My uncle took the message and he wrote it on the wall

Canadian sister phones. I thought maybe once her husband had died she would stop phoning me, that I would be cast aside like some moth-eaten fur coat etc etc. This has not happened – just now she phones me at all odd times. Before she could only phone me when he was asleep. And then he would wake up. Always. I could hear the creaking of the bedroom door upstairs in their house, right across the Atlantic. Sometimes I heard it before she heard it. I could hear the change in her tone of voice. The worried note creeping in, the sudden summing up, the hasty goodbye.

She is all at sea without him, and yet, I note, she is surviving. She says she has just spent the two longest evenings of her life, alone in the house. ‘What do single people do in the evenings?’ she asks me. ‘Well, I say, hobbies tend to expand to fill the time available for doing them…’ I am aware that I am paraphrasing someone. ‘What did you do of an evening when he was still alive, and well?’

‘Mostly he was outside in his workshop. If he came inside I might knit while he watched TV.’

I resist saying that this seems to me as much like being alone as being alone. I remember when I was married, all those years ago. Being always alone, even when not.

‘You can call me any time,’ I say. ‘After all, nobody else does. I mean, it’s not like you’re interrupting a huge queue of my fans, all eagerly trying to contact me…’

‘Nobody?’

She sounds shocked. I would have lied, if necessary. I would have told her the above story so that she didn’t feel she was being in any way a nuisance phoning me at all hours, because at the moment I am one of her few fixed points in a radically shifting universe. I am good at making up tales on the spur of the moment. Sometimes I don’t realise they’re tales, till after.

And sometimes I don’t realise they’re true, till after.

So, today I have had a very stressful day. Stress exhausts me, so I tend only ever to schedule one stressful or unpleasant event per day, but today I thought, why not get them all over with at once, for once? So I set off, early, stopping off at the post office in the next village to post Canadian Sister a belated birthday present. Two books. The cost of the airmail is greater than the combined cost of the books. But that was OK, and I managed to get myself out of the tiny car park, with the parking spaces all at the wrong angles.

I went on to the Tip, in Town. I managed to get my car in and not have to sit drumming my fingers on the dash for three-quarters of an hour down the stinky alleyway that leads to it. I managed to heave out the six monstrously heavy black sacks full of used cat litter, pretending to be innocent household waste. I managed to lug four of them, one at a time, up the slippery metal steps to the skip and, with a muscle-wrenching effort, heave them over the rim of the skip. Then – that rare event – one of the men in high-vis yellow came to my rescue, and made off with my two remaining sacks – in the direction of the skip labelled Garden Waste.

‘Did yer want the bags back?’

‘Er, no…’

I knew I should have yelled after him, ‘Excuse me, my man, but I believe you may be under a misapprehension. That is in fact Non-Recyclable Household Waste’ (cat poo).

But I didn’t. I reversed, rather smartly, and exited.

And then I did a rather long and illogical detour to the petrol station, where an elderly idiot with a white moustache rather like the current transient US Secretary of State’s, nearly took my wing-mirror off in his selfish efforts not to let me get to the pump I needed, which was not the same pump he needed.

Ah, I thought, things are reverting to the usual dire pattern. I swore voluminously at him, but from inside my car so that he could see perfectly well that I was swearing voluminously, but we could both, upon exiting our cars, pretend it wasn’t aimed at him.

And then I drove over to visit my mother in the Home. This was number four (?) of Things I Don’t Want To Do Today But Am Going To Do Anyway. But Mum was asleep, with the curtains drawn. All the other residents were up. She looked dreadfully like a corpse so I tiptoed in and checked that she was still breathing. Then I went and found the Nurse – not in the Nurses Station (that was occupied by Someone Who Didn’t Even Work There) but in a cupboard. He said Mum was OK, but had been left to sleep in after one of her night-time rampages. I have never seen one of these rampages, and find them difficult to imagine, but apparently she shouts at other residents, and they shout back. She was never like this. Anything not to draw attention to herself, to stay in the background.

When I get home the Nurse will phone me again to say that after I left she wrestled another resident to the ground (where she happened to be lying) and was having a fight with them.

