We were students once

We were students once
Photo by Rene Asmussen on Pexels.com

Oh, God. It’s a stag party

In the middle of the aisle is a young man, tall as a pine tree, swaying in tune with the train as it leaves King’s Cross.

His left palm is flat against the carriage ceiling while his right hand steadies half a bottle of vodka against his lips.

He begins to suck the vodka out of the bottle like a hungry calf. His cheeks sink and swell like an accordion. He leans back until the bottle is almost vertical over his head.

At this point, his posse of young male friends start to make a low mooing noise as the vodka disappears down his throat.

‘Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahoo,’ they moo.

As their chant reaches its climax so does he, pulling the empty bottle from his lips and spraying the last few drops of vodka and his spittle over the old couple sitting beside him.

His pals stand, applaud and cheer. He bows to them, his trousers sagging away from his buttocks and exposing his designer underpants.

He turns and bows to the rest of the carriage.

‘All gone,’ he says out loud with a triumphant grin.

The old couple stare ahead pretending they have heard nothing nor felt the vodka splashing over their shoulders.

It’s 10.30am on a Friday morning.

Oh God.

I’m booked on a train next to a stag do. How will I survive another two hours of this babel of boyish banter before I  get out at York?

‘Why did he say: all gone?’ I ask very quietly.

The loathsome pine tree has sat down now, but he’s only three rows away. He might easily misunderstand my interest in him if he overhears me.

‘It’s what a four-year old would say when they wanted you to be pleased they’d eaten up all their greens,’ says Friend Number 2.

‘Oh, come on. They mean well. We were as bad when we were his age,’ says Friend Number 3.

‘Nonsense,’ I say. ‘We couldn’t afford vodka and our trousers never came off accidentally.’

This weekend is a return to the past

‘The worst that could happen,’ said my daughter, earlier that morning. ‘Is that you realise you have nothing in common with each other any longer. Which in a way is a positive. Sometimes, it’s a good idea to let go of the past.’

‘But I’ve got so little future that I really want to hold onto as much of my past as I can,’ I say.

‘If you see any of your old student jokes, bring them back. I’d like to see if your humour’s evolved over the last forty years,’ says my son.

‘It hasn’t,’ says my wife. ‘Two of your father’s jokes have been on permanent loan at the Jorvik Centre since 1985,’ says my wife.

‘Right,’ I say. ‘I’m off to spend the weekend with people who respect me.’

It’s a university reunion

There are five of us old university mates on the train for a reunion weekend away to York university, where we first met nearly forty years ago.

I’ve never been to a school or university reunion, but I imagine that it wouldn’t take much for things to get tricky.

A clash of political ideology or an unwise joke could easily upset the apple cart.

But, after Palmers Green, the conversation loosens up and we start to swap stories. The stag party are already numb to alcohol and have retreated into the ear plugs into their I Pods.

Friend Number 2 explains how he is due a hip replacement operation in a few weeks but is still looking forward to walking the Roman Walls and that we shouldn’t let his hips hold us back.

Friend Number 1 says she may have an arthritic shoulder because of the year she spent as a geriatric nurse and Labour councillor in Croydon lifting old folks on and off the toilet. But we’re not to worry because she can still use a knife and fork and so she won’t embarrass us at the posh river side restaurant we’re going to on Saturday night by asking us to feed her.

Friend Number 2 says that Number 1’s story reminds him that as part of his pre op hip replacement physiotherapy he is being taught how to sit on a raised toilet seat and pull his socks and trousers with ‘a pair of long tweezers, which is quite hard.’

We discuss each other’s illnesses

‘This is what they call an Organ Recital,’ I say. ‘When old people talk about how their organs are functioning.’

To keep the Organ Recital rolling, I bring everyone up to speed with my mother’s dementia, which reminds them of their own parents’ trials and tribulations with cancer, dementia, delusion and death. The party is pumping.

By the time we’ve rattled through all the medical conditions we are (or might soon be) suffering from including high blood pressure, poor cholesterol and early onset diabetes, we’re nearly at Doncaster.

As we pull into the station, I decide to share with them the story of my colonoscopy and the strangeness of watching your own innards on a TV screen, while you lie on a couch with a backless surgical gown.

‘What did they find?’ asks Friend Number 4.

‘Haemorrhoids,’ I say proudly.

As if he were trying to trump me in a game of cards Whist, Friend Number 2 points at a small purple bubble on his lower lip and says ‘Benign tumour.’

We arrive at York

When we arrive at York. The sun is shining and there are daffodils all over the rampart in front of the city walls. Our organ recital has brought us all closer together. We’ve literally got to know each other’s insides.  What can stop us now from moving to an even deeper level of friendship?

We decide to have lunch in the pub opposite our old student digs and grab a cab.

Friend Number 5 turns to the cab driver and says: ‘We were students here forty years ago.’

