dad comes back (I know, right – AGAIN?)

as usual he appears with fluorescent flair
yaahing & woo-hooing down the stairs
a halo of ghastly green worms for hair
waving his shroud emphatically
a little melodramatically
it seems to me
especially
as I know he was buried in a suit
but maybe he hired the shroud for the shoot
maybe there’s an undead outfitters
called Zombie & sons, or Just Jitters
I’ve really no idea
I’m getting off-point here
which is
witches
ghouls and vampires and such
none of that bothers me all that much
but ghosts have got my attention good
since dad landed back in the neighbourhood

‘Jiiiiiiiimmmmmmmmeeeeeeee’
he wails to me
waving his arms unconvincingly

Okay, okay
I say
Let’s just drop the LOOK AT ME I’M SO DEAD act
I think I can take it as a flatline fact
since I saw you unplugged in ITU
(the scariest thing I saw anyone do)
so you can save the sulphur
sit on that sofa
and rest your mouldy old bones a minute
as far as hauntings go I’ve reached my limit
rest, rest, perturbed spirit
maybe it’ll make for an easier visit

and to my surprise
he complies

so – tell me – dad
this may sound mad
but what’s it like being dead?

he scratches his shiny head
lovingly examines his
long white phalanges
then smiles at me
and carries on more conversationally

S’okay he says
it’s had a bad press
are the hours good? yes
there’s very little stress
so unless
you’re under some kinda spiritual duress
or feel the need to confess
or maybe impress
the need for vengeance on someone who’s transgressed
I’d have to say, for me at least, it’s been a success

hey!
I say
that’s nice to hear
but – to be clear
why are you here?
if death’s such a doozy
why d’ya treat the place like a goddamn jacuzzi?
jumping in and out
waving your arms and legs about
lots of steam
see what I mean?

well, the metaphor’s a mess
but I guess
I can see where you’re coming from
and judging from
your current demeanour
I think you’d be keener
if I dropped by a little less often?
but then – wouldn’t I be forgotten?

no – no, you wouldn’t
so I shouldn’t
take that as a reason for haunting
continued contact I’m fully supporting
just not with all this phonus balonus
maybe you could phone us?
or skype?
or a text if you can type?
alright?

alright! he says
yes!
you’ve made your case!
I was never any good at face-to-face
but promise me I can swing by soon
anytime there’s a blood red moon

so I say naturally dad, of course
when suddenly he rises with the force
of a Marvel special effects team
and roars off with a chilling banshee scream
and the ceiling rends and ripples
and the hissing cat’s hair bristles
and the lights all surge and pop
and dogs in the street all howl without stop
and the curtains snap and whip
and the carpets ruck and rip
and the chairs all flip
and I’m sitting trembling saying what the shit

then a moment of silence

the sound of distant sirens

then I hear dad whispering so low I almost miss it
sorry Jim – couldn’t resist it

dad’s ghost

Dad’s ghost came to me again last night
which doesn’t sound quite right
like ‘Dad’ is one kind of entity
and his ghost exists independently
gliding around silently
like those ROVs
you sometimes see
nosing around in documentaries
exploring the furthest depths of the sea
smoothly & stealthily
and maybe
in that analogy
the wreck it illuminates so spookily
is me

stressful deliveries

Ken has been sent home to die. It says so in the discharge summary, once you get past the medical terminology, acronyms and abbreviations. And if the End of Life description in the narrative isn’t clear enough, they’ve packed him a bag of ‘Just in Case’ medications, or JICs, the medicines the District Nurses will administer to ease the symptoms of Ken’s death. So really there’s no question about it.

It’s worrying that there doesn’t seem to be a ReSPECT form, though. (ReSPECT being yet another acronym, standing for: Recommended Summary Plan for Emergency Care and Treatment). The form clarifies the treatment expectations for a patient, including when they’re approaching end of life. The form gets filled in after a frank conversation with the patient and their family, exploring what they want to happen, what’s important to them, how and where they want to be treated, especially when things deteriorate. Without it, you’re left tiptoeing round the edges of an emotionally fraught subject, to no-one’s benefit, not least the patient. Good End of Life care needs clarity, honesty, stability and forward planning. Without these things it often deteriorates into last-minute fixes, stressful appeals, unnecessary hospital admissions.

In this case, not only is there no ReSPECT form, but neither Ken nor his son Simon seem to have the least clue what’s going on. And if they have been told, the best you could say was that it hadn’t sunk in.

