Dignified, tennis club ladies, lifting white wine to red lips

Hilary Fannin: My mother never really played tennis, just randomly lobbed rubber balls around the grassy courts, turning young men in sweater vests into panting retrievers

‘A helium balloon loudly proclaiming her 90th birthday, and the Zimmer frame it was tied to, both went into the boot’

‘A helium balloon loudly proclaiming her 90th birthday, and the Zimmer frame it was tied to, both went into the boot’

 

A few weeks ago my mother walked through the residential home where she has been living for the past year and carefully stepped into the bucket seat of a waiting car. A helium balloon loudly proclaiming her 90th birthday, and the Zimmer frame it was tied to, both went into the boot. She was on her way to celebrate this significant date with a small lunch for family and one or two old friends. 

    They picked me up en route. We drove along the seafront. My mother grows smaller; in the low-slung seat, her head wasn’t much higher than the dash. We passed a funeral cortege sedately progressing in the opposite direction.

    “You should’ve tied my balloon to the roof,” she suggested to the driver, a tad competitively, I thought. 

    When she was a teenager, dark and wild, she joined the local tennis club, situated at the bottom of the leafy road she grew up on with her kindly parents, her handsome brother, her restlessly intelligent sister, a garden full of delphiniums and dahlias, and a little dog called Hector, who barked at passing cats and butcher boys on bicycles. 

    The tennis club, which is still there, was the venue for her party; my sister was cooking lunch in its efficient kitchen. 

    My mother never really played tennis, she told us, just randomly lobbed rubber balls around the grassy courts, turning young men in sweater vests into panting retrievers.

    Monsoon season in Dublin. We pulled up outside the club, took the Zimmer frame from the boot, heads bowed against the rain. 

    Inside, my sister was laying out bowls of coronation chicken and couscous on the covered snooker table.

    It’s a prosperous-looking club now, green-turfed and floodlit. A young man, at the wheel of a mechanical mop, drove the rainwater from the manicured courts.

    “Goodness,” my mother said, arching a shakily pencilled eyebrow. “The club used to be wooden with one of those roofs . . . oh god almighty, what do you call them? I can remember the smell of pine and tar.” 

    Her guests were waiting. Soon, dignified ladies, most of them widowed, were lifting white wine to red lips. Reminiscences began.

    One elegant nonagenarian, who had been a member of the same bitumen-covered club when she was a girl, told us how she broke off three engagements (one to a prince of unclear origin) before finally hitting the altar.

    “We couldn’t just shack up with people in our day,” she patiently explained to me across the table, as if I was an emissary from a visiting planet. But maybe when you’ve witnessed nine decades of social mores in this country, playing Russian roulette with your ovaries and blind man’s buff with the parish priest, this new century does feel like an alien place. 

    Another of the nonagenarians was a Wren when she met her husband.

    “We did silly things in the war,” she said gently. “I was 19, we got married straight away, then he went off to the RAF and I didn’t set eyes on him again for two years.”

    “Did you recognise him?” I asked. 

    She had the wit not to dignify my question with an answer.

    We cleared the plates and opened a bottle of champagne, a gift from an absent friend, which had been delivered that morning to my mother’s bright room where her paintings hang on the wall and a handful of photographs from a long and complicated past decorate the windowsill. She is building a tower there from the small plastic pill boxes that her medication arrives in every morning and evening. The ever-growing tower stands there, a strange marker steadily measuring time.

    “Make a wish,” I suggested, as she picked up a knife to cut her cake.

    She looked beyond the gathering, out of the long window, beyond the saturated courts, beyond the children huddled under a tarpaulin waiting for their lessons to begin, beyond the car park where impatient mothers, encased in the armour of their four-wheel drives, waited for the rain to stop.     

    The mechanical sweeper lifted a fine spray of rainwater from the court, clouding the view. 

    I wondered, watching her, what she saw through that mist. Her brown-eyed brother? Her questioning sister? Her mother, vaguely wondering if the dog rose would bloom? All the chipper young men and glorious young women with their hopes and fears and surefire plans?

    I wondered who had wandered down her girlhood road to stand in the pulsing rain and view our small party from the other side of the drenched glass.

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