episode one: endings and beginnings

in which the end of one life signals the beginning of another, and I recall a road trip to the south of France…

This is what I remember…

I remember the busy corridor jammed with people. I remember the nurse, in something of a panic, asking us to wait before going into the hospital room. And I remember the doctor skidding round the corner, breathless and clearly relieved to have caught us in time…

I remember how he took us to one side, away from the crush. The noise and the bustle made it hard to concentrate. But the words made sense. Kind of. Like when you think you understand something spoken in a foreign language. When he’d said all he could say, the doctor suggested my sister and I might want to go in alone, just the two of us. He said he would wait outside.

I remember the absolute stillness of the room…How the bed was set strangely high, above waist level. And I can picture the pale yellow blanket tightly tucked around the torso and arms, like a restraint. His cheeks are hollow, the wisps of grey hair, dry and unkempt. The mouth is open and forms an ‘O’. And I see with a start that the eyelids barely stretch to cover the eyes, probably eased there after death for the sake of the relatives. Us.

The stiff, contorted figure beneath the blanket puts me in mind of those chipped from the ash of Pompeii. Like them, my father has become an exhibit to be gawked at. Like them, whatever thought or feeling he had at the end, just a few minutes ago as we were making our way to the ward, is incomplete, unfinished. I guess we all die like that. Right in the middle of things.

What I can’t remember, now I sit down to write about that day, is what happened after. There’s the hospital, then a big blank. So just the other day, I wrote a mail to my sister in Vancouver.

She sent me back this:

We went home to Mum and Dad’s house. Poured stiff g and t or two and felt relieved.

Sounds terrible but the stress of all those years and anger and sadness for all the loss of contact for the family took their toll.

You’d cried the day before at his hospital bed.  It was the day I arrived from Vancouver and we went to see him.  You broke down and talked about the lost years and how unnecessary all the suffering was for everyone.

I think you were also relieved I was there and you could relax a bit…

Pub the day he died?  Didn’t want to cook so we walked down to the pub.  

Anyway.  We continued there and ate dinner. Maybe it was fish and chips?

We did talk about taking mum out of the care home but I think you’d already decided and it was more of a discussion about how difficult this might be. 

You were going to try as you always promised you would bring her home.

She was often asking you how long and saying don’t forget me and don’t leave me here.

The next day, we’re on our way to a bulk-buy superstore when we pass road kill; a squirrel perhaps, but it’s hard to tell. It might once have been a rabbit.

“Oh my God,” my sister cries, “poor thing! Do you think it’s dead?”

I’m driving so I don’t get a good look, but it’s clear that the creature, whatever it once was, is now a blood and fur inkblot as flat as the tarmac itself.

I laugh. She laughs too. At ourselves, each other and death in general. And it helps. After the last twenty-four hours, we need a break. If we can court the irreverent and lighten things, that’s good, because there’s an element of getting to know each other. Although we’re close, we’ve lived most of our adult lives on opposite sides of the Atlantic. The last time we spent any length of time together, she was fifteen and I was seventeen. Forty years ago now.

By the time we get to the store and push one of the over-sized shopping carts into the cathedral of capitalism, we’re both high as kites.

Maybe we should be in mourning, staring headlong into the pit, facing the dark side. Instead, we’re gliding through a wonderland of surfeit and mediocrity, gluttony and gorging. It’s perfect.

The idea is to prepare the house for the return of my mother from the care home. We’re on a war footing and supplies are the key to the campaign against the disbelievers and doubters. They’ve told us the plan for me to take care of Mum myself is plain crazy.

We’re supposed to be buying bin bags, kitchen roll, toilet paper, washing powder, new sheets to replace the piss-stained bedding, new towels and pans to cook with. No-one has cooked at my parents bungalow for years. Even before my mother went into the care home, she’d lost the ability to cook. The Parkinson’s dementia and the dozens of pills she took each day, one counteracting the other, made it impossible for her to work the oven safely. She was often confused and fainting fits could bring her crashing to the floor at any moment. After she’d gone to the care home, my father lived alone there for three years, two of them bedridden, but he’d never cooked a meal in his life. And for the last six months of his life, he’d stopped eating altogether.

