(Sample: © A. Colin Wright)   

“Mother! How ever many do you have?”

    She looked up at me, touching the fine golden hair that floated across her forehead. “Don’t tell Beryl about it, will you, Heather? I don’t want Beryl to know.”

    She was down on her knees trying to stuff the shoes into the cupboard, which must have held thirty pairs. As she jammed the new ones in, others fell out: a pair of brown patent-leather ones, and then, when these too were thrust into place, a whole pile fell from the other side. Two white sandals, two snakeskin shoes with pointed toes, and a single, knee-length boot.

    “Here, let me... ”

    We finally managed to get the doors closed, and she turned the key in the lock.

    “Now let’s get the kettle on for a cup of tea. That really was lucky. Beryl will be home any minute now.”

    Still in her outdoor coat she filled the kettle, put it on the stove and then started opening one cupboard after another to find a box of matches. I sat down at the table, smoothing out a wrinkle in the brown felt that covered it, thinking that I never really would understand this family I had married into. She looked in her handbag too, and I glanced as one of the letters fell out--the same handwriting as always--but she crammed it back in.

    “When’s George coming back from Edinburgh did you say, Heather?” she asked, giving up the attempt to find the matches. “It’s really better without the men sometimes, isn’t it? I really enjoyed today, thank you so much for coming with me. Oh but”--it only now occurred to her--“I hope you didn’t mind not going on the pier with the rest?” She shook her head and frowned at me: “Only don’t you go and tell Beryl we were there all day and never even saw the sea! She’d never let me live it down.”

    We’d seen nothing but the inside of shoe-shops.

    As my mother-in-law chatted away I needed only to nod my assent from time to time. Shoes, then, were another of her little vanities. Hats were too, although if I’d been born with that hair I’d never have wanted to cover it up. Although it had faded since her youth, it seemed to float around her and sometimes she would pat it, interrupting her constant stream of words for a few seconds of daydreaming.

    “Heather,” she’d said to me a good two weeks before George had left, “why don’t we have a day out together? The Mothers’ Union is putting on a bus trip to Eastbourne. I haven’t seen the sea for a long time. Just the two of us. We won’t tell anyone. It’ll be a secret.”

    Almost everything in the family was a secret, I had discovered, only later to be revealed if it were whispered. On this occasion Beryl had found out, and was sarcastic about some people enjoying themselves while others had to work.

    From the hallway came the sound of Beryl’s key in the lock. The door never opened for her on the first try, so there was always a few seconds of jiggling before she trotted into the house.

    “Hello, mother. Heather,” she sniffed, looking worried. As always, she had a cold. “Gracious me, no tea made?”

    “The kettle’s on.”

    “But you haven’t lit it. Oh dear, mother, it’s gone six o’clock. And Arthur and Sarah are coming for tea as soon as he gets home.”

    She lit the stove from a box of matches she’d found just behind it, then took off her coat and laid it over a chair.

    “The crowds were terrible tonight. And Mr. Camps wants me to stay late tomorrow because there’s that new girl... ”

    “I’ll just cut some bread and get it buttered.”

    I looked on helplessly. Even now, after all these years, the mention of buttering bread reminds me of that old house on the outskirts of London, with its darkened kitchen where the only thing I can ever recall happening, inexorably, was bread getting buttered. The process took an hour, which I can’t now explain because they were always buttering busily without ever seeming to finish it, and then there was never enough, just a few meagre slices. The house has other owners now and I haven’t been there since mother’s death, but even if I went back I’m sure I’d be greeted with “Come on in, we won’t be long, we’ll just get some bread and butter on.”