It was always going to be stressful, first Sunday visiting Mum in her new “forever home”. Routine is restful; I hate new places. New places are… bound to cause me to wake up with One of my Heads, which feel like hangovers only without the pleasures of alcohol. My eyes feel, as they always do with these Heads, sensitive to light as if they were about to pop out any moment and land in my lap. I put on the black over-glasses – the ones that make other drivers hoot at me, assuming I’m driving sightless – and set forth alone one of the fastest and nastiest stretches of road known to woman. In my capacious bag – paper hankies (she never seems to have one), white-boards and special pens for communication and… a splendid new pair of slippers.
We did buy her slippers for the hospital when she was sectioned, but those disappeared as we handed them in through the door. She spent the whole six or so weeks in the same grubby pink trainers she had been admitted in. This time we have hopes of them staying with her. The home is more civilised.
Selecting clothes for Mum seems to be one of the few remaining tasks I’m trusted with, and I do quite enjoy it. I found these on Amazon – raspberry coloured with those Velcro tabs across the top for easy fastening (and adjustment). I made sure to get them a bit on the big side, and wide-fit, because her feet are swollen. I never, in my life, imagined I would be pleased about purchasing raspberry slippers. Didn’t I once want to be a poet?
Boiling hot day. I rendezvous with Godmother Betty at the garden centre and hop into her much nicer – and cleaner – car. Take the black over-glasses since eyes still throbbing. My function now is to show Betty – who is slightly older than my mother – where exactly the home is. We drive past it, of course.
‘They’ve gone and moved it,’ says Betty, kindly, simultaneously executing a spectacular U-turn involving the entrance to the A20 and a lot of steering-wheel twizzling. I wouldn’t have undertaken it. ‘We were lucky there!’ she remarks.
Headache or not, when we go in I feel it again – that sense of relief, of it’s being the right place. It’s kind of posh and airy, and it doesn’t smell (much) of wee. The sun streams in. The staff are actually talking to the residents. Old people are sitting about with cups of tea, or asleep. All the doors are open to the garden and old people sit about in the sunshine, not saying much but…
All those weeks of saying she would be all right, if she could just go outside. The mental ward door was locked and there was no going outside. Even the windows only opened a little way. ‘If only I could go one step outside,’ she would say, ‘it would all go.’ Her voices get quieter in the outside world. And now of course there’s the tablets. All those weeks of imploring, and now she prefers to sit in the circular common room, in the shade. Outside seems to have lost its attraction, as so many things do once attainable.
She is asleep, and it’s not easy to wake her up in a gentle way. I make several attempts, tapping her arm, stroking her hand. Her head is sunk to her chest. She is wearing one of my old Tesco tee shirts and some trousers that were somebody else’s in the mental ward, but seem to have travelled with her.
She doesn’t look like Mum any more. Every time I see her she seems to have migrated into a different body. A carer comes along and wakes up another old lady using the simplest of techniques “Boo!” That seems to work. “It’s your birthday,” she tells the old lady.
“I wondered when it was.”
“Yes, your son is here to see you.”
I pass Mum one of the raspberry slippers, hoping she’ll try it on. She looks as if she might drop it. They do smell a bit rubbery, being new, and she has a good sense of smell. Perhaps she dislikes the smell. She passes it back to me.
It is not going to be one of our days for conversation. I try a few things on the white-board. Do you like it here? Are you settling in? Her lips move as she reads. Having read, she falls asleep again. The son arrives for the other old lady, bearing flowers and some square gift in purple shiny paper.
And then I notice there’s another occupant, an old man in a hat, dozing. I compare his slippers to Mum’s and yes, I’ve got the right sort. Every old person I see has exactly this sort of slipper. A small sense of achievement. My eyes hurt. I’d take aspirin but the only liquid around for swallowing is Mum’s half glass of orange squash, and I’m not sure what’s in it. They can give covert medication if necessary. The old man dozes on, and so does Mum. Betty and I sit and talk about the wildfires in Canada. My sister lives in Edmonton and on the map… My sister tells me Fort McMurray is a four hour drive away, but still. That’s only, like, Norfolk and the fire is moving so fast…
We admire the light fitting, which is a spectacular kind of huge glitter-ball thing, only artistic. We imagine at night it must reflect pretty patterns on the ceiling. I picture them waltzing beneath it, these elderly men and women. Maybe they sleep all day and dance all night. And then the wife of the man in the hat comes in. She has been out in the sunshine, waiting in vain for him.
She kicks his slippered foot with her slippered foot. It’s a vicious kick and wakes him more efficiently even than “Boo!”
“You just left me out there. You left me sitting alone. Where have you been?”
“In here, I’ve been in here…I’ve been asleep…”
“I am so fed up with you…”
She turns to sweep out. Being married doesn’t change, even in old folks homes.
“Sixty-one years,” she spits across at us. “Sixty-one years I’ve had him!”