February 1, 2013

Mum’s been made ready for us in the wheelchair when Dad and I make it inside the home. “Hi, Mum. It’s us coming in out of the cold to warm ourselves up,” I tell her. No response.

We make our way to the lift, Ian Zimmering and me pushing Mabel’s chair. The button to call the lift has a cover over it to foil the resident who likes to spend her day travelling up and down between floors. It’s a bit awkward for Ian to deal with the homemade camouflage device with one hand, so I step across to handle the thing. The lift comes quickly enough once it’s called but when the three of us are inside – a tight fit due to my parents’ mobility aids – the internal button won’t respond to my prompts. I’m programmed not to get exasperated in the home but it’s not easy sometimes. Ian has a go and his finger does the trick. A minute later we’re out of the lift, exploring the second floor of the house. I pull back the blinds on the big bow window in the upper lounge so that we have a splendid view of snowy Strathmore. I get Mum to look at the view and she utters a few sounds. So I say:

“Yes, it’s snowing hard. The roads are going to get difficult to drive over.”

Again she says something, which may make sense inside her head but doesn’t come out as intelligible. Still, she’s knocked the ball back into my court so I must respond:

“There will be snow up Glenshee today. Do you want to go?”

Another sentence from Mabel. Which I pretend to understand:

“We’d need to find your skis. Do you know where they are?”

I think Mabel does know where they are. I think she tells me in her own way. In any case, I say:

“They haven’t been used for a while so they might need a good waxing.”

Mabel doesn’t say any more. But that is the most she’s said for months, maybe even a year. Though I’d have to look back through these blogs to be sure of the length of time she’s been fundamentally wordless.

Ian fills the silence. He tells me (us) that in the winter of 1946 it began snowing on January 19 and the snow lay on the ground until the middle of March. He’d been on annual home leave and was travelling back to where his unit had been stationed in Greece since the end of the Second World War. The whole train journey to London, then down through France and across to Naples was freezing. He - like every other soldier making the trip - did not take off his clothes for a week. The carriages smelt like cowsheds.

“Hear that, Mum? The carriages on the train were a bit fuggy. You were a lot better off staying here in the fresh air and skiing in the snow. Weren’t you?”

No reply from the sphinx. I sometimes think of Mum’s silence as being sphinx-like because she never gets upset. One of the blessings of Mabel’s dementia is that it seems to have removed her capacity to suffer. Tears? No. Hysterics? No. Just a blankness that suggests Mabel feels neutral towards the universe.

Tea arrives, courtesy of Shona who saw us going up here. We eat and drink. Ian and I hold Mabel’s hands for a while in silence and in song. Yes, Ian sings a barrack-room ballad, which is as appropriate as anything else in these twilight days where normal rules no longer seem to apply. Then he sings this period classic:

“Oh! Mr Porter, what shall I do,
I wanted to go to Birmingham and they've taken me on to Crewe,
Take me back to London, as quickly as you can
Oh! Mr Porter what a silly girl I am.”

When the light really begins to go, we begin to make our way back. Once we’re in the lift, the button won’t work again. It should light up when it’s pressed. But even Ian’s magic finger doesn’t work this time. “Best if you go downstairs and press the button on the ground floor, Dunc,” says Ian, always quicker than me when it comes to dealing with anything in the physical world.

So I run downstairs and press the button to call the lift. It glows red. As I’m waiting, I’ve got time to imagine the lift opening to reveal my parents as they were in our shared golden age. I have in mind a polaroid photo from 1973.


Dad’s handsome head, his perky bow-tie; Mum’s flashing eyes, her dimpled cheeks. But, no, I must prepare myself for the doors opening on the reality of my father, now sagging at the knees and leaning on a Zimmer, and my mother sitting in a wheelchair, her head bowed and her eyes shut. Worse is to come, of course, the doors opening and there being no-one there.

The doors open on my dearly loved parents, no longer going to the ball, but still doggedly hanging onto life.