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‘She used to sit on gentlemen’s knees at parties…’

 

I am shown into the ‘quiet lounge’ when I arrive at the care home and told by a cheerful young girl, who hands me Alice’s file*, that she will go and bring her to me.  The room is quiet in name only, so I turn off Jeremy Kyle, ranting at high volume in the corner to an empty room, and settle down to read the paperwork. I know the salient points already: Alice has dementia, she is subject to a ‘deprivation of liberty’ authorisation, she has no family and has been in the home for three years.  As I start checking through the daily records the door swings open, Alice is wheeled in and we are left alone.

 

She is not sitting in a normal wheelchair, but is reclining in a large, cushioned, wheeled armchair (she has had to buy this herself, at huge cost, as this sort of expense is no longer funded).   She is thin – very thin – and she is sleeping, her head slumped to one side, her open mouth showing only gums, no teeth.  I try to wake her, holding her blue-veined hand in mine and calling her name, at first softly and then more loudly, but I am unable to rouse her.  I decide to go through more of the paperwork while she sleeps in front of me, hoping that she will wake soon, and discover that she does have family – a daughter- but that they fell out some years ago and have not seen each other since.  Her daughter has never visited the home.  

 

Alice is no longer weight-bearing I read, and cannot change position herself, so needs to be repositioned in her cushioned chair every few hours and turned throughout the night in bed, to stop her developing pressure sores.  Alice is non-verbal now and on a pureed diet, but shows preference for sweet food over savoury.

 

And then, buried in a ‘previous history’ section, the following sentence leaps out at me:

 

               she used to sit on gentlemen’s knees at parties’.

 

There are two photos of the younger Alice: one is a head shot of a smiling, plump-faced woman, taken perhaps ten years ago at a guess; the other shows Alice in the foreground of an older, faded group shot with a grinning, raucous looking bunch of people.  It might be Christmas – they are wearing paper hats at any rate, drunkenly askew, and their glasses are raised towards the camera in a silent ‘cheers’ from yesteryear.  Alice is indeed sitting on a man’s knee, as is another woman; they are bunched up to get in the photo.  The picture raises a myriad of questions in me – who are all these people, and where have they gone?  Why has Alice lived here for three years with no visitors whatsoever?  What was said between mother and daughter to cause such irreparable damage?  Why would it be salaciously recorded that she used to like to sit on men’s knees, if the only discernible evidence is one photo of one party?  Alice cannot tell anyone anymore and there is no one else here to complete her story, to remember her before she turned into the unresponsive woman in front of me now.

 

Further attempts to wake Alice are fruitless and so I enlist the help of another carer, who has been doing the rounds of the home with a trolley for mid-morning tea break.  She comes in holding a plastic, spouted beaker holding thickened lukewarm, sugared tea.  She shouts ‘time for your brew!’ next to Alice’s ear and holds the beaker to her lips.  Alice’s eyes do not open, but her lips close briefly around the spout and she swallows a few sips, as insipid, beige rivulets dribble down her chin and are soaked up by the wool of her cardigan.

 

The carer then wheels her back into the main lounge, parking her enormous chair in its usual spot and tucking the blanket around the buckle which stops Alice from slipping out of it altogether.  During my time with Alice in the quiet lounge, the once-a-fortnight activities co-ordinator has arrived and is doing ‘armchair aerobics’ with the more able residents.  The music is loud, but Alice sleeps on.  Then one of the girls on duty brings over a large baby doll, almost toddler sized – the type with a realistic crying function.   She places her in the crook of Alice’s arm, with the crying noise on and calls out ‘your baby needs you Alice’.  Alice’s eyes flutter briefly and she turns her head, her mouth puckering into a reflexive kiss against the plastic head.  As the carer pushes a dummy into the doll’s mouth – its mechanism to stop the noise – Alice mutters ‘aw, sh’ and closes her eyes again as she sleeps on holding the doll and the carer turns her around once more in her chair.

*not her name

 

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Sixteen

He often sits nowadays at piano keys

absorbed, iPhone propped amidst classical sheets,

playing pop tunes from previous generations,

painstakingly-learned from

you tube demonstrations

 

Brown glossy hair is flicked out of eyes

incisive, searching the world with his impatient,

rapacious appetite for knowledge and information:

teeth, habitually covered in sweet lips-closed smiles are,

head thrown back, revealed in straightened glory, when with

dimpled cheeks and deep explosive laughs he shares with me

a joke, a story, a meme on his screen – his

youthful exuberance; just being sixteen.

 

My

Gorgeous, gentle

Adorable, acerbic

Beatles-encyclopaedic

Remarkable, relentlessly-

Inquisitive, intelligent

Emotional, eloquent

Lovely, lovable

 

Son.

