…in which I lose my father, spend some hours fishing despite the strong scent of deja vu, find my father again and look for a travelling companion for the journey to come…
First up, my mother has a firm release date from the care home of April 27th. That’s only a couple of weeks away. Three to be precise, twenty-two days to be more precise. I’m beginning to count the hours…
Second up, remember that bright idea I had to keep loneliness at bay? I said, rather cryptically, I was going fishing. A reference to—you guessed it—a dating website. But Plenty of Fish, unlike Guardian Soulmates, is free to use. Which is just as well, as it keeps my investment in proportion with my expectations. Nada.
What am I thinking? That I can somehow use the coming days to rattle through the courting stage and get to a place where we – the unknown her and I that is – are comfortable enough together that my mother’s care needs and my own can somehow co-exist in harmony? This is a dating website, not a hook-up site. You’re expected to go out. To dinner, clubs, on walks, pubs, footie matches, theatres, cinemas, the list goes on. Only then do you earn the cosy nights in, of that I’m sure. And would those be here, with my mother sleeping peacefully nearby? Think of the logistics. Actually, don’t, it doesn’t bear thinking about. And if not here, how often am I going to secure an all-night sitter, one I can face in the morning when I return from my lover’s still warm bed, disheveled, in need of a shower and a shave with cash in hand and concerned entreaties over my mother’s wellbeing whilst I’ve been…out?
And talking of money, who’s paying for all this? I’m earning nothing. Can I charge it to my sister’s account? Claim it as expenses? Fifty for the sitter, the same for supper in a pub or restaurant, a hundred a night once a week if the relationship has legs. That’s just not sustainable. Those cozy nights in look a long way off…
I’ve had a look anyway, no harm in looking I suppose, and I notice there seem to be two distinct species of fish inhabiting the local waters. Some of the women I’m reading about run their own businesses or have clearly formed rather intense compensatory relationships with their dogs that must be respected going forward.
There’s another shoal with quite different markings and lifestyles. These women go to the gym. A lot. And on holiday. A lot. Or to tanning salons. A lot. Or both maybe. They say they like men with muscles and tats. Men who themselves find tattoos and intimate body piercings sexy. I don’t like tats and body piercings scare me. You know the ones…They list the television soap operas they prefer in order sometimes, and proudly state their love of footie. Partying and clubbing are high priorities. And if you’re lucky, there’s a wistful last line about cozy nights in, which may or may not be true, but would likely involve the soaps. So I’m not that keen.
Neither species openly declares their lives to be short of a man in his mid-fifties, losing his hair, unemployed, a carer for his mother, unable to take a night off let alone a Caribbean holiday, with a gross shortage of what my father referred to as ‘material goods’, property being far and away the most significant. So let’s just say it might be time for me to haul in my line, pack up my tackle and accept the fates.
In conclusion, I should say I mean no offence either to the women of the area, nor indeed to the delivery mechanism offered by this particular – free – site. I’m sure both could throw up the most fascinating and perfect of partners, the catch of a lifetime, given sufficient bait and a little patience. Only for me, having lured Genie, albeit briefly, and let her slip the net…I know…talk about extended metaphors…my trawl will, I’m sure, will leave me clutching only seaweed and discarded plastic bottles in my hands.
I’ve done the morning chores, probate is chugging along, or so the solicitor assures me, care agencies are being approached and generally turning me down with various excuses when they hear Mum’s needs, and equipment is beginning to arrive almost unbidden, a hospital bed for example.
But it’s my Dad that must take precedence now, or what’s left of him. I’ve pretty much got to the end of the list of those who should be informed of my father’s passing. I’ve gone through every old address book I could find, all his email addresses, even a Christmas card list I found, and though I am sure to have missed important people, I’ve been diligent. I’ve even come up with a low-cost funeral possibility for my father’s body that might well make sense.
Having investigated a few local undertakers, the options they had for me were absurd. The Co-op for instance. They would provide an ‘ambulance’ from hospital mortuary to the undertakers’ premises, a wooden coffin – cheap wood, the kind that you can cremate without any sense that you’re wasting money or harming the environment too much – a hearse with driver and four pallbearers for a little over two and a half thousand pounds. This did not include either a priest to officiate, the hire of facilities such as the chapel in which to hold a service, nor the costs of a wake.
