episode five: through the wardrobe

in which an ‘outing’ leads to an unlikely bond between adversaries and the reservations of well-intentioned parties rattle my confidence…

My sister is cleaning my parents’ bungalow with my ex-wife as enforcer. I can hear their exclamations and appeals to God from the other end of the bungalow. I’m in the kitchen clearing cupboards as they shout out their first finds, making me squirm for my father, for myself and for all men, especially those who should be resting in peace…No doubt their faces are appropriately creased in disgust, just as I imagine, and I can sense also a certain triumphalism at having caught the man—forgive me—so completely with his pants down.

Porn.

Nothing kinky or perverse, just stuff like Sex for the Over Forties, which happens to be a VHS video, a few magazines and a penis pump.

I can’t see how my father could have watched the video as he’d never mastered the TV remote, let alone the VHS recorder, despite the Post-it notes I plastered over the console. As for the penis pump, he may have had more success there, but being unfamiliar with its precise purpose I’m relieved I didn’t have to write a Post-it for that too.

But it’s too easy and too ugly. A veil should be drawn. Death should confer the right to a modicum of dignity. I have to do something. So I walk to the bedroom to find sister and ex-wife exactly as I’d pictured them and with more toxic material in hand. Armed with black plastic bags and marigolds, their fingers and thumbs pinch the corners of H&E magazine or Big Titty Girls, mined from the drawers and cupboards of my father’s bedroom.

“Please,” I say, “don’t do this. I’m much more concerned about the kitchen cupboards. There’s stuff there from pre-history.”

Neither seems chastened by my appeal.

“It’s got to be done,” says my ex.

“I know. Just without the fanfare.”

I sound self-righteous. A little defensive. I can see both my sister and my ex-wife wondering why I’m taking the moral high ground in defence of a man who was for so long a bitter adversary.

They’ve no doubt gleaned that I’m not simply protecting my father’s reputation. So let me immediately acknowledge my own gross treble standard in castigating the marigold-wearers and outing my Dad in such spectacular fashion and fessing up to nothing myself. I’m committing a crime I loathe in writers. Not just their insatiable cannibalism with life as lived, that’s to be expected—and as you can see, I am guilty of the offence in spades—but the tendency to absolve themselves by implication, claiming observer status, passing judgement and leaving their own lives thoroughly unexamined.

Let’s put that right now, right now, if you see what I mean… It’s coming up for two years since I made love, (I can’t say ‘had sex’…I don’t think you can have sex alone, or even, given I find the phrase ugly, with a partner…three plus, fine…),  with anyone other than myself—if you leave aside a brief rekindling of passion with my ex-girlfriend, she who’s son I displaced—when she came to visit me in France, an event I may have cause to recount later. I’ve been desperately missing contact with another human being, and uncomfortable as it is to hear from a middle-aged man, bluntly and honestly, I’m missing sex, with or without love.

And whilst many people would abhor porn as part of the process, if you are alone, most of us would acknowledge that solo sex, with or without the sin of porn, is a sensible release, not a dark perversion. We may not want to talk about it, or think of a close relative in the act, but the backing up of vital fluids is never to be advised. Take Keats for example. It was undoubtedly Tuberculosis or consumption, as it was known then—that killed him at the tender age of twenty-five—just as it killed one in three Londoners in the early nineteenth century. But his unconsummated passion for Fanny Brawne certainly did him no favours and to my mind may have fatally weakened an already fragile constitution.

“I cannot exist without you,” he wrote to Fanny. “I could be martyr’d for my Religion—Love is my religion—I could die for that—I could die for you.”

And in the end, perhaps he did.

I have four eyes across the room to my two and an uncomfortable moment passes where I feel a little exposed.

“I just think we should let it go,” I say, “give the man a break. It’s not that strange or unusual, is it?”

They say nothing and neither do I. There’s nothing to say. They’re here for me and I know their intentions are good. They want to see me settled. In the few weeks I’ve been in the house, I’ve camped in one of the small spare bedrooms, not daring to sleep in my father’s room, the only one with a decent bed, a double as it happens.

Why? He was still alive for the first of those weeks. It would have been weird to visit the man in hospital and then sleep in his bed, the same bed where he’d spent the past two years lying with the blankets pulled up to his chin, fiddling with a tinny transistor radio playing Five Live Sport, waiting for his carer to visit and make him a sandwich he wouldn’t eat.

With my sister’s arrival someone had to sleep in the room, or on the sofa. I have a considerably higher disgust threshold than my sister. Her adherence to sell-by dates for example, is religious in its fervor and many an impromptu auto da fé has been organized for stacks of perfectly good food ripped untimely from the fridge.

