Now and again I have a sad reminder of a specific time when I upset my mother rather badly. There may well have been other occasions when I did something unkind or ill judged, but this one has stayed in my memory. Mostly dormant, it re-emerges at intervals, to provoke and disrupt. Just as it has done today.
I was 16 years old and it was a few weeks before Christmas in the last year of the 1960s. Sitting with my parents after our early evening meal, I was looking forward to a few hours later on, listening to music with friends from school.
My mother, always one for pottering about, began watering a flowering cactus. For a long time now it had sat dusty on the window ledge, a succulent plant looking wrinkled and ill at ease in our northern home.
But this year, responding no-doubt to my mother’s tender ministrations, there had been a transformation in the cactus. Its leaves, strung in rows like a paternoster, had become glossy and fresh. Pasture green. The foliage itself was now a mere foil to the main attraction of the plant. For at the end of each segmented stem was a deep scarlet flower, as bright as Santa’s coat. The effect was stunning.
‘It’s never looked so good’ said my mother to nods of agreement from my father and me. ‘I’ve been reading that they need quite a bit of water’, she continued. ‘They aren’t from the desert, even though we call them cactus’. ‘Oh really’, dad replied glancing up from the evening paper and feigning interest. ‘No, they belong in the rainforests of Brazil and they literally grow on trees’. ‘Not like money then’, I interjected.
Ignoring my attempt at sarcasm, mum rearranged the position of the plant and returned to her armchair to admire it. ‘David’, she said, ‘Why don’t you count its flowers? There’s a mass of them, like we’ve never had before. Go on, tot them up for me’.
‘In a minute mum …’ I mumbled, retreating to some inner reverie.
We sat for a while. The coal fire burned hot, occasionally hissing a yellow-blue flame of burning gas. Dad continued with his paper. Mum took our cups to the kitchen and then began attaching Christmas cards to pieces of ribbon, for hanging on the wall.
Judging the moment to be right. I got up from my seat, made for the door and announced that I was going out for a while and had a key.
‘But what about the flowers on the cactus?’ mum asked, clearly troubled. ‘Sorry mum’ I replied, ‘I need to get off to catch the bus. I’ll do it when I come back’.
Dad looked up, glanced at mum and then shot me a look of disapproval.
‘Such a little thing to ask’ said mum. I could see the tears welling in her eyes, her look already strained and hurt. ‘You wouldn’t believe it’, she said. ‘Kids today … such a little thing, but no … they just can’t be bothered’.
Simultaneously embarrassed and irritated, I headed for the door. My evening was spent with a few like-minded folks in Middlesbrough, immersed in a new LP by the Incredible String Band. It was called Changing Horses.
I came home to a darkened, silent house and went straight to bed. There was no mention of the cactus next day, or at any point thereafter.
A great deal of time.
Then at home earlier today, I looked at the brilliant display on my own pink-flowering cactus. I’d certainly been rewarded for some rehabilitation given back in the summer. Fresh compost, a slightly bigger pot, just the right amount of water and a new location away from bright light. Now the plant cascaded forth in bracts laden with pale flowers. Already in a state of exuberant display, it clearly had more blooms ready to appear.
As I admired this splendid example of Schlumbergera bridgesii, I thought back to that pre-Christmas evening so long ago. I remembered my mother’s pain and my own thoughtlessness. In a long-belated act of propitiation, I counted its blooms, just as my mother had asked. There were 39 flowers and 12 buds.
One for each year since 1969.