what more can I say

I’m sitting with my daughter in a large and crowded waiting room at the health centre. No-one’s talking much, just the occasional appointment confirmation and instruction at the reception desk, the rustle of magazine pages, some self-conscious throat clearing, whispered conversations. What dominates the room is an elderly woman in a wheelchair. I’m guessing she has some form of dementia, because she keeps saying the same two sentences, over and over again.
There’s a carer with her, one hand on hers. She’s doing her best, but the elderly woman is relentless.
‘I’m not well’ she says. ‘I’m not well. What more can I say?’
Now and again she clears her throat with a vigorous, dredging cough, making as much of it as she can, like a cartoon voice-over artist vocalising the scene where a rabbit vomits up a grizzly bear, gives itself a shake, then blithely hops off as the bear stares after them.
‘I’m not well. I’m not well. What more can I say?’
In the context of the waiting room it’s strangely hypnotic, especially with the carer making periodic shushing and soothing noises, the whole thing coming together like the libretto of a spare modern piece: The Waiting Room, maybe. The Poor Patient.
‘I’m not well. I’m not well. What more can I say?’
Actually, I like the way she says what more can I say. She falls into it, high to low, in a helpless, rush, landing flat on the say.
‘It’s okay, Fenella’ says the carer. ‘Don’t worry. Everything’s fine. We’ll see the doctor soon.’
‘I’m not well. I’m not well. What more can I say?’
When I chat to my daughter, Fenella takes it as a cue to speak more loudly. The receptionist peers round the stack of folders on her counter, and frowns.
The carer is doing her best, but it’s difficult for her and I wonder about their situation. I’m guessing Fenella is an inpatient in a nursing home. Normally they have a GP who visits regularly through the week, to spare the patients – and the staff – the stress and risk of an outpatient appointment. I can only think that they’ve come to see a specialist holding a clinic, someone who won’t make individual trips. I’d like to ask the carer about it, but I’m not at work, it’s nothing to do with me, and anyway, she’s got her hands full.
‘I’m not well. I’m not well. What more can I say?’
I look over my shoulder and smile at the carer, who gives me a polite but slightly wary acknowledgement. I can see she’s stressed.
‘Don’t worry, Fenella,’ she says. ‘Here – let me rub your shoulders.’
She turns in the chair, reaches round and starts gently massaging the back of Fenella’s neck.
‘Oh – that’s lovely!’ says Fenella.
The whole waiting room relaxes.

Enid vs. the CIA

Enid stares at me from the hospital bed with a wide and fixed expression, like an old Morris Minor up on the ramp. There are two other cars come to visit her in the rehabilitation unit: me, a battered old Toyota, well-maintained but worried about the next MOT, and the unit GP, an old Volvo people wagon, boxy, unkempt, a little clumsy, perhaps, but still good for a few thousand miles.
‘Tell me more about the man you saw this morning,’ says the doctor, leaning forward in his chair. ‘The man from the CIA’