‘I wonder,’ I said, if it’s all the things they suppress during their lifetimes, when they are them, that suddenly start escaping when this happens?

The Nurse did not seem all that interested in my intellectual speculations.

After the Home I drove down to Ashford, thinking to stock up on black bin sacks in my favourite former supermarket, then drive home. Gridlocked.  When I finally inched my way there – instantly to be blocked in by a giant black-windowed vehicle that was going to make reversing out a nightmare – the woman behind the till tried to explain what was causing the gridlock. It’s the closure of the A2070 she said. I could not remember which of the many road around Ashford the A2070 was and hence, when trying to escape from Ashford some time later, got caught in two further lots of gridlock because I guessed wrong and headed straight for it rather than away from it.

You see that’s the trouble. Road diversions are signposted by men, and usually men who have GPS in their cars. I am a woman, and I do not have GPS. I do not understand Diversion signs and I navigate the sensible way, by Landmarks, not Numbers. If they had put up a sign saying Motorway Junction Absolutely And Completely Closed, well then I wouldn’t have gone that way, would I? I’d have wended my way up the back roads to Smelly Farm Corner and turned right towards The Place Where There Is A Pub I Once Walked Along The Grass Verge To With The Boyfriend With The Pointy Nose. Of course I would have got stuck in another lot of gridlock, but a smaller and more ultimately hopeful lot.

And how are you? my sister asks, eventually. It’s early morning in Alberta. She hasn’t already had a whole day of Utter Ghastliness.

‘Oh… a bit tired, maybe?’

phone tap

Featured Image: London street art by Banksy

 

The Chain Gang

I remember reading at some point in my “Buddhist” phase that before he became The Buddha, Buddha was married and had a son, and he named that son Rahula, which means a Shackle, or Impediment. What he actually said was A rahu is born, a fetter has arisen, and what he meant was that this child could tie him to his wife, thus impeding his quest for enlightenment. At the time I remember thinking Gosh, that’s very… honest. Brutal, in fact.

Because of course we are nearly all well-and-truly shackled to/impeded by a whole host of other living beings, whether or not we admit as much to ourselves, or verbalise it. I had no children, but no doubt would have felt as shackled to them as the Buddha was to his Rahula. And now I am shackled to my poor elderly mother, who scarcely recognises me, and to nineteen cats, most of which are ungrateful and one of which bit me and ruined my Christmas.

I was thinking just now, what would I actually like to do with the rest of my life, were I to be given a choice. I found it quite difficult even to imagine what I would like to do, given that I have never had much of a choice up to now.

I closed my eyes. I could sort of imagine myself travelling. Maybe buy a camper van and go all over Britain, like a (comfortable) lady tramp or gypsy. And I could imagine myself being able to draw – how, I’m not sure, but this is fantasy, right? – and setting off on my travels equipped with sketchbook and drawing pencils. Oh, lots of pencils, beautifully sharpened, of all different grades… And maybe a tin of watercolours…

I could imagine writing a bit of a book about my travels – all the odd people I encountered and maybe discussed the Meaning of Life with along the way. I am some sort of honeypot to oddbods, so that would be no problem!

I wishfully imagined never having to see the inside of this house again – the thin, inherited carpet – ancient when I arrived – the ruined, cat-ripped furniture; the chipped plates, the unwashed windows; the damp forming morning pools on the window-sills in winter; the impossibility of ever keeping anything really clean; looking out at gone-to-seed garden; those thorny rose-stalks towering high as trees above the garage. And I think what a relief it would be to leave it all behind. To just abandon it all.

For I am a person who was meant to change, and change, and change. I am one of those skin-shedders, those metamorphosers, those shape-shifters. But now I am fixed, absolutely fixed, in this dull place, inside this dull, imperfect body and in these dire circumstances.

And now – last straw, really – I seem to be feeding a dog. As if nineteen cats was not enough, now my garden is being haunted by some large, brown creature who turns up, usually in the rain – as just now – soaking wet and ravenous. Luckily I had some dog food. He ate whole a tin of that plus six sachets of Felix, and continued to lurk around the back door for some time with an air of vague disappointment and underfedness about him. He leaps back if I get anywhere near him, so must be as frightened of me as I am of him. I don’t think I will try patting him on the head. One septic hand is quite enough.

