August 5 , 2011

As Dad and I arrive at the care home I realise it's our third strawberry tea. Yes, Mum's been here for almost - but not quite - three years. It just seems like forever.

The weather has not been co-operating with anyone's idea of a celebration of summer. The marquee has been damaged by high winds and the lawn is sodden. So the event is being held indoors. This is unsatisfactory as there isn't enough room inside. I mean it's not satisfactory because the guests are upstairs - drinking tea, eating cake and buying raffle tickets - while the residents are sitting downstairs in a room that's been otherwise cleared for Scottish country dancing which will come later.

For a minute for two I'm content to sit at a table with tea, talking to Dad, and a woman in her eighties who Dad has known since childhood and whose 93-year-old friend has just moved into the home. But I can't settle into a chat knowing that Mum is downstairs on her own. Of course not, it feels like one of those quarterly relatives' meetings where we listen to the manager upstairs while our loved ones get by as best they can, without us. So I tell Dad I'll see him down there when he's ready.

There's no spare seating downstairs, just a solid ring of residents in the lounge, so I sit on the floor in front of Mum, leaning against her chair. With my arm resting on her lap, holding her hand, I just hope she feels there is a connection between us.

"This is my favourite son," she announces to the room suddenly. I'm glad of the recognition, which I'm sure would be given to John if it was him that was sitting here in my place.

The old lady on Mabel's left, who has a room upstairs and is seldom found in the main lounge, speaks to Mabel. She gets a pensive look in response, so she tries me: "She's quite contented, isn't she?"

"Yes, Mabel's not too bad."

"Are you taking her home?"

This is her home, but I know what she means, so I say: "No. But we might take Mum out for a drive later."

Meanwhile, Edith, the resident on the sofa on Mabel's other side has spoken. She wants to know what she's doing here. She wants to know who put her in this 'lunatic asylum'.

I try and respond in such a way as to relax her. She has asked me these questions, or variations on them, every time I've seen her since she entered the home eighteen months ago. Well, that's not quite true. Sometimes she merely asks if I've 'done my duty' by Mabel. So Instead of trying to give her information that will soon be forgotten, I encourage her to be in the moment. I mention the guests that are upstairs, the dancers that will soon be here… and I realise I'm making a pretty poor show of talking up the moment. But, as it happens, just giving her a bit of attention seems to have been enough. A smile replaces the two hot little spots on her cheeks that had been signalling her frustration.

"She's quite contented," says the first lady, about Mum again. "Are you taking her home?"

"No, the dancers are coming, hoorah, hoorah!' I reply energetically. And so they are. Some seating is found for those trooping down from upstairs, and the entertainment gets underway in the adjoining dining room. Live dancing to recorded music. "Reels and strathspeys," says Dad, who goes on to clarify his comment: "The last dance was a reel, this one's a strathspey."

The colour of the dancers outfits, the shape of their bodies and the movements that they come up with, draws everyone's attention. Indeed, when there's been so little for the residents to look at, I sense the dancing coming across as an explosion of sights and sounds. Not sure if the dining room is an ideal venue for the activity though. The residents had lunch there an hour ago and a certain amount of chicken casserole may have made it to the floor, perhaps even a strawberry or two. The sticky sound that the dancers slippered feet are making brings to mind the gently masticating mouths of the residents. The thought makes me realise what a peculiar mood I'm in.

"You should get a kilt," says Mum, perhaps thinking of the one she did buy for me when I was about ten years old.

The dancing goes on for about fifteen minutes, then it stops. I notice that the red that was in Edith's cheeks has transferred to the face of one of the dancers. Dad sings: "
Tak the buckles aff yir shin, fur yir dancin' days are din,' Perhaps thinking of the puffed-out dancer. Perhaps thinking of himself. Perhaps thinking of me.

Before the end of the afternoon an off-duty carer turns up with her husband and two infants. The toddlers are introduced to residents whose faces light up in the presence of extreme youth. Indeed, for a while the lounge resembles a scene from one of Stanley Spencer's life-enhancing
Resurrection paintings. And although for much of the afternoon I've been out of sorts, by the end of the it I'm conscious of the effort that a lot of people have put into the event in order to make it work.

Dad bought reams of raffle tickets. He didn't win anything for Mum. It doesn't matter. Everyone who attended the strawberry tea dance is a winner in my book.

The picture below was taken at the previous year's strawberry tea. The one where Mabel (beside Ian in the right foreground) tipped her hat with such timeless aplomb.

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