Mum’s The Word

Could there be something mysterious as well as cryptic at work in the Saturday paper crossword clues?

I can’t help smiling as all five squares turn green and the word IMPRESSIVE bounces onto the screen of my tablet.

Confession time – I might be a tiny bit addicted to my daily puzzle game.

At first, when those little bar graphs of grey, yellow, and green squares started popping up all over social media, I resisted joining in the fun.

But once I started playing, I was hooked.

“You’d have liked Wordle, Mum.”

As soon as the words are out, lingering in my empty living room, I realise I’ve done it again. Mum’s been gone almost four years now, but lately I seem to be chatting to her more than ever.

And she would have loved Wordle. I suspect there would have been some competition between us for each day’s bragging rights, and Mum would probably have beaten me more often than not.

She loved word games and completed a variety every day – word links, word wheels, crosswords. Her favourite was the cryptic crossword in the Saturday paper.

Although word puzzles weren’t really my thing – I’m a financial analyst and much more at home with a Sudoku – Mum and I used to do the cryptic crossword together.

Every Saturday I’d head to her flat; we’d have lunch, and then the afternoon would be given over to deciphering the clues.

Our differing skill sets made us a good team – and sometimes led to disagreements.

Mum was a stickler about her ‘no cheating’ rule.

According to her, it was cheating if we used any other sources to help solve the clues.

“Brain power only!” she’d insist if I ever got my phone out to search for a helpful bit of information.

I had my own rules too, which Mum found irritating. Her impressive vocabulary and intuitive approach would sometimes lead Mum to guess an answer, but a guess was never good enough for me.

“You can’t just write in a word because you think it’s right. We have to analyse the clue,” I’d protest.

“OK, Em, just let me know when you’re finished analysing,” she’d grin.

And annoyingly, Mum’s original guess usually turned out to be spot-on.

“What did I tell you!” She could never resist gloating as she wrote in the answer.

“I don’t see how you can be so sure without decoding the clue,” I’d moan.

“Sometimes I just know,” Mum would say with an enigmatic smile.

Although she never managed to entirely convince me, Mum claimed to have a touch of second sight that went beyond her ability to guess the crossword answers. She believed that occasionally she was privy to ‘special’ insights.

As a mathematician, I’m not easily persuaded by things that can’t be proven, and I often used to laugh at Mum and her hunches.

As far as I was concerned, there was most probably a scientific explanation for her premonitions.

Although, to be fair, there have been several times in my life when I wish I’d taken more notice of her warnings.

Take Jeff, my now ex-husband.

Mum was never what I’d call a Jeff fan. Not exactly hostile, but always a bit mistrusting.

Ironically, I had thought that her view of him was coloured by his dislike of crosswords.

“It’s a shame that Jeff doesn’t enjoy crosswords.” She’d throw in this gentle criticism ever so benignly, every once in a while. “Your father and I loved doing the puzzles together,” she’d add for good measure to gently drive home her point.

“You know Jeff,” I’d laugh, brushing off Mum’s comments. “He’s more of an action man. He’d rather be watching football.”

“Are you sure he’s watching the game?” She’d asked me more than once.

At the time, it struck me as odd that Mum kept going on about Jeff. Later, when I found out that he hadn’t been at the football after all, I wondered if Mum had had one of her inklings. Sadly, it was too late to ask her by then.

The divorce was quite straightforward – no children to consider, and Jeff bought my share of our house.

At the same time, I was offered a new job, which meant leaving the seaside village I’d lived in all my life and moving to the city. I jumped at the chance of a new start.

Only trouble is, things haven’t quite worked out how I hoped.

My job is great, but I’d hardly been introduced to my colleagues when we all shifted to working from home. And now, moving forward, my department will continue working at home. In effect, I can do my job from New York City if I want to.

I don’t, of course, because I’m not sure that city life is for me. I keep thinking about moving back home, but can you ever go back? Especially when the people you miss so much are no longer there.

Should I stay or should I go?

I’ve created a chart of the pros and cons of staying in the city and going back to the coast. I won’t bore you with the details. Let’s just say, the data collected didn’t yield a clear result.

If only I could pop round to Mum’s and mull over my dilemma with a cup of tea and the crossword.

I haven’t done the Saturday cryptic in ages. I did it for a while after Mum died, but it wasn’t the same by myself.

