September 28, 2012

The phone rings late afternoon, not long after I’m back from seeing Mum. I answer it and hear the faint voice of Alice, Mabel’s sister who lives in Canada. She tells me that she has just had her 90th birthday and that there were 50 guests at the party.

I feel a surge of pleasure for her and disappointment in myself. How could I forget that her 90th was coming up? I try and put the self-criticism to one side for a moment and congratulate Alice with all the sincerity I can muster. I tell her that her parents would have been so proud of her this day! As would her five sisters and brother.

Alice tells me she would like to speak to Mabel, who is her one surviving sibling. I know she knows this will not be easy, so I agree to do what I can to help. In other words, on Saturday at 3.30pm, when it will be 8.30am in Alberta, I will phone Alice and try and facilitate an exchange between sisters of a certain age.

In the meantime, I find Mabel’s old address book, the one that has the comprehensive list of family birthdays at the back of it. This tells me that Alice’s 90th birthday is not for another two weeks! The address book further reveals that one of Alice’s granddaughters had a birthday at the beginning of the month. A shared birthday celebration? In that case the party of 50 would largely have been made up of kids in their twenties.

My eye falls on the birthday of Mabel’s father. Alice’s father too, of course. He was 90 on October 27, 1966. So what did 41-year-old Mabel write in her diary to commemorate his special day? Actually, Mum didn’t mention her father’s milestone, she opted for one of her own:

‘Well for the first time in my life I went to the baths and was up to the neck in water. Quite enjoyed it, think I will try to swim.’

On Saturday, Ian, Mabel and I are sitting in the car overlooking a game of football being played in the Davie Park when I realise it’s time to call Canada. I tell Mum that Alice is about to be 90 and that we are going to speak to her. I phone but do not get an answer. “Is that her by the house there?” says Mum, revealing that she’s following what’s going on, in her own way, and knows its importance. Because it’s unusual for her to say anything these days.

Half an hour later, when we pull in at the care home, I try again. This time the phone is answered.

“Hello,” whispers a voice.

“Hello, Alice.”

“Is that Derek?”

“No, it’s Duncan.”

“Oh, yes, of course. Hello, Duncan.”

After we’ve cleared up the birthday confusion (Mum’s diary was right, but the party was just for Alice), I put the mobile over Mabel’s right ear. I can hear Alice’s voice and I feel Mabel will be able to as well. Certainly, I’ve checked that the hearing aid is working. Alice says a sentence or two. At some point, perhaps as a result of me whispering “It’s Alice,” Mum manages the word “yes.”

After another few sentences from Alice, I tell her that that may have to do. But Alice wants to say more, so of course I put the phone back over Mum’s ear. “Remember when we were young, Mabel? People would call the three of us JAM. Jean, Alice and Mabel...”

I prod Mum’s shoulder gently. “Say something back to Alice, if you can.”

Mabel exerts herself. She whispers a stream of sounds that don’t come very close to being words. Then she says quite clearly: “Sometime.”

I don’t know how Alice and Ian feel, but I’m moved. Mum doesn’t say any more, but she’s said enough, surely. When the call is finished I touch Mum again on the shoulder. “Well done for speaking to Alice, you’ll have made her day.” Mabel has reverted to inscrutability, but that’s fine. It seems to be a pretty strong default position.

Back home I go through Mabel’s photo albums on the lookout for an image to send to Alice along with her birthday card. It’s then I find the one being used in this blog. It was taken in August 1946, when Jean, Alice and Mabel, all in their early twenties, were on holiday together in Aberdeen. Perhaps I like it because the sisters – Alice with her arm around Mabel’s shoulders; Mabel holding Alice’s hand – seem to be surrounded by an ocean of time. Up to their necks in it, as Mabel might say. One can see that they’re enjoying their youth and taking it for granted.


But there is no need to take my word for it. I’ve typed out Mabel’s diary for the fortnight of August, 1946, in order to send it to Alice along with her birthday card and the print, and in doing so I’ve realised I’d like to make the extract available to a wider audience. As you’ll soon see, holidays today just aren’t what they used to be.


Sunday, August 4
'Cut a sun-suit out of an old frock for our holidays at Aberdeen.'

Monday, August 5
'Sewed my sun-suit and it looks rather stunning. It took me all evening to finish it.'

