19th January 2010
Many years ago, my mother read a newspaper article: about a vicarage, housing three generations, which caught fire.
She was almost in tears. Very unlike her, no-nonsense mathematician and all.
The grandparents were rescued. The children, not.
How can they have imagined for a moment, she asked me, distraught, that the grandparents would want to go on living? Alive, instead of their grandchildren?
No one would want that.
Of course, we didn’t know the circs. Don’t suppose the firefighters dithered, deliberating. Old people? Kids? Let’s get the wrinklies out first. Come back for the little ’uns if there’s time.
And I suspect my mother was being slightly rose-tinted about absolutely every old person in the world. Not sure the Kray Bros would have insisted: suffer the little children to be saved, while we face the fire.
Nevertheless this was, not just her philosophy, but so deeply and passionately held a priority that she could barely keep from crying, over a family she’d never heard of.
When my mother died, Bink was distraught.
I ate sweet things. No sweet tooth, me: hardly touch cakes or puddings. But that week, it was all I wanted. Apple crumble, hot buttered toast, chocolate ginger biscuits. A week later, I stopped as suddenly as I’d started.
Serena baked cupcakes all week. Never before or since: plate after plate after plate.
Ben didn’t go back to Ireland. Stayed a fortnight, till the funeral and more, despite his music tutor’s protests that it would make him look unprofessional. (Nonsense. They’re Irish. The cathedral would have been shocked if he’d returned any sooner.)
Alex apologised to my cousin Fleur that he wasn’t more upset at her funeral: I really lost Granny some years ago. When she lost her maths. And her memory.
Rose was, I suspect, slightly baffled.
Shaun said she was only here a few weeks, and yet her spirit filled every corner. The house empty with the loss of her...
And Bink? Bink was utterly distraught. Weeping, frighteningly, uncontrollably. As if the heart had been torn out of her.
Unfinished business, said Fleur. All those years when she could have been well with her.
I was taken aback at the rage of my father’s grief. He convinced himself my mother had died shouting and thrashing – she never did the like in her life: why would she in death? Apart from those few hours in hospital, I was with her all the time. She was calm, as she always was.
A week after her funeral we laid her – only my father, Shaun and I; and the parish priest – in her tiny little coffin of ashes, deep in the Garden of Rest in the parish churchyard.
And for the rest of the winter my father was tormented, as the rain soaked the dull earth, and the wind whispered cold over her, and he couldn’t protect her and keep her warm.
Always, he said, I’ve cared for her. Fed her and sheltered her and looked after her.
(Well actually, Daddy, throughout our youth she was doing that for all of us! But nevertheless…)
For the rain it raineth, every day.
I can’t remember what happened to set Bink off that early January, 2010. The triggers are always so trivial.
We were used to it. If you ever can get used to that kind of thing.
It was early in the morning – perhaps through the night, indeed – and Serena and I trying to contain her. She had got the wrong side of the bathroom door and we knew she had a razor.
(Bink is multiple-scarred, hairline whips like shoals of tiny silver fishes, on every limb.)
We also knew, if we called an ambulance, she’d be livid.
We did anyway.
Later that day she escaped – not that she’s ever been sectioned – and the police and ambulance searched and scoured the streets.
She was found, taken in, we invited to see her.
In a ball under a desk, mute and rocking. For hours. All you can do, I now know, is tell her you love her. Repeatedly. There isn’t anything else.
They kept her in for several days. “For observation”. Why, I have no idea. We could have told them she was nuts: we’d been observing for long enough.
They weren’t going to treat her, were they?
They never do.
The day she came back was 19th January. My mother’s birthday. When she should have been ninety two.
(Would have been, if Serena had been listened to.)
I was surprised my father was so shocked. I suppose he’d never been on hand to witness it before. We’d lived with Bink’s illness so long... you sort of assume others know.
We can’t have this, my father said. I’m going to help.
Every day, New Testament Greek, no argument. Even Bink can’t take issue with my father.
And from that day, every day, starting on my mother’s birthday, he taught her Greek... till they covered the entire syllabus in about two months.
And I kept thinking of that vicarage on fire.
Why would you rescue the grandparents?
With my mother gone, my father was free to look to Bink’s needs.
My mother didn’t do much by mistake.
She hung on several years through dementia and fragility till we were housed and safe. She would not leave till my father was under our roof.
Love kept her going, several years beyond her time.
Why would she stay now?
If she could make space for Bink in my father’s care.
So she made a bargain with Heaven. And my father taught Bink New Testament Greek.