‘Tis with a heavy heart that I sit down to write on this misty morning, for I must arise and go soon and go to the land of the Angles and the Saxons once more. Not that I have anything against my native land, but to get there involves travel – on which I am not keen – and this visit also involves babysitting my parents to give my beleaguered sister a break.
My father, soon (hopefully) to achieve the grand old age of 86, goes in to hospital in the middle of week for the operation that has been waiting for several years to happen. The surgeon will be operating to remove, or whatever it is they do these days, an aneurysm at the back of his neck. If you ask me what an aneurysm is, I’d simply have to quote the dictionary definition: the morbid dilation of an artery. Since that artery feeds his brain, they’ve been keeping a close watch on it and have decided that it’s now or never.
He has supposed to be getting himself in training for the op. This doesn’t mean visits to the local gym to lift weights and jog on a treadmill. No, the prescription simply means to put one foot in front of another for a period of, say, 20 minutes in order to convey himself, without electrical or mechanical assistance, around the block. Despite our nagging, he has managed to find various excuses for not doing as the medical experts suggest.
You see, by night my father is like any other rather noisy slumbering octogenarian, but by day he slips into his corduroy trousers and buttons up his shirt to become… The World’s Laziest Man! Somehow he has survived this long on earth without motivation, drive, desire, curiosity, hobbies or interests. To be fair, he likes music, but he doesn’t like anything that he hasn’t already liked for about the last 70 years. He is very good at sitting in chairs and he consumes copious amounts of Coronation Street. Give the man his due; he has taught himself to use a laptop, so he can order the weekly shop from Asda without having to get in the car, so he can check on the fortunes of Arsenal, and so he can chat to me on Skype. He can also create something not entirely unpalatable in the kitchen. His hand was forced, probably quite soon after he wed, on discovering that he had married… The World’s Worst Cook!
|In less fragile times just a few short years ago|
Every afternoon for the last 25 years or so, come rain or come shine, my father has retreated to his bed, where he stays for around three hours at a stretch. I am not accustomed to visiting him in his bed, because he is not to be disturbed. But this time, I shall have to get used to it. If, as is the trend, the NHS kicks him out of his hospital bed the day after his operation, I shall be there to bring him regular horribly stained cups of tea and sympathy.
My heart is particularly heavy because I shall be staying at my parents’ house rather than my sister’s for the first time in aeons. My mother is now in the first stages of Alzheimer’s and she gets seriously panicky if my father goes anywhere for even an hour. It’s a very rare occurrence, of course, but this time he’ll be gone for at least a couple of days. So I shall be there to quieten her.
My mother’s madness is a self-fulfilling prophecy. She has been in training for most of her life. If you children don’t behave, your mother will end up in Purdysburn was a regular refrain when my three siblings and I were growing up in Belfast. Purdysburn was the local ‘loony bin’: a big Victorian building set back behind a perimeter wall that kept out curious children. During holidays in Bath at our maternal grandparents’ house, our mother would throw periodic wobblies and threaten to throw herself into the Kennet and Avon canal. We took it with a pinch of salt, but our grandmother would be very disconcerted and spend days ruminating about what it was she must have said.
The thing is, though, we were remarkably well-behaved children – with the possible exception of my younger brother. He was our mother’s shoo-shoo, probably because he was and is so like our father, and he could get away with murder. Our mother’s withering looks or savage assaults with a rolled-up House & Garden magazine meant nothing to him. While my father went out to simulate work at Tilley Lamps, the family firm, my mother would shut herself in her bedroom to hide from her children and paint pictures of Belfast street scenes or hammer out novels on a portable typewriter. She would read portions of them to her disinterested offspring, but would never send them off to a publisher. She lacked all necessary self-belief.
Once as a bolshy teenager, when my mother complained of how weary she was, I had the temerity to suggest that she didn’t actually do anything that she didn’t like doing. If there were jobs to be done, they were generally done by her children (with the possibly exception of my brother, due to his ability to get away with homicide). This was not a diplomatic move on my part. The maternal looks and barbs grew ever more withering for at least a week.
|Looking less beleaguered|
We lived, therefore, in a kind of tree-lined genteel squalor. But it’s nothing to the squalor that my parents live in now. My sister has been in on two occasions with a cleaner-friend of hers. With a packet of disposable gloves and probably the kind of double-nosed gas marks that Walt and Jessie wear when they’re cooking up crystal meth in Breaking Bad, they’ve blitzed the place – partly for my benefit. There’s still a way to go, apparently, but at least it’s no longer like one of these freakish places you see on Channel 4 reality programmes. Britain’s Most Unsanitary Octogenarians!
So thanks to their efforts, I’m not dreading the visit in terms of my physical comfort or personal hygiene. It’s more the prospect of what I’ll find when I get there. My mother has become alarmingly frail, it would seem. Withering in another sense of the word. At least, madness has made her as gentle as a lamb. All she needs is some food that won’t trouble her intolerance to gluten and plenty of cuddles. It’ll be like cuddling a sparrow, but otherwise shouldn’t be too difficult.
My sister has asked me if I could bring something with me to aid our father’s recovery. Since he doesn’t read and doesn’t listen to music that he doesn’t know, I think sleep will be the best bet. He’s very good at that. If I get any time off for good behaviour, I’ll hunt down CDs in the charity shops of Romsey and script a few e-learning screens on the laptop that I’ll have to take with me in the one bag I'm allowed by the generous people at Ryan Air. In any case, I’ll let you know how it goes.