When you were a baby, my mother informs me, in front of a living-room full of multi-coloured doctors, nurses and psychiatrists, you’d sit on my lap – just like this – staring at me – and you wouldn’t let me cuddle you. You were a strange baby.
Maybe you were a strange baby too, I mutter. How do you know? I find myself apologising to the social worker. I’m sorry. I don’t remember anything much before I was three. I don’t know what I did.
Don’t worry, it’s the psychosis talking, says the social worker. But it isn’t. Mum’s been telling everybody that same thing for the last four hundred years.
How many years has Mother been deaf? one of them asks me. I have no idea. Approximately, then? He’s getting impatient, I can feel it in his voice. Other clients to see. Running behind schedule. But even approximately, I don’t know. I don’t remember time that way at all – don’t record dates. I know when things were quite recent, quite a long time ago or a very long time ago – mostly. I can sometimes locate events in time by the scenery. Which room of which house was I in? Was anyone else there with me? Was I still married then? Then I attempt to do the math, but that usually founders since I have no parameters, no start and finish dates to subtract from one another.
I remember how I felt on many different occasions. I remember pain, puzzlement or happiness. I see odd, associated items – an orange balloon trapped beneath a ceiling with polystyrene tiles; a stretch of rails going off into the distance on an icy winter’s day, and me thinking If you followed those rails far enough you might get to Canada; I remember bats in the dusk, moving up and down amongst the trees, like puppets on a string. I don’t remember whether something was five years ago, or ten. I don’t know whether something was a week ago or six. I remember, vividly, but I don’t remember like that. If I remembered like a proper person I wouldn’t be able to write a poem. I wouldn’t be able to dance the Argentine tango in my head and feel that sky-blue dress swirling against my long, suntanned legs, know how that man’s arms feel supporting my weight, smell the garlic on him – or know what the rain’s saying, or what it’s like to fly.
Recently I’ve been trying to ring fence my sense of self; trying to protect what’s left of me from the encroaching tide of her – extricate my inner ‘map’ – of a lifetime’s oddity and different brain-wiring which makes sense within itself – from the carnival scene in front of me: an old lady with a grown-out white perm and food stains all over a blue jumper she first donned a month ago (maybe two, maybe five) and refuses to change out of because “they” won’t let her; an old lady who wobbles when she stand ups and doesn’t wash the teacups properly so they’re all stained. A person who tells you her washing machine must be scrapped because she hasn’t switched it over to “drain” and refuses to believe it is fixed even though all the dirty water’s gone, because only one person can fix it, and that person hasn’t been here yet.
Someone who shouts a lot, and isn’t helping.
You’ve got this ear-whistle thing too, she reminds me. I remember. In ten years time they’ll be telling you about the mud on the windows and the slugs under the foundations. Then you’ll know. Then you’ll know what I’m telling you. But I know already, or at least can imagine. If only I didn’t, and couldn’t.
Why do you have to be so relentlessly depressing? I think. Can I ever have loved you? Why are you jabbing your horrible uncut fingernails at me? Why are you so exhausting? And why won’t you change that jumper? The carers are going to have to remove it with kitchen scissors, I think. Like the ambulancemen do with the trousers of people with broken legs. All the while, the multicoloured psychiatrists are talking. All the while Blah, Blah, Blah.
What is he saying? (Why don’t I care?) Why doesn’t he write it down, for God’s sake? Am I supposed to just know what a Respite Placement is? Is that a home? Is it a hospital? Is it, like, a foster family for mad old mummys?
What is wrong with my brain? Why can other people manage stuff like this? What must they be thinking of me? I did an intelligence test once – scored above average, if not exactly MENSA material. Now I can see them all looking me up and down: this whole professional team, expertly, instantly assessing my shabby, distracted old self and thinking to themselves – this is one of the Client’s Primary Carers? Why is it that being patronised instantly transforms you into a patronisable person?
In my head I am executing an Argentine tango between the pillars of some city promenade. I am that woman in the blue linen dress and my toes point and my hips swing, and my partner is a man with a slicked-back ponytail, co-respondent shoes and several days growth of stubble. I can hear that beautiful music. I can’t stop hearing it. I can’t stop dancing in my head. I can choose to wear his body, or hers. I can wear both of them at once and become the whole dance. The more I try to drag myself back to reality the louder the music becomes, the bluer the dress, the warmer the day, the more absorbing the steps. A turn here, an elegant backward dip …