‘What are these?’ says Simon, shuffling through the JIC boxes like a poker player with a bad hand. ‘What are they for, then?’
‘Those? They’re …erm… for a little bit further on. If things change. The District Nurses will talk to you about those. They’re the ones who’ll be giving them, so you don’t have to worry. I’d put them in a cupboard out of the way or something.’
‘Nah. I’ll put them up here,’ he says, stacking them up in the middle of the mantelpiece. A grim talking point. ‘So what d’you need to know? Only I’ve gotta get back…’

You’d know they were father and son without being told. It’s not just they’re both bald, with the same roughly-chiselled head, the same pinched nose and beak-like mouth. It’s something else they share, a startled watchfulness. But if they have the same essential character, Ken is the one you can see is mortally ill. His lips are dry, his eyes sunken, and there’s a dull, liverish pallor to his skin, like someone tried to sculpt a rough copy of the younger man in clay before it dried out.

Encouragingly, the house is roomy and clear, with plenty of space to make the necessary adaptations. There’s a large room immediately adjoining the living room that would be perfect for a hospital bed. All it needs is to clear away the card table and six chairs currently taking up the middle.
‘No. No way,’ says Simon, folding his arms. ‘He won’t want that. He’s got his own bed upstairs.’
‘The thing is, though, Simon, as your Dad’s illness progresses, he’s going to find it harder to use the stair lift. It’ll be much better and safer for him to stay on one level. Also, the hospital bed means he can be cared for more effectively than on his own bed. It goes up and down to the right height, so it’s easier for the carers to do what they need to do. And it’s got a pressure mattress to help stop him getting pressure ulcers.’
‘No,’ says Simon. ‘He won’t have it. He wants to have his friends round to play cards. How’re they going to do that with a bloody great bed in the way?’
‘They’ll think of something.’
‘No. It’s not going to happen. We’ll leave things as they are for the time being, thank you very much.’
He takes me upstairs to look at his Dad’s current bed. It’s a standard divan, standard height. Once Ken lands in it, the risk is he’ll be stuck there and then the carers will struggle to do personal care and change his pads in a safe way.

It’s a common problem. For each patient, of course, their situation is unique, a once in a lifetime event. They can only think about how it affects them; everything else is secondary. For the carers, though, it’s part of their working day. They see a lot of end of life patients. If the carers are to avoid a back injury, they need to be able to adjust the bed to a sensible working height – not to mention the facility to change the patient’s position, to sit them up or lie them flat as required. But it’s awkward to insist on this without making the conversation sound more about the carers than the patient. The trick is to have these discussions before the patient is discharged home.

As a nursing assistant I don’t feel I have the seniority to push the subject with Ken and Simon. Instead I make a mental note to escalate things when I get back to the office.

‘I can’t stay long,’ says Simon, showing me back downstairs. ‘I’ve got to get back to work.’
‘Oh? What do you do?’
‘I’m a delivery driver for a supermarket,’ he says.
‘How’s that going?’
‘Terrible!’ he says. ‘I thought it’d be a breeze but it isn’t.’
‘Why? What’s the problem?’
‘They know everything about you. They know exactly how fast you’re driving, how hard you step on the brakes. They know how fast you go round a roundabout. It’s all monitored by a computer, every second of the day. And if you make the slightest mistake they know about it. If you accelerate just a few miles an hour over the odds, ‘cos maybe someone’s coming up too fast, or maybe you’re overtaking and need to get past, or maybe you’re waiting for a gap to get out and you have to pull away a bit sharpish, because otherwise you’ll be waiting there till Christmas, and you’ve got all these jokers flashing their lights and leaning out of their windows calling you every name under the sun… I don’t know. I don’t think I’ll do it much longer. But the trouble is, there’s not much around. What else am I going to do?’
‘I don’t know. It’s difficult.’
‘Difficult? It’s impossible! The whole day you’re monitored. Like they’re sitting right there in the cab. With a clipboard. Saying Ah-hah!…TICK! …. Yep – Er Hmmm … TICK!… every time you do something they don’t like. And for what? Minimum wage? I don’t think so.’

He stares at me, unblinking, hyperattentive, a holographic version of the onboard computer.
‘Why can’t people just be reasonable?’ he says.
And I tell him I don’t know, but wouldn’t it be great if they were.