Wednesday, August 7
'Ironed my frocks I'm taking away with me and was it a painstaking job, yes sir.'

Friday, August 9
'Well we did all our packing tonight and was it a job. We're taking four frocks each and our pleated skirts and white coats, so we had to fold them with as few creases as possible.'

Saturday, August 10
'Well! Well! at last we're off to Aberdeen. Alice and Edith (I forgot to mention Edith, but she's just had an operation for appendicitis so she's coming with us, to recover) got a run up in a car, and Jean and I got the 3.20pm train, which arrived about 6pm. On arriving we got a taxi to our landlady Mrs Perfect (by name only we were soon to discover) and had tea. We had one room with two double-beds in which we had to eat, sleep and wash as she had no bathroom. Ee! if ever a woman suffered. We had a look at the town at night and the things in the shops seemed very cheap. We retired early.'

Sunday, August 11
'We wakened to a beautiful day and immediately after breakfast we went to the beach and put on our sun-suits and did we cause a stir? I didn't see one other person in a sun-suit. We took a whole spool of snaps which should be rather stunning. After lunch we again went to the beach but at night it rained so we had to stay in and read.'


Monday, August 12
'We went dancing while Edith went to the pictures. We enjoyed the dance but it was nothing special and a bit overcrowded. During the day we went shopping and bought a few things including a pot of jam as the stuff Mrs Perfect supplied was uneatable.'

Tuesday, August 13
'We started off the day by standing in a queue for 2 hours for 1 doz. cakes and then of course it was lunchtime and we ate all the cakes between our lunch and tea. All Mrs Perfect supplied is butter biscuits and water biscuits. In the afternoon, we went to the beach and had a walk around and took some snaps at the Beach Ballroom. At night went to see Gregory Peck in "Spellbound" and had to queue up for 2-and-a-half hours with the result I just wasn't in the mood for the picture. We all thought it was disappointing.'

Wednesday, August 14
'Sister Meg was in Aberdeen a fortnight before us and she said no one looked at you on the street, but when "we three" walked down Union Street in our white coats it was difficult to see someone who wasn't looking at us and we got a word from all the tram-conductors, they were awfully nice. We went to Hazelhead Park in the afternoon. It's a lovely place so we lazed around there until tea-time. Went to the pictures at night and saw an awfully good show.'

Thursday, August 15
'Went shopping all forenoon then in the afternoon we decided we'd go to the Bridge of Don as our landlady had said it was very nice, she said we had to take a Bridge of Dee tram. Well we got on the tram, got to the Bridge of Dee and could see nothing at all but fields so we took the next tram back to town and discovered we should have gone in the opposite direction for the Bridger of Don, the trams run from Dee to Don. I could've chewed nails and spit bolts. We next boarded a bus and went to Duthie Park, which was lovely. We took some more snaps. We went to the pictures at night and saw another good show.'

Friday, August 16
'"We three” had our polyphotos taken, we'll get them in about three weeks. We were shopping nearly all day, getting presents to take home. At night we did our packing then went to the Bridge of Don but I failed to see anything nice about it, or maybe I'm just too hard to please. We then went to see what the Palais de Dance was like (our landlady had told us it was no use) and we discovered it was super, with a marvellous floor and tables round about where tea and lemonade etc were served. Of course we weren't dressed for dancing so couldn't stay but what I'd have liked to have done and said to our Mrs Perfect isn't writable. She said there was a shortage of men and when we looked in the men were in the majority. Oh! the pity of it all. Now I know the meaning of that song "Laughing on the Outside, Crying on the Inside". We retired to bed with very low spirits.'

Saturday, August 17
'Well we rushed around a few shops getting our last minute presents. We had to be at the station at 12.15pm to get the 1.10pm train, and just managed to get on it, the queues were terrific. We arrived home at 4.14pm and Mum had a lovely tea ready for us and we were also ready for it. It was a great treat just to see cakes and biscuits on the table again. "We three" went to the pictures at night to see Ray Milland in "Kitty". I didn't fancy it very much.'

Sunday 18 August
'Jean, Alice and I went along to Alyth to see Nan, Sandy and family. Kay was delighted to see us back from Aberdeen. Nan and Sandy enjoyed hearing of our many experiences.'