I have no idea what sort of dog he might be. He is about as high as a supermarket trolley, and a sort of brindled brown. He is vaguely greyhound shaped but much bigger and shaggier. Narrow… He has ears like a spaniel, but smaller, and instead of drooping down they stick out kind of sideway, in tufts. I wonder if I can find a picture…

lurcher

Yeah, he looks a bit like a very large, quite a bit darker and very wet version of this, which according to the internet is a lurcher. So perhaps a gypsies’ dog. It seems almost as if this dog is living out my fantasy existence on my behalf, except he’s not having much fun doing it because he’s hungry and wet and it’s February, which is the darkest, dampest, chilliest, most horrible month of the year.

But what am I to do? I mean, about any of the above? I can’t see any possible scenario – apart from a heap of gold coins and priceless diamond descending upon me from the sky – where I could buy that camper van, abandon the grim and peeling décor of the inside of my house and abandon nineteen beloved cats to the whims of fate. Frankly, even if I had the money to buy the camper van I’d probably not have the courage to drive it, or to set off in it, on my own.

I suppose I could take arts and crafts classes. I did have a bit of a scroll down Adult Education. Can’t say I’m inspired by flower arranging or clay medallion making, and all the art classes seem to be a long way away, And full. There are waiting lists.

And the dog. If I report him to the RSPCA, what will they do with him? I don’t want to be responsible for him being carted off, shut in a concrete-floored cage for months, then unsentimentally euthanased because nobody wants him. Anyway, he eats, he vanishes. Unlike cats he keeps to no predictable routine. Am I to have an RSPCA man lurking in my garden, day in, day out, just in case?

So I expect for the time being I will just do nothing. Have dog food ready. Not take art lessons, not buy a camper van. Generally, go on exactly as before.

Send In The Clowns

Well, now they have given my mother wheels. I don’t know why they didn’t think of it sooner – or why I didn’t think of it. All those months of visiting and she’s stuck in that heavy chair in front of the TV, and she’s still managing to move it around. She can’t walk, but she heaves it, by instalments, this way and that. Sometimes she’s facing the brown plastic linen basket (an object that seems to worry her greatly), sometimes she’s half way out of the door, and setting off that under-the-carpet alarm thing so the carers have to come running and heave her back. Now – light bulb moment – they’ve removed the alarms, turned off the TV, taken away the heavy chair and put her in a lightweight wheelchair she’s off – like a road runner.

And now, with one of those sudden swerves of pace/tone/logic/emotional atmosphere for which I am famous-or-at-least-mildly-well-known:

It occurs to me that we all have within us all the ages we have ever been – from ancient crone to grown-up woman to surly teenager to vulnerable three year old child – and can switch – and in fact can’t help switching – backwards and forwards between these versions of ourselves, minute by minute, second by second. Today I woke up three years old, and needing my Mum. Well, Dad would probably have done, but he’s dead. At least Mum’s this side of the veil, pro tem.

On some rare days, friends are not enough: neither is logic enough, or courage enough, or adult conversation, either in person or over the telephone. What would be enough – what you really need – no longer really exists in this world for you. But that doesn’t stop you needing it.

Well, I was going to visit Mum anyway, and so I went, hoping that maybe Old Mum was still lurking somewhere inside that wizened old shell. Hoping against hope, really, that the Fraction of her that knew me so well before I was even born, and the Whole of her that will know me again in the next world, might be tuned in, today.

And there she was, on wheels. And I do believe it was the funniest visit I have ever had with her. Well, the only funny visit. Firstly she ran over my foot, then she spent some time experimentally backwards-and-forwardsing on her new wheels, bumping her knees against mine crying wheeeee! and brrrrroooom!

We obviously weren’t going to stay in her room this visit, dolefully watching The Simpsons together. Oh no. Off we went up the corridor, with Mum branching off at intervals to enter and inspect other people’s rooms. At one point she paused behind a carer who had just gone into a store cupboard, craning her neck around in an exaggeratedly casual way to ascertain what was in there. Only sheets and stuff, nothing to interest you! came the muffled comment from inside the cupboard.

