The Jam Jar by Teresa Driscoll
I decide on the vinaigrette jam jar.
Well, I say jam jar. I think it originally contained marmalade actually. Never jam. But no matter. The important point here is that it has one of those screw-top lids and does not leak. This I know because whenever I make vinaigrette I leave a clove of garlic in the jar to enhance the flavour. Each time I then make a salad, I shake the jar like some crazy woman playing maracas. It’s never leaked so far so I’m thinking it will be fine.
I mean I don’t want to melt a hole in my handbag, now do I?
Though I worry about the smell - which is why I’m doing dry runs.
Dr Torrington’s clinics are Tuesday and Thursday mornings. Tuesdays are the “befores” and Thursdays are the “afters”.
The “befores” have hair. The “afters” don’t.
There is a lovely lady called Maureen who gives advice on scarves and make-up to “give the illusion of eyelashes and eyebrows”. My mum got quite good at that, actually…
It was my mum who taught me how to make the perfect vinaigrette - two parts wine vinegar to five of olive oil plus mustard, salt, pepper and a dash of sugar. Oh, and the clove of garlic. I have no idea if it is a standard recipe as I don’t much bother with recipe books. To be actually straight with you reading is not my strongest point. Talking I’m completely brilliant at. Also numbers…and memory games. But apparently I am “on the spectrum” – although the doctors don’t seem to be able to agree which spectrum it is. Something to do with when I was a baby and kept stopping breathing.
My mum told me never to bother too much about what other people think. “Just be yourself”. And she would look at me with this really special face.
So. Anyway. I decide to do the next dry run at Dr Torrington’s on Tuesday. I worry that I will be rumbled but in the end, it is all very disappointing. A couple of the nurses nod a hello but no one says a single word to me. I sit in the waiting area with some magazines and in the end I get bored. Also, given that hospitals smell so strange anyway, nobody seems to notice the whiff from my bag.
I buy doughnuts on the way home – a whole pack of five. Mum would go nuts. You are what you eat, Susan.
Sometimes I can hear her voice so very clearly, I look over my shoulder to check she isn’t in the room.
Weird - but I keep thinking about the day my mum cut my fringe for me. It was in my eyes, see, and she said it would be easy-peasy to trim it. Only it wasn’t.
We had to buy a pink hairband until it grew out. Funniest thing is how sorry she was. Mum was always so sorry about everything.
I’m sorry about your dad not keeping in touch, Susan. And I’m sorry about all this hospital nonsense…
She hid it from me – “ the hospital nonsense” - for a long time but in the end I found a letter hanging around and we had the most terrible row.
Another thing I think about a lot is my mum’s habit of clearing her throat with a little a-hem noise when she was embarrassed. A-hem – I’ve had another letter from Dr Torrington, love…They are probably, ahem, going to have to keep me in hospital this time. Just a few days. .
You know what surprised me most? Little breasts – my mum.
I imagined it would only be big breasts that would be a problem. There was one woman at the clinic with the most enormous chest. “If they take one breast off, I’ll be walking round in circles,” she told my mum. She said it quite loudly in that brave and jokey voice which mums use when they are trying to jolly everyone along.
The woman with the big boobs didn’t get the new drug either. I could never pronounce the name. It was in all the papers. Postcode lottery.
I did some research and made a scrapbook. Some patients got the drug. But if you lived in the wrong area, you didn’t. Mum wrote tons of letters. And for a while there were loads of reporters round our house. Even a TV crew one day. The reporter was called Eleanor Minton. I’ve got a DVD of it.
She did one of those talking to camera bits right outside our house. Then they showed her standing in a different street – just a mile away across the county border, and she was saying that women on that street could have the drug. But not on our street.
It was quite clever, I thought. They sort of faded her in and out from one street to the next like on Dr Who.
Didn’t make any difference though.
Now here’s the thing I don’t understand. Why couldn’t Dr Torrington just lie about our address? I said that to her once and she just looked at me really sad. And that’s when she told me about the official health committee and I started going to their meetings instead. And that’s where I got to know Annabel Hartley.
They call her the chair. Ha, ha.
Anyway. Annabel Hartley is the chair for the meetings about the drugs. She speaks… very…slowly… and her favourite phrase is “wider picture” which always makes me think of televisions.
