Milk with a raw egg and some honey: Mrs Patel next door tells me this is what I should give Youngest every day because he’s so skinny. “Yes,” I smile. I’d like to tell her we feed him pancakes and waffles with maple syrup instead which is, more or less, the same thing but the language barrier deters me. She always tells me he’s skinny and I always reply the same way, agreeing and adding lamely that I was a very skinny child too.
Speaking of lamely, when she hears Youngest has hurt himself (he fractured his collar bone playing piggy backs) she determines to walk all the way from her house to ours to see for herself. It’s about three meters. If I use the words slow and excruciating to describe her progress they will be inadequate. Suffice to say that in the time I’m standing at the open door I could have made a cup of tea and sent two emails.
You know that scene in Life of Brian? My back is old, my eyes are bent, my legs are weary…something like that. I feel guilty to be so impatient waiting for a very ancient, kind woman to come and see my injured child.
She sits in the living room on the sofa near Youngest and looks around. She doesn’t go out much staying in that big, empty house all day while her son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter are out at work. She has the heating turned up to max in all weathers: their gas bill was £1,600 for three months.
This little visit is probably the highlight of her week and I try to remind myself this as I think of all the things I could be doing. I can almost hear the washing machine calling, it’s gaping void waiting to be filled, and the computer quietly humming from upstairs…
She tells me about an accident long ago when she lived in her one roomed home in Nairobi. I’m not completely sure but I think it involved a sleeping three-month old child - possibly her daughter, possibly her granddaughter - some hot dinner and someone tripping over.
All those years ago and yet, despite not being able to communicate it all to me, she hasn’t forgotten. Her eyes grow bright as she talks. She says her daughter now lives in ‘East Priestley,’ a rather exotic and literary sounding place but talking about it later with husband he says it’s East Finchley, which is sadly more prosaic.
Mrs Patel, so bent and old, Youngest so tiny and hurt, kneeling between them I’m cast mediator in this chasm of age, language and culture and for a fleeting moment, while trying to distract Youngest from Happy Feet to make him say thanks for his packet of Blue Riband chocolate bars (how old people is that!), I think: I’m in the prime of life! Capable, fit, vital.
But then, everything’s relative.