Next minute we were in the almost deserted dining room, and Mum was helping herself to a banana from the fruit bowl on the side. She looked at it for a moment. Yer ‘as to peel it for e’r came a hoarse old voice from the corner. It was a lady waiting for a haircut. Been ‘ere all morning, she grumbled. They left my toast in the microwave and it’s gone stone cold, but I’m about to eat it anyway.

I ended up following my mother around, with an increasing amount of ‘stuff’ – a cup of tea in a white mug; a glass of that anonymous pink water the carers keep giving them, and insisted on giving Mum as well as the cup of tea; a brownish and wilting banana skin; my own bag; five unwanted grapes. We skedaddled into the Day Room and watched the traffic out of the window for a minute or two, then Mum ran over my bag. I moved it. She carefully ran over it again.

You’re…. daughter, she said suddenly. Proud of you.

And I’m proud of you too, Mum.

I stayed half an hour longer than I normally would have done. After that I could see she was getting bored with me and wondering when her Friday Fish was going to get here. I too was hungry. And the cats would need feeding. In the lobby, a teenage carer was sitting with a trolley load of croissants and sweet rolls of various sorts. Can I interest you in one of these? he enquired. For a small donation? Maybe £10?

£10?

Only joking. Most people are putting in about £1.

I put in £1.50 and selected a chocolate croissant. I picked it because it was the only one wrapped in cellophane and total strangers had no doubt been fingering the others.

And on the way home I thought – that’s just what she would have done when I was three years old, and tearful. Distraction. And a memory came to me – a long-lost occasion I know she had forgotten even before she forgot everything, because I asked her about it once and she had no idea what I meant.

Mum and Canadian Sister and I are in the kitchen, eating lemon cup cakes. How old am I on this day? Eight, maybe? Twelve? And my chubby little sister says: Mum, what shall I do with the wrapper? And my mother says, How should I know? STICK IT ON THE WALL!!! And proceeds to stick her own gooey cake wrapper to the kitchen wall (tiled, luckily).

So, in a way, I found both the Old Mum and the New Mum.

(PS: I had to look up ‘rube’, the English-English equivalent of which would probably be bumpkin, or yokel. I thought Clowns was probably near enough.)

For wisdom is better than rubies; and all the things that may be desired are not to be compared to it. (Proverbs 8:11)

All that glisters is not gold

Funny word, isn’t it? A mixture of glitters, sisters and blisters. The dumb-down-everything brigade are perpetually trying to replace glisters with glitters because people are, in their reckoning, unable to make the mental ‘hop’ from this funny-old-funny-sounding word to the (very similar sounding) word they may have occasionally heard used on some gameshows on TV, even if it isn’t part of their teensy-tiny little personal vocabularies.

Oh, I am so bitter today!

One interesting thing – apparently the exposure of the paedophilic activities of ageing British pop singer Gary Glitter has caused ‘glitter’ to become less popular. It is even possible that people will once again prefer Shakespeare’s poetic alternative. On the other hand, it has got more than one syllable, so they’ll probably plump for ‘bling’.

The quote is from The Merchant of Venice:

O hell! what have we here?
A carrion Death, within whose empty eye
There is a written scroll! I’ll read the writing.
All that glisters is not gold;
Often have you heard that told:
Many a man his life hath sold
But my outside to behold:
Gilded tombs do worms enfold.
Had you been as wise as bold,
Young in limbs, in judgment old,
Your answer had not been inscroll’d:
Fare you well; your suit is cold.

[By the way, if there are any ‘s’s missing from any of my posts, it’s because this keyboard is refusing to type them upon the first striking of the key. No, you have to repeatedly strike the ‘s’ and then it might… However many times I check, I always seem to miss one or two.]

I had to ‘do’ The Merchant of Venice at school. I remember enjoying it, at the time, and it being about a pound of flesh, and there being a court case involved, and that a lady called Portia – or was it Desdemona? – no, she was the one that got strangled by Othello over a handkerchief – no, Portia, dressed up as a man to defend – someone or other. Or did she?

This demonstrates the scant usefulness of most of what we are forced to learn in schools, although you might say that, even if I can no longer remember the plot of either The Merchant or Othello I still love Shakespeare and his genius with language – more and more so in retrospect.

