Three Black Dogs

I have not always been grateful for my sisters, I must admit. I was the first and most important and then they had to come along. The Canadian one, who was English at the time, stole my woolly bear, I remember. When I was twelve she blurted out to Kevin Brewer, a sixteen year old leather-jacketed blond-quiffed motorbike rider who went to the same youth club as me – that I had just used some white stuff to bleach my moustache. (I hasten to add, not a great whiskery handlebar moustache or anything grotesque – I’m just, you know, a brunette… well, now I’m more of a grey-with-brunette-undertones).

I had a massive crush on Kevin Brewer. I used to sit at the bottom of his garden and pine for him hour upon hour until his mother complained to my mother and my mother, irritated, told me not to.  So imagine how pleased I was with my English-at-the-time sister. Not that I ever had any chance with Kevin Brewer. What I finally got a date it was with a bespectacled weed call John-something-or-other. We went for a walk along the sea wall and I was terrified. He told me afterwards he had been dared to ask me out – by Kevin Brewer.

However – gosh, that was as long digression – this evening I was glad of my Canadian sister. She phones me quite a lot at the moment because my brother-in-law has terminal cancer and she is on her own out there. She is even more on her own because he is fed up with her crying all over the place when he just wants to carry on as normal – a different approach. So she was feeling low this morning (it’s morning in Alberta when it’s evening here) and she called me, and we chatted round in circles as usual. We talked about counselling and short-term projects – small goals, easier to cope with. I didn’t know how to reach out across the Atlantic and lift her mood but quite by accident – as you shall see – I did.

In the meantime I had been having one of my Black Dog days. It was something to do with the necessity of spending a whole day being driven round properties with a guy called Gavin on Tuesday – the thought of which was already exhausting me – and the prospect of visiting Mum in the mental hospital on Easter Day. I don’t talk about Black Doggie much – he is manageable. I’ve seen what clinical depression does to people (this is my third lot of psych ward visiting) and my occasional Grim Day is nothing in comparison.

So, I got in the car, in a chilly wind (Storm Kate – don’t they sound nice with names? – is due to hit the South East at midnight). I stopped off at the one-and-only-shop to buy a box of chocolate fingers for Mum, since it’s Easter Sunday. When I got there she didn’t want them. Black Doggie was with her too. Two Black Doggies in one room. She had a headache. I persuaded the nurse to give her some paracetamol. The old lady who sings to me, sang to me again. She eyed the chocolate fingers.

‘I often share my things with your Mum. I expect your Mum would want me to have a chocolate finger. Or two. If she could speak.’ Her eyes never left the box and the tantalising chocolate-finger picture on the packaging. I gave her two. Had to ask the nurse for help getting into the cellophane. He gave me that look, like – shall I reserve you a chair in the Recreation Room now? On the way out I gave her the rest of the packet. ‘That was kind of you,’ said the nurse. ‘It’s not easy, is it? This time?’

So Mum and I sat and held hands, and I lent her my comb because she said hers had disappeared. She had someone else’s trousers on. I told her to keep the comb, but she gave it back. I wrote notes for her. She looked at them and handed them back to me. ‘I’m never getting out of here.’

‘Yes, you are. Soon. It’s a hospital. They can’t keep you for ever.’

‘I don’t believe it. What use am I? The doctors should give me something to get rid of me. What use am I, in here?’ Outside, there were daffodils, and birds flying about. In here, on the wall, was a frieze of spring made of coloured paper and cotton wool, like you see in the classrooms at infants’ school.

So, really, three Black Doggies – the Canadian one, mine and the one sat next to my Mum in the mental ward.

But then my sister phoned and she told me she was thinking of learning shorthand, as one of those short-term projects to cheer herself up. It wasn’t that she needed shorthand, she said, but she liked the shapes it made. She could see it on the wall – like a poem, maybe – and visitors would ask, ‘What do all those squiggles mean?’ And I said that was a weird coincidence – I had only five minutes before ordered a second-hand book on Gregg shorthand, having been reminded of it by an old post on this blog. Mum had had a book on Gregg shorthand – turned out we both remembered it.

And somehow the weirdness, that we should have both thought of learning shorthand, at the same time, all those thousands of miles apart across windswept oceans, lifted her mood. Mine too. She asked me to order the same book for her. We would learn it together, she said, and she would write me letters in Gregg shorthand, and I would write her Gregg shorthand letters back, and she would make artwork using Gregg shorthand, or write a diary that her husband couldn’t read, or…

Once, when we were teenagers, sat in that stuffy suburban living room with our parents and other visiting family, the same funny thing occurred to us both at the same time. It wasn’t a joke. It wasn’t anything anyone had said it was just – an invisible amusement. I caught her eye and she caught mine. I started giggling, and she started giggling. And of course no one else had any idea what we were giggling about – and even we weren’t entirely sure –  which made it funnier still.

It was ten minutes before we could stop, by which time we had the hiccups.