Enid isn’t the most obvious recruitment target for the Central Intelligence Agency, but then you’d have to think they’re probably a little underrepresented in the eighty year old, retired bookkeeper demographic. Still, Enid’s taking it well. She waggles her mirrors and begins.
‘It was early in the morning,’ she says, folding her hands in her lap and giving her shoulders a settling shrug, ‘… about half past five, I should think. I heard someone cough, and I thought That’s odd. And when I sat up, there he was, standing at the foot of the bed, staring down at me.’
‘What did he look like?’
‘Oh – about forty, I should think. Pleasant chap. Short blond hair. Wearing a sports jacket but no tie. Smart casual, I suppose you’d say. And he stared at me a good long while, and then he said: Enid? You’re not who you think you are.’
‘How extraordinary! And he was from the CIA?’
‘Yes. He said they wanted to recruit me for a mission. I said I’m sorry, but I don’t think I’ll be much good to you like this. I’m really not up to any mission. And he said You’re on our list. And I said Well, I can’t help that. I’ve just had a pacemaker fitted.’
The doctor smiles, nods, writes something down.
‘It’s happened a few times before,’ she says.
‘The CIA?’
‘No. Last time I woke up in a Burka. There was an enormous man with a big black beard, and he pointed at me and said I had to go to the mosque. And I told him I didn’t want to go, because – well – I wouldn’t know what to do. And he said I’d soon pick it up.’
‘So it’s all about identity?’ says the doctor. ‘Fascinating!’
‘I don’t know about that,’ says Enid. ‘I’d sooner just wake up and have a cup of tea like normal people.’
‘And this has only been happening since the operation?’
She nods.
‘Do you think that’s what’s caused it?’ she says.
‘Possibly,’ says the doctor. ‘I think we need to take some blood and check for a few things. So – do you get any kind of warning before you see these people? Any strange smells, funny sensations? Sounds? Odd visual effects?’
She shakes her head.
‘Do your limbs feel heavy or frozen?’
‘No. I’m sitting up talking to them just like I’m talking to you now. I get a little frightened.’
‘But you don’t feel unwell in any way?’
‘No.’
‘Hmm’ says the doctor.
‘It’s not always people who talk, though. The time before that it was an alien.’
‘Like ET?’
‘I don’t know about that. He wasn’t very friendly. Pacing up and down. When I asked him what he wanted he picked me up and threw me in the cheeseplant.’
‘Well! That’s aliens for you! Look – Enid – I’ll leave you with my colleague here who’s very kindly agreed to take some blood, and we’ll have a look at that and see if there’s anything causing these hallucinations. They may just be lucid dreams, of course. You’ve been through a lot recently and you’ve had a disrupted routine and everything else. But we ought to rule out organic causes first. Okay? Lovely to see you.’
And he leaves.
‘Do you think I’ve lost my marbles?’ says Enid as I get my kit out.
‘No! Not at all. I think like the doctor says, you’ve got a lot on your plate.’
She stares at the toast cooling on the table beside her.
‘I don’t fancy much,’ she says, then turns her attention back to me.
‘I don’t bleed,’ she says, brightening. ‘Everyone struggles. There’s only one person who can get it – a girl who works at the surgery. Ever so nice, she is. Lovely teeth. She chats away a mile a minute, and the next thing you know she’s waving a tube in your face. I said to her, I said you’re a vampire, you are. And she said yes, and that’s why I like my job so much.’

We chat about the whole lucid dream thing whilst I tap around for anything vaguely resembling a vein. She’s right. It’s Slim Pickens and that’s a fact.

‘I’ve had a couple in the past,’ I tell her. ‘Dreams where I’ve woken up in the middle of it all and thought: This is a dream. And I knew if I concentrated hard enough I could make things happen. There was this one time, I’d gone to America and I was due to fly home that morning. Well I woke up in the dream, and I was standing on a wide prairie plain. So I thought I’d see what I could make come over the horizon. I concentrated as hard as I could, and I tried to summon one of those old western coach and horses – you know – like you see in the films. And then I could get in and see where it took me.’
‘Oh yes. That would be nice.’
‘But it never came. Instead there was this tiny figure running towards me with its arms outstretched. A woman, in ceremonial robes, Japanese robes, all flapping out behind her. And when she got a bit closer I could see it was my mum, and she had this expression on her face, like she was shouting out and trying to warn me. And I got so scared I turned around and woke myself up. And I was so freaked I rang the airline to change my ticket, because I thought maybe she was trying to tell me the plane was going to crash. Sorry – that vein disappeared when I went in.’
‘They do that. They can hear you coming.’
‘So later on I thought I’d better ring the airline again to check the new arrangements, and they told me they had no record of my previous call.’
‘Did you catch your plane?’
‘Yeah.. It was fine.’
‘I see.’
She reaches out and takes a desultory bite of her toast and chews it without much relish. I have to admit, I’m a little disappointed with my story, too. It sounded like a straightforward dream. The mystery of it had rubbed off over time; now it just seemed like the kind of thing you might get with jet lag.
‘I wonder what your mum was trying to tell you?’ she says, looking for the positive.
‘Who knows? I asked her about it later and she said she hadn’t had any premonitions. There we go! You have got blood after all…’
She sighs.
‘Yes. Well. Everyone struggles,’ she says.

swallowing the hook

I liked to ride with him out to the river
the fisher king, the life and death giver
with his flies and his floats and his stale white bread
his fish blood hands and his fish blood head

I liked to lie in the grass half asleep
and watch his fishing line flick and leap
as the wide river slid and the fat sun thinned
and the maggots keened softly in their little round tin

now I’m old like you and I live by the sea
and the same fish swim out to look for me
It’s true, I tell them, I’m the son of the king
I’ve swallowed the hook, so reel me in

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joining the dance

I didn’t think driving Martha to university would be so difficult.

