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.

Kiss it better

Canadian sister and I were talking, transatlantic fashion, about how much we missed Mum. Mum’s in a home, and she does not know us. I visited her today and she asked, in a rare half sentence, where The Daughters were. I am guessing that in her mind The Daughters are not the lumpy, grey old badgers that come to visit her but spotty, insolent teenagers or pigtailed infants.

The television was on loud. People being pompous about food, drizzling this jus or that jus on this or that. We agreed that we both particularly hated cooking programmes.

Finding her propped up in the armchair, my Adopted Godmother (or Godmother Elect) and I lowered ourselves onto Mum’s squishy orthopaedic bed with our feet on the squashy blue plastic ‘in case of falls’ mattress. Every time one or other of us moved, or stood up to make Mum a cup of tea or find her a jacket, both bed and fall mattress gave a fart and a chorus of desperate sighs. It was how we felt.

Last night Canadian sister told me how she felt when she learned her husband of forty years had cancer. She said she wanted to tell Mum, straight away. She knew Mum couldn’t do anything about it but she had to tell her all the same. But she couldn’t tell her. Mum was past understanding anything anyone said. She had tiptoed off without bothering to say goodbye, it felt like.

I told her something I had not realised until I said it, that although Mum had spent most of her life annoying me in one way or another I often longed to talk to Old Mum about New Mum. If only she would come back just for one day so that I could ask her what to do, even though there is nothing at all to be done.

When you lose your parents it’s weird. It’s not like you become a grown-up, suddenly. Here you are, still a five year old inside the elderly carapace you hardly recognise in the mirror, but now you’re abandoned, cast back upon your own inadequate five year old resources. All the bad and sad stuff that has always been inside you, all that stuff that will probably get better someday all the while Mum and Dad are in the world – suddenly they aren’t in the world, in any meaningful way. And then all the bad and sad stuff starts to creep and snuffle its way out. Unchecked. Unbalanced. No one to kiss it better.

When we were children, if we fell over and cut our knees she would wash and bandage them for us. “Mummy kiss it better,” she would say, and the magic always seemed work. It occurred to us that it’s not important whether or not a parent – or anyone else – has any actual power to help you. It only matters that you can tell them. It’s just somebody being there to listen.

I suddenly remembered a time when my parents were both alive but old and, as the unmarried daughter, I seemed to have to go around everywhere with them. We went to a museum once. Admittedly it was raining and all three of us arrived at the reception desk in dripping rain-hoods, looking like drowned rats. ‘Three Seniors?’ the woman enquired with not even a trace of face-saving irony. Dad even bought me a walking stick exactly like his though I didn’t (and still don’t) need one.  How depressing I found that museum visit. How I wish I could turn back the clock and relive it now, torrential rain, walking stick, stupid receptionist and all.

Christmas Dinner on New Year’s Day

Mum is in hospital, miles away. She’s stuck there for the moment, for administrative reasons. The other old ladies on her ward mostly seem to be stuck there too. They don’t change from one visit to the next. From her breathing, one of them sounds as if she is dying, but nobody seems to be paying any attention.

Mum greets me with a kind of horrified joy, as if she has been left behind on Mars for the last hundred years, like whoever-it-was in the movie and I am the one human being she has been utterly desperate to see. Then she loses interest. I am not the one she thought I was: sweet and sour, with Mum nowadays, or perhaps sour and another sort of sour.

Once I have found a chair, of sorts, and made space for it beside the bed she gestures out of the window. Nasty, she says. Yes, I say. Raining! I do our old “rain” home sign, hands fluttering downwards, raindrop-like. She looks at me as if I’m mad. Home signs don’t work nowadays.

And then Christmas Dinner arrives. Have they been having Christmas Dinner every day since Christmas, or have they for some reason postponed it from Christmas? It looks very nice – hospital food has improved since I was last in hospital. There are even Brussels sprouts, though of an odd colour. Overdone, I think, remembering Nan’s (Mum’s Mum’s) story about when she was made a NAAFI canteen supervisor during the war, and the first thing she did – to howls of protest from her canteen workers – was to throw out all the cabbage, which was black, and had been boiling since breakfast-time. There is even a Christmas cracker. I can’t see Mum being persuaded to grasp the other end of it.

