Rarely have I been as embarrassed as I was at the weekend – and that’s quite a statement from a man who once accidentally wandered naked into a crowded waiting room at a bus station while on holiday in Peru (it’s a long story but I was suffering from altitude sickness and very disorientated; I’m still banned from the bus station in question but as it’s 6,000 miles away and not on my route to work I’m not too perturbed).
The reason for my embarrassment this time was not a faux pas by myself but my mother.
Firstly let me say that I love my mother dearly.
She’s in her early 70s now but has been there for me since the start so I’m told, and once sat through a three-hour primary school production of A Christmas Carol (in which I played the role of Tiny Tim and had one single line, ‘God bless us everyone’) four times in one week; for that act alone she deserves my unwavering affection. But there are times when she is – and I mean this in a kindly way – completely insane.
One of her more wearisome if well-meaning traits is that she worries about absolutely everything.
For example, after I foolishly mentioned the other week that I felt a bit tired after carrying our baby Mary in a rucksack, my mum lectured me for three full days about how it could be putting strain on my heart and it was best not to do it.
I couldn’t help but scoff slightly, to which she replied, almost with hope in her voice, ‘well, if you collapse and die I won’t have any sympathy, I’ll just think what an idiot you’ve been’.
And the thing is, I get the feeling she isn’t lying either. I’m pretty sure she’d stand at my funeral and say, ‘it’s a shame we’ve lost him but I did warn him so he’s only himself to blame’.
So she’s a worrier – which leads me to describe what happened when on a family holiday in Cornwall last week we visited a beach – the beautiful Porthcothan Bay near Padstow.
The following is a completely true story.
We – mum, sisters, nephew, Mrs Canavan and Mary – lumbered on to the beach and unpacked all our gear – towels, windbreak, sandwiches, swimming costumes, bucket and spade (for the adults; the kids sit and read novels and discuss the artwork of Rembrandt and Paul Cezanne).
Then we decided we should all go for a swim. My mum frowned, clearly troubled by something.
“Erm, we can’t do that,” she said.
‘Why?’ we asked.
“Because we’ve got valuables in our bags and someone might pinch them,” she replied, flustered.
I enquired how much money she had in the bag.
‘Mum,’ I said, ‘I’m pretty sure no one is going to take the risk of rifling through our possessions in front of dozens of other holiday-makers for the sake of a measly £2.75.’
After much deliberation she reluctantly agreed and was just about to join us on our stroll to the sea when she noticed the car keys and panicked again.
“Mum,” said my sister, who had an impatient four-year-old hanging off her arm, “no one is going to rob us. For the love of god, will you just relax and get a move on.”
We all turned to leave at that point and after a few minutes in the sea were joined by our dear mother.
We did all the normal things you do in the sea with children – skipped over waves, dived into the water, told them there was a shark coming and that they could be eaten whole at any moment (the four-year-old cried at this; I may have gone too far) – then returned to our little pile of belongings back at the top of the beach, sat for a couple of hours in the sun, ate an ice cream, had some warm pate sandwiches and then began to pack up and headed for the car park.
Once at the car, I couldn’t find the keys.
My mother turned a slightly odd colour and let out a strangled cry, as if she’d trodden on a protruding carpet tack.
“I’ve left them on the beach,” she cried, before telling us that because she was scared someone might pinch them from the bag, she’d buried the keys under the sand for safe-keeping and put a shell on top of the spot where they were.
As my mother was imparting this information, Mary began screaming at the top of her voice and my sister’s four-year-old had an accident and wet himself.
We raced back to the sand but it is quite a big beach and the family we had been sat close to had packed up and left, so it was surprisingly tricky to say exactly where we had been.
What happened next, without a word of a lie, is that my mother enlisted the help of around 35 fellow holiday-makers, who spent a full 50 minutes digging in the sand with their hands.
My sisters and I were mortified, while my mother wandered around her team of volunteers like a senile construction foreman, pointing vaguely at various parts of the beach and saying things like, ‘I think they might have been over there somewhere’.
Eventually a chap in his early 40s wearing a vest and three-quarter length shorts – Alan, from Doncaster, nice guy – let out a triumphant yelp and we turned to see him holding the keys aloft.
The piece de resistance came when my mother then approached him to pass on her gratitude and insisted he take some money as a reward.
She carefully reached into her purse and gave him a 50 pence coin.
To Alan’s credit, he acted as though this was the most generous act he’d ever witnessed and thanked her profusely, while my mother, turned to us with the keys in her possession and chirped, ‘all’s well that ends well’.
We’re due to go away again in 12 months’ time. We may accidentally leave our mother at home.