Melvyn Bragg, two academics and an oceanographer are in my bathroom chatting away about the late Devonian Extinction when 70 percent of life on earth died, while I lie in my broiling hot bath.
They are debating if the trilobites were wiped out by a single catastrophic event or passed away due to changes in the climate, while I am wondering how cold I will get when I have to get out of the bath and dash naked for my bath towel, which I’ve stupidly left on the bench under the bedroom window, on the far side of the ensuite bathroom’s folding doors.
I’ve forgotten rule number one
I am incandescent with rage. I am sixty years old, yet I am still making schoolboy bath-time errors. Everyone knows the first rule in the ‘Book of Basic Bathing Techniques’ is to check before you get in the bath that there is a dry towel hanging on the radiator, preferably within an arm’s reach. Rule number two is to make sure the radiator is on.
I conclude the cat is more proficient at cleaning itself than I am. Despite years of practice in showers, hot tubs and bathrooms across the globe, I am less capable than a quadruped. If I can’t manage self-help tasks like this, what chance is there I can successfully organize my wife’s birthday next week? The words piss up and brewery spring to mind.
I submerge my chins below the waterline and stew things over. If it were summer, the fact the bath towel is draped over a bench in another room wouldn’t be a problem because the ambient air temperature would be bearable. But it’s March, we’re in a cold snap and I’ve left the bedroom window open.
Everyone in the street can see me naked
Worse, the curtains are drawn back exposing the bedroom to the gaze of neighbours and the builders across the road. If I am seen dashing naked to the towel on the window bench I may accidentally set a rumour running on the street’s WhatsApp group that Mr. Blobby is living in the street or that someone is secretly filming a remake of the movie ‘The Blob’, in which a giant pink blancmange takes over the world, in west london. This is a risk I’m not prepared to take.
As the heat evaporates from my bald head like steam from a dim sum dumpling in wicker basket fresh from the kithcen, I wonder if the solution is to call my wife or the kids and ask them to bring me the bath towel? After mulling this idea over, I decide it has many upsides for me but none for them. It would be about as welcome as the Poll Tax or the England rugby team at Murrayfield.
I will dry myself with cotton buds
Instead, I wonder if there is enough cotton buds or loo paper in the bathroom so that I could pat myself dry? I decide this would be too slow and, from an environemntal perspective, almost criminal. Perhaps, I should just roll back and forth on the bath mat like a dog drying itself after a long, wet walk? Again, the bathmat is only four foot by two and I worry what my wife would think if she came in and saw me lolling about? It might be the last straw.
Melvyn and the ‘In Our Time’ team have finished their tour of the Devonian Age Extinction, which means I’ve been in the bath for at least 50 minutes. Why am I still lurking here, my eyes just above the waterline, staring at the plug chain? Slowly, like a cold current, I realise I’m dithering not because I don’t have a bath towel, but because I’m scared of visiting Mother later today. If I get out of the bath the visit is a step closer to reality.
How will she react to seeing me?
This will be our first in the flesh meeting in months and I don’t know how she will react. Will her dementia be worse? Will my visit be a relief? Or just cruelly throw into relief how long she has been without us?
I am unsure how I will react, too. But since she went into the nursing home, there has been a carer on all our video calls to help her with the I-pad. This time we will be alone. No one to act up for, no one to pretend to. Just the two of us, figuring out how to face up to this new reality, without wanting to look at it closely, too soon, in case it is too ugly and unbearable.
I’ve been listening to people say how desperate they are to meet family members who have been isolated from them in care homes throughout this ghastly lockdown. They’re so unambiguous about their desire to meet again. Why am I feeling like an actor heading to the first rehearsal of a new play, unsure of my lines?
I jump out of the bath, put my discarded pyjamas back on and pay myself dry, skittishly. I have solved the bath towel problem. It’s time to get on with life.
20 minutes ought not to be enough
Later, I am explaining why I am grateful the nursing home is allowing visitors only 20 minute visits. Twenty minutes ought not to be enough time after so long apart. But if she isn’t talkative, it’s short enough that I won’t have to fill any embarrassing voids with pointless small talk for long.
‘Which is just as well because you’re as useless at small talk as a legless man in a Maypole dancing competition,’ says my wife, as I prepare to set off for the visit.
‘I’ve made a list of things to talk to her about in case the conversation dries up,’ I say.
My wife hands me a box of brownies which she has baked for Mother.
‘It’s more likely she won’t let you get a word in edgeways. She hasn’t seen you for months.’
I’m the designated visitor, not survivor
‘Possibly but as her Designated Visitor I have to prepare for all situations,’ I say.
‘Don’t make a drama out of this. Just be yourself.’
‘Isn’t that contradictory advice?’ asks my son, putting a postcard to Mother on top of the box of brownies.
‘You’re getting good at being sarcastic,’ I say to him as I head for the door.
‘Spent my life learning at the foot of a master,’ he replies.
‘Have you got that large print book she wanted?’ asks my wife.
I tap my coat pocket where I have tucked away a copy of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s short stories and head for the car.
This was first published in the Chiswick Calendar