Distinctions are developed in customs, government, and state … and in default of laws and amidst the simplicity of manners, they become unwieldy, diffuse, and superstitious ceremonies, the accidents of personal power and arbitrary rule, and class differences … in the Oriental state nothing is fixed, and what is stable is fossilised; it lives therefore only in an outward movement which becomes in the end an elemental fury and desolation.
(Hegel, Philosophy of Right)
When I visit my parents, henceforward mumndad, they are always sitting in what we have always called the extension. I open and half-close the gate, turn the corner, from the side of the house to the back, and there facing me is the side of the extension. A few steps across the patio (pink and grey concrete slabs), and usually I see, on the right-hand end of the window that is the major feature of this side of the extension, the side of my dad’s head: and he is either leaning forward slightly, eating his lunch, or leaning forward slightly and struggling with the remote control for the TV (I know, from the look of troubled concentration on his face – in profile – that this is what he’s doing: I can’t see his hands).
A few more steps then, across the pink and grey patio, to the back door – a white plasticky thing. (The writer, at this point, prefers to defer going on, or in – perhaps by spending a bit of time counting the slabs: five, grey, pink, grey, pink, grey, along the shorter side of the patio, between back door side of the house and lawn, then seven along the longer side, at the border with the lawn, grey, pink, grey, pink, grey, pink, grey, meaning a total of 35 slabs – an odd figure. Leaving the writer there – counting, and observing groups of slabs within the whole – the son/visitor approaches the door).
I always knock on this door. If the weather’s ok it’s usually ajar – if not it’ll be closed. I always knock, and this means that mum – generally (no, always) the first to emerge from the extension to greet me, as I take a step into the kitchen – will say something like ‘you don’t need to knock, this is your home, just come in’: the order of the phrases may vary, but the message works whatever the order. I will then say ‘I don’t want to shock you by just bursting in’; and/or, before this exchange, I will actually be slightly irritated if they haven’t heard me knocking, or calling out ‘ hello’ – perhaps because the TV is on, or because they are, increasingly, deaf. Perhaps I knock in order to feel this initial irritation. So I will stand in the kitchen – by the back door – and shout ‘hello’ (getting louder) until mum comes out from the extension into the kitchen.
Adjoining the kitchen (if that’s not too estate-agent-like a phrase), and accessed directly via a door from the kitchen (perhaps I could/should have been an estate agent),the extension (as we call it), mentioned several times already, is a single one-storey room, a basic (in architectural terms) rectangular space, but, more complexly, a discursive and psychological space. That is, we have here, a space where certain forms of talk occur, certain discursive routines: and we have a place that contains memories, that represents, in its own concrete and brick existence, a block of nuclear-familial psychological structuring. I can place myself in the extension, mentally, when I’m not visiting, and reflect on the not-so-consequential events and non-events that occurred (or didn’t) there (if you recall the writer, who we left outside, who did not cross the threshold into the kitchen, he is now pacing, mentally, the pink and grey – each slab approx. two feet by three feet – and what’s entered his mind, out of the blue, is a BBC documentary about Toni Morrison, and her advice to her students (she taught some creative writing apparently), along the lines of ‘forget your little lives, write about something else’). And sometimes it occurs to me that I carry the extension around with me (could mumndad have imagined, when they got the idea for this supplement to the domestic interior, that it would be, could be, portable or mobile?): I feel like a person (if I may abstract myself, just slightly, with that word – may I?) who – though moving and functioning in my day-to-day world – is contained still within that space.
Pausing the kitchen greeting scene for a bit longer – leaving the mum and son there, frozen in the moment after their ritual exchange of words, perhaps in a moment of affectionate embrace (though to a degree stiff, awkward), a tableau in which the son leans down to kiss mum on the top of her head/on her hair (he is about a foot and a half taller than her) – freezing things there, allows a basic (as befits the room) history of the extension before we enter.
The origin: something going on in their heads (beneath that hair just kissed – less grey then – and beneath that skull), ideas no doubt arising out of plan-forming discussions, discussions that would be, I suspect, initiated and directed – overseen perhaps – by dad. What reasons, then, for extending, for adding this extra room (a sixth room if we don’t count the hallway)? To extend adds value in the end – this must have been a foundational thought, perhaps of an underpinning kind: not dwelt on too much I think, but there as part of mumndad’s carefulness about money (and indeed this property – they’d rented before), their sense of the importance of budgeting – a sense I have not acquired (in fact, now I think about it, I have never told them that I have some credit cards – because I think/know they’d disapprove).
Finance, in the sense of value, must have been, then, a consideration – and finance in the sense of affording, since they had to get a loan from friends (Gill and Derek) to get the room built anyway. But the purpose – in a more central, and perhaps consciously articulated way – must have been in relation to familial functionality. More specifically – and as it was articulated to me, at the time the building was mooted – it would provide a space where I could be on my own (my bedroom being rather small) and do the things that teenagers like to do (that is, being alone and listening to music – also a place to play the guitar without disrupting TV viewing (done in the front room)). ‘When was it we had the extension built?’ mumndad sometimes ask, these days, and the answer is with reference to my age – “must’ve been when Andy was 14 or 15.” So 1976/7. Of course they may also have been very far-sighted, in thinking that one day I would be gone (I wonder how they felt about that prospect?) and that they would inhabit this room predominantly, that this would be their living room – handy for the kitchen, more secluded – given that it’s round the back – and giving a good view of the garden (and room in the corner for a new TV – ah, they will have bigger and better TVs in the future, they might have thought, looking at the 1977 corner from inside the discourse of progress).
(Taking a break from writing this, I, the writer – last seen pacing the pink and grey slabs, but now miraculously transported to his own kitchen, his big mess of a kitchen (or more expansively, big mess, tiny kitchen –in contrast to mumndad’s) – I, the writer, am stirring soup (lentil) and have just switched on the radio to catch the answer to a question – on Any Questions as a matter of fact – that was clearly about yesterday’s events in Nice, and the speaker, a politician named Paul Something, is talking about how terrorism/the world has changed since his own formative years, when there was fear of both terrorism of a certain kind as well as of nuclear annihilation (the latter having faded somewhat these days – so is he saying things are better?), and at least those former terrorists weren’t ‘mindless’, and you knew what they were after (this being national self-determination of some sort) – so a kind of nostalgia for a clearer form of terrorism is being spoken of it seems. I’m thinking his formative years were probably the seventies then, or maybe the eighties – hard to tell from his voice how old he is. I can only stand Any Questions for a short period of time – usually measured in seconds – so I turn it off, and I now plonk the writer (myself) back on the pink and grey slabs, like a solitary chess-piece (maybe it’s the wrong location and the game is going on elsewhere): you never know, he may be of some use there.)
Harold, your big lad’s here
Back to mumndad’s kitchen then. Mum will announce me – something like ‘Harold, your big lad’s here’, and this statement will be the cue for dad to rise from his armchair and take a few steps until he’s framed by the doorway. In recent months this micro-sequence of greeting/action has changed, been simplified. What now tends to happen is that dad will remain seated (he’s facing the TV, perhaps with the remote in one hand) and I will enter the extension, his armchair immediately to the left of the door, and, seated, dad, the back of his head, the thin white hair plastered down with some sort of hair oil.
In fact I have overlooked an important pre-extension moment, that of mum asking me if I want something to drink, ‘a coffee or’, is how she usually puts it. There is both disapproval and resigned acceptance in the non-completion of the utterance – as there is also an invitation and shared understanding. And so it is that I enter the extension (back of dad’s head, thin white hair plastered) holding a bottle of lager – because I need it – in my right hand.
(Shifting briefly, if I may, from the narration of the typical events – if they can be called events – of a visit, to a particular passage of time (around 3.30pm, August the 8th 2016), and a conversation with mum that throws some light on the back of dad’s head. It seems that this morning she cut his hair – ‘he hates having his hair cut’. She always does it these days. She tells me that she’s not sure that a hairdresser would be able to cope with the scabs on his head, on the scalp – ‘they’re crusty’ she says, and a bit off-putting. ‘Off course he’s got them all over his back too – have you seen his back?’ she says. ‘Not recently’ I say. ‘All these scabs, about the size of ten-pence pieces’, she continues – ‘they’re not melanomas though’. Which is good. She tells me that she puts some oil on his hair (‘and your hair’s looking better’ she says, looking at me, ‘now you’re using that oil’ – she bought me some hair-oil, which I’m not using); he’s never really been interested in his hair, how it looks, she tells me – ‘he’s never cared about it – not that it matters very much now. But you should look after your hair’ she says, ‘you don’t want to lose it.’)
Having entered the extension, I say hello to dad and take three or four steps, between the two green leather armchairs – his left, hers right – to arrive at the light straw-coloured settee facing the window that looks out onto the garden. And here I sit: there are the slabs directly in front of me (the writer pacing about – not a good sign), the lawn, dad’s greenhouse and the wall (beyond which are some new houses, built in the noughties I think). He doesn’t use the greenhouse as much these days – he told me on a recent visit that he’s given up on tomatoes. The wall is ‘the wall’ – not ‘the garden-wall’, which is what it is: this basic term is, I think (and I don’t think I’m over-thinking here), suggestive of a fundamental (or basic) instrument of separation, rather than merely a garden feature: something more definingly existential. So, in this double-interior – behind the wall, in the extension – I sit between dad in his adjustable green leather armchair (I think that’s the right sequence of modifiers) across and to my left, and on my right, across, the TV.
Two asides here before I launch myself into (topics of) conversation. Firstly, on ‘green’: it’s not my favourite colour, and it’s not – as she has told me on several occasions – mum’s (dad’s opinions on colour – if he has any – are rarely, if ever, expressed). And on each occasion of these expressions of feeling regarding the colour green I have marvelled – no, that’s going too far – I have reflected wryly on the fact that these armchairs are green, the carpet (bought recently) is green, and that the walls of the kitchen and both front rooms are green: light cold mint-green – the worst of greens – in the case of the front rooms. I don’t think I’ve pointed out this seeming contradiction to mum – if I have it hasn’t in any way resolved it. The second aside concerns the term ‘double-interior’ above. I wonder if the more appropriate term might be (merely) ‘private’ – to convey the sense of enclosure and withdrawal, a secluded and protected space – or perhaps even ‘privatised’, or self-privatised: withdrawing from the public world, the world of work say – and dad, for example, retired thirty-odd years ago. ‘Privatised’ also fits a very broad trajectory of mumndad’s life, in both the gradual and increasing disconnection from extended family, with life centred on the home, and in the kinds of home they’ve lived in over the years: from a rented flat in a shared house – early married life, the 1950s – semi-detached council houses, and the move to this house in 1966, this detached house in the corner of a suburban cul-de-sac. There is a sense of progress in this trajectory, for mumndad, towards ‘our own house’, and a movement away from a pre-war upbringing, one of the features of which was ‘five kids in one bed’ in the case of dad, his three brothers and his sister (can it really be the case that all slept together, sister too?). Two brothers emigrated in the early sixties, Norman to America, Ken to South Africa. The other brother, Dennis, who died a few years ago, stayed in Derby, as did Brenda, the sister, who mumndad haven’t seen for years – ‘never gets in touch’.
The idea of their progress is important to mumndad – as is the centring of life around the nuclear family – and it comes up quite frequently in conversation under a topic heading, recently at least, of ‘we’ve had a good life’: this topic has connections with another recent, differently inflected, topic – ‘don’t get old’, or ‘it’s not much fun being old’.
I have already said hello to dad. This opening to conversation we have refined over the years to a functional unit of discourse that is both economical and non-effusive. If I say ‘hello dad’, followed by either ‘you ok?’, or ‘how are you doing?’, then he will respond with ‘not too bad’. Conversely, if he begins ‘hello Andy’ followed by ‘how’s life treating you?’, then I will respond ‘not too bad’. There’s a near symmetry to these opening moves – obviously the asymmetry is in the fact that he uses my name and I address him using the informal paternal pronoun, the use of the pronoun as a form of address being a common feature of working-class family discourse. There is also a mirroring of tone that allows us to meet on the planes of either manly restraint or manly stoicism: things are ‘not too bad’, which may be nuanced to suggest that things are pretty good, or that they are awful but we’re putting on a brave face and we may share the unspoken understanding that this is life. Such is the norm, the standard of greeting that has been in place for years of visits – I can’t recall there being much trial and error, much experiment with different forms along the way. If the TV is on, then there will also be the struggle to manipulate the remote such that the volume is turned down or the picture frozen; if the TV is off then I will most likely wish that it was on so that silence can be avoided.
I should note that over the past few months this conversational opening ritual has been different at times – there has – at last – been some innovation, though not welcome: when I ask dad how he is, he will say ‘awful’, or ‘I just feel ill’. This is clearly a deviation from the aforementioned stoicism, and thus carries some weight, a degree of emphatic force in its plainness – he must be bad. Before he says this I will have been primed in the kitchen by mum who will let me know that it’s ‘not been a very good morning’, and this utterance will be slightly whispered, and mum will move towards me with an embodied tension that is both urgent and restrained – strained, might be the best word.
I’m trying to get as close as possible to what is said by mumndad and how they speak – I want this account of this interior life to be accurate. I’ve started taking a notebook over with me so I can write down topics and phrases before I forget them. It’s difficult though. I feel slightly ashamed that I need to make a note – partly because I feel I should know the kinds of things they say, their idiolects, and partly because it feels like I’m spying on them.
