Saturday, 13 December 2008

I'm trying on a pink wig when the carers arrive. I peek out of the window and am relieved to see it's the A team -  Tracey and Shazza. They knock respectfully and come in through the already unlocked door.

Tracey and Shazza started caring for Mum in the early days when she was still mobile and not eating her earrings. In the beginning, I struggled: with Dad's death, Mum going mad and life as I knew it being Tsunamied.

All of a sudden, Mum has a Social worker. My mum who has never asked for help in her life. Who made a Mini Mouse income stretch to pay the rent and feed, clothe and Christmas a husband and two kids. I can't get to grips with this social worker business and instead, decide Mum has a personal shopper for her mind. Someone who picks out this and that on her behalf and sees what suits. That way all connotations of child abusers and lifers ebbs away. 

'Have you thought about day care?' the young girl asks. She is actually dressed like a personal shopper, designer specs, hair swept up in a neat bun, black kitten heels, pencil skirt, white shirt blouse and bright red bee stung lips. 

'Isn't that for kids?' I say. She looks all of 23.

'There's a great day centre in town that does brilliant things with people with Alzheimer's.' 

She doesn't say 'suffering' and I like her for it.

'It's stimulating,the staff are very good and your Mum would be with people like her.' 

I can find no trace of the cynicism bug, unlike Mum's previous Personal Shopper, a miserable old bag who went off sick just in time.

 'Do they all have Alzheimer's?'

'On the days your mum would go, yes.' 

I can't imagine what a room full of people fading in and out of who they are is like. 'I'd have to see it,' I say.

She doesn't falter. 'No problem.' She smiles believably. 

Dovelands is a boring building, built in the early seventies with orange brick and no imagination. Set on the edge of town, there is a good size car park and pretty garden. It looks like a library until you approach the entrance and see that everything is alarmed. I buzz to go inside and am greeted by a grey haired lady in a green tabard. She looks like Maid Marion's granny.

'Welcome,' she says. 'I'm Mary, the matron.' 

'I'm Stella' I say. 'Sheila's daughter.' It feels good to say it. 'I don't really know what to expect...'

'Why would you?' Mary says.

Someone is wheeling a piano into the middle of the floor. 'It's the sing a long soon,' Mary says. 'We have a theme each week. Today it's the Forties. The songs help people to remember the old days and it really improves their mood. '

Before long the room is filled with Glenn Miller's 'Little Brown Jug'.

'Ha ha hee! Little Brown Jug how I love thee,' sings Mary. 'Here they are,' she says and waves at the line of people wandering in and taking their seats. 'They've just come back from lunch in the dining room,' Mary explains. 'Was it bread and butter pudding today, Connie?' Mary asks a white haired lady with a walking frame. The old lady stops, grips vice like onto her frame with one hand and shows two fingers. I think she's being rude until I hear her say very loudly, 'Double helpings!'

Maybe I'm the one who's mad. 

We have all ages here' says Mary. ' The youngest is 52 and the oldest 90. Come and meet Leo. I hear your mum likes to dance and he's an ex-professional.'

Leo is sitting with his eyes closed and for a second I think he's asleep except his feet are tapping in tune to the beat. 

Mary gently taps his arm and he opens his eyes and smiles a huge dentured grin. When Leo stands up he is over six feet tall with legs that go on forever and feet like flippers.

'Hello Leo,' I say. 'My mum loves to dance...'

Before I can say more, Leo has taken me in his arms and we are waltzing around the room, his eyes focussed into the distance, his hand in the small of my back, those flipper feet elegantly avoiding mine as he guides me gently around the room.

When the music ends Leo kisses my hand and sits down to eat a ginger nut with his waiting cup of tea. 

'Thank you!' I say to Leo. He grunts something I can't understand.

'Come on, I'll show you around,' says Mary. 'And you can catch your breath. Leo is very enthusiastic.' 

I stay an hour. And when I get back to Mum I can't contain my excitement. I tell her all about Dovelands and Mary and Leo and see instant fear in her eyes.

'I don't want to sit with all those old people,' she says. 

'Some are younger than you,' I point out.

'I won't like it,' she flicks fingers across her skirt as if she is practising scales.

