I drink therefore I am. Or why life is a load of old bowls.

The catkins are hanging off the willows and lolling on the walls of the houses on the Mall, thick as butcher’s fingers and yellow as nicotine. Spring is here.

I’m pondering nothing very much as I potter along the river towards a piss-up with pals in a pub in Putney when the sun and the scent of the sap seeping from the buds on the trees start to stir up my imagination.

I’m not hallucinating

I’m not saying I’m having an apotheosis like Wordsworth in a field of Lake District daffodils or about to go all weepy and whiny about my wasted life like ‘Ozymandias’ after a basin full of laudanum.

Of course, not.

After all, this is only the Thames path, not nature red in tooth and claw. Or even Richmond Park. But the fresh air and sap has got me thinking.

I’m in the sort of trance you get just after the third pint of lager or Aperol Spritz kicks in, on a summer’s day. I’m filled with the peace which comes from graciously laughing at a friend’s joke, even though you’ve heard it 42 times before and never, ever, ever found it funny. (A feeling familiar to wives and women in long standing relationships, apparently).

But I am in trance

The trance is throwing up big questions, too. If I have a problem with my tax code should I call my accountant or Boris Johnson? Will the Human Tissue Authority be willing to take my body for medical science or will I have to pay them to take it as the children suggested last night? Trickiest of all: am I pointless?

This last question, which lurks in the mind of every aging male Boomer as they find themselves stranded above the high tide mark of their careers and libidos, is the easiest to answer. No, no yet.

Why?

Because if I have two mates still willing to put up with me for a couple of hours, then I have meaning. It doesn’t matter if I’m to be the only person in history to pay his way into the medical morgue at the Human Tissue Authority or that I don’t have the PMs personal number to call when things get taxing.

Ergo Bibendum sum

As long as someone’s willing to meet me for a drink, even if it’s only for a single round of schnapps, I am not pointless. As long as there’s a campfire somewhere where other people will bear with you while you roast some old chestnuts, there’s an alternative to the despair of bike club and Sundays spent in padded lycra shorts with the other MAMILs.

Ergo Bibendum sum. I drink therefore I am. QED.

A few days ago, I watched a TV programme about Socrates, the Greek philosopher, and I wonder if his rigorous approach to logic and problem solving has rubbed off on me?

It may have taken me five decades to have a serious philosophical idea, but Socrates left some of his best thinking to the end of his life, maybe I have too? Is it possible that with ‘ergo bibendum sum’, I’ve moved western philosophy forward, if only an inch or two?

‘I don’t get it,’ says one friend, after I explain my philosophical epiphany to them, at the pub.

‘What he’s saying is that life is more bearable with friends,’ says the other.

‘And booze?’ asks the first.

‘Sounds like Epicurus to me,’ says the second, trying to sound positive.  

‘It’s more than that?’ I reply.

‘Is it?’

They both look at me. It’s clear that they are not as excited by my towpath epiphany as I am. In fact, they don’t seem to get it at all. They’re looking at me benevolently bemused. It’s a look I see on my wife’s face quite often.

‘When you said campfire were you being literal?’ asks one of them.

‘It was a metaphor for human conviviality,’ I say, beginning to get frustrated.

‘Oh. Got it.’

Is it time to take up bowls?

There’s a pause as I soak up the fact that my idea is nothing new nor any great shakes. In fact, it’s probably too late to have any new or original ideas at my age. The intoxicating scent of blossoming nature has conned me into thinking I can think.

‘Time for another?’ I ask.

‘Why not,’ says the other.

‘Same again?’ says the only one who has the patience to use the pub’s drinks app.

‘Do you think we should take up bowls?’ says one, looking around.

‘Cheaper than golf,’ says the other.

‘There’s a novel idea. Let’s order some chasers while we chat it through,’ I say feeling the sap of spring rising again.

Should men wear Alice bands?

man in white and gray stripe shirt
Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

My wife looks up and sniggers.

The children turn around, exchange a shrug of their eyebrows and swivel back to their cereal bowls.

‘What’s so funny?’ I ask myself.

Is the cat behind me moon walking on the hob or playing table football with the butter dish? He’s always trying to upstage me with his cute little pussycat tricks.

I look back over my shoulder. The cat is nowhere to be seen.

‘WhatsApp?’ I joke.

My wife looks at me and laughs again. But not at my joke.

The silence is pregnant

It feels as though I’ve walked into a bar and the music has stopped. The silence is pregnant like the pause before a punchline or a punch up. They’re ganging up against me. Have they hidden a whoopee cushion on my chair like they did on April Fool’s Day? 