I realise I have been ignoring the old lady sitting beside the next bed. She is wearing the same hospital gown as Mum: cotton, crisp, with the hospital’s name spelled out all over again in tiny letters like the tissue paper new shoes arrive in. All the ladies are wearing the same gown.

Steer clear of the parsnips, says the old lady I have been ignoring until now. They’re hard. And now I feel guilty. I have spent so long with Mum – I was just assuming any semi-naked old lady sitting in or beside a hospital bed must be senile. I notice she has been reading something on a Kindle.

That’s a Paperwhite, isn’t it? I had one of those until recently. What a good idea for hospital.

Good grief, am I having a conversation?

Yes, she says. Books are so heavy to hold up. I’ve got this paperback, look, but the Paperwhite is easier. I asked my children to bring it in. Flat as a pancake it was, when they found it. They had to plug it in.

I expect the hospital would let you plug it in in here, too. I find I’ve got stacks of books in the house and stacks of books on the Kindle, and I end up not reading any of them.

She tells me about her late husband, who had the same kind of dementia as my mother. She tells me her name is Mary. I tell her mine is Linda. Hello, Linda, she says.

Mum always hated me talking to anyone else. If we bumped into someone in the street who wanted to talk, she would grab my sleeve and begin to drag me away saying We’ve got to go. Busy. We’ve got to go now. I’d have to make excuses for her rudeness; it was mortifying. Now, however, in slow-motion, she begins to lean against the curtain that semi-separates her from Mary.

She’s leaning, I say. I sound like a proud parent whose child has just done something utterly unremarkable, or a besotted pet-owner. Oh look, she’s smiling! Oh, he’s purring – he must have taken you.

Mary puts her hand round the curtain. She’s obviously in quite a bit of pain. Mum reaches out the fluttering tips of her fingers and Mary reaches out and grasps them. She knows Mum better, now, than I do.

And so we proceed with Christmas Dinner. I have never actually been called upon to feed anybody before. It is an infuriatingly slow and messy process; doesn’t help me being left-handed when she is right. I wish I had one of those green plastic aprons the nurses use. I end up with several handfuls of cold potato and gravy. There’s paper wipes over there by the sink, says Mary.

First a mouthful of potato, then Mum scrapes the meat slowly off the proffered fork, then a spoonful of jam sponge and gluey custard with the spoon. We go on like that for a while, the same spoon now going indiscriminately from the plate to the dish, from gravy to custard. The important thing is eating, not etiquette. She’s lost quite a bit of weight.

How did you ever have the patience to feed the three of us? I ask her.

It’s all the same to me, she says. What is the link ? Maybe there isn’t one.

They’re playing ancient pop songs on the radio, and on comes You were always on my mind. Even in normal circumstances that song tends to set me off and every time the chorus comes round the tears well up in my eyes. For some reason the song reminds me that this is actually a real Christmas Dinner. So every time the chorus comes round I pick up the un-pulled cracker and examine it with great care, noting the way the paper is folded and the tiny patterns in the stuck-on lace. I hold it to my ear and shake it, as people always do, as if curious what might be inside, and this tiny, pointless activity is just enough to un-brim the tears.

I wish I hadn’t eaten that jam sandwich in the car park I hear myself remarking in a bright, unfamiliar voice. I could have come in here and asked for a Christmas Dinner. Yum, it looks nice! Can we manage another Brussels sprout?

I hear Mary laugh from behind the curtain.

Just Another Solo Sunday

Christmas Eve. I have been sitting in the dark watching forgettable TV and feeling sorry for myself. My sister phones me from Canada.

We talk about family matters for a while. Practical matters. She is distracted by her husband who, despite advanced cancer, is determined to drag the washing machine back into position after re-tiling the kitchen floor. Go and help him  – you can phone me back. But no, he’s a man and he Doesn’t Need Help.

She tells me she is going to have to entertain one of her husband’s work colleagues and family on Boxing Day. Last time they saw me I was a weepy mess, she says. It’s embarrassing.