*

Later that week Ken deteriorates, and there’s the inevitable scramble to set up all those things it was obvious he needed from the start.
‘Where did they put the bed? I ask the carer.
‘Where the card table was,’ she says. ‘Which is great, ‘cos there’s plenty of room…’

back in the pond

sometimes when I belch I bring back dad
that sonorous, self-satisfied way he had
a baritone frog on a lily pad

shit i even walk like him
rolling along on stumpy pins
a nonchalant neanderthal synonym

lately I catch myself sighing when I sit
and when I laugh I cry a little bit
like life’s so funny I can’t quite handle it

I wish he’d quit and leave me alone
the dead king slumped on his ghostly throne
jerking the strings on these junior bones

dadbot

Turns out – dad was a robot
I was so shaken I was shot
I should’ve known, though
when I saw him licking the dynamo
on the front wheel of his Pashley
How he spent most of every Saturday
buffing his be’cardigan’d chassis
with duraglit and a chamois
till it sparkled
remarkably

It really shouldn’t have been news
there were plenty of clues
in retrospect
like the way he collected
fridge magnets
his clumsiness with ceramics
the crackle in the air
when he sat in his chair
slicking his single aerial of hair
sideways across his pate
his tie unnaturally straight
the clunk of his slippers
the clackety clack of his clippers
the way he ate his boiled egg dippers
mechanically
unenthusiastically
scanning the kitchen
for anything else we might fetch him

I had it confirmed years later
when I ran into his maker
at a conference for the movers & shakers
of the domestic robot business
‘As god is my witness’
she said, unnecessarily dramatic
a bit too emphatic
for my taste –
but I didn’t want to waste
the opportunity –
‘Yes! Your dad was well respected in the robot community
His software was suspect and his batteries were crap
But we recouped costs when we sold him for scrap’

IMG_1742

soap

Mr Gates is dying in the living room.

Despite the name, it’s the most appropriate place. As well as being the only room big enough to accommodate the bulky hospital bed and dynamic pressure mattress, it’s also the most pleasant, with wide, sunny windows overlooking the garden, warm and well-lit by the sun for most of the day. It has a TV in the corner, too, specially raised up on a wall-mounting so Mr Gates can watch it from his bed. Unfortunately he’s deteriorated so much now that the Emmerdale repeats aren’t really anything more than comforting background noise. He lies semi-conscious, mouth gaping open, breathing in fitful gasps, hugging a pillow, his wasted legs crooked up. He doesn’t look as if he’d last till the advert break, but apparently he’s been like this for weeks. He doesn’t seem distressed, though, and his son, Frank, who’s temporarily moved back to help look after his father, is bearing up surprisingly well considering.

Everything’s in place. There are District Nurses visiting regularly, the GP has supplied the anticipatory meds, there are carers coming in four times a day to freshen him up. The only hitch is that the bed is jammed in the down position.

‘You couldn’t do it again if you tried,’ says Frank. ‘The carers threw a covered cushion on the floor when they were turning him, forgot about it, and when they lowered the bed it dragged the vinyl cover into the mechanism.’ He bends down to tug at the mess sticking out from one of the hydraulic legs. ‘See what I mean? We’ve tried everything to free it, but nothing’s worked.’

The carers can’t give bed care safely or effectively at this height, so the only option is to install a second bed alongside the first, slide Mr Gates over whilst still on the mattress, dismantle the broken bed, then push him back into position.

Four of us have agreed to rendezvous with Zac, the equipment supplies guy. Zac isn’t thrilled with any of this, not the timing, the circumstances, the interruption to his schedule, and certainly not with the number of people milling around, spoiling his routine.

Zac is covered with tattoos, even into those dangerous and anti-social areas, up the neck and the side of his face. He looks like a Maori warrior – so much so that with the stress of all this I wouldn’t be surprised if he did a war dance, flashing his eyes and poking out his tongue. As it is he gives a series of alarming sighs and grunts, and then hurries back outside to the truck to start off-loading. We follow after him in a line like so many ducklings, and immediately start getting in the way. But I suppose theoretically at least we’re some kind of help; in no time at all we’ve got the parts of the new bed carried inside and placed either foot or head end ready to assemble. Zac declines any help with this.

‘I’ve got a system, okay?’ he says, which mostly seems to be a lot of muttering and kicking.

We want to be on hand to pass things over, though, and ultimately to slide Mr Gates across. So instead of all going out into the hallway, we stand around watching Emmerdale.

I’d guess from some of the clothes and hairstyles it’s from the Eighties. The whole thing seems oddly amateurish, like a skit in a local church hall production. There’s a sad looking woman sitting on a swing, and a huge, red-faced guy in a white shirt and golden bow tie telling her how disappointed he is with her and how could she and so on. At one point she turns her eyes up to him in a pathetically pleading way, kicking herself back a little on the swing.