So, one little story to illustrate the saying All That Glisters Is Not Gold:

You may or may not know that I have been volunteering with an Organisation that helps Old Folk in a number of different ways. I’m not much of a volunteer, even, since I have but a single client, a very old lady with dementia. This was not much of a challenge to begin with – just a short bus ride/drive once a week, and an hour spent mostly listening and eating chocolate biscuits. Unfortunately the dementia has taken a sudden turn for the worse, as often happens (I remember it with my Mum) and things have become more challenging. I am finding it difficult, really, after Mum, to find myself on that slippery slope to oblivion all over again, albeit with less responsibility.

Anyway, since before Christmas I kept getting these emails from my contact at the Organisation, asking me to pop in to the Centre whenever I next happened to be in town, as a small Christmas gift awaited me. I kept forgetting. To tell the truth I go into Town as infrequently as I can manage, since it depresses me. I come away feeling as if I have been Captured By The Dementors and Imprisoned in Azkaban for several millennia. Well, an exaggeration maybe but all those tattoo parlours, all those £1 stores, all those boarded up shop (s, keyboard, s!) …

However, the only way to stop the emails was to get in the car and drive to Town specially. I knocked on the back door and was admitted. (Luckily the chiropodist didn’t pop out of his lair like a Scottish spider in a white coat, as I am avoiding him.) The girl led me through to the office and handed me a beautifully wrapped little gift attached to a card. It even had that ribbon that they make all curly by stroking it with the blade of the scissors. Someone had taken a lot of trouble.

‘We had decided to eat them if you didn’t come in by the end of the week!’ she joked.

Ah, so chocolates. But chocolates is/are OK.

I thanked them and made for the door, once again avoiding that beady-eyed chriropodist. I walked the entire length of the High Street back to Tesco, where you can park your car for free for three hours (then they send rude letters to you). I drove all the way home. I put the kettle on and opened my Little Gift, and it was a tiny packet of Maltesers.

Maltesers are OK I suppose. Just not worth that long drive into town, that long, cold, drizzly walk up the High treet (s! foul keyboard – how hard can it be?) past all those tattoo parlours, boarded-up shops, £1 stores and bunches of hoodie-wearing teenage louts who no doubt all carry knives, or at least have perfected the art of looking at you as if they do…

But, a Malteser is a Malteser. Not much chocolate involved, maybe, but…

I opened the box and sat there, with my cup of tea and my half-read historical novel (Lamentation by C J Sansom), and proceeded to pig the lot.

Of sadness, shower-gel and intergalactic fire extinguishers

Here we are again…

(…Happy as can be / All good friends and / Jolly good company… as the song goes)

and it’s 2018. How did it get to be 2018 more or less without me noticing? Although I did notice a whole succession of firework displays on TV, starting with Australia – or maybe New Zealand – and wondered what all these successive fireworks-es must look like from outer space. Pretty impressive I imagine, though how a visiting Martian might interpret them. He might assume the planet was about to explode and train his all-powerful intergalactic fire-extinguishers upon us…

On my visit to the Home today I attempted to explain to Mum (goodness knows why) that it was the first day of 2018. Today I was the bringer of shower-gel and deodorant, which the carers inform me (practically every time!) that she has run out of, even though she has a constantly-replenished account with them for everyday expenses, which one might have thought would include shower-gel and deodorant. But they say the shops are not convenient for them to get to and so they ask the relatives.

I mentioned to a passing cleaner (again, goodness knows why – just for the pleasure of speaking to someone who could understand me, I suppose) that I had brought the shower-gel, and would have brought it sooner had I not been too ill over Christmas. She said she had noticed earlier this morning that I had brought it. But I had only just arrived, and the en suite bathroom shelves had been absolutely empty.  Seeing the look of bewilderment on my face, she must have realised her mistake. “Er, you’ve just brought them, haven’t you?” I nodded.

“I expect it was another room.”

What I reckon is, it’s a scam. They’re selling whatever they can inveigle relatives into bringing in that pretend shop of theirs on the first floor – it’s so that the dementia patients can feel that they have “gone outside” or “gone to the shops and bought something”. Or worse, at boot fairs on Sundays! God preserve us.