I knew if I drank enough wine and tried to think about other things, I could sleep in my father’s bed. Though I made a concession to myself. I lay on the side of the bed he never used, the left, to allow a little space for his ghostly outline to remain undisturbed. Lying there beside him for those first few days, I always turned away to sleep. Sometimes, I still do, as even today, though the mattress is new, I sleep in the same bed.

 

Departure day comes around and my sister is getting on a plane for Vancouver and the life she left behind. We have a beer at the airport as always. She asks me again. Am I really sure about doing this thing? It’s not too late, she says. No-one would blame me. Certainly not her.

She has a point. Because suddenly, objections and reservations and dire warnings of catastrophe are arriving thick and fast by way of unannounced visits, concerned phone calls, sobering emails and the skepticism of tight-lipped officials.

What follows is a representative list of the most significant players, their methods of approach and a summary of their individual cases against. The list is far from exhaustive:

 

My uncle, my mother’s brother Lunch at the local pub with self and sister, followed by sit down at his house My uncle is one of my heroes, much like my grandfather and the sixteenth century philosopher, Michel de Montaigne. All are stoics. He’s the kind of guy who says, ‘measure twice and cut once’, who rubs his tummy at the prospect of good home cooking and for whom nothing is too much trouble if it helps another. He took care of his mother, my grandmother in her dotage, visiting her almost every day for fifteen years or more, even though as things subsequently turned out, he was not her greatest fan.

His case, and a well-founded one at that, is that I am simply too flighty and unreliable, lacking both the character and the imagination to see the awfulness of the task ahead. But, being my beloved uncle and a man of great good heart, he insists I take a thousand pounds from him to kick off my own living expenses and the legal costs of probate. He also wishes me luck and offers any help he can provide. As he waves me goodbye, I can see he’s counting only weeks ahead before the whole house of cards collapses around my ears.

Auntie Jen Unexpected visits to the bungalow and phone calls to reinforce her argument Auntie Jen is not a real auntie at all, but a friend of the family for many long years. She worked at the airport with my grandmother and knew my mother when she was still single. My father made at least one pass at her and they came to hate each other, because she called him out on his drinking and he banned her from the house. Her argument, again well-founded, is that she took care of her own mother for more than ten years and it nearly killed her. Her mother however, survived to go into a care home when she became too much to handle, thus defeating the object of the exercise and destroying Auntie Jen’s finances along the way.
Linda from the care agency A call to say, can she come round in half an hour with her head of operations to talk me out of this It was Linda’s care agency that took care of my mother when she lived at home and then my father when he needed care, right up to his hospitalization and death. She knows the family and my mother’s condition inside out. Her case is that my mother’s care needs are beyond most care agencies, and certainly her own. She is also a believer that I have no idea what I’m doing and no conception of what I’m in for. Her head of operations, a grand title for a woman who is short in stature but very serious in nature, backs up her boss with nods and emphatic one-liners such as, ‘That’s true,’ and ‘It’s better to face facts now then find out later.’
Uncle Jim Two phone calls Uncle Jim is a real uncle, and a strange one. He suffers from nervous diseases of one kind or another and doesn’t get out much. His first call relates to my father’s death and his questions suggest that I might somehow be responsible at a criminal level. His second casts doubt not just on my father’s demise but also on my plans with regard to my mother, who may, when alone in the house with me he seems to suggest, be vulnerable to the same murderous intentions that did for her husband. Dear Jim. Not exactly a vote of confidence
The Care Home manager Two meetings and several emails Her case, it seems, has no particular rationale and certainly bears no relation to my mother’s welfare or indeed my capacity to cope. Instead it is clear that this situation has never arisen before. Certain of her clients may have moved to other facilities, but none have returned to their family homes. As Fiona, the hairdresser in the care home will put it to me so graphically – the only way out of here, is in a box.
The care home accounts team Emails at this stage, phone calls will come later The case here is reasonable, but their options are limited. With £27,000 owed to the company in outstanding care bills for my mother, they would prefer to hold keep her until the money is paid. Unfortunately for the company, this would amount to a hostage taking and the stress of allowing her to leave without paying is causing a stuttering response that takes up more time than it should

 

I feel nothing but goodwill and genuine concern behind all these representations. I do. I’m just a little unnerved. But I don’t want my sister to know that. I tell her it’ll be fine. I say it all feels more like a beginning than an end. This is what we always wanted, time with our mother. It’s a dream come true.