NOVEMBER 6, 2013

“You’ve got a visitor, Mum.”

No response.

“It’s me, Dunc.”

No response.

“Let’s get you out to the car. Ian’s waiting for us.”

Dad and I (and my brother) are Mum’s only visitors these days. As we drive off I can’t help contrasting Mum’s isolation now with the situation back in 1966. This morning I was looking through the diary for that year and 8 Townhill Road was the hub of something.

“All right back there?” I ask, looking in the driver’s mirror. Mabel is slumped in the back seat, eyes nearly closed, paying no attention to the affectionate words that Ian is directing towards her.

When Mabel’s neighbour went into hospital to have her second child, the first child, Andrew, stayed at our house for a couple of days. When our next-door neighbours went to a Saturday night party further along the street, their two children, Alastair and Lorraine, came to our house for the night. Dad’s father stayed at Townhill Road several times in the year for rehab purposes. Dad’s sister, Joan, and her family were here for a few days as they organised their flit from Stranraer to Edinburgh. Three of Mum’s sisters - Meg, Jean and Alice - together with their husbands, and - in Alice’s case - her children, stayed for a few days each.

Where are they all now?

It’s autumn. We park in the late afternoon sunshine. The landscape in front of us has hardly changed, except seasonally, for a thousand years. What am I talking about? Ian has just pointed out that the wind farm to the right is going its dinger today. We can have our cups of tea in the country safe in the knowledge that the kettle will still be good for boiling by the time we get back to town. I open the diary.

“Dad. Mum. Let me take you back to 1966. I would be turning nine that year and John seven, while you too were about to be 40. We spent the summer here in Perthshire picking berries at Jean and Jack’s, as usual, and returned to Hamilton towards the end of July. On Monday August 15, Meg and Will arrived for a holiday. On the 18th Mum wrote: ‘
Will has been watching the cricket all week. Meg doesn’t seem keen to go to Glasgow.’

After a few seconds, I add: “I wonder what that was about.”

“Meg was twenty years older than Mabel,” says Dad. “I think by 1966 she would have been sixty and finding the hustle and bustle of Glasgow too much for her.”

“Is that right, Mum? Meg got too old to enjoy walking down Sauchiehall Street? Looks like it, because on the Friday you settled for taking her round the Hamilton shops and on Saturday you and Dad took her and Will to East Kilbride shopping centre.”

“We didn’t have much in common with Meg and Will,” says Ian. “They were old school. But they were easy company. Will taught you to ride a bike.”

“I remember.”

“And he laid the stair carpet for us, which was a job I didn’t fancy.”

“For August 21, the last day of their stay, it says here:
‘Rained all day so we all played bowls in the afternoon then had a TV night.’

Ah, carpet bowls in the mid-Sixties! John and I competitive to the nth degree; Dad occasionally resorting to brute force and missing everything but the skirting board; Mum getting the bias the wrong way round and the bowl fading off to the side as it passed from lounge carpet to dining room carpet to be lost amongst the legs of table and chairs. Finest teak, of course. Unbeknown to the McLarens, the rain forests of Malaysia were being denuded for would-be middle class Western families like them. Oh, the innocents!

“Carpet bowls, Mum! Remember?”

“G-Plan,” says Dad.

When I finish my tea I join Mum and Dad in the back of the car in order to help Mabel with hers. This involves getting Mum to ‘bunk up’. It is surprisingly hard to move her along the seat, but it has to be done, as at this time of year I need to be able to shut the door behind me. Success. And so Mabel gets a chance to eat a piece of chocolate cake. Good. And as I put the cup of tea to her lips at the slow pace Mabel dictates, I am going to take the opportunity of dipping back into her 1966 diary...

“OK Mum, Dad. Second visit of the back end of that summer. 29th August:
‘Jean and Jack arrived at 5pm.’ 31st August. ‘Jean gave me a “Toni” perm. The boys all went to a football match.’ 1st September. ‘Jean and Jack spent the day in Glasgow. Kept Andrew all day as it was Jean Young’s dad’s funeral.’ 3rd September. ‘Party at Margaret’s. Had my hair set at Beggs. We all went to the party but Jean was sick at midnight and went home to bed. Ian and I were there until 4.30am.’'

I give us all time to digest this series of baffling events. Then I ask: “Do you remember that party, Dad?”

“Not especially. Jack would have found it difficult to join in until he’d had a couple of drinks. Jean would have been more relaxed talking to people she didn’t know.”

“And yet it was her that was sick.”

“I don’t recall that. Though clearly it happened.”

“Do you remember anything at all about that visit of Jean and Jack’s?”

“They were down a lot and the visits merge together. I always got on well with Jack. And,with Alice living in Canada, Jean was the sister that Mabel was closest to.”

“Yes, I liked it when Jean and Jack were around. They seemed like part of the family.”

Mum drinks most of her tea. I recall that there was a time when she would occasionally say
“Jean!”, plaintively or urgently. Something which probably went all the way back to childhood. A toddler calling out to her older sister for comfort or assistance or attention. It’s seven years since Jean died and a couple of years since I heard Mabel say her name.

Oh well, I hope Mabel has at least
heard Jean’s name this afternoon. What a lot of visitors Mum’s had today! That is, if she’s hearing me at all.

Postscript. When looking through Mabel’s album for a suitable photo to go with this blog, I found this.


The photo of Alice and family reminds me that Alice’s daughter, Carolyn (far right), was here this June and visited Mabel then. Indeed she instigated the new regime of Mabel travelling in the back of the car with Ian.

Alice herself (second from right), now 91, lives in a nursing home. She always asks for a report on Mabel whenever she calls Ian or me, and wishes her sister well. “God bless her”, is how she puts it.

How many photographs are there around the world that are just like this one? Billions.