If you go down to the woods today…

Outside Mum’s window the sky is iron grey. The chill strikes even through my winter coat, my thickest scarf, the extra cardigans. I am wearing so many layers today I resemble a padded black cube, with legs. Mum seems to be suggesting a picnic. Recently she has become convinced that, whoever we are, we must be entertained. She struggles to explain her plans, the arrangements she is mentally making. If she could walk, she seems to be saying, we could put her into the front seat of a car. We could go out, and sit on the grass and eat our picnic. At least, that’s what I imagine she is saying. I seem to need something nobody else does – to impose a narrative on the anxious, incomprehensible, stream-of-consciousness stuff that actually comes out. Godmother is more down to earth: ‘Too cold for a picnic today, but they’ll be bringing your fish and chips soon’.

‘I think the fish must be swimming here’, she mutters. ‘Where is it?’

Godmother simply tells the truth. ‘Is my Mum still alive?’ Mum asks me, suddenly. I turn to Godmother, silently asking for help, the loss of Nan suddenly flooding back in.

‘No. She died a long time ago,’ says Godmother.

Mum considers this. ‘Is my Dad alive?’

‘No, he’s dead too.’

‘Him?’ She points at her brother’s photo – there he is in 1949 in tropical uniform,  film-star handsome. Cyprus, maybe.

He’s still alive,’ says Godmother, seeing me nodding.

‘But very old now,’ I add. (And never bothered to visit you for the last twenty-five years, I think, though you waited and waited and always believed he would.)

‘And him?’ She points at Dad’s picture, the one of him in his seventies, in that veterans’ cycle race, leaning into the curve of a corner as he goes whizzing by.

‘That’s my Dad,’ I say, foolishly. ‘Your husband.’

She looks puzzled. ‘Is he still alive?’

‘No, he’s dead too,’ says Godmother. ‘Shall I go and make you a fresh cup of tea?’

Mum nods vigorously, then starts to look dubious.

‘Go quick,’ I say, ‘before it turns into a no.’

Mum points at Gordon Ramsay on the television, being beastly to someone because their restaurant isn’t up to scratch. Something about him – maybe the red, constantly-mobile face – seems to have caught her attention. At least she doesn’t ask me if he’s still alive.

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At the Over 50s lunch a lady called Daphne has taken charge of me. She is helping me with my Bingo.

‘No,’ she tuts. ‘Turn that sheet upside down then you won’t be tempted to put anything on it. Look, I’m turning the blue sheet upside down. You don’t need it yet. Out of sight, out of mind. No – you’ve just done the line but you’ve still got the house – don’t go throwing the whole book away!’

Truth to tell, I am exaggerating my helplessness a bit because it’s so unexpectedly nice to be nagged. I had forgotten what that was like, the way Mums talk to you.

We all have to sit in the same seats, every time, even though it’s a huge great pub. This I discovered earlier, when I sat in the wrong one. ‘Oh no. You’ll have to move along one.’

‘I just didn’t really want to sit under that potted tree. The leaves are sort of sharp and dangle down your neck…’

‘Well we’ll move the table out a bit, keep you more or less away from the tree. But that’s your seat now. Don’t give Her a chance to have a go at you. Once She starts…’

Gosh, I think. It’s like being back at school. Have I really reached this age only to be forced to sit for several hours in a corner seat half obscured by a potted tree of vicious temperament because somebody tells me to?

An old man two seats down (exactly where he was last month) tells a very off-colour joke involving falling into a bucket, with some tits. He laughs uproariously, mouth wide open.

‘Don’t you get started on those jokes of yours, Cecil. There’s a young lady present.’ It take me a minute to realise they mean me.

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Back at the home, Mum’s asking, over and over again, ‘But what about me? What do you want me to do? What shall I do now?’

Oh Mum, I think. Ask me if I went and cut my own fringe again, because it’s all up one side and down the other. Offer to make me an appointment with your own hairdresser round the corner. ‘That one you were in the same class at junior school with’.

Tell me off for sneaking pieces into your jigsaw puzzle behind your back.

Ask me if I’m putting on weight and suggest that it’s plastering all those great chunks of butter on my toast that does it.

Tell me you’re worried about me and my raggle-taggle lifestyle. Tell me I’ve always been a worry to you, really.

Tell me you’d like me to get you a new book in that historical series, but the paperback, mind you, not the hardback: mess up the look of your bookshelves, hardbacks do.

Tell me you’d think I’d have something better to do with my time than play Bingo with a lot of old farts in a pub in the back of beyond somewhere.

Tell me anything, anything at all. I’m listening so hard now.

