Diva by Judith Field

Friday, November 9, 2012
Jean's mother Dorothy is banned from the Over Sixties' Institute for inappropriate singing; by Judith Field

'Mum, you've been barred from the Over Sixties' Institute. Again.'

Jean slapped the letter down on the kitchen table. The Institute was the one thing that got her mother out of the house. She felt like a cell door was clanging shut behind her.

Dorothy put on her reading glasses.

'Give it here,' she said, through a mouthful of toast, 'Hurry up - I haven't got all day.'

She picked up the letter. '"Your mother's inappropriate behaviour... other members to consider... good name of the Institute." Mean-spirited lot! Won't give you a piece of their soul. Good riddance.'

She pulled a notebook, a pen wedged between its pages, from under her cup. Tea slopped onto the table. She scribbled won't give you a piece of their soul.

'I'll use that for my homework for the poetry class at the Institute.' She smiled and nodded. 'It'll knock their socks off, miles better than the load of doggerel they churn out. Call themselves writers! Some of them can't even read.'

'But you won't be able to go, remember?' Jean groaned, dabbing at the spilt tea with a cloth. 'And what do they mean, inappropriate behaviour? I thought you were going to try harder this time.'

'Did you? If you must know, it was at that Italian place. They kept us waiting for our sweet so I started a sing-song. Gave them a few verses of Giovinezza. That's one you don't hear nowadays - nothing wrong with my memory.'

'How could you?' Jean said. 'Everyone must have been staring at you. And you didn't remember that it's a fascist song? You might as well have gone all the way and sung the Horst Wessel Lied.'

'As if I would! German is much harder to sing in. No feel for language, that's your trouble. And not a musical bone in your body.'

Jean's throat tightened. 'That's not fair. I like music as much as the next person, just not when you're trying to crank it out of your ancient throat. Anyway, being musical is all very well, being a bloody nuisance is another matter. You're lucky they didn't call the police.'

'Don't talk to me like that, I'm your mother. It was their own fault - they shouldn't have kept us waiting for that fancy ice cream. Some of the old dears were asleep! Had to do something to wake them up. Sometimes, you've just got to sing.'

'I'd query that. Sometimes, it's better to keep your mouth shut.'

Dorothy shrugged. 'You used to like singing, when you were a little girl. All those songs that were never off the radio. "Me and my teddy bear," "There's a hole in my bucket." And then there was one you were always listening to, when you weren't so little - what was it?' Dorothy banged her hand on the table several times, as though trying to drive the memory out of her head, 'Oh yes - "My Way."'

'Don't remind me how old I am!' Jean shoved their breakfast things into the dishwasher.

'You know,' Dorothy said, 'you could join the Over Sixties Institute. Do you fancy spending your spare time listening to that lot going on about who's got cancer, who's gone blind and who's died?'

Jean huffed. 'Spare time? I've got more to do now than when I was working!' She wished this cliché that so many people spouted was actually true. All the things she'd never had time for before had lost their appeal. 'You give me more than enough to sort out. You're worse than any of the criminals I had to try to defend.'

'Sorry, M'Lud.'

'That's a judge.'

'OK, sorry Your Honour.'

'And that's... never mind. Anyway, I'm sure the folk at the Institute weren't as bad as all that; you used to like going.' Jean put her hand on her mother's arm. 'Sorry, I didn't mean to rub it in. But Harry next door's coming over later to show me how to use my new laptop.'

'Oh aye? You've been seeing a lot of him lately. Fancy him, do you?'

'Mum!' Jean went red. 'He's nearer your age than mine. You know it's nothing like that. He went to a "Computers for the Over Sixties" class at the Institute, that's all.'

'Don't change the subject. You've got the hots for him. And why not - there's no law against you having a smidgeon of fun, is there?' Dorothy put another slice of bread into the toaster.

'Oh... shut up! And just don't make any more mess.'

She pushed the vacuum cleaner out into the hall. Dorothy whispered 'Stuffy mare' as she passed her on the way up the stairs. Jean wondered if other people found their elderly parents had become their children. A smidgeon of something would make all the difference.

'...so now just click on that, and Bob's your uncle, Fanny's your aunt,' Harry said, taking a bite out of a biscuit as Dorothy came into the kitchen.

She switched the kettle on and got two cups out.

'Tea, you two?'

'Don't you want one, Mum?'

'No thanks. I'll need to be getting out to the Institute, it's poetry this afternoon. Oh bugger, I forgot - not for me, it isn't. Rotten so-and-sos.' She sat down at the table with a thud and shoved her writer's notebook out of the way.

'Don't suppose I need this now. May as well chuck it out.' She picked up the packet of biscuits and rummaged in it, scattering crumbs across the table.