(Pink, grey, pink, grey – is it spying, to write this, a kind of reporting, though not perhaps in the general societal norm of surveillance, the being watched that we are all subject to? Grey – it is spying if there is no awareness on their part of being written about, no consent (one of those ethics of participant-observation things). Pink – however it is their son who is doing the observing, and so some love and care is involved, in the production of a kind of family portrait. And he can’t simply say – ‘dad do you mind if I make a few notes during my visits, because I want to write about our lives, because I don’t think you’re going to be around much longer?’ Grey – the last bit could be phrased differently).
On two occasions I’ve got the notebook out whilst sitting on the settee (between dad and TV): the first time dad just looked at me as I scribbled down something mum had said earlier, and the second time he said to mum ‘he’s writing his Christmas list’ (it’s August) – ‘his Christmas list?’ she says. ‘You know how people always want to know what to get you – and you can’t think of anything – well, I’m just planning ahead,’ I explain. ‘Good for you,’ she says. (At this point I go over to the window. The writer is out there, still pacing about. I beckon him over. Mumndad’s attention has turned to the TV now – it’s Antiques Roadshow. I hold the notebook up to the window, open, on a page on which I’ve written ‘make yourself useful – write some notes’. He holds his notebook up to the window – I read: ‘I am, I am’. )
Do you want Quavers with that?
Once the greetings phase of the visit is over there are a number of possible discursive directions. One – which I propose to say more about later – revolves around food and mum’s performance of services to dad and me in providing and delivering food, that is bringing the food from the kitchen to us. For now – to provide a flavour of food-related conversation – I can say that dad will probably have embarked on lunch just before I arrive (I usually arrive around mid-day), and so I will watch his more or less painful, depending how he is, slow movements of hand to mouth, and I will think about the difficulty (or apparent difficulty) of chewing food with false-teeth, and mum will ask me what I want in my cob (this is an east midlands – probably not exclusively – dialect term), along the lines of ‘is there anything else I can get you apart from tuna?’: it is her role to question on the matter of food in this context of its impending delivery or its provision for the future – she intuits I suppose that the same thing over and over again may become wearisome (I always have tuna), and she’s thinking of me, wanting to please me, and also thinking of herself – wanting to be a person who pleases me, and wanting some indications or suggestions from me as to how she can do that. The fact that I don’t give her any suggestions, in the form of the reassurance – ‘I like tuna’, or ‘I’m ok with tuna’ – is, I imagine, frustrating for her – reassuring and frustrating – and my statement could, I think, be interpreted several ways:
- ‘no clues’: that is I refuse to give you any help in working out what I want, such that you will remain worried about it and therefore attentive to my needs.
- ‘safety-first’: tuna is safe, you can’t really go wrong with it (you’d have thought), so let’s stick to that.
- ‘being domain-sensitive’: I realise that this is your domain (mum) and I don’t want to come in here with my fancy tastes and tell you what to do at the risk of being patronizing.
- ‘lack’: I don’t have the will or desire to liven this experience up for you, or make you feel better, though that might be what you’re asking for when you ask ‘is there anything else I can get you apart from tuna?’
When this tuna-based exchange occurs, then, these meanings briefly condense and precipitate from the thin layer of cloud that hovers near the ceiling. The precipitation is equal parts a. to d. A supplementary question, tendered by mum, closes this period of lunch facilitation, with ‘do you want some Quavers with that?’, and I think there is both a satisfying consistency in the fact that I reply ‘no thanks’, and an effective means of psychological detachment for mum, or a means of drying out any of the aforementioned precipitation through the warmth of my reply – ‘no thanks’: ah yes, she thinks, this pattern of refusal, if that’s what it is, is him, and not due to some failing on my part.
There’s too much football
Another possible direction for conversation – or indeed for the afternoon – is TV: having it on that is. Sometimes the news is on, which may trigger a political rant on my part. Often – if I visit on Saturday or Sunday – the football is on. Mumndad have Sky and so can watch football at virtually any time. Sometimes dad complains that there’s too much football on these days, and he especially dislikes the way those people who talk between games spin the whole thing out by saying next to nothing. On the other hand he quite admires the way they can do that. Mum often watches the football too, although she often says she doesn’t really understand it. Nevertheless her connection with it can seem quite emotionally intense – she may exhort the players on, as dad and I sit there in silence. She is often capable of finding some point of interest in what must be – given her profession of non-understanding – a mystifying spectacle of coloured figures moving against a green background. Hair, for example, is something that she may comment on: ‘have you seen Mourinho’s hair Andy? Have you noticed that he seems to be losing it a bit? And it’s gone completely grey: I suppose it must be the stress he’s under.’ The camera turns to a calm-looking Mourinho, sat in the dug-out. ‘There, at the front there – look at the side: it seems to be receding there.’ Or she may comment on a player’s extravagantly full head of hair and suggest that, because it’s so orange, he ‘probably dyes it.’
The TV provides a focus, a sense of being together and being engaged in the same activity (however passive). It also – it seems to me – provides a kind of cover for, or a distraction from, the differentiation that occurs in the discourse in terms of frequency of utterance, or the degree to which a speaker’s turn is sustained. Often – again, it seems to me (and I do have some verification of this in the writer’s notebook) – dad and I are content to sit there and stare at the screen, with perhaps the occasional comment. Mum though wants to talk: she may attempt to engage us with reference to what’s on TV, as above, or she may develop a monologue on some topic that’s occurred to her. The TV being on allows the possibility of minimal response to her utterances – because we are watching it – but it also gives her licence to speak, and with a sense that the monologic quality of it (her domination of the air-time) is not odd, and that we are not rude in our unresponsiveness, in our lack of participation.
(This kind of balance in imbalance, this state of ‘being together’, is not always achieved. In the writer’s notebook I read the following account of a visit during the summer, during a brief period when there was no football, though there was cricket. It reads as follows: “‘I hear you’re not very good,’ I say to him early in the visit (mum having informed me of this prior to my entry to the extension). ‘No, not feeling too good,’ he says. ‘Me legs.’
‘I’m surprised you’re not watching the cricket,’ I say.
‘It’s not on till 2,’ he says.
‘No,’ I say, ‘it’s been on since 11.30, England aren’t doing very well.’
He starts to make movements towards putting the TV on. Mum comes in and tells me she’s spoken to Gill on the phone. She’s still in hospital. A lot of comments, in a longish monologue, on ‘how is she going to cope with the dog when it knocked her over in the first place, and she won’t ever be the same again, and this is old age and look how we’re all suddenly getting a lot older.’ She says, ‘she’s [Gill’s] having trouble getting her knickers on. I told her that when I broke my hip the doctor said not to bother with your knickers, just leave them off’. She has spoken about Gill’s accident before, and, as before, I get a sense of her wanting Gill’s life to be different – she says ‘hopefully she’ll get back to normal’, but something about the insistence with which she repeats the idea of ‘never the same again’ suggests that this is something she’d like to be the case, as if there is some sort of competition over who can remain least old (I have noted in recent years that there has developed – despite their long-term friendship, a strong sense of resentment on mum’s part against Gill, a resentment focused on how dad acts differently around her: so this injury – ‘she fell over the dog in the garden. She’s always been boisterous, the dog’ – this fractured hip, will certainly inhibit Gill’s chances with dad).
Dad is playing about with the remote control throughout this, and, though trying to get to the cricket, he fails. Instead we have a montage of talking heads and cartoon characters, all of whom seem to be moving their lips in sync with mum’s monologue. After a while dad stops. We’ve arrived at Al Jazeera. He puts the remote down and starts to munch on his cob, which he does slowly and with long intervals between bites, while I inform them that this is an Arabic news station, and do they really want to watch that. ‘It’s an Arabic news station Harold,’ mum says. He doesn’t respond, carries on munching. ‘I’d have thought you would have known some Arabic Andy?’ she says. Now the screen is blue, with BBC1 in the top right hand corner. ‘The screen is blue – do you want that Harold?’ she says. He decides he’s going to leave the cricket till we go to the shops.
I tell them that Mabel has started her job – today – on the steam train, waitressing. She says I didn’t tell her about this, though she knows that dad knew. ‘Where does the train go from?’ she asks. ‘Tyseley,’ I say, ‘it’s a pretty horrible area of Birmingham.’
‘And where does it go?’
‘Stratford’ I say.
‘Clacton?’ she says.
‘Stratford’ I say.
‘Bradford?’ She says.
‘Stratford’, raising my voice.
‘There’s no need to shout,’ she says, ‘I’m going a bit deaf.’”)
We think you’re doing very well
If the TV is not on, or if the sound is off – or before the TV is put on – then there are opportunities for recent news, updates on the state of things. Often there isn’t any news, beyond a continuation of the same: this can be reassuring – the most important thing is that things simply continue.
Enquiries are made: mine into whether they have done anything, theirs into ‘family’, the grandchildren in particular, and ‘how work is going’. Typically my enquiries are fielded by mum, usually by her passing the question on to dad, in the form of stating the answer and adding a tag question – ‘we haven’t really done anything, have we dad?’: or ‘we went into town, didn’t we dad?’ The passing of the question on is aimed at bringing dad into conversation. It is also a signifier of deference: she is offering him the chance to make a definitive authoritative statement on doing nothing, before she says anything about it (this pattern is replicated in phone conversations, though with, I think, slightly different implications. I have noticed over the past year or so that when I ring them it is invariably mum who picks the phone up – she is the more mobile parent – and then she immediately – sometimes with the announcement ‘here’s your dad’, sometimes without speaking – passes the phone over to dad (who may have just woken up, and so may begin speaking from a place of bewilderment): the implication is that I should speak to dad first – this gesture, perhaps, both acknowledges his importance and gets him out of the way, so mum can make the second and more substantial contribution to the phone conversation).
The deference that is signified in the passing on of the question is symptomatic of a patriarchal construction of gender relations, in a quite traditional way, but not in a straightforward way. I can see that mum is simultaneously deferring and directing. She is instructing (‘say something’) and prompting – it can seem prodding – him to enact the role of the patriarchal figure. It is both caring and politic to make such a gesture – he is an old man, and potentially, to be ‘the man’ might make him happy, with consequent benefits for her. However, the gesture is easily seen, easily readable – deference may appear too blatantly as a manoeuvre. If this is the case then the possible generosity of mum’s gesture is overlooked, and she will be seen as controlling, or perhaps mocking: and the real patriarchal power then lies in refusal – in not saying anything, or very much, in response. He may be just tired, but he is capable of not going along with mum’s attempts to engage him. When she talks to me about him, she calls him ‘stubborn’. These talks are never done in front of him.
(In fact sometimes mum’s prodding of dad can seem desperate and/or vindictive. An entry in the writer’s notebook of Dec 23 goes as follows: ‘visit to mum and dad. Straight away doesn’t look good. Dad seems very tired, within himself, saying little. He’s struggling to get over the removal of a kidney-stone: looks out of the window while munching on some wafer-thing. Mum clearly on edge, moving in her habitual way – head-down, contained dynamism: bundle of nervous energy. Throughout she’s trying to jolly him along – when he wants to sleep, or is ‘feeling rough’ and that’s that. Her hovering attentiveness grates. As bad is the sitting there in the extension, doing nothing, no TV/radio – then mum humming a tune, or singing in that warbling Disney Snow-White voice:
I’m not in love
De dee de dee dum
It’s just a silly face
I’m going through.’)
The topic of ‘how work is going’ crops-up frequently. The fact that it does shows both concern and politeness, on mumndad’s part, in asking about it. I notice that if the question is to be asked, then it is often dad that asks it. This may be because of some lingering notion that the world of work is a man’s world, and that therefore we – dad and I – can share understandings.
I can recall conversations in which this fiction of the world of work has been sustained by both dad and mum in relation to their own lives. Although mum worked from about the time I was eight, in a succession of jobs – at Boots, and as a dental receptionist, and as a dinner-lady, and at Birds (and before getting married, at the Derby Evening Telegraph) – she will tell dad that she didn’t ‘really’ work, that he was the main one as far as that went. And no doubt in terms of income he was: but nevertheless, she worked for years (and still works, at home).
Now, whenever my work is referenced, either mum or dad will say ‘we both think you seem a lot happier’, or ‘we both think you’re doing very well’. I’m interested in these statements in several ways. Firstly, that they feel the need to say them. Then that they are joint statements – that they ‘both’ think this gives each statement the force of a pronouncement, a verdict after due consideration: they have spent time thinking and talking about me and my work. These statements also seem, to me, to have the force of wishes – that they wish me well, or they hope I am happier. And, in which case, they require me to say as much.
The implications of each statement are a further area of interest. The first statement implies a narrative that mumndad have constructed, a narrative in which a change can be observed – that they have seen I have shifted from ‘not happy’ to ‘happier’. Clearly they have been concerned, or worried, in the past. I did not like my work (though, as dad has consoled me, ‘not many people do’). Now – other things they have said indicate – they can see that I have learned to accept things I can’t change in the world (this is their theory to explain the manifest change in me: acceptance of what cannot be changed). The second statement I appreciate as a caring attempt to boost my confidence or morale, to make me feel good about myself, though I can’t help but undermine this attempt, internally, by adding a ‘considering’:’ considering you’re doing a job you don’t like’, or ‘considering you’re not really cut out to be a teacher.’
And anyway, I might say (but I don’t), what do you know about whether I’m doing very well, when such things are definitively determined by appraisal processes?
(The writer has been at the window gesticulating for a minute or so – his finger up to his lips, or cutting a line across his throat).
