The last weekend in November/first in December was our annual Christmas shopping trip. I’d go to her home in Laindon for the weekend, and we’d go into Basildon with our list and get our relatives’ presents together. We’d have lunch in the Debenhams café (not much in the way of restaurants in Basildon) and then go home and I’d do the wrapping. In the last few years of her life she would often have to sit on a bench and wait while I rushed from shop to shop crossing off the items on our list; she no longer had the energy to come with me.
Ever the sentimentalist, I made the trip to Basildon on this day. I met an old school friend, Jackie, and we had tea and cake in Debenhams then went off to dinner at the house of another friend from our schooldays. The next morning, Jackie stood back while I tried to avoid the CCTV cameras outside the Gala bingo hall in Basildon – the place where my mum had gone for years: evenings with a friend, Wednesday afternoons for as long as I could remember with her sister, Rose, later joined by Rose’s husband, Ron.* Out came the Thermos and I tipped some ashes onto the ground, remembering in my head the many days I had spent Christmas shopping with my mum, and how you never think the last time will be the last time.
*After my mum’s death, Auntie Rose could never go back. She told me that on a couple of occasions she got ready to go, but couldn’t do it. ‘I know I’d end up just looking at the chair next to me and think “My Eileen should be there”,’ she said. She herself died on 16 February 2011. One of her two remaining sisters said to me ‘I know your mum wanted a bingo partner but did she have to take Auntie Rose?’ This is the sense of humour prevalent in my family.