Jean gritted her teeth and told Harry what had happened, as she cleared up.

He thumped the table with a clenched fist, making the laptop jump.

'I call that a diabolical liberty! You go along there, Jean, and get them to take your Mum back. You'll have them twisted round your little finger, just like you did with them judges.'

'The Committee's meeting later this afternoon,' Dorothy said.

Jean's brow furrowed and she was silent for a few seconds.

'Go on, pull out all the stops,' Harry said. 'Your poor old mum, stuck indoors with nothing to do all day, and -'

'OK, I'll give it a go.'

Dorothy stood up. 'Thanks. I'm off for a little lie-down, a poor old thing like me needs to be fighting fit for when you give them what for.'

Jean smiled. 'It's meant to be more a case of using the art of persuasion. Now, Harry, I need you to show me how to do something else with the laptop.'

Dorothy, Jean and Harry stood in a row outside the committee room. Dorothy gulped. Jean took a deep breath, picked up her large bag and knocked on the door.

'Come!' a voice shouted from inside.

'Come? Pretentious tossers,' Dorothy muttered.

'Shh!' Jean clapped a hand over Dorothy's mouth. 'I don't want you losing your own case before we've even started.'

She marched inside, with Dorothy and Harry trailing after her like a couple of geriatric bridesmaids.

The members of the Committee, sat on one side of a table, looked up as the three of them sat down opposite.

'There's John Edwards,' Dorothy whispered in Jean's ear, pointing at the chairman. 'Miserable old devil.'

'Shh! And he can't be much older than I am,' Jean hissed. No age at all. And kind eyes. She put her hand on Dorothy's arm. 'My name's Jean Goodwin. I'm here to ask you to give my mother, Dorothy here, another chance.'

'We know Mrs Goodwin. Only too well,' John said.

Jean pressed on. 'And this is my assistant, Mr Barnes.'

She opened the large bag she was carrying, took out her laptop and put it on the table. Harry switched it on.

Dorothy pouted. 'Oh, what now? That PowerPoint thing? I thought you'd have your robe and wig in there, my learned friend.'

'Shh, Mum. This calls for something a bit different. Let me do it my way.'

John cleared his throat. 'Well, we'll listen to what you've got to say, but I really don't think I can see us reversing our decision.'

Jean stood up. 'To err is human. To forgive, divine. Hit it, H!'

Harry flicked a button on the laptop. The introduction to 'My way' blasted out, filling the room.

Jean began to sing. Her voice flared like a flame, filling the air. She altered the lyrics to fit their situation, her voice swirling as she sang about two women and one kitchen. About the hours dragging once you'd retired. A catch came to her throat as she changed the last lines 'The record shows I took the blows - and did it my way!' to 'Don't say goodbye, she says she'll try - to do it your way.' She took a sweeping bow, to applause from the committee and cheers from Harry.

'Please?' Dorothy asked. 'I promise I won't upset anyone. Although some people...'

Jean gave her a nudge.

John turned to her. 'Miss Goodwin. Jean. Please do us the honour of joining the Institute yourself. We're setting up a glee club. Thinking of entering some competitions. I would be honoured if you would grace us with your presence, as a soloist.'

'Only if Mum can join, too.'

The committee members frowned. Then there was a lot of whispering between them.

'You drive a hard bargain,' John said. 'But, agreed. Remember, Dorothy, next time will be your third strike. And you'll be out for good.'

'Oh, I promise to toe the line this time,' Dorothy said. 'You come too, Harry, do all the techie sound stuff.

John passed Jean a business card. 'Here's my mobile number. Give me a call and we can arrange to chat about what you'd like to sing. Maybe over a cup of tea.'

'That's my girl! I never knew you had it in you!' Dorothy said, as they walked home.

'Not till we heard it coming out,' Harry said. 'That song was one from the heart. What on earth made you do it?'

'Well, it was an open and shut case. Sometimes, you've just got to sing.'

'That's right,' Dorothy said. 'Keep going and - you never know - we could end up on Britain's Got Talent!'

'Let's you and me discuss it over a drink in The Crown, Dorothy,' Harry said, 'Tea's for the kids. Don't mind, do you, Jean?'

Jean shook her head and headed home.

She stepped into the kitchen. Her kitchen. Just her. All alone. She made herself a cup of tea and took it over to the chair next to the phone. Putting the cup down on a table, she took John's card out of her pocket and picked up the handset.


  1. Nice. Good dialogue.

  2. Technically flawless. Emotionally engaging at a number of levels. Totally enjoyable. Thanks.

    Orie Hegre

  3. I thoroughly enjoyed the story. We all face becoming our parent's adult and you told it beautifully.

  4. Parenting our parents, what a minefield. SD