I should like to be a horse

Queen Elizabeth II is more or less the same age as my Mum, but there the similarity ends. Oh no, they both have those old lady perms. Except that Mum’s has more or less grown out now. The ward where they section them doesn’t provide hairdressers, although you can import your own as long as it’s not at meal times (which take up most of the day) and as long as they have sixty days’ notice in writing, or whatever. It’s a very depressing place. If you weren’t depressed before you entered though those ultra-thick key-padded doors, you will be  pretty soon. Although there is the odd cheerful one. I suppose it’s when a jolly insouciance forms part of the illness. On Sunday I got a hug from a tiny hunched-up lady in a nightie, with a  surgical brace on one wrist. She asked me if I was from the circus. I wondered if perhaps I might be. She told me my Mum was confused. “I’m confused too,” she said, grinning up at me and opening her arms for another hug. I find it quite difficult to hug people, especially when they are half my height, but I did my best.

“What about her feet?” I ask. “She had a chiropodist… outside.”

“I’ll refer her for Podiatry,” says the nurse in the cherry red, hammering something invisible into the computer.”

“I believe there was a consent form for me to sign? It was going to be left behind the desk?”

“Form? Which form? Who exactly told you there was a form behind the desk?”

“Kate. Her name was Kate. She telephoned my sister.”


“Have you checked her laundry basket for washing?” a nurse asks. I had no idea she had a laundry basket, or indeed where she was sleeping, or that washing was supposed to be dealt with by the next of kin of those who have been snatched from them against their wishes. Surely, if you take over someone’s life you take over their washing, too? Isn’t it your moral responsibility?

“Only in cases of incontinence,” the same nurse snaps.

“Our washing machine broke down this morning,” says another nurse. “Water all over the place.” That makes more sense. So why not just say that?

Mum says nothing. She slumps in an armchair and we try to talk to her. She asks if her house is still there, as if it might already have been demolished to make way for a row of cottage-style town houses with very little in the way of garden. She asks what she should do next. What do we want her to do? She doesn’t understand. Her eyes keep closing. She takes off her dust-smeared glasses and stares down into her lap. They’re all heathens in here. Heathens!

Anyway, the Queen apparently said, when asked as a child what she wanted to be when she grew up (a silly thing to ask the heir to the throne, I would have thought) that she should like to be a horse. And why not? I have often wanted to be a cat, a giraffe in the zoo, an aardvark, an octopus – almost anything that just gets fed and made a fuss of and isn’t expected to sort through a laundry basket of stale clothes on the Sunday before Easter in a tropically overheated hospital ward when she might have been home with her feet up on the coffee table watching The Andrew Marr Show.

Grouchy? Me?


“When I get through the glass”

The ward’s on an upper floor, down a long, long corridor with a key pad on the door and a thing you have to announce yourself through, and then they come and get you, very slowly. They had cut and varnished Mum’s fingernails. “To stop me scratching anyone,” she confided. It was a horrible shade of pink – exactly the colour she wouldn’t have chosen in her fanatical manicuring days. She used to spend hours, I remember, with one of those little kits, filing, buffing, pushing back the cuticles, applying layer after layer of colour. She was very proud of having finally stopped biting her nails, around the age of 40.

Afterwards I wondered why they did that – was it, as they might have you believe, to make the sectioned person feel good about themselves? Or did the nail-varnish have  a more sinister purpose? (Paranoia must run in the family.) Supposing an enterprising female patient did manage to slip past the phalanx of gigantic male and female nurses on the internal reception desk , would she not be instantly recognisable, thanks to the puce nail-varnish? My mother has already tried all the doors, she informs me. None of them open. She is now considering the windows or “getting through the glass”. If she did somehow manage to get out, could she lose herself in the teeming corridors of this huge hospital? Or would the guards go around looking for a little old lady in grubby trainers and a grown-out perm, with unlikely puce-coloured nail-varnish? No woman would have selected that colour.

Supposing – just supposing – the puce nail-varnish contains something secret, like a liquid microchip or smart… nail-water? Better still, because then they just walk about with their mental ward nail-varnish detector set to “scan”. Sooner or later she sets it off and they home in on her from all directions. Nabbed you, you little blighter.

At least she’s clean now, and wearing something other than the Famous Blue Jumper. They won’t allow belts, so she has threaded a pink dressing-gown cord through the loops on her jeans to keep them up. “I don’t like the new tee shirts you bought me,” she remarks. “Too skimpy.” She is carrying round a hessian bag – the one we were secretly stuffing clothes into in her bedroom on Tuesday night just before the ambulance arrived. The one she walked in and discovered, and then realised, and then started talking very, very loud and very fast. Cajoling. Bargaining. I couldn’t help thinking that rogue computer, HAL, in 2001, being dismantled circuit by circuit by the man in the space suit called Dave – the beginning bit, before it got on to singing Daisy, Daisy, Give me your answer dooooo….. One of the scariest, and saddest, movie scenes ever.

