When Weeza and I were in India several years ago, for the wedding of her best schoolfriend (both she and her husband live in London but had gone home to Chennai for their marriage), we found that we did a certain amount of sitting around. Every time there was another party, we were told what time to present ourselves, all decked out in saris, ready to pile into cars and auto rickshaws and set off. We duly did so, only to find that no one else was ever ready. So after a day or two, we arrived a bit late, and were given a thorough ticking off. Not that our hosts were ready (W’s friend has several aunts), but we and junior members of the family had to be there for when they were, even if it was an hour or two later. This was all right, we were happy to sit and chat and wait although, as the senior aunt was teetotal and so every party was dry, I did start to suffer a certain amount of stress and had to cadge cigarettes from Weeza, who smoked at that time. I didn’t smoke and never have, but a girl needs a vice and there were no others available.
One day, we’d arranged to spend the afternoon with the bride’s younger sister. We knew she wouldn’t be ready on time, and we thought our place in the pecking order was about the same as hers, so we carried on shopping and were in no hurry. When we arrived, she was waiting impatiently. “You’re dreadfully late,” she scolded. “I wondered what had happened to you, we’re going to be late.”
“I’ll just have my lunch”, she added, “and we will get going.”
I had a sudden revelation. When I was growing up, you see, my mother was always the last to be ready to go out. She blamed the rest of us. She had to get out the right clothes for our father, or he’d have worn just anything, she had to make sure we were ready and that my hair was brushed, and only then could she turn her attention to herself. When, finally, we were all assembled in the hall, then she vanished to the loo and we all had to wait again. We took all this at face value and it was an accepted thing.
Years later, when she lived here, she and I used to go to a lunch club once a month – originally I went to keep her company as everyone else was much older than I, but of course they became my friends too and I still go (some of them are in their 90s and I’m still one of the youngest). At that time, on a Thursday morning I used to help as a volunteer at the village school, hearing children read and that sort of thing. I used to leave early on that Thursday, wait on the pavement and she’d pick me up. She was nearly always late. I often stood waiting for ten minutes or more.
One day, I’d heard nearly all of the children in the class and I stayed an extra few minutes for the last ones. Suddenly, my mother erupted into the room looking furious and saying that she was waiting for me. When I had finished what I was doing (couldn’t abandon the child) and joined her, she ticked me off thoroughly, saying how dreadfully rude it was to be late for lunch – 45 minutes was allowed for arriving, having a drink and chatting generally, so we weren’t really, and in any case it was only because she’d been on time for once – we left at the same time as usual.
Anyway, when Deepa was cross with us for lateness, but still hadn’t used the time to get ready herself, it gave me a sudden revelation about my mother. The point was, not that she couldn’t be ready on time, but that she wouldn’t wait for anyone else. So she made sure that she was the last person to appear. And she’d done it all my life, and I’d never realised.