I didn’t want to say that for a variety of reasons, it was likely the pallbearers would outnumber the mourners, nor did I want to appear parsimonious in honouring my dead parent with due care and conscience. But nor could I see a rationale to follow form merely for the sake of following form.
Then, online, I found Durfield Funeral Service. Durfield is one hundred and seventy one point one miles from where my father is in the hospital morgue, but for one thousand pounds, slightly less in fact, he could be picked up, taken to the aforesaid Durfield – a historic town with an imposing church steeple and seven hairdressers – there to be cremated. His ashes would be returned in due course without the need for an elaborate and somber Victorian procession. I would then organize a more up to date ‘celebration of life’ at the bungalow, where friends and family would be invited to spend an afternoon contemplating the best aspects of my father’s life and the brighter side of death.
The cherry on top – if I can get the timings right – would be to combine my father’s celebration of life with another cause for celebration; the return of my mother to her own home. A double whammy that might be unconventional but is hard to openly criticise. The son, the difficult son as I am known to large swathes of the family, would be seen to have performed his filial duties. Only the most acute or well-informed would detect the quite intentional underlying irony.
Naturally, I bring my sister in on the arrangement through a quick email and tell her all will be well. Then I go ahead and book, speaking to a nice young man who is, I suspect, the boss and only member of staff. All I have to do now is wait.
The Durfield Funeral and Cremation Service was certainly the cheapest option. It may not prove to be the best. Two weeks after my father’s body was collected from the hospital, I am still waiting. My calls are not being returned, nor are my father’s ashes, if indeed he’s been cremated at all and is not still in one piece and languishing somewhere in the back of an unmarked white van.
This unexpected development could prove embarrassing as I’m currently sending out invitations to his celebration of life to be held in May, just five weeks away. And though of course nobody is expecting to see my father in person, having his ashes to hand would probably be seemly and form a centerpiece to the corkboard of photographs I’ve been planning.
Having him there in some tangible way is all the more important given the strong Irish contingent on the potential guest list. Many of them have been reliably informed I’m a serious menace to the family, very likely bi-polar and need no help developing conspiracy theories. This will not look good to them.
I phone the hospital morgue just to be sure the body has been picked up. It has. I ask if they have a mobile number in their paperwork that might help me track my father’s progress across country towards Durfield and the alleged crematorium. They don’t. I ask if this situation has arisen before now. It hasn’t, but then the woman on the other end says they almost always know the undertakers who remove bodies for burial or cremation because they tend to be local. I feel chastised. I ask if I’m the first to use the Durfield Funeral and Cremation Service. She tells me I am. I have the feeling the woman at the other end is wondering what kind of ghoul would allow complete strangers to cart his father off without even a phone number to call them on.
More than a week later, there’s nothing even remotely funny about the situation. My sister is calling from Canada. She wants to know if it’s possible Dad’s been dumped somewhere and though she’s kind enough to skirt the issue, she’d really like to know why I thought paying the full amount upfront was a sensible thing to do. I tell her the chances of a body remaining undiscovered in a municipal dump, on a roadside, even in an industrial scale landfill, are infinitesimal. No right thinking person would take a risk like that for a thousand pounds. She wants to know what evidence I have that the Durfield Funeral and Cremation Service is capable of right thinking.
So, I call the police. But before I call the police, I do a Google maps search to find 22A Blackberry Road. Only then does it occur to me how fake the address sounds. Blackberry Road. Near Bluberry Hill? And why it hasn’t occurred to me before that the ‘A’ implies a flat or a maisonette at best, is beyond me. When I turn the map into a satellite image and then with a heavy heart, click and hold the little yellow man who can walk Blackberry Road on my behalf, sure enough the entire operation appears to be run from a first floor apartment in a one-up, one-down terraced house.
It’s impossible to believe that bodies could easily be moved up and down the stairs without attracting the attention of neighbours, especially those living below or opposite, who would surely see coffins being carted to and fro. And if by some miracle 22A is merely a postal address and the bodies are kept safely elsewhere, where is that elsewhere?
