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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D is for Dad

notepadWinter has us, and our children’s sports, in its sopping, phlegmy clutches. Football games are cancelled days ahead because of waterlogged pitches. Frosty ground encountered one Sunday provided variety, but the same outcome. “It wouldn’t take a stud,” explained the official dolefully, as if he was a horse breeder excusing the performance of his mare.

Each of the children has missed activities as their constitutions struggle to ride out the waves of respiratory viruses that ebb and flow through their classrooms and settle in our home, making stately progress from one upper bronchial tract to another. The 1&onlyD, who cannot be stopped practising gymnastics by a sodden floor or icy bars, has had to be collected mid-session, when all her spinning and tumbling had the effect on her, that it would have on any of us: an acute headache.

Confined to quarters, we take up indoor pastimes. My children (15, 13 and 10) have moved on from the games of their younger childhood when the roll of a die decided everything. No.1 son, almost ten years ago, had a phase of playing snakes and ladders with the earnestness of a grandmaster. I had to leave him mid-game once to help Mother in the Middle get his siblings ready for bed.

“I’ll play for you,” he said.

“Sure,” I replied, already on my way to the stairs.

Twenty minutes later, I heard a shout of, “Daddy, Daddy.”

I came to the top of the stairs. “Yes, what is it?”

“You’ve won,” explained no.1 son, who was punctilious in completing the game according to the rules and with fairness to his absent father. I humbly accepted his congratulations on my victory.

From games of luck they all progressed to electronic gaming: DSs, Wiis, Kindles, PS3s and X-boxes. I was and am alienated, but also complicit in my alienation. Their screen time gave (and continues to give) me time to pursue my own interests at home. But computer games, above all the ravenous FIFA, remind me powerfully of our mortality and that time is short.

This winter, we have begun to play classic indoor games of duelling: draughts, backgammon, chess and darts. With chess, we strain our minds, but tend to stumble across a checkmate, having no sense of strategy informing our play.

We play darts in no.1 son’s room, stepping carefully over school uniform and electronic accessories that layer the floor, to collect our darts from the board. 301, nearest the bull, around the clock, darts cricket. Our host plays his spotify play-list as our accompaniment. None of us has the consistency to win routinely. Big leads are built and then frittered away as the final dart to finish the game keeps missing its target.

It reminds me of when I was a teenager. Alone at home, revising for another in the wave of exams that just kept coming, I would take my study breaks at the dart board. After a game of around the clock, I would set myself challenges to stay alive – or return to my revision if unsuccessful. Each set of three darts would have to score above 30; or every dart had to be within the circle bounded by the treble band.. or back to the books.

Reassuring and familiar, yet recently I had a jarring moment of disequilibrium, of falseness. I was setting up the score-sheet on a scrap of paper, each player’s initial underlined. Both boys, G and R, then me. Hesitantly, I inscribed D. It felt like that time you call your partner’s parents by their given names for the first time. Self-conscious and awkward. D stood for Dad and Daddy. Me for over fifteen years; addressed that way by my children up to and beyond 100 times in any single day. Yet when I went to self-identify as Dad, it felt odd and artificial.

I don’t believe I am experiencing any deep-seated denial of my parenthood. It is such a prominent part of my identity in the physical world as well as here, my on-line presence. I think it is because, ‘Dad’, when vocalised by me, or written in my own hand, has to mean my Dad. Taking that title for myself felt like I was taking it from him.

Next time we play darts, I may write C, or just let my children do the writing and have their own D. I know how important that is.

 

 

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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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Red (and Blue)

Last month, 10th September to be exact, I filled the time that child number two was at a trampolining party by shopping for ingredients for one of child number one’s GCSE Food Tech practicals. As I stood motionless in the aisle, scanning the supermarket shelves for pecan nuts, a tiny elderly woman shuffled right up to me. I gave her what I hoped was a friendly smile, as I stepped slightly away from her to regain my personal space. She took another step towards me, gripped my arm and in an excitable stage whisper blurted out ‘are you a Red or a Blue?’

As the mother of Manchester City fans, I knew immediately of course that it was Manchester Derby day and that her question used the local shorthand to gauge my allegiance. I laughingly told her that I was neither, but I had some ardent Blues at home waiting for me to get back with the shopping. She shuffled off again, looking slightly disappointed; I can only suppose she was a Red trawling the shop for comrades.

