Frayn presents Keith’s mother from the viewpoint of Stephen, the narrator. The author uses both the present and the past tense throughout the novel, as well as shifting between the first and the third person narrative. Stephen returns to The Close as an old man, and discusses his younger self in the third person, (E.g. “She didn’t speak to him personally,”) as if he is detached from his own past, and is almost recalling things that happened to somebody other than himself. The idea of a person’s past being foreign to them is a similar theme to one explored in “The Go-Between,” when L.P. Hartley, the author, says, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” However some things are remembered in the first person: “She’s sitting in the dust in front of me, weeping”, which perhaps Frayn intends to involve the reader more personally and immediately.
The descriptions of Keith’s mother are entirely reliant on the accuracy of Stephen’s memory, as the reader only sees the activity in The Close through Stephen’s eyes. The reader has no more insight than Stephen does into the thoughts or feelings of the other characters. Frayn explores how reliable one’s memory really can be; he asks, “What do we see from our vantage point in the meantime? Or dream that we see; or imagine that we see, or imagine later that we remembered seeing.” Stephen remembers his younger self in black and white; “He’s entirely monochrome… because this is how I recognise him now from the black and white snaps I have at home.” However, senses appear to jolt the old man’s memory, for instance, the familiar smell of the privet brings back vivid recollections of childhood, as does texture; Stephen says, “I can feel the delicious serrated texture of the snake’s scaliness.” (Noticeably, these more detailed memories are told in the first person.)
Frayn describes Keith’s mother as always, “Rested, calm and composed.” She is shown as being very sophisticated, and Frayn uses very distinct Upper Class language to illustrate this, as Keith mother uses phrases such as; “You Chaps”, “terribly hush-hush” and “frightfully”. Frayn says, “She spoke softly and smilingly, with a kind of calm amusement at the world, and with no excessive movement of her lips.” Considering the book is set during World War Two, Keith’s mother does not seem to be involved in any sort of voluntary work, as Frayn says, “She spent a lot of her day with her feet up on the sofa.” The housework is done by Mrs Elmsley, who is a hired daily help, and her most strenuous activity seems to be walking down the road to the post box and the shops, or to see her sister at Number Twelve (Auntie Dee). This description of a very composed, sophisticated mother contrasts with Stephen’s own mother; “Would he perceived the grace and serenity of Keith’s mother quite so clearly if his own hadn’t spent most of the day in a faded apron, sighing and anxious?” and worrying about, “the filthy state of their room.” Frayn perhaps uses this descriptive language to emphasise further the difference there is in social class between Stephen and Keith’s families, of which Stephen is painfully aware.
The reader sees that Keith’s mother plays a maternal role in Stephen’s life. Frayn says, “What he loved most at Keith’s house was being invited to tea.” We see that Stephen saw Keith’s mother as a provider; “At once I taste the chocolate spread on the thick plank of bread… Helping ourselves from the tall jug of lemon barley.” It is possible that Frayn does this to show the reader that Stephen admires Keith’s mother, almost idolising her, as she is so serene and hospitable compared to his own mother. He wishes it could have been someone else in The Close who is “a German Spy,” rather than someone who has shown him such hospitality, and who he is really quite fascinated by.
Frayn also shows how Keith’s mother plays a role in Stephen’s awaking sexuality. A recurring theme in the novel is the idea of “the right of passage” or the journey from childhood to adulthood, and the development of sexuality is a vital part of this. The situation when Keith’s mother joins Stephen in the lookout, invading their secret place, highlights Stephen’s awkwardness; “Where do you look, for instance, when there’s nowhere to look except at her?” He says, “I don’t know what to do with myself,” and, “In the silence that follows…I go on trying not to look at her bosom.”
Here, Frayn has made the reader sympathise with Stephen’s situation and his dilemma, as well as making the situation almost humorous, “and that part of a lady, as I’ve known for almost a year now, is her bosom, and as unthinkable-about as a privet.” In this way, Keith’s mother plays a role in Stephen’s journey into adulthood; however she affects this journey in other ways too. As he is spying on her, he becomes increasingly aware of the secrets and responsibilities of the adult world. He follows her down “the tunnel,” which is dark, dirty (significant, as Stephen has a fear of germs) and terrifying. Some interpret the tunnel as symbolising the path of adolescence, “This time there’s no way out. I’m going to have to follow her. Through the tunnel. On my own.” The tunnel is dark, foreboding and dangerous, therefore it is a test of bravery to go down it; a test where failure is not an option. “The never-ending returns of the high cries that Keith and Stephen uttered to test the echoes and show they weren’t afraid, as they made one of their rare ventures through that long, low darkness.” Stephen says that they ventured down the tunnel “to test our manhood,” and it is almost as if Keith’s mother unwittingly led Stephen down that tunnel when he became involved in the secrets in her adult world.