That old knife of my mother’s was like a story.
She’d had it for years: donkey’s years. I can’t remember a time when she didn’t have it, and I’m going back half a century. What’s more I can’t remember it ever having a handle. It must have done of course. She couldn’t have bought it like that. No one sold eight inch carving knives without handles, not even in my mother’s time.
It wasn’t just the handle it lacked. It had no tang. That’s the metal extension of the blade that goes up inside the handle to join the two parts together. It had no tang at all, just a bump, like a knuckle, where it had broken off.
There wasn’t much of the blade left either come to that. It was the full eight inches long, and had a point you could slit hides with: but that half century and more of sharpening, on the doorstep to begin with, and then on a proper sharpening steel had worn away a full half of its depth. There was just a thumb width of full depth blade left at the end where the handle should have been. That sharpening had kept it keen too. You could have shaved with that blade.
When I was very young my mother used to hit me with a bamboo cane. That was the way they did it then. Canes, sticks, leather belts. The flat of a hand was just a tap. It was fear drove them to it I think. Perhaps it was because of the war. They’d seen what could happen when people got out of control. They’d seen it too close. Perhaps they’d seen it from the wrong end. Perhaps either end was the wrong end.
She used to hit me across the bare short trousered legs with her cane.
I can remember the sting of it as I write. That and the sheer animal terror. I was like a bird loose in a room, banging at the window pane trying to get away. She was the same almost. It was as if the air was full of it: the panic and the terror, and we were just jerked along like rag dolls on strings.
I’d dodge around the furniture crying for her to stop. She’d come dodging after me, trying to get a grip. She’d be shouting too, wanting me to stand still. Sometimes we’d tire, take a break, watching each other across the table or over a chair back. She’d try to sweet talk me round then, like a man with a shovel behind his back trying to coax a rat out from under a bed.
Misunderstandings. That’s what it’s all about when you come down to it. All this struggling with words. Trying to tell a simple story. Trying to make yourself clear.
We used to have a dog, much later, when I was a married man. He was a Staffordshire Bull Terrier. He never got the hang of doors. The way they opened. Not like a cat. A cat will sit and wait. It knows the door will open for it eventually. The old dog never learned that. He’d just put his head down and butt it. Once when he got particularly desperate to get through he took the frame off one: chewed it to match wood. We took a photograph of that, to send in with the claim on the house insurance. They paid up straight away.
We took the responsibility very seriously, of the dog. We were careful about what he had to eat. That may have been down to me mostly. When I was a kid we’d had a highly strung pedigree whose insides turned to water whenever she had the slightest variation to her diet. That makes you pay attention. She used to break wind a lot. Usually next to my father at the tea table. That bloody dog, he’d say, and light up a cigar to cover the smell.
Anyway, about the Bull Terrier and my mother. She trained him to beg at table quicker than you could say Speak Boy, and that was the only thing anyone ever taught him that he hadn’t thought of first. One day we caught her about to give him a sweet. She was unwrapping it while he waited. Don’t give him that I said. Doesn’t he like chocolate limes? She asked.
It was the same with the fish.
Not the ones in the tank.
We had mum up to stay. She would have been in her late seventies by then I guess. I’d cooked two fish on the baking tray in the Aga. My wife was vegetarian. There were just the three of us. Two fish. Two meat eaters. One vegetarian. There’s nothing complicated about it. I got them out of the oven, holding the baking tray in a gloved hand. I could feel the heat coming through.
Would you like a fish mum? That was a mistake. There are no simple questions for some people. They don’t want to give you the wrong answer: put you to trouble. The heat through the glove came on a little stronger. I waited. She searched my face for a clue. I had nothing to hide, so nothing was revealed. She settled for a delaying tactic.
Only if you can spare it. My fingers were beginning to toast by now.
Of course I can spare it, I told her, or I wouldn’t be offering it to you.
You might be offering me a million pounds, she said.
I’m not offering you a million pounds mum, I said, I’m offering you a bloody fish.
On the way back down the motorway we reminisced about the past. That cane came up. We remembered the day I took it off her. She’d got me by the arm and had let me have one across the calf. That’s when I couldn’t take any more and fought her for it, got hold of the cane myself and gave her one back, maybe more than one.
I can remember how awe-full that was. It was like standing up to God. I’d never questioned her authority before you see, not her right to hit me, only tried to escape it. I don’t think I’ve ever stood up to anything since, not really.
But you hit me as hard as you could she said.
I thought you were hitting me as hard as you could I said.
That’s what I meant when I said that knife was like a story: to get the use of it you had to grip it by the blade.