Sticking Your Oar In

Lauren’s mum’s constant interfering was embarrassing – until she understood that sometimes, you just have to

“Mum, please don’t stick your oar in.” I placed my hand on my mother’s arm as the bus rattled over another speed bump.

She’d persuaded me to leave my car behind on Saturday morning, since parking in town can be a nightmare. Still, buses are a bad idea for her since she often suffers from interfering-itis.

She pursed lips coated in pink lipstick.

“Why can’t I say anything, Lauren?” she asked. “Everyone can hear them. If you want to keep something private, you don’t broadcast it on the number 17.”

“It’s still none of your business.”

Three rows back, a young mother sat in the middle of a loud discussion about her little boy and his bed-wetting. Mum, meanwhile, looked like a balloon full of ideas about to burst.

In her early sixties, with highlighted blond hair, purple glasses and a buttermilk-coloured leather coat, she did look like a trendy agony aunt from a glossy magazine.

“Why don’t you focus on your own problems?” I advised. “Use your energy for that.”

I lost my grip on her sleeve when she rose to her feet.

She always ignores me.

“Excuse me!” Hanging on to the backs of seats to keep her balance, she wandered off.

She’s always been the same. She was a terrible example growing up. I’d often have to say, “Mum, please don’t talk to strangers.”

“Sorry. I couldn’t help but overhear you two chatting,” she said to the women on the bus in honeyed tones.

She always starts her tête-à-têtes in a similar fashion. Her confidence and benign smile normally work wonders.

“About your little one.”

I heaved a sigh at the predictability of it all. At least the little boy in question wasn’t onboard. He must be at home with his dad.

“What’s he got to do with you?” came the woman’s tart reply. She didn’t sound at all happy with the intervention.

“I know somebody who had a similar problem, that’s all,” Mum soothed. “I only wanted to help.”

“Well, don’t.”

“Yeah, don’t,” the woman’s friend echoed with all the charm of a fire-breathing dragon.

“Oh, OK. Sorry I spoke.”

Mum, all contrite, edged her way back to me. The whole bus had witnessed her downfall.

“Well, there’s a lesson for you,” I said in low tones when she sat down. “Maybe you got what you deserved.”

She shrugged up into her coat. “I don’t think so.”

“Mum, face it – it’s a much better idea to keep yourself to yourself.”

When the bus reached town, we disembarked. I made sure that we got off before the two women. I made sure, too, that we turned in the opposite direction to avoid any lingering awkwardness.

I checked my watch.

“We have two hours to shop for your new dress, Mum. Then we’ll have to get to the optician’s.”

I steered her into the nearest clothes shop.

We did have a nice morning, after that. We visited loads of shops before we took a break for coffee.

Afterwards, we walked towards Pemble and Jackson’s, Mum’s opticians.

It’s not a glossy modern chain, it’s a local independent run from a converted detached house.

When we entered, Mum gave her name at reception. Then we took a seat in two of the chairs by the window.

Unfortunately, in such a small space, the couple sitting opposite proved hard to tune out.

“We need to find something to put on that rash on your back.”

The woman speaking was in her thirties. “I can’t stand watching you scratching all day.”

Her other half, didn’t look too thrilled with that observation getting broadcast.

“That was a lovely dress you bought,” I said to my mum, hoping to drown them out. “You’ll look absolutely fabulous at the christening.”

She blinked at me then refocused.

“Yes, yellow’s a cheerful colour. It’ll go lovely with my white jacket. Have you heard from Aunty Cath yet? Is she coming over or not?”

I wasn’t fooled by her interest in my youngest child’s christening do.

The couple’s conversation might have turned into a background drone to me but I swear she can listen to twelve people talking all at once if she puts her mind to it.

Would the man opposite need a doctor, or some sound advice about washing powder allergies?

“Didn’t Cath tell you?” I carried on regardless.

“She’s managed to switch her shifts with somebody else so she’s free the whole day.”

As I chatted, a goods train chased through the station in the distance. It was easy to see, since the opticians stood on a rise above the tracks.

As carriages full of gravel disappeared into the horizon, Mum said out of nowhere, “Calamine lotion! Have you tried that?

“Sorry, I couldn’t help but overhear you two,” she added one of her usual tag lines as she gave the couple opposite one of her signature compassionate smiles.

The man and woman shared a glance but before either could say, Yes, we have or No we haven’t tried calamine lotion, or give a reply at least as acerbic as the women on the bus, the receptionist called from her desk.

“Mr Curtis, you can go through now. Mr Pemble’s ready for you. He’s the first door on the right. Your wife can go with you, if you like.”

The couple stood up. Neither said a word as they made their exit.

“Mum,” I said in a tight voice once the door closed. “That really had nothing to do with you.”

