Friends come in all ages, shapes and sizes. People can be good friends after knowing each other for a week, others take years and even then, sometimes they’re not totally sure.
My mother’s friend Bob (not his real name) geologically eroded his way into her affections over a whole year. They met when mum had been widowed for four years and was re-discovering ballroom dancing for the first time since her teens.
Bob was a mild-mannered gentle soul. Inoffensive in the extreme, he was one of those people who would sit so quietly in the corner of the sofa so that you might forget he was there. He quietly enjoyed company without any garrulous input or raucous laughter of his own. He just let the goings-on colour the air around him, and it was enough.
His initial tactic with mumsie was an obstinate refusal to take ‘No’ for an answer. He would ring and ask her if she’d like to go out for a drive somewhere, or go shopping. Her answer, in the beginning, was always “No, thanks.” There was no initial meeting of minds, of souls or of shopping bags. The only place they gelled was on the dance floor. His waltz was fine, she said, his foxtrot ok and he sometimes muddled the quickstep but that could be forgiven. She told me he kept ringing her, in spite of her sometimes being quite short with him. But he persevered and mother finally cracked and discovered that even off the dance floor earlier than 11pm, he wasn’t bad company.
So they became companions, sharing not only evenings out dancing but days out sightseeing and shopping, afternoons gardening and watching Countdown, evenings playing Scrabble and Boggle. She disapproved of his baggy trousers and old shirts and smartened him up, which he didn’t mind at all. They were platonic friends. Mater was resolutely chaste. Even when they went on holiday together and shared a room, it was single beds and mother changing in the bathroom.
“Oh forgoodnessake, poor Bob,” I’d tease her. “Doesn’t he even get a glimpse of cleavage?”
“Gracious no! Not at his age. It’d probably see him off!”
If I mentioned it to Bas he’d just give a wry regretful smile and say “You know your mother.”
I liked him a lot. Because he was quiet and modest, he seemed particularly enigmatic. He had retired from a very responsible job in the accounts department of a big national company and the women who worked for him were still in touch, which I thought was a good sign. He’d been on his own for many years since his divorce from his wife. He had two daughters.
He was the absolute opposite of my A-type dad, who was opinionated, domineering, insistent on his way and actually liked mum to be the way he wanted, rather than let her develop into the person she might want to be. Bob was genial, totally free and easy – allowing mum to make all the decisions about where they went and when. He would fit in with everything in that muted, content way of his. I used to think Bob was sent to her as a sort of reward for all those patient years being a marvellous mother and uncomplainingly playing second fiddle to my father.
Mum found Bob frustrating in that he never ever expressed any enthusiasm for anything and on long car trips, he had very little conversation. But the fact was that he liked to let mum do all the talking and all the enthusing that was necessary. He didn’t have anything to add.
Notoriously tight – B always nursed his last half inch of shandy until someone else went to the bar or mum said “For God’s sake B, *your turn*!” and he gave cheapo Christmas presents wrapped in festive paper recycled from the previous year – he was a covert gambler. We never figured out how much he bet per week but mum reckoned it was in the hundreds not £2 each way, which was our level of gambling! Win or lose, B never looked upset or particularly thrilled so it was hard to tell how things were going.
He delighted in telling me a new joke every time we met. I love that about blokes; that they remember and can tell jokes. I only ever remember jokes vaguely and get the sequence completely wrong.
For about five years mum and Bob used to go to quizzes with us. Mater was the soap queen and films; Bob was excellent at history and sport with horse racing his speciality. I always remember him getting the winner of the l954 St Leger – the only person in the entire room to get that correct.
If mum was off-colour or ill, she wanted to be left alone and all Bob’s entreaties to visit and help were rejected. But when she got really ill, he was there every day. When she went to hospital, he was there every day. I’d do part of the mornings and evenings; he’d be there most of the rest of the time. To him, it the most natural thing in the world – a continuation of their days together.
When she died, he was bereft. We all were. Life went haywire and I must be honest and say that I wasn’t capable of supporting Bob; I trusted his daughters would do that because I was only just capable of holding it together myself.
We kept in touch a couple of times a year at Christmas and at birthdays – he’s a Leo like me but the kind of Leo which makes you certain that astrology is nonsense. This week, his youngest daughter rang me to say that Bob had died following a heart attack and stroke.
Rest in peace Bob. You’ll always be remembered with love.
My favourite Bob joke:
A Jelly Baby walks into a bar and starts chatting to a Smartie.
After a few beers the Smartie says, “Ere, a bunch of us are heading to that new club in town. Fancy tagging along?”
The Jelly Baby says, “No mate, I’m a soft centre, I always end up getting my head kicked in.”
So the Smartie says “Don’t worry about it, I’m a bit of a hard case, I’ll look after you.”
The Jelly Baby thinks about it for a minute and says, “Fair enough, as long as you’ll look after me.” And off they went.
They’re having a few beers in the club when three Lockets walk in. As soon as he sees them, Smartie hides under the table.
The Lockets take one look at Jelly Baby and start kicking him, breaking cola bottles over his little jelly head, lamping him with little sugary chairs, and generally having a laugh.
After a while they get bored and walk out.
Jelly Baby struggles up from the floor, dusts off his battered little Jelly Baby body and says to Smartie “What happened to you, then? I thought you were going to look after me?”
“I was” says Smartie, “but them Lockets, they’re bloody menthol!”