episode nine: past, present and future tense

in which the past comes alive over a cup of tea only to vanish in the face of present woes and future concerns…


We’ve made it from the care home to the bungalow without a hitch and now we’re sitting side-by-side looking out on the garden…We’ve been teleported from one world to another quicker than either of us can comprehend and it’s only half past two. I feel I’ve got away with daylight robbery. I should be calm and content. Instead, I feel high as a kite…and I just can’t seem to stop talking…

I want to take you round and show you all the things i’ve done. planted plants for you and i think i’ve got the fountain going too. but you’re home now and i’m going to take care of you. with the carers’ help. oh no… now i’m going to make you well., that’ll be my next job, get you feeling a bit brighter.

There’s still almost four hours to go until the first care call at six-thirty this evening and I’ve got to fill those hours in a meaningful way, preferably without talking the poor woman to death.

want to have a wander through the house yeah let’s go and have a look and i’ll make you a cup of tea or something. what’s that scraping sound? that’s your foot, can’t have that down there. it’s going to take me a while to get used to all this isn’t it? mmmm… over here i’ve put pictures of the girls there look, and if we go through to the dining room, i’ve turned the bed round so you can see out, i think it’ll be nicer…more pictures, pictures of all the family, including dad, and i’ve done a big tidy in the kitchen…

I want to ask her how it feels to be home. But I’m afraid to ask. It’s way too soon and above all, I’m not at all convinced she really knows she is home. Nor am I sure that my new personality, part desperate estate agent, part camp bellhop, is helping the orientation process…

there! everything just as you left it, hey? mmm… all clean and neat and tidy, it’s all a bit of a surprise, are you going to be alright with me? mmm, uh… no? oh, i hope you will, i’ll do my best to look after you, i’ll make some tea shall i? and maybe a bit of cake…

So, as you can hear, things are pretty much under control. With the kettle on and cake waiting, you can assume tea bags are being placed in a tea cup for me, and the plastic wing-handled cup, just like the ones in the care home, purchased from a ‘living aids’ supplier online, for mum. You can imagine me wheeling mum through to the living room and returning for the assembled refreshments. Settled for the moment, I will calmly minister tea and cake to my new charge, and sip tea myself… …

There’s time to tell you a   story. This happened only a couple of weeks ago when I was visiting Mum in the care home. I remember I was feeling rather chipper that day. Arrangements for the homecoming were going well. I’d signed up for Plenty of Fish, the dating website and I thought I might do a little fishing that very evening, after the visit to Mum.

One of the carers walked past and said to me, “Oh, I’ve got something for you. A letter. To your Mum. You might want to read it to her.”

I wondered who would be writing? For the briefest moment, I thought it could be from my father, though that was clearly absurd.

When the carer returned, bearing the letter. I saw it was from my ex-partner. Somehow, that fact alone stunned me. Let me avoid real names for everyone’s sake, so though it disturbs me enormously to make the change, let’s call this lovely woman Jodie. We’d spent seven years together after my marriage had ended. Seven pretty happy years as it happens. Though in the end, the relationship had foundered on the sharp rocks of her family’s needs and resentment of me, and our inability to forge a life of our own.

I’d had no contact with her for six months or more. She’d been out to visit me in France, a half-hearted attempt to patch together a relationship that had ended long before. The proviso was that we keep the rekindling a secret from her family and especially her mother.

A last fling, an oasis in a desert, a la recherché du temps perdu, call it what you like, we swam naked in rivers and the sea, and we laughed and it all seemed hopeful in some way, briefly…

A couple of months later, after desultory Skype conversations and phone calls and pathetic attempts to hide the evidence from Jodie’s family, and especially the old dragon herself, I gave up hope and wrote the Dear John letter. You can read it on the website. Not a bad example of the genre, I think, especially given I’ve more often been the dumpee than the dumper, but a horrible thing to feel you have to do.

