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.

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