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Checking Out the List
by Carol Cole



I’m going to do it. My mind is made up, and my daughter is doing her best to change it.

The slam of a car door startles the sparrows from my rowan tree, and they lift into a swirling mosaic of umber and sepia. Looking out of the kitchen window I see it is Alison swathed in righteous red, a colour associated with danger and revolt for a very good reason. I switch on the kettle; I find it easier to do battle on a full stomach.

When Lionel retired from the bank, took over the organisation of my life, every hour, every day and every week of it. He didn’t seem to realise that I had managed perfectly well without his guidance for the previous forty-five years. Together we had visited stately homes, ate cream teas, and rummaged through antique shops.  We took magical holidays abroad, the itineraries decided, at length, by Lionel. I grew used to being guided on what I was expected to say and do. We got to know each other all over again and he really was good fun. I was rather annoyed that his work colleagues had shared more of his company throughout our marriage than I had.

I have never been good at sports and I was too embarrassingly bad to be witnessed in his company when he was playing golf. He would pat my shoulder and say,

‘You could probably do with a smidgeon of time to yourself, old thing.’

He had a way of convincing you that his decisions were made with your best interests at heart. Reliable and predictable are happy bedfellows.

Then one bright sunny morning my darling man died. On the eighteenth tee he swung his driver, made perfect contact with the ball, and followed through into the next life.


Alison’s crisp tread pauses outside the back door, then, like an actress making her entrance, she thrusts it open as wide as it will go. Fingers lingering on the handle she lifts her chin and steps forward, used to being noticed, used to being taken notice of. Used to my more leisurely speed the hinges squeal.

‘Morning Mum.’ Her blue eyes narrow, fix on me for a heartbeat then sweep around the room as if she expects to find me engaged in some nefarious goings-on.

‘Tea, darling?’

She is disappointment, caught off balance. These days tension rolls from her in palpable waves. The loftier she climbs up her corporate ladder, the more noticeable it has become. For a second my resolution wavers. Just for a second.

She smiles and the ticking pulse in her jaw is reduced to a flutter.

‘Lovely, Mum. Thanks.’ Her neat gym-toned bottom slides onto a chair and she leans back. The pine creaks, a swirl of her citrus perfume tickles my nose and I taste it on my tongue. I turn away and reach for mugs.


It was a strange feeling being alone again after learning to share the minutiae of life. It felt like being adrift in a rowing boat in a busy shipping lane, my small craft buffeted and rocked by the wake of those speeding past. There were times I thought their bow-waves would sink me. Nobody had the time to throttle back to check I had not capsized.

Gradually my grief morphed into a celebration of Lionel’s company. I remembered all the places we had been together, palm shaded beaches beside warm sighing seas, spice fragranced rickshaw rides through hot, bustling streets, alfresco suppers beneath endless starred skies. I revisit them through my memories, through the photos and videos. I learn to pluck out the positive and nurture it until it blossoms and overwhelms my loss.   That was when I started my list. One day Alison mistook it for my shopping list and read it.

She had treated me to the wide-eyed stare that worked so well on her until she was about twelve. When that proved ineffective, she tried incredulity.

‘A bucket list, Mother? Really?’ Then she resorted to ridicule. ‘Act your age, for goodness sake, Mum. You do know how old you are, don’t you?’

My eighty-one-year-old body affirms my age every morning when I struggle out of bed, but it catches up with my mind as we progress through the day.

Now I drop teabags into the mugs that are decorated with scenes from Japan, and bubble boiling water onto them.

My mother would have referred to Alison as ‘a high-flier.’ She had voiced her opinion with a mixture of awe and condemnation and by the end of her life had stopped asking me when Alison was going to settle down and have a family.

Alison places her mug of tea, with precision, on the table in front of her.

‘Biscuit?’ I pull the tin with the picture of a kitten on the lid across the worksurface. My daughter is shaking her head before my fingers make contact with the smooth metal, so I flip the lid and take a couple of chocolate cookies for myself. She manages not to tut but looks disapproving. She inflates her lungs with a woosh of breath and lifts her chin. That’s tell-tale. It’s how I know she has been scheming, that she has a plan. Soon she will mention the list. Again.


As a young child, Alison liked to put people into boxes. I suppose it was her way of making sense of the world. She has a tidy mind, like her father, and like him isn’t particularly curious about what motivates people. She just has an over-developed sense of order and is comfortable with predictability. There’s a lot of Lionel in Alison.

