“I think it would involve too many changes.” I say, beginning mentally to tot up all the things I’ve eaten which would be off limits. I stop at the beginning of the previous day, because by then it’s crystal clear that a life without wheat would be no fun at all.
“Oh no, it’s very good. I have a lot of clients who have given up wheat and they all tell me what a difference it’s made. For someone like you, whose stomach is very weak, it could really help.”
I note that April hasn’t told me she has given up wheat herself. Although she may be loosening up a little; earlier in the same session she told me, with a glee I found charming, that she had discovered strawberry flavoured Swedish cider. “It’s very good.” she said, “But one bottle gets me really drunk.” From what I imagine about April’s regime, sniffing the neck of an open bottle would probably be enough to tip her over the edge.
I try to imagine the life of someone who gives up wheat, but it’s just not happening. If wheat was such a bad thing, would they really refer to people who can’t eat it as “intolerant”? After all, nobody gets described as “poison intolerant”, do they? I think about all those labels you could give people: mugging intolerant, earthquake intolerant. No, it doesn’t work. A wheat-free life is something I associate with going without, with the special sections of the supermarket full of alternatives to things, the sections nobody shops in unless they have to. It seems rude to say no outright, so I say what I always say to April when she suggests a drastic and unpalatable change to my lifestyle.
”I’ll think about it.”
“You should go home and ask your wife.” she says, which makes me wonder whether I’ve done a very good job of portraying my wife in the pleasant chats April and I have during acupuncture sessions. It seems rude to point this out too, so instead I bite my tongue and let the moment pass. That’s easily done, because we’re reaching the point in proceedings when the smalltalk stops. April swings the heat lamps over and they gently radiate comfort in the direction of my belly, like a concentrated burst of summer, and she moves further up, peppering my arms with tiny spikes. But my eyes aren’t even open by then, the sunlight streaming in from the big sash window just bounces off my eyelids. All I can feel is the warmth, all I can hear is the sound of the sea playing on her tiny stereo, and it’s as if I melt into the couch.
* * *
I always sit upright for my conversations with Ann Marie, and I’ve usually been to the pub first. It started because the bus drops me off at twenty to six, and I visit her at six, and it wasn’t quite enough time to pop home and change. And the Lyndhurst was so welcoming, so tastefully lit, and it was summer and there was just enough time to nurse a half at one of the outside tables and decide what to say, so I stopped there one day straight off the bus which conveniently stops right outside. It hardened into a habit, the way these things often do.
It’s been two years, and I don’t really know Ann Marie any better than I did on day one. I know that isn’t the nature of the conversations that we have, but it’s still strange to rattle on about your life to somebody and for it all to be so one-way. Occasionally, when the time is up, there is something like smalltalk but never for long. One time, I discovered that she was from Baltimore – I would never have placed her accent in a million years, so this was a useful piece of information to place in a very small file which was unlikely ever to get much bigger. “It’s not all like The Wire” she told me, with a small and uncharacteristic smile.
Some of our conversations career headlong towards the end and I feel like I could be there all night, feeling cheated when they finish. Some by contrast are painfully slow, trying to work out where to go next. Some days I don’t make any sense to me, so I’m not sure how it could make sense to anybody else. Some days I am bored, or boring, or both, or I catch myself talking about things I’m sure I’ve said before in exactly the same way and I get echoes of echoes of déjà vu, like being in a hall of mirrors. Some days I am so frustrated that what is supposed to be progress can feel so little like it. But she often finds a different angle or a killer question, and when she does she lights up a corner of my life I’ve been struggling to see into.
One time, we were talking about the situation with my mother, the one I don’t talk about much with everyone else. This was last year, when things were much less closed off than they are now, when everything was going to go wrong but none of us completely knew it yet. My mother had sent me another of those mails she specialises in, the short spiky message in which it was all my fault and I was invited, again, to apologise. They were all variations on that theme, at the time. It was like a weather forecast; sometimes they was angry, sometimes they were sad, then they went through another angry phase and finally there was nothing at all.
“What are you going to do?”
I knew the answer to this one. This was an easy question; I’d been thinking about it in the pub, had it all worked out.
“I‘m not sure. I suppose I could reply going into all the detail of why that’s wrong, putting my side of it again, line by line. There’s so much in there though that I think I might never stop, and it will make me angry, and it’s all been said before. Or I could say that it’s not something I want to discuss again, I could reply saying there’s no point in raking it over. Or I could sit on it for a few weeks, see how I feel.”
There was a long pause, and I could almost see her digesting what I’d said, chewing on ideas. She’s good at that, and the pauses are just long enough that you don’t know whether to volunteer more. I wonder what admissions she wrings from people in those extra split seconds of silence. Then she spoke.
“What’s your gut reaction?”
The ball had come back across the net at blinding speed and all I had time to do was stick my racquet in front of my face and watch it bounce off.
“My gut reaction is to tell her to piss off.”
One thing I’ve learned from these conversations is that I am not good at gut reactions, not in touch with them at all. I like to weigh things up, don’t like being on the spot. Sometimes she asks me how I feel about something, and I’ll tell her, and there’s a pause and a different kind of smile.