'Mum, you'll love it, they have dancing and sing alongs and outings.'

'That man banged on my door again last night.'

'What man?'

'The big man with a beard.' 

I go into the kitchen and get a duster. Mum makes more sense when she's occupied.

I hand her a fluffy duster and start dusting the shelf. Mum gets out of her chair and picks up her favourite Bizzy Lizzy plant. 

'What did the man do?' I ask as she leaves the room. I assume she is going into the kitchen to water the plant. 

'Who?' She asks. I hear the toilet flush. 

She reappears without the plant and starts dusting but her hands are still wet and soon the TV is smeared with yellow specks like the screen has a bad zit breakout.

'The man who banged on your door?'

'What man?'

And then I hear the water dripping.

In the bathroom, the toilet pan is stuffed to the brim with loo roll and there's a white Bizzy Lizzy poking rebelliously out of the seat. 

'You've been watching The Chelsea Flower Show again haven't you Mum?' I say, rescuing the plant and pulling on the surgical rubber gloves from a box the carers leave in the bathroom. I use more loo roll to mop up the water crawling towards the door like a big fat slug.

I go into he kitchen to get the mop expecting to see Mum but she isn't there. I look in the bedroom, she's not there either. 'Mum!' I shout opening cupboard doors and checking the four rooms that make up her tiny bungalow.

Then I see the front door is slightly ajar.

'Oh God,' I cry. The canal is less than a mile away.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

We were playing Cluedo when I first noticed Mum wasn't quite right. It was Christmas and she'd had a Baileys or two but she kept forgetting the murder weapons. Now I know Cluedo isn't the easiest of games to follow but this was bizarre.

I held up the dagger to show her and said, 'That's the dagger.' 

'Yes,' she said.

'Good, it's your turn. What's the murder weapon?'

I nodded towards the dagger.

'Axe,' she said.

And so it went on, toy weapons revealing the real murder going on inside mum's brain.

A few weeks later I came home to find she'd switched off my freezer and boil washed all my woolens. This from a woman who made Kim and Aggie look amateur.

Dad got really worried when they went to a party in the village, to a house she'd been to many times before, and had a bad fall. 

'She completely missed the steps,' he whispered in the kitchen. 'It's if she didn't know they were there.'

'She's a bit bashed and bruised but there's no real harm done,' I reassured. All of these events were explicable and yet a feeling in my stomach wouldn't go away.

Dad stroked his wispy hair, a sure sign he was worried.

'It's more than that, Pidge. Your mum's been doing odd things lately. Sometimes she forgets where she is. We were in Sainsbury's the other day and when we came to pay she had no idea what money was. It was as if she'd never seen a pound coin in her life. She just froze at the checkout staring into her purse.'

Mum and dad met when she was sixteen and he was seventeen, at the Palais de Dance in Leicester. War was raging and Dad was soon off to sea, having lied about his age to join the Navy rather than work down the mines as a Bevin Boy. 

He loved to dance and she loved him from that very first night, jiving and jitterbugging into the next 55 years.

They married soon after he got demobbed, Mum in a borrowed wedding dress and dad in his naval uniform. She was 20 and he was just 21. He'd done four years at sea and been to Hiroshima just after they dropped the Atom bomb. 

'I can never give blood because of the radiation,' he said as we sat on the settee watching the wrestling on the tele. 

'Submit' he shouted at Mick Mcmanus. 

'Tag him,' I joined in. I was proud my Dad couldn't give blood. It made him special.

Dad kept pictures of the war in a biscuit tin in the attic, tiny black and white squares taken with his box brownie camera. He called them atrocity photos and after a few beers would get them out like you do a wedding album. I never wanted to look except at the picture of the Japanese girl he called his 'girlfriend.' Mum never seemed to mind which made me think she must have had her fair share of G.I.'s whilst dad was doing his duty.

At the bottom of the box was the recorded message he made in Japan, a blue black wobbly wax disc, made in a booth one drunken night on shore leave in between ships. I'd play it at Christmas when we got the decorations down.

'I miss you darling,' he said. I always laughed at this part, my parents were never openly affectionate and it embarrassed me.

'I've got no friends on board the new ship yet. But if you have no friends, you can't lose any can you?' 