Though it’s not the job as such – it’s the coping (or appearing to cope) with doing the job as such, I suppose, that’s the area in which I’m currently doing very well.
How long have these statements of goodwill and relief been in formation, waiting to be uttered? They could only be uttered after the observation of a process of perceived change I suppose (unless they are simply wish-fulfilment). It’s hard to say anything about it. It’s probably the case that I complain (to them) less about the job than I used to, or that I complain in a less miserable way. Whatever, it seems that my unhappiness has been a burden to them. And I could take their statements as evidence that they are less burdened.
(The writer is now trying to hang himself from one of the hanging-baskets using the garden-hose).
Fuck you Jeremy Clarkson
Talk on education can lead to regretful reflection. And though mumndad are less burdened, perhaps, they do, it seems, think of themselves as, in a way, responsible. After the affirmative comments on coping with teaching, mumndad may go on to consider alternative realities, the ‘what-ifs’ of history – imagining historical circumstances that may have led to a situation in which they were not forced to console their son with morale-boosting comments on ‘doing well’. ‘If only we’d been able to send you to Repton’ they say, ‘and then you’d probably not be in the situation you’re now in’, of being an English teacher in the inner-city (in a college where, ironically, the students have been known – recently at least – to say ‘do you know, sir, you look like Jeremy Clarkson?’ (went to Repton), and sir says back, ‘well I understand that this is probably something to do with your limited range of cultural capital, and awareness of physical/facial typologies – a combination which in some circumstances you yourself would recognize, amounts to racism – but I have to tell you that I do not welcome, or accept, your comparison, and I would like to say to you – as I would like to say to Jeremy – fuck off’).
I think I must – I must – have given mumndad the impression – during one of my many political rants – that I particularly despise private schools and the buying of special privileges and networks. Nevertheless there remains this sense – for mumndad – that there was a possible choice over what was not possible (they couldn’t have afforded it – though many people, I hear, ‘scrimp and save’ to give their children advantages: I’m not saying they should have done that): in conversation, retrospectively, a choice was there, but in reality, at the time, there was no choice, and not just for financial reasons (though, essentially, for financial reasons). So in this doubly-privatized context (behind ‘the wall’, in the extension (which cost the equivalent of a year at Repton)), the private familial/parental decisions regarding the education of the son are repeated as a historical narrative in which, at a certain point, perhaps a different decision could have been made. I think I’m trying to say – I might be labouring it, I don’t know – that this kind of conversation, which enacts, or is founded in, a sense of parental responsibility, is a sample of consciousness which also leaves ‘advantage’ open, even with people who couldn’t/can’t access the ‘advantage’.
(Why, when in the process of hanging yourself would you occupy your mind with Seamus Milne sending his kids to some grammar school, and likewise some members of the Labour front-bench with their kids, and Dianne Abbott sending her kid to a private school – and they call themselves fucking Socialists, well what a fucking joke …
This hanging isn’t working: for a start it’s hard to manipulate the plastic hose, and the hanging-basket is at a height that allows mum to water it – maybe four and a half feet off the ground – and the writer being six foot, it doesn’t really allow for much of a drop: and then his weight will probably pull the thing off the wall anyway, and then there’ll be some explaining to do).
Perhaps I may say ‘as you know mum – dad – I think private schools perpetuate inequalities in this society, giving unfair access, for those who can afford the fees, to positions in the government, in the professions, the BBC, and so on … and if we’re talking about historical missed-chances, then if only the Atlee government had abolished …’ and so on. However the retro-prospect remains – ‘if we had …’ – as a way of understanding now for mumndad, as a way of bringing a basic sense of social division into understanding personal ‘outcomes’ (‘you could have done better if …’), and – to complicate the earlier affirmative statements – to say ‘considering the life you’ve had you’ve done well’. There is both an awareness of social division, and an acceptance of it. Mumndad will go on to tell me about friends of theirs – or people they know of at any rate – who have worked hard (‘she’s a consultant – is it psychiatric Harold? – and so they’re very well-off’), and sent their daughter to a private school, and now she’s going to Cambridge, and she’s very clever and has done very well.
Well, jolly good.
A story about school
It is now time (the TV is off) for one of dad’s stories. He hasn’t said anything for a while – didn’t respond to mum’s promptings, so this is a self-initiated contribution to talk. A slightly heightened state of bodily alertness – sitting slightly further forward, hands tensed against the arms of the chair – accompanies the start of the story. In keeping with the previous topic, it concerns ‘school’, but it also touches on the other two topics that dad tells stories about: ‘the war’, and ‘work’.
‘I left school just after war was declared. We’d just come back from Skegness: me dad had a travel pass because he worked on the railway – so he could take us anywhere in England for nothing. And in those days you left school at 14, at the next school holiday after your 14th birthday in fact. The teacher said – they gathered us all together – the ones who were just 14, had just had their 14th birthdays, and I’d just had mine. So we were in the hall and the teacher said that a lot of the teachers had volunteered, so we might as well all leave now – there weren’t enough teachers left to teach us. So we didn’t have to wait till Easter – we could just go’.
He laughs at this point – as if to say: ‘imagine’. I remember dad telling me, at some point, that he would’ve liked to have been a teacher (actually it might have been mum who told me this is what he wanted): this leaving at 14 can’t have helped, or his not passing the 11plus.
(And I’m now fantasising about volunteering).
Dad continues. ‘So I left school then. And me mum got me a job straightaway – she was a strong woman was Grandma Smith. She got me a job at the cobblers. They had three shops in different parts of Derby – one in Allenton – and I had to take the shoes for repair between the shops. Carrying them on my own bike too.’
It’s only in recent years that dad has started to regale us with these little autobiographical set-pieces, and mainly when the kids visit. Judging by his topic selection – across the range of his stories – a historical event is required to underpin each narrative, or for the personal experience to latch onto some ‘point’: the start of the war therefore, or the end and his time in Singapore and India with the RAF.
He tells his stories with the slightly stiff air of someone doing a prepared talk, as if he’s spent some time honing his material mentally and then wants to make sure he delivers the story correctly. I always feel a slight sense of tension as he speaks (I’m on the edge of my seat/settee), hoping the story will be right, though not knowing, in terms of the content, whether it is or not. And I tend to be wary of asking questions at the end, though I might want to know more about ‘me dad’ and the railway, because dad often seems less than forthcoming outside the scope of the honed story. Perhaps the tension I feel arises because mum – in one of our private discussions about dad – has said that he likes to tell us about his past to prove to himself that his memory still functions, and that he still – as she says – has ‘got his marbles’.
I always feel surprised, too, when he starts on one – I’ve never thought of him as a storyteller: I don’t remember him telling any when I was growing up (though surely he must have?). Reticence and sarcasm are the two main modes, or tenors, of dad’s speech as far as I’m concerned.
As I sit listening to the above story, I find it – despite its clear chronological structure – oddly diffuse. Maybe this is because dad is talking about a time of transition, the transition from school to work, which is ‘easy’ (in this account) though unplanned, ad hoc, dependent on familial connections. I think it’s that there’s a degree of openness to the story in its lack of overt narratorial direction on what the listener is meant to make of it – what Labov, in his account of spoken narrative structuring, calls ‘evaluation’. Or, perhaps more accurately, there seem to be three elements of evaluation, but without any hierarchy of significance (it seems to me): there’s the laugh after he tells of the teacher saying there’s no one left to teach, then the last sentence in which the thought of using your own bike for delivering shoes seems important, and, to me at least, the line about ‘me dad’ being able to take us anywhere in England seems to invite reflection – ‘so why did he take you to Skegness then, if you could go anywhere in England?’ Maybe it’s that whatever perspective there is on the narrative events tends to be implied – in which case another narrative ‘point’ might be the possible implication of ‘she was a strong woman was Grandma Smith’: she got him the job via arm-wrestling perhaps, or is ‘strong’ a euphemism, implying that dad was forced against his will to take up the job at the cobblers? (He has also used the word ‘domineering’ to describe her – ‘still she had to be with five children to keep in order’).
I suppose all he’s intending is something like ‘this is how it was for me at that time’. I don’t ask questions. As I’ve already said, I sense that if I do he won’t have that much more to say anyway. But it could be that there’s more to my lack of inquiry. To ask questions of a reticent non-storyteller: but in not doing so, that identity persists – perhaps I have low expectations of dad, and could cultivate a late flowering of his capacity for historical narrative? Or is it that the inertia-inducing weight of a familial tradition, a tradition of non-questioning, snuffs possible inquiries and developments out – should I have said, much earlier in life, ‘ tell me more dad, about the advent of computer-card systems at Rolls-Royce (‘they all had little holes in, in patterns, to record a particular spare part’), sounds interesting’? I’m questioning now of course, here and now (I, the writer), but not there, not in the extension with dad (in that enclosure). I recognise this (more than) discursive demarcation: I am, and am not, in that space. But I don’t necessarily have any answers to the questions I put here about there.
Try something new today
Actually it feels like this would be a good point to get out of the extension, to have a little break, get some fresh air.
I mentioned earlier that there was the possibility of mum and I going shopping (please, contain your excitement). Well this is more than a possibility: it has, in recent times (as I have said before, meaning the past year or so), become another ritual element of the visit. That is, every time I visit I take mum to Sainsbury’s: always there (or, very exceptionally, on a special occasion, into town).
Mum used to say ‘if there’s anywhere you want to go while you’re here, just go, you don’t have to stay in here with us’, sometimes followed by ‘I hope you’re not bored’. And I would reply, ‘No I’m ok’. Now mum wants to get out. The trip to Sainsbury’s was/is her idea. There’s a big one not far from where they live, ten minutes in the car: we go through Allenton, past Roll-Royce, past some 1920’s (ex) council houses (occasionally mum will point out a landmark: ‘you know that story that was on the news about a house-fire, the man that burnt his children to death? Well the house is along here. Oh I think we’ve missed it. I’ll point it out on the way back – they’ve done such a nice job of doing it up’).
The ostensible reason for going is that she wants to do some food-shopping – not, mainly, for herself (some of the neighbours take her in the week – ‘Pat and Geoff, they’re very good to us’: mum can’t drive, dad gave up a few years ago – decided he was too old and gave me their car), not, as I say, food for her and dad, rather for me. So the trip to Sainsbury’s is something of a guilt-trip. I will say ‘spend your money on yourselves mum’, and she will say, ‘no, while we’ve got it …’ and ‘we like to help’, and she will say, when she’s bought the stuff, ‘you know you’re loved don’t you’ (not entirely a question) and I will say ‘yes mum, thanks’.
The shopping is not the only reason to go to Sainsbury’s though. Mum doesn’t get out as much as she used to, and this is getting out; dad is less mobile than he was, and if the weather’s bad it’s probably best that he stays in. Mum likes to walk, but does that less often now – partly because she feels she can’t leave dad for too long: she’s also had a few falls in the last couple of years (has broken both wrists) – having observed her in town, charging around, head-down, not really looking where she’s going, I can see why.
So there’s getting out: but more important, I think, is that she wants to talk without dad there.
So she announces to dad that we’re going shopping – ‘you’ll be alright won’t you: you’ve got the phone. You can watch the cricket’. While she’s getting her bags I clear the front seat of the car, putting books and CDs on the back seat: she doesn’t like the car to be untidy – it’s a sign I don’t look after it, and perhaps that I don’t share her sense of what’s important (it’s a good job that they can’t get over to Birmingham (dad can’t travel), they wouldn’t be impressed by the state of my house).
We head off, along streets that don’t seem to have changed very much over the years. I become conscious of observing them – as I drive – across the micro-landscape of dust that’s beneath the windscreen, dust that has accumulated and been overlooked for the year that I’ve had this car (not mumndad’s ex, the car after). I also become conscious of the fact that mum says nothing about the dust – that there are other concerns.
The car journey (it’s only ten minutes) is mum’s chance to say something of the reality of what life is currently like, though she will have regard to my sensitivity, and dad’s dignity, by censoring the sorrier moments – ‘you don’t know what I have to do’ – indicating them vaguely, hinting at awfulness, or summarizing pithily the problems that dad can have with his stoma bags – ‘there was shit everywhere’ – and leaving the mise-en-scene to my imagination. The sediments of such imaginings are stirred, re-animated, in dreams (the writer makes a point of noting his dreams – he read somewhere that intellectual Germans of the early 20th century kept diaries that made no distinction between accounts of dreams and of waking life, just went from one to the other without announcement, presumably to accord the oneiric aspect of mental life the same status as conscious thought.
Here’s a sample dream (it is a dream (I’m announcing that)) from the writer’s notebook:
In the street, not far from their house, he meets his parents. Dad has a surgical gown on, as if just out, having a walk, from hospital – or perhaps this is some kind of open hospital. It seems he wants to show something (mum looks concernedly and sympathetically at the son as dad speaks). The son has the sense of dad as being somewhat judgemental, that he feels the son has failed in certain ways, failed to see, do and deal with certain things that the father feels he should have done/known/seen. Specifically – dad now turns and lifts up his gown: the son is conscious that they are in the middle of the road – there is this: dad shows the wire, or tube, with some plastic apparatus on the end, somewhat like a hearing aid, that has to be put into his backside (he has not been well, and mum has had to help him). He has not been well and there are more creases in the flesh down there than is usual – the son tries inserting the wire into one).