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Jane Eyre

 

I was a very square teenager, out of step with the 1980s.  I have no embarrassing photos of Diana-inspired flicks or Kylie-inspired bubble perms to look back on, because I never experimented with my hair, preferring instead to allow it to grow long down my back.  I only rarely wore make-up, and only mascara,  so I’ve no photos of the frosted pinks or heather shimmers I remember loving on others.  And I had eczema.  On occasion really bad, really embarrassing eczema, when my sober, navy blue girls’ grammar school uniform was set off by jazz hands – jaunty, unwantedly attention-seeking white gloves smothered on the inside with steroid creams; when my socks stuck to the open, oozing mess on my feet and had to be peeled away painfully every evening; and when the corners of my mouth cracked and bled slightly when I smiled.

 

As a distraction from near-constant itching, I always read a lot, turning my attention as a young teenager to the Victorian classics that were to hand both at home and at school and, no doubt in common with many young girls over the past century and a half, I identified with the Bronte heroines in particular.   Jane Eyre became a firm favourite:  I, too, was small and plain with, I fancied, righteous rage at injustice burning quietly inside.  Perhaps my own adventures, perhaps even my own Mr Rochester, would be out there for me somewhere in the big, wide world.

 

 

A few months ago, my beautiful, hip thirteen-year-old daughter was mooching about the house declaring herself finally bored of the diversions afforded by her phone.  ‘Read something’, I suggested, to sighs and shrugs that she had read everything she had, several times over (probably true, as she is an avid reader).  So I suggested we read Jane Eyre together.   I was not sure she would be interested in such an anachronism of a book, or indeed whether she would agree to being read to, but she was touchingly keen to experience something different from her usual fare, and to do it with me.  For many evenings in the past winter’s months, therefore, I have had the absolute pleasure of her curled up next to me in my bed, as the wind howled and the rained lashed in appropriately Bronte-esque fashion against the windows, her golden hair fanned across the pillow and her pale, thoughtful, freckled face nestled against my shoulder, listening to the tales of Jane, Helen Burns, Mrs Fairfax, Blanche Ingram, Mr Rochester et al with rapt attention.   Though the chapters seemed to me sometimes over-long and verbosely Victorian on this re-reading, the first for me in over twenty years, she was gripped and absorbed, giving the timeless story an entertainingly twenty-first century twist when she exclaimed of the rocky road to romance for Jane and Mr Rochester

 

               OMG, Jane is TOTALLY friend-zoning Mr Rochester! She needs to stop it!

 

 

Last week, I took her to the touring National Theatre production of Jane Eyre.  Watching her being entranced by the play, and talking to her afterwards, adult to almost-adult, about its feminist interpretation, was as satisfying to me as the wonderful production itself. 

 

It turns out you don’t need to feel plain to identify with Jane: the character speaks just as well to a beautiful, well-adjusted teenager, inspiring her to speak her mind, fight against injustice and cruelty, and unlock her full potential to make the most of her life.

 

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Perfection

 

I recently had a birthday. Not a big one, no zero involved.  No need for any fuss.

 

I knew my daughter was up to something, though.  She’s getting more opaque but, at thirteen, is still touchingly transparent in her questions and actions.

 

Several weeks before my birthday, I saw her eyebrows rise almost imperceptibly and her head give a satisfied little nod when she got my answer to the ‘casually’ asked question as to which chocolates I liked best from a display when we were out shopping together.   She was canny; telling me first which her favourites were and speculating about what her brothers might say, before directing the question at me with a swift, penetrating glance from her blue-grey eyes.  Sure enough, the chocolates I mentioned were part of her birthday present to me, the specific type and flavour perfectly recalled from several weeks earlier.

 

During half term, a couple of weeks before the not-so-big-day, she suggested a trip to Hobbycraft, claiming, implausibly, that her little brother wanted to have a browse.  When we got there, in what was clearly a pre-planned move, they suggested I go ahead of them to the next shop and they would catch me up.  I played along and left, not before seeing my younger son pull hot pocket-money coins from deep inside the pocket of his skinny jeans and count them in his hand, their conspiratorial heads together as she marshalled him around the corner to another aisle.

 

There were some clues to something else too, like when she asked to use my phone to take a photo when we were out in a café, emailing the picture to her dad, but refusing to tell me why, just telling me I’d find out soon enough.  There were rustling noises from her room, a closed door and shouts of ‘don’t come in Mummy!’ and a bin suddenly full of polystyrene and plastic wrappers.

