, as if he recognised me, and got my mother's wheelchair out of the boot. She was still chatting away to him.

"Do you remember playing 'foot in the bucket' when you were young?" she asked him after he had opened the door to let her out. "That's the problem with young people nowadays; they don't know how to keep themselves amused."

I pushed her into the City Hall slowly and carefully. The other guests all stood around in the centre of the room, holding their wine glasses delicately. I noticed that the men all seemed to be wearing grey suits and all the women elegant black dresses with silver brooches.

Then there was me in my puffa jacket and my mother in her pink anorak, with Topshop bags from that day’s shopping, balancing on her wheelchair. She was wearing the wig that the dog liked to chase around the house.

“I’m starving,” she said, after we had pushed through the crowd. “I haven’t had any dinner. Go and get us some of them, whatever they are.”

I went in search of food and got my mother a large glass of white wine. “I’m thirsty,” she said. “I haven’t had a drink all day.” The speeches were starting, there were television cameras dotted around the room and every now and then, some small circular area would suddenly light up in intense, white light.

Chris Patten’s report on the future of the RUC was just about to be released and the cameras were there partly to capture a few comments from him. The other contestants and their coterie of friends stood in a group in the middle of the floor. The women in their expensive dresses adorned with silver bracelets in intricate Celtic patterns, looked appreciatively up at him, my mother was concentrating on the food in front of her.

The waitress with the nibbles had found us on our own, stranded from everybody else. “I’m starving,” said my mother to her, “these little things don’t fill you up.” “Here you are, love,” said the waitress, handing her a larger plate, as Patten started to speak. “This is my son,” said my mother. “He’s up for the prize tonight, you know, but he won’t win it. You have to be in the know to win prizes and he doesn’t know anybody.” “Yes, but it’s nice to be invited,’ said the woman with the nibbles. “Of course,” said my mother, “that’s what I tell him. You should be proud just to be invited to the City Hall.”

“Exactly,” said the waitress.

“Have you met Gerry Adams?” said my mother. “Oh yes,” said the waitress, “he’s a regular. Him and Martin, they’re never out of here, that is when they’re not up in Stormont running around as if they own the place.”

My mother was sitting in her wheelchair making blowing noises. “Who would have believed it?” she said. “They’re running the country and there’s no two ways about that. They got everything they wanted. The Protestants got nothing.”

I stood there against the wall. I noticed that there were black stains up the outside of the arms of my jacket. I spent some time just staring at them and trying to rub them off with spit. The waitress had gone to get her some more wine.

“You’re too backward,” my mother said to me. “Go and talk to those men over there. Tell them that you’re a professor.”

The waitress had returned with more wine and more food and overheard this.

“Is he a professor?” asked the waitress. “He is indeed. But you couldn’t tell to look at him,” said my mother. “Are those his bags?” said the waitress. “In the old days you wouldn’t have been allowed in here with bags like that.”

“Does Gerry ever try to bring big bags in with him?” asked my mother and they both started laughing. “Is Gerry not coming then?” asked my mother, who I think was disappointed in some strange way.

Chris Patten looked in our direction. It was probably the laughter that attracted his attention. He said something about my novel. I couldn’t hear what it was. “What’s in those mushroom pates?” asked my mother.

“Mushrooms,” I said.

“What else?” she asked, irritated. “Do you know, you can’t get a sensible answer out of you sometimes.”

The waitress went off to fetch some more drinks. We were still standing in the same spot. I made some pretence and then pushed my mother’s chair so that she was now facing the wall, with her back to Chris Patten.

“I can’t see,” she said. “There’s nothing to see,” I said. The waitress had returned. “Are you not watching what’s going on?” she asked. Chris Patten was just about to announce the winner. “And the winner is ...” he said.

I didn’t hear the name, but I knew that it wasn’t mine. “Never mind,” said my mother. “Never mind,” said the waitress. “Have some more of these lovely mushroom pates.”

We could hear the chatter from across the room. “What time does the bar close?” asked my mother. “It’s open as long as you like,” said the waitress. “Within reason,” she added. “Let’s have a few more wee drinks then,” said my mother. “And for God’s sake, go and speak to some of those people. You’re never going to win a prize like that if you don’t speak to people,” she said. “That’s his problem, he never speaks, except to bloody women. But then he’s had a lot of practice at that.”

I wandered off to find a toilet and I tried smiling at one or two people, unsuccessfully. My mother had decided that it was time to go. “By the way, is there a wee phone around here for us to call Call-a-Cab when all this drink finishes?” she asked the waitress. “We don’t want to be stranded here all bloody night with nothing to eat.”

I went to ring Call-a-Cab, but they were engaged, so I just hung about by the public telephone at the back door and then I bumped into a female TV producer from Dublin, who just smiled at me and asked me if I had enjoyed the proceedings. It turned out that she was there to make some arts-based programme about the evening for RTE, but all the interviews she needed were now in the can. I blurted out that my book was on the shortlist. It was too late to be relevant to anything; it was a moment for chitchat, nothing more.

“Really?” she said, and I looked at her expression and I regretted saying it even more. “It’s a pity that we didn’t get to talk earlier. Oh, here’s my car, I’m just off.” I smiled at her and walked off before doubling back to ring Call-a-Cab once more. Luckily, I got through this time.

I pushed my mother out into the back courtyard of the City Hall to wait for the taxi. She smiled over at the security man and he smiled back at her. “I think that your man thinks that he’s scored,” she said. I wasn’t sure whether she was joking or not, so pretended I hadn’t heard.

We hung about outside in the cold, night air, a woman in a wheelchair and a man in a grubby coat. It was the professor and his proud mother going back home to the turn-of-the-road from the literary prize-giving, the professor who had departed his working-class roots, but not quite arrived anywhere else yet.

These are the moments I remember; I cling on to them because that is what there is. They are even sadder at this time of year with Mother’s Day tomorrow, which was always special.

Of course, I would send her flowers every Mother’s Day and ring her to make sure that they had arrived. “They are lovely,” she would say. “I’ve shown them to all my neighbours, they’re all very jealous.” And, at that moment, I would feel ecstatic.

Then she would add, “It would have been much nicer if you’d brought them in person.”

But it is that time of the year. I would love to pick up the phone and just order the flowers and then ring that old number of hers in Belfast just to hear her say ... anything. She was right a lot of the time and, sometimes, I wished that I’d listened more in that busy, busy life of mine.

Geoffrey Beattie’s memoir, Protestant Boy, is published by Granta

Belfast Telegraph

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