Emotionally, I mean. Practically – it was easy. There was me, Kath, our younger daughter Jessie, and Martha, everyone getting in the car in the usual way, the usual thing, another trip somewhere, a school performance, maybe. A sleepover. A holiday. The boot full. Sun shining. Roads clear. The satnav took us straight there. In half a mile, keep left! Which the voice delivered with such an audible smile she may as well have been saying: Great opportunities and happiness up ahead – be sure to keep left!

An hour and a half later, when we got to the halls of residence, there was an equally cheery guy waiting at the entrance, directing traffic. I wound down the window and we had a good chat. He told me what the system was (basically one out / one in). He didn’t have a radio on his belt like the site manager (jokes about that). Had to make do with waving his clipboard to his opposite number further down the way (jokes about that, too). Yes, he had a brolly in case it rained. Had another eight hours of this to get through, and then the same tomorrow. And so on. All pretty relaxed and orderly, whilst through the whole conversation I held down a sludgy feeling in my chest, like I was being directed to a place I really didn’t want to go to, no matter how well organised. But never mind – the guy in the distance eventually waved his clipboard, as I knew he would. A car came out. ‘On you go,’ said the cheery guy in blue. ‘Ten minutes only, please. Off load your stuff, then go and park. My colleague will give you a map to show you where.’

And that’s exactly what happened. Couldn’t have been easier.

Except – it wasn’t. It was much, much harder than I thought.

Martha’s room was fine, of course. We’d seen the pictures. Bigger than the one she has at home. Great view of the city. We helped her unpack, set up, get organised. I strung some fairy lights across the pin board over her desk. We met one of the girls she’d be sharing the kitchen with, another singer on the music course. She seemed nice.
‘Are you scared?’ she said.
Martha hesitated.
‘It’s pretty daunting,’ Kath said, to cover.
‘Oh – yes! It’s totally terrifying!’ said Martha.
Later she told us she thought the girl had said ‘Are you any good?’

Once we’d unpacked, we all went down the road to a cafe (just like in The Tiger Who Came to Tea – one of the books we used to read the girls when they were little). We only had till half past three in the car park, and anyway, I didn’t want to drag out what was going to be a painful farewell. We ate our paninis and sipped our drinks and the conversation sagged under the gravitational pull of the clock. Walked back together to the campus gate. Said goodbye there, one last hug. Martha turned resolutely and went inside; we carried on – three of us, now – back to the car, and home.

The satnav sounded psychotic rather than cheerful.

***

I’d heard of Empty Nest Syndrome before, but I’d never given it much thought. I was too practical, too realistic. And besides, in our case we still had Jessie at home, delaying the completely windblown, snag of redundant twigs at the top of the bare tree thing for another four years, at least (thank God). But still, despite this being just the first of our children to fly the nest, it still hit hard.

I knew I had a melancholy side. I used to tear-up at the end of In the Night Garden because didn’t the whole ‘disappearing across a dark sea into a bloom of lilies’ mean that Iggle Piggle was actually dying? And even though I like to prepare for things rather than risk getting sucker-punched by the unexpected – still, this time I’d underestimated how it would affect me.

Back home, I did what anyone would do when they fell into an existential funk. I Googled it.

It brought up a stack of results, from Ted talks to chat shows to formal psychological case studies. They’re all useful, and I think from skimming them it pretty much boils down to four things you need to do to address these feelings of loss:

  1. Acknowledge how much of a change this all is, how much of a wrench, and don’t be ashamed to share it.
  2. Work on your relationships. Be present. Explore new opportunities.
  3. Work on yourself. Think about those things you might have let slide over the years. (I know – it sounds perilously like: ‘Join a Club’ – but sometimes there’s truth in those hoary old cliches, and the fact is, the more outward-looking and socially engaged you can be, the better. Good advice for any stage of life, actually).
  4. Celebrate the significant milestone you’ve reached.
    I remember when we left the hospital with Martha, I had the overwhelming feeling that they shouldn’t have let us take her out! I fully expected – or even hoped – someone would come running across the car park to stop us. I mean – What the hell did we know about bringing up kids? I hadn’t the first idea! She was so small and vulnerable and … and needy. What were they thinking? But we muddled through, and it turned out okay, and now Martha’s starting at university, and that’s definitely something to celebrate.