‘It’s no good, Janet,’ says the man. ‘Spare me the sob story. You’ve played your games for the very last time. We’re finished. Do you understand? Finished!’

He walks off.

The theme music plays, and the TV cuts to an advert – insurance for funeral costs.

We all grimace.

‘Can one of you pass me that?’ says Zac, pointing to a strange looking multi-tool on the floor.

We all go to get it at the same time, then all pull back again.

‘Jesus Christ!’ says Zac.

new year’s thimble

Coming back from a dog walk the other day we saw a guy kneeling in the field securing the legs of a tripod. It looked like he was setting up for a long-distance camera shot – maybe of the crows that squabble in the oaks around there – but when we got closer we saw that the tripod was actually a long, thin spade stuck in the earth, and propped up against it, a metal detector.

The guy straightened, waved, and walked over. Despite his headphones, combat trousers and Caterpillar boots, he had a strangely out-of-time look about him, like a Viking who’d come back in disguise to find the treasure he buried.

His name was Janusz. We chatted about the area, what we knew about it, the places it might be good to look. I told him about all the fragments of old glass and pottery that get washed out in the far corner. Maybe there was a midden there or something. I told him about a field I thought was the remains of a medieval village over the back behind the church.
‘It had all these strange bumps in it I thought were the huts. But then I found out it was a golf course in the 1920s.’
Janusz laughed.
‘There is an old pond over there, though. It was dug in the middle ages, one of the hammer ponds they used when they smelted iron for cannon balls.’
‘Really?’ he said. ‘Hmm. Well – last year I found a beaten coin that way. About 1520. That was nice. Not much today though. I dug this up…’
He put a tiny brass thimble in my palm. It was fragile, dull, squashed out of true, filled with earth.
Have it,’ he said. ‘No idea how old it is.’
I felt the weight of it, held it up to the light.
‘Thanks, Janusz’ I said. ‘Thanks very much.’

I wanted to tell him how much it meant to me. How it was my birthday, and my Dad’s the day before that. How this time of year always felt freighted with meaning. I wanted to tell him about how Dad bought a metal detector once, back in the seventies, from the back of a Hobbies magazine. It was a clumsy, boxy thing, bakelite dials, wires sticking out of it. A horrible piece of crap someone might solder together from an old twin-tub and a radio. I used to go with Dad out on the Fen sometimes, looking for coins. I wonder what people must have thought if they saw us from the road: a man and his son, slogging through the peaty soil, stopping every now and again to chop frantically at the earth with trowels. A hopeless, fruitless quest. Half the time I think the buzz it gave off was a con, something random they built into it, just enough to keep the suckers moving. We’d have had more chance finding King John’s treasure with a hazel twig. Still – it meant something, out there on the Fen with my Dad, searching.
‘Thanks for the thimble!’ I said.
‘Hey! You’re welcome!’ said Janusz. ‘Happy New Year!’

IMG_1519

sig

the wonderful thing about tigger

Carl climbs back into bed and slowly pulls the covers up to his chin. He’s a frail, tentative man in his forties, skin like parchment paper, his teeth sharp and defined. I’m surprised he’s been discharged home like this, but then again, he’s a convincing witness, and they’re short of beds on the psych wards.

‘I’m over it,’ he says. ‘I won’t be trying to kill myself again.’ He grimaces, and pulls the covers even more tightly around him.

This last time was the second attempt. Carl had taken an overdose of medication he’d stored up over time. He’d panicked at the last minute and called a friend, who’d dialled 999. When the paramedics broke the door down Carl was in cardiac arrest. They managed to get him back, though, and after a prolonged stay in hospital – a couple of weeks in intensive care, a month on the wards – he’d been discharged home with community support.

It’s a nice flat, but so bare you’d think Carl had just moved in. Even though he’s an artist, there are no pictures on the walls apart from two, childish, brightly-coloured crayon drawings of a dragon and a butterfly. The bare boards seem to go on for miles, from Carl’s bedroom at the back of the house to the huge bay windows at the front. By the bed he has an alarm clock and a glass of water. At the foot of the bed is a stuffed toy: Tigger, from Winnie the Pooh.

