9th October 2009
Most unusually, uniquely, I had double-booked.
Wednesday 7th October. Agreed to speak at a fringe meeting at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester. And also to be at a dinner in London, preparing for a law debate a few days later. I felt a complete idiot. Never done that before, made a muddle of my diary. The conference event was at five. If I was the first speaker... dashed to catch a train... at the dinner by 8.30. Ish. Shaun also due in London, St Paul’s Cathedral with the choir. My father would pick Rosie up from school.
But my mother had earache.
It’s a legitimate reason to cancel, I thought: no child-care. The event in Manchester was unpaid. But the previous year I had cancelled: same event. (Shaun in the depth of his breakdown... guilt, guilt, guilt. I never cancel. Two or three times in my life, perhaps. Really stupid reasoning: same conference, but different group altogether.)
I couldn’t two years running. Pathetic. I rang the head’s wife and asked her to have Rosie.
I’d got a new telephone and hadn’t yet got the hang of it. It seemed to be out of battery. As soon as I arrived in Manchester I borrowed one and rang home. On the train to London I did the same. When I got to the dinner, the first thing I did, ask for a telephone.
If I’d had my own, I’d have rung home every half hour. Talked for twenty minutes. Known what was going on.
My mother had collapsed into Hamlet’s basket at four. Serena carried her into the kitchen, light as a feather she was, and rang for an ambulance.
My father remembered the previous winter. When my mother was in hospital for a week. And he was on his moped every morning, eight o’clock, in the snow, all day, home at eleven at night.
He didn’t remember they’d saved her life.
Serena is medically competent, read Biological Sciences, knew what my mother needed.
But she was in her twenties. How could she overrule a grandfather in his nineties?
She would have told me, if I’d been there. And I would have overruled him.
My father sent the ambulance away…
I got in just before one in the morning.
As soon as I reached the landing, fourteen hours on the go... It’s all right now, dear. Anne’s here. Anne’s home.
The relief in my father’s voice was frightening. This was my parents. What could I do?
Now, I would know exactly what to do. Now, I have saved my father’s life at least half a dozen times. Thanks to that time.
(Oh, Mummy, if only I’d known!
I’m so sorry... For ever, all my life, I will be.
Serena had known.
I helped my father help my mother to the bathroom.
She was sick several times.
The next morning I could hear my mother’s heaving breathing from the landing. My father had nursed her for years. Knew what he was doing. Of course he did. Nothing to be alarmed about.
(Perhaps it was probably already too late...?)
I called a doctor.
The following morning, Friday, I made my mother a mug of tea and held it while she drank. All the way down. Years since she had drunk a whole mug of anything.
She looked at me. Smiled.
Have I imagined that the last words you ever speak can sum up your character? Your whole life?
Same doctor. Reluctant to suggest hospital. Asian: he understood family.
So was my father.
A neighbour called. She, I, the doctor, gently insisted.
My father went with her in the ambulance.
I should have gone with him, with them. He remembered it all wrong. For years, he remembered it all wrong.
I stripped their bed and washed the sheets. Draped their sheepskin mattress topper in front of the fire. Folded my mother’s clean and dry nightie.
All ready for her. Clean bed. Clean sheets. Clean, dry, folded nightie. All ready to welcome you home again.
Last year I took at from the laundry, still neat and tidy and folded as it was that day, and gave it to my sister.
You wear nighties, I said.
Six o’clock. Nurse rang. Would we like to visit?
Is she still alive? I know these hospital tricks.
Yes, she said. She is.
My mother wouldn’t die. Not just after moving in. We’d given her a new lease of life, dinner parties, friends, company. She was eating again, even drinking wine occasionally. Alert as she hadn’t been for ages.
She wouldn’t leave us. Not my mother. Not now we could give her what we had strived so many years to give her.
And a six year old granddaughter to read to.
I had said to Shaun, over and again, This is how it should be. It’s outrageous that old people live alone. My parents see more people in a day, a week, now than they have in the past six months. Look at the good it’s doing them.
I honestly believe we’ve given my mother another five years. I don’t think she would have survived another winter.
He came in then from work, the side gate, with his bike.
We’re going to the hospital. To see my mother.
Do you want me to come?
Come on Rosie. You want to see Granny, surely? Serena knows stuff. That no one else knows.
Shaun, Serena, Rosie and I, with my father in my mother’s little hospital room.
She couldn’t talk. She looked at us with her clear, kind, tired blue eyes.
There was nothing to do.
I rang Ben, singing for the year in Dublin’s Christ Church Cathedral. The overnight bus was full. Just get on it, Ben. Talk yourself on. They’re Irish.
Missed it by minutes. Would take a flight the next morning, get home almost as soon.
Alex in Bristol, far harder to reach: didn’t have his telephone with him. My cousin, doing his MA there: can you find Alex? His girlfriend, in the Chemistry lab: can you find Alex?
Bink in Cambridge.
No. She didn’t want to come home. It would upset her.
Oh Bink, you can’t protect yourself from everything! Some things, you can’t protect yourself. You can’t not be upset. Sometimes.
My mobile shrilled. I stepped outside. My agent: book contract. Good. Thank you, yes… but perhaps this isn’t the time...
I glanced through the window. Serena beckoning, urgent.
My father quiet in the corner. Rosie reading. Shaun, doing the crossword perhaps?
Only Serena, holding my mother’s hand.
Yellow. Suddenly yellow. Parchment. Teeth bared. Unrecognisable.
(But Mummy... we were just getting everything ready for you.
We were just ready.
Your rooms... your silver butter knife... your spring bulbs...
Your platinum wedding next summer! All your friends and pupils...
To be happy together at last.)
What’s the point?
What is the point of protesting?