fifi the owl

Jeremy is busy marching through the house. He has such a neutral style of movement, and his face is so slack and empty, it’s hard not to think of him as some kind of ultra-realistic, domesticated robot. Except, if he was a robot, it would be one that had a serious neural problem, maintaining the impulse to go from A to B, but utterly lacking the ability to make sense of anything when he got there. He marches up to my chair and stands looking down at me. Then without any change of expression he marches back across the room again, opens the door to the kitchen, goes through, and then shuts the door quietly behind him.
‘He’s like this the whole time,’ says Sheila, smiling the kind of resilient smile I imagine her beating from a metal she mined from her soul.
‘It’s really quite exhausting,’ she says, perching on the arm of the sofa, ready to go if needed. ‘It’s alright for Jeremy. He can switch off at three and have a good sleep. I try to get some time in, too, but it’s not the same as proper bedrest. Then you see he’s on the go again through the night. And I must admit I’m starting to feel the strain.’

Jeremy had a fall the other day. The ambulance came and found it was only a minor injury, so he didn’t need to go to hospital.
‘Thank goodness,’ says Sheila. ‘Jeremy in a hospital! Imagine the chaos!’
But the fall seems to have precipitated a realisation that things can’t go on as they have been.
‘I’ve done my best,’ she says. ‘I have two sons, and they’ve both been telling me I’ve got to put him in a home. And – well, I don’t know – it just hasn’t felt right for me. The son in Australia can’t do much to help, of course, but the other one comes down regularly and does what he can to give me a break. We haven’t had carers because – as you can see – he’s perfectly mobile and there’s not much for them to do. I shower him once a week and the rest of the time I’m just chasing him round the house with a sponge. He wears pads, because he’s doubly incontinent, and that’s a terrible problem. But carers? Up until recently I couldn’t see what they could do for us. I don’t want to waste anybody’s time…’

The kitchen door opens and Jeremy walks back through, straight up to the coffee table, where he picks up a magazine, flicks through it urgently, puts it down again, turns, heads back to the kitchen and slowly shuts the door.
‘But now I know I have to put Jeremy in a home,’ she carries on. ‘He’s not safe here, and I’m completely exhausted. I can feel my health beginning to go.’
‘I’m not surprised. I think you’ve done amazingly well to cope this long.’
‘Do you?’ she says. ‘I don’t know. You see – I feel so wretchedly guilty all the time. And the funny thing is, I know that if the situation was reversed, he wouldn’t hesitate. If it was me marching around the place like this, Jeremy would be outside waiting for the ambulance.’
‘Oh. Sorry to hear that.’
She shrugs.
‘You can only ever do what feels right for you,’ she says.

On the other side of the room is a large, red brick fireplace and black slate hearth. All along the mantelpiece, and standing around the hearth, are dozens of stone and ceramic owls. The largest is to the right of the fireplace – a cat-sized modern sculpture, where the owl has been reduced to the minimum details you need to identify it: plump body, pointy ears, engraved lines for the wings, and two deep-drilled and perfectly round holes for the eyes.
‘Do you like my owls?’ says Sheila.
‘I do,’ I tell her. ‘Especially that one.’
‘Fifi?’ says Sheila. ‘Yes. She’s my favourite, too. She keeps an eye on us. She doesn’t miss a trick.’
‘No,’ I say. ‘I can see that.’

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