Think yourself on the other side of it, I counsel, knowing I couldn’t do so myself. Remind yourself that it’s only a few hours and then they will be gone. How many hours can they stay?

Well, now they’ve got the two-year-old to think of, maybe five hours…

Five hours! I think.

Five hours! she says.

Maybe you can have a few excuses lined up – things that will get you out of the room for twenty minutes here and there… I’ve run out of inspiration.

We turn to the subject of my solo Christmas Day. I’ll be on my own, Mum being unexpectedly in hospital with a broken hip. Would probably have been on my own anyway, Mum having been in the home since April or thereabouts. Somehow or other I haven’t planned for it. Why didn’t I think to volunteer to muck cats out at the local sanctuary? I know the answer – the cats would be pleased to see me but the worthy women at the cat sanctuary wouldn’t. They would look at me askance as people – and particularly women – tend to do. I was born without the ability to Bond.

We talk about our other sister – how come two sisters can never have a conversation without talking about the third? She will have her family around her – her partner, her daughter and ‘the boys’, ie her son and his partner. We think/hope maybe it won’t be as jolly and wonderful as it sounds. They’ll probably get fractious and bored. The boys will probably wander off somewhere. Couldn’t cope with all those people ourselves, etc. Not that sociable.

But it would have been nice to have had the option.

If we’d been in the same country, she says, you would have been coming to us for Christmas. It would have been only natural, the two childless ones.

Yes, I say. Or we might have taken it in turns to invite? 

I am comforted, inspired even, by the thought of the succession of Canadian Christmases we might have had. I remember my one and only trip to Canada back in the ‘eighties. It was Christmas then. There were plastic reindeer galloping merrily across every front garden (or should it be yard?) and plastic Santas attempting to squeeze themselves down non-existent chimneys. Fake snow decorated every window, real snow fell ‘snow on snow’ into the garden and creatures that might have been squirrels or maybe skunks looped their way along the tops of boundary fences. It would have been nice to be there every Christmas.

It would have been nice…

A bit of a long paddle, though. She is talking about the Atlantic.

She goes on talking and I suppose I am listening and making the appropriate replies, but also I am imagining myself walking on water, skimming the Atlantic Ocean on foot, only it isn’t icy cold and mind-bogglingly, Titanic-sinkingly deep like the real Atlantic but shallow and warm. Yes, I am that woman in the Dior perfume ad – Charlize whatever – and I am slender and young and wearing a gold dress so tiny and yet so beautiful it seems part of me. Water glistens down my throat, and the sun catching it and glinting off it, and I am perfumed and mysterious and splashing my way across calm waters towards a golden sunset.

The singing will never be done

Today is the 100th anniversary of the start of the battle of the Somme, which was to go on for four and a half months and kill an unimaginable number of soldiers. My grandfather was in that war but I will never know whether he was at the Somme, because he never, ever talked about the war. Or anything much else, come to that. He was a silent man. We knew he had a double hernia from pushing heavy guns around, and would never get them treated. He lived into his nineties, still with the hernias; also with bits of shrapnel in his legs. We knew at some point, because of his injuries, he was assigned to light duties, which meant travelling back and forth across the channel, looking after horses being transported to the front. We knew he did embroidery.

This may sound strange, for a carpenter. We think he was taught it in hospital when he was recovering. We think he embroidered going across the channel, with the horses. The embroidery was always white – I have a feeling it might be called whitework – and had tiny round holes cut in it. Something like this:

embroidery 2

Or this:

white work

He died in hospital, after a fall. He was the first person I had seen near death. It was an awful place. Green, everything green, and all around us, old men dying in metal beds. He didn’t speak, but the look he gave me was almost hostile, as if to say “Seen enough, now?” I remember Mum giving me a sweet – like she would have done when I was a child, I suppose, to cheer me up. I remember the mixture of sweet and salt in my mouth: tears and barley-sugar.

The night he died I dreamt I was in his kitchen, just standing there, and he walked past me, muttering. I could see him but he couldn’t see me. I had become the ghost. I played Brothers in Arms to myself, and cried. My husband didn’t react to emotions at all, usually, but after watching me curiously for a while he ventured: It reminds you of your granddad? This was perceptive, for him.