“Is that how you feel, or what you think?”
I think I can’t tell the difference. Or is that how it feels?
And when we talk about the relationship between my body and my mind, I wonder if there is a relationship at all. It’s civil rather than cordial if there is one. I’ve always been cerebral, and when my body goes wrong I don’t feel like it’s on the same side as my mind at all. Often my body feels like just another car I haven’t learned to drive. Anybody who watches me try to dance, or break into a run to get across a busy street before the lights change, would be tempted to agree.
Our latest conversation is drawing to an end and I say something about being lazy.
“Would you say you’re lazy then?” she asks me.
”Yes.” I say, without any hesitation. I can’t even be bothered to dress it up.
* * *
There have been adverts everywhere about Mother’s Day. I note them ruefully, and hear people at work talking about weekend plans. Mother’s Day’s one of those universal celebrations – either you’ve got one, you are one, or you’re married to one, and they’ve pretty much got you every way. It seems odd to tell my friends I’m not doing anything special. At the end of the working week I take a walk through town and stop at the card shop, buy something suitable - not too mushy, not in poor taste, and write it sitting on a bench outside the department store. I check the last collection on the postbox and calculate that it has a fair chance of getting there on time, and in it goes. Then I go off to the pub, something I’m pretty sure that most of the women in my life would not approve of.
On Sunday, the phone rings. It’s my mother-in-law.
“Thank you for my card!”
“That’s all right, it made it then?”
“Yes, it arrived yesterday but I didn’t open it. I knew it would probably be for today. And thanks for my presents too, the book and the CD.”
Obviously they were Kelly’s idea, and I will hand her over to Kelly in due course and she’ll hopefully say the same things to her, but it doesn’t change the fact that I’m enjoying the conversation. We chat away about my ailments, and her day yesterday with her granddaughters, and I tell her about our Saturday in London, arranged on the spur of the moment because we can.
“You’ll have to email me a photo of your new sofa.”
“I will Rose, don’t worry.”
I’ll need to, if she’s going to see it, because she doesn’t come to Reading if she can possibly avoid it. She’s not a confident driver, and she regards our one-way system as the outermost circle of hell. It was easier when we lived at the old place, next to the river. The directions would go like this: drive from Oxford to Reading and turn left just before the first big roundabout that sends you into a cold sweat. We’re on the right. And Rose could do that, but when we moved closer to the centre of town, many confusing roundabouts away from there, it started to get more difficult.
The first time Rose tried to find our new flat unaided we tidied everything, put the kettle on and got some nice food in. She was late, but that’s fine, because she’s always late. Usually late setting off, too - my in-laws make plans at the last minute if they make them at all, something which drives me to distraction. When the phone rang half an hour after she was due to arrive, Kelly picked it up and all I could hear was her impatiently asking question after question, trying to work out where Rose had wound up in her ancient Rover. She was round the back of the big shopping mall in town, right next to the depot where they delivered all the goods. Piecing things together, it soon became apparent that my mother-in-law had driven the wrong way round most of the one way system. As if Reading wasn't a hair-raising enough place for motorists already.
The second time, she brought my sister-in-law and a satnav to ensure that history didn’t repeat itself. All it meant was that history repeated itself as farce. Just as before, the phone rang half an hour late, and I was treated to the spectacle of Kelly trying to navigate her mother through the one way system, like ground control talking someone through landing a plane when the pilot has died in mid-air. Even from my spot, puzzled on the sofa, I could hear the noise of my mother-in-law having a stand-up row with her own satnav. We gave up on getting her to the flat unaided after that - instead, we would drive over to my old flat and wait there for her to arrive. She would pull up outside an address I haven’t lived in for years, and I would get out of the car, jump into her passenger seat and direct her through the roundabouts and lanes. With my navigational skills, the road awareness of a natural born pedestrian, it was always a case of the blind leading the blind.
All my in-laws are country types. For Rose’s sixtieth birthday, her daughters took her to London for a minibreak. It was a surprise, they planned it without her knowing and just told her to pack a bag and take a couple of days off work. They stayed in a hotel together, had dinner off Leicester Square, they went to a concert. It was Billy Ocean, because my in-laws all love Billy Ocean; they had t-shirts printed and everything. I remember that Kelly’s said “BILLY OCEAN FLOATS MY BOAT”, another one said “GET OUT OF MY DREAMS, GET INTO MY CAR”. I like to think he would have done it, too, even if it had involved taking a red Rover the wrong way round Reading’s one way system. They went on the London Eye the next day, and took tea at the Ritz and Rose even let the girls take photos, which was a great compliment because she detests having her photo taken. I told people at my office, and they all said things like “what a lovely surprise”, and then I hit them with the sucker punch: it was the first time Rose had ever been to London.
We chunter away quite merrily and Kelly, painting her nails on the sofa, looks up, happy but in no hurry to take the receiver off me. It’s Mother’s Day, after all, and we all need one.
“Do you want to talk to Kelly?”
“I suppose I better had, or she’ll only get jealous won’t she.”
“Yes, I bet she would, she’s a bit like that. Okay then Rose. Love you, bye!”
“Love you, bye!”