Her eyes study me over the rim of her mug. My biscuit is crunchy, and the first bite speckles my shirt with a dusting of fine crumbs like demerara sugar. They slalom down my T-shirt and disappear below the table. She unconsciously brushes at the front of her own scarlet top. Then she laces her fingers and places her joined hands on the table in front of her tea with practised nonchalance. She looks as if she is praying and I bite into my cookie to disguise the smile tugging at my lips. She would feel hurt if she thought I was laughing at her.

‘Mum, you have considered that you could end up in danger, get injured, or scarred for life?’ It is all about presentation for my daughter. Her face is earnest, screwed with concern at the horrors she has conjured, and her brows pinch together like hawk wings.

‘Not a long-term problem for an octogenarian, darling.’ I smile to soften my reply and rest my hand on hers for a second. I try to work out when this pivot occurred, when we reversed our roles, she to adult and me to someone she feels responsible for. Perhaps it was when I was adrift after Lionel died.

‘Singapore is next on your list, isn’t it? I was speaking to a friend’, she wriggles her bottom on the chair, a sign that she was uncomfortable with the lie she had just told me, ‘and she thinks it’s not safe for you to go running around Singapore on your own.’


I wonder what the fictitious friend would have to say if she knew what was really next on my list. ‘Does she know Singapore well?’ I ask. Alison rocks her hand in a so-so gesture before plucking at the cuff of her jacket sleeve.

I let a short silence breathe.  ‘Perhaps, when I have drawn up my itinerary, Alison, your friend would be kind enough to cast an eye over it for me. What do you think? It’s a few years since Dad and I were there, and he made all the arrangements then. Things could have changed.’

She hesitates, perhaps wondering why I am compliant, suspicious that she is not the only one capable of duplicity. ‘Good idea, Mum.’ The remaining tension leaches out of her limbs, and she sips her tea. ‘I just don’t want you to do anything dangerous. Or have to live with repercussions for the rest of your life.’

‘I understand, darling.’


Her mouth curves into a genuine smile, the first that has reached her eyes.  Laughter lines crinkle the skin around her eyes into corduroy that disappears into her hairline.

 ‘Do you remember the eyebrow piercing episode?’ I ask, to prove my point. I can’t keep the smile out of my voice.

She frowns for a second, then huffs laughter through her nose. ‘Oh my God. Damien. I remember.’ Her spontaneous laugh fills my chest with warmth. One of the greatest privileges in the world is to hear your child laugh.

‘Thank you for forbidding me, Mum. And for living with that black lipstick. Dad hated it.’ She touches a finger to her mouth, remembering.

‘Pleasure,’ I said, ‘and I promise that I will show you my itinerary for Singapore and we will discuss it before I book anything.’ I uncross my fingers. ‘And Bali, and the gullet trip along the Turquoise Coast. In fact, I will discuss all my overseas trips with you before I book them. You might even consider joining me on one. I think you might enjoy it.  I won’t bother you with the little local things though. Happy with that?’

‘Yes, happy.’ Alison drains her mug and pushes back her cuff with a carmine nail. ‘Got to run. I have a meeting with a new client over lunch. Big account. Lots of opportunities.’ She pats me on the shoulder as she passes. ‘Don’t get up. Enjoy your tea. I’ll let myself out.’


‘Hope your meeting goes well, darling,’ I say to the back of her head as she closes the door. Her heels tap tap tap along the path like castanets. The sound reminds me of a September in Seville with Lionel. The thrumming beat of the guitars, the crack of percussion, drumming heels beneath the swirling costumes. Her car door snaps shut, and the urgent roar of her engine diminishes to a distant hum. It would be a brave flamenco dancer who performed a farruca with my daughter.


I rinse the cups and stand them in the sink. Last week I met a young man called Andy. I had done my research and found him to be deeply knowledgeable, and surprisingly polite when you looked past his piercings. We had quite a chat.  I have great confidence in him, which is why I am getting him to tick off an item on my list.  He is giving me a tattoo tomorrow. I’m not putting it anywhere too obvious, and it certainly won’t be a tramp stamp. Andy and I discussed the design and decided on something subtle and discreet – the antithesis of my darling girl. Lionel would have approved of it.


I will tell Alison, of course but after the event. Probably when I mention my forthcoming tandem sky dive. Dropping out of the sky and plummeting to earth is a little daunting. But I’m going to do it. I’ve made up my mind.




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