Sadie wished that she hadn’t worn her work suit. It made her feel as though she was being interviewed for the post of concerned, loving daughter and she wasn’t sure that her references would be good enough. This care home was much the best one that she had seen. There was no brown, dusty woodwork, no smell of cabbage, no unidentified stains on the carpet, and no large open spaces with a motley selection of chairs arranged around the edge. One of the homes she had seen had fixed a small table and two chairs, upside down, to the dining room ceiling. She wasn’t sure what that was meant to do for the residents (they didn’t look like residents- more like inmates) but it scared the life out of her. There had been a board showing the date and the weather too. Why they needed to know about the weather when few of them would move from their chairs she had no idea. She had seen one elderly woman slumped downwards in her chair, her field of vision filled, day after day, by the same tired piece of carpet.That place had been appalling and it seemed foolish to pretend otherwise. This home was better- a lot better. It was lighter and airier, the hallway had been freshly decorated, and the young staff that she had seen were cheerful and friendly.
Even the woman who was running the place must be at least thirty years younger than she was. She had red streaks in her hair, a tiny butterfly tattoo on her wrist and a concerned frown. She was listening carefully to Sadie, her head nodding like a television interviewer, but she already knew what she was going to say. She had heard it all before. That young woman had no idea how annoying, frustrating and obstructive this particular elderly woman who she had not yet met could be. She had no idea of the long, grinding commitment to an unhappy marriage which had defined her mother’s life and made her cling to anything or anybody that would show her a way out for a while. She had no memory of the elegant young dance band singer who was still hidden inside the shell of her mother’s old age, ready to burst out at inappropriate moments. She had never heard her mother’s laugh, once so beguiling to a series of delightful young men, now quite terrifying. She would only ever see the wreckage of a long life, not what had gone before. You had to take the time to dig out clues if you wanted to know that. She had never seen her mother’s anger. She would ask few questions and only rarely would she understand the answers whose truth was now lost in confusion. She would never know.
The young woman made the move sound easy. They could cope with her mother’s needs, they would make this arrangement, provide this equipment, monitor, watch, protect, care. There would be a pad on her mother’s chair so that if she moved they would know. She would not fall again, the young woman reassured smoothly. No, she wouldn’t, Sadie thought, because she would not be going anywhere. Her mother’s instinct had always been to leave, to get out of the house, when things were too overwhelming but there would be no escape for her now.
“I could never keep her safe at home.”
The truth was that she didn’t want to, but however wretched that knowledge made her feel she also knew that it would be impossible. She was not a bad daughter. She was no longer young herself. She was less than two years away from her own retirement, she had her own needs, and she could not bear to see her own future defined by her mother. Her future and her past. A past which she could not erase by doing the right thing now. The same thoughts circled around that truth, reassuring her that she would not cope, could not cope, telling her over and over again that she was doing the right thing, without ever bringing peace.
Nothing that she had done had ever been right for her mother. Almost every conversation had carried the sharp taint of blame. Now that her mother’s age and weakness had altered the power balance between them Sadie could make her decisions without fear of criticism, but the years of censure were still there locked inside her head. When her mother looked at her now it was with the same venom. It was just packed into a weaker vessel, seeping out from a deep well of disappointment that had taken a lifetime to fill. It was the same look, exactly the same, and it tore away the years and brought back the same feelings. You were supposed to love your mother, and she did. Of course she did. It would have been so much easier if she didn’t.
Sadie realised that the young woman was starting to wrap things up, shuffling papers and talking about taxis and belongings, standing orders, visits. She began to panic.
“She won’t eat cheese.”
The young woman smiled.
“Not a problem.”
Sadie looked at her doubtfully.
“I mean not at all.”
“And she might start to sing. Quite loudly.”
“We have a sing along session every Friday night when Mr Harland brings his accordion in. She’ll like that.”
“Let’s hope he does.”
The young woman laughed. She had no idea. Sadie smiled thinly. If her mother started singing When They Begin The Beguine in the corridor at three o’clock in the morning she would find out. A fortnight of that and a series of “small” falls in quick sucession had been the last straw at the other place. She allowed herself to be shepherded out, listening to reassurances and promises, unsure whether she should shake hands.
The park opposite the home had already been carefully pointed out to her. Sadie made her way through the iron gates and sat down on a bench beside the small war memorial, a first world war soldier, shouldering a rifle and reaching up towards the names of his fallen comrades. Telling her mother was not going to be easy and she couldn’t quite face it yet. There was no knowing which way it might go.Her mother was perfectly happy where she was. It was everybody else who was, very kindly and politely, tearing their hair out. Her mother had always been so certain of what she wanted, and so certain of what everybody else should want, but not now.
“Penny for ‘em”.
It took a few moments for the old man’s words to sink in. He was smiling down at her. He had pebble glasses, a flat cap and his shoes had been carefully shined.
“Mind if I sit down? I can only go so far.”
“I like to come and sit here. It’s about as far as I can get but at least I’m out. It gets a bit much in there sometimes. Most of them don’t talk much sense. I can’t get a decent conversation.”
He looked at her, his eyes asking a question.
“I saw you coming out the door.”
“My mother will be going in there a few days time.”
“I thought as much.”
Sadie