Yes she will give me an edited account of the things she does for dad, on top of what she already did as ‘standard’ – cooking for example. The new tasks are largely to do with bodily care: she washes dad – ‘he’s not really able to have a shower on his own, he might fall over’; she tells me ‘he’s started to smell like an old man, because he can’t always make it to the toilet on time’. Every morning she puts some cream on his legs and feet because she thinks that will help with his aching legs (it doesn’t seem to though). She helps him up and down the stairs – ‘we’ve talked about having the bed downstairs, but your dad doesn’t want to do that yet’. She helps him sit and stand up. If he bends down – to put a dvd on, say – and then can’t get back up, he will crawl over to the settee and try to lift himself up using the settee as support, though mum might be required to give him some extra lift. She worries though that she isn’t strong enough, and if she has to lift him on her own she won’t be able to. And all this because they want to keep life going as it was (though it isn’t as it was) for as long as possible.
I tell her that she needs to look after herself too, that she needs some support – is it not possible to get some ‘home help’? She gets a carer’s/caring allowance – not very much, and in fact less than she could get, because she told whoever it was who came to assess the situation that she didn’t get up – didn’t have to look after dad – at night, though she does. She doesn’t want the neighbours to know that she gets this allowance – ‘you know what they’re like round here’ she says, ‘they’d talk about us, getting a handout’. I tell her I’m sure they would understand that she’s entitled to it, because of all that she does for dad. But no – ‘people aren’t like that’: there’s a strong sense of stigma, in mum’s mind, associated with receiving help from the state – people will think you’re undeserving. And she doesn’t want someone – a nurse say – coming in to look after dad, and give her a rest, a chance to get out, because dad will think that’s one step away from having him ‘put away’ – ‘he’ll think she’s going to have me put in a home, and I couldn’t bear him to think that’. Mum’s statement here, with its simultaneous voicing of care and responsibility (and maybe anxious fantasy – would dad really think that?), ends further consideration of external help – care must remain in-house. Encoded within the utterance is mum’s sense of herself – she is someone (the one) who cares for/looks after others.
We haven’t yet arrived at Sainsbury’s. She points out another house – not far from the one we missed, where there was the fire – and tells me that this was where her mum and dad lived early in their married life: they had to share the house with others, ‘that’s how it was in those days’. We don’t often talk about family history, and I feel at this point a slight sense of guilt (in addition to the money-guilt), and of being at a loss – why haven’t I asked more about these things? She goes on to a brief reminiscence about her dad, then about her work before getting married, how much she loved working at ‘The Telegraph’ (Derby Evening). She tells me – as she has told me before, over the years – that she wanted to be a nurse (she ‘didn’t have the qualifications’), but she ‘always ends up looking after people anyway. I ended up looking after me dad,’ she says, ‘when he was dying of liver cancer’ (her mum had died of cancer not long after I was born), ‘and now I’m looking after dad’. Now she wants to tell me something but she’s not sure she can – ‘I’ve got something to tell you, and you’ll be ashamed of me.’
‘I’m sure I won’t,’ I say.
‘I don’t know if I can tell you’.
‘Well you don’t have to if it‘, then she starts telling me. It seems that a few days ago they went to town, and dad had his three-wheeled support-thing for walking, and they came to a shop where the entrance featured a slight incline up to the door. So mum says to dad ‘be careful, don’t forget to use your brakes’, and he gets angry with her – ‘don’t talk to me like I’m a child’. Naturally she’s upset at this – and this is the shaming part – she doesn’t just accept/take what he says, she says ‘right then’, and goes off into the shop, up some stairs, leaving him behind. She waits for ‘a long time’, then goes back. He’s sitting on a bench waiting. She says nothing about what happens next, just reiterates that this behaviour of hers was awful, that she shouldn’t have done that – it’s not what she’s meant to be like. She’s meant to be cheerful, and to look after other people (in practice, most of the time, dad).
I put it to her that she was upset, especially given that she looks after him all the time, and she feels she receives little credit for it from him – in fact she thinks he’s resentful, which I think he is. I tell her that he’s resentful of the situation in which she has to look after him, rather than of her looking-after-him. I tell her that all relationships have these moments – that they have, over the years, had far fewer such moments than a lot of other couples. This seems to go some way towards consoling her. But it’s obvious that now there are tensions between them, and that it’s to do with ideas of roles and power, the redistribution of power that has happened with mum looking after dad.
A nasty day
Between visits I ring mumndad, maybe twice a week, to see how they are (I also text mum most days – ‘It’s like I’ve got you in my pocket’ she once said). Usually – as touched on previously – dad speaks first, then mum, providing additional information (and usually going on longer than dad). An example from February: dad tells me he’s been to the doctor about his legs and the doctor offered him a choice of a scan on his brain or his bones: ‘take your pick, you choose, kind of thing’. So he’s gone for his bones – mainly because the brain one is apparently ‘not a very nice experience. Your mum’ll tell you more about it,’ he says and hands the phone to her. She says they saw a different doctor than the usual, ‘Dr Patel – very nice’ – and he suggested different things from the usual: ‘sometimes it’s good to see somebody different isn’t? The problem is the Calcium, which he’s producing too much of, and they want to find out why’. I ask why they suggested a brain scan, and she doesn’t really know – ‘but they really are looking after him aren’t they?’ She wants some reassurance. Then she goes on for a while about how good ‘they (the NHS) have been to us’, which is a recurring theme in conversation.
Sometimes, if dad isn’t in the extension when I phone (‘you’re dad’s just off changing his bag’), mum will be able to set up a future car-conversation, something she can indicate now (because dad is out of the room), but can’t talk about now, because there isn’t time (what if he comes back?). So she says ‘I’ve had a nasty day’, and leaves it at that, for me to wonder about the nature of this nastiness (that obviously involves dad).
So, in the car, on the way to Sainsbury’s, she tells me about her nasty day:
‘The phone was ringing,’ she says, ‘and I went to get it. When I picked it up the answer-phone started, and I talked into it for a while. After the call I played the answer-phone back and listened to myself talking. And I thought ‘do I really sound like that?’ I didn’t like the sound of my voice at all. I asked dad about it, and he said ‘and you go on for ages. The person at the other end must be thinking when is she going to shut up?’ I didn’t say anything.
He said I was too excitable on the phone.
I was upset, but didn’t say anything.
I went out into the garden for a few hours, put myself into that. Then I was talking to John next door – the front door was open – and dad could obviously hear me. We were talking about Derby and about his hanging baskets – they’re going away at the weekend, and I said if he left them round the back as he usually does, I’d water them. When I came in dad said I shouldn’t leave the door open, and that I talk too much – that John must have been really bored with me going on. I said ‘at least I talk to people, you don’t talk to anyone – is that what’s bothering you?’ He didn’t say anything. I did his dinner – made him a nice dinner. We ate it without saying a word – not a word. I said something about the football – we were watching it – and he said something, mumbled a bit. Then later I had to help him with his bag – he can’t always do it by himself now. When he came back from the bathroom he said ‘you’ve got Harold back’. As if that was meant to make me feel alright.
But I thought, why can’t he come to terms with how he feels – he’s old, you have to expect you’re going to feel bad – and can’t he just try, for me, to be less miserable. I’m with him all the time. That’s one of the problems – that we’re stuck together all the time, and he never sees anyone else. He’s been a good husband – I don’t want things to end in the wrong way’.
Talk now loops back to the points made in a previous paragraph, in which we talk about getting ‘help’, or someone else he could talk to, and so then on to mum’s reasons for not getting help.
Amongst other things, the story, and the car journey, allows mum to ‘get out’ her feelings about dad, the feelings she feels she’s not supposed to have. There is, in one way, a collapse of reciprocity – with all I do for him, the least he could do is to cheer up for me: here is his refusal, as noted earlier, to go along with the game in which, for services rendered, he will respond with approval, the approval that mum needs in order to affirm her sense of herself (someone who cares for others, cheers them up). Dad is aware of this game, I think, while mum is not (though it may be that I ascribe this difference to them in this present situation because of growing up in a nuclear familial triangle in which it was my role to witness/notice how dad would be ‘jokingly critical’ of mum, or sarcastic, and she would take the ‘joke’ seriously, and be hurt by it, and I would think ‘can’t you see – after all these many times he’s done this – that he’s joking, and not get upset by it (which is I think the reaction he wants, because it shows he still has the power to affect you in that way)’? As I say, it might be that I project this history of different awarenesses on the current situation, when in fact there may be something different going on (as indeed there may have been in the past, all along as it were). One difference between now and then that the story perhaps presents is that dad isn’t joking, or giving the impression that he might be, any more).
In one way no reciprocity then, but in another way, the story presents an arrival at a new condition of reciprocity, that of mutual resentment. There is the occasional overt expression of it, but mainly mumndad, in their different ways, ‘bottle it up’. Dad allows some of it to leak out, (like a leak from his bag), in his silences, his refusals. Mum has more of a problem with her resentment I think – she is more affected by it. It disturbs the sense of who she is, or who her super-ego tells her she ought to be. I have seen her, at times of stress (i.e. when dad’s ‘not very good’ and she can’t do much about it), muttering to herself, at length, a kind of vehement mutter – she might even be swearing.
Do you want some apples?
I get the trolley – not a big one, we’re only going to get ‘a few things’, to keep me going: ‘ticking over’. Mum puts the bags she’s brought with her on the hook at the back of the trolley, and we head towards the entrance. She says, again, as we walk through Sainsbury’s car park, that she’s always looked after people, but this time extends the idea slightly by saying that she’s always felt she’s had to justify herself: she could’ve been an orphan in an orphanage, after all, and she was told early on – she remembers – by some extended family member how lucky she was to be in a good family: how she should think of herself as very lucky, with the implication that she was not worthy of this family that she found herself in (I had seen the start of Pollyanna, the film, a few days before she said this, and near the beginning the very same thing is said to the title character).
‘It’s a shame you still feel that way’, I say, ‘surely you’ve justified yourself enough now, what with all you’ve done – all this looking after people?’
She says she knows this, ‘it’s difficult to change though if you’ve felt that way for a long time’. She says, ‘it was the stigma – you wouldn’t have it these days, with a child born out of wedlock, but in those days it was a stigma. I never wanted you to feel that way’, she says, ‘that you had to justify yourself. I wanted to shield you from that’.
As with family history, it’s unusual – it’s been unusual – for us to talk directly about these things (this is surely the heart of the matter): certainly she has never linked her adoption to her altruism before, to her sense of herself – though I have thought about it recently, and I’ve read that some adopted people feel they’d better be good or they might get ‘sent back to the shop’.
‘Well’, I say’, I have felt that way’. The automatic door is open. We enter Sainsbury’s. ‘Maybe not in the same way as you, but I have felt it’.
‘You’ve felt it?’ she says. ‘Do you want some apples?’
It surprises me when mum mentions being adopted. In two ways: as I’ve said, she doesn’t talk about it very much, and when she does I usually experience a moment that combines dislocation and revelation: ah yes, I’d forgotten that, but you are, aren’t you, you’re adopted too. It’s like I’ve been programmed to forget this fact (or to not bother too much about it) soon after it’s mentioned. It makes me feel slightly stupid (palm-hitting- forehead stupidity actually) – how inexplicable that it wasn’t even at the back of my mind. And then I remember that she has told me about a brother who turns up out of the blue, who contacted her, visited occasionally over the years: who invited her – not long after she was married – to his wedding, creating expectations that she might find some sort of recognition, some feeling of belonging, with those members of her birth family who would be there: only for her – as she told me – to be cold-shouldered and thus disappointed. She never contacts him now – infrequently he rings her, but she seems to find these calls irritating: because, she says, she was denied a feeling of belonging to a family (and ‘it’s best not to know too much about them’, she says, ’the more you know the more you think about it, and the more you want to know’).
Talk about adoption is not reciprocal. Perhaps this is part of the shielding process – though who is shielding who? One of my ‘memorable extension moments’, not too long ago – four or five years maybe – was during a visit in which I mentioned (or let slip) that I’d told the kids I was adopted (which I’d done years before), at which news mum convulsed (very impressively I have to say), doubled-up in her chair: tears, head in hands, she cried out ‘I hoped that secret would go with me to my grave’, as if she were performing in some Victorian melodrama (which I suppose she was/is really – during another visit (we were having dinner) mumndad were talking about the fact they were still here at home, still able to cope: they were not, mum said, ‘in the workhouse – do they still have workhouses?’).
It’s nearly as hard to write about this as it is to talk about it (to her) (where’s the writer when you need him – very unreliable he is); some green lentils, yes – put them in the trolley.
Although, to be honest, it has become easier to talk about being adopted, with others, not with mumndad – which reminds me, what was dad doing when mum was in tears (above)? He was doing what he always does when mum has an emotional outpouring – sitting tight in his chair, watching, saying nothing, his face a beatific mask.
But then, what else did I do?
I didn’t tell anyone (admit) that I was adopted till I was 28 – it seemed a big thing to do at the time, and when I’d said it she just said, ‘I’d guessed – you don’t look anything like them’. Up to that point, an interdiction was in force, a vow of silence: dropping the shield could only lead to something catastrophic. And I haven’t told mumndad that several years ago I tracked down my birth-mother – well, I discovered at the register office in Belfast that she’d died in 1969, so what I actually found was her grave in Larne cemetery (though a visit to the library in Larne, to find the newspaper death-notice, led, via the directions of an interested librarian, to the home of my birth-mother’s mother – in her 90s – who was both surprised about and accepting of what I had to tell her. Her other daughter – she told me a few weeks later in a letter – was less accepting: perhaps that’s why, though I wrote back, I never heard any more from her).