“Well, if he’s got a rash he might have extra sensitive skin,” she reasoned, “He could give it a try at least.”

I snatched up two magazines from the table and thrust one into her hands before anybody else arrived in the waiting room.

“Here, have a read.”

She frowned. “These things are always just full of gossip.”

I think the irony of that remark escaped her.

Luckily when another couple did arrive they picked up magazines too, and didn’t utter a word.

Listen to all those pages turning, Mum, I thought. It’ll keep you out of trouble.

“Mrs Hanson,” the receptionist called. “You can go through now. Mrs Jackson’s ready for you.”

Mum exited by the door that led to the examination rooms.

That left me all alone.

I followed waiting room etiquette to the letter: don’t say a word to anyone and keep your head down.

I used to take the train to work and hardly a soul ever spoke to me in my carriage. I’d lived in my own little bubble.

Now, after working my way through two magazines full of celebrity marriages, splits and rehab, I glanced through the window. Another train was just pulling out of the station, a passenger one this time.

Two bridges for pedestrians loomed above the tracks. The modern grey metal one consisted of one long ramp for wheelchairs and buggies.

The other, an ancient monument to the steam age, was made of red brick. Only steps led up to it, but hardly anybody climbed them anymore. Still, upon it stood a lonely figure.

I peered harder. Wasn’t that the fire-breathing dragon from the bus?

She wore a red boxy coat and her long ponytail swished.

Where’s her friend? I wondered. The one with the little boy?

As I watched, she yanked a tissue from her pocket and wiped at her eyes. Then she leaned over and peered down at the tracks below.

Now don’t let your imagination run away with you, I warned myself. It’s a chilly day, the cold makes noses and eyes run and the gravel between the rails is absolutely… fascinating?

I glanced back to my magazine while the hairs on my nape prickled.

Oh look, Davina McCall on the menopause. And here, Amanda Holden on her house décor. I sat immersed in nosiness while trying not to be nosy at all.

I peered outside one more time. Now the woman’s shoulders jerked up and down as she sobbed. No wonder she’d torn a chunk off my mum on the bus, she was having a bad morning.

On the bridge, a man walked right by her without sparing her a glance.

Don’t you dare think, What would Mum do? I warned myself.

I had visions of the local paper’s headline then, stark and accusing: Impending Tragedy Ignored at Local Railway Station.

I rose from my seat and turned to the receptionist. “Can you tell Mrs Hanson I’ve gone to check on a… a timetable at the station.”

I didn’t announce what I suspected. I hurried out of the door instead.

Nothing awful’s going to happen, I told myself as I trotted down the road. Though you might well get yelled at and told where to go.

I charged into the station. I hurried past the modern bridge and climbed the steps of the old.

Perspiration beaded my brow despite a cutting breeze and my heart clattered along at what felt like a billion beats per second.

I was thinking of a day at least eight months earlier, when I’d sat in my car in a car park in town crying into a hankie. I had two kids, aged eight and twelve, but having a third caused a horrendous bout of post-natal depression.

In my misery, I’d never imagined planning my son’s belated christening do. I’d never imagined I’d ever want to face a horde of relatives and finger food.

I’d come a long way since then. I did feel somewhat qualified to intrude.

Crying quietly, the woman on the bridge hunched over herself exactly the way I had. Something must have happened, I pondered, to have got her into such a state.

I walked right up to her and then, do you know what I did?

I sped right by!

It’s not the woman from the bus! That threw me.

I glanced down to the platform where everybody else looked the other way, too.

Be honest now, come on, I urged myself. What would you have done if somebody had tapped on your car window when you sat upset and all alone?

Would you have felt even more lost by their intervention – or would you have thought, Well, at least it proves somebody cares.

I whirled round. “Is everything all right?”

I stood so far away from the woman by now that I needed to add a little volume.

Everybody down on the platform glanced up. I guessed what they were thinking: Oh good, somebody else has stepped in.

“Sorry, I couldn’t help but notice you.”

I added one of my mum’s lines as I retraced my steps.

Behind the woman’s shoulder in the distance I could see the optician’s. A figure wearing a buttermilk-coloured coat was just exiting.

I wouldn’t have to deal with this on my own. Mum would be by my side in moments.

“Really, are you all right?” I repeated as the woman wiped at her tear-streaked cheeks and heaved in a deep breath.

No matter how she replied, whether with a tale of woe or an angry retort, I knew how happy I’d just made my mother.

“Lauren,” I could imagine her saying. “I know you think I’m always butting in and getting involved, but there are times when we just have to do it.”

Yes Mum, I thought. We do. Now hurry up, because I might need you to teach me a little bit more about sticking my oar in.

There are more lovely uplifting short stories in every issue of My Weekly. Pick up your copy in newsagents and supermarkets, or subscribe to have your copy delivered!

My Weekly Magazine Subscription