That's when I'd start crying. 

'Put it away Ken, you're upsetting her,' Mum would say. 'She doesn't need to know about war at her age.'

He'd look at me and wink. 'That was a long time ago, Pidge. Come and help me feed the budgies eh?' 

He held my hand and I felt the sorrow in his fingers.

Dad drank too much to forget the war and there were lots of rows as I grew up, loud passionate fights that sprayed the air with resentment. 

'Can't we go abroad, Ken like everyone else?' Mum pleaded as she served up fatty Pork Chops, so it must have been a Wednesday.

'We can't afford it. Pass the salt please.'

'I've been putting a few bob away each week,' she said, a look of pleasure in her eyes.

'I must be giving you too much housekeeping,' dad said.

'I've used my wages. I've been going in a bit earlier and staying a bit later....'

Dad slammed his knife and fork down. 'Very commendable Sheila.'

'Ken, ' she implored, pouring more Bisto on his chops. 'It'd be exciting for the kids.'

'You take the kids Sheila, I've seen quite enough of the world. I'm happy in my own home with the kids and you. What more could a man want? Salt please.'

When things got too much Dad would go and sit on the wall at the end of the street next to Daisy's bungalow. Daisy was the oldest lady on the estate and commanded monarch-like respect. He'd puff on a ten pack of Park Drive and sit quietly until Daisy emerged with a mug of tea laced with brandy.

'Y'all right laddie?' Daisy asked.

'Nothing winning the Pools won't fix,' Dad said.

'You're one of the richest men on this estate laddie, look at your lovely family.'

 'Aye,' he said sipping on Daisy's special brew. He stubbed out his cigarette and stuffed it in his  shirt pocket for later.

'I'd best be off,' he'd say. 

'Don't go to bed on a row, that's a good un,' Daisy said. 


Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Dave the date is about to knock on my front door. I am at the back door struggling to get inside after running through a muddy field and negotiating a very tricky barbed wire fence. My back is stinging but I don't have time to look. With a wiggle of the key, I am home.

I race from the back of the cottage to the front and fling open the door. Dave the date is still holding onto the knocker and looks surprised to see me so soon.

'Hello,' I say.

'Hi,' he says, regaining his balance. 'I was just passing so...'

'Fine, great, yeah. Come in!' He has to duck to get through the front door. 'Bijou' he says.

'Cheap,' I say.

He follows me into the kitchen. I can still smell last night's curry. 

'Tea or coffee?' I ask, rustling through a cupboard. 'I have herb tea....and Green tea and I think, somewhere in here is a really good Colombian blend. Oh and I can see half caff lurking at the back there...' I want to slit my own throat.

'Instant coffee is fine, thanks.' 

I get up from the cupboard and bang my head. I rub it hard and ignore the sick feeling. 

'Please, sit down,' I say. 'The best chair is next to the Aga. It's not on, you won't fry.'

He sits and stretches his legs. He isn't wearing socks and I glimpse a tanned ankle. Suddenly I'm as hot as the Aga at full blast.

The cat comes in. She eyes Dave the date sitting in her chair and rubs against his legs.

'Your cat has no tail,' Dave the date says.

'She lost it in an accident. Climbed into my neighbour's car and sat by the engine for warmth. He started up and that was the end of her tail.'

'Grizzly,' he says.

'She's a fighter, fortunately.' I hand him a mug of coffee. He puts it on the Aga and strokes Kizzy who leaps into his lap.

'She's also very forward. Hob nob?'

'No thanks.'

I laugh. 'It's such a stupid name!' 

He looks at me. 'Kizzy?'

'Hob nob.' I am puce and all of thirteen. 'I'll show you the boards. They're in the front room.'

Kizzy jumps into the chair the moment he stands up. 

'I like what you're doing to this place,' he eyes the open fireplace. 'How long have you been here?'

'Coming up for two years.' I remember moving in, the day Prince Charles married Camilla. Mum kept wandering off around the back telling the neighbours I was having his baby. 

Dave the date touches the bare wooden floors, stroking his fingers along the grain. I see the indent where his wedding ring used to be.

'I'm still renting.'

'Really?' I know where he lives, Maisie told me. It's a new housing estate on the edge of the next village. 