We’re here for the essentials. But it’s hard to resist the luxuries all around us. The American barbeques, Italian white goods, the food counters stocked with catering-sized platters of chicken wraps, vast sugar-iced cakes for all occasions, meat in massive packs, vegetables by the box, cheeses the size of breeze blocks, olives in buckets and boxes of wine and beer. It’s obscene, and glorious.

Soon, the trolley is full to overflowing. At the checkout, it turns out we’re spending more than four hundred pounds, but that doesn’t dampen our spirits in the least. As we pass the security guy on the door, it feels like we’re looting in broad daylight. But after a cursory inspection he lets us through and we’re out into bright February sunshine.

“Are we terrible people?” my sister asks me as we wheel our spoils to the car.

“Maybe so.”

Perhaps we are. Certainly, I’m glad there are no witnesses. But this is also a little epiphany, a new beginning and neither of us feel that terrible. Quite the reverse. Spring is in the air. We’ve a mass of material goods. And we’re on a mission to liberate our mother.

 

The room is large and high-ceilinged, a sort of orangery.

Once part of a grand house built in the thirties, the orangery is now the care home’s day room. Around a hundred straight-backed chairs are arranged side-by-side and back-to-back in ‘U’ shapes, like an airport departure lounge.

There’s a large screen TV on one wall, today showing a sports programme with the sound turned down as usual.

No-one is watching, bar one of the carers, a tall and kind man I know hails from Zimbabwe. He’s stopped to catch an athletics update. He sees me and I wave. He waves back. A baby grand piano with a green plastic cover sits halfway along the length of the room. The staff use the piano as a staging post for tea trays and water jugs and plates of cake.

My mother is washed up here with the other marooned men and women. It’s as well she’s usually in the same chair as the residents can look very alike from a distance, diminished and homogenized by age, often with heads bowed in sleep and huddled beneath day blankets.

Sometimes on previous visits, as I’ve padded over the carpet towards her, I’ve thought of the residents as passengers in that Fellini movie with Freddie Jones in the lead. It’s a weird film, where everyone on board may well be dead, but unaware of their status. I swear I can hear the theme tune, Clare de Lune, as I head for my mother’s usual place. At others, a haunted house comes to mind, especially when a plaintive whimper or a wizened hand reaches out unexpectedly, catching me by surprise as I pass by.

To my shame, I’ve often adopted an all-purpose smile for these visits to my mum, embarrassed, even ashamed to find her here, knowing my own part in her being here. So today is different. Today, my smile is genuine. Because my sister and I have got—not platitudes and patronizing enquiries after her health—but genuinely good news. No, wonderful news. We’ve come to tell our mother that her time here is done. Though there’s the not insignificant hurdle of explaining that taking her home is only possible because her husband of fifty years is dead. How I’m going to tell her is very much on my mind as we sit either side of her, but I’ll find a way.

A year before my father’s death, almost to the day, I was driving down through France to set up life in the south of the country, at least for the foreseeable future. My mother was in the care home. I’d had no contact with my father for more than a year and I never expected or wanted to see him again.

I say start a new life. I mean of course, I was running away. Divorce had left me homeless, but with a cash settlement. I could have used the money as a deposit on a flat, rented a room, got a job and a drink problem, as is traditional in such circumstances.

Instead, I’d divided the spoils between school fees for my youngest daughter—much against my own best principles, such as they are—and the time to write. And yes, you guessed it, I was writing a novel. A novel? Really, what was I thinking? In that regard, if not in many others, I am, I confess, a walking cliché.

