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.’





Fathers and sons

I’m staring out of the window of my son’s fourth floor flat on the Exeter university campus. It’s the start of his second term.

Behind me, he is unpacking his suitcases and watering his cacti, which have somehow survived the Christmas season.

Below Exeter is submerged under fog. A few church spires hold their heads up above the damp mist, but the rest of the city is wrapped in a grey shroud.

I’ve turned my back on my son to stare out of the window because I’m desperately unfit. The lift was out of order and lugging myself and a bulging suitcase up four flights has done me in.

My chest is heaving like a lifeboat on a swelling sea and I’m refilling my aching lungs with sips of air like a hummingbird daintily sucks up pollen.

If he doesn’t  ask me to turn around i should be able to recover my breath and preserve my dignity as the Pater Familias.

‘Is that you?’ he asks.

‘Is what me?’

‘That sound like an old donkey with emphysema,’ he says.

‘Probably the pipes in your bathroom,’ I say. ‘The plumbing in student accommodation is notoriously noisy.’

Two rail cards beat as one

My wife suggested we travelled on the train together.

‘It’ll give you the chance to talk to each other,’ she said.

‘About what?’ I said, racking my brains for anything we would want to talk about that required me to spend Saturday travelling to and fro to Exeter on a train.

‘You know. Father and son things,’ she said.


‘No. Important things.’

‘Haven’t you told him about the birds and the bees, yet?’

My wife shakes her head.

‘This could be one of those moments when you could be there for him.’

‘You mean carry his bags up that hill?’

‘No. Show him you want to spend time with him as he takes another step towards independence.’

‘My dad never came to see me at university,’ I say. ‘I would have been appalled if he had even suggested it.’

‘And you always say your father never spent quality time with you. Well, this is a chance not to make the same mistake.’

When I was a student I stayed away from the parental nest as much as was financially possible. I practiced an early form of social distancing and was a non-homing Pidgeon who came back only when the clothes basket began to smell like an overhung partridge. Why would my son feel any differently?

However, it’s not often my wife says she thinks I could be useful in anyway whatsoever so I bury my doubts and book a return ticket to Exeter St. David’s with my son.

At his window (again)

‘Did you spot the shoe?’ asks my son.

He is standing next to me, pulling the window ajar. He’s an inch taller than me. When did that happen?

‘What shoe?’

‘That shoe.’

There’s a yellow running shoe lying upside down in a puddle on the roof opposite.

‘Why is it there?’

‘Dunno. It’s been there since I got here,’ he says.

A seagull lands next to the shoe and takes a peck or two at it before flying away disgusted by the taste of rotting rubber.

‘Probably someone having a laugh,’ I say.

‘Probably,’ he says.

My heartbeat is back to normal.

‘Do you want to do a tour of the campus? Some people do some mad stuff with their bedroom windows? Beer walls, cardboard Popes.’

‘Beer walls?’

‘That’s when you stack empty beer bottles in your window until you block out the sunlight.’

‘Ok. Let’s go,’ I say.

‘But be quiet out in the corridor. The rest of the flat is still asleep.’

He puts his index finger to his lips.

‘You can’t be serious. It’s lunchtime.’

‘This is early. Remember: no talking in the corridor.’

He posts a picture of himself onto his flat’s WhatsApp group so they know he’s returned and then we tip-toe downstairs.

Father and son on campus

We walk around the campus. This is the first time I’ve done this with him and although we don’t talk much it feels I’m part of his world if only for an hour or two. I wonder if I could put my arm around him but realise we’d both be horrified if I did.

We cross ourselves and genuflect as we pass the cardboard Popes and laugh at the windows walled up with empty beer bottles.

‘Even your cacti wouldn’t survive in a room like that.’

‘Can you imagine the smell?’ he says.

On the train home

An hour later I’m on the train to London. A brief hug at the station and he’s turned and is tramping back up the hill to his flat where his flatmates are crowded in the kitchen slurping cereal, as they prepared themselves for hard stint in the few hours of daylight still left.

Somerset slides by. It’s a flat watery place: barren trees, pig pens and winter hedge rows trimmed and sharp as steak knives.

Before Tiverton, the train stops alongside a junk yard where a handful of farmers and their boys are admiring old farm equipment running their hands along the rusted sides of the machinery as if the ageing tractors were pets.

Return of the Boomer

Back at home in London my wife is keen to know if we’ve had an epiphany of inter generational understanding.

‘How did you get on?’ she asks.

‘OK,’ I say. ‘He only called it home twice. Otherwise, it was fine.’


A version of this blog first appeared in the Chiswick Calendar