‘Half these buildings were black as night when we moved here.’ Her eyes are sharp green, like Jessie’s, the skin around them puckered into thin folds. ‘We saw the last of the pea-soupers – I’ve told you that? Couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. It wiped the edges off the place.’ She holds a cigarette, jammed between stained fingers, the ash just, about, to topple. ‘And would you look at this place now?’ She makes a sweeping gesture and the ash drifts towards my coffee. ‘All glass and what-not. That hotel – I heard there’s a swimming pool, in the overhang – you can see the city through the water. Who the hell would have thought of that?’
I take her out for lunch, once a week. A different place each time. We are working our way through every sandwich bar within a fifteen minute walk of Piccadilly Gardens. ‘We’ll never get round them all,’ she says, with some degree of glee. ‘Never-mind they’re always switching about. I’ll be dead before I’ve eaten one of those Paninis in all of them.’ Paninis are her new favourite– it always used to be jacket potatoes.
‘Cat’s got your tongue today?’ She raises her eyebrows to say she knows something’s up and would I just get on and tell her. She’s never been much good at silence, or secrets, or waiting. We’re sitting outside so she can smoke, backed up against the cafe window. The ridged metal back of the chair pushes into my bra-strap and bites at my thighs. I’ve ordered a salad, which I’m regretting. She has a mozzarella Panini and I am mesmerised by the strings of melted cheese.
‘Dan’s got a job.’ I keep my gaze fixed on the table. She flicks ash into a shallow metal tray which already holds two stubs, the brown filters greased with her lipstick.
‘He was head-hunted,’ I say.
‘Sounds illegal.’ She juts out her jaw and kneads her lips together. Market Street ebbs and flows before us. I watch people’s feet. Sandals, flip-flops, running shoes, kitten heels.
‘It’s in London.’ I listen to the pull of her breath, the slight crackle of tobacco. ‘It might not be forever,’ I say.
She lets out a snort. ‘Nothing’s forever.’
I think of my wedding day. Two weeks after Dad’s funeral. I’d persuaded myself we should carry on. He’d have wanted it – and all that rubbish. I walked down the aisle on my own, and when we came to the forever part I felt like I had a stone lodged at the back of my throat.
‘You’ve hardly been in that flat five minutes,’ she says and busies herself cutting the remains of her Panini into small squares. ‘And Dan’s just built that trellis – for the wisteria.’
He had spent an entire weekend, cursing at sticks of bamboo and lengths of string, a library book – Projects For Small Gardens – propped open with a hammer. ‘If there’s nothing for it to hold onto, the whole shebang will just fall over,’ he’d insisted. I’d pointed out it was a balcony, not a botanical garden, and gone back to my essay marking.
She’s right though, we’ve barely moved into the place - an open plan flat carved out of the top floor of an old cotton mill. Rough red brick and white stud walls. Three large windows made from smaller rectangular panes. We were sold on the view – Ancoats’ mix of Italian hill town and Northern industrial cityscape: slated roofs, the occasional glass angle, and then the canal like a thin strip of audio tape. My mother couldn’t understand why we’d want to live in an old factory, with all that noisy history, never mind noisy Saturday nights. She lives in Levenshulme, in a straightforward kind of a house: three bedrooms, a kitchen diner and a porch; a primary school at the end of the street, a fence around the circumference of her front lawn.
‘We might rent it out,’ I say, ‘At least for a while.’ I sound like I’m making excuses and I don’t want to. I stab at a piece of lettuce. I should have gone years ago. Mike and Jessie got away lightly – leaving early. She’s in the habit of me being here – same way I am – our weekly lunches, bits of DIY, mowing her lawn, fiddly stuff.
‘Do you know how much things cost down there?’ she says.
‘It’s a good package.’
She flares her nostrils. ‘They need all those coloured-in maps in a city like that too then?’
Dan spent a fruitless half hour, once, trying to explain to her what he did, back when we’d first met and were still awkward and polite and not quite sure if we were built to last.
‘I work with Geographical Information Systems,’ he’d said.
‘Well, you’ve lost me already,’ my mother quipped.
‘It’s maps; using maps to represent data, about anything – asthma sufferers, heart attack victims, wages, unemployment, age. You show the information on a map, in different colours. You can do it over a period of time – see how things change.’
My mother said she’d seen things change with her own two eyes. She said it struck her that people like him would be better off asking people like her how things had changed, never mind bothering with multi-coloured maps. Dan launched off on a new tack – statistics, trends, three-dimensional modelling. My mother is not entirely lacking in grace, and she smiled and nodded and made the right kinds of noises, but I could tell she wasn’t listening to a word of it.
‘I have a class,’ I say. ‘I should go in a minute. ’
‘You’ll give all this up for him?’
I try to imagine Dan and me in London, but all I can picture is two small children standing on a train station surrounded by suitcases.
‘It’ll be an adventure,’ I say with false heartiness. ‘It’s time I moved on, isn’t it?’ I finish my tea, unhook my handbag from the chair-leg and place it on my lap.
‘Move on.’ She mutters the words to herself as if she’s trying them out.
‘I have to go,’ I say.
‘God forbid I keep you and your students from the intricacies of the industrial revolution.’
I stand, lean over and place a kiss on her forehead. I can taste the nicotine on my lips.
‘There’s a fast train, Mum. Two hours. It’s nothing.’
She waves me away. It feels like someone has my heart in their palm and is closing their fist. I think of my mother taking the bus into town with no-one to meet, walking to a new sandwich bar, ordering herself lunch.
‘And anyway, it’ll take a while, a couple of months. And we’ll arrange for you to come down and stay.’
She lifts her chin, as if to say, go, and so I do. I loop my bag over my shoulder and head off up Market Street. She’ll be lighting another cigarette. She’ll be watching me. I don’t look back.
There’s so much to do in the weeks before we leave, there’s little time to think. We throw a party for friends. I drink too much and end up crying in the bathroom. I invite my mother over for dinner the night before we leave. She arrives with a flat parcel wrapped in silver paper, which she leaves in the hallway. Pretty much everything we own is packed up in boxes, and the flat echoes around us as we walk towards the kitchen. She smokes all the way through dinner and I don’t say anything. I serve Spaghetti Bolognese with sauce from a jar and she doesn’t comment. When we’re done, I walk her to the door and we both stop in front of the parcel.
‘I’ll be down next week,’ I say. ‘I’ll see you then.’ There are still two weeks left of term. I’ve already booked my train back home.
‘Do you know your father used to say bath like it had an r stuck in the middle of it? I wouldn’t want you to end up talking like that,’ she says, and then she picks up the parcel and hands it to me. ‘In case you forget,’ she says, and then she plants a kiss on my cheek and she’s gone. I listen for the sound of the lift taking her down.
I open the parcel, there, in the hallway – a mournful rip of paper. It’s a framed map of another, older, Ancoats – the road names are written in copperplate, the fields are tinted a pale watercolour green. I pick out the building I am leaving tomorrow. It is shaped like a piece from a puzzle, hand-painted a muddy brown. It is a rebuke – I know, she knows. But I will take it with me. I will hang it in the hallway of our new flat in our new city, and greet it each time I return.