But then who doesn’t react to divorce by going a little crazy? I was no exception. And yet at the time, the idea seemed a perfectly reasonable response to my unexpected change in status. My wife had fallen in love with her business partner and it was obvious to all parties involved, especially me, that some adjustment to our domestic arrangements would be necessary.

And so, after much delay and prevarication, I had admitted defeat, taken the money, and moved out of the family home. I carried on writing, living in the spare rooms’ of friends, surviving on the cash and a variety of part-time jobs; as a psychology teacher or paella chef, and latterly as ground crew helping to launch and recover hot air balloons on pleasure trips. I spent far too long writing and re-writing the book, posting to agents and trying everything I could think of to find a publisher, without success. Until, I finally ran out of money and into a brick wall very like full-blown depression.

Phil, an architect and my oldest friend, had spent an equally long period of time building what will, one day, be an utterly magnificent energy neutral, contemporary house in the south of France. The funds had come from his extended family. They were never going to be sufficient to meet the scale of his ambition, nor indeed to pay him a wage. As a consequence, he lived on air and the house remained a shell, a glorious monument to his vision and a source of some anxiety to his unfortunate family.

Given the confluence in our misfortunes, self-inflicted though they were, it seemed sensible to combine what remained of our resources—physical, mental and financial—and attack those problems we could do something about. Phil was able to pay me only a token amount, but said I could share his dilapidated farmhouse whilst we worked together on the new building, thus solving my problem of where to live and giving me a chance to re-write the book. Again.

I could also fulfill a useful function, he said, in dissuading the frightening intentions of his ex-partner. She was a psychiatric nurse by trade with a narcissistic personality disorder, fixated on him and dangerous to cross. He did not exaggerate. I’d been more than aware of the baleful effect she’s had on his life for more than ten years, going on fifteen. The woman had form and he was worn out dealing with her. She had battered down the steel door to his house and attacked a girlfriend he’d had the temerity to begin seeing. She would phone twenty or thirty times a night when she was at her most virulent. I wasn’t so sure I wanted the job of taking this woman on mano o mujer as she was handy with a lump hammer. But he was in need of a bodyguard. It seemed he had me in mind for the job. I thought bodyguard might be beyond me, given my age and rather formidable opponent, but I told him I could at least act as a witness to his demise. I think that cheered him up.

With our agreement in place and the February weather in England at its most flat and grey, a road trip south and a new start seemed not only attractive, but the only choice open. I’d had a post-divorce girlfriend I’d lived with for some years. A woman I loved and who loved me. But that had ended a year before. She was close to her family. I was not, to put it mildly. She’d packed my possessions in my car whilst I was away on a bicycle trip and asked me not to return. She let me know by email, indicating that her sixteen-year old son felt marginalized and unloved because of my presence.

But it was my daughter who tipped the balance. I have two and whilst it’s frowned upon to admit, they are the light of my life. The youngest was starting college and was fine. The eldest would come with me on the road trip. She’d graduated the summer before and gone through the usual, excoriating process we call ‘getting a job after university’. Fluent in French and Spanish, she was thinking about a further degree at a French university. We both had reasons to get away and the chance of doing so together was irresistible.

Four hours after we’d landed at Dieppe, we were climbing towards the bleak plateau of the Massif and into the volcanic region of the Auvergne. Cone-shaped volcanoes, the disused chimneys of a subterranean world, rose stark against a white winter sun. We stopped once for coffee and a cigarette and then once again to fill up with petrol. Another three hours driving and we fell off the steeper southern edge of the plateau soon after the Millau bridge. Rust-red pantiled roofs and a new kind of light signaled the Mediterranean and Languedoc Roussillon. I turned the music up as we descended – The Mavericks’ Dance the Night Away – with a lyric that goes, “Here comes my happiness again, right back to where it should have been”.

The ironies were clear, but the words, and the light, and the warmer air cartwheeling through the open windows seduced us into singing along together. A celebration of sorts. We each of us knew that what we’d left behind could no longer reach us and what was to come might be better, if only because it was unknown.