So, as I took Jodie’s letter from the already open envelope, I didn’t know quite what to expect. But it soon this clear this missive had nothing but the most banal record of a month or two of family life, work and holiday plans. When I got back to the bungalow and evening began to close in, I thought a lot about Jodie and forgot all about going fishing.

I thought I should write to her and thank her for her kindness to my mother. I thought she’d be interested to know that my father had died, that I was back in the country living in my parents’ house, not much more than an hour’s drive from where she lived, and I thought she might be interested to know that I planned to get my mum out of the home and take care of her myself.

She’d always had a soft spot for my mother. Their birthdays were only two days apart and whether because of the stars or not, they shared in common many characteristics as fellow Aquarians. Both were known as exceptionally nice people. Both were known as exceptionally tolerant people, their tolerance often abused by those nearest and dearest to them. Both were frequently exhorted by others to stand up for themselves, get a bit of backbone and kick back against oppression.

All of this is further evidence if any were needed, that boys in general and this one in particular, might show a tendency to find girls like their mothers unusually attractive. Of course the parallels go further in so far as Jodie’s mother played the same malign role in attempting to dictate her daughter’s love life as my grandmother had done with my own father. All of which taken together, makes me, if not actually my father, a version of him.

This is a not altogether salutary thought, particularly as I live in his house and sleep in his bed, but one that merits a moment’s consideration in the interests of natural justice.

He, my father that is, felt the full force of my grandmother’s will through her interference their marriage and her less than kind judgement of his character. I felt very much the same about Jodie’s mother and her corrosive attempts to undermine my relationship with her daughter. She said she preferred Jodie’s previous boyfriend, who’d been able to get tickets for the polo.

But that’s all in the past now. Here, today, so I thought to myself, Jodie and I are within spitting distance. And oh, how sweet it would be, how appropriate to the situation, indeed how easy and convenient, I thought, were Jodie to respond to the restrained email I was carefully composing, a glass of Rioja sitting on my father’s desk beside the keyboard, and images of Jodie, materializing in front of me.

I thought I might refer to the letter, to her kindness and to Mum’s health and avoid the deeper past. I thought I might mention the upcoming celebration of life and say I’d let her know when a date is fixed. That way, she might respond out of duty if not affection. If she says yes, she might even feel that an ice-breaker – a drink at the pub or a light supper here in the kitchen – she often visited the bungalow when we brought home-cooked meals for my parents’ freezer – would be a good idea. When it was done, with scarce a twinge of conscience, I pressed send.

You’ll hardly need a footnote to tell you Jodie never replied. I got exactly what I deserved. Nothing at all. I waited a week and sent a follow-up stating that I had no intention to intrude on her life, but would take her silence as an indication that she would prefer no contact at all. And then I waited, again. And again, I heard nothing. I’ve still heard nothing.

I’d made a cynical attempt to bring her back into my life because I was lonely and because I knew I was mad to be signing up for dating websites and because I didn’t want to give up or give in, or maybe, let go.

The irony is, of course, were it not for the break up with Jodie, and before that, the end of my marriage…were it not for being adrift in France, writing a book, single, unemployed, with grown children, I’d never have been able to contemplate becoming my mother’s carer. Were it not for everything I’ve lost or squandered along the way, I wouldn’t be here now, and nor would my mother…

The technical term is dysphagia. The reality is your loved one apparently choking to death in front of you and what’s worse, because of you. Because of a stupid obsession with ‘good food’, because you think you know better than the experts and can somehow circumvent nature with wishful thinking. The remains of my homemade lasagne, chopped up into tiny squares on the plate, has scarcely been touched.

I’m standing, or rather leaning, legs braced, my face flushed and my breathing fast, partly with the effort of maintaining her in this position, but also through sheer panic. There’s a procedure. I don’t even know its name and I haven’t a clue how to administer it, something I maybe should have thought of learning before this particular moment. Mum, who’s own skin colour is changing before my eyes from red to purple is pouring forth streams of clear sputum and there’s nothing I can do except mop it up with tissues. All at once I’m scared. And angry with myself.