'It's convenient and close to the kids' school.' His face changes for the briefest moment.

I smile. His kids are still little, twin boys. aged seven. 'It must be hard to be apart from them.' I say before I realise.

'Yeah. At first they kept asking when I was coming back, now they don't mention it. I don't know which is worse.'

'All of it, I guess.' 

We drink coffee and the silence isn't awkward.

'I can easily do these for you,' he says. 'This old wood will come up a really rich honey colour.'

'That's great,' I say, genuinely pleased. 'I'm on a bit of a budget....' 

'Can you make cakes?' 

'Yes,' I lie.

'My boys have a birthday coming up. If you could make me a couple of cakes, I'll do the floors.'

'Really?' I say.

'Is that a yes?' he asks, leaning against the log basket as if it's his spot. 

'Yes.' I say, reaching down to self-consciously touch my back. I feel skin where there should be clothes. A flap of material strokes my hand. I suddenly realise there is a huge hole torn from the barbed wire fence in the back of my dungarees and my faded period knickers are showing.

I can't decide if I'm more mortified at the period knickers or the fact Dave the date has seen my knickers. 

Either way, Dave the date leaves without mentioning a word, the perfect gentleman.


Friday, 5 December 2008

I drive home past the cemetery and stop off to see dad. He's lying under a cherry tree and there's a thick carpet of Barbie pink blossom guiding me there. Sheep graze in the next field and the canal weaves its way in the distance. If dad wasn't dead this would be the perfect place.

I pause at Henry's grave, the baby who died in his cot at just a year old. It's covered in toys. His granny stopped me after his funeral and said, 'It's such a comfort Henry's buried next to Ken because he'll look after him.' I smiled and squeezed her hand, embarrassed by my grief over dad who had lived a full life and seen both his children and grandchildren grown. 

I always feel a fraud in the cemetery. I want to believe there is another world where babies float by on clouds and dad is spending his days gardening, putting the world to rights and having a fag that won't kill him. But I can't.

I did have one spooky moment a couple of weeks after dad died. I'd been lying in the dark listening to tedious all night radio when I had a really strong feeling my brother was visiting dad's grave. My brother, or 'Evil Kneval' as I call him because he's a thrill seeking nasty man, hadn't been to see dad in years.

When I had called to tell him dad was ill, we hadn't spoken in over a decade and I'd forgotten how his voice made every muscle in my body tense.

'I'm in Florida,' Evil Kneval said, as if he deserved an Olympic medal.

'He wants to see you before it's too late.' 

'I'm at the Cape,' he said. 

'Then we have a problem.' Dad would have been proud of me.

'It's not my problem,' he said, the only emotion impatience.

'One more thing....'

'What?' he said. I heard another voice calling his name.

'Crash and burn you evil bastard,' I said. 

He didn't hesitate. 'Just remember, I had Dad for ten years before you were born.' Then he cut me off. Always the last word.

Dad lasted two more days. I told him Evil was on his way. He smiled and said 'Good.' Now that killed me.

I lay awake throughout that long night feeling Evil nearby. As dawn broke, I drove through the morning  mist to the cemetery. I didn't need to get out of the car. There on dad's newly levelled soil was a field of Marigolds, like fat contented bees full of promise in the day's first light. Dad always had Marigolds in his garden, they were as much a part of the estate as Saturday night fights outside the Working Men's Club and bored teenagers hanging around the chip shop. Those Marigolds told me Evil knew dad better than I did. I wanted to pull out every root, stem and flower. 

I didn't. I couldn't. Even though they haunted me. 

Just as they finished flowering I dug them up and planted classic English Peonies heavy with scent and Delphiniums, aristocratically swaying in the summer breeze.

It all seems silly now. Dad's still dead and nothing changes. I zig-zag through the gravestones so as not to tread on anybody. My feet tingle as I dart around the headstones. It's much fuller now than a couple of years ago when dad first moved in. 

I get to his place. In a cemetery there's no bell to ring or door to knock. I wonder what all the Avon Ladies do on the other side.

'Hi Dad, I say. 'Me again.'


I'd suppose I'd crap myself if he rolled up beside me and said, 'Hello Pidge, put the kettle on.' But when someone dies you live in hope. It's all you have.