 

And on the evening of my birthday, after a mundane, normal February Sunday with its usual mix of skateboarding, cricket and homework, we went out to a local restaurant for birthday tea and I was given my presents (including a wonderfully random assortment from Hobbycraft).  I loved them all, but one of them made me cry.

 

Two photo frames, containing three black and white photos each, horizontally arranged.  I pulled them from the wrapping paper, initially confused.  I was aware that they were spelling something out, but was unable to decode what it was.  She eagerly put me right, watching me warily for my reaction, as she instructed me to reverse the glass frames in my hands.  Then it was revealed that they spelled out my name, through:     

 

L – my beautiful girl lying solemnly, semaphore-style, on her bedroom floor

 

O – a shot of her bedside light

 

U – taken in a cafe

 

I – the clock in our kitchen

 

S – a bagel cut up on the breadboard

 

E – kitchen roll, shot from above (NOT toilet paper; she was affronted at the suggestion).

 

 

 

She had the idea: she thought about it, she planned it over a period of weeks; she enlisted the help of my husband; she walked to the photo shop and printed off the photos, she shopped for frames and agonised about finding the right size to match them up. 

 

I am so touched by her hard work, creativity and thoughtfulness.

 

It was perfect.

 

 

 

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About a Boy, aged eleven

He has bright, brown eyes like his winter-bird namesake.

He has glossy dark hair and long eyelashes that his big sister says are wasted on a boy. They curve down casting shadows onto his still-soft, still-plump cheek when he goes to sleep.

He is open-hearted and endlessly affectionate, kindness knitted into every pore. He wants to hold hands. He wants us to sit together in an armchair that once comfortably held the little-boy version of him with me with room to spare, even if we must now sit in it uncomfortably wedged together. If he comes to stand next to me whilst I am sitting elsewhere, he wraps one arm around my neck, immobilises me in a loving headlock and ruffles my hair with his free hand.

He adores his big sister. She looks after him and he loves her for it. They giggle and plot. His vitality withers away a little when she is not near.

His mouth is often wide with laugher and often turned down in grumpiness. His laugh, when it comes, is explosive and contagious. His joy is whole-hearted, his misery is complete: his emotions are always writ large across his face. He is transparent. He cannot dissemble.

His hands fiddle and meddle. They twist things, they turn things. They flip bottles. They absent-mindedly pull things to pieces. They worry tissues and sweet wrappers, deep inside pockets, ready to shred all over tumbling, wet washing.

Sleep will only come over him if there is a bright overhead light shining into his face to ward off his night-time fears, and if the wardrobe door is open so he can be sure there is no-one and nothing hiding within, but he sleeps a little longer, a little later now, as his body stretches and lengthens and adolescence nods to him from the future.

He is a boy in love with the idea of having a dog; a boy perpetually disappointed by the knowledge that he will not be getting a dog and who plans for the dogs he will have when he is grown and living in the sunshine. He is a boy who says he would like to be a dog. He is a boy who spends time thinking about what kind of dog his family and friends would be if they were a dog (he used to think I was a Jack Russell, but now I’m definitely a Labrador he says).

Happy birthday to my beautiful Springer Spaniel.

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History

Audrey and Joan are both in their nineties, both have dementia and have both recently moved into residential care homes, after living alone in their own homes for longer than perhaps they should have done.  Audrey was widowed a few years ago and Joan lived alone in the house she grew up in after her parents, whom she cared for, died within twelve months of each other.

Both are also now ‘unbefriended’ – meaning they are without family or friends willing or able to represent them in important decisions about their health or welfare now that their dementia means they are no longer able to speak up for themselves.

Both have recently been the subject of difficult discussions: Joan’s residential home decided they could no longer cope with her behaviour and approached social services to have her moved on; Audrey’s son, himself a pensioner with complicated health needs living at the other end of the country, decided he did not want to go through with the original plan of having his mother move near to him after all. He instructed social workers to find her a permanent place in residential care locally and to leave him completely out of the decisions.

I have met each woman a few times and when I arrive and sit with them, there is a blankness to their expressions as they search my features and, when I remind them who I am and that I have met them before, sometimes a slight panic as they try to place me. ‘I think I might know your face…’ they have both said to me, playing for time, although Audrey gives me a sweet, wan smile as she acknowledges that she does not remember me at all.

Audrey remembers her son, John, only when she is reminded about him. She says she does not think she has seen him for a while but she cannot remember (she has not). She recalls a couple of anecdotes about his school days and a small dog they used to have. Audrey remembers that she was married but she cannot remember her late husband’s name. Last week, equable, easy-going, smiling Audrey unexpectedly became teary-eyed and flustered, putting her hand on mine and saying urgently ‘I think there was another one… I think I might have had another one, I think there wasn’t just John. But I can’t remember’.

