March 15, 2013

I’m having trouble with the seatbelt today. Or rather Mabel’s been having trouble with it recently. It seems to end up rubbing against her nose or her cheek. I’d wondered what was causing the red mark on the left side of Mum’s face and now I know. I sometimes think that the solution would be to drive around without having her strapped in. But I know I can’t get away with that today because Kate’s on board.

My partner, who has two parents of her own who are in their eighties, doesn’t join we McLarens on our trips out in the car very often, but when she does she adds to the fun. Ian and Kate chat away in the back of the Renault while I keep my eye on the road and on Mabel. We’re combining today’s tea stop with a half hour walk for Kate and me. Mabel no longer gets impatient when left doing nothing in the car, having no sense of time passing any more. And for Ian, sitting in the car with a view of the countryside comes as a pleasant change from sitting in the house in front of the telly.

But first we must drink tea and eat cake. While I’m helping Mum with hers – God, the crumbs - I realise I want to communicate to Ian and Kate a lovely discovery I made yesterday. To do so I first have to turn around and recite a bit of Shakespeare, which I can just about do by heart. It’s from
Cymbeline and when I hear it, I always think of my parents:

‘Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,
Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldly task has done,
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages;
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney sweepers, come to dust.’

“You know that verse don’t you?” I ask.

“Yes,” say Kate and Ian, simultaneously. There is a bit of banter between us as to which of us is a golden lad or girl and who is a chimney sweep. “I know what you think you are, with your Cambridge degree and your books,” says Kate to me, mockingly. But as the verse suggests, it’s all the same in the end. Ian stands up for chimney-sweepers, having swept many ‘lums’ in his time as a slater. In fact, one of his most miserable generic memories is standing on a roof in winter, knowing that the white shirt that was clean on that morning would be filthy with soot almost as soon as the day’s work started.

Eventually, I get to make my point: “I learnt something yesterday that puts the verse even further up in my estimation. In Warwickshire, where Shakespeare grew up, ‘golden lads’ is the colloquial name for dandelions in full bloom. And ‘chimney sweepers’ is what they’re called when they’re at the ready-to-blow stage. So the lines work on yet another level.”

“It makes the poem almost too good,” says Kate, wistfully.

With Mum finally finished her tea, and with the front of her coat dusted with crumbs that I can’t completely remove without irritating her, Kate and I get out of the car while Ian transfers from the back seat to the front. He’s not got his Zimmer with him, but he does have the doors to hang onto. “Come on, golden lad,” I encourage him. Which prompts Dad to remind us that Mabel and he celebrated their golden wedding a few years back. Kate and I leave the golden couple sitting together and head off into the wood by which we’re parked.

Soon we come to what I stumbled across the other day, a private graveyard in the grounds of a grand house. In it, amongst drifts of snowdrops, stand half a dozen crosses, which give the dates of one particular family over the last couple of centuries.

This picture is taken retrospectively and out of season: July 2017.

Holding hands with my partner, I recite, sombrely:

“Golden lads and girls all must,
As Kinloch-Smyths, come to dust.”

When we leave the dearly departed we enjoy a beautiful walk in the March sunshine, walking past a walled kitchen garden and a still occupied gatehouse. But all too soon our time too is up.

Back at the car, Dad opens the door and tries to get out. But before he can do so he must remove his hand from the vice-like grip in which it’s being held by Mum. It looks very much like Mabel’s grip will be the very last thing to go.

On the way back home, Ian is singing again, though the song is not one I’ve heard before. The lyric is so strange that I ask him to repeat it so that I’ll be able to Google a phrase and then put the verse into this blog. Which he nonchalantly does:

“Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack, butting through the Channel in the mad March days,
With a cargo of Tyne coal, road-rails, pig lead, firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.”

I wonder if ‘dirty British coaster’ is Dad’s private language for a filthy red Renault. And, if so, whether he considers me to be Tyne coal, pig lead or a cheap tin tray. Pig lead being Perthshire parlance for a son who pays more attention to his own muse than to the material welfare of his loved ones.