She has some of her clothes in the bag now. She is taking them out, holding them up to the light, folding them as if packing for her holidays, putting them back in. The white bear I brought her (Best Mum in pink letters – probably left over stock from Mother’s Day) is added to the “in and out” sequence rather than dropped on the floor or flung across the room, which probably means she likes it. She knows I’m one of her daughters but doesn’t recall my name.

“Do you know where you are, Mum?” I ask her. I write down the name of the hospital. She looks at me blankly, scanning my face rather than scrawled letters on a page torn from a notebook; reading me. Emotions – she’s not stopped picking up on those. Mum Radar – you could never get away with anything. “When I get through the glass,” she says, “when I get through the glass…”

“They all belong to some religion, you know, those nurses. Not the one in the red but the ones with the blue things hanging round their necks. I’ve been told they cut off your ears if you’re bad. They even kill people.”

Outside the plate glass windows you can see the hospital entrance and the yellow car-park barrier rising and falling as cars come through; narrow streets  of Edwardian terraces beyond. I thought she might have worked it out from this view, since this is where my father died, more or less. They moved him somewhere else for his last couple of days. We used to come and visit him here – Mum, my godmother and I. Now my godmother and I have come to visit Mum. “Is your car parked out there?” she asks, hopefully.

“I’d fit in the back seat…”


Does anyone have any ideas about dealing with it? Because I don’t.

The other night the local mental health place decided to break into our 86 year old mother’s house, in our absence and in spite of our emphatic, joint refusal over the telephone, and inform us they are going to Section her to a hospital miles and miles away, since a bed happens to have become available. She has dementia, with complications. They are going to take her from the house she has owned and lived in since 1955 and cart her off to a mental hospital despite the fact that we had just found a dementia care home where we hoped she might be happy, and had interviews fixed for tomorrow morning to move things forward. Having once been Sectioned it seems unlikely that she will be given a place in that home. We are not even sure if she will be let out of the hospital. Apparently neither we nor she have any legal rights.

Now we are waiting – just waiting – to find out what they have done with her. They just need another doctor to concur, and presumably that’s a given. I couldn’t cope with going over there today – Mother’s Day in the UK – in case the house was already empty – or in case the whole pack of them arrived while I was there and I set upon and killed one of them. Violence wells up in me every time the thought recycles itself in my mind. I really feel I might, actually, attack somebody. Maybe Mum and me will end up sharing the same ward.

My (English) sister is better at this sort of stuff. She has the knack, after a little while, of setting her anger aside. It’s out of our hands now, she says; we just have to wait – and of course she’s right. We have no power at all. It feels like rape.

So, what do you do? I know from past experience that this will wear off – even my anger fades, but it can take days or weeks. I wondered what to be doing today, when I should have been visiting her. I seem to have been visiting her every Sunday for the last forty years, with the odd little gap. I had to get up early to take four of the cats to the vet’s for their booster injections. It was an Italian locum-lady, not my friend Stan. She was friendly. I believe she was making jokes but I was kind of missing the point of them, what with the accent and the inevitable sense-of-humour mismatch. And the rage.

What do I do now? I wondered. So after a cup of coffee I loaded up the car with bags of rubbish and drove them to the tip. Had to be done sometime soon. I was so tired I could hardly lift them out of the car. Luckily a burly bin man came to my rescue.

What do I do now?

I watched a bit of a thing on TV about how Star Trek came to be made, but I found I no longer cared about Gene Roddenberry, William Shatner, Mr Spock’s prosthetic ears or why the Starship Enterprise was designed in the particular the way it was. I fell asleep on the sofa, then woke up. Then I recalled a boyfriend I used to have (the same boyfriend who attended a job interview rather drunk on beer, and got the job – which he really didn’t want – anyway). We had both been divorced after long marriages, and compared notes. He told me he’d coped with his subsequent nervous breakdown by (a) completing the Coast to Coast Walk  (an epic 192 mile journey that goes from one side of the north of England to the other) and (b) making and freezing huge numbers of curries. I had wondered what that toppling mountain of empty margarine tubs in his kitchen was for.

I couldn’t just pack a rucksack and set off for the north of England, but I did have some vegetables and spare tins of this and that, so I made hot pot. Two hot pots. I had just bought a stack of freezer trays, so I divided the two hot pots between the trays, labelled them and freezer-ed them. I have never frozen anything before. It was just one of those housewifely skills I couldn’t be bothered to acquire. So now I have enough frozen hot pot for eight days, assuming they don’t explode or implode in the freezer.

So what do I do now?

Meanwhile my Canadian sister has been reading a book of healing visualisations while her husband has chemotherapy. She says they are helping her, but he just treats her to his ‘faintly amused’ look every time she tries to persuade him to try them with her. He’s an engineer, a scientist, and she doesn’t think he’ll be able to get his head round such New Age mumbo jumbo. I said maybe he could imagine his body as a motor car engine, and the chemotherapy drugs as… whatever goes round in motor car engines.. engine oil. Maybe he could visualise the nasty, rusty brake fluid being exchanged for nice, new, golden, viscous, wonderful brake fluid… She thinks not.

I’ve got the same book. Maybe I’ll have a go at a visualisation…