Little by little, she recovers. I’m aware it will soon be time for the first care call and the move to bed. I’m longing for anyone to arrive and take over. As we wait, I try with a bowl of ice cream in place of the lasagne, offering small spoons and watching carefully for any ill effects.

Thank God, the ice cream seems to be working and all my attention is on the process, to the point that I notice I’m opening my own mouth as I will my mother to accept the next spoonful, so when the doorbell rings, the double chime catches me completely by surprise. Through the window of the dining room, I can see two figures in the blue uniform of carers standing in the glass porch beyond.

That is the sound of a fine Carmenere being poured. Chilean as it happens. I’m embarrassed to admit, it’s not the first glass from the bottle, but the last…

I honestly don’t know what to say. The coughing and choking was bad enough. I thought I’d been saved by the bell when the carers arrived, but that proved pretty intense too.

There were two tonight. Two to get to grips with us and the place and the kit, or that’s what they told me.

They were lovely, fine…with two of them, I thought I’d best leave them to it and offer coffee or something…

But even from the kitchen I could hear the debate going on…how the sling attaches, which way up it goes and a lot of debate…surely they must know what they’re doing I thought…

But not so much as it turned out…

Leanne actually put her head round the door and without much embarrassment asked me if I had any plasters.

I remember her words actually…Mum’s caught her knee on the hoist she says.

It was only when I’m on my hands and knees below the bathroom sink, scrabbling for plasters and Dettol or Savlon, I begin to feel incensed.

Mum caught her knee? How’s that work exactly? A woman who can scarcely raise her arms let alone move her legs…what, she tried to make a break for the hills?

When I took the plasters to the dining room, I see my mother is hanging from the machine with the sling loose around her middle, her knees buckling under the strain of holding herself there and the other carer…Caro or Carol, I can’t remember, she was holding mum under her arms as she and Leanne shove the hoist so we could lower her into a sitting position on the bed. I could see the straightaway that sling was upside down, but for some rason, I said nothing.

The graze is just below the knee and on the side of her leg. The wound isn’t especially big nor deep, but I had to watch Leanne patting a little flap of transparent skin like onionskin paper back into place before putting the plaster on. Something about that piece of skin, so dry and thin, suddenly made the scene very sad. Seeing my mum’s old body, so fragile and delicate, tied to a metal machine with its unforgiving hardness and sharp edges, the uniforms pulling or pushing this way and that, the medieval, the institutional, the mechanical, all conspired to undermine my sense that this kind of stupid plan can ever work.

I know it’s only day one. And accidents happen, right? Everyone’s nervous, working in a new situation. But there’s day two and three and four to go…I don’t know whether to be angry or upset or whether these kind of injuries will be commonplace.

Mum didn’t seem to have felt any pain or discomfort with the graze and the plaster is doing its job. I know one thing. I’m not going to be recording much of these care calls, for mum’s sake and now, for the carers. If I ask permission, what’ll they say? And if I want to tell it like it is, better to do that myself.

It just does rattle your confidence. The first care call is 7.15. With a hangover guaranteed.

But it’s a reality check. I mean what have I been thinking? Not being here, but the whole internet dating business. What planet, really? I can’t even begin to think about all that. I’m frankly shattered.

What about the night to come? Will I hear her? She’s sleeping now. We had more coughing when I fed Mum in bed, even though I’d opted for soup, laid her down, got the pillows under her knees, stroked her head for a while…I don’t know…

I’ll leave my bedroom door open and hers. My daughters called me ninja Dad, because I’d hear them, slightest cough, getting up, whatever…I’ve never been a good sleeper…terrible, terrible sleeper actually, and though I know the wine doesn’t help, how else do I wind down?

I said when I took this on, I would only do it if I thought I could do it with a modicum of grace, a bit of Zen, little humour maybe. Inject a bit of life, family, the great outdoors, a gin and tonic in the evenings, all the things the care home didn’t offer. That seems a million miles away now.

I should forget it. Focus on the here and now. Sleep. The only way is up, right? Isn’t that what the song says? Don’t desert me, will you?