Joan, on the other hand, is rarely equable. She often cries inconsolably and shouts out. This is the main reason the residential home is trying to evict her – they say her distress upsets the other residents. Most upsettingly, if she sees a male resident she shakes and screams, cowers in her wheelchair and shouts accusations at him about the nature of his intentions towards her. She asks staff repeatedly and with escalating anguish to promise that they will not make her marry anyone or be alone with a man. Even with constant reassurances, Joan is never placated until she cannot see a man – any man. Although men are greatly outnumbered by women in the residential home, it is nevertheless a difficult feat for the staff to pull off, to ensure Joan feels safe.

 

I do not know the truth about these women’s histories, and they cannot really tell me. Their feelings are real, but their memories are confused snatches of moments, the briefest of brief episodes of lucidity. I do not know what they are remembering and I do not know what really happened.

But I do know just a little bit about them now.

Joan, when calm, is a great mimic with a fine singing voice. She can adopt a variety of different accents at will. She knows a few dirty jokes and laughs uproariously when she tells them. She likes a brightly coloured, soft cardigan by day and, by night, as her care plan records, she likes ‘the duvet pulled right up and tucked up under her chin and she likes to wear a fresh nighty’.

Audrey relishes her food and particularly likes custard creams and milky coffee. She is proud of having all her own teeth and she bares them at people in mock aggression with a jokey growl when inviting people to inspect them. She is unfailingly polite to all care staff. And she likes to sit with a Tiny Tears doll dressed in a blue Babygro on her knee, exhorting others to notice ‘the perfect bloom on his little cheeks’.

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Take

Take a girl.

Take her hair. It falls down in long, straight lines of summer honey and yellow autumn. She will still plait it sometimes in the morning, for school, but by the time she comes home it will be a fine tangled sheet down her back. More often now she will let it fall over her face, across one eye, to hide her freckled paleness and a secret smile, or to attempt to conceal newly found fury and frustrations.

Take her face. All hint of baby flesh has long been stretched into sculpted cheeks and a straight nose, dotted with a thousand cinnamon freckles. One dimple pops improbably into view in the plane of her right cheek when she smiles. Sometimes when she comes back from her friends’ houses, she is wearing eyeliner and has powder dusted into her eyebrows. It still makes her look younger, not older.

Take her hands.   Her thin, white fingers are quickly purpled and swollen in the cold. They move a pencil skilfully across a page, composing beautifully delicate drawings. They dart quickly over her mobile phone as she chats compulsively to her online world. They whip across a keyboard with increasing proficiency as she completes her homework. The nails are still varnished, at weekends or when she thinks the teachers won’t notice, but there is no more time for the little-girl pinks and purples of old, messily applied, the fingertips taking as much as the nails. She has moved onto cool and quirky blues and turquoises, expertly applied and carefully co-ordinated with her clothes.

Take her body. She is short and slight but has impressive strength in her thin arms and legs and phenomenal flexibility through her gymnastics-honed, muscled core.     Accustomed to walking alongside her taller brother or taller friend to school, her stride has become fast and purposeful. At night she curls up sideways, neatly catlike as her hair fans over her pillow and her face relaxes into her younger self in the half light.

Take her spirit. It is independent, resilient and kind. She can be a sarcastic sister, practicing her witty wisecracks and caustic comebacks on her brothers, but unfailingly kind and sympathetic should the situation really demand it. She is empathetic and intuitive, with a mostly calm approach to life.

Take her quirks. She is teased for having no sense of direction, for being unsure which way to turn even on oft-travelled routes. I think she could probably do it if she put her mind to it, but she has no interest in working it out: her mind is on other things. She rarely gets through a meal without spilling water or dropping something absent mindedly from her fork. She loves riddles, puns and wordplay, often dissolving into helpless giggles at her own jokes. She hates making decisions, however small and will often be paralysed with indecision over what to wear or whether to wash her hair or not, wanting someone else to make the decision for her. She loves anything containing golden syrup or salted caramel, whether it be actual foodstuffs or sickly smelling rubbers or scented candles.

Take her friendships. A few, close friendships are especially important to her but they fall in different circles – from primary school, from secondary school, from gymnastics, older family friendships. Sometimes a friendship Venn diagram situation arises, where girls from different circles start to overlap but it causes her emotional stress to be responsible for the mix and she prefers to see them separately. In twos and threes, there is giggling, dancing, conspiratorial heads together on secret missions. She is generally a follower, not a leader, happy to fall in with others’ plans.

Take her twelve years, eleven months and three and a half weeks. Take my wonderful daughter and find her on the brink of her teenage years.

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