Our car is as ancient as a Viking long ship and as glamourous as a discount warehouse baked bean can. Something inside the old jalopy smells bad, like pickled face flannel, but it’s not so bad that you want to puke and with the windows open it’s bearable over short distances.
However, today, I’m driving to Mother’s nursing home, which is too far away to put up with the smell, even with the windows open and a clothes peg clipped on my nose. It’s time to purge the pong. The question is: who can I persuade to do it?
The car smells of Boomer despair
‘What is that smell in the car?’ I ask to tee up the discussion.
‘The scent of Boomer dreams rotting,’ says my son. ‘I call it ‘Eau du Despair’.
I turn to my wife hoping for a sensible answer.
‘When did we last clean the car?’
‘No, that’s not right. We only bought it four years ago,’ I say.
‘Sorry. When you said ‘we’ I thought you meant ‘you’. The last time ‘you’ cleaned a car was March 12, 2004. It was my birthday. And you only did it because you had forgotten to buy me a birthday present. You hoped by making a fuss about cleaning the car, I would be so grateful that I’d forget you hadn’t bought me a birthday present.’
‘Did it work?’ I ask.
What will my wife say?
My wife pauses. My son is waiting for my wife’s answer. He’s assessing the value of this new fragment of his parent’s past, watching us like an archaeologist studying a hieroglyphic from an ancient alphabet he doesn’t yet understand.
‘I’m still here, I guess,’ she replies.
I drift off for a moment. I have a vision of my future. I’m dead, looking down on my grandchildren, who are weeping at my wife’s feet. They ask her: ‘Grandma, was Grandpa helpful around the house? Could he jump start a motor like other men?’
Her answer is to start singing the Temptations hit ‘Papa was a Rolling Stone’, only she’s changed the lyrics to ‘Papa, never cleaned his home.’ Beside her, the children weep.
I wake from my reverie.
If I want my son to remember me as something other than a ‘Chore Coward’, I should immediately stride outside and clean the car top to tail. But the thought of cleaning the car fills me with a boredom as oppressive as narcolepsy. So, with a small inner squeak no louder than a field mouse’s fart, I offer my son ten quid to clean the car for me.
‘No, you do it,’ he replies, peeved. ‘It’s good for old people your age to try new things, keeps you mentally agile.’
‘Oh, for God’s sake,’ says my wife, also peeved.
She pulls a red bucket out from under the kitchen sink.
‘This is called a bucket. Fill it with hot water and soap.’
‘Then dip one of these into it and rub it over the car,’ says my son, holding out a cloth to me.
Seriously, what is a chamois leather?
An hour later, the car is nearly smog free. I’ve made friends with three men in the street with whom I’ve never spoken before. (In fact, I didn’t even know they lived in the street).
They all drifted over to chat, while I was cleaning the car, and talked about car waxes and something called a chamois leather, which I plan to look up in the dictionary when I come back from seeing Mother. By the end, it was quite a jolly gathering. I guess car cleaning is a Masonic signal to some men.
At the nursing home, my lateral flow test is negative. I slip into a pair of gloves and a thin strip of PPE. It’s meant to cover my body, but it is barely big enough to wrap a lamb chop in, so I look ludicrous with it on, like a sumo wrestler heading for the buffet bar with a baby’s bib on.
Why is she not wearing shoes?
Mother is sitting in the window holding a book up to her face. She’s dressed in a green velvet jacket and a blouse. She’s wearing a mid-length black skirt and has gold earrings on. But she’s shoeless and wearing red and white striped woollen socks as if she had decided to get dolled up for a night out but decided to stay in at the last minute.
‘My feet are swollen,’ she says, seeing me glance at her feet. She quickly adds: ‘How are the kiddie winks?’
I am allowed only twenty minutes with her, so I rattle off what’s been happening to the family like a Town Cryer on amphetamines.
‘What about you?’ I ask.
‘We have our moments,’ she says with a smile.
Then, like a burst pipe, she talks non-stop for 15 minutes.
She tells me about the nurse who fixed her broken spectacles after finding them under her bed and how she wants to meet her new bank manager, which strikes me as quaint and old fashioned as driving gloves or the word scrumpy.
She tells me about a male resident, who complains every breakfast about the porridge, just to make a fuss though the porridge is fine; about her new friends and how the builders redecorating the residents’ sitting room have been effing and blinding all day long.
‘They think we’re stone deaf and can’t hear them,’ she laughs.
Poet or drunk driver?
Her voice is as strong and clear as a woman 20 years younger than her. But her stories are not always coherent. Past and present merge, characters drop in and out randomly and words occasionally slip her grasp. Sometimes, it’s like listening to a glorious free form poet, at others, it’s like watching a drunk driver swerving across a motorway.
It is more than a statement of fact. But is it an accusation?
Suddenly, she stops. ‘I haven’t been out in a year.’
‘It’s covid. We’re all in the same boat,’ I say.
I regret saying this immediately. The idea she and I are in the same boat is almost offensive.
There is a knock on her door.
‘Time’s up,’ says a carer.
‘I’m sorry. I have to go now, mum.’
She gets up to say goodbye. The carer and I watch her winch herself up from her chair, her head bowed down. Do the rules allow me to kiss her? I decide not. I should hug her but what if I knock her down? She’s so small and I feel like a bear next to her. I feel awkward next to the carer.
I put my arms around her shoulders. As I hug her, it feels like I’m slowly squeezing air from a feather pillow. She’s shrunk so her body seems to be buried deep beneath her clothes. It takes an age before my arms feel her flesh and bones.
‘Bye Mum,’ I whisper into the top of her head, which I’ve unwittingly drawn forward onto my chest.
‘Off you go now,’ she says, breaking away. ‘You’ve got lots to be getting on with.’
The car is covered in pidgeon shit, again
In the car park, the car coughs into life. Two birds have shat on the car bonnet and a branch has fallen into the trench where the windscreen washers rest. I start to get out of the car to clear it all up. Then I think ‘fuck it’. I’ll up the offer to my son to clean this off or sort it out myself in a few years. Meanwhile, I will put up with the smell of Boomer despair.