Saying and doing the wrong thing should be a full time profession for me. You see the problem is, I don't wait until my brain assimilates the information it receives before I respond to the stimulus.
Today I made some carrot cake with mascarpone cheese topping, Luke's favourite from Delia’s cookbook. We pop over to his old grey haired mother, Janet’s, for a cuppa. Sounds easy, but the most important part of a visit with mum-in-law is to have a plan - a plan that enables you to walk out the door at the end of the evening without getting sloshed. Tea is not really her favourite tipple. So I have formulated a plan. From here on in we shall call it Plan A.
As usual, we time it badly and arrive just as her 'dinner-for-one' is rotating in the microwave. The stench of preservatives and cheap meat assault my nose as I walk into the flat. Luke always insists it’s accidental when we arrive around her meal time, but it’s the same every time. If only she would have a routine like the rest of the western world this would not happen. Accidental...hmmm, I'm not convinced. Confused...yes, definitely.
Janet, his mother (the only Rottweiler I know without any teeth) comes out of the kitchen and grabs hold of Son Number One for the usual bone breaking hug. I cannot believe that they have the same DNA. He’s gentle, charming, attractive and she’s, well, she’s just not. Luke raises his eyebrows and grimaces at me.
Janet releases him and forces a half smile in my direction. Yes, you'd think she doesn’t like me, but he swears blind that, compared to his two ex-wives (the ones that she got rid of), she adores me. I’m not so sure. Somehow she always manages to ‘accidentally’ insult me. Okay, not always, but twice before, and in my world once is an accident, twice is habit forming.
I hold up my perfect cake and say, “I've brought some carrot cake.”
“Oh, how lovely,” says Janet. “Will you put it in the kitchen for me and I'll have it later.”
Now this is not part of Plan A. I know that the first thing she will do is pour a large glass of strong white wine each and insist that I drink at the same rate as her. I’ve got no chance of keeping up. She's been chain-drinking for a thousand years so is well-practised in appearing sober while being absolutely trolleyed.
I, however, fall over when the vapours hit my nose. I've always been a lightweight and finicky about ‘all things in moderation’. Janet's idea of a well-balanced diet is the opposite of mine. Now don’t get me wrong, she ensures that she gets enough fruit in her diet, but it is achieved by taking the path of least resistance. She only likes grapes (the fruit of least resistance) and as she doesn’t have many teeth left in her mouth, she cannot chew them or be bothered to mess on with the seeds, so she just drinks them in the wine. She drinks Gin and Tonics too as part of her staple diet. She adds stacks of lemon slices to the G&Ts to ensure that they become a ‘superfood’. Thankfully, she does not like to share those. As you can see, she does take her diet and the principle of least effort very seriously.
So here goes. I have to rescue Plan A, mostly because I don't have a Plan B, so I hit her with this little beauty.
“Oh Janet, it's actually for all of us now, with a cup of tea, if that's ok?”
There you go, Plan A back in action. You see in my world, you drink tea with cake thus delaying the alcohol intake. I don’t expect to get away with it for the full evening, but at least I can delay the inevitable and get some fat into my system first. I know, a woman desiring full-fat food in our society is unheard of, but I want it to absorb some of the alcohol – hence the carrot cake, towering with full fat mascarpone cheese. Sorted. This could work.
“Don’t bother with the tea, Clare. You cut us all a slice and bring it through. I'll pour the wine.”
Oh, no. Half my plan fails. But 50% is 50% - a better result than zero. Maybe I won't stumble quite so early this evening.
As the microwave pings Luke clocks that yes, we've done it again – disturbed her meal time. Now she won’t eat. It will be liquid diets all round, except luckily for my cunning plan with the cake. Cake is a solid, not a liquid, so at least I get to eat something for a change. Marvellous.
Sorry, I know I appear to be digressing, but trust me the insult is on the way. I'm just setting the scene for you. You'll enjoy it far more that way.
“Mum” Luke says, “why don't you eat your dinner first? We don't mind. We'll pop out for a cig.” Luke, ever thoughtful, kind and yet so stupid. His arrival times are not what they ought to be at all, like the airport check-in mess – us in Rome – our luggage in Madrid - yes, you can see it, can’t you?
“No, no dear. It's okay. I ate yesterday.” The pat response from Janet when alcohol is thrown into the mix. Her calorie intake would have me flat-lining. Without the false calories that she gets from wine, I reckon she'd disappear. Now there's a thought. Stop it, Clare, stop it.