Do you like salad Andy?
When we get back from Sainsbury’s the first thing that will happen is mum calling out to dad to check that he’s alright: she always does this from the hall, as soon as she gets into the house, so he – two rooms away, and semi-deaf – never hears her, and she has to repeat ‘we’re back Harold, are you alright?’ in the kitchen. He is alright. Having established this, mum will, at this point, slip me a twenty pound note ‘for petrol’: I have given up on resisting this donation, though not on feeling bad about accepting it. It seems important to mum that she gives me the money in the kitchen such that dad doesn’t see.
Now the preparations can begin in earnest for dinner (is that what we call it?). What this entails is me sitting on the settee in the extension, dad to the left of me, TV to the right: most likely the football will be on, or we might glance at newspapers – or sometimes dad will peruse Which Magazine (guidance for consumers) and may tell me about, say, which is the best make of windows to buy, or which cars most hold their value: it is important to him to have knowledge of these things so that he can avoid being ‘fleeced’ – he can be careful, and know what’s what in the real world of products.
In telling me about windows or cars I suppose he’s showing that he knows things that are of importance: and I think there’s something extra in the telling, to do with a sense of competence, of being a competent, functioning person. This sense has – for him – been challenged, by his old age. Several years ago he bought a computer – ‘keeping up with the play’. Now he can’t do his online banking – can’t see the screen, keeps having to get new passwords and can’t put them in. He gets very frustrated, mum says – and she can’t help, she’s ‘never had anything to do with the money side of things’.
While me and dad are in the extension mum will be in the kitchen preparing the food. After a while I will open the door to the kitchen and ask if she wants any help, and the answer will be either ‘not yet’, or ‘later’, or ‘you can get the table ready in a bit’, or ‘you can open the wine in a bit’. So I go and sit back down.
Mum doesn’t like anyone watching her cook, or being in the kitchen with her while she does it. She worries about getting flustered, or ‘hot and bothered’. She feels she isn’t a very good cook – and I suppose that’s true, she isn’t. She was never taught how to cook, she has said – her mother never showed her. Sometimes dad will offer some reassurance, or (even) some praise – ‘she’s a good cook yer mam’ he will say to me as she’s dishing it up, and she’ll say ‘I’ve never thought that I am’: ‘oh but you are’ he says, but mum will be left with the last word – ‘I know I’m not, I never learned’. Dad’s only other involvement with the cooking is to ‘carve’ – it may be that this is a traditional male role in the preparation of food, or it may be that because he once worked ‘in a butchers’ he knows how it’s done, has some technique.
I have cooked a few times – in emergencies, as when mum was in hospital having her hip done, and I stayed with dad (‘he wouldn’t be able to cope’), and also, though rarely, ‘to give mum a rest’. However in the latter case there is the difficulty of mum’s anxiety over not fulfilling her role – and she will have to get herself involved. Deviation from routines may lead to tensions arising – we are, in small ways, outside the realms of the known, the familiar: I am making them a risotto – mum checks that I’m alright, that I’ve got everything I need:
‘do you want some rice with that?’, she says.
‘It is rice’, I say (I am conscious of adopting a slightly supercilious tone).
‘Well I don’t know that, do I?’ she says, a bit hurt.
I open the wine, and that helps. Pinot Grigio. I set the table in the front room (they’ve had this table – the ‘wings’ fold up – for as long as I can remember). Then it’s getting dad to the table – walking-stick, old-man shuffle – and ‘dishing up’. ‘That’s yer dad’s ‘, mum says, ‘he doesn’t eat much these days’ – I take his and mine through: I’ve got twice as much as him. ‘Just get started’ she says, ‘don’t wait for me’.
I sit with my back to the window – a view of the street from the corner of the cul-de-sac (‘two cars on every drive – you can see where tax-cuts and public sector pay-freezes have gone, eh dad?’). Dad sits opposite me – sideboard, family-photos behind him – and mum to my right, near the door in case anything else is needed from the kitchen. Given mum’s anxiety about cooking the first utterance will be hers – ‘is it alright?’ – and I will say ‘very nice’, and dad will say, ‘very nice mam’. Then mum will offer a view with a tag-question, inviting confirmation from dad, and to let me know something of their tastes: ‘we like these … don’t we dad’. So the sequence is: ‘are the chips alright?’, followed by ‘we like these McCain’s oven-chips, don’t we dad’ (she did say this particular example of the ‘we like … ‘ variety, it’s in the writer’s notebook, though he reflects that it’s an odd example, because mum never eats chips, or indeed potato products of any kind, because they’re ‘bad for you’).
Dad may ask me a question – for example, there is a sub-genre of his questions that inquire into my tastes, as in ‘do you like salad Andy?’ (Again, having recourse to the writer’s notebook here, I can say that this question occurred after a period of silent plate-scraping, and may have been a desperate move to initiate conversation. However, because of its out-of-the-blue quality, it seemed, at the time, to have a kind of simple oddness, a banality that the writer – no doubt over-thinking as usual – saw as being of an existential order: a question that was really a banal and disconcerting instantiation of the displaced question ‘who are you?’ A further interpretation of the utterance sees it – given that mum had opened a packet of Asda salad for this particular meal – as a sly testing of my capacity to say the right thing.)
Of course any of the usual topics of conversation can be taken up at the table, but if there is a long-ish silence (which is quite common), and as we are round the front, I suppose, I often have recourse to asking about the neighbours. Pauline is a favourite: there’s her melanomas, her husband (Pete) who was put away in a one-thousand-pound-a-week care home (his family business ‘made millions out of rubbish’, waste-disposal, skips and the like) following a stroke (‘which doesn’t stop him from groping or swearing at the nurses’), and her son who alternates weeks playing golf in the Algarve with weeks helping his wife run a cattery. Mum can tell me about these things.
The last time I saw Pauline was about a year ago. Pauline rang to offer a zimmer that she’d got in the garage – she didn’t use it herself any more, having moved onto a three-wheeled, more mobile contraption. I heard mum say ‘I’ll send Andrew over – you haven’t seen him for a while, you’ll see a difference’. Mum and Pauline used to be close friends – when I was a teenager – then something happened and they became more distant, though still friendly. Pauline lives alone and doesn’t go out much.
So I go over the road to collect the zimmer. I hadn’t seen her for years – she was now a little hunched-over old woman: she’d lost a bit of hair. But I had the feeling I used to have as a teenager when I was over there – of a relief from mum, something different.
She smiles genuinely, pleased to see me, and she tells me – straight out – my mother’s a stubborn woman (‘I’ve known her a long time you know’), won’t accept help. She tells me that mum’s ‘going to have to accept a few things before too long’. I ask about Pete – ‘he’s up and down: some days he just wants to kill himself’.
I thank her and go and get the zimmer from the garage. I have the feeling I should have said more. In the garage the zimmer is next to a wheelchair with a hole in the middle of the seat.
I take the zimmer over to mumndad’s. Mum tries to be positive (or just is positive). Here it is, next to dad in his chair: ‘come on Harold’, she says, ’let’s see what you can do’. He looks at it with a mixture of disdain and depression; and there is clearly no sense on mum’s part that she’s forcing him to confront it, his decrepitude, and furthermore to be happy about it. He’ll try it later he says.
Later he falls asleep while reading the paper.
Going to meet the women
Mum had done him a big plate of fried stuff – a pile of chips, some pastries with green stuff inside. This was how she gave.
He was irritated. He needed to be elsewhere. He couldn’t sit at the table with them, it was hurting his back – he said this and stood up. Dad went to sit at another table altogether.
He picked at a few chips, cut into a pastry. ‘I can’t eat this mum. I’ve got to meet the two women I met on the course’. She doesn’t say anything – which could be good: that she’s not taking this as a rejection. He tries to read her facial expression but finds that, despite the fact he’s known her all his life, it remains enigmatic. One of them says – he’s not sure which, his mind is elsewhere – ‘but we’ve arranged to go and see your exhibition, you said you’d take us?’
‘Of course, we can do that, it’s just we’ll have to leave soon – and then I’ll have to go to meet the women after.’
‘Well’, his mum says, ‘can we pick up K. on the way?’ This will mean further delay, but he agrees, and leaving the food relatively untouched, he goes out of the house to tidy the car up – he’s always got a lot of stuff on the seats and the floor, and he knows his dad can’t bear it if it’s untidy: he never looks after his things.
What will I do?
A grim visit. End of November. The winter is always a worry, what with dad’s chest. She tells me they’ve had three nights not sleeping, because of dad’s chest, his coughing – it gets worse at night. He’s still got some antibiotics left though, and maybe they’re ‘loosening it up’. But they’re both tired (she doesn’t come into the kitchen when I arrive).
No TV on: both sitting facing it, waiting.
There are the ‘how’s the world treating you’ sequences, then I ask about Gill, how is she? This triggers a long monologue from mum, who has spoken with Gill on the phone. As she talks – into the middle of the room, eyes narrowed slightly, very much ‘in’ her monologue – the familiar themes emerge: Gill can’t accept she’s old, she won’t talk to people/get help from them, she could get a dog-walker but she won’t (she’s been told to walk through the pain actually), and she won’t listen to advice. The last point seems to be the crucial one – mum tells her things: Gill doesn’t listen: mum gets frustrated. The significant moment comes when she asks dad what he thinks – ‘well she (Gill) should just do what she wants to do – you can’t make people do things’, he tells her: a sort of laissez-faire policy. ‘That’s what you think is it?’ mum says: ‘you see your dad thinks I’m silly – when it comes to Gill (and here we’re getting into a substratum of resentment that is never entirely dormant, and may provide extra fuel for current sources of bad-feeling) he listens to what she says’.
She continues to stare into the middle of the room (slightly more intensely it seems: there on the green carpet, look (can you see her?), mini-Gill (in the distance) is falling over her mini-dog: well, I warned her).
I attempt to translate dad’s opinion:
‘I think what dad is saying is that it’s pointless you getting upset – ‘
‘I’m not upset’.
Dad looks at me blankly: could be ‘what are you doing?’, or ‘go on, explain’, or ‘why bother explaining?’
‘No, he means you get frustrated, having given advice that Gill doesn’t take up, and that you shouldn’t get frustrated – she is where she is – ‘
‘If I were down there [Gill lives in Essex] I could help’.
‘Yes, but you’re not, so you have to accept – some people just are the way they are‘.
It’s not exactly counselling.
I get the sense that she can’t hear me (she is half-deaf after all) – that her understandings of the situation are so fixed that they can’t be shifted (though is this much of an attempt? But it feels like going on would only cause friction). Meanwhile dad has said nothing more – I find it hard to read his face (other than, he certainly can do ‘impassive’): have I translated correctly, does he approve of my attempt to get mum to understand that her capacity to help is limited?
An accumulation of incomplete utterances – ‘well’, ‘it’s just’ – and platitudes, ‘you do what you can’, ‘some people’, plug any further leakage of animosity, and we can go on knowing everything is (not) alright.
Later, around 4-ish, dad’s cough gets worse, and he’s obviously tired. The football is boring. Mum is doing dinner. Dad has been less verbal than usual (even). The time comes to ‘get dad to the table’. He stands up, takes a few steps – then he decides he doesn’t want to eat anything: he’s not feeling too good. Mum tries to encourage him, but no – he sits back down again. He can’t face it, and, unusually, mum recognizes this. ‘Enjoy your dinner’ he says.
‘It won’t be the same without you’ she says.
At the table she cries (her face; crumpled paper, smoothed out, crumpled again): ‘he’s never done this before’, i.e. not eaten when I’ve visited – so this is a new low landmark, an index of things getting worse. ‘I’m frightened’, she says: ‘what will I do without him?’ I don’t feel I can say anything – perhaps this is what I observe with dad, the impassivity. He is going to die. I divert, not very convincingly I think, to ‘you’ve got to look after yourself – you’re tired, and this is all stressful’ (which she knows). ‘We’ve just got to keep going’, she says: ‘I know that I can call you and you’ll be there’ she says.
The time goes so quickly
I don’t stay at mumndad’s for long after we’ve finished eating and clearing the table: the length of a coffee back in the extension. Mum may make reference to marking that I might have to do – or she may ask if I’m ‘going out later’, ‘meeting someone’. These utterances allow for, prepare for, ‘goodbye’ by supplying a reason to go – it’s not that I want to leave, it’s that I have something else to do: a life. The formulaic vagueness of mum’s phrases is multi-purpose – there is also a sense of not prying too much.
I can’t remember the last time I stayed overnight – probably when one of them was in hospital. So a visit usually occurs on one day, and usually lasts from midday to early evening. I don’t want to stay for longer. I feel guilty about this.
One aspect of this guilt relates to the question ‘what do I do for them?’ I may ask myself this as I’m putting the stuff that mum bought for me at Sainsbury’s into the car. The answer to the question is ‘not much’.
Ok, sometimes dad asks me to do something (as has already been pointed out, mum generally refuses to allow me to do anything): sort out some basic problem with the computer (he assumes I know about computers), or – less often – something needs doing in the garden and mum can’t do it. He has a way of announcing this task as soon as I arrive. There will be a mildly sarcastic inflection to the framing of the task – how ‘difficult’ it will be: the implication is as follows – ‘I know you don’t want to do anything/something and (so) I enjoy giving you this task’. I can’t refuse to do whatever it is – he’s dad/old, and to do so would confirm the further implication of indolence (mine that is). (Over the years dad has been through phases of asking me to do paintings for him for his birthday – paintings of things he’d like: village scenes, a church (he’s not at all religious). I have always found these paintings very difficult to do, to channel any desire into doing what he wanted).
