Some years ago I had to spend time with my mother who was recovering from cancer. The summer was dwindling and she was determined to reconstruct the garden.
‘When I die, you can have the wake here,’ she said.
The way she was double-digging I could have buried her there too. Gardening had been a passion all her life. Often, I’d found her crouching in between the mahonia and the mock orange and eventually she’d emerge with something like a bird’s nest on her head. In fact, implants of twigs and grass and dead leaves had been a feature of her once voluminous hair right until the end.
I’d been preparing lunch but she insisted on giving me a tour.
‘Daniel, what do you think?’
I looked down a line of ten, maybe twelve rose bushes that were in perfect symmetry and pruned to within a millimetre of each other. Every cut, a clean one. Nowhere on those strong and thorny structures were there any branches or leaves with a mind of their own. They were all on her head. I nodded appreciatively, certain that my need for order and neatness was nowhere as developed as hers.
We strolled on to the shrubs, each one surrounded by a twelve-inch exclusion zone, in which not so much as a blade of grass grew. The beds that flanked the lawn were mirror images and not even a daisy dared flop over the borders. There was no attempt at the wild and natural look here.
‘Jeremy’s done well,’ she said.
My melanin-deprived cousin Jeremy, whose left eye stared permanently into the side of his nose, had become engaged.
‘God knows how,’ I said.
‘He stopped searching for a willowy beauty and settled for a good match.’
‘Has she got a squint too?’
‘None of us see straight, darling.’
Mum knew that, like Jeremy, I often looked at the world from a distorted angle. I was dazzled by men with an offbeat outlook, or a devil-may-care-attitude but they weren’t so keen on a book editor with OCD.
Of course, it was possible that my mother had been referring to herself. Though she’d been aware of my sexuality for many years, it remained something unspoken between us. It was my sister who kept Mum up to speed on the impossibly incompatible men whom I chose to date. She couldn’t help herself and privately, I was grateful. I didn’t want Mum to delude herself into the willowy-beauty-with-grandchildren scenario.
We went back to the kitchen.
‘Can you find the mayo?’ said Mum.
The cupboards were arranged meticulously. Herbs and spices by region, pastas by shape, condiments by size of jar, baking ingredients on one shelf, pulses on another. Of course I could find the mayo.
None of my boyfriends had ever appreciated my own fastidiousness. Michael, a chaotic jazz trumpeter, dismissed the way I arranged my books as severely anal. It didn’t last. But I still organize literature by imprint — who isn’t excited by rows of black Penguin classics? — travel by continent, and cookery books in ascending order from the everyday to the aspirational.
Philip, a celebrity psychologist, saw plenty of professional mileage in the kitchen where tins – coconut milk, kidney beans, aduki beans, miscellaneous – stood in neat rows, labels facing outwards, naturally. I don’t want to go into the way my underwear was set out then except to say that brand and day of the week were the main, but not the only, criteria. After Philip, who incidentally was a great cook but put things back in all the wrong places, I reconciled myself to being alone for the rest of my life. Dating had become too much of a drama.
Not long after my stay with Mum that summer, I met Luca. He swerved from a car on London Bridge and came off his bike. I’d been cycling behind him and stopped to help. As we swapped numbers I couldn’t help admiring his lips. They were perfect.
‘Grazie,’ he said, and shook my hand.
His text came later that evening. ‘Let me thank you properly’. On our second date, we went back to his flat. He pointed to a fridge the size of a walk-in wardrobe and suggested I pour a couple of drinks while he changed. Glistening green bottles of San Pellegrino stood on the top shelf and below them, rows of misty prosecco. The vegetables were not, I’m certain, arranged by frequency of use as he later claimed, but by something close to botanical classification. And his linen cupboard by far surpassed the most anal of my book arrangements. Some months later, we moved to a place in Pimlico. Were we trendy or bohemian? No. We were just the editor and the lawyer who lived at number 79.
‘But I must meet your Mamma,’ said Luca one day when I tried to persuade him it didn’t matter.
Of course, he was right. Our relationship was an aspect of my life that could no longer be defined by silence. In any case, I wanted Mum to know that finally, I’d looked at the world head on and found a good match.
Luca was the only boyfriend Mum ever met. They got on pretty well. Although, it was differences over garden design that almost upset their finely tuned relationship. I say finely tuned because he knew not to draw attention to the fact that we were a couple. This meant that words and phrases such as breakfast, snoring, my side of the bed, we went to bed late, we got up early, could never be uttered in my mother’s presence. Once, he hadn’t yet arrived at the call-me-Angela-phase, Luca suggested she could be a bit more imaginative with her planting. He rushed around wielding her trowel, excited at the thought of filling those characteristic areas of bare soil with bountiful growth.
‘Signora, this bald patch, you feel it with a few garlic. Here un bello carciofo. There some zucchini.’
Her lips began to twitch and, when he offered to make a start, her eyebrows almost touched her scalp.
After Mum died, we left London for Rome and, eventually, I asked Luca if he was ever going to introduce me to his family.
‘They know you’re gay, right?’
‘Mah!’ he said.
Who knew, indeed? Despite outing himself on a regular basis his family perversely clung to the idea that it was all just a phase. He remained reticent and finally, I confronted him thinking my being English was the problem.
‘Amore,’ he said. ‘Mamma, will drive you crazy.’
No more than mine had. Although, mine never preserved the plastic wrapping on new furniture nor sewed dusters on the base of her slippers to keep the floors buffed up. Luca just couldn’t see how alike he and his mother were. Of course, this shouldn’t have surprised me and I thought back to the day when I inspected Mum’s rose bushes. And her cupboards. We think we leave our parents’ frankly weird and ridiculous ways behind us only to discover, sooner or later, that’s exactly how we’ve been living all along.
Recently, we bought a fancy dining room suite with chairs upholstered in cream brocade to celebrate ten years together. We spent the best part of a day moving the table back and forth a few inches to achieve the most tasteful effect. I went to fix two well-deserved Negronis and when I returned Luca was staring at the chairs.
‘Bello,’ he said. ‘Per’aps we keep the plastic, no?’
My lips began to twitch and my eyebrows were working their way upwards. I knew that if I didn’t stop him now that plastic would stay on forever. And then I thought, mah! A bit of plastic wasn’t the worst thing in the world. And dirty brocade would be so much worse.
Eva Rivers asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work