‘Tigger saved my life’, says Carl. ‘When I came out of ITU I only had the strength to stroke his head. It gave me power, though. Sounds silly but it’s true. He was my best friend in there. He kept me going, stood up for me. I mean – ITU was the worst. It was a nightmare. You’d think I was unconscious to look at me, but I wasn’t. Everything was out to get me – the equipment, the nurses. Everything was holding me down trying to climb inside me. I struggled like mad. One time I even threw myself out of bed. I just climbed over the cot sides and ended up on the floor – drips, lines, cables, the lot. Everyone came running. I thought they were coming to finish me off so I fought like crazy. Then they sent me back under. Next thing I knew Dad was standing by the bed on the ward. He looked so old and sad and worn out. It was Dad who gave me the spare kidney when I needed it, a few years ago. He’s amazing, my Dad. He came all the way down from Cumbria to see me. On the train. That’s a long way! I just kept thinking about him, sitting there, staring out the window. But when he got here I didn’t know what to say to him. Other than sorry, obviously. The worst thing was, when he left me at the hospital he came back here to sleep – in this bed, where I did the deed. That made me feel very strange. But he couldn’t afford a hotel, so I suppose it made sense. I wondered how I’d cope, coming back to this flat. It’s been alright, though. I don’t think about it all that much. Funny, isn’t it?’

swallowing the hook

I like 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 like to lie in the grass half asleep
and watch his fishing line flick and leap
as the wide river slides and the fat sun thins
and the maggots keen 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, now reel me in

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tangled up in brown

I let myself in with the key from the keysafe.
‘Hello? Jack? It’s Jim, from the hospital…’
The bungalow is profoundly quiet, a heaviness to the air, cloying top notes of sweat and something else, the noxious atmosphere accentuated by the solitary drilling of a fly. Curtains drawn, a soupy brown half-light through drawn curtains. A door at the far end of the hallway standing open.
‘Hello…?’
Into the bedroom. The single bed on my immediate left rumpled up, nothing on it but a soiled bottom sheet, rucked up with a bias to the left; the contents of the side cupboard spilled or spilling; a chaotic pattern of smeared brown stains on the white wardrobe doors and across the floor – and then Jack, naked, lying on his back on the floor beside the bed, a lit desk lamp clutched to his chest, the cord tangled around his arms and legs. At first I think he’s dead, but then I notice a trembling in his abdomen, intermittent breaths, and when I touch him on the shoulder nearest to me, he shudders, opens his eyes and stares straight up at the ceiling, smiling in a beatific way, as if the touch was the answer to a long vigil of prayer.

I call for an ambulance once I know he’s breathing and stable. Even though they say they’ll do their best to get here quickly, and despite his poor condition and the likelihood of a long lie, he’s still only a medium priority and there’s a chance the ambulance may get diverted to something else. In the meantime I set about trying to assess Jack more thoroughly, and make him more comfortable. I put blue overshoes on, a plastic apron, gloves, and set to work. I turn off the lamp and gently disentangle him from the lead. After a quick top-to-toe that seems to exclude any obvious fractures, I use whatever pillows and bedding I can find to put under and around him to ease his position. I run a quick set of obs. I’m just about to go into the kitchen to find a beaker for water when Jack’s son Joe arrives. Joe is shocked by his father’s condition, but he manages to contain it for the future in the cause of setting things right in the present.
‘He was fine when I put him to bed at half seven last night,’ he says, putting on the overshoes and gloves that I give him, then helping me shift the furniture around to make room for the ambulance crew. ‘He’s had this UTI recently. The antibiotics haven’t been touching it. He was hallucinating about cats last night. He said the house was full of ‘em. I was going to talk to the doctor today to see what the plan was.’
He looks down at his father, and shakes his head.
‘Why didn’t you press your button, dad?’
Jack opens his eyes again and makes some incomprehensible sound.
‘He’s pretty dehydrated. I was going to give him some water,’ I say. ‘It’ll have to be in a beaker, though. His blood pressure’s quite low and I’m wary of sitting him up too much.’
‘I’ll see if he’s got one somewhere,’ says Joe, and pads off into the kitchen to find one.
Meanwhile I fill a basin with soapy water, get some dry wipes out of my bag and start cleaning Jack up. He’s in a terrible state. I’m guessing he must have had several episodes of diarrhoea through the night, the smear marks on the floor and wardrobe where he scrabbled around ineffectively. His hands are caked, his long nails thickly rimed, his body filthy – even the lamp is covered in smeary hand prints where he’s hugged it over night – for warmth, or light, it’s impossible to say.
I start work on his face and hands.
The ambulance arrives.
A paramedic walks into the room, clutching a clipboard.
‘Oh my good God!’ he says. And then, looking at my apron and overshoes, adds: ‘I don’t suppose you’ve got any more of those, have you…?’