Don’t you sometimes wish you could go back and watch someone’s life, like a film? Don’t you sometimes wish you didn’t miss out on it all, having been born too late? I wish I knew what made my grandad my grandad, what it felt like to be swimming in mud, hurt and surrounded by death. I wish I knew what made him fall in love with Nan, whose family lived in the same road, and whose sister was married to his brother. I wonder what it felt like when they walked up the road together one grey Christmas Eve morning, to be married almost alone at St Margaret’s, without the blessing or presence of either family. I wonder what he really thought of me, the annoying grandchild. He hardly spoke to me but allowed me to accompany him down the garden to dig up potatoes and pick mint for our Sunday dinner, or to play in the sawdust in his workshop, picking up and rearranging stray offcuts of wood while he got on with his ‘making things’. We didn’t seem to need words.

Everyone Sang: Siegfried Sassoon, 1920

And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on – on – and out of sight.
Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted;
And beauty came like the setting sun:
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
Drifted away … O, but Everyone
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.

Crinkle-cut chips and other mishaps

It wasn’t till many years later that I began to understand how much I must have irritated my mother-in-law. She only bore with me, I suspect, because I had been the one to take her gifted, gruff, eccentric son off her hands. He was twenty-eight when I met him and nearly thirty by the time we married. At that point I still believed he was a catch but she must have felt he was approaching some sort of sell-by date.

All the same, whenever we arrived on her doorstep, though punctual and expected, we would be greeted with a disappointed and slightly huffy “Oh – it’s you.” The conversation tended to be punctuated with south-ist exclamations like “Damn southerners – all swank”. Not looking at me, of course.

There were a number of misdemeanours – firstly, the crinkle-cut chips. My parents in law moved a lot and every house they moved to was better than any other house they had ever inhabited, the neighbours more upper-crust and highly-educated… for six months or so at least, till the magic wore off and the bitching-over-the-garden-fence started.

MIL, extolling the virtues of the latest neighbourhood, informed me that it even had an Asda that sold crinkle-cut chips. To which my innocent reply was: What’s an Asda? I was guessing some kind of machine or kitchen gadget.

And I failed twice over, in never having heard of crinkle-cut chips. My mother, when she wanted to make chips, sliced up some potatoes and fried them in the chip pan. It had never occurred to me that you could get them ready sliced in packets. To this day I can’t see why a chip with wavy sides would taste any different to, or contain any more nourishment than, a chip with plain sides.

On my first visit to… one of their houses, the one with the rabbit… On the way down I sat on an ice lolly some kid had left on the train seat and didn’t realise till I stood up: yellow bell-bottoms, pink ice lolly, soggy bottom; not exactly a cool entrance. And then I got locked in the loo and had to call out of the window for help – trying to call quietly and politely I recall – and be rescued, which involved a great deal of laughter at my expense and the pushing of a little key under the door.

Then there was the coffee. MIL’s coffee and tea were exactly alike – whitey-brown, transparent, a slight fizz on the top and lacking in any kind of taste. Came the fateful day when I plumped for the wrong one and thanked her for coffee which turned out to be tea. Why did I even have to mention coffee or tea? Why couldn’t I have just nodded when she handed me the mug of brown fizzy whatever-it-was?

I was young for my age, naïve and socially unskilled. His family – the female side of it at least – were exactly the opposite: non-stop communicators. Truth to tell I couldn’t understand most of what MIL was saying most of the time, especially when she speeded up. It was that Liverpool accent she pretended she didn’t have – so fast – a torrent of words. Even if I succeeded in sussing out one of her sentences I was unlikely to cotton on to the underlying significance. Hence the Asda/crinkle-cut chips debacle. I was supposed to be impressed but had deliberately failed to be.

The worst thing was the announcement that we were eating Ex’s little sister’s pet rabbit for Sunday lunch. This was before Ex and I were married – at which point we were just staying at each other’s parents’ houses on alternate weekends. I’ve been a vegetarian for many years now, but I wasn’t in those far off days.

