"I think my mum's already here?"
I know she is. Without even glancing at my phone or flicking my eyes across the polished wood and studded tables of the restaurant, I know she's here. Never in the 32 years I've known her, has my mother ever been late for a meal. Late for anything, really. This is the woman, after all, who once insisted we got to Gatwick six hours before a flight, "so we don't have to rush." The woman who would make me pack for our summer holiday three weeks in advance, meaning that my last few days of term would be spent wearing increasingly unlikely combinations of satin culottes, thick jumpers, plimsolls, and crop tops. The woman who likes to be so far in advance that by the time I turned 18, she was already telling her friends I was 20.
"Ah, yes. She is. Just by the window."
The waiter in a vaguely saucy bow tie ushers me towards my mother. Let me say right now that my mum is a straight-up stunner. Like the best bits of Helen Mirren, Lulu, and Rod Stewart combined. She looks decades younger than she really is and gets chatted up far more regularly than me. Luckily, she's getting so deaf these days that she mishears most come-ons and ends up talking to strangers about their hernias, NVQs, or quest for spiritual enlightenment. She can talk to anyone, anywhere, with an indefatigable eye for detail, razor-sharp wit, and all the retiring sensitivity of a Gestapo agent.
This evening, my mother is dressed in a leather jacket from the market and a fluffy coat that makes her look, in her own words, like Henry VIII.
Sitting down beside her, I notice that the restaurant is full of mothers and their children. To our left is a woman with her son. She's drinking a large glass of wine and talking to the waiting staff while he sips at a Coke bottle and scrolls through his phone. On our right, a mother and her daughter each climb through a serving of tiramisu that could double as a crash mat. Across the corridor, a fantastically handsome man with long grey hair jiggles his daughter on his knee, while making an apparently heartfelt and meaningful toast to his mother beside him. Outside on the pavement, a woman with straight black hair and enough eye liner for a decent courtroom sketch is sharing a cigarette with her mother—a near carbon copy, right down to their white socks.
Mother's Day—that semi-bullshit (her words) occassion built on the once-traditional practice of servants and labourers going home to their mother parish on Mothering Sunday for church—is now marked on most people's food calendar along with Valentine's or Easter. Your choices seem to be, either, a box of specially pink and be-ribboned chocolates, breakfast in bed, or taking the old gal out for dinner.
I, of course, chose the latter. Much as I love my mother and, quite literally, owe her my life, the woman wakes up at 5 AM. To bring her breakfast in bed, I'd have to chew through a whole box of Pro Plus and stay up all night shaking beside the kettle until dawn.
There is, of course, a certain art to taking your mother out for dinner. And, in my case, that means bringing someone else along to take some of the heat off your mother's viper-like wit. So, we invite along one of the women my mum describes as the "non-bios"—a frankly dazzling array of people to whom my mum acts as a sort of surrogate London mum. Of course, the silly bitch brings my mum a present in a lovely floral gift bag, so I instantly look like the tight-fisted genetic option. I ask the friend to take a photo of me and mum before our starters arrive and her lipstick hasn't yet migrated to her front teeth.
"Oh god, Nell, my nose looks like a shelving bracket!" screams my mother, holding the phone screen a good metre and a half away from her face, eyes screwed nearly shut.
"Don't worry mum," I reply. "I look like a melting church candle, as usual."
The second rule to taking your mother out for dinner is to pick somewhere she might like. This may sound obvious, but it can be hard to remember exactly what sort of food the woman who served up your Tuesday evening fish fingers actually liked herself, away from your demanding child appetite. Despite spending several years (and a notably successful impregnation) in India, my mother has now decided that she can't be arsed with curry. She doesn't eat meat, she doesn't like anything that costs more than £20, and, if pushed to describe her favourite food in three adjectives, chooses "greasy," "crispy," and "fried." And so we end up at a small Italian restaurant around the corner from my house, where the butter and oil flows freely and the acoustics are so loud that hopefully no one can hear my mother hollering at the top of her lungs, "When I was young, I looked like Myra Hindley!" (We were, in her defence, talking about bad passport photos.)
When it's time to order, my mother chooses, as I knew she would, a buttery salmon dish that comes on a bed of sea bass ravioli. Despite bringing me up on an overwhelmingly fibre-heavy No Meat and Eight Veg diet, now that she's been left to her own devices, my mum seems to view vegetables the way I do group sex—fine if you like that sort of thing, but not really for her. I choose a broccoli pizza and our friend goes for a far superior orecchiette with sausage, tomato, garlic, and broccoli. My mum hasn't drunk since her 30th birthday—never in my lifetime—and so we crack open a bottle of fizzy water and make a toast to boarding schools (my mum was sent away to hers at five and, despite my desperate pleading, made sure I never suffered the same parental separation).
The other thing to bear in mind when taking your mother for dinner is what to talk about. In our case, this includes a very loud (imagine three foghorns in the North Atlantic) discussion of an old Soviet tanker called the Methane Princess that was once stuck in the River Fal, how my mother went through an entire pregnancy without so much as a scan, Medieval murder mysteries, how to de-flea a cat one-handed, baby chickens, and my own tendency for flatulence. My mother has to apologise to the waitress for asking for several additional servings of Parmesan on her fish (this woman's love of dairy knows no bounds) and I have to tell my mother to stop screaming "children's home" over and over again, as people are beginning to stare.
Despite the restaurant offering a special Mother's Day deal for two courses, my own mother is not tempted by the crème brûlée because, much to her chagrin, it comes flavoured with Baileys. She is underwhelmed by the prospect of a banoffee pie ("Oh god, I can't stand that toffee stuff") and tells me that, if I still want pudding, we could always just buy a bar of chocolate on the way home. You don't, I suppose, raise two children without learning a thing or two about thrift.
And so we decide to pay the bill and make our merry way to the bus stop. Here's the other thing about Mother's Day—and I'm sure I don't need to be telling you this—but if you're going to invite your mum out for dinner, then do be prepared to pay, whatever purely hollow resistance she may at first put up to the idea. And get her home safely.
As we stroll down the high street, both wrapped up against the wind like a pair of boxing gloves, I put my arm through my mum's and take a quick smell of her hair. It's the smell of home, of love, of safety, and of life. It also smells a touch of fish and Parmesan, of course, but hey, she is what she is. And she's mine.
Happy Mother's Day, Mum. You're the one for me.