The bathroom is whoosily hot. As I poach myself back into the Land of the Living after an excessive Saturday bacchanal, I wonder where my toes have gone and if they will ever come back. I watch my body turn the colour of a hot cure smoked salmon and doze.
I slip under the water. I can hear my mobile phone humming and humming and humming. I ignore it. I’m not ready for the world yet. It’s too early to talk. Even a desperate Prime Minister desperately searching for somebody desperate enough to join the Cabinet wouldn’t call this early and a Sunday morning, too.
When I come up for air, the bath water smells odd. It could be the Radox salts, but the odour is more like Vermouth. Herby. As if yesterday’s alcohol has infused the bathwater after fermenting overnight in my stomach. I reach for the phone, curious to see who’s called at this hour.
The missed call is from my Mother’s nursing home. There are two reasons the nursing home call. The first is to say you’ve won this month’s Friends & Family Tombola. But I haven’t entered the Tombola for a long time. And something tells me good news is polite and would wait till brunch.
The arches, loops and whorls of my thumb are so flushed and swollen from poaching so long in my vermouth bath that the phone doesn’t recognise my thumb print and won’t open. Again and again, I press my thumb down but the bloody, bloody, bloody phone won’t unlock. I feel like a mountaineer watching the first few stones of a landslide rolling away from beneath his feet.
I dry my right hand, thumb open the I-Phone and start to ring the nursing home but stop half way through. I am naked. It feels disrespectful to make the call without clothes. On a Sunday, especially. I pick up yesterday’s clothes from the floor beside my bed and ring. I’ve lost a minute getting dressed, which will make no difference to the new reality waiting to introduce itself at the other end of the phone.
‘Putting you through to the duty nurse,’ says reception.
‘Thank you,’ I say, in a sunny voice. You sound like you’ve won the Lotto, I say to myself. Pull yourself together.
‘It’s bad news,’ says the nurse and begins a litany of facts: who, when, what, where and how.
The nurse is professional. But her facts are meaningless and mute. All I can hear is the sound of a planet crashing out of the universe and a familiar voice somewhere whispering ‘no more’.
I knock on my son’s bedroom door. He’s the only family member home.
‘How?’ he asks, waking up.
‘They told me, but I can’t remember.’
‘Oh. Do you want a cuddle?’
It’s an infinitely perfect thing to say at this infinitely imperfect moment.
If I hug him now, I will dissolve like a bath salt and I have things I must do.
In the Uber on the way to the nursing home, I remember when my daughter came into the world, courtesy of a late-night emergency caesarean, I was stranded in a hotel in Copenhagen. When my mother left the world, I was in a bath with a hangover. I guess we don’t always get to choose our comings and goings, nor who’s with us they happen.
‘Pull over. Here’s fine,’ I say to the Uber driver.
At the nursing home, three of Mother’s carers come up to me as I enter the dementia wing of the home.
‘She was a lovely Lady,’ says one.
‘So polite,’ says another.
‘‘Merci Beaucoup’ was what she used to say to us. All the time. Even if we were just giving her a cup of tea.’
‘A cup of tea was the way to her heart,’ I say. Shamefully, I realise I do not even know the names of the carers.
Mother used to say: ‘I don’t know why they do this. They do things others don’t want to. For a pittance. I wouldn’t do this if I were them.’ Politeness was her strategy for keeping people on side. She understood she was dependent on others even though she never called them carers. Calling them by their professional name would have been an admission of defeat and even at the end she hoped she might one day leave and take care of herself again.
She would have torn me off a strip or two if she had seen how badly dressed I was when I arrived: a crimpled shirt and shorts, scuffed shoes, unshaven. Clothes maketh the men, she used to say. She was a professional model and brought up in a home of hand me downs. Both experiences had an impact.
She would have hated herself if she could see what she looked like now. Lying under a bedsheet on the floor in her old nightgown, head back, hair unbrushed, eyes closed. In her open mouth a gold tooth visible. Her last words long gone. I wonder if they were ‘Merci beaucoup.’
‘Why is she on the floor?’ I ask.
‘The bed was too soft to do CPR on,’ says the nurse.
‘Oh,’ I say. ‘Can we move her?’
‘Not until the Police come.’
I sit with her body. They’ve closed the curtains so none of the other residents can see in through her window. I’m not sure they’d notice. I saw a man carried out of a packed residents lounge on a stretcher in the middle of lunch. None of the residents batted an eyelid.
‘This bed is very low,’ says my bother, who has just driven up from south London.
‘And too soft for CPR,’ I say.
‘Ah,’ he says.
A few minutes pass.
‘Did she die in her sleep?’ he asks.
‘They found her at 6.30 when they came in to dress her for breakfast. She wasn’t conscious so they did the CPR thing.’
‘I think she woke up and thought ‘enough is enough’ and closed her eyes and let herself go,’ he says and gets up to look at the photos on her table. I lie back on her bed and look at the pictures hanging on the walls.
On the back of each of the pictures, Mother has written the names of one of her grandchildren. It’s an addendum to her will. Other than these paintings and a few photo albums there is nothing left, except her wedding ring.
‘Do you want to take her ring home?’ asks the nurse.
Taking her ring off as she lies there dead on the floor is repelling. We shake our heads silently.
‘No worries. The Police will be here in about five minutes. It’s a formality though, so you don’t need to stay,’ says the nurse.
My brother and I shrug our shoulders at each other. We pick up the paintings and the photo albums and leave.
At the entrance to the home, the receptionist hands me a list of names and phone numbers: funeral directors, the coroner, the local Registrar’s office and the GP who will issue the death certificate.
‘She was a graceful lady,’ says the receptionist.
‘Merci beaucoup,’ I say. ‘Merci beaucoup.’