I freshen the water in the vase next to dad's plaque with his name and dates on and hastily arrange a bunch of coral coloured roses. It's hot and I stand and stretch my back. That's when I notice a white van driving slowly past the cemetery and stopping at the junction.

I know immediately it's Dave the date! 

'Gotta go dad. Love you!' I run towards the gate.

A robin flutters past and sits on a post, its head cocked inquisitively to one side. 

Come to think of it, Dad always had a soft spot for Dave.

Monday, 1 December 2008

I am going to see Maisie. She's been my best friend since the first day at Grammar School. When I got a detention for spelling 'Shepherd' wrong three times in R.E. she was waiting outside the Headmistress' office with a square of Caramac and a smile. She held my hair as I was being sick on the beach in Ibiza after too much Southern Comfort during our first holiday abroad. And the night my dad died, Maisie was the first person I called. She came and held my hand tight as they took him away. Then, quietly and humbly she changed the bloody sheets on the bed where he had died. 

We are so similar our mothers used to get us mixed up. Which could be useful, especially when Maisie picked the phone up one cold winter day thinking it was me and declared to her never swears in her life mother, 'It's fucking freezing outside!' Realising her mistake, she held the phone in mid air, counted to ten and pretended I'd answered. 

When the Alzheimer's started to kick in hard and my Mum stopped recognising me, Mum would say 'Hello Maisie!' whenever I turned up.

'I can't believe she does that,' I tell Maisie.

'Shows I've made more of an impression than you.' Maisie says.

'You bitch,' I say. 

We giggle.

'I'm the daughter she never had,' she laughs.

And it's true really. Maisie and me are alike but we're also completely different. She's been married to Angus forever and they're still loved up enough to go away together and not come back early. Maisie has a good reliable job as a nurse, two kids - one of each, a tidy house and her Yorkshire Puddings always rise. She goes to church, visits old ladies and her Wheelie Bin is immaculate. She has a box for everything and never forgets a birthday. She is my alter ego. And part of me would die if anything happened to her.

When I arrive, Maisie is in the kitchen making Mince Pies. As we hug I see she has flour on her face. 

'It's June,' I say, wiping her cheek.

'I'm doing Christmas for Angus, he had such a horrible time last year I decided to surprise him.'

Angus had broken his ankle putting the angel on top of a huge tree Maisie insisted they had. She's felt guilty ever since.

'You're a fucking saint,' I say.

'I know!' She smiles. 'But....' She puts a tray full of baby bottom plump pies into the oven. 'I want a new kitchen so it's not entirely altruistic...'

I lick the remains of the mincemeat from the jar. 'Won't a BJ do it? I'll put the kettle on.'

'Thanks.' Maisie washes her hands. 'You've been on your own too long. A BJ is a new dress, a pair of Boots, a trip to Ikea. A new kitchen is a whole different ball game.'

'No pun intended.' We giggle.

'I might be getting a refresher course,' I say, laying a tray as Maisie piles slices of fruit cake on a plate.

'Really?' She looks pleased.

'Is that home made?' 

'Of course! Who is it this time?'

'He's called Dave.'

'You are joking,' says Maisie.

'No he is,' I say.

She looks a little less relaxed. Like when she got a B plus instead of an A minus. Then I know she's onto me.

'It's not Dave the date is it?' Her frown line gets deeper.

We make our way to the summer house. She marches when she's mad. 

'That man's trouble,' she says.

I pretend not to hear.

'Don't ignore me,' she says opening the windows and setting down the tray on a snowy white cloth.

'You can't believe everything you hear.'

'When it's true you can.' We both wait to pour the tea until it's the colour of mud.

'You're biased,' I say. 'Anyway, he says he can sand my floors.' I pick at the cake. 'Yum.' I say.

She stirs the tea as if she is mixing  my life. 'He had an affair,' Maisie says. 'A long and painful affair.' 

'Some bits of it must have been fun,' I say. 

Maisie does her moral outrage silence.

'I was at the same party as you when his wife found out,' I say defensively.

She hands me a steaming mug of tea and I kick off my sandals.

'I don't want you to get hurt,' Maisie says. 'Again.'