I walk through to the kitchen and scramble around for clean cutlery (Challenge Number One) and clean plates (Challenge Number Two) and the elusive cake slicer (The Ultimate Challenge). Gipping on the smell of the ready-meal, I cut three healthy portions of cake - alcohol soaking portions - fingers crossed and all.
I place one each in front of mother and son, then, sit on my usual seat. It’s the one where they both have a perfect view of me at the point at which I happen to do or say the wrong thing, and I know it’s going to happen. It always does.
I take a large forkful of cake. Yes, a forkful. This is not the nineteen forties. Who in their right mind chooses a fork rather than a spoon to eat cake? Makes no sense to me. The taste of my cake makes me moan and I do believe I may be glazing over. I can cook, not just reheat a ready meal like someone who happens to be so close, I could poke her with a cake fork.
I swallow my first mouthful of ecstasy with a grin, then return my plate to the occasional table and that's when I spot the wine. I’m not grinning now.
A glass of red.
Oh no, she's upped the ante. It will be a nice strong one to ensure I measure my length across the rug when I trip later as the wine hits my brain like a cricket bat hitting the red ball. She may as well give me it intravenously, pop me in a coffin and hammer in the final nail. That should save me looking like I've been ‘dug-up’ when I arrive at work tomorrow, or rather, don’t arrive tomorrow. Oh, and the glasses – I’m sure they’ve grown since last week. Has she been standing them in fertilizer every night?
I pick up my cake and continue to eat it. I’m going to need another slice, and quick. More fat please. Luke looks over, winks at me, then starts eating his too, but Janet doesn't bother with hers. Just a big lug on her wine, straight down her throat, a smacking of her lips and half a glass is gone. The race is on.
“Have some wine Clare, its lovely. It's fifteen per cent you know.”
Yep, I'm in trouble now, but as the ‘ever obedient daughter-in-law number three’, I pick up my wine and have a good swig on it myself.
Wow, this is strong.
And Janet chooses now to pull out the big guns.
Pointing at her slice of my gorgeous carrot cake, moist, well-risen and begging to be eaten, she says, “This looks awful, but I'm sure I'll enjoy it.”
Now she’s not just insulting me here, she’s insulting Saint Delia. Janet is moving beyond me into forbidden territory. Three strikes. That’s it. She’s out.
And besides, it does not look that bad. Delia herself would be proud to present it at any Women's Institute Carrot Cake Competition. And more to the point, mine looks just like the one in Delia’s photo.
No wonder his ex-wives hate her. I am sick of putting up with these insults. So I'm thinking, right, enough. She is not going to do this to me again, not even in her own home, sitting there all prim and proper and looking like a sweet old lady, whose mouth would not melt butter. Her mouth’s a Gatling gun. Two hundred and seventy vicious words a second, all aimed directly at my ego. And what a shot she is. Mind you, not that she could miss with that number of armour piercing bullets flying in my direction. Where my cooking is concerned I have no shield, so she didn't need to use those, not really.
So I say it. I blurt it out, full volume, without any further thought.
Yes, that’s it. Just one word. Fast. Cutting. Straight to the point.
I look at the pair of them sitting in front of me. Luke must be able to see the hurt in my eyes and instead of ‘telling his mother off’ (not really his job, I know, but roles do need reversing sometimes) he bursts out laughing. He does that whole shoulder shaking, hearty, from his stomach laugh that makes his face red and pours water from his eyes.
Then she joins in too. They are a mirror image. Two synchronised pairs of shoulders rising and falling, catching each other’s eyes and intensifying the giggle-loop that they are caught in. What is going on? This is not funny. Maybe they do have the same DNA after all.
I try it again, only this time it is directed at Luke.
My vocabulary is shrinking. With so many words in the English language, why do I repeat the same one. Rubbish, Clare, think. Find more words, but do not, and I mean do not, use the ones that are running through your head right now. They will shut the pair of them up, but your decree nisi will be on the doorstep first post tomorrow.
I am so confused. He loves me. She can hate me if she wants, but he's supposed to love me, so why this awful behaviour? He promised to love me until death do us part – or at this rate, until I murder him. Hang on, isn’t that the same thing?
My eyes start to sting. Oh no. Don’t cry in front of her. Do not cry in front of the Rottweiler.
Luke spots my tears and swallows his laughter. She stands no chance for at least another half hour – there's alcohol for you. So Luke, finally to my rescue says,
“Clare, you plank, she means it looks awful that she's not eating it with us now, but she's sure she'll enjoy it later. You know, after we've gone and she's had her micro meal, she'll eat it then, and she'll enjoy it too.”
And then that is it. I lose it too. Three red faced shoulder shaking people sitting in an elderly woman's sheltered flat start having a ball together for the very first time.