Looking at my phone’s screen, you’d say my mum is crying. Teary eyes slanted on the side, red cheeks and one hand covering her mouth. But Mum, she’s laughing. Some people you can never tell if they’re sobbing or having a blast. The phone in one hand, her shoulder jerking up and down, and the video call gets all shaky and lagged. I tell her that it’s giving me seasickness and I fake retching. She keeps laughing and lays the phone on the table to blow her nose. Then the only thing I can see is the kitchen ceiling.
What’s cracking up is what happened this morning. The postman and the parcel he didn’t want to deliver.
Before lunchtime, standing by the window Mum sees the postman stopping by her front door. He fishes a small package out of his bag, rolls his eyes and starts walking away. Mum thrusts the window open and from behind the mask on her mouth, she shouts, “Oi.” And the postman slaps one hand on his bag, the way you do walking in the tube at night waiting for anyone to turn into a mugger. He looks around without seeing anyone. With no lips, Mum says, “Up here, kid.” Her tongue slapping on the mask and you have to interpret her muffled words. Like a surgeon who can’t find an operating table.
These days people have no lips. With a mask on someone’s face you have to guess their feelings from the shape of their eyes. There are no smiles or yellow teeth. All that money spent on dentists and flossed white teeth, it was all for nothing.
With her hands wrapped in blue latex gloves Mum snaps the side of her mask from one ear and says, “Any mail for us?” And the postman looks up and nods. This is how you’d picture Romeo and Juliet without romance and gangs around. The postman waves the parcel in his hand and says, “I need your signature.” And he checks behind his shoulders if anyone is getting close enough to sneeze on his face. He says, “We can do another time though, no rush.” And he starts running away.
Mum, her latex hand swimming outside the window, she shouts, “Where do you think you’re going. Come back here, you idiot.” She says, “I’m not sick.”
This happens every day. Same story. Same fear. Same stay-away-from-me feeling. These days you’re never far enough from anyone. Wear a mask, a scarf on your mouth and you’re breathing your own spit. A friend of mine crossed path with a man with a diaper tied on his face. No kidding.
The postman cups one hand by the side of his mouth and says, “Can I sign it for you?”
No cars driving around. This is a full lockdown. Leave your home and you’ll need to explain a man in uniform where you’re going. Everything is a stretched version of the freedom you used to have without knowing it.
With a wrinkle stretching on her forehead, Mum says, “Is that even legal?”
The postman made up Mum’s signature. The one you use at school to justify you skipping class. The one you fake on a small check and hope no one will notice. Learn how to copy someone’s calligraphy and you’ll never be in trouble. Your magic trick. No wand required. There are so many things you can do with a pen.
On the video call, her cheeks still carved with wrinkles for all her laughing, Mum says, “What did you get me?” She shakes the package by the side of her ear and before she starts unwrapping the screen goes back to show the kitchen ceiling. If you’ve never tried to unwrap a gift with a phone in your hands and the camera pointing at you, well, spoiler alert, you just can’t. It’s like opening a bottle of wine. Cutting a steak. You need both hands and most of your fingers.
A spot of mould edging on the side corner of the ceiling and off-screen Mum meows an “Aw.”
Sometimes your reward comes only in vowels and strange sounds.
On our last call, I asked her to guess who I talked to and she just said, “Jesus Christ.” Her mind slipped somewhere else. Looking at her own face on screen she pinched the skin under her chin between two fingers saying, “What happened to my neck?”
I told her that her neck is the mirror of our age. Your open ID for everyone to see without opening your wallet. And Mum tells me to go to hell.
Her fingers stretching her skin so long you could hide a cap on the inside, I said, “Maybe it’s time to wear a turtleneck sweater.”
I know, that doesn’t sound too kind. But the idea wasn’t exactly mine.
I tell her that Nora Ephron wrote about it. And with one hand still on her neck, Mum said, “Nora, who?”
I feel pretty monogamist about books. If I want you to have a copy of a book I own, I order it online and get it shipped on your doorstep. It has to be a one-to-one relationship with a book. The way you wish your marriage was.
Back on the phone call, Mum picks the phone and the screen moves from the spot of mould on the ceiling to her holding a book. Lemon yellow cover and a skin cream jar on the cover. Mum reads, “I feel bad about my neck and other thoughts on being a woman.” She flips the book and on the back there’s a picture of Nora with a turtleneck pulled all the way up to her nose. Between the fringe falling on her forehead and the sweater you can only see her eyes. Those Nora Ephron’s eyes. If you’ve never seen them, go and Google them. Seriously. Do it.
Mum looks at the cover, Nora looking back at her. Mum says, “I already have to wear gloves and mask every day for this damn pandemic.” She says, “No way I’m going to wear a stupid turtleneck sweater.”
And Mum starts to laugh. The video is all shaky from her hand holding the phone. Nora Ephron peeking at us both. I say, “You’ll fall in love with her.”
Her cheeks are turning red again, she’s laughing so much she’s crying. With her shoulders jerking up and down, mum says, “Yeah, sure.”
She read it in one day. And guess what? My mum did fall in love with Nora. But she still feels bad about her neck.