Mum didn’t understand about 2018. She didn’t understand why I was soaking wet either even though I pointed out of the window a number of times to indicate that torrential rain was, in fact, falling. She was quite talkative though, and pointed out things on The Simpsons to me. I think she likes that they are yellow and brightly-coloured. She said several times about the colours. She said she wanted a new calendar and I promised to bring one with me next time. So perhaps she does know it’s 2018 after all.

On the way out I had a chat with a lady about my age who had been with her Mum in the room opposite. She said her mother had been in this and other care homes for eleven years, and she had been visiting all this time. She disappeared into the deluge on foot, and I made a splashy run for the car.

I don’t usually write about sadness because I suspect I don’t often allow myself to feel it. Anger, yes. Exasperation, yes. Generalised Winter Gloom, yes. But there’s something about sadness, isn’t there? It seems to bring along with it a lot of things you don’t want to know, and you have to actually know them. Canadian Sister just phoned and something she said made me realise that English Sister and I really are estranged now, at least from her point of view. And I do feel sad, because I really don’t understand why and I suppose I always thought she would be there – we would be there – if not exactly thinking along the same lines or being much alike. You just assume, don’t you, that things will go on as before, and then one by one they all seem to have tiptoed out of the room…

Even the lady I was volunteering to chat to seems to have vanished. I got a phone call to say she had been taken into hospital over Christmas, but they couldn’t or wouldn’t tell me why, or which hospital. Nothing to be done but to send a Get Well Soon card to her home address and wait to hear, if at all.

And so I say to you, keep hold of your family. Put the work in to keeping in touch even though there doesn’t seem much point. Looking back, I wish I had spent more time trying to communicate with my family, or at least making the most of their presence while they were still around – and less time trying desperately to cling to people (hah, mostly men, to be honest) who were never going to be worth the effort and who should have been ‘excised’ (redacted?) – ruthlessly or otherwise. But there, I suppose that’s the point of growing older: you can reassess, put your past life into perspective and finally let yourself feel what you feel.

Just Keep Taking The Tablets

Dr Williams’ Pink Pills for Pale People. When I first saw this poster I wondered how long it took him to think that one up? I imagined him, this mysterious Dr Williams, as some sort of Victorian gentleman with luxuriant side-whiskers. I saw him seated by a roaring fire in a stuffy drawing room, The Times newspaper folded by his side – and maybe a pipe of some sort, emitting a rich aroma of tobacco. Yes, there he sits in a fug of scented smoke, scribbling in a little black leather notebook with – what would they have used in those days? – did they have pencils?

Green Pills for Greenish Girls, he scribbles.

Hmmm…

Lavender Lozenges for Lethargic Ladies…

Hmmm… Ah….

Pink Pills for Pale People! That way you attract both male and female customers. And Pale… that could mean anything. It was claimed that Pink Pills could cure chorea, or “St Vitus Dance”. This was something my mother accused me of having as a child, I remember, because some passing woman had made a comment about her toddler (me) making funny faces all the time. Did I? It has been one of my nightmares (confession imminent) that I have been making funny faces all my life but just can’t seem to catch myself doing it. People may have just been too kind to tell me.

Pink Pill were good for all sorts of other things too, it seems – locomotor ataxia (no idea) partial paralyxia (no idea), seistica (definitely no idea), neuralgia, rheumatism, nervous headache, the after effects of la grippe (flu?), palpitation of the heart, pale and sallow complexions and all forms of weakness in male or female.

In fact it seems unlikely that Dr Williams himself ever existed except as an advertising concept, since Dr Williams’ Medicine Company was the trading arm of G T Fulford & Company, Canada.

Pills… endless pills. Until Christmas I was quite proud of myself for having attained this advanced age without being permanently on pills of any sort, this one interacting unfavourably with that one… An Old People Thing, pills were. On the rare occasion that I was prescribed pills, for this and that, mostly I wouldn’t take them.

The ghastliness of old age. I think I have just witnessed too much of it, through shadowing a carer (twice) and through Mum and her endless dementia. She had pills, first in a pill-sorter and then (after she began to toss her pills all over the kitchen for some reason) in a sealed dosette box from the chemist. But she quickly learned how to break into it, and added whimsical things to the various compartments – giant, unidentifiable orange vitamin pills, for example. This used to annoy the carers. As did hiding the toaster so that they couldn’t do her tea.