Having said that dad announces these tasks on my arrival, I have to say that I am usually forewarned on the phone by mum. She will be apologetic – it’s something ‘he’s got into his head’, and can I ‘just go along with it’, ‘humour him’. Of course I can. But the assumption that mumndad share – though the tones of their discourses are different: sarcastic versus sympathetic – is that I don’t want to be bothered with doing something (anything) for them. And this assumption troubles me. I suppose, though, that this assumption – at least a variant of it – is built into the foundations of the extension, is partly a product of that space: ‘it’s somewhere where he can do what he wants and be separate from us’ (though still connected).
(It is not unknown for the writer – when dealing with feelings like this, this one of guilt – to move on from the counting of slabs (itself a form of concentration-distraction), to open the volume of a book and bury himself therein. Who knows, he thinks (I do have access to his thoughts after all), this volume may contain the answers, may explain this difficult feeling. His taste is for something that will intellectualize his feelings.
It’s getting dark out there now: it’s hard to make out what’s being said by Deleuze and Guattari – his eyes straining to follow the words (‘Daddy-Mummy-Me’), his feet plodding in sync across the slabs: dark pink ‘Daddy’, dark grey ‘Mummy’, dark pink ‘Me’: dark grey ‘Daddy’, dark pink ‘Mummy’, dark grey ‘Me’; in view of the extension … this cell … this parasitical space … this holding-bay between states …).
A kiss on the head. Thanks for everything. See you at the window. If dad can make it.
I reverse out of the drive. I can see their silhouettes in the window. Mumndad, waving. From the car I wave back at them.
I will end my account of visits to mumndad’s with the narration of another particular visit – on the evening of Dad’s 90th birthday – as described in the writer’s notebook. It offers a reprise of the typical conversational themes and tropes. There is also a brief farewell scene, and a very light birthday sprinkling of the pragmatics of Paul Grice – his Maxims, of which the Maxim of Quantity is perhaps the most relevant, where one gives as much information as is needed for the ongoing purposes of the conversation, no more, no less: more or less, in conversation, creates implications.
I drove over to Derby for dad’s birthday, on the actual day – Tuesday – not the nearest weekend. The idea was to surprise him (as I don’t usually go over after work). The traffic out of Birmingham was terrible, so the journey took over two hours. I’d texted mum at the start, but when I got there she was tearful – had been so worried etc, where had I been? And having to keep my visit secret from dad. In short, straightaway going over seemed a mistake, not a nice surprise.
However dad seemed reasonably pleased. ‘He’s made your day hasn’t he’ (mum, covering her feelings and talking the visit up).
‘Yes’ (dad – Grice’s Maxims, less than effusive, probably tired though).
The room had been decorated – magnolia – so I made sure I mentioned it early on – ‘I like it. Makes it look bigger.’
‘Yes that’s what we think’, mum says.
A balloon – Congratulations – was tied to dad’s armchair: ‘nearly carried me away getting that yesterday, it was that windy’, she says.
And dad’s eyes had been done: he’d described the cutting into his eyelids over the phone, and it sounded, to use one of his words, horrendous. So I mentioned his eyes too – they (genuinely) didn’t look as bad as I expected, not bruised at all, not like last time: this I said, which might have been the right thing to say (unless he wanted sympathy).
‘But it’s all over now, don’t need to think about it’ he says.
Mum had put something in the oven for me – they’d already eaten – so I sat at a small table between their chairs and munched on a ready-meal: ‘we can have the TV on’ I said.
‘No we want to talk to you, don’t we dad.’
We talk about houses – ‘people bought them in those days’, dad says, ‘when I started at Royce’s.’
‘Did they’, I say, ’wasn’t it a bit later? You know, when the masses started buying houses?’
‘No I don’t think so’ he says. ‘Well who’d have thought we’d accumulate something to the value of £200000 – we wouldn’t have thought that then. No we wouldn’t. That’s where the class divide is these days.’
‘You mean the generation thing?’
‘Yes, young people can’t afford it, because house values have gone up.’
‘And wages haven’t.’
‘We’ve done well haven’t we’, says mum, ‘and we’ve lived within our means. Lived within our means.’
I asked who’d come over during the day – Sid and Ethel were mentioned.
‘He’s 90 now too’, mum says, ‘she’s 84, and suffering a bit. Finds walking hard. You know when I watched them go down the drive I thought that’s how we must look to other people, that old. Old people.’
I thought – well, you are – but we can’t see ourselves can we, not really. Dad chipped in – ‘he’s an accountant and [as if this was the cause, the therefore] he’s not very nice to her. He got to the car and she was struggling along behind him – didn’t help her at all, just got into the car. And you could see she was struggling – to open the car door. But he just sat there.’
‘Always has to have his dinner on the table doesn’t he’ mum says. He’s an accountant (‘and therefore pretty awful’, I say) – yes has to be there when he finishes work.’
‘He still works?’
‘Oh yes. And he has to have proper custard, not made with powder.’
Whenever she says anything like this there’s always an ambiguity, for me, over whether she’s taking part in a critique of the subject in hand or whether she actually admires this state of affairs. Her tone suggests the latter, though we’d started, I thought, on a critical tack. She has, after all, in recent visits, complained of having done too much for dad over the years – now he just expects to be ‘waited on hand and foot’: and he can’t cook for himself. If she had her time over, she says, she wouldn’t make that mistake again.
‘That’s terrible’, I say,’ in this day and age.’
‘Well that’s how things were for us, that’s what was normal.’
‘Well thank god things have changed.’
‘I never worked much did I dad’, she says, ‘didn’t contribute much to the house – it was mainly you?’
He seems to want to be fair here – ‘you worked as a dinner-lady at Andy’s school’; I say this simultaneously; ‘oh yes’, she says, ‘and you didn’t want to know me.’
‘Was I that bad?’
‘Yes you were 7 or 8 and you’d run off.’
‘Well you can understand my feelings, as a boy, having my mum there?’
‘And you can understand my feelings, not wanting you to fall over in the playground, wanting to protect you?’
Best not to say anything – don’t go any further with this line of conversation.
So, dad again: ‘and then you worked at Boots, and the dentist.’
‘I never got much for that’, she says. ‘I never did what I might have – a proper job – I could’ve stayed on and been a typist at the Telegraph. But I didn’t. I didn’t do what I could have, or wanted to do. Still, we’ve done well. And we’ve been happy.’
Dad rounds things off on this topic with some thoughts about how these days it seems both partners in a couple have to work – such is the state of earnings, prices and such – and in their day it was mainly just the man. Women didn’t work much then but now they need to. He’s not sure whether he feels this is a wholly good thing.
A silence follows. And now it’s time for the cake. Not the proper cake, that’s for Saturday when the family are here (‘you’ve done well with those kids – it doesn’t matter what happens between Olga and you – you’ve done something right’). This is another cake, made by the woman round the corner, a ginger cake: ‘you don’t like ginger do you’, she says to me.
‘I’ll give it a go, haven’t had it for a while.’
She gets the cake – two candles, and the two of us sing Happy Birthday: dad composes his face during the performance into an expression of simple muted pleasure.
‘And many mooore.’
We hold up our glasses for a clink (whiskey for me, brandy and ginger for them – he’s had three bottles for his birthday: ‘people know what you like don’t they’ I say). Then mum says; ‘happy birthday, you’ve been a great dad and granddad, and here’s to good health for the future.’ Followed by a sip.
‘I can’t believe you’re 90’ she says. ‘And I can’t believe Andy’s 53. He doesn’t look like your typical – ‘: she makes a gesture with her arm to symbolize a big stomach, and blows her cheeks out. I’ve not let myself go, in other words. ‘No I’m not your average’, I say.
‘No you’re not. The time goes so quickly’, she carries on.
‘It does’, I agree.
‘We’ve had a good life. Of course we wish we could’ve helped you more – you know, had the money …’
All this is familiar stuff: ‘none of that matters’, I say.
They’re worried about me getting back. So now they start to usher me out. They don’t like me driving in the dark: they want me to be ‘safely back’ in Birmingham.
I stand up. I look down at them in their armchairs, at either side of the small room. The newly painted walls are light, but there’s only one small table-lamp on, so the room is dark, and this light/dark gives me an odd feeling, something unreal and dream-like. They’re both smiling up at me, and the perspective, maybe enhanced by the light/dark, makes me feel a long way above them – way above the Congratulations balloon attached to dad’s chair: I think of the photo in the kitchen – taken on their 25th wedding anniversary – which shows me standing behind/between them, grinning insanely as they smile in a composed fashion: I am 18, and at least a foot taller than them.
Mum says, ‘you know I can’t believe you’re not my own.’
‘You’ve said that before’, I say. I don’t like it when she says it – but she means it to be loving.
‘Yes well that’s how I feel – I really can’t believe I never had you.’
Dad says nothing until she says –‘you’ve made our lives, from when we first got you to now, hasn’t he dad?’
‘Yes’, dad says (see Grice above).
– Have you been over to see your parents recently?
– Yes, I went at the weekend.
– How are they?
– Struggling on … mum still having to do everything. It’s good that she can look after dad … but she’s too intense about it … too wound up …
– Do you feel angry with her?
– I do – as I’ve said before – but it’s hard to be angry with her… I mean, I also understand – I think – why she has the fixed ideas that she has … about herself … how much is invested in them, for her … though I can see she’s irritating – dad finds her irritating, and switches off: but he can’t look after himself – he needs her … he puts up with things …
– Like you.
– Well, I suppose that’s true … yes, when I took mum into town … we were in the car, and she said how amazing it was that I was so like dad – I imagine she meant in the context of there being no genetic connection – and how she was someone who would use six words where one would do, while me and dad would just use the one …
– And how did you feel about that?
– I don’t really like to be thought of in that way … as quiet, or whatever … even though it’s true … depending on the situation …
– I suppose the ratio of 6 to 1 shows how much she dominated talk … as you were growing up …
– But then I could withdraw to the extension after a while and avoid that.
– And now you sit in there with them … and talk …
– Yes … but we never talk about anything that really matters … we only touch on those things when I take mum out … and that’s never really a conversation … or it can only go so far.
– You do seem like a very reticent family in some ways … mainly talking about superficial things … things that are difficult to talk about are avoided.
– … mum thinks she’s open, can talk about anything … with dad I’ve always had the sense that there are things he could say, or might want to say, but for whatever reasons doesn’t.
– Are these things you’d like him to say?
– Not necessarily … I suppose it’s the sense of something withheld and what that might mean … I mean … I’ve talked about him before … about when I was growing-up and maybe I’d done something wrong, or they weren’t pleased with me … he would withdraw – literally – to the garage, to saw some wood up, hammer some nails …
– You thought he might like to do that to you?
– Not really … just the idea of displaced anger, or aggression … unseen … not knowing how much, or sometimes why …
– He did sometimes talk with you … I seem to remember … in a more …
– Yes … I think he saw himself as having a role … as the man who went out into the world, who had experience of work … and that he could advise me on how to make the transition … I’m talking about that period when you have to get a job … he could advise me on how to enter the public world of work … I think he was bothered about, worried about, the thought that I might prefer staying in my sheltered private space …
– Was he right?
– I don’t think so … I was pretty unhappy there … at that time, 18 or so … but I didn’t know what to do.
– About life.
– And he was trying to advise you.
– Yes … he wasn’t dictatorial or anything … either he informed me of things he couldn’t do, so I would know to do them … like talk to people in that small-talk kind of way … or he suggested things I was lacking ..
– Like your ‘get-up-and-go’ which had ..
– ‘got-up-and-gone’ … yes
– Well you could argue he wasn’t entirely wrong about that couldn’t you?
– Ah we’ve talked about this before … it’s not simple is it … some of that … I think … is to do with being in that family … and there’s the ‘let’s pretend you’re really mine’ and don’t ask questions … ‘I feel like you’re really mine’ … er, the significance of ‘like’? … and I think that constitutes something of a foundational block on inquiry and initiative …
– I wondered if you were angry with your other mother – you know, for having abandoned you?
– I don’t think so.
– I suppose it would be difficult, as you didn’t know her.
– Mainly I felt sad … when I found out she was dead.
– And you still haven’t told your parents … about your research, finding her?
– I don’t think it’s possible … it seems too late … and too long after finding out now … and I can’t imagine telling mum.
– Could you not talk to your father about it?
– I can imagine that would be possible … he would be more reasonable … but it seems wrong telling him and not her …… you think I should be more able to express anger …
– I do worry about the fact that you’ve rarely – if ever – expressed it … with me. I know you get angry about teaching and politics … I thought you might be angry with me … when I moved away from Birmingham and we had to Skype …
– I wasn’t … I felt abandoned to some extent … but we have kept talking … and I understood that you had to move to be nearer to your husband’s family … so, given that ..
– I had a dream the other night …
– Oh yes?
