At the nursing home my mother, like an eccentric monarch interrogating a much-missed servant, starts hurling questions at me. I haven’t even stepped over the threshold of her room.
Her questions merge into one current of untamed thought. Words cascade from her like one fluid sentence from James Joyce’s ‘Finnegan’s Wake’ or some other impenetrable Modernist novel. This is going to be a bad dementia day.
As I sit down on her bed, she keeps repeating one question.
‘Who was that woman you were with here with last night?’ she asks.
‘What on earth are you talking about?’ I say.
‘Who was that woman you were with here last night?’ she repeats.
‘I wasn’t here last night, mum.’
‘Yes, you were,’ she says. ‘Don’t lie. I saw you and her. I didn’t like the look of her one little bit.’
When she is deluded, I lower my voice and call her Mum. Not Mother or her first name. Mother is too cold and the second too informal. I don’t know if calling her ‘mum’ has a calming effect. But it reminds me of the soft voice I used when the children were young and needed baulking up against a bad dream.
‘I wasn’t here last night. Nor was I with another woman, mum.’
She stares at me from her armchair for a few moments. It feels to me her mind is churning matters over like a washing machine full with dirty laundry.
I pull off my blue PPE gloves and hang my F94 covid mask from my right ear, where it swings like a door off its hinge, not unlike the conversation.
‘Honestly, mum. I. Was. Not. Here. Last. Night. With. A. Woman.’
‘She’s not your new bit on the side, then?’
My new bit on the side? She thinks I’m Casanova or, perhaps, Boris Johnson. For a moment I am insulted for myself and my wife and family.
But the feeling morphs and emerges as a strangulated laugh. This is a fantasy fuelled accusation and in the land of the ludicrous laughter is the only sane response.
‘What’s so funny,’ she asks, straightening up in her chair.
‘The only thing I ever have ‘on the side’ is a Yorkshire pudding with my Sunday roast,’ I say.
‘You talk nonsense.’
‘Touché,’ I reply and lie back on her bed, wondering where this conversation will go next.
My mother starts telling me that ‘women of the night’ rent rooms at her nursing home for ‘their tricks’. I close my eyes and sink into sleep. I don’t feel rude for ignoring her. My body has decided to shut off the pain of listening to her like this.
I wake up. Mother is asleep upright in her chair. Someone on the TV is wittering on about how bloody wonderful Cornwall and its fishermen are. It’s Rick Stein simpering away again. How many more series about beer battered Cornish cod can the world’s day time TV viewers stomach?
My mother turns her head towards me and asks about my son.
‘What’s he up to?’
‘He’s been working as an extra in a TV series this week,’ I say.
‘He’s always wanted to be an actor, hasn’t he?’
‘I don’t know about that. But it’s a great experience for him.’
‘Oh, yes. He’s such a good-looking boy, he’ll do well.’
She looks at me as if she is trying to remember something.
‘Have you seen your father recently?’ she asks. ‘I wonder why he doesn’t come to see me.’
My father died in 2007. She regularly forgets that he is dead. Sometimes, I ignore her question and change the subject. Sometimes, I remind her he is dead. One is a deceit, the other a cruelty. Usually, I opt for deceit.
My phone pings. It’s a message from my son asking if I want to join him for lunch. If I want to catch him, I’ll have to go immediately. I’ve been with mother less than an hour and been asleep for half of that time. My visit is as cursory as a care visit can get.
Mother looks at the clock.
‘Do you want to stay for lunch,’ she asks.
‘I have to go. I’m sorry. I promised to see B- for lunch.’
She looks at me quizzically. Is she weighing up the choice I’ve just made between seeing my son or staying with her? Is she disappointed?
‘Send him my love,’ she says and smiles.
In the doorway, I turn around. She is still smiling. Her dementia has lifted like a fog taking with it her earlier delusions. For a moment, I can see the mother she once was, like a refugee on the far shore of a lake, waving at me from across the water, wordlessly. Go, she seems to be saying. Go now. Before the fog returns and I am lost again.