I will never, I promised myself, become that sort of zombified old person surrounded by medical impedimenta. I will never, I vowed, possess a pill-sorter. No dosette box shall ever pass over my doorstep. (In fact Mum used to put the dosette box, together with the carers’ blue plastic record book and various other unrelated objects, back over her doorstep as soon as they departed. She stacked them in a corner of the porch, where they got damp, or buried under the usual blizzard of incoming junk mail.)

The words for things change when you become old. No longer do you rifle around in the medicine cabinet (biscuit tin, in my case) hoping to locate an ancient plaster to stick on a  cut. No, somebody comes and puts a dressing on you. No longer do you rummage in the medicine cabinet/biscuit tin for a couple of ancient Paracetamol still in their foil casing and so probably hygienic enough. Now teams of people come and discuss pain management. Every part of you seems to be going manky, somehow, and you’re not even in control of it.

I’m not that old yet, I suppose. I always thought, when I got that old, I would do a Virginia Woolf, weighting the old pockets with stones (such strong pockets she must have had) and wading into the river. How do you know when you’ve reached that fulcrum moment, I wonder, between being capable of deciding your own destiny and no longer being capable? Presumably you don’t know, and that is why there are so many old folks sitting around on plastic armchairs in Homes, watching Gordon Ramsay on Daytime TV.

But, you have to be practical. Yesterday I sorted all my various antibiotics and iron tablets into a jolly, multi-coloured pill-sorter. It has compartments for Morning, Noon, Evening and Reserve. What is reserve for goodness sake? Hopefully the antibiotics will be finished by next Thursday, then I will just be left with the iron pills, which I should be able to remember without the aid of the multi-coloured pill-sorter.

But it never ends. Today I took Shadow to the vet’s. She’s got an eye infection. I’d intended to take her before Christmas but then I got sick and anyway, conveniently, the cat’s eye infection seemed to be going away. Then I got better, and the cat’s eye infection – inconveniently – came back in full force. So now I have not only all my pills but eye drops (twice a day) and antibiotic ointment three times a day for her.

I have had to re-do my list.

I seem to be spending all day either trying to swallow monstrous pills myself (I inherited from my father the greatest difficulty swallowing pills) and pursuing an unwilling cat round the house, managing to do first one eye then, half an hour later the other eye. Or not

pink pills

My Café Collection

The one-armed cat is asleep, a scarf draped over the still-baldy-bit where his arm until recently was. I felt he might be cold. I’m certainly cold, in spite of the central heating. Sleety snow falling outside. A long, soggy trek to the bird table to fill it up yet again. Darkness falling though it’s barely afternoon. According to the not-so-smartphone it’s 4 degrees C in my location. I notice it’s even 9 degrees C in Edmonton, where my sister is, and that’s only somewhat south of the Arctic Circle. Something’s gone wrong.

I was thinking about cafés the other day. I accidentally met Bertie in a café in town, to which I had resorted in desperation having found myself with yet another hour to fill whilst waiting for my bus home. Bertie had had the same idea, as had a number of his disabled friends. It’s an Italian café, the usual thing – formica-topped tables, cheery service, steamy coffee with free tiny biscuit wrapped in cellophane.

 I actually walked right past Bertie, startling though he is to behold – wrapped in my own thoughts, a number of scarves and a woolly hat. Till he yelled my name. If Bertie yells your name, you know it. Everybody, all along the High Street, knows it.

And so we all passed the time. There was a man from Spain – or at least he was English but he had been in Spain for quite a few years. He had come home for a ‘recce’, presumably spooked by the idea of being marooned in Spain sans pension after Brexit, the plan being to do the ‘recce’, have his car shipped over and then drive round looking for somewhere to live, back in Blighty. 

However, one cold, damp afternoon in town, drinking tea in steaming cafés, surrounded by tattoo parlours, pound stores, charity shops, seedy pubs and branches of Nationwide had begun to sew seeds of doubt in his mind. ‘Maybe I won’t get the car shipped over,’ he remarked to Bertie. Bertie started listing the library opening hours for him. Bertie likes to provide answers, if not to questions anyone has actually asked.