It’s not so much an end as a beginning. Change happens, whether you want it to or not. As the theologist and philosopher Alan Watts put it:

The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.

Which doesn’t mean you won’t cry when you drop your child off at the gate, but it does mean you might find a reason to smile on the journey home.

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fred? dead?

that’s Fred, smiling in his judo gi
throwing me with a casual flick of his knee
so easily and brutally
that all my bones sequentially crack
as I come down hard with a graceless smack
impressing my body in the dojo mat
and lie there floundering flat on my back
when he kneels and gently holds my hand
till I feel well enough to stand
and carry on with the lesson as planned

that’s Fred, belting out Ring of Fire
driving his truck as the flames went higher
down the long straight roads of Cambridgeshire
butcher to butcher with cargoes of meat
slapping the wheel as he keeps the beat
through fields of maize and plains of wheat
and rows of sprouts and sugar beet
with his bloody cap and rubber boots
salmon sandwiches and juicy fruits
till he’s out to the pub in his fat black suit

that’s Fred, riding around in a Bentley
reading stocks and shares intently
chasing a million evidently
buying old houses in the poorer quarters
doing them up with sweat and mortar
renting them out to the factory workers
giving short shrift to the news reporters
and the next thing you know
he’s setting up shop on the ring road
diversifying his portfolio

that’s Fred, lying in a silk-lined casket
ten days after his heart blew a gasket
his tax returns shredded in a waste paper basket
and I can’t believe he’s really dead
a force of nature the preacher said
strong in body, stronger in head
improvising A to Z
and I think of him standing out on the mat
grabbing my collar and throwing me flat
then bowing and vanishing – and that was that

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the battle of don’s deep

Donald sits low in the armchair, his left leg bouncing up and down like a jackhammer, his left arm in a sling, his right hand restlessly picking at the chair fabric. However neutrally or sympathetically I try to phrase my questions to gauge what he needs since his discharge home, it’s impossible to get a straight or reasonable answer. I’m not making  progress.

I have to say I’ve never met anyone quite so burned-up with fury – or anyone whose eyebrows angled up in the middle so perfectly. It’s like his nose is the prow of a bony ship, and the eyebrows are the arms of a cantilever bridge raising to let it through. His eyes are in sync, too; closing as the eyebrows go up, as if he’s reading his diatribes back of the eyelids, like an autocue.

At least Don’s environment is fine. Potted plants. Laminate flooring. An enormous flat screen TV. Donald muted it when we came in, but the show he was watching continues to play. I think it’s one of those how things are made programmes, this episode all about buttons. Pastel buttons, tartan buttons, spotty buttons, two-holes, four-holes…. The manufacturing process is complex and fascinating. About a million buttons pouring into some kind of steaming bath, then rolling out on a conveyor belt. What for? Do we need this many buttons in the world…?

‘…all you bureaucrats, trying to reduce everything to a simple yes or no, clicking your little keys, ticking your little boxes. Life doesn’t work like that. Pain certainly doesn’t. Pain doesn’t conform to your pissy rules. If I say yes I can do that, you’ll put down yes, and you’ll say he can totally do that – he’s fine, we can leave him alone. But the fact is sometimes I can and sometimes I can’t. It costs me enormous levels of pain and suffering just to get out of the chair. You don’t know what it’s like. I used to be a bodybuilder. I used to be fifteen stone, built like a brick shithouse. I’ve got a toleration for pain your brain could never conceive of, never conceive. I’ve got an IQ that’s in the top one percent. I know what you’re talking about, so don’t try to fool me. I know what’s behind your words. I can’t be bought off like the rest of them. And just because I refuse to be bullied into accepting things that aren’t right, I get stigmatised and put down as difficult…’

I’m so glad I’m doing this assessment with Agnes. She’s so experienced and battle-hardened, I couldn’t feel better about it if I was an elf on the ramparts of Helm’s Deep watching the orcs approach with ladders, and Gandalf was holding my hand.

