Queen Elizabeth II is more or less the same age as my Mum, but there the similarity ends. Oh no, they both have those old lady perms. Except that Mum’s has more or less grown out now. The ward where they section them doesn’t provide hairdressers, although you can import your own as long as it’s not at meal times (which take up most of the day) and as long as they have sixty days’ notice in writing, or whatever. It’s a very depressing place. If you weren’t depressed before you entered though those ultra-thick key-padded doors, you will be pretty soon. Although there is the odd cheerful one. I suppose it’s when a jolly insouciance forms part of the illness. On Sunday I got a hug from a tiny hunched-up lady in a nightie, with a surgical brace on one wrist. She asked me if I was from the circus. I wondered if perhaps I might be. She told me my Mum was confused. “I’m confused too,” she said, grinning up at me and opening her arms for another hug. I find it quite difficult to hug people, especially when they are half my height, but I did my best.
“What about her feet?” I ask. “She had a chiropodist… outside.”
“I’ll refer her for Podiatry,” says the nurse in the cherry red, hammering something invisible into the computer.”
“I believe there was a consent form for me to sign? It was going to be left behind the desk?”
“Form? Which form? Who exactly told you there was a form behind the desk?”
“Kate. Her name was Kate. She telephoned my sister.”
“Have you checked her laundry basket for washing?” a nurse asks. I had no idea she had a laundry basket, or indeed where she was sleeping, or that washing was supposed to be dealt with by the next of kin of those who have been snatched from them against their wishes. Surely, if you take over someone’s life you take over their washing, too? Isn’t it your moral responsibility?
“Only in cases of incontinence,” the same nurse snaps.
“Our washing machine broke down this morning,” says another nurse. “Water all over the place.” That makes more sense. So why not just say that?
Mum says nothing. She slumps in an armchair and we try to talk to her. She asks if her house is still there, as if it might already have been demolished to make way for a row of cottage-style town houses with very little in the way of garden. She asks what she should do next. What do we want her to do? She doesn’t understand. Her eyes keep closing. She takes off her dust-smeared glasses and stares down into her lap. They’re all heathens in here. Heathens!
Anyway, the Queen apparently said, when asked as a child what she wanted to be when she grew up (a silly thing to ask the heir to the throne, I would have thought) that she should like to be a horse. And why not? I have often wanted to be a cat, a giraffe in the zoo, an aardvark, an octopus – almost anything that just gets fed and made a fuss of and isn’t expected to sort through a laundry basket of stale clothes on the Sunday before Easter in a tropically overheated hospital ward when she might have been home with her feet up on the coffee table watching The Andrew Marr Show.