– … in the dream I’m visiting an exam, checking to see that it’s going ok. I return to the college and remember that I should be doing that exam myself – my manager smiles and raises her head slightly in a manner that suggests ‘again, you endearing fool’. So I set off back to the place of the exam – I have only missed about a quarter of an hour, though I’m not particularly prepared for the exam, and perhaps it doesn’t really matter, but obviously it does, and I will miss some lessons though the college will hopefully be aware that I am in the exam. I get to the swimming baths – which is where the exam is. Once inside there is semi-darkness, or a kind of dusk – though it is 9.15, and there are pools of institutional lighting. Down corridors, on though changing rooms, then more corridors – all tiles, concrete, stone. Then stairs constructed out of huge breeze-blocks – I climb on and up, on to an opening. A clock on the wall says 9.25 – is there still time? Now I want to go to the toilet. Down the dark corridor, at the end. I see Uncle Alan go in via a side-door. I don’t want to see him – it’s been years – so I avoid him by going in via the facing door. Once inside I open the cubicle door and I see that the entire side of the cubicle is missing – I can’t go here, open to view. So I leave. I’ll try the one Uncle Alan went into, I think – perhaps he’s gone. As I step out into the corridor the door of the other toilet opens – it’s him: he sees me (though it’s dark, so does he really?) and he gives me an affirming, encouraging pat on the shoulder – that’s how I take it anyway. No words: then he goes. In I go, via his door. Dingy, semi-dark. Once in I find I can’t go. Then I notice two plastic bags on the floor. They are full of my things: books, papers, some clothes (perhaps I have been staying here for a while?). The bags are flimsy and my stuff is coming out – there’s too much stuff. I try to get it all back in. Then a middle-aged, perhaps older, woman comes in – nonchalant, as if this isn’t the Gents – or, I imagine, it could be that she is the cleaner. She’s talking to another woman who’s just entering with her.
Today he says to her ‘you want me to die. You came in the night and told me.
I didn’t have a very good night’ he says.
Yesterday she thought this was it. He wasn’t making any sense at all. A nurse sat her down and said – ‘what you’ve got to think is that you’ve been very happy all these years, a long time – he could have gone 40 years ago.’
So she thought there was something they weren’t telling her.
A few days before I’d watched as she leaned over him, asking if there was anything he wanted. He was asleep – trying to sleep – but she asked anyway. He half woke, and started talking about matters financial (a recurring topic since he’s been in hospital actually – ‘are you financially stable?’ he asked her at one point). He told her to sell the shares – ‘we’ve got 50000 pounds worth of shares’ he said. She looked at me, then back at him – ‘I don’t think it’s that much.’
‘Go to the bank’ he said. ‘Sell the shares and put them into the bank.’
‘Do we really want to do that,’ she says ‘what if they find out we’ve got that much money – though I don’t think we have got that much’ she says.
‘He must be feeling rotten’ she says.
‘He said he felt rotten.’
‘I can’t always hear what he says, he speaks so quietly.’
‘Yes he does. But it would help if you got your hearing-aid fixed.’
‘Mmm.’ She carries on eating.
‘I don’t know what the answer is,’ she says – ‘on how to help him. You can’t do very much.’
He still seems to be unable to distinguish between dream and reality. He says we were at Melbourne last night. He was at the station waiting for a train. These images, on the walls, kept changing. Very strange.
Then he was at work. It was very strange. Everyone was complaining. It seemed that they didn’t like him.
The nurses keep a file of notes on him. ‘You can read them if you want,’ one says: he was up in the night she’s told mum. I have a look. Urinated in a cardboard box in the store cupboard (thought it was the toilet). Wandered around naked. Went into the women’s section. One of them had to call for the nurse. ‘What does it say?’ Mum asks. ‘Oh just that he got up in the night.’
Dad very quiet, weak, wanting to sleep (and she keeps pestering him with questions – do you want this or that). When she goes to get some tissues, he leans forward and takes my hand – kisses it, and says ‘thanks for being a good lad’.
When we get back from the hospital we have a glass of wine and talk. Mum wants to ask me something, about something dad said some time ago: ‘you know when you went to Northern Ireland?’
‘Dad said this – he said you must have gone because you were trying to find your birth-mother. I said I didn’t think you did. I’d be upset if you did. Did you?’
I’m interested in the apparent fact that dad worked that out – intuition, or based on some evidence (I’d like to know)?
‘No I didn’t’ I say.
‘Good,’ she says, ‘that’s a relief – because it would upset me if you did.’
Their bed is positioned in the middle of the extension, the head of it where the settee had been, the foot a few feet from the window that overlooks the slabs. The green chairs (his on the left as you enter, hers on the right) are still in position. However mum finds it hard to see the TV (in the far corner) because the bed’s too high (or the chair’s too low), so she can only see the top two-thirds of the screen. She wants a new TV for the front-room ‘but dad won’t have it.’
Now the hospital bed has been delivered and placed on the far side of their bed (on the other side from the chairs), the foot of that bed just touches the side of the TV screen – and because it (the bed) has a raised panel at the foot, that cuts off a further portion (about a fifth from the right) of the screen when viewed from mum’s chair. If dad’s in that bed – which he often is, spending most of the day asleep – then mum can sit in his chair. In the morning, she tells me, he’d got all tearful, said things like ‘you do too much for me … I don’t deserve you’, and ’I want you to go and buy some expensive jewellery.’ Well, she explained to him, she’s never been one for jewellery. Clothes then. She never goes anywhere (because of him). She’d just like a nice new TV for the front room.
But he won’t have that. Instead, his idea is that we can wedge the screen up – balance it on ‘those black books’ from the front room ‘the second world war books’ (Purnell’s History of the Second World War in 96 weekly parts). Although he’s not well, he is himself in ‘getting a bee in his bonnet’ about this, so before I go I put 1939 – 42 under the screen – they raise the screen slightly and make it lean backwards a bit: he seems satisfied – ‘that’s made a bit of a difference.’
While he’s asleep mum talks. ‘You don’t mind me going on do you – I’ve got no-one to talk to most of the time, because he’s asleep most of the day.’ She doesn’t want to be a burden to me, but she’s thinking of coming to Birmingham ‘if and when.’ She tells me she’d put to him (dad) what I’d said about his funeral idea (his idea being not to have one) and he ‘won’t have it’ so we’ve got to do what he wants (no funeral, only the family there, no hymns and stuff (these things are hypocritical) – ‘people go to funerals, but they never thought anything of the person when they were alive. It’s how you’re remembered that counts – remembered as you were’).
She’s put a stop to the care package. Dad didn’t like it – this young lad dressing him, seeing him naked (‘and the young lad didn’t like it much either – think he was a trainee. Polish. Had a motorbike. Nice lad’). She doesn’t seem to get the idea that she’s entitled to some help (a budget in fact), thinks (no matter how much I say) that they’ve got to pay (“but you have less than 23000 in total savings don’t you, 13000 in the bank, and those shares are worth 8000” I tell her “so you don’t have to pay anything”) – seems to be some combination of the sense of stigma at receiving benefits, lack of understanding of how their taxes have paid for this anyway, and a bottom-line of living within your means, atomized self-sufficiency as the dominant understanding of how life should be lived.
‘Are you awake Harold? Do you want to go to the toilet?’ He isn’t and doesn’t but she wakes him up anyway. She uses the control to lower the bed (makes it easier for him to get up), then she helps him sit up. ‘Push on the bar at the side of the bed, that’s it.’ She’s got his three-wheeler for him. He can push himself, walk with that. There’s a narrow channel of floor-space now, just enough for them in single-file. She has to move the small table (from a nest) that’s always to the side of his chair, so he can get through. After he’s passed she puts the table back, so he can put his tea or whatever on it when he sits in the chair. Then when he wants to go back to bed she moves the table out of the way again.
As they pass she says ‘he’s got some forms to sign to transfer the shares Harold. He’s very prepared. I bet you didn’t think that did you – that he’d be on the ball, and come prepared with the forms? I bet you didn’t think that?’
We’re waiting for the woman to come from the Council, to assess mumndad’s income and whether they need to pay towards any future care. They had two visits before mum rang the care-providers and stopped them from coming.
Dad’s in his chair, which has been angled so he can look out at the garden. That means when I sit in mum’s chair as I am now, I see the back of his head, and some of the right side of his face if he looks my way. Mum brings a chair in from the kitchen, puts it between dad’s chair and the door – now if one of us wants to leave the extension she’s going to have to move. She’s also behind dad – we’re in a V-formation. No TV or radio.
‘We’ve been talking about your funeral haven’t we Harold?’
‘It’s a bit depressing but it’s important to talk about it – of course I might go first, in which case we should be talking about my funeral. We don’t know do we? Anyway, dad isn’t keen on your idea, are you dad?’
‘We thought we’d just go to the Crem – straight from the funeral home: there’s one up Raynesway that we’ll probably use – straight from there. You don’t want to come back here and then go to the Crem do you Harold?’
‘No. No, just want the family there – that’s all.’
‘The kids’ll come won’t they?’ mum asks.
‘I would’ve thought so – ‘ I say.
‘If they’re not doing anything’ she says.
‘ – if they don’t it’ll just be you and me then’ I say.
‘Make sure you invite them’ Dad says.
‘There’s a lady at the Crem who’ll do it – say a few words – and Andrew can read out a poem. You don’t want any hymns do you – but you’d better decide on some music – ‘, and she sings ‘I did it myyyy wayyyy’, laughs – ‘how about that one?’
Dad says nothing.
‘A lot of people have that one I believe’, I say.
‘Then you want your ashes brought back here don’t you, and scattered on the garden – on a flower-bed. And then when I go, you want mine scattered there too.’
‘I thought you were going to sell the house?’ I say.
‘Well yes – we’ll have to see what happens – I might go first’ she says. ‘When we’ve sold it I don’t want to come back and see it, see what they do to it – that would upset me.’
‘But if you’re here for all eternity’ I say ‘you might.’
‘It’s a bit depressing. No one used to talk about these things in the old days you know’ she says.
A few moments of silence. ‘What do you think of your mam?’ dad says.
‘He thinks I’m stupid’ – she jumps in before I can say anything.
I pause. ‘I think she’s very good to you – ‘
‘Yes, she’s very good to me.’
‘ – but if she’s not careful she’s going to get worn out – that’s why it would be good if you got some help in.’
‘We’ll see how it goes’ she says ‘at the moment I’m coping … ‘
When the woman from the Council arrives they decide to talk to her in the kitchen. Dad can sit on the commode, which they use as a wheelchair – mum explains to the woman that they’ve never used it as a commode, perhaps thinking it’s cheaper if you haven’t really used it.
Black-suited, unsmiling, the woman sits at the kitchen table, facing mumndad – I’m stood up, leaning against the sink. Mumndad sit there, quiet and still now, like they’re expecting to be told off by teacher. They’ve been worried about this meeting – ‘they can find out everything about you’. In a bid to avoid having too much money they’ve given me their share certificates, wanting me to transfer them from them to me – I’d told them that their value, combined with what they’ve got in the bank, comes to less than 23000, which seems to be the threshold beyond which you pay towards your own care.
The woman asks if they’ve got details of their income and expenditure – a bank statement. I’d forgotten what a flat drone the Derby accent is – I never notice mumndad’s. Dad hands over a statement, and she starts to go through it, making notes on a form. ‘This is your pension is it?’ she asks. ‘Yes, Rolls-Royce’ dad says. Mum says nothing – it’s dad who’s always handled the finances. ‘Have you got some shares?’ the woman asks. ‘No – no shares’ dad says, rather stiffly, sitting forward now on the commode. Mum crosses her legs – I can’t see her face because I’m standing behind her, but I imagine she’s looking at the table. ‘You’ve got a share dividend here, on the statement – 26 pounds’ she says and hands it over to dad for him to have a look. ‘No – no shares’ he repeats, then holding the sheet close to his face starts to trace each entry on the statement with a shaky forefinger.
Silence. ‘I think what my dad means – when he says he’s got no shares – is that he’s recently given them to me, transferred them. They’re worth about 8000’ I say. Then she wants to see the certificates. I explain they’re in Birmingham, and she wants me to photograph them and email them to her. This encounter is actually turning out to have some of the tension and anxiety, caused by being examined by ‘authority’, that mum has talked about.
The Council woman changes the subject – she wants to know about extra expenditure caused by dad’s ‘condition’. ‘Are you incontinent?’ she asks dad. ‘Incontinent? Yes’ he says. Mum can come into the conversation now. ‘We don’t like the pads the hospital gives you – you don’t like them do you Harold? We prefer the Pampers-type things – I buy them.’
‘Have you got receipts?’ says the Council woman.
‘Well, no’ says mum, ‘I didn’t think – ‘
Turns out this meeting is not about establishing a ‘personal budget’ for care (as the letter from the Council suggested): if they (mumndad) want that they’ll ‘have to start the whole process again’ the woman says. What this meeting is about is establishing whether mumndad have to pay for the care they’ve received so far – ‘I understood that mumndad wouldn’t have to pay anything for the first six weeks of any services received?’ I say. ‘The government changed the rules in April – now you have to pay from the start’ – she pulls a face that seems to me to indicate she doesn’t agree with this.
After she’s gone dad goes back to bed – there’s just time for a few more confirmations of funeral plans before he drifts off.
Mumndad have had a letter saying they owe £11.88 a week for their care – which they aren’t having. They have trouble understanding the letter so I go through it with them – they have to pay for what they have received only: they won’t be paying for nothing. ‘As long as no-one thinks we’re sponging’ is mum’s concern. Although I’d been told, and had heard on Radio 4, the idea that you don’t pay anything towards care if your total assets are less than £23000 an email from someone at the Council explains to me that this isn’t true – you’re means-tested if you have less than that figure to establish how much you contribute, and (I think) if you have more you pay for it all. It does all seem rather unclear – and clearly the writers of the Tory manifesto have also found this.
