JULY 19, 2013

Because Ian hasn’t been feeling very well today we’ve reverted to our old format of Mabel in the front passenger seat, beside me, and Ian on his own in the back of the car. Amongst other things, it means he doesn’t have to feed Mum when we stop.

Talking about feeding Mum, I pull in at a stall by the side of the road selling freshly-picked fruit. We’re in the heart of berry-growing Perthshire. The fruit here is not any cheaper than in supermarkets but it’s tastier. I hand Dad four bright red strawberries and feed Mum four without any difficulty.

Then off we go. I’m taking us to Blackcraig Castle, a fortified house that was designed by Patrick Allan-Fraser, who I was studying during my recent residency in Arbroath. This ‘castle’ was his second home, just an hour’s drive from the first, but with a mountainous backdrop and surrounded by shooting and fishing possibilities - a proper little Balmoral.

We park a short way off, even though it’s up for sale right now (anyone fancy their own Scottish baronial-style castle for £600,000? Just Google “Blackcraig Castle” and you’ll soon be viewing the particulars of the property). I park in the shade, but the downside of this is the number of flies that are attracted to the heat of the car. They don’t seem to be coming in the windows though, so I deal with the tea and cake. As I do so, prompted by a glimpse of the castle itself, Ian tells me that in his slating days, circa 1950, he and a colleague spent a dismal day here trying to clean the chimneys. The heavy ball they were using got stuck down a chimney and they had to cut into the stone of the house to free it. A little wear and tear in the underlying fabric of a house and the cleaning of chimneys becomes a difficult operation, I’m told. Ian adds that slating turrets, Blackcraig’s most conspicuous architectural theme, is an awkward job too, in particular it’s difficult to repair any damage as the slates are double-nailed when they’re first put in place. From this rather technical beginning, Ian proceeds to tell me about his fellow workers of those days. How he got on with them (very well, usually), where and when he last saw them; where and when they died. I ask Ian about these men: Davie MacFarland. Ben Lloyd... But I’m also dealing with some spillage of tea down Mabel’s front and some coughing from her, so it’s a while before I realise that Dad has been silent for a bit.

“What were you saying, Dad?”

“I feel I could die at any moment,” says Ian, hoarsely.

I establish that he’s feeling very weak and that his mind has gone into a blur. I know he’s felt poorly all day. And these flies can’t be helping. Or the humidity. And perhaps the reminiscences did not work in his favour either, on this occasion.

“I think I’ll get us back home.”

“That might be best,” comes the faint response. Ian has his eyes closed now.

Back in our home town, I let off Ian first. Once he’s comfortable in his armchair, I return to the car and to Mabel who has not said a word all day. “Dad’ll be fine, Mum. He just needs to rest.”

At the home, when collecting the wheelchair, I hear an elderly man, Derek, calling out: “Help me, please, I’m dying.” He repeats these words in exactly the same tone. No-one goes to attend him, in part, no doubt, because he regularly issues this kind of self-assessment.

Once Mabel is sitting in the lounge, I give her one of the remaining strawberries. That’s the only sign of life she’s given today, to open up her mouth to incoming red berry.

En route to Derek, Edith stops me. “Can you get me my lawyer, please? He’s got all my money and I need some in order to buy a bed.”

“I can’t get you a lawyer, Edith, but how about a lovely strawberry?”

“Strawberries? Oh, they look marvellous. May I?”

After she’s selected one I place another ripe berry on the side of her armchair, in case a single berry is not enough to satisfy her 92-year-old hunger for life.

I pass on to Derek. He looks as downcast as he sounded a few minutes ago. But when I offer him a strawberry he brightens up somewhat. Like Edith, he thanks me so sincerely that it would take a heart of stone not to offer him another. Duly accepted, with the same courtesy and thanks.

I place the remaining strawberries on a table, letting a carer know that they’re for general consumption. Then I leave the home in order to make Ian’s tea at the family home.

For a dessert, he enjoys raspberries and unsweetened crème fraiche, for I had the foresight to buy two punnets of summer fruit. And by the time I leave the house for my own, he assures me he’s back to normal.

It was the flies that briefly got to Dad, I decide. The black flies of Blackcraig.

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