Number 5 smiles as if he’s shared a life changing secret like the date of the Second Coming.

‘Is that so,’ says the driver with Yorkshire phlegm. ‘Unfortunately, this isn’t the Tardis so I can’t take you back to the past.

A bad dementia day

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.’

Another lie.

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.



The kost of fixing Kitty

Our cat has been bitten by a fox. The wounds on his leg are weeping yellow pus and the skin around the teeth marks are receding like a sneer.

I’m at the vet with my daughter waiting to be told what the cost of fixing Kitty will be.

‘We found two fractures in his pelvis,’ says the vet with an Irish accent like brandy cream.

He points at an x-ray of our unconscious cat manspreading his thin, ghostly back legs.

‘You can see them. Here. And there.’

His fingers circle the fractures on the x-ray.

‘And what is that there?’ asks my daughter.

His kneecap is dislocating!

‘Oh. That. Yeah. That’s a dislocating kneecap.’

The vet begins to recite a long list of injuries to the cat as calmly as the clerk of a court reads out the charge sheet against a multiple murderer. I feel a wave of nausea sweep over me. The cat is uninsured. What will the final cost of fixing Kitty be?

Of course, I knew there’d be a price to pay, nothing comes free these days except the wallpaper at No 10.

But I was only expecting to fork out for a shot of antibiotics, the x-ray and a band-aid or two. £150? £250?

Unfortunately, my cat has enough injuries to script an entire series of ‘All Creatures Great and Small’.

I don’t admire myself for thinking this. But every time the vet moves to open his mouth, I hear a till ringing in reception and my bank account squealing like a pinched pig.

Behind the look of concern which I’ve nailed onto my face for the sake of my daughter, there’s a sour faced accountant in the banking department of my brain throwing his calculator out of the window and shouting: “I told you to get insurance, years ago, you dim-witted, dunderhead.”

‘A dislocating kneecap you say?’ I ask.

‘Two of them,’ replies the vet.

Two dislocating kneecaps.

Is that a cash register I hear?

Another two rings of the till, another two abacus beads sliding in the wrong direction.

I know the government has introduced legislation to recognise animals as sentient beings.

I know I should care about Kitty as much as I do my kids.

But at what point does my responsibility to finance a new pair of bionic kneecaps for the kitty end and my need to finance this summer’s tour of Italy’s vineyards begin?

‘I’m not worried about his kneecaps. I don’t need to operate on them,’ says the vet.

‘Praise be, Doctor,’ I mutter.

My undignified relief doesn’t pass by my daughter unnoticed.

‘I’ll pay, if that’s what’s worrying you,’ she says.

The vet looks at me. Parent shaming. He’s seen it before.

‘Maybe you could make a contribution which we could offset from any future inheritance?’ I say.

Suddenly, the vet peers at the x-ray as if he’s just seen an alien.

‘Oh. I hadn’t noticed that. Can you see that?’ he asks.

My wallet sags like a winded boxer in anticipation of another blow.

‘If you look just here you can see he’s got a fractured sternum, too.’

‘Poor cat,’ says my daughter.

‘Sores on his paws. Nobbled knees. Pelvic fractures and a shoddy sternum.  That’s like a Full House in Poker, right?’ I say.

What will the cost of fixing kitty be?

‘Dad!’ says my daughter. ‘This is serious.’

‘You’re telling me,’ I say. ‘This bill is going to put my retirement back by a decade.’

The vet straightens up and turns from the x-ray.

He’s well over six feet and looks down on me with kind patient eyes.

Like any half decent animal psychologist, he knows that at this moment in time I need a sedative to calm me down much more than the cat does.

‘The good news is that we don’t need to operate. On anything,’ he announces.

‘Brilliant’ says my daughter.

‘Two grand if we did,’ he says, looking me in the eye.

Barolo here I come,’ I say and do a jig while my inner accountant lifts his shirt over his face and runs around like he’s scored the winning goal at the World Cup Final.

‘The pelvis will heal itself?’ asks my daughter.

‘In a month. But you’ll need to keep him in a cage or restricted space, so he can’t jump on tables. And don’t let him go outside. He’s been hit by a car, poor thing.’

Winged by a car, he couldn’t escape the attention of a greedy fox as he limped home.

‘That fox must have thought: ‘That’s a very slow moving double cheese burger. I’ll have a go at that,’ I say.

‘A cheese burger? I don’t get your drift,’ says the vet.

‘The cat. It got hit by the car and couldn’t move fast and this fox saw it and thought metaphorically that cat is like a burger…

‘Ignore him,’ says my daughter as she eyes the floor of the surgery in embarrassment.

‘You’ll be wanting some anti-biotics before you go,’ says the vet in his Irish brogue.

‘No, thanks,’ I say. ‘But a glass of wine would be great if you’ve got one.’