'Cynic,' I say cuddling my mug. Maisie always makes me face facts.

'Realist you mean'.


Tuesday, 25 November 2008

I saw Dave the Date today. We bumped into each other in Planet Tesco when I was buying suck in pants. Like most men, he was standing a safe distance from the mannequins, his face slightly flushed, staring at the double Gs. I had my painting dungarees on and no makeup. I desperately didn't want him to notice the painting dungarees.

'Hiiiiiii!' I say, hiding the fat pants behind my back.

'Hey,' he says, shuffling from one Timberland shoe to the other.

'Well!' I say, but without hands to express myself I almost topple over.

'Yeah,' he says, his eyes following my every wobble. He furrows his brow.

I panic. 'I'm in my painting dungarees.'

'That's why they have paint on them.'

'Yes!' I laugh too much. 'I'm painting my floorboards.' God I'm interesting. 

'Don't you like them sanded?' he asks. 

My mind goes blank. All I can think about is if I drop the fat pants on the floor will he notice?

'I could sand them for you,' he says, the corner of his mouth relaxing into a sort of smile.

'Really?!' I say as if he has just discovered a cure for cancer. I decide to go for it and drop the pants.

'I mean, if you want them sanded.' He has look at you eyes.

'God yes!' I say, like that actress faking an orgasm in when Harry met Sally.

'Okay then,' he says. 

'Fab,' I say. 

'I'll call you to come and have a look,' he says.

'It's a date!' I laugh. Hint hint have you forgotten, helllloooooo?

'Good,' he bends down. 'You dropped this,' he says, picking up the fat pants and handing them to me.

'NO!' I declare.

Now he looks embarrassed. 

'They're not mine,' I protest.

He is still holding them.

'They're always there,' I explain. 'I've been complaining for weeks. This store's so big it takes  forever to get from one end to the other. I'll find a manager.' I snatch the pants from his large hands. I can't look at him or the pants or the woman nearby who seems a bit on edge.  

'Bye,' he says but by then I have disappeared into the Home Baking For The Smug aisle. A teenage girl is stacking shelves. I smile. She smiles back. 

'They're supposed to hide your muffin midriff,' I say, burying the fat pants amongst the rows of paper muffin cases. 'Don't buy them they don't work, they just shove everything up so it looks like you're wearing a rubber ring.' 

'Sorry,' she says. And then by way of explanation, 'Everyone's gone off sick.'  

'No worries,' I say. 'All sorted.' 

I turn round and bump into Dave the date. He must have been watching all the time.

'I was just thinking,' he says. 'I'm free later on, after work. I could look at your floors then.'

I think, haven't you seen enough of my flaws in the last ten minutes. 'Terrific,' I say. '236 Alexandra Park.'

He goes. I know because I follow him to make sure he gets in his car. 

Now what?




Monday, 24 November 2008

Dave the Debtor isn't a looker. Think Woody Allen on a bad hair day. I fell too easily for the sports car, expense account and cottage on the coast. I thought he was smooth, he wasn't. Just old. And addicted to spending money he didn't have. Great combo eh?

Dave the Debtor can owe a million quid with no means of paying it back and not blink. But if one of his freckles looks less than pigment perfect, he's a wreck.

'Look at this,' he says anxiously over breakfast.

'It's an arm,' I say.

'Look!' he repeats, taking a magnifying glass from his old man's drawer full of used hankies and Germolene.

He studies his favourite freckles as if they are sprouting GM-like before his eyes.

'Hold it in the sun, ' I suggest in my best nurse voice.

He meticulously moves his arm nearer the window, following my instructions exactly.

'Angle the glass a bit more. That's it.'

'OW! It's burning' he says as the sun seers his pale wrinkly skin.

'Now you've got something real to moan about,' I say.

Dave the Debtor is one of those men who says. 'I'll always take care of you,' in that Rhett Butler way then shits on you from a great height. And he really doesn't give a damn.

I don't like to admit the Debtor hurt me. But he did. Sometimes I wished he'd slammed me against the wall and let rip. Then at least people would understand. But letting someone down? Happens every day love, get over it.

He still owes me a lorra lorra money. And he still has all his own freckles. But I did water down all the suncream before I left, so you never know.