‘Words fail me,’ the Princess tells her son. She isn't sure which one.

‘Why, Mother, what’s happened?’

'Nothing’s happened. Words fail me, that’s all.’

‘Is that what you rang to say?’

‘I think you’ll find,’ she says, ‘that it was you who rang me.’

She grips the corded telephone receiver as though she means to squeeze the breath from it. She has never touched anything gently in her life.

‘No, that’s not the case, Mother.’ He too is a strangler, a cost-cutter by profession, and chokes a yawn, wanting her to hear the sleep in his voice. ‘I would never have called you at two in the morning.’

‘Don’t exaggerate. It isn’t two in the morning.’

‘It feels like two in the morning. And I didn’t ring you. Perhaps I should have, but I didn’t. Anyway—’

‘Anyway what?’

‘What did you ring to say?’

‘Stop showing your vest on television.’

‘That must be Pen you’re talking about. And I think he’d tell you it isn’t a vest, it’s a T-shirt.’

‘Whatever it’s called you should do your shirt up.’

‘Tell Pen that, not me.’

 ‘Who’s Pen?’

‘Your son.’

‘You’re my son.’

‘You have more than one.’

‘So which is he?’

‘The parsonical one.’

‘Then which are you?’

‘The prodigal one.’

He knows she knows.

‘Well I didn’t bring any of you up to wear a vest on television,’ she says.

‘You didn’t bring any of us up to be anarcho-syndicalists. My dear brother is making an ideological statement that is entirely his own.’

'By wearing a vest?’

‘It’s a T-shirt. The disaffected young are excited by the sight of an aged politician in a T-shirt.’

‘Yes, now you come to mention it, I remember I was. Pen’s father – it must have been his father, mustn’t it? – had a whole wardrobe of vests. I called it his vestiary. He would throw his old ones on the bed and wait for me to wash them. Pen was conceived on a bed of vests, so I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised.’

‘Mother!’

‘There’s no reason for you to be squeamish. You were conceived in the back of a Rolls.’

‘I am putting the phone down now if that’s all you rang to say.’

‘Don’t you think vests are slovenly?’

‘No, I think they’re worse than slovenly, I think they’re artful. They seduce the gullible. They did the trick with you, after all.’

‘That’s no way to talk to your mother. If that’s all you rang to say . . .’

‘I didn’t ring you to say anything. You rang me.’

‘I don’t think so.’

But in truth the Princess doesn’t choose to remember who rang whom.

*

She isn’t a real princess. That’s just a bit of fun she’s having with herself.

The Princess Schweppessodawasser. Her real name – the name she was born with – is Beryl Dusinbery. It never suited her to change it for a man. Princess Schweppessodawasser is, she says, her nom d’oubli, after the heroine of One Thousand and One Nights, whose actual name keeps sliding from her memory. Schhh . . . you know who. She had thought the reference might amuse her children – they are old enough to remember the 1960s advertising campaign – but nothing amuses her children. They blame her for that. ‘You never permitted gaiety to enter our lives,’ they remind her. ‘It’s a bit rich you thinking you can play with us now. Frankly, it’s embarrassing. You are the least playful mother who ever lived.’

‘I?’

‘I! There you go. Any other mother would say ‘me’.

‘In an age of derelictions I brought you up to express yourself correctly. You should be thankful you were born to a teacher and not a scullery maid.’

‘What’s a scullery maid?’

The Princess commends herself for not saying ‘You married one’.

‘Your ignorance vindicates my system,’ she says instead. ‘As I instructed my pupils in the higher things, so I instructed you.’

‘We weren’t your pupils, Mother . . .’

‘I haven’t finished speaking.’

‘Is that you being playful again?’

‘I never pretended to be playful. It’s in the nature of fathers to look after that side of things.’

‘Our fathers were never there.’

‘That too is in the nature of fathers. But satisfy an old woman’s curiosity. You say I was the least playful mother who ever lived. How many other mothers have you been brought up by?’

‘It’s a safe bet no other mother refused to read her children bedtime stories because she found them jejune. You actually used that word – jejune, for Christ’s sake!’

‘There you are – I gave you a word you still remember . . .’

‘But can’t use.’

‘Then try moving in more educated circles.’

‘I sit in the House of Lords, Mother.’

‘You make my point for me.’

  • Live a Little

  • A wickedly observed novel about falling in love at the end of your life, by the Man Booker Prize-winning author of The Finkler Question.

    At the age of ninety-something, Beryl Dusinbery is forgetting everything – including her own children. She spends her days stitching morbid samplers and tormenting her two long-suffering carers, Nastya and Euphoria, with tangled stories of her husbands and love affairs.

    Shimi Carmelli can do up his own buttons, walks without the aid of a frame and speaks without spitting. Among the widows of North London, he’s whispered about as the last of the eligible bachelors. Unlike Beryl, he forgets nothing – especially not the shame of a childhood incident that has hung over him like an oppressive cloud ever since.

    There’s very little life remaining for either of them, but perhaps just enough to heal some of the hurt inflicted along the way, and find new meaning in what’s left. Told with Jacobson’s trademark wit and style, Live a Little is in equal parts funny, irreverent and tender – a novel to make you consider all the paths not taken, and whether you could still change course.

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