The policewoman at the other end of the phone is kind and attentive. She listens as I stumble through an explanation of how I chanced upon Durfield’s Funeral and Cremation Service, even though I live almost two hundred miles away, and why it all seemed like a good idea at the time. When I ask if she’s any knowledge of the company and it’s activities, she says no. It’s something of a relief that I haven’t been had by a nationwide scam and that my father is not one of many, but it does little to resolve the current issue as to where he’s got to.
I’m waiting for her to suggest sending a squad car to Blackberry Road with a couple of beefy officers and one of those pipe things they use to break down doors. She proposes instead that I write a letter to the company and send it registered post, which seems quaint but potentially ineffective. She asks me to call back if I get no joy from the letter and my other attempts to contact the company and I’m pretty sure retires to the tea room to relay the story to her colleagues as another example of why police officers should be paid on a par with psychiatrists and why policing ain’t what it used to be.
Eventually, of course, my father came home. Not before I’d come up with a plan to barbeque something, anything, find a suitable container for the ash and try to front things out with the family, God forgive me as the Irish would say. I finally got the twenty-five year old entrepreneur boss of the company on the phone by filling in the enquiry form on the website and claiming to be a potential new client in need of a call back. When I told him I’d been in touch with the police, he had the ashes with me within twenty-four hours.
My father arrived in a green plastic canister the size and shape of a sweet jar that in the old days would hold Lemon Sherbets or Kola Cubes and sit in a row of similar jars on the shelves of a newsagents. A fabulously skinny young man – suitably wraith-like if not actually one of the walking dead – handed him over at the front door with a formal bow and a couple of quick backward steps as if expecting trouble. He’d driven all the way from Durfield that very morning only to drive all the way back when his duty was discharged, and he was obviously keen to get on. It made me wonder just how viable Durfield Funeral and Cremation Service would prove over the long term.
I put the jar on a shelf in the front room, but it didn’t feel right. The plastic container now reminded me of one of those small bins for waste food we’re given by the council. It was utilitarian and ugly, but I had no intention of trying to source a Greek urn with so many other things to do. So I moved him. I put him in the cupboard of his bedroom – now my bedroom – next to a cardboard box with my grandmother’s ashes that had found no permanent resting place over the years, condemned instead to accompany me on my peripatetic odyssey through the storms and squawls of life.
When I closed the cupboard door on them, I couldn’t help but reflect upon the quiet stillness between them, so unlike their relationship in life. Late in the day it may be, I thought, but they may finally have found a kind of peace in each other’s company. I slept easy that night knowing I’d discharged my responsibilities, albeit in an unconventional way and that as far as I could tell, the cupboard of ancestors was peaceful and quiet.
Do you know this phrase? ‘Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate’
(lasshiaate onnye sperantsa, voy kintraate)
Probably not with my accent. The Italian is usually translated as the more familiar, ‘Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.’
Dante reads the inscription as he passes through the gate of hell, guided by the shade of the Roman poet Virgil. All around them they hear the terrible cries of ‘the Uncommitted’:
“Here sighs, laments, and deep wailings were resounding though the
starless air; wherefore at first I wept thereat. Strange tongues,
horrible cries, words of woe, accents of anger, voices high and
hoarse, and sounds of hands with them, were making a tumult which
whirls forever in that air dark without change, like the sand
when the whirlwind breathes.
And I, who had my head girt with horror, said, “Master, what is
it that I hear? and what folk are they who seem in woe so
And he to me, “This miserable measure the wretched souls maintain
of those who lived without infamy and without praise.”
I don’t know that looking after my mother will fall into the category of a decent to the underworld, but I am certain that likely as not I will court both infamy and praise in taking on the task. And doing it alone is scary.
Dante has Virgil and then later Beatrice to guide him; Beatrice, the incarnation of beatific love and a figure most scholars now agree was based on a real woman that Dante met only twice in his life. Bice di Folco Portinari was just eight years old when Dante met her for the first time. Dante was nine. He only saw her one more time, nine years later, when by Dante’s account she happened to walk past him in the street accompanied by two older women. Bice, or Beatrice, acknowledged him with the merest wave, a simple act causing the nineteen year old Dante to swoon with love, a love that would dominate his thinking and his writings for the rest of his life. The original Beatrice died when she was just twenty-four years old. Dante gave her an afterlife in both his Divina Commedia and La Vita Nuova, a book dedicated entirely to expressing his love for this woman in poetry and prose. That was as close as he got to being with his great love, though he lived on to be fifty-six, precisely the age I am now.