Dad is lying on the bed (the one from the hospital). Mum presses one of the buttons on the control at the bottom of the bed to raise the top part of the mattress. The top half of Dad is now at an angle of 45 degrees. He further props himself up on his elbow as she hands him his tea. ‘I’ve been thinking of jobs for you to do’ he says to me. Mum has sat down in her usual seat – I am in dad’s. ‘Of course your mum never wants you to do anything when you’re over here. She never has’ he says.
‘That’s what all mothers are like isn’t it?’ she says. ‘If they have sons they always want to protect them from having to do things. I like to do things for both of you.’
‘Yes, mum has a point there doesn’t she dad – you’ve benefited quite a lot, haven’t you, from mum doing the kinds of things that you and I could have done?’
He seems to accept this point, because he doesn’t say anything. He sips his tea.
‘Have you finished your tea Harold?’ mum says. Without waiting for a reply she gets up and moves round to his bed. He passes her the cup. She puts it down on the window-ledge, and picks up the bed-control-handset again. As dad descends to the horizontal plane he says ‘I’ve lost all my authority now haven’t I.’
‘It’s been a bad day’ mum tells me on the phone. She likes to believe it’s the antibiotics – he still has pneumonia. When I visit he seems very weak, spent most of the time lying down. She tries to get him to ‘snap out of it’, as if it were just a matter of will – ‘why can’t he be cheerful?’ It’s painful to watch her attempts – singing along to the radio, ‘come on Harold, join in, you like Diana Ross don’t you.’ It still seems to me that part of his non-response is refusal to play along, a ‘don’t tell me what to do’. In the car I tell her to accept that he’s not feeling well, is not up to being cheerful, and not to see this as a failing on her part – which is how she sees it: that whole structure of feeling continues.
She can’t get him to eat much – on this occasion he didn’t eat with us. At one point (he was lying on the settee) he asked her for the scales. She was obviously upset by this request – ‘why do you want them?’ She left the room, and I thought she wasn’t going to bring them, but she did. It seemed something was at stake here – as if he wanted to demonstrate something that she didn’t want demonstrated. We both had to lift him off the settee, and virtually move his legs for him, into position on the scales – it was like he was a life-size puppet version of himself. The reading was 8 stone 2, which I said, but mum said, ‘no, say it’s nearer 9 stone.’ Was that for his benefit or hers – was the weight a measure of her failure to look after him, something she didn’t want objectifying? ‘You need to eat more dad’ I told him, but he doesn’t feel like it.
While we were sitting/lying watching the cricket (the first day/night test match) the phone rang – mum answered and was on for a while. She came into the room and said, to me, it’s Colin, my brother – he wants to speak to you.’
‘Yes, would you just speak to him – for me.’
So, slightly bemused I go the phone – I’ve never spoken to him before. ‘Hello Harold’ he says. Seems there was some misunderstanding – not sure on whose part – and he was expecting to talk to dad. I explain it’s hard for him to get to the phone. It seems Colin has watched something on TV about tracking down your birth parents – and it’s moved/upset him, and that’s why he rang. He’s ‘pissed-off’ with mum because she never rings him, and he’s 80, and they’re both old, and the past is the past, and he wants to know what’s going on now, so why can’t she contact him. ‘She’s a bit funny about it’ I say. He tells me that he first contacted mum after he left the army (‘the far east’) in 1956, and his parents died – both of them – around that time, one of them was 48, ‘and that’s why I don’t believe in god’ he says. ‘It’d be a bit of a surprise if someone came looking for you wouldn’t it’ he tells me.
‘Yes, a bit late in the day for it I think’ I say.
I tell him I’ll talk to mum, see if I can get her to ring more often. The whole conversation is slightly awkward given that we’ve never spoken before – and there is the issue of how much I’m meant to know about him, that is how much does he expect me to know, for mum to have told me about him: he seems to think I know that his wife is ill, but I don’t even know he’s married. Mum as the keeper of secrets, or at least a censoring body – one who keeps/withholds information (something, I fear, that’s been passed on to me).
When I go back to the room mum is sat next to dad, now sitting-up. He looks very frail, almost child-like, leaning into her as if reliant on her presence, and close to tears it seems. I explain that it was dad that Colin wanted to talk to – ‘oh I didn’t realize that’ she says. Though I wonder if there was some reason she asked me to speak to him. I tell her about him being ‘pissed-off’, and she says that she feels the way she feels, ‘I can’t explain’, and she doesn’t want to cause herself any more upset – she won’t be shifted by thoughts of letting bygones be bygones. Shortly after in the kitchen, with me, she will go through the whole story again (though it isn’t ‘whole’ in the sense of being only her account): the snubs at Colin’s wedding (‘they just didn’t want to know’), wanting to meet her mother before she died, and then onto the general condition of being adopted – the stigma (‘bastard’ – apparently she is the child of a soldier, Northampton barracks, ‘out of wedlock’), and ‘I never wanted you to go through …’, ending with wanting a hug and another line from her internal Victorian melodrama: ‘life has played a cruel trick on us – but we’ve got each other: I never think other than it was meant to be, for you to be mine.’
‘I can’t weigh him up’ she says, coming from the extension, then bursts into tears. ‘You go and see your dad.’ Dad peers through the door as mum exits to the hall. I can hear her sobbing. Dad looks at me with his face that represents a state of equanimity, or benign unknowingness, or simple innocence – at least one of those. He says nothing. I show him photographs of Mabel’s graduation. He seems to like looking at them; mum is still sobbing in the hall.
When she’s pulled herself together, and when we’re alone, there seems to be some recognition on mum’s part that she may be a contributory factor in the way dad is, the way he acts (or doesn’t). Obviously he’s tired, and doesn’t feel good – his legs in particular are bad/weak. However, she thinks, it could be that he is being resistant – that he doesn’t like her ‘nagging’, her constant attention (and her being the only ‘other’ he sees, pretty much): so it may be true that he resents her telling him what to do – but ‘I can’t help who I am’ she says, ‘people can’t change’. I notice that she asks him how he is very frequently – it must get very wearing for him, her constant concern. She finds it hard to go to town even, her one outlet (his one relief) – ‘I don’t know what I’ll find when I come back’ she says, ‘it doesn’t bear thinking about’.
‘He hasn’t been out of that room [the extension] for five weeks. Not even to the bathroom. He says his legs are too weak. I tell him that they’re going to get even weaker if he doesn’t use them. He won’t even let me take him into the front room – at least he could look out the window there. He has no interest.’
Mum continues to articulate her sense that dad is – at least in part – being awkward: ‘It’s true, I do nag him – but he’d never do anything – never eat or anything – if I didn’t. He spends a lot of time in bed and/or asleep. She is becoming dejected by the unremittingness of this state of affairs – she does everything for him (‘which I don’t begrudge’ she says), but all she gets ‘in return’ is his misery: ‘there are people a lot worse off than him – why can’t he see that?’ She looks tired: there are more silences these days, punctuated by sighs.
The phone rings. Mum takes it off into the kitchen, leaving dad and I in the green chairs. I can hear sombre tones of consolation from the kitchen. When she comes back she stands in front of dad – ‘it was Sylvia. The hospital have been on the phone to her. They want to know whether she wants them to resuscitate Graham if things get worse. She says she can’t get to the hospital – her daughter won’t take her – wanted to know if Brenda [next door] is in: she could take her. She’s been out all day though. He’s such a nice little chap, Graham, isn’t he Harold?’
‘It’s such a shame. He’s had two heart attacks,’ she turns to me, ‘the first one when he was 37’ – pause – ‘37.’
It seems to me that Graham’s situation is being narrated – at least partly – for dad’s benefit: things could be – could have been – worse (and indeed the effect could be to remind dad that things will get worse in the near future – or perhaps better: she tells me in the car on the way to Sainsbury’s that dad has expressed the desire to be ‘out of it’ himself).
Later, while we’re all sitting in the extension (all facing the TV, which isn’t on), she asks dad how he’s feeling. This is something she does frequently: the tone is either concerned/worried or slightly patronising – at Sainsbury’s I suggest again that she does it less because it only draws attention to the fact that dad’s not feeling well (‘Have you tried not asking him how he is?’, ‘Yes – he said ‘you’re not being very caring today’’). This time she puts her hand on his arm and adds – ‘you’re not worrying are you? You musn’t worry’ she says. At this he becomes slightly animated – a bit angry: ‘I’m feeling ill. I ache all over. I don’t think you understand.’ She takes her hand off his arm and looks towards the TV (which is not on). While we’re eating – dad still in the extension, too ill to come to the table – she says ‘you see now what I have to put up with – all the time.’
Mum is in the kitchen. Dad looks across at me: ‘I’m bothered about yer mam having to look after me all the time. It’s not very good for her – wearing her out’. I’m not sure what to say: ‘well she wants to do it doesn’t she – she wants to look after you.’
‘I said she wants to look after you – she’s doing it willingly. I know it’s difficult.’
The look on his face suggests that this is an awful situation that there isn’t any easy way out of – we can’t get ‘help’ in, and mum occasionally raises the subject of ‘putting dad somewhere’ to immediately follow it with ‘over my dead body.’
Mum calls me out into the kitchen – ‘I want you to have a look at something. Tell me what you think.’ She goes into the hall, comes back with a grey and white cardigan. ‘What do you think of this? Pauline gave it to me.’
‘Yeah, I like it.’
‘She said she was worried about me – she gave me this.’
‘Oh yes? That was kind of her. Why worried?’
‘Eh? Oh because she went through all this with Pete – looking after him at home. It was only when he’s had the second stroke that she couldn’t cope. She knows what it’s like. She’s been a good friend.’
‘Did she think that you should get help with looking after dad?’
‘Oh she didn’t say that. She just knows what it’s like.’
Mum stands, slightly leaning over and into dad as he sits in his armchair.
She lists some soups – ‘Mushroom, Carrot and Coriander, Oxtail: what would you like?’ she says.
‘Get whatever you want,’ he says. His tone suggests he couldn’t care less.
‘It’s for you,’ she says.
‘You see what I have to put up with,’ mum says when we are in the kitchen. Then she moves on to the oven. She thinks she needs a new one. ‘I’ve had this one,’ she says, ‘let me see – before the kids were born and you were married [that’s 26 years at least then] – must be 40 years.’
‘Really? That long? It’s done very well then,’ I tell her.
‘I suppose,’ she says, ‘that if I do get a new one that that one will outlast me.’
Sitting in the extension, staring out of the window at the garden, or at the far corner of the room, where the TV is – it isn’t on. They do this much more, I’ve noticed, these days – sitting and looking in silence, as if watching for the grim reaper to come climbing over the wall.
Four O’clock. It is wine-time. Dad has gone to lie down – or been helped to his bed, mum or me behind him, and he, hand over hand along her bed that used to be their bed until he’s in position such that he can be supported into sitting down on his bed. Then it’s helping him lift his legs up onto that bed, and lying down. It was suggested that he might want to lie down because he was complaining of chest pains – which he frequently does (the doctor says there’s nothing wrong with his heart, so it must be lingering after-effects of the pneumonia). Wine then. I pour two glasses. Mum sits in dad’s chair. She’s watching the sky. ‘I like watching the sky,’ she tells me. ‘I like the colours and the clouds. We’ve had some very good colours recently.’
In my dream dad was in bed and wrapped up in some white fabric. And although he was a baby he was recognisably dad as he is now, that is, a very old man. And he wanted me to pick him up – which I did. And he said, ‘don’t leave me till I go to sleep.’ And I said, ‘don’t worry, I won’t leave you.’
I visited with Daniel: I’d told him in the car that grandad had lost more weight since he last saw him, on the 92nd birthday. And when we arrived, there they were, in the extension, mumndad (I had knocked on the back-door, and just gone in, and called out, and gone into the extension), and mum was kneeling in front of the hospital bed with one arm around dad, and his mouth was open, and that and the shape of his head reminded me of the Edvard Munch Scream/Cry, and it was clear that everything was awful. His voice was a cross between a croak and a rattle. Mum had phoned for a doctor – and after the doctor the ambulance came.
Mum is holding one hand – her head rests on the metal bar at the side of the bed: she is crying. She says, ‘he’s as thin as a lollipop, and the worst thing is I can’t hear what he’s saying.’ This is partly because of her deafness. She needs to get her ears sorted out, she says.
Mum wants to perform the little rituals – the acts of love and care – that mean everything is carrying on: she puts some hair-cream on and smooths his hair down, but it keeps sticking up. She asks him if he wants a shave, and he says ‘yes.’ She puts some of the blue pre-shave lotion on his face – ‘you like that don’t you’ – and he says yes, yes he does, and he seems to be enjoying the feeling, but then when she starts to shave him it’s too painful, the hairs are pulling, and she has to stop.
I’m holding dad’s other hand. ‘It’s a long time since you held my hand’, he says to me. ‘Do you remember when we were on the bus and we were lost?’ he says to me. The nurse comes over. She’s mixed this powder into his orange juice to make it thicker, easier to swallow I think. He doesn’t want it. He continues: ‘we were lost, and they told me I was going to die – I was going to die, but I’d be alive after.’
He wants us to be happy … not to fall out … be happy – like we have been. The family is all that matters.
‘I love you being here’, he says, ‘and talking to you, but I’m very tired … I can’t manage it … I need to sleep’, he says.
Then, ‘there’s something else I wanted to say … you know those old toys of mine … that car … three in one box … the clockwork one … can you make sure you get a good price for the car? It’s worth something.’