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I believe there must be a leprechaun inside my smartphone. Well, not even a very smart phone – a phone that in reality does all the stuff normal smartphones do, but disguises the fact so as not to spook the elderly. A deafening musical cadence every time you switch the thing on or off tells everyone else in the railway carriage that you must be extremely hard of hearing, and menus in big letters, with simple alternative words for things, ensure that anyone under eighty will be confused. I spent the first three months wondering where they had hidden the ‘Text’ function before realising that

‘What do you want to do…?

Send…?

Send what…?

A Message?’

actually meant Text. Godmother has the same phone (but Godmother is six months older than my mother) which does at least mean that I can help her when her leprechaun is playing up. I managed to get hers off Aeroplane Mode last week. It had been stuck like that for months.

The phone’s inner leprechaun is obviously quite bright. On my last journey to meet Godmother/visit Mum together, I got to the station, bought my ticket and whilst waiting for the train checked my screen (I’ve just got my head round Roaming). He told me the name of a station and informed me that the station was ‘functioning’ – which was a relief, since I was already standing on the platform, senior rail ticket in hand. He also told me when my next train was due. This I also knew as there are only two trains an hour, and indeed only one platform, terminating in a pile of weedy rubble, whether you are Outgoing or Inbound.

However, my leprechaun does tend to slip out for a pint of Guinness occasionally. In Godmother’s car, an hour and a half and quite a few miles away, he informed me I was in England. This was a relief too. If ever I was taken up into a spaceship by aliens, experimented on and dropped randomly back to earth with my Old Person’s Smartphone I would at least know that I was in Africa, say, or Mongolia.

I thought about it. If he doesn’t know what town I’m in, at this moment in time, how can he proclaim with such confidence that I’m in England? And then I thought, ah, he’s applying logic, as computerised thingies are known to do. He has worked out that the town I was in, before he went out for the pint of Guinness, is such a long way from the borders of either Scotland, Wales or Ireland that I wouldn’t have had time by any known means of transport to have traversed one of said borders. Ergo, since I had been in England, I must still be in England. I was lost in admiration.

A cousin of the smartphone leprechaun lives in my television and informs me at intervals that a Weak or No Signal is being received. He actually knows, somehow, that the cats have just pulled the aerial out of the socket.

Another particularly malevolent cousin lives in my desktop computer. Every day he attempts to send me a massive Update to Internet Explorer, which he tells me will take longer than usual, but is a pressing matter, absolutely vital. Every time I allow him to do this my desktop computer chunters away for a while, then dies. “Bluescreens”, as they say in internet chatrooms. It is then very difficult to revive my computer. Much turning it off at the wall and turning it back on again. Desktop leprechaun then tells me the Update has failed and he is restoring my previous version of Internet Explorer. I cannot afford to pay the Computer Man £120 to fix this Illogicality for me, any more than I could afford to pay the plumber to stop water constantly rippling into my loo from the cistern – until I had to spend all one day bailing into a bucket.

The next day the desktop leprechaun sends me an even tetchier message. “Let’s cross this one off your list… Come on now, you know it makes sense…” I tick “Remind Me Tomorrow” as there seems to be no option for “Bog Off”.

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Everybody’s talking at me…

So far I have been looking for things to ‘snap’ around the house, but it’s been one of those days and I just couldn’t locate any Talking Heads, Jabbering Clowns etc to go with my title.

(Change the title, then, why don’t you?

Too tired!)

It’s been one of those days. One of those days when, after days of blessed silence, broken only by hisses and miaows and the occasional politician blathering on about Brexit, I have been forced to delve deep into my pitiful pot of sociability and talk to people. And all day! It’s too much.

It started with the fridge. The fridge is less than a year old and you might think it would leave me alone, but no. The milk I poured onto my cereal was warm. Everything in the fridge-bit and the freezer-bit was warm. Everything was soggy. I was due to leave the house at quarter to nine so at half past eight I had to have a long conversation with a young woman in a call centre, who sold me yet another lot of fridge insurance (I just cancelled the previous lot but it was the only way I could escape) and promised me an engineer next Wednesday. Five or six day without a fridge. I missed the bus, of course.

Which meant I found myself catching the same bus as Bertie and, not only that, sharing the subsequent train since he was on his way up to London and then down towards the West Country. Bertie is a nice chap but extremely hard work, listening to. And he now wants to know whether I am married. Why? Maybe he’s just curious. Innocently curious.

He is worried about his train connections, and about whether he will be able to book in to his usual hotel room when he gets down there; also whether he will be able to find some flowers to buy (he has to buy some flowers). I am worried about my fridge and what is happening to all those strawberry yoghurts and bottles of milk I didn’t have time to dispose of before running for the later bus. They will have to fester till I get home.

