Monthly Archives: October 2015

Going through the motions

pool netThe new school year has seen us quickly hit our stride: football practice (x 2); football match (x 2); gymnastics (x 2); cricket practice; refereeing course; dance class; piano lesson. Three children and ten different weekly out-of-school activities to organise in a plan that must allow for domestic duties, as well as Mother in the Middle and my slim extracurricular interests. Among the pursuits that get too easily crowded out is anything that allows us to exercise and keep fit. Until some way of harnessing our kids’ running, bounding and cartwheeling into our own metabolism is found, we need to get out and exercise ourselves, lest we slip with elevated blood pressure, atrophying muscles and impoverished lungs over the cliff edge at the far end of our forties.

For a year or two I had this dilemma of mixing the kids’ activities with my own exercise cracked. During no.2 son’s football practice, my touchline pal and I would go running. We had the option of running along the canal, around the water park or, if the gate was left open, around the running track. There, I discovered that Mo Farah would complete a 10,000 metres in less than the time it took me to run half that distance. I would however, nudge ahead of Usain Bolt in a sprint that involved him running twice as far as me.

But last season, our sons started playing competitive fixtures on Saturday mornings. My pal and I ditched the running in favour of something far more thrilling: spectating our boys’ matches.

There is, of course, the option of playing with the kids. We kick around in the garden and sometimes in the park. I play with them just enough to know that they play more physically, at greater pace and belt the ball harder than me – and the risk of injury playing with children is well understood.

So I have looked for new opportunities to get my exercise.

A new leisure development close to work has given me the chance to swim in my lunch break or at the start of the day. Determined not to flap up and down the pool doing breaststroke, I took a short course of lessons and have worked hard on the crawl. Stringing together, first eight, then twelve and finally 20 lengths of crawl – before breaking for a few minutes of genteel breaststroke – gives me great satisfaction. Thirty minutes of swimming leaves me fulfilled and fatigued from my shoulders, all the way down my body and legs. When I’m in the pool, I’m definitely not just going through the motions.

Last week, held up in a meeting, I narrowly missed my lunchtime window for swimming. Edgy all afternoon, I agreed a late return home, so that I could swim after work instead. I arrived at the pool as the lessons were ending. Heading from the showers, I stood to one side while the school kids piled into the changing room. I was first into the pool and swam a couple of lengths before a lifeguard bent down to me and asked me to come out while his team prepared and checked the pool. Two of his colleagues wound in the lane ropes, while he patrolled the pool carrying a net on a long pole. I shivered on the side, waiting for the nod to restart.

The man with the net said it all looked clear, but then got into a discussion with a lifeguard. They pointed at the middle of the pool, then looked at me. “Could you, with your goggles, check out the middle of lane three?” net-man asked me. I stepped back in and waded across to the lane, as net-man continued, “we think one of the kids had an accident.” A sticking plaster, I began to think.. “But it’s fine as long as it’s not diarrhoea. The chemicals make it safe.” Right, a poo. “Could you check?”

I ducked under, swam a little way and there at the bottom of the pool was the accident. I surfaced, confirmed the sighting and began wading towards the side. “It’s fine, because of the chlorine”, the net-man repeated. “We don’t have to close the pool.”

The lifeguard and net-man looked at each other, then at me. They were in t-shirt, shorts and trainers and were dry. I wasn’t. Holding out the net to me, he asked, “Would you mind catching it for me?”

With all the aplomb of the sanitation engineer that I’m not, I took the net and after a couple of swipes made the catch and returned the net, receiving thanks and further reassurances of the efficacy of the chemicals. I then swam 40 lengths, eyeing the pool floor suspiciously. I showered and at home took a bath.

A few days later I told some colleagues the story of my odd job at the pool. “You didn’t really go swimming,” someone said. “Oh, yes I did.” “No,” he countered. “You were just going through the motions.”

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A Life Ends Alone

il_340x270.94197839Grace came to England from Jamaica in 1962, when she was a capable, enterprising young woman in her thirties. She settled in the Moss Side district of Manchester and never left the country again, scarcely even set foot outside Manchester again, and died recently in hospital at the age of eighty-something.

I first met her about a year before she died, when she was ill, virtually housebound and stubborn as a mule. The Council had embarked upon an extensive renovation project involving several streets of terraced houses and was busy relocating the (mostly grateful) tenants to better and brighter homes. Not so Grace, however, who point-blank refused to consider moving from the dilapidated mid-terrace that had been her home for the past fifty years. She liked where she lived and she wasn’t about to move out of her home, she explained tetchily to the series of increasingly exasperated – and increasingly senior- Council employees who trooped in through her front door to try to change her mind.

