My mother’s life is like an unopened bottle of perfume, full of unrealized possibilities, about which I feel intolerably guilty. She now lives in a relatively swanky retirement home, where, true to form she indulges in the minimum amount of pleasures.
I have a theory that all of us have a central paradox, with many little ones as accessories. My mum, for whom adventure poses no temptation, is fascinated by mountain climbing. Evening walks were more interesting when she could look into lit rooms to see how other people decorated. She herself lived in the same place for more than 20 years, along with the previous owner’s wallpaper. She has had a lifelong fascination with how the brain works. She now describes her own as “jagged,” though she refuses medication to blunt its ongoing serration.
She never enjoyed cooking. I learned early on never to say I liked something, because it would be repeated, dare I say it, ad nauseum. When I tell her about dishes I am making her most common response is, “Oh, do you have to?” Of course I do.
Last week I had to make pork vindaloo. The garam masala had a fabulous base note of cinnamon. As I grated cucumber for the raita it gave off a fragrance like cool rain. I am my mother’s daughter. I’ll make a chicken curry tonight so I can use up the rest of the coriander before it turns gunky.
Happiness, love, security, they can all be fleeting, perhaps even illusory: music and laughter wafting from other people’s rooms. But, in this country at least, every day can include a good meal, and if you are lucky, like me, sometimes a friend with whom to share it. I am not my mother’s daughter, I will make my stand by the stove and breathe deep.
The Last Cigarette is the final volume in Simon Gray’s Smoking Diaries. It isn’t the usual retailing of events, people met, meals eaten and so to bed. It is more like a cruise down his darkly funny stream of consciousness.
He worries ceaselessly and often unnecessarily, reminding me of one of my mother’s favorite refrains: “I’ve had a lot of trouble in my time and most of it’s never happened.”
I have often repeated it. “My mother always says, . . .” and many people have nodded in agreement. In fact, once someone said to me “that’s very good, I’m going to write that down.” I reported this thinking she’d be pleased. She was embarrassed. “It’s Mark Twain,” she told me. I wish my mother came with footnotes.
Back to Mr. Gray. He takes us on holiday to the Greek island of Spetses, a trip made happy and sad with memories of friends passed, hilarious by his fear of rats and his descriptions of life on the beach. He noodles around with a story idea inspired by what he thinks a woman in the street might have thought and consequently done as the result of seeing him shuffling along Holland Park. Everything is now. The humiliation of losing his virginity. His mother’s death. He is as unsparing in his account of his failings as he is generous in his appreciation of his friends, whom he loves because of their flaws, not in spite of them. Simon Gray is the kind of hero most often overlooked: the man who lead an unblinkingly examined life.