Not sure if it’s nostalgia, or something else that I can’t quite put my finger on, but suddenly, and rather weirdly, I’m overcome with a desire to tackle the Saturday crossword.

Instead of fighting the urge, I slip on my sandals and nip to the nearby shops to pick up a paper.

Back in the flat, I make a cup of tea, ignore the headlines, and turn straight to the puzzles page.

One across…” Reading out loud, I pause because, just for a moment, I almost imagine Mum sitting on the sofa next to me with her own copy of the crossword, tapping her front teeth thoughtfully with the end of a black ballpoint.

Turning back to the paper, I read the first clue.

Gem of small fruit takes a right with student at the end. Five letters …”

Although it’s been a while since I’ve attempted a cryptic crossword, the tricks to decipher the clues quickly come back to me. ‘Gem’ is probably the definition.

Small fruit … could be ‘berry’ …take out an ‘R’ for ‘right’ and add an ‘L’ for learner at the end … gives us …” I turn to the empty spot on the sofa again.

“What are the odds?”

If I wasn’t such a sceptic, I’d swear that I could almost hear my mother’s soft laughter and gentle voice whispering, ‘You should know, darling, you’re the mathematician in the family.’

Smiling, I fill in the answer to one across – BERYL – Mum’s name.

“Goodness, I wish you were here, Mum.” Talking out loud again, this time, I address Mum’s photo on the side table. “We wouldn’t only get the crossword done, would we? You’d help me decide what I should do, wouldn’t you?”

Mum and I were always close, not cloyingly so.

We both lived our own lives, but in many ways, Mum was my best friend.

Whenever I had a problem, she was always there with a cup of tea, a ready ear, and some good advice.

Turning back to the crossword, I don’t take any notice when the answer to two down, beginning with the ‘R’ in BERYL, is RETURN.

But then eleven across is SEASIDE, swiftly followed up with twelve across being VILLAGE.

Seventeen across is OPPORTUNITY, and PROPERTY is the answer to eighteen down. I chuckle and decide to ignore nineteen down – ROMANCE.

The following Saturday, I’m up early and driving down familiar roads heading to the coast.

At the village, I pull into an empty parking spot right outside The Stores, the small supermarket where I used to buy a copy of the Saturday newspaper each week on my way to Mum’s.

I notice the little teashop a few doors down has tables and chairs outside now – that’s new. Gives the shopping area an appealing, European vibe.

I’ll get a coffee and sit in the sun, but first I pop into The Stores to pick up a paper.

Pushing open the door, I’m greeted with a cheery, “Hello, stranger! Haven’t seen you in a while!”

“Hello, Pam! No – I moved away from here a few years back.”

“Well, it’s lovely to see you, dear. The usual still?”

The grey-haired shopkeeper holds up a copy of the Saturday paper.

“You remembered! Thanks!”

“One of our regulars, you were.” Pam continues, then looks over my shoulder and smiles at the customer hovering behind me.

“Same for you, Will! Thanks, my dear!” she says, as an attractive, smartly dressed man pays for his paper while I’m busy rummaging in my purse for the right coins.

Five minutes later, installed at one of the small metal tables outside the café, I’ve ordered coffee, and I’m enjoying the fresh air and sunshine.

I find a pen and open the Saturday paper with the intention of looking at the cryptic crossword.

Today though, I’m attracted to the general knowledge puzzle.

“We never do this one,” I mutter under my breath, immediately annoyed with myself that I’m talking to Mum again. Living alone and working from home is definitely getting to me!

Defiantly turning back to the cryptic crossword, I recall last week’s puzzle and the promised ‘seaside’ ‘opportunity’.

I’m not usually given to fanciful thoughts, but I’m a bit disappointed when, this week, the first few clues yield nothing of significance.

“Serves you right for being so daft,” I say out loud – this time to myself.

One across… one across…

The words come to me whispered in the wind, or on the breeze rustling the leaves on the trees that punctuate the pavement, or maybe from the elderly woman at the next table talking on her phone.

“Yes, yes, the one across the road,” she says urgently.

She’s waving her free hand in the direction of the whitewashed stone building on the other side of the road that used to be an upmarket boutique.

It has undergone a metamorphosis and is now home to Glover’s Estate Agents – or so the bold red lettering above the window declares.

Turning back to my newspaper I give up on the cryptic and read the first clue of the general knowledge puzzle.

Shakespeare’s father’s profession (5,5).