At one meeting I stood up and asked her what she’d look like with no hair and the steward came along and asked me to leave. And so I punched him - right on the nose.
The security guard was ever so nice that day actually. I told him all about my mum and he made me a cup of tea with lots of sugar and he put two bourbon biscuits on a plate with pink roses on and he said the steward wasn’t pressing charges.
But he told me that I couldn’t go standing up and shouting in meetings and that the best thing would be to use the “official channels”. That he would help me make a proper appointment so that I should talk to Mrs Hartley about my mum just like I had talked to him.
So he phoned my Auntie Sally because we didn’t want to upset my mum and then he rang Mrs Hartley’s secretary right there from his office which I thought was really nice of him and they said they would send me a letter about a proper appointment.
I didn’t tell my mum about any of it. I was quite proud actually. I thought I’d fixed it, you see.
Every day for ages I went down to the post first, expecting the letter to arrive.
But it never came…
Mrs Hartley has a very nice painting in her office. I go there every week now. Sometimes I make an inquiry at reception, other times I pretend to pick up leaflets. And one time I pretend to be bursting for the loo which is how I manage to get upstairs and find her office.
The painting is right over her desk and it reminds me of summer - blues and greens and yellows. There’s a woman in the middle of the picture wearing a straw hat but she doesn’t have a proper face. It’s like a child’s drawn it.
And now I have decided today is the day because Mrs Hartley is here for the monthly meeting.
No one stops me going up the stairs. And when I get into her office, it is really weird. Not like I imagine at all.
Mrs Hartley looks a bit puzzled and so I tell her that I am still waiting for the letter about a meeting on the “postcode lottery”. And she smiles and says she understand my “frustrations” but that it is a very busy time .
And that’s when I take the jam jar out of my bag. I unscrew the lid and I tell her straight.
That it is acid.
This is very wicked. And also a lie. But I want to see what it looks like on her face. Being afraid, I mean.
I want her to know what it feels like to know that something very, very bad is coming and not to be able to do a single thing about it.
Which probably makes me a horrible person who will go to hell and whom my mum should never have loved the way she did.
I said that to her, actually. At the funeral.
I stood by the grave afterwards with my auntie Sally and I said, in my head, in a really angry voice that she was a bloody nutter to love me that much…
And I thought the face in the painting would just melt a bit but it doesn’t. It disappears completely – all the colours dripping down the frame.
And Mrs Hartley starts screaming.
I tell her that it is only paint stripper, not acid, and it’s all gone on the picture but she just screams and screams and screams. And that nice security guard comes in with loads of other people…
We had the paint stripper from when mum was re-doing the kitchen cupboards.
What do you think, Susan. Cream? Or green?
There was a long time with the police and they brought in a doctor and a very nice lady called Shirley.
All this was quite a long time ago, actually. But I go over the story every single week now, you see.
And I always tell it just like this - as if it’s only just happened.
I was given a community service and I did gardening and painting and stuff and then this charity got in touch after reading about me in the paper and that’s when I met Sarah.
Sarah is dead pretty and dead clever and she is also a dead good campaigner.
She runs a charity called Fair Play which is all about getting the right drugs for everyone, no matter where they live. She also does loads of counselling work with schools – workshops teaching teenagers how to deal with really rubbish stuff.
And so pretty much every week now I go into a school with Sarah and I tell them the story of the jam jar and the painting and my mum. I tell them how afraid I was that when I lost her there would be no one left to look at me the way she did..
But Sarah bought this amazing picture frame with hearts and rose buds for my desk so that my mum is now looking at me like that….all the time.
I tell the teenagers in the schools about good anger and bad anger. About how rubbish it can feel when the whole world has ended but no one else has noticed.
But then I tell them about Sarah and all the cool stuff she fixed for me - horse riding and swimming and the meetings with my auntie and my new training to be a hairdresser .
And Sarah gives a talk too and we have lots of slides and lots of cakes.
And Sarah always winks at me when she leaves up the last slide. The picture from my desk.
And it’s odd, you know.
But with her face so big and smiling up there on the screen, it really does feel as if she is still watching.
Which makes me think that Sarah is right and I was wrong and that one day, just around the corner, just maybe… things might well feel a whole lot better.
© Teresa Driscoll