And I fell to wondering how many dingy cafés I had inhabited in this my elderly life. What would they look like strung end to end, I mused. As Bertie continued with the library list and the returning expat continued to agonise and ruminate, unheard, about the car locked in the garage behind his rented villa in drier and sunnier climes, I visualised a string of past cafés and myself wandering through them endlessly, in one door and out the other, over the whole of my life. 

Here was Lyons Tea Shop in Chatham, where I went with my mother. I must have been quite small. I remember the black tiles and the mirrors – the long, long mirrors and the way they made the room look twice as big – and the woman behind the counter slopping teas from a giant teapot over a selection of teacups on a grid, not caring if the tea went in the cups or not. And the Knickerbocker Glories – ice creams and other miraculous sweet stuff in a glass so tall you had to eat it with a long spoon, and I could only just reach…

And then the cafés I went to with Mum and Dad on their Sunday cycling club marshalling duties. Plain, workmanlike cafés with cheese sandwiches, and egg and chips, and solid white mugs, unbreakable unless you hurled them forcefully against a wall. Full of cyclists, chatty and rather sweaty, in embarrassing get-ups: not lycra in those days but plus-fours, cycle clips, saggy shorts (with special saddle-padding, as my Dad foolishly showed me once) and cycling shoes that clicked and clacked as they walked. Loud. They were always very loud.

And the cafés where I did my student courting. Romance blossoming in some tiny, trendy dive. Juke box playing the same records over and over. People going up to put money in them. Coffee machines that sent out sudden jets of steam and deafened you further. What was that romantic thing he just murmured? My long-haired, half-Austrian lothario (several inches shorter than self) in the fraying cardigan his mother had knitted for him.

And the garden centre cafés I would meet Mum and Dad in, most of the rest of my life, on Sundays. People shopping for bags of manure for their roses, for garden trowels, for just the right lawnmower. People pottering and dawdling and thoroughly enjoying themselves, as British people love to do on a Sunday. Dad sitting there with his knife and fork clasped in his ham-like hands, impatient for dinner. Mum spotting a cyclist outside the window behind my back, before I had finished the sentence, so I would have to repeat it. Then spotting another cyclist. Nothing I could say was interesting enough to hold either of their attentions for the span of a complete sentence.

And the Greek café I had to take Mum to, when we were still pretending she wasn’t yet quite mad enough to be Taken Away.  The powdered scrambled egg, the sea of baked beans, the wobbly plates, the tasteless frothy coffee. Sugar in a long tube. Ever frugal, Mum took the tubes home in her handbag, but then forgot about them.

The malicious comments she thought she heard (though deaf). The accusations to the waiting staff. The explanations that were necessary. The walking stick on the floor, constantly on the floor, getting sticky, and me having to retrieve it. Trying to get her arms into her coat when they didn’t seem to want to bend backwards, even a little bit. I drew a broken heart right on your windowpane playing faintly in the background. Too-small dresses in the charity shop opposite. The bookshop she wouldn’t let me go into when we came out…

The cafés with friends. Serviettes with the sandwiches, overworked staff, sudden bursts of baby bellowing, toddlers running up and down the aisle, plate glass windows, shoppers scuttling far beneath like one of those L S Lowrie painting. All only half-noticed. The conversation is the thing.

And then a hundred – seems more like a thousand – cafés alone. The cafés above department stores and supermarkets, long and echoing. Complicated systems for queueing up for food and self-service beverages. Draughts. Shopping bags dumped under the tables. Unnatural quiet. The cafés on train stations, warming my hands on a polystyrene cup, wondering if the lid will fit back on if the train comes…

And this one. Bertie seems to have exhausted Library Opening Hours and is staring at me, perplexed. I ought to be talking, presumably. I’ve been in one of my Absences. The man from sunny Spain is gone ahead of us to the bus stop, to catch one of the red buses (we are waiting for a blue one). But when we get to the bus stop he is nowhere to be found. Bertie is concerned. I wonder if he is simply Walking Back to Spain, just like that woman used be Walking Back To Happiness on the juke box, all those years ago…