June 18, 2010

I turn up at the care home on a bright afternoon. The senior carer on duty is looking concerned.

‘Are you taking Mabel out?’ she asks.

‘As arranged, yes.’

‘It’s just that the chiropodist is here and I don’t think Mabel has been done yet.’

Well, for sure Mum has to see the chiropodist. Her toenails are as hard as antlers and they need to be trimmed regularly by someone who knows what they’re doing. However, I also want her to get out for some fresh air and sunshine – her daily dose of vitamin D. I soon establish with the carer - who is always helpful, but never promises what she can’t deliver - that I need to talk to the chiropodist in person.

Upstairs, podiatry paraphernalia dominates the dining room. A resident is in the middle of being seen to. However, the young chiropodist is on her mobile, so I give her some space. I eventually realise it’s a private call that’s going on - and on - but I make myself sit there patiently. That is, I try not to visualise Mabel sitting downstairs in the corridor wondering where on earth I’ve got to.

Finally, the woman hangs up. I tell her about Mabel’s position. The chiropodist is not helpful. She can’t give me any idea how long it will be before she’ll be ready to see her.

‘How about if I’m back here with Mabel at four pm?’

‘I’ll be going as soon as I finish the others.’

‘Well, do you want to suggest an earlier time?’

The chiropodist looks nonplussed by the conversation. Am I really so far out of line here?

Finally, I say: ‘OK, I promise I will be back by four. So let’s just hope that works out.’

In fact, I will be very disappointed if Mabel doesn’t get her toenails cut today. But I don’t get the impression that this individual cares much about any potential disappointment of mine. Or of Mabel’s.

Mum and I head north and we park at the top of the pass that goes between two mountains. One day in April 1952, when Mum was 27, still single, and very much enjoying her ski-ing, a fog descended over the Grampians and Mabel ended up being lost overnight. The incident was reported in the Scottish press, and Mum kept the clippings, so last year I was able to retrace her footsteps over that dramatic day and night. Except I found that for a not-especially-fit 51-year-old to walk for hours on end carrying across his shoulders a set of heavy wooden skis was out of the question.

Sitting side by side in the car now, I ask Mabel why she kept hold of her skis all through that long night in ‘52. She looks at the mountain, then at me, then back at the mountain, and finally says: ‘They were expensive.’


Dementia has affected Mum’s ability to express herself. But sometimes her speech does flow as it used to. On this occasion, after a few moments, she expands on her initial statement: ‘It was my first season of ski-ing and those skis were my most treasured possession.’

I ask: ‘When it got dark that night, wouldn’t it have made sense to dump them?’

Mabel frowns. So I add: ‘I mean, in order to conserve your energy for walking until daybreak?’

‘I was not going to abandon my skis. Not for anything.’

The depth of her feeling about her skis reminds me of something she wrote in her diary at the end of the ‘55 ski-season: ‘Just another Saturday. How I wish I still had ski-ing to look forward to on Sundays.’

Though she didn’t know it when she wrote that diary entry, she had just one year of ski-ing left to enjoy. Marriage and family would bring to a halt her time in the mountains, her ‘days of super sunshine’, her ski-time...

When we pull up in the home’s car park at 3.45pm, it is to witness the chiropodist hurrying out of the front door. When she sees us her face registers dismay. Her whole body expresses irritation as she turns around and goes back inside the building. As I help Mum out of the car I’m thinking that the chiropodist should be pleased that Mabel is to get her feet seen to after all. Not devastated that her own escape from work is going to have to be put on hold for a few minutes.

Inside, the chiropodist takes charge of Mabel without speaking a word to either of us. I call in on the care home manager. I tell her that I’m not complaining, just offloading my frustration with the attitude of one NHS service deliverer. The manager points out that the woman has been on the premises since10am and that her job has been made more difficult today by a broken lift. However, it turns out that the manager herself has an ongoing problem with the chiropody service. They won’t visit residents in their rooms - which the manager thinks would be ideal for such an essentially private, one-to-one service - because they say that is too time-consuming. Instead, the upstairs dining room is requisitioned and the staff have to present the residents in a queue with their feet clean, which is reasonable, and their stockings off, which is questionable.

I tell the manager that when Mabel still lived at the family home, she used to get her toenails clipped at the local cottage hospital. In the aftermath of one appointment, my mother proudly told me that the chiropodist had told her that she’d got beautiful feet. And of course Mabel has got beautiful feet. They are beautiful on the grounds that they have carried her through eight and a half decades of life.

‘That’s nice. And you know, as far as I’m concerned everyone in here has got beautiful feet, for that very same reason.’

So there we go. I exit the manager’s office thankful for the care my mother receives on a daily basis, not upset about today’s pantomime.

I meet Mum zimmering purposefully along the corridor towards the toilet. It strikes me that nowadays - though Mum is aided by a walking-frame made of light tubular aluminium, not weighed down by heavy wooden skis - she shows the same determination that she showed that long, dark night in April ’52 when she was in her prime.

The last thing I do before exiting the building is remind Mabel - to her face, which I like to think is glowing with today’s intake of vitamin D and reminiscence - that she has got wonderful feet.

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