September 30, 2011

Arriving at the home I spot Mum sitting in her chair in the corridor. She spots me too, and as I’m tapping in the code for the door, she’s waving and shouting with joy. It’s happened hundreds of times now, but still it moves me.

I ask if she’s ready to go out. She doesn’t understand the question. So, keeping it simple, I clarify the situation. Dad’s outside. The car’s outside. So let’s go!

As we pass the open door of the lounge I realise that there is a quiz going on. “In which city was John F. Kennedy shot?” I don’t expect any of the residents to know the answer to that, but just to prove me patronising, one faint voice does pipe up with: ‘Dallas, Texas”. Mabel doesn’t do quizzes. She doesn’t really do any of the home’s activities. On a previous Monday, I had to collect Mum from the lounge rather than the corridor. And as I pushed her out of the door on that occasion, Mabel’s parting shot to the woman who runs both the exercise class and the quiz was: ‘I am so sick of the sound of your voice.”

After getting Mum into the car, I tell Dad that the last question of the quiz that I caught on our way out was: “What was the name of the boat in which the Pilgrim Fathers sailed to America?” Does he know the answer? Ian tells me it was The Mayflower. The boring question and the absence of insight contained in its answer, takes me back forty or fifty years, to the days of rote learning. Dad suggests that this is the point. And I work out what he means: the point of such a quiz is to access the information and priorities that were learned when now elderly minds were young and vital. Potentially, a valuable affirmation is achieved.

We drive south for fifteen minutes, the three of us content with the motion and the view, until we’re in the Sidlaws. Then we stop for tea and I’m suddenly restless. These car trips have been going on throughout the three years that Mabel has been in the care home, but I’m suddenly aware that they’ve been going on ever since I arrived up here in 2003, shortly after Mabel’s first stroke. To begin with, I was able to leave my parents in the car and go out for an hour’s walk. Now I can’t leave the car for five minutes without irritating Mum. She can’t concentrate on anything, so she soon gets bored. She needs constant low-level stimulation, as provided by driving or sipping tea. Or she needs to be left alone to lapse into a state of empty-mindedness. She gets enough of that on the days we don’t visit. So when we do come and see her, we like to keep the ball rolling, even if gently.


Today we’re parked at the foot of Dunsinane, the hill where MacBeth had his castle according to Shakespeare’s play. MacBeth was told by the three witches that he would be safe in his hilltop castle “until Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane”. In 2006, I climbed this hill, looked from the summit’s ruins towards Birnam Wood, and, spotting it in its rightful place, felt that all was right with the world. I had written a biography since I’d moved north, and was well into the writing of another. My decision to leave London and move to where my increasingly frail parents lived, seemed to have been the correct one for all concerned, with no real sacrifice made on my part and a safety net put in place for them. I - the essential me – would be quite safe until Birnam Wood came to Dunsinane! Today, I’d dearly like to climb the hill, stand on the wind-blown summit, and let my eye scan the landscape, to see that Birnam Wood was still contained by the Tay valley. But the fact is I can’t. And to all intents and purposes, a demented Birnam Wood, which we could drive to all-to-easily in the car, has overrun proud Dunsinane.

“Ian, will you stop that reading?” says Mum.

It’s me that’s reading a paperback copy of
MacBeth, not Dad. Whenever I get engrossed in something for a few minutes, Mabel registers her discontentment. I think this is because of the way time works. When the human mind is absorbed, time flies. When it’s not… well, we’ve been parked here a little too long for Mabel. She’s finished her tea and her world is turning grey. As an antidote, nothing beats driving through country lanes at this time of year, the constantly changing mix of late summer, early autumn colours. So we’d better be off.

I take Mum’s cup and empty the last drops out of the window. Mabel notices what I’m doing and tells me she finished the tea by herself.

“I know you did, Mum. What’s left was a mere splashatelle.”

Soon we drive off. What’s that other bit in the play that gave MacBeth false succour? Oh yes the witches tell him that: “None of woman born shall harm him”. Well, none of woman born shall harm me. Unless the woman I was born from has other ideas.

Oh, but that’s nonsense. And to prove it, I drive up a private road that gives us a clear view of Dunsinane in all its brooding glory. I pull over and announce to my parents: “When shall we three meet again? In thunder, lightning, or in rain?”

It’s not a play that Mabel or Ian were taught at school, so I don’t get any answer from them. But that’s fine, because I know the common sense answer that rings true: “We’ll gather again the day after tomorrow. Come rain, hail or shine.”