I don't write like my mother, but for many years I spoke like her, and her particular, timorous relationship with language has shaped my own. There are people who move confidently within their own horizons of speech; whether it is Cockney, Estuary, RP or Valley Girl, they stride with the unselfconscious ease of a landowner on his own turf. My mother was never like that. She never owned the language she spoke. Her displacement within the intricacies of English class, and the uncertainty that went with it, taught her to regard language as something that might go off in her face, like a letter bomb. A word bomb. I've inherited her wariness, or more accurately, I learned it as a child. I used to think I would have to spend a lifetime shaking it off. Now I know that's impossible, and unnecessary, and that you have to work with what you've got.
"It's a lot of cars today, id'n it?" I am driving Rose into the Chilterns to a nature reserve where we will stroll about and share our sandwiches and a flask of tea. It is 1994, still many years to go before the first signs of the vascular dementia that is currently emptying her mind. Her little remarks, both timid and intimate, do not necessarily require a response
"Look at all them cows." And then later, "Look at them cows and that black one. He looks daft, dud'n he?" "Yes, he does." When I was 18, on one of my infrequent visits home, resolving yet again to be less surly, less distant, repeated conversations of this kind would edge me towards silent despair, or irritation, and eventually to a state of such intense mental suffocation, that I would sometimes make excuses and cut my visit short.
"See them sheep up there. It's funny that they don't just fall off the hill, dud'n it?" Perhaps it's a lack in me, a dwindling of the youthful fire, or perhaps it's a genuine spread of tolerance, but now I understand her to be saying simply that she is very happy for us to be out together seeing the same things. The content is irrelevant. The business is sharing.
It is spring time, 2001, and I collect Rose from the nursing home to take her out to lunch. Sometimes she knows exactly who I am, and at others she simply knows that I am someone she knows well. It doesn't seem to bother her too much. In the restaurant she returns to her major theme; she has been down to the cottage in Ash to see her parents. Her father was looking so unwell. She's worried about him. Her mother is going to come up to see her in the nursing home, but doesn't have the bus fare and we should send it to her. There is no purpose in telling Rose that her father died in 1951, and her mother in 1967. It never makes any difference. Sometimes, she packs a plastic carrier bag of goodies - a pint of milk, a loaf, a bar of chocolate and some knickers from the laundry basket. She will put on her coat and announce that she is going to Ash, to Smith's cottages, to the home where she grew up and where her mother is waiting for her. This homecoming may seem like a preparation for death, but she is in earnest about the details, and lately, she has been convinced that she has already been, and must soon go again. Over lunch, she says that what she would really like is for her mother to come and see her room at the nursing home, and see for herself that her daughter is all right.
Afterwards, I drive her round the streets of suburban west London. This is what she wants, to sit and look and point things out as we cruise from Northolt to North Harrow to Greenford.
"Oo, I really love doing this," she says. "I mean, look at me, riding about like Lady Muck!" As we go along the A40 in a heavy rainstorm, past Northolt airport, she falls asleep. She was always so bird-like and nervous that sleeping in the day would once have been unthinkable. She was a worrier, an insomniac. Soon all her memories will be gone. Even the jumbled ones - her mother, the house in Ash with the plum tree in the garden. It's a creeping death. Soon she won't know me or Margy or Roy. As the dementia empties her memory, it will begin to rob her of speech. Already there are simple nouns that elude her. The nouns will go, and then the verbs. And after her speech, her co-ordination, and the whole motor system. I must hang on to the things she says, the little turns, the phrases, for soon there will be no more. No more of the mother tongue I've spent most of my life unlearning.
She was animated and cheerful over lunch, but for me it's been another one of those sad afternoons. Each time I come, a little bit more of her has gone. But there's one small thing I'm grateful for. As she sleeps and the wipers toil to clear the windscreen, I can't help thinking of what she said - riding about like Lady Muck. I haven't heard that in years. Lady Muck. Where there's muck there's brass. It must have been in use in the 1930s, or 1940s. I'll use it. It's right for the novel I'm finishing now. I'll have it. Then I'll always remember that she said it. I have a character just coming to life who can use her words. So thank you, Rose, for that - and all the rest.
Ian McEwan (2001). Mother Tongue. Retrieved on October 5th, 2011, from http://www.ianmcewan.com/bib/articles/mother-tongue.html. First published in The Guardian on 13 October 2001
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