My general knowledge isn’t great, and I never paid much attention during English, but this fun fact is lodged in my memory because the answer surfaces instantly.

After quickly filling in the squares, I stare at the words.

GLOVE MAKER. Shakespeare’s father was a glover.

After quickly finishing off my coffee, I fold up the newspaper and head over the road to look in the window of Glover’s Estate Agents.

Inside, a man who is vaguely familiar looks up from his desk and smiles, a warm smile that reaches his eyes.

“Hello! I’m Will Glover. What can I help you with today?”

“Hi, I’m Emma.”

Taking a seat across from him, I notice the Saturday paper on his desk.

It’s open at the crossword page and realise he was at The Stores when I was in there earlier. He follows my gaze.

“You’ve caught me doing the crossword on company time. It’s lucky I’m the boss,” he grins disarmingly. “The Saturday crossword is my guilty pleasure, I’m afraid.”

“I started it earlier but didn’t get very far.” I produce my paper with a flourish.

“It’s a tough one this week, and I have a rule – no cheating – by that I mean no looking things up, so it’ll take me a while to finish it,” Will says.

“Ah – my mum would have approved of you,” I laugh.

He tilts his head and grins again.

“Really? I’m flattered.”

Something about his dancing blue eyes has me decidedly flustered.

“Er, I meant my mum had the same rule – no looking anything up. We used to do the crossword together,” I add.

“So, was sharing answers allowed?”

I nod.

“In that case, do you have the answer to four down?”

“Sorry, not yet.”

I glance at the clue. Park glowing coal next to meadow it’s said for Darcy’s Place.

“Hmm – I suspect it’s the name of Mr Darcy’s house in Pride And Prejudice.”

“As an estate agent, I should probably know that, but the classics aren’t my thing,” Will admits. “Give me a good mystery any day.”

“I’m a mystery fan too. I haven’t read the novel, but I’ve seen the film a few years ago. I can’t remember the name of Mr Darcy’s house though…”

“The answer starts with a P and for some reason I think it might be PEMBERLEY…”

“Pemberley? You could be right,” I agree, looking at the clue. ‘There’s a ‘P’ for ‘park’ and glowing coal is ‘ember’ next to ‘ley’, which sounds like ‘lea’…”

“But was Mr Darcy’s house called Pemberley?” he queries.

“No idea,” I admit.

“So would it be cheating to check if it was?” he asks.

“According to Mum’s rules it would, but I won’t tell, if you don’t.”

“Mum’s the word!” He smiles again. A twinkly smile that makes me blush.

After a few taps on his phone, Will high fives me across the desk.

“We make a good team!” He laughs. “But assuming you didn’t come in here to do the crossword and talk about fictional houses, perhaps I should put on my professional hat, and get back to business.

“Are you interested in buying or selling a property, Emma?”

“I’m thinking of moving back to the village, and I’m wondering if there’s anything available in my price range…”

“So, you know the area then?” Will asks.

A simple yes or no would have answered his question, but I find myself pouring out a potted personal history.

“Goodness, I don’t usually talk this much.” I’m blushing again because I’ve revealed much too much personal information. “Talk about oversharing.”

“Not at all.” Will reassures me. “The more I know about you, the easier it’ll be to find you the right property.”

There are more properties available in my price range than I’d hoped.

“If you want to view any of these, I’ll set up appointments for you, but this one…” He taps the details of the property I’m most interested in. A south-facing two-bedroom apartment in a newly converted manor house set in attractive gardens on the seafront. “This one is empty. I could show it to you right now.”

“Yes, please! That would be wonderful!”

“I think you’ll like it. Now, full disclosure,” he smiles again, and his eyes crinkle and twinkle. “I recently bought one of the apartments in this building myself, so if you decide to buy, we’d be neighbours.

“Don’t let that put you off though,” he teases.

“I won’t,” I assure him. “In fact, I have a feeling this apartment is going to be perfect.”

I chuckle as I look more carefully at the property details and read out the address. “Number four, The Pemberley.”

“Pemberley,” Will repeats. “The crossword answer! I didn’t make the connection earlier…

“Might be a sign – if you believe in that sort of thing.”

“I don’t usually, but… what number was that crossword clue?”

Will glances at the crossword on his desk.

“Four down… Number four. What are the chances?”

He laughs, and our eyes meet.

“I think you’re going to love this apartment, Emma,” Will says.

I do as well – and I’m pretty sure that Mum approves too.

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