She…

SHE picked up a pair of sunglasses from the path. Mummy wouldn’t let go of her other hand so she had to pull them both down there. The sunglasses were red and made of plastic, reflecting the winter sun twice over. They were child’s sunglasses: just her size. She put them on. “Leave them, they’ll be filthy,” her mother said, but it was too late.

The world she walked through now was the colour of storms. The glasses were the most glamorous thing she had ever owned. Her brown coat itched and itched.

pink glasses SHE picked up the rolling milk-bottles. Her friends, or at least the group she walked in the wake of, turned and laughed at her. “Leave them!” But she couldn’t leave them. They were somebody’s milk-bottles that had been on somebody’s high doorstep, waiting for the milkman to collect. Without appearing to speed up, they left her behind. She heard their laughter in the distance. They were taking about her. The streetlight was orange, reflecting in the puddles.

SHE picked up the college prospectus, recalling that glorious smell of new ink and shiny paper. It had slid off the bed and onto the floor as her father railed at her. “I could cut the ground from underneath your feet,” he shouted. She went to college in the end, but that was immaterial. It was what he had said to her and the venom with which he had said it.

“I could cut… …the ground… from underneath… …your feet.”

SHE picked up her handbag from the consulting room floor. Why had she brought such a heavy one? How could she need all this stuff? “There’s always adoption,” the specialist said, but there wasn’t. It had already been discussed.

“I don’t want some other man’s brat,” he had said. “It might be a serial killer.”

SHE picked up her mother’s walking stick from the supermarket floor, wondering what germs might have come up with it. Her mother was jabbering, as usual, and standing right in front of the cereal display. “Sorry,” she said, to the man trying to reach round them for a packet of Weetabix, “She’s getting in your way.”

“You’re both getting in my way,” said the man.

brokenglasses

SHE felt around with her left hand for her spectacles, but met with grit and broken glass. “Oh, leave that, leave that dearie, you’ll cut yourself.” She was on a damp pavement, surrounded by very tall people. She tried to get up, but they pushed her down again. Gently, by the shoulders. “Try to keep still, dearie,” said the same woman’s voice, “Ambulance is on its way.”

How far down she was, from the voice, as if on the forest floor, and high trees, and no light getting through.

“Am I going to die?” she sobbed.

“Am I going to die?”

 

Featured Image (milk bottle Banksy)

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.

slippers3.jpg

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!”

slippers2

slippers2

 

NaPoWriMo 4/4/16: The Soft Shoe Shuffle

Here is the lady whose teeth are always lost.

They’re wheeling her in through the door in a scarf and nightie.

Did they take her outside in April dressed like that?

But she seems joyous: she’s seen real flowers this morning;

Not the crêpe-made sort set down amid cotton-wool sheep

And a splash of cobalt blue.

When I get older, losing my hair… she sings, in passing,

And I’m catching that evil glimmer in her eye.

Many years from now… I hear someone-like-me reply.

The mouth folds in for a smile, a purse lacking coins.

Will you still be sending me a valentine…

Outside I don’t do singing; I do in here, it seems.

Birthday greetings, bottle of wine?

old woman

I don’t dance either: she’ll have me doing the soft-shoe-shuffle next

And I really don’t want to fit into this land of dreams.

Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair

Take a line from a song that you love or connect with. Turn that line into the title of your post.

Now you’re going to laugh at me. But when I heard that song coming over the radio in Mum’s kitchen in 1967 – can it really have been that long ago – I was transfixed. That was what I wanted. That was what I had to have. I had to be in San Francisco. I had to be lean and flower-clad. I had to have a long skirt and dusty sandals, and beads. And bells. According to Scott McKenzie, people were in motion, all across the nation. They were on their way to San Francisco, and that became my Garden of Eden. Even now, listening to that song, I cry. Not always, mind you. Sometimes I just think – that was a bit cheesy. And now it’s so dated. Whoever talks of love-ins now? Whoever would trouble to prance around in a field waving daisies, or paint flowers on a mini?

Would I really have dropped acid, ripped off my cheesecloth shirt and swayed around to psychedelic music? No. I was never a hippie. I was schoolgirl. By the time I became a student, hippies had faded like the flowers they wore in their hair. They were a joke. And have remained one. Who wants to be called an ageing hippie?

The Beatles were the height of my musical experience. I wouldn’t have known the name of one underground group. I wore my school uniform most of the time. My hair was cut in a practical helmet shape, at my Mum’s insistence. I had spots and no social skills. I was aware that San Francisco was somewhere in America but not where in America. I had never flown in an aeroplane. I had no money for the fare. A train trip to Devon to visit my aunt and uncle was the furthest I had ever been on my own, and that totally stressed me out. I was too young. I was afraid. But yet I yearned for San Francisco, which I envisaged as 0ne big field of flowers. Maybe a tent or two. A few dusty sidewalks with tangle-bearded, blissed-out people lolloping about on them.

Prior to that I had thought London was the answer. London was where I would go, as soon as I was able. I might be a misfit in suburbia but in London I would find People Like Me. It took me many, many years to realise that People Like Me are relatively few and far between, and scattered randomly throughout the country and across the globe. There would have been no comforting concentration of kindred spirits in the capital city.

Recently, I was reading about the end of life. I know – bit of a jump. Sorry. I read this fascinating thing – that when they ‘begin their dying’ old people often talk of going on a journey. They might ask whether their flight is booked, or request railway schedules or tide-tables. They might ask when the taxi is coming to collect them, or say they are soon going on holiday, or planning to meet up with a (long dead) loved one. Strangely, the planned journey is always to some other place on this earth – no flying up to meet the angels. This made me sad, but then I thought – how wonderful that there is that defence mechanism, so that they aren’t consumed with fear. And who knows, maybe it’s true in some mystical, metaphysical way: a kind of psychic metaphor.

And that lead me to think about that other journey – the one young people feel compelled to make. It’s just as much of a draw – the journey outward into the world – as that journey homeward, back to the source, becomes. I longed for San Francisco but did nothing about it. Bolder souls go on gap years or back-pack to remote parts of the world in search of something. I suspect they never find the actual something: the journey is the something, that going out, that longing for a Lost Eden.

On the news recently was a young British woman who took her toddler to Syria, but returned a few months later. She is now serving a six year jail sentence and her child, presumably, will see very little of her. And then I wondered whether this longing for the Earthly Paradise, or Eden, might not be the explanation for so many young people being drawn to join terrorist armies. Maybe Syria – or some equivalent war zone – has become their Lost Eden. They yearn for it with a young person’s passion, although the reality bears no more resemblance to Eden than San Francisco would have done, had I had the nerve or the means to go there. We can all have dream places, and we can long for them so much that we go off in search of them. Maybe we are not so different after all.

We are stardust, we are golden, and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.

(Joni Mitchell)