‘I’m sorry to have to ask you these things,’ I say to Don. ‘I know it’s a bit one size fits all. But we need to get a rough idea what we can do to help. Like physiotherapy, for example. Do you think you might benefit from some?’
The eyebrows flick up; the eyes close.
‘Oh? Yeah? Physiotherapy? You try living with the pain I’ve got. You try doing their little exercises. Me just scratching my head is like you running a marathon. Physiotherapy! And what will they do? They’ll come and they’ll sit where you are and they’ll say Oh, Donald, if you don’t do anything you’ll get this and that. You’ll get muscle wastage, deconditioning, ligament contracture…. Bullshit! They don’t know what it’s like to suffer like this. They wouldn’t last five seconds.’
‘And where was your fracture again? It’s on the system somewhere, but if you could just tell me…’
Eyebrows up.
‘What’s the point? You wouldn’t understand. I’ve got a better understanding of anatomy and physiology than the surgeons. That’s why they didn’t like me. They couldn’t get rid of me quick enough. I knew their language. I knew what they were up to.’
‘Try me. Just – you know – the basics.’
He sighs, then winces, fiercely and dramatically, as if that simple exhalation of breath was the most exquisite form of torture. And then when he’s recovered from that, and re-found the energy and the deep spiritual reserves required to continue talking, the eyebrows go up again, and the eyelids come down.
‘I have a type two coracoid process fracture distal to the coracoclavicular ligament. Yeah? Know what that is? Thought not. Just put busted shoulder. What’s the point of talking about physiotherapy if you don’t even know what it is I’ve got?’
‘The thing is, Don – I know this is difficult for you…’
‘Oh! You know, do you? How do you know? Been through it yourself, have you?’
‘What I mean is – I can see how distressed you are and from that I can guess how difficult you’re finding it…’
‘This is the problem,’ he says, eyebrows up, lids down. ‘This is the problem, right there. Everyone thinks they know but everyone in fact doesn’t know. Everyone knows precisely jack shit….’

I’m struggling to make any headway at all with this assessment. And because Don’s speech is so overwhelming and so full of invective, and because his eyes are closed and I can get away with it, I can’t help glancing at the screen again. Another batch of buttons are going through some kind of electroplating bath, in plain, out golden. They look great. A bit showy, maybe. Still. Nice to have gold buttons….

Agnes takes over. The fact that she’s Scottish seems to help. There’s a broad warmth to her voice that deflects Don’s sniping more successfully, for a while at least. But after ten minutes or so of her best attempts, even she begins to waver. In fact, I’d go as far as to say she starts to sound a little snappy – but then her phone rings.
‘Sorry!’ she says. ‘Do you mind if I take this…?’
And she ups and leaves the room.
I couldn’t feel more abandoned than if Gandalf suddenly waved a bony finger in the air, produced a phone from his cloak, and stepped back from the ramparts just as the orcs came over the top.

I turn to face Don again.

His eyebrows go up.

the wrong end of the brush

When I walk into his room, Ted is leaning forwards in his wheelchair, dabbing energetically at a canvas on an A-frame easel. He’s wearing gold lame running shorts, a lime green sports vest and a leopard print bandanna to keep his wild white hair out of his eyes and – presumably – out of the paint.
‘Whaddya think?’ he says, leaning back.
He hasn’t got much done so it’s hard to tell what it is. In fact, to be honest, it’d be clearer if he’d just splodged the paint on directly from the tube. It also doesn’t help that he’s working from the top down, like someone drawing a primary coloured cover over a blank space. If I had to guess, I’d say it was a picture of ivy growing down a wall – maybe at a cafe, because I can just about see the pencil outlines of a round, cafe-style table and two chairs immediately beneath all the green. I’m not sure though.
‘Van Gogh’ he says, chewing the end of the brush and tipping his head to the right.
‘Oh! I see it now!’ I tell him, throwing my bags down on his bed. ‘Yeah – that’s great! All you need to do now is practice the signature and you could totally pass it off.’
‘What d’you mean?’
‘I mean – it looks like the real thing.’
‘Well I should know, shouldn’t I? I’ve been there. I took photographs.’
I think he means the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.
‘I’d love to go!’ I say, trying to steer things back into safer waters.
‘Why doncha then?’ he says, dabbing on some more green. ‘It’s just a shame the flight takes so long.’
‘Does it?’
‘Yeah. Expensive, too. But cheap when you’ve landed. And so hot! And lush!’
‘Is it?’
‘Yeah.’
‘What – Amsterdam?’
‘No. Bangkok.’