Child number three was eagerly awaiting kick-off at home. Earlier that morning, he had agreed to do some final practice for his 11+ exam, due the following Monday, before the match, if he could be allowed to watch it in its entirety. This is a well-rehearsed negotiation by him, generally involving trade-offs between homework, football and screen-time. He did not need to negotiate very hard on this occasion, as we know how much being a City fan means to him. It means, for example, that he refuses to wear red clothes (with the honourable exception of his own under 11s football strip); it means that he has tiny stickers of City players, old and new, lovingly stuck next to the bed in his blue-walled, blue-carpeted bedroom; it means that he employs theatrical, self-conscious hisses and boos when we drive past the United stadium; it means that, on the day he was told that he had not passed the 11+ exam after all, he took comfort in wrapping himself in a City flag and curling up in abject, profound disappointment on the couch next to me.

As much as he loves watching football on the television or in the stadium, he loves playing it even more. He is animated, skilful, fast and beautiful. His face lights up with joy, as he throws himself into it heart and soul, determined to win the ball, delighted to run with it, ecstatic if he manages to get it past the keeper into the back of the net. I often find myself watching him from the touchline with a group of dads who cannot resist shouting out to the players on the field and who appear to invest so much of their own emotional energy in the outcome of the game, feeling every kick and flinching at every miss through their sons.   I love to see my boy with the wind in his hair and a grin on his face, but I often lose track of the score in my focus on my son as poetry in motion. The dads don’t lose focus for a single second: they live and breathe each ball, bemoan each perceived injustice by the young referees and discuss the strategies of the under 11 coaches with more gravity and criticism than that levelled against the Premiership managers on Match of the Day.

Much like the woman in the supermarket, they also use a shorthand for their in-match interjections which has taken me years to understand. It’s important, I have come to realise, to concentrate on the manner of delivery – just listening to the words does not always clarify to me what is being said. ‘Tackle!’, for example, can, depending on the tone and pitch, mean either ‘get in there and tackle their number seven immediately or you’re no son of mine!’ or ‘my word, what a superb tackle that was’. ‘Pass!’ can be either an anguished instruction, or an approving recognition of a skilful move. As can ‘feet!’ and ‘pace’. ‘Shot!’ can mean ‘what a try, shame it missed, but you gave me a bit of excitement there!’ or ‘hurray, we scored’ (generally the whooping and clapping helps me distinguish that one if I happen to be distracted watching my boy whilst the goal flies in).

In a week when my sensitive, hilarious, clever, capable boy has been left feeling worthless and stupid, I am very grateful to those touchline dads and to the gruff sports teacher at his school. I know he has heard their terse, economical yet enthusiastic and heartfelt commentary and I know when he hears it, he understands them and he feels he is doing something well.   Long may it continue. Respect.

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Mirror

The photographs stand side by side,

one faded colour, one black and white,

two classes of schoolchildren a generation apart,

traditionally arranged, tallest at the back

and in each sits a girl in the short-child chairs,

one fringed and dark, one plaited and fair,

both staring ahead, hands on laps, sombre-faced

following instructions with fingers laced,

but with one small thumb in unconscious rebellion,

poking proudly aloft to break the standardised vision.

Across the years a mirrored gesture

linking mother with daughter.

….

Sometimes -not when looking directly –

but in a shop window, obliquely,

or in an angled wing mirror, viewed quickly,

by the clench of my jaw

by my wary eye

by the set of my hands on the steering wheel

I see my mother reflected in me.

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Motion

It was a day of warmth and wonder,

rightfully Autumn’s, stolen back by Summer

for one last brilliant burst

of sunshine, as we trekked the Anglesey coast.

We three walking together in deep conversation,

cementing friendships in nature’s contemplation.

 

Stepping along striated limestone boulders

we see the lifeboat station fling its boat asunder;

a brief breathless ascent to a quiet copse

to find ancient stones our world forgot,

then down to feast at variegated brambles

of unready reds and glistening purples.

 

Last back through gentle green undulations

to watch twilight birds swoop in secret formations,

to rest, to think, to pause

in the salty air and listen to the noise

of the ceaseless rhythmic incoming waves,

a giant yellow moon rising over the bay.

 

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Remember

blue-dress

Once she made her own blue dress,

tied ribbons in her short brown hair

to dance the night away with him.

She cannot remember it now.

 

Once they held hands and kissed

on the back seat of a Balham bus,

before he walked home again, penniless.

She cannot remember it now.

 

Once they swam naked in azure seas,

ate seafood on the beach then

walked quietly through island flowers.

She cannot remember it now.

 

Always she did everything for him,

entertained his friends, concocted special meals

from vegetables she grew in their garden.

She cannot remember it now.

 

So now he cooks some basic fare,

he slowly vacuums the floor,

helps her into her clothes, combs her snow-white hair

because he remembers everything about

 

his girl of seventeen,

his bride of twenty-three,

his lifelong companion.

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