There were these slices tough dark meat, with some splotches of gravy scattered about it, and half way through the meal Ex’s father announced that this was in fact little sister’s bunny-rabbit. I think this was aimed at little sister rather than me – to toughen her up, make her face food facts – maybe as an exercise of masculine or paternal power – I don’t know. It was cruel – to rabbit and child. She was thirteen, I was nineteen. She stopped eating and started crying; I put down my knife and fork and sat blank-faced and speechless wanting to spit out the current mouthful. Ex, an animal-lover for all his faults, was angry too. It didn’t seem to have occurred to either parent that more than one person would be upset.

I could go on: the great Christmas debate between MIL and a visiting Liverpool Auntie about the presence (or not) of dog-dirt on the pavements outside; the seven year silent Cold War that began in mid-sentence as we walked in

“… and yes, you Stole my Goldfish…”

Blending in with the rhododendrons

My niece has purple hair at the moment. This isn’t her, by the way.

I wouldn’t have discovered she had purple hair at the moment if it wasn’t for Facebook – so the stupid social media site has had at least one use. Three in fact, since it inspired this post and has also, I suspect, inspired an as yet unwritten (but plotted) sci-fi story.

I don’t think I’m really a Facebook kind of person. I mean, I joined it, but then it asked me for friends. Friends? I thought. Oh dear! Well, I do – I have three, but none of them are on Facebook. The only people, shamefully, I could think of to ask to be made a friend of was my sister, her husband and their daughter, my niece. There was a longish wait before they agreed. For a while I thought it was only going to be the brother-in-law, who is a kindly soul and probably felt one of them had to. So I get an awful lot of stuff about football and motorbikes.

After a while I realised they weren’t actually reading my posts, or rather the links to my posts, put there by WordPress. (Not another of those dire Auntie Linda ramblings.) A while after that I realised WordPress and Facebook had had some sort of coming-to-blows over my posts, and Facebook was no longer posting my posts. Miserable, useless thing! If Twitter can do it, why can’t you? I worked out how to post manually, but I was discouraged. Why am I faffing about like this, posting links to posts that only three other people in the universe will see, and they won’t be reading? So I stopped.

However, there was this phrase – blending in with the rhododendrons. My niece had taken yet another selfie of herself in front of some rhododendron bushes on a visit to a country house, and appended to it a tiny story, of how she had had to dye her hair four times in a single day because the lilac (obviously the colour she was after) wouldn’t take at the roots, meaning she had orange roots and lilac other-bits, which wasn’t a good look. It was that phrase. A little shiver of recognition – another writer. So the gene did get passed on – from Dad to me – and to her. What would you call that shiver – WriteDar? And I recalled that Mum was always telling me how good at writing my niece was, when at school, and how that had truly pissed me off since writing was all I could ever do well, and no one had thought to sing my praises. Basically, I was jealous of the infant. Then I forgot. Till Facebook.

In the photo she is smiling, rather sweetly, and wearing glasses. I haven’t seen her for years but I see she has a silver stud underneath her lower lip. She always did look – the way I wanted to look, but didn’t. She turned up to Dad’s funeral in Doc Martens, I seem to remember, and something long, black and gothic, and pink spiky hair. Tattoos – she has those too. When they were going to whip her kidney out – or was it put the new one in – she was so worried about spoiling her best tattoo. And now she’s got no kidneys at all, poor kid, no functioning kidneys anyway. There’s the long drive to hospital three times a week for dialysis.

However, in between times she works in a chemist’s shop, and she’s looking for a flat. And she visits country houses and gardens with rhododendrons, and takes her picture in front of them, grinning, because she never knows how long she’ll be well enough to enjoy her freedom. Long spells in hospital. Spells of purple hair, rock concerts and rhododendrons.

So, that’s the post inspired by duff old Facebook, by a photo of a niece I haven’t seen for ages (who knows, she may come to my funeral) and a chance turn of phrase.

Now on to the sci-fi short story.

purple hair

This isn’t her either, but a lovely shade of purple, don’t you think? Especially with the snow. I wonder – if I was to – no, I couldn’t –

I was just wondering if having purple hair, say, or Doc Martens, tattoos and piercings – would be enough to keep one out of the old folks home. I mean, would they be able to view you as an old person and make the assumptions people do about old persons, if you didn’t look anything like one?