Two Christmases ago my mother made a series of unusual telephone calls to London from her home in Trinidad. "Is your father coming home for the Christmas holidays?" she asked my daughters. They were puzzled. I was more so. In nearly 35 years, I had not previously had a single call of that kind, and we were not on the best of terms. I came to the tentative conclusion that the questions concealed more than they revealed.
I rang her a couple of days before I left for Jamaica to spend Christmas with friends. She recited a sort of official communique. "I have not been ill since I gave birth to your brother 30 years ago and I am feeling very ill now." That was all, but her voice seemed strong and firm. I replied rather lamely: "You sound as though you have a lot of gas in the tank." She sucked her teeth, a "cheups", a West Indian sign of dismissal, and slammed her phone on the cradle.
My mind went back to the Christmases of my childhood. My mother was a schoolteacher and we lived in a tiny village in the south of Trinidad. She had no friends, she was not tactile and she spoke seldom, and then barely a sentence or two. Days would pass and not a word would trip from her lips. She appeared always sad, encircled in gloom, as if weighed down by some tragedy. I imagined that she was slowly dying and kept it a secret from us all. She read voraciously, gave monosyllabic orders to the maid and listened to soap operas and the BBC news on the radio powered by a car battery. (The village was without electricity.) Then suddenly upon some trite misdemeanour she would explode violently on my father or any one of her children.
But at Christmas her personality seemed to change completely. My father would return from the shops with bags of dried fruit - prunes, raisins, sultanas in cutely decorated boxes - and always three bottles of rum. Mum would take down the huge clay jars from the shelves where they sat all year round. They had a thorough rinse with detergent and lemons, while she broke into song. "Careless Hands" was a favourite. "They brought you joy/And there I love you so. And all the sorrows doesn't make the roses grow." Or sometimes a hymn, "Through all the changing scenes of life/In trouble and in joy." She was a brilliant soprano and she phrased the words magically.
She would smile beautifully throughout the days leading up to Christmas, hug and squeeze us to her huge bosom and tell us tales of her childhood. Then one Saturday the family tumbled into a Ford Prefect owned by a neighbour and went off to San Fernando, the industrial capital of the island. We visited Toyland, danced around the hem of mum's flared skirt as she purchased goodies upon goodies to make tiny bodies tingle and jingle with joy. Then came the feast at the Jack Frost cafe - hot dogs, hamburgers and milkshakes. We would pick up Beryl on our way home. Beryl was a deaf mute. I was terrified of her; I imagined her emerging from fire and brimstone to polish our furniture. Her hands gesticulated furiously; signs of the demon, I thought.
Christmas Eve was all religion. The entire family and all the Anglicans in the village warmed the Church of Ascension and sang the hallelujahs loudly. And I waited until Canon Lyons in his clipped English accent intoned "Oh Lamb of God that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us. Oh Lamb of God that takest away the sins of the world, receive our prayer. Oh Lamb of God that takest away the sins of the world, grant us thy peace." I whispered, "happy birthday, Lord " on the stroke of midnight.
And so, on the Christmas after my mother's phone call, I sat on the balcony of a house on a hill in the Jamaican countryside and belted out quite spontaneously the lyrics of "Careless Hands" and of my mother's favourite hymn.
The following day I packed and left for London via New York. At Kennedy airport I phoned my wife to tell her I was on my way home. She asked me to settle myself. "Your mum," she said, "collapsed and died earlier today."
It is only now, with Christmas approaching, that I am struck by her absence.