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Feather's Miscellany: Two Mothers

John Waddington-Feather tells the story of two mothers who tried to turn their children into life-long slaves.

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There are some very selfish and self-centred people about and that we all know. But the last people you might expect to find in this category are mothers. They are usually the least selfish and most giving of people, sacrificing much for their families. But there were two very rich people I knew who were self-centred in the extreme. One was called Ethel Carswell who had an only child, Mary, whom she domineered almost from birth but never loved. Indeed, Ethel Carswell was incapable of loving anyone but herself. She’d made a loveless marriage with a banker and Mary was the result.

As her daughter grew up she became a pretty young woman, but she was so dominated by her mother she became shy and retiring. Her mother made sure she had no boyfriends, though advances were made by several lads in her teens and afterwards. The old battleaxe kept any suitors at bay as soon as they appeared on the horizon. She wanted her daughter all to herself and for one reason only: to be her carer.

Ethel enjoyed ill-health – real or imagined, usually the latter. She was a neurotic hypochondriac and sought out company like herself. Ill-health was her entire focus in life; that and death. Her conversation revolved around her own imagined illnesses and the real ones of others. She also talked much about death and how folk had died; going into great detail about their suffering and, later, with morbid enjoyment, how the funeral had gone. She enjoyed funerals – and the bean feasts which followed. The older she grew, the more funerals she attended and the funeral tea after even when she didn’t know the person whose funeral it was.

As I said, she completely dominated the life of her daughter, Mary, whose father had died in middle-age, worn out, they said, running after his wife; and when he copped his clogs, it fell to Mary to attend her mother hand and foot.

When she was eighteen, Mary went off to college to train as a teacher and you might have thought she could have broken free from her mother then, but no. Her mother forced her to opt for a college within daily travelling distance and she caught the train there each morning returning every evening to look after her mother. It left her with no time for socialising – she’d never had any in the first place – and if she went anywhere, her mother accompanied her, monitoring her every move. She was a virtual prisoner.

All her holidays were spent with her mother at the same seaside resort on the south coast, following the same routine day in day out: a stroll along the front after breakfast if the weather allowed, and another in the afternoon when Ethel had rested. If it was too breezy or wet, they sit in the hotel conservatory and look out to sea. The evenings were spent chatting or playing cards with other guests or watching television in their room.

When Mary was in her thirties, her mother took a fancy to cruising and booked cabins for her and Mary on luxury liners. If the cruise was through the Mediterranean, they’d stop off at Naples for they day and it was at Naples that Mary found freedom – as you’re about to hear.

On one of the cruises Ethel met a woman very like herself, Gloria Jones. They got on at once and became close friends. Gloria also had just one child, a son, Simon, whom she clung to as much as Ethel did her daughter. Like Mary, Simon was a teacher. He was a tall, boyish man in his late thirties, fair-haired and blue-eyed. Had he not been a mother’s boy, he’d have been snapped up years before by some predatory female, for he was quite good-looking. His father had died young and Simon had been brought up by his mother; so he’d had no male to model himself on as he grew up and was rather effeminate; so much so he was bullied at school which left him very retiring and with a slight stammer. He’d never had a girl-friend, nevertheless, something happened when he met Mary Carswell. Fortune smiled kindly on them both. So did Eros.#

Their mothers hit it off at once. Wrapped up cosily in knee blankets on the sheltered side of the ship, cosseted and waited on hand and foot by staff, they sat reeling off a whole catalogues of illnesses and tittle-tattle all the way through the cruise sometimes joined by other elderly passengers. While they were engrossed gossiping, the two younger people wandered off. They knew no one else to speak to on the ship except themselves. In fact, there didn’t seem to be anyone of their age to speak to at all.

Simon had never taken a girl out in his life. His mother has seen to that, but on the cruise he was able to leave her in the hands of others while he and Mary had time to themselves on the opposite side of the ship; strolling there or sipping coffee in the restaurant. And there, away from the eagle eyes of their mothers, the chemistry began to work, and little by little, slowly at first but becoming more confident as the days went by, they fell in love. As the juices began to flow their love flourished, so that when they returned home the dull routine of their lives was brightened by clandestine letters to each other and secret phone calls on their mobiles.

It was Mary’s mother who first suspected matters had gone much further than she thought when a card arrived for Mary on St Valentine’s Day. Old harridan that she was, Ethel Carswell steamed it open and read it. Then she destroyed it. It was only days later when Simon phoned Mary from his mobile that Mary discovered he’d sent her a Valentine’s card. She asked her mother if any mail had arrived for her during the week, but her mother stared her straight in the eye and said no. From that moment, the relationship between them changed and Mary resolved to leave home when the time was right.

Simon was having a similar battle with his mother, who’d been contacted by Ethel Carswell and told about the card. They both knew they had to do something quick else they’d lose their carers, so they took to their beds and wheelchairs, leaving them only when they went cruising and were pampered by the crew.

On one of the cruises the couple decided to elope. There was no going back for time was passing them by. They were desperate. Both were in their forties and knew what lay in store for them if they didn’t make a move: a lifetime of drudgery followed by an even bleaker future when their parents had gone.

Year in year out, their mothers used the same ship and had become very friendly with the captain. So had their offspring who dined with him sometimes. He was a shrewd fellow and he loved life, a regular, rollicking Old Worcester. He’d summed up the situation long before when he’d see them with their mothers, and was all for their eloping when they mentioned it to him. He radioed the chaplain at the Missions to Seamen in Naples and by the time they docked there, a special licence had arrived and they were married in the tiny Anglican Church. Then they jumped ship with the captain’s blessing and went on honeymoon.

Their mothers were furious, angry beyond telling and made the most of their children’s ‘cruel desertion’, wallowing in self-pity but for the happy couple there was no returning home. Their mothers made sure of that. They presented a united front and cut off their offspring entirely. Not that it mattered much for Mary and Simon had their own incomes as teachers. They were completely free at last!

Both Simon and Mary tried in vain to make peace with their parents, but to no avail. There’d been little love shown to them all their lives and certainly none now. The break was complete. Having abandoned any hope of reconciliation, Mary and Simon emigrated to Australia and set up home in sunny Adelaide, where they produced two children, a boy and a girl, and lived long enough to be happy grandparents.

As for their mothers, Gloria Jones knew where her future lay, where she was pampered most and had neurotic company – on board her favourite luxury liner. There she spent the rest of her days cruising the oceans and eventually died on board. She was given a burial at sea most decorously by the Old Worcester captain, who enjoyed feeding her to the fishes somewhere off Barbados.

Back home, Ethel Carswell met a kindred spirit in Silas Ashwell, the retired funeral director of a flourishing business in Birmingham. He was a tall, gaunt man with a cadaverous face which very occasionally broke into the sad, satisfied smile of all funeral directors. He was a good listener and encouraged Ethel in all she said, dancing attendance on her hand and foot – with an eye to her fortune. Sadly, for him, he snuffed it before her. When she eventually died, all her money went to a lost cats sanctuary for she was very fond of cats and had always had one about the house. She never knew she was a grandmother, and I doubt if she’d have cared overmuch had she found out.

John Waddington-Feather ©

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