Jeremy Clarke My boy's mother and Adolf Hitler share the same birthday, and, as an astrologer might expect, their personalities are in many ways similar. She can make a long-term plan and stick to it; she's intensely loyal; and if you get on the wrong side of her you do so at your peril. I'd paid her no child maintenance for five weeks when I called round to see her last week, and I felt ashamed. I was expecting a row about it. But she was unaffectedly pleased to see me. 'Hello, stranger,' she said. 'Sit down for a moment. Tea?'
Since she lost about half her body weight on a crash diet and married her live-in boyfriend in a specially licensed ceremony in the back garden, there's been a revolution at number 39. I didn't think it was going to last, but it has. A slimmer figure and a ring on her finger have made her consistently happy for the first time since I've known her. It isn't ephemeral, either: her happiness is deepening daily.
Also deepening daily is her tan. She's taken to sitting outside and allowing some sun on her face and shoulders — another first for her. She's changed her shape, the temper of her mind, and now her colour. What next? Well, she hasn't ventured further than the end of the road for the past 15 years, but we're quietly confident that things are going to be different on that front as well. Fingers crossed that soon she'll find the courage to pass the end of the road and go all the way to the shops.
Her husband was slumped at the table with a mug of tea in front of him He'd just come in from work and he looked half-dead. He was polite and affable as always, but needed time to sip his tea and gather his strength. My boy was also seated at the table. He looked smart with his recent French crop and his new Ben Sherman. He's 17 now and works at the supermarket. He worked on the checkout tills at first — now he's upstairs in the office doing paperwork. He's passed his driving test, and he goes out one evening a week with supermarket colleagues for a few drinks at a local pub. Since he's been working, he's changed, in the space of only a few weeks, from an uncertain adolescent into a calm, self-confident young adult.
For most of my boy's life I've been going round to his mother's place once a week to pick him up for the weekend and divvy up some cash. His mother and I were never married and we parted before he was born. Sometimes I forget that she and I were jointly responsible for his existence. But if the three of us are alone together around that table, which happens occasionally, a charge in the atmosphere reminds me that neither of them has forgotten it, and for a fleeting, poignant moment we're silently conscious of being the small family I once rejected. And then I chuck a couple of crumpled notes on the table and we all come to our senses again.
`So how's married life, then?' I asked her. She grinned happily. On the table was an opened brown-paper parcel from the catalogue company, just arrived. In answer to my question she said, 'What do you think of these?', and gleefully held up a pair of sexy see-through knickers for my inspection. Her husband, who is 20 years older than she is, held my eyes pleadingly in his. My boy looked out of the window.
When it was time for us to go, she and her husband came to the door to wave us off. They always do. My boy was driving; I climbed in the passenger seat. I put on my seat belt and wound down the window to shout goodbye. Before we pulled away from the kerb, though, his mother ran down the path and squatted on the hot pavement beside the car so that her face was level with ours. It's unusual for her to venture out on to the pavement. It's years since I've seen her limber enough to squat, too.
'Look, about the money,' she said. 'Mark is nearly 18. And he's paying me some lodge money every week. He's starting to stand on his own two feet. Why not drop the regular payment? He's an adult now.' Her manner was cheerful, confidential, celebratory. Mark Anthony was looking straight ahead, ready to drive away, yet profoundly attentive. It was another of those fleeting moments. We both looked at our boy, and we both passionately liked what we saw. And then she ran back to the house to stand on her doorstep beside her exhausted husband and wave us off.
'All right,' I said. 'Let's go.'