When Johnson arrived his mother, Mavis, was in the lounge, staring at the black and white TV. She looked up as he stooped to kiss her on the forehead, then resumed watching. It was an old cowboy film.
“D’you want me to change the channel?” he asked.
She made no reply apart from a fleeting frown. He looked at her eyes, and realized they were quite still. Whatever held her attention, it was not the ancient cowboys with their neat 1950s haircuts and white teeth.
He sat down in an armchair opposite her and waited for her to pay him some attention. Then he got up to turn the sound down. The theme music began to play and the credits came up. The episode came to a close with a final trumpeted flourish.
“Tea,” she said, quietly. And, in a harsher voice, “Want some tea. Thirsty. Nobody brings me my tea any more. You get it.”
She looked angrily at him, as if he had been denying her plaintive requests.
“OK, Mum, I’ll go and make you a nice cup of tea,” he said, trying to mask his irritation.
“If it’s too much bother, dear, a glass of water will do…” He winced at the sarcasm. She had always had a waspish tongue, unhoneyed by age.
He disappeared into the kitchen and put the kettle on the gas stove. He sniffed the milk in the fridge and ate a greying sugar lump. The TV had got louder again.
“Two sugars, remember,” she shouted over the blare of an advert. “You always forget the sugar – and make sure it’s hot!”
There was an old tin of tea in the cupboard. Fortnum and Mason’s. The gold letters were flecked with rust. An old Christmas present, he thought. The tea smelled musty when he opened the tin.
“How much longer you going to be?” Mavis shouted again. “Make sure you use the tea bags. Can’t stand bloody tea leaves in the bottom of the cup.”
The kettle whistled. He poured the boiling water into the teapot and whisked it round with the spoon, something she strictly forbade.
“It’s mashing,” he shouted back. “I’ll be with you in a mo. Do you want a biscuit?”
She did not reply. A new burst of music signalled the lunchtime news. Well, it would be something to watch.
After a few minutes he appeared in the lounge holding a tray aloft, rather theatrically, like a waiter in a high class restaurant. With a flourish he placed it on the coffee table in front of her. She eyed the contents beadily.
“What about the biscuits? And the sugar?” Grunting, he ambled back to the kitchen.
When they had settled, and he had once again turned down the volume on the TV, he smiled at her sweetly.
“I’ve been meaning to ask you, Mum. I’m a bit short again…”
She raised her tea cup to her lips with her little finger raised, and gulped. “Short of what? You know I haven’t got much to live on…”
“I’ve had some big bills recently. The car failed its MOT, and they’ve cut Carol’s hours.”
“I’m not surprised,” she snorted derisively. “She’s lucky to have a job at all, the way she carries on…” Johnson ignored this last remark. He could not afford an argument.
“It would really help, if you could tide me over with…” he paused, wondering where to pitch it. Too low and she would think he could rustle the money up elsewhere; too much and she would think he was being greedy.
“Go on, spit it out,” she rasped.
“A few thousand,” he said, feeling suddenly brave.
The doorbell rang. Mavis smiled triumphantly. “That’ll be Dean, come to do the garden. Go and let him in…”
Johnson stood up, and then paused. “Say yes first…”
Her eyes narrowed. “Not now, dear,” and then, raising her voice, “Come round the back, Dean. It’s not locked.”
He could hear Dean wheeling his lawn mower on the concrete path to the side of the house, a grinding metallic noise. The noise of defeat.
Dean appeared at the kitchen door, a wiry man in his 40s with thinning hair, a tattoo on each arm and a suntanned face. He was wearing shorts.
“What can I do for her ladyship? A bit of mowing? Some pruning? A bit of digging here and there?” He grinned, as if talking in sexual code.
Mavis looked at Dean’s legs admiringly. “You really look after yourself, don’t you Dean? I hope the little wife realizes just how lucky she is…” Mavis’s tongue flicked back and forth along her lower lip.
“There’s too much of me for her,” Dean said. “And a man needs his freedom.” He looked at Johnson, expecting some male support, but Johnson said nothing.
When Dean was working, Mavis insisted on moving to a chair by the window so she could watch him.
“He doesn’t understand plants, dear. He pulled up my sweet peas last week. Best to keep an eye on him. I don’t get many pleasures in life.”
Johnson wondered whether to broach the subject of money again, but decided to wait until Dean had gone.
Dean was in no hurry. He strolled up and down the lawn, stopping every few minutes to empty the grass cuttings onto the compost heap. After a while, Mavis knocked on the window as the lawnmower rumbled into range.
“Feeling thirsty, sweetheart? Would you like a coffee and biccy?”
“OK, darling. That’ll do nicely…” Dean shouted over the noise of the mower. He turned it off, rolled himself a cigarette and blew long plumes of smoke into the crisp autumn air.
“I always liked a man who smokes,” Mavis said pensively. “Like Bogart in Casablanca. Makes me feel all tingly.”
“Daddy never smoked,” Johnson observed.
“No, he wouldn’t. Liked to count the pennies, did your father. Always kept me short.” Mavis tutted disapprovingly. Her husband had left her comfortably off but that didn’t make up for all the holidays not had, the dresses not bought, the smart car never owned.
“Well, at least you’re not short now, Mum. You’ve no financial worries.”
“How would you know?” Mavis said, still watching Dean. “It’s not cheap living here, keeping everything together. And the shares aren’t worth half what they used to be.”
She paused, and turned to look at Johnson. She gazed into his eyes unflinchingly. “Course if you were careful, like Daddy, you’d manage on what you’ve got.”
“Muuuum…” Johnson whined. “You know I don’t earn much.”
“And why might that be? ’Cos you’ve never tried to better yourself. With all that education, you could have followed Daddy into the City. You wouldn’t be asking for my money then…”
Johnson sighed. It was the same old record. But he knew that, if he could endure it, she might soften.
She looked at him bleakly. He felt like a mongrel in a dog shelter, being looked over and found wanting. She despised the sadness in his eyes.
He cleared his throat. “Teaching is an honourable profession,” he said with a rhetorical rotundity. “It changes lives…”
“Well, them as makes their bed must lie on it.” She cut in before he could launch into a paragraph, and resumed gazing at Dean as he stamped his cigarette butt into the grass and fired up the mower again.
“I want to be alone now. You can go. There’s a few notes in the tin. Help yourself. I don’t know why you bother to ask. But leave enough for me to pay Dean. And make him a cup of tea before you go.”
Johnson kissed her on the forehead, and squeezed her wrist. He made Dean a mug of strong tea with four sugars, just how he liked it; then reached up to a silver coffee tin on the upper shelf and counted out £500 in crisp £50 notes. That left £50 for Dean, which was more than enough.
As he opened the front door to leave, Missy the black cat sidled past him and strolled into the lounge.
“Where have you been, you little rascal? Mummy’s been calling for you…”