‘Did you look in the bathroom mirror before you came down?’ asks my daughter.

‘No. What do you think I am? A sadomasochist?’ I reply. ‘I haven’t even cleaned my teeth yet.’

‘Oh, gross,’ says my son.

‘Maybe you should go look in the mirror,’ says my wife.

My PJs are on back to front

I squint down. My tee shirt is wrinkled and my pyjamas bottoms are on inside out and back to front. The pockets hang down my legs like elephant ears and because my pyjamas are on back to front my backside is peering out through the unbuttoned flap.

‘I look like Dumbo.’

‘Dumbo’s big dad,’ says my daughter.

My hair looks like Tintin’s

‘But your hair is tufty more like Segei the Meerkat than an elephant,’ says my son.

‘It’s quite a feat looking so ludicrous without a make-up artist,’ says my wife.

I could blame a heavy nights drinking for my dishevelled look. However, the truth is my poor dress sense is a genetic problem. The male line of my family has a flaw in its chromosomes which makes us dress badly.

At least, that’s what Mother has always told me.

‘If you gave the men in your father’s family a blank cheque and sent them to the best tailors in Saville Row, they’d come back looking like hobos in a John Steinbeck novel,’ she used to say.

Grooming is for horses

At my father’s funeral, my brother said Scotland Yard’s top forensic team would have struggled to find a trace of vanity in him even if they had spent ten years excavating the smallest molecules of his being.

My brother was right. Our father had no vanity in him and was suspicious of men who took too much care of their looks or clothes.

‘Grooming is for horses,’ he said. 

He distrusted the fashion industry. Clothes are the fashion industry’s way of making us slaves, he said. I was twelve and this sounded like an aphorism by Marx or Engels. It wasn’t. It came from his heart.

He rejected the idea that ‘clothes maketh the man’. He believed uniforms were acts of social repression. It was his time in the army or boarding school that made him believe this.

God bless him, he was probably the only person in the country who forgave Michael Foot, when he turned up at the Cenotaph in 1981, looking scruffy.

‘Pure snobbery,’ he said of the media rage at the time.

‘As if the war dead give two f***s about his overcoat.’

Why should anyone care what we look like?

He certainly didn’t give two hoots what he looked like. He would have gone to the local pub for his regular evening snifter wrapped in a Persian rug and his wife’s slippers if his clothes were wet in the wash.

‘Why would my friends care what I am wearing?’ he would say to Mother as she tried to smarten him up.

‘It’s the police, not your friends, that I’m worried about,’ replied Mother.  

I wonder what he would have felt about men wearing Alice bands or putting their hair up in buns? I know he would have thought Brexit is baloney and footballers are overpaid. But if he were sitting here this morning, looking at me with my pyjamas inside out, my backside open to view and a haircut like a meerkat would he have cared? I suspect not.

Should men wear Alice bands?

‘You do remember we’re going out for a walk soon, don’t you,’ asks my wife. ‘Or are you going to stand there all day?’

‘Just wondering what Grandpa would have thought of men wearing Alice bands,’ I say.

My son looks up at me. Tomorrow we’re taking him to tour a university. He thinks he’s spotted a ruse of mine to ruin his campus tour.

‘You’re not thinking of wearing an Alice band tomorrow?’

My wife laughs at the thought of it.

‘How about a bun instead?’ I say, sensing a wind up is possible.

‘Sadly, you don’t have enough hair,’ says my daughter.

She’s right. My wife took the clippers out two weeks ago and my hair is cropped closer than the centre court at Wimbledon.

‘Promise me tomorrow you’ll behave like an adult,’ says my son.

There’s a sudden crack as the butter dish crashes to the floor. The cat, who is on top of the kitchen island, looks down at the broken butter dish as if this has nothing to do with him.

Then he lifts a paw to his mouth and we can all see a smear of butter between his claws. His guilt is clear. But instead of being pissed off, the family leap up and rush towards him.

The cat has broken the butter dish

‘Stop him,’ says my son.

Is there a shard of broken crockery in his paws? Poor pussy cat. Are you hurt? Poor pussycat. They fuss over him like he’s just come back from the trenches with the Victoria Cross.

I head upstairs to dress, aware my buttocks may be visible through the flap of my pyjamas. But nobody’s looking at me.

The bloody cat has upstaged me again.

This post originally appeared in the Chiswick Calendar.

The car smells of Boomer despair

gray scale photo of man covering face with his hands
Photo by Daniel Reche on Pexels.com

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?’

‘2004.’

‘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.

My cat is better at cleaning itself than I am

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