JULY 5, 2013

I’m doing a writer’s residency at Hospitalfield,, a house of art and culture near Arbroath, which has turned my life upside down for a month.

Arbroath is an hour’s drive away from Blairgowrie but I’m expected to have a presence there most of the time. So I’ve organised for a very friendly and reliable carer to visit Dad twice a day. First hour, to see to his room in the morning, make his breakfast and set up lunch. Second hour, to make his evening meal and set up the bedroom for sleeping in. I’ve said to Dad that I’ll drive out from Arbroath three times a week so that we can do our usual with Mum. I don’t want her losing out just because I’ve been given an opportunity to work with the archive of a Nineteenth Century man of letters.

Today as we pull up at the home, I realise I’m suffering. The extra hour’s drive to get here is one thing, but I’ve hurt my back and it’s making everything more difficult. Luckily, two carers are on hand to help me transfer Mum from her wheelchair to the back seat. Which is Dad’s cue to get out of the front passenger seat and make his own way around the car and into the back seat beside Mabel. As he does this, wisecracking with the carers, I notice that he’s wearing a cap that says ‘AFTER 40 IT’S MOSTLY MAINTENANCE’ on it.

“Shouldn’t you be getting your headgear updated.” I say. “After 80 it’s… what?’

“After 80 the less said the better,” says Ian, with a smile.

I’m feeling middle-aged today; I should be wearing Dad’s old cap. Root canal work at the dentist’s this morning; three days in bed with a bladder infection last week; and now this sore back. No, I shouldn’t be wearing Ian’s cap, I should be sporting one of my own: ‘After 55 it’s a mug’s game.’

Off we go. Mum isn’t saying much. And when we stop for tea she isn’t drinking much either. In the driver’s mirror I see Dad finding it hard to line up a piece of biscuit for Mabel, so I get out of the car and lend a helping hand. I do that twice more, my back protesting with every move, before perching myself on the floor beside Mum.


She has Ian’s hand to hold on one side of her and me sitting at her feet on the other. Dad and I start to talk about Arbroath. Dad tells me that he and Mabel used to regularly make the hour’s drive to the town. They’d park by the shore and look out to sea. Or walk along the cliff-top path on the lookout for sea birds. And maybe call in on for lunch at the quaint old harbour village three miles north of Arbroath. “Remember Auchmithie, Mabel?” says Ian, shaking the hand he’s clasping.

But Mum doesn’t remember anything. Talking across her I tell Dad of the five unpublished letters written by Charles Dickens that I’ve been working on this week. How they were written shortly before Dickens wrote
Great Expectations and how they suggest a new biographical impetus behind that novel. Pip had great expectations of an unknown benefactor; Dickens had great expectations of being gifted Hawkesbury Hall, near Coventry, by Patrick-Allan Fraser of Arbroath.

I stop. Why? Because I find the sight of my mother’s face more interesting than the sound of my own voice. Under her eyes she has what, 50 years ago, she used to call ‘sleepy beasties’ when talking about my face in the morning. Now the tables are turned, and I gently remove the green mucus from Mabel’s face. She doesn’t protest at the repeated pulling and scraping of the delicate skin. She just shuts her eyes patiently, then opens them again when she feels I’ve finished.

Ian and I talk again. It doesn’t matter whether or not Mabel can understand. It doesn’t matter whether or not she has the remotest idea of what we speak. We’re sharing the afternoon with her, that’s the point, parked on a lovely bit of land in the midst of birds, butterflies and a complete absence of expectations.

I realise I’ve forgotten to take my antibiotic. Oh, and I really will have to take painkillers for this back condition, I conclude, as I step out of the zone and back into the driving seat.

At the home, all seems the same as ever. “Pay attention, Duncan,” says one very elderly resident. I ask him what I should be paying attention to, but he has retreated behind a face of inscrutability. I guess he means the passing of time. I know I should be paying more attention than ever to that.

“Please, what am I doing here? Where are my mother and father?” asks Edith, aged 92.

For a moment I imagine everyone in the lounge wearing a cap on which is written the words: ‘After 90 it’s mostly mystery.’ Then I sit down and have a go at answering Edith’s questions for her.