It was in 1993 when she was 70.
I’d thrown a party and, of course, Ma was invited too. She wasn’t the sort of mother you’d leave off the invitation list. Not only were parties her natural element, but all my friends adored her. There would have been trouble had she been left on the bench. She drove up from Somerset in her venerable automatic Volvo 323, in which she could out-corner and out-face most other drivers on the road.
She arrived on Friday night and, as ever, we did a little damage to a bottle of gin as I cooked supper. Her, leaning against the kitchen worktop, peppering the conversation with tips; “Splash of sherry vinegar with that, Darling.” She told me about her old people; the ones she visited and went shopping for. She was still managing a local charity shop – full time – and keeping the local Parochial Church Council on the straight and narrow.
She recounted all the news over the meal, how she’d sent her latest fundraising idea up to head office, how the new vicar was settling in (“I think he may be a little evangelical for St John’s. He won’t sing the gospel the way Geoffrey used to”) and her plans for holidays with her thick-as-thieves friend Christine.
The next evening, the party started. Friends rolled in from across Oxfordshire and from far further afield. Bottles were opened, glasses filled and, as ever, Ma held court from her accustomed chair.
I loved the way friends who were barely a third of her age would gather around her, keep her glass filled and listen to her stories.
And such wonderful stories.
She’d grown up in Kent in WWII, where she’d lied about her age to start driving ambulances and nursing at Dover’s underground hospital. She’d tell the story of how she’d cycle to work through German air raids, sticks of bombs plummeting from ‘planes overhead “And of course, I knew I was safe. I had my tin helmet on.”
She’d tell the stories of how she used to be invited to cocktail parties at RAF Manston where various pilots would vie for her attention, plying her with cocktails. “Well, I’d drink the first couple then tip the rest away under my chair. I do wonder what the poor mess steward must have thought the next day.”
1940 was as real to her as yesterday. She’s watched the Battle of Britain wheeling above her from the clifftops at Dover. I once took her to a concert at Blenheim Palace where the highlight of the evening was a flypast by the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight. As a Spitfire’s supercharged V12 howled overhead, she held my hand tightly as she wept. “So many wasted young lives…so many friends.” she whispered, looking into the distance, watching the ‘plane as it slowly disappeared. She kept them alive with her own memories, which she’d sometimes share.
She was in the middle of one of these stories – about one of her mess party tricks – when something happened that will stay with me always.
“So, I’d balance a pint of beer on my head, get down on all fours, then lie down, light a cigarette and then stand up again. All without spilling a drop.”
A barked laugh, and “Ha! I’ll bet you couldn’t do it now!”
One of my friends, intending nothing but a little joshing, instantly ended up on the pointy end of Ma’s gimlet stare.
“Would you get me a pint of beer and cigarette?” He looked relived to leave the room, but came back a few minutes later bearing the beer and a scrounged packet of Marlboro.
Ma stood up from her chair, thanked him, smiled broadly and took the pint from his hand. After a typically comic sham of being the worse for wear (she could drink me comfortably under the table) she placed the pint on her head. With both hands, just to be sure.
Ma never needed to say much to command a room. Just walking in would usually do it. So by this point, other conversations had died and everyone had turned to watch.
She loved it.
She went down on one knee, then the other.
From there, she lay flat on the floor, her arms in front, the pint of beer still perfectly balanced.
“Still so sure?” she grinned up at my doubting friend as she gestured for him to pass her the packet of cigarettes.
She called for a light.
She flicked open the packet, drew a single cigarette, put it to her lips and, despite having given up twenty years earlier, lit it and drew deeply.
The beer barely rippled.
Then, she drew her arms towards her, straightening up.
In a single, fluid movement, she stood. She put the cigarette in one hand and took the pint glass from her head. She took a sip and passed the glass to her provocateur. A pause. “I never really liked beer. Would you get me another G&T?”
I only heard the second part of the sentence because I was standing next to her. The rest of the room was cheering, clapping and toasting her.
My mother achieved a huge amount in her 80 years. But I was never more proud of her than at that moment.