I had my suspicions during my first couple of visits that Grace was in fact living only in one room of her home, the back room, with occasional shuffles from there into the kitchen which ran directly off it.   I do not know at what point she had given up trying to climb the steep Victorian stairs but, when she eventually trusted me enough to send me on an errand to her bedroom, the upper floor of the house had a strange, unlived-in air. The bed’s pink candlewick cover was entirely undisturbed; the bottles and pots covered in a thick layer of dust on the dressing table.

Where was she sleeping, I asked her? At first she maintained that she was sleeping in her bedroom but later, defiantly, confirmed that she was sleeping in her armchair because of her COPD. What about the toilet, I asked her? Wordlessly, she jutted her chin in the direction of a bucket half-concealed in the corner of the room. Washing herself, it turned out, was a precarious, infrequent event standing at the kitchen sink.

I tried to talk to Grace about accepting some help, explaining that the housing officer and others were very concerned about her, and that the GP was frustrated when she rang with emergencies. It took several visits even to be able to mention ‘social workers’ without a sucking of teeth and a vehement shaking of the head. I told her that I needed to alert social services to her vulnerability, as I was concerned about her safety, at which point she asked me to leave, subsequently refusing to answer the social worker’s knock at the door.

A couple of weeks later, she rang and asked me, stiffly, if I would kindly rearrange the appointment. I called round to meet with her before the social worker arrived, and she asked me to help her tie her headscarf and put in her earrings. She was donning her armour, I realised. And I felt like I had been taken into a circle of trust, a club of which I was perhaps the only current member.

Over the next few months, I got to know Grace a little better and she told me about her life in England. About how she had come over from Jamaica with her brother and had always been ‘one of the boys’. About the fine life she had had, when they all looked after her and she looked after them. About how she had never been interested in marriage or children, telling me that you can get on with men just fine, if you operate on their level, but you must never trust them an inch – experience (darkly hinted at but never disclosed) had taught her that. About how, when her brother died ten years ago, she had lost her last link to her family, having never kept in touch with the extended members back in Jamaica.   One by one, her friends had passed away or moved away until, finally, she was the last one left in the street from the old days. Her friend’s son now kept the shop she had always patronised and, if she rang him up on the telephone, he would (for a cut) go and draw her pension for her at the Post Office and then drop off parcels of ackee, rice and chicken.

The ‘package of care’ which she reluctantly accepted from the social worker was endlessly problematic in its operation. Grace did not fit the mould: she did not want cheery carers turning up in pairs to wash, dress and feed her in fifteen minutes flat – she wanted a discrete lady to sit outside the bathroom whilst she took a bath by herself, just to be on hand in case she ran into difficulties. She did not want microwaved frozen shepherd’s pie and sponge pudding plonked in front of her – she wanted saltfish, rice and peas, freshly cooked.  Grace did not want to be carted off to day care, to sing along with other pensioners, or play bingo. All her friends had gone, she said and she did not want new friends. Several times, the care agency complained to the social worker that they were running out of carers who could work with Grace, as she continually refused their interventions, but the endless parade of interchangeable young women only served to enrage her further.

And all the while, the Council’s renovation works went on around her. Grace was by now quite the only person left living on her street. There was scaffolding all along the outside walls of the terrace and the resolution had been taken to carry on with the outside work only whilst Grace was still a thorn in their sides. The house vibrated and dust rained down around her – COPD or no COPD – as the workmen pressed on. I expect they thought she’d give in eventually; I think she knew she didn’t have long left and she wasn’t about to give them the satisfaction of making things easier for them.

One day when I turned up to see her, birthday cards – about fifteen of them – were strung up on a piece of wool around the walls of the back room. I congratulated her and commented on how lovely it was to see she had such a lot of cards. She looked me straight in the eye and nodded, looked at the cards, looked slowly back at me and admitted that she put them up herself every year. It dawned on me that these were the same birthday cards that she had kept and displayed year after year: on closer examination, five were from her brother and the most recent card was from about 8 years ago. I recall feeling close to tears as I looked back at her, but her defiance (almost) repelled sympathy.

Grace died about three weeks later. She was found, collapsed, by one of the carers on the floor of her back room and taken to the local hospital. She never regained consciousness and died a day later, alone.

I wish I had known she was in hospital. I would have gone to sit with her and hold her proud hand.

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