And then there is the conversation with Godmother in the car. Godmother is a piece of cake compared to either Bertie or the woman at the electrical appliances call centre, but I am running out of steam. I am also having to explain why I am so late.

Then there is the conversation with Mum, although today she seems more interested in New Homes By The Seaside, and paddling two pieces of bread around in a bowl of green soup. Godmother and I speculate as to why the soup is always exactly this shade of green, and whether it might be pea, or some sort of pea and mushroom mix.

Another conversation with Godmother on the way back to the station. Exhausted slump in a train, then another train. Half an hour at the bus stop. Teenager on the bench beside me suddenly looks up from his mobile phone and begins to talk to me. There must be something wrong with him, I think. The only people who talk to me at bus stops are people with something wrong with them.

He shows me his app, for the buses, which reveals that our bus is currently passing the fire station just down the road, but it has to go past us and go off somewhere else before coming back, so there’s at least another fifteen minutes to wait. He tells me about the sort of music he likes, which he says has a lot of beat and people shouting or talking over the top. Sounds like what Next Door play. He asks me what sort of music I like. I say I listen to Heart, thinking that might be trendy. He says Heart isn’t really modern music. He explains the online game he likes to play, and how you can wear costumes, or join the police, or wield a sword – anything you like – and how he has friends all over the world, playing the same game at the same time. I tell him of my adventures with the little boat in that dementia game, Sea Hero Quest. He thinks he has heard of that.

He asks me if I have got Netflix and what I watch TV programmes on. He tells me that the pattern is changing and young people watch on all sorts of devices. I already knew this, but I nod, wondering if he might be practising his chatting up techniques on a safe old lady before venturing into the world of Real Girls. He looks no more than fifteen, and I suspect he is shy. He’s practising. Good for him.

He asks me what people did before television. His mother has told him that people played card games and such. I tell him that I can only vaguely remember the world before television, since we got one when I was seven or thereabouts, but I remembered my grandparents playing card games. And talking. Talking? He seems interested in that. He asks me if television was really black and white once upon a time, and had there really only been two channels like his mother said?

At home I dispose of all the runny yoghurts and soggy loaves of bread from the fridge. I recycle the plastic pots. I tip away four pints of warm, suspicious-smelling milk. I fish out anything else that doesn’t look as if it’s going to last till Wednesday.

I remember that I am supposed to be ringing that lady from yesterday’s bus journey, the one who thought I might be interested in outings to Southend to eat fish and chips, in a mini-bus with other people our age, collected from my door and returned, after. Trips to the theatre; get-togethers (with optional fish-and-chip suppers) in pubs and so much more. I have her telephone number on a scrap of paper and I have promised to ring her. Yesterday.

I am slightly interested, I suppose, thinking about all that potential subject matter for the blog, and also the possibility that the company of other humans might do me good. But I can’t face it tonight.

Not another conversation. Just not tonight.

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From Mum’s Old Recipe Book: [Godmother]’s Scrumptious Slice

I shall be seeing Godmother tomorrow, on yet another harrowing visit to Mum, which I will try to avoid writing about afterwards (sighs of relief, echoing around the globe…). However, I thought to mark the occasion I would include a recipe which Godmother originally passed on to Mum.

I don’t know whether Godmother christened them Scrumptious Slices or whether it was Mum who decided they were Scrumptious. I also have no idea what a Scrumptious Slice might look like when it comes out of the oven (please do report back if you decide to make them) and can’t post a picture of Godmother herself, so here is a fairy godmother instead.

SCRUMPTIOUS SLICE

  • 8 oz puff pastry
  • 8 oz marzipan
  • 3 oz glacé cherries
  • 3 oz dessicated cocoanut
  • 2 egg whites slightly beaten
  • 8 oz Cadbury Flakes (if you can’t get Cadbury Flakes, they are basically milk chocolate shaped into flaky log-things)
  • Caster sugar

Preheat oven to 230°C /450°F / Gas 8

Roll pastry out 10″ (inches) x 12″ rectangle. Roll marzipan to a slightly smaller rectangle and lay on top of pastry.

Chop cherries, mix with the cocoanut & add enough egg white to bind. Spread over the marzipan & lay Flakes in pairs down the centre (You may need to be a bit creative here if you are using an alternative to Cadbury’s Flake).

Dampen pastry edges – seal together lengthwise & then seal ends. Lift onto a greased baking sheet, ‘join’ side down. Brush with egg white, sprinkle with caster sugar.

Mark diagonal lines on top.

Bake for about 15 minutes until golden brown.

Hmm, they do sound quite yummy whatever they look like! 🙂

New Slippers

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.

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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.”

“My son?”

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!”

“Whaaaa…?”

“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!”

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