I should give it up. The dating business I mean. Of course I should. But then I should never have gone for the Guardian Soulmates site, even in jest, especially as I’d just moved to France, and couldn’t date. But I did find Genie. And had the fates been kinder, who knows where that may have led? Could the same thing happen again? And what else am I to do? Life is full of shoulds and coulds, but as the great writer tells us, you cannot sit on the fence as one of the uncommitted forever without consequences, and a good deal of discomfort to the nether regions.
So, maybe this is not the time to give up hope. Maybe this is precisely the time to go boldly into the future, my way lit by hope. Dante never gave up, even after Beatrice had shuffled off her mortal coil. That’s love for you. Old style, courtly love. Have things really changed so much between thirteenth century Florence and Plenty of Fish?
Should I persist, despite the odds, for my sake and even, my mother’s? There is no point in making myself either a martyr or a monk. No point in sacrificing one life to preserve another. That would be a zero-sum game my mother would never approve and I could never sustain. No. My manifesto, stated clearly to anyone who’d listen, was that I would take this on only if I thought I could do it with some kind of grace. Do it lightly. With good humour.
‘Una Vita Nuova’ is beginning right here right now, deep in the burbs whether I like it or not. I will not be one of the ‘uncommitted’, wailing about my lot, stuck in a purgatory of my own making. I will risk my reputation, such as it is, and try to find a travelling companion for the trip ahead. Because if I don’t try then the outcome is guaranteed, and even if the odds look pretty hopeless, that is not the deal I made with myself.
The point, after all, is to bring my mother back to life, back into life, back into the world. Taking her from one hermetic environment to another, smaller and more isolated hermitage like the bungalow can only prove harmful to her, unless life as lived by others goes on around her. And life as lived, means love, along with a host of other things like laughter, tears, obstacles, challenges, risk even. In concrete terms, wind, rain, takeaways, a gin and tonic in the evenings, away days, and guests to stay over. You can’t cherry pick the good bits and not accept the pits, as they say. That’s why the care homes, so full of care, so short on excitement and risk, so conscious of health and safety and medication schedules, so often humourless, so lacking in, yes, love, are, despite everything, institutionalised euthanasia packaged to look like life.
Things will be different here. Better. And life will go on, for me and for her not just because that’s the right thing to do, but because that’s what I would want for myself. That’s the ultimate test, isn’t it?
Despite the strong scent of déjà vu, despite Genie and my circumstances, I fill in the Plenty of Fish profile and find some photographs of myself in exotic holiday locations. I do this not to foster an untruth, nor to pander to the prejudices of the middle class shoals, nor indeed to show off the non-existent tattoos on my non-existent rippling biceps, but rather as a way of giving myself a foreign, slightly unclassifiable air. And I’m open about mum. I say I had been living in France – true—and I say I’ve come back to take care of my ailing parent following my father’s death—a little too much information, but also true. I go on to say that my care responsibilities will inevitably be a priority for me, though no more than the Springer or the Terrier or lone daughter or son, much loved product of a loveless marriage, who will always come first in their own lives.
I don’t actually say that last bit, but I think it. All’s fair, eh?
Are you still there? What a star you are, that’s the whole first season and you’ve stuck with me all the way, thank you…
Even as we speak, or rather I speak and you listen, I’m busying away on season two…so what have you got to look forward to?
Well, you won’t believe it, but I manage to cram in three dates in the days before my mother’s return home…three…I get a letter, more accurately we get a letter from the ex who’s son I displaced…
…and the most exciting element of season two is my youngest daughter…who has graciously agreed to write and perform songs to accompany the words and the action…songs that make me weep and make me proud…songs like the one you’ll hear when I finally stop talking…
…so please, if you can, if you’ve enjoyed things so far and want to know what happens next and indeed what happens in the end, come back for more…
…leave an email address and I’ll let you know when the episodes go up…
…use the time between now and then to make contact with your own stories…I’d love to hear about your experiences, take your advice…especially if you’re a carer or a lover or both…not that I think there’s much difference…do you?
…thanks for listening… here she is, my beautiful, anonymous for now, daughter…