If I ever feel myself getting big-headed – unlikely as usually one needs something to be big-headed about, such as a number one song in the charts, a best-selling book or first prize in the UK Marrow Growing Championships – then I go and spend time with my mother.
I had an appointment at my GPs early on Tuesday – I’ve terrible bags under my eyes and wanted to see if the doctors could prescribe some antibiotics for them – and so went to stay at my ma’s the night before.
On arriving at her house, her first words as she opened the door were – and this is absolutely true – ‘Can you not do something with your beard? It looks ridiculous, and it’s going grey. It makes you look about 90 years old.’
I’ll be honest, I was hoping for a slightly warmer greeting, maybe something along the lines of, ‘Hi Steven, thanks so much for driving an hour to come and see me, would you like a cup of tea and perhaps a slice of some moist home-made carrot cake?’
That, however, is not my dear mother’s style.
There was another example of this recently, when we went to a pub for some food.
The next day, while chatting on the phone, she said, 'Do you know, it’s the first time I’ve ever thought it, but at the bar last night you looked quite attractive.'
‘What do you mean it’s the first time you’ve ever thought it?’ I asked.
'Well, you know, you’re usually quite craggy-faced and haggard, and you’ve always had those large ears, but last night I thought you were quite handsome.'
Only my mother could give a compliment that contains within it a much larger insult.
It’s actually quite difficult to get hold of her these days to receive these insults for she has the social life of a 21-year-old.
She’s never in. She volunteers at her local theatre, does aqua aerobics – which involves standing in a swimming pool with several other over-70s and swaying from side to side like a drunkard who’s fallen into a river – plays bridge, sings in a choir, and is chairwoman of the local Homewatch group.
She takes her role at the theatre very seriously and her hard work recently paid off when she was promoted to chief brew-maker, which means she leads a small team in charge of providing drinks to theatre-goers during and after performances.
During a recent visit to her house, I discovered her at the kitchen table using a black marker pen to write on large sheets of paper.
I enquired what she was doing.
'I’m drawing up an instructional guide to making tea,' she said.
It was at this point that I realised retirement must be a wonderful place to inhabit. Forget politics, the economy, the melting of the Arctic Circle – it’s about making tea.
Several hours later she strode into the lounge with a satisfied look on her face, waving the paper in the air, like Chamberlain proclaiming peace in our time.
I glanced at the paper. On it was a 16-step guide to making tea.
Numbers one and two, and I’m not making this up, were to ‘make sure kettle is filled with water’ and ‘flick switch down on kettle – if you’ve done it correctly, a red light will come on’.
‘Mum, are you writing these instructions for a group of toddlers?’ I asked her.
She grabbed the paper off me, annoyed at my remark.
'You don’t understand,; she said. 'It’s not easy to make tea for a large group of people.'
‘But Mum,’ I replied. 'Step 14 is ‘pour tea into cups’.'
However, fair play to my mother, for at least she does things properly.
For instance, as chair of the Homewatch group, she keeps an A4 pad in the front room and makes notes of any suspicious behaviour on the street. She let me read it the other day on the proviso I didn’t use it in this column to ridicule her – naturally, I promised I wouldn’t.
Among the many things written down were, ‘Small red card, Ford Fiesta I think, been parked outside number 26 since 10.30am’ and ‘odd-looking man with unkempt facial hair and a limp hanging around the bus stop’. The latter was later crossed out and underneath it, in red pen, said, ‘he got on bus when it came’.
She’s phoned the police so often she’s on first names terms with the local bobby.
'Jim, it’s Pat here,' she says, as if speaking to a close relation. 'A teenage boy wearing white trainers has gone past on a mountain bike five times'. Whoever Jim is, he must be longing for the day when he is transferred to another station.
But, god bless her, my mother seems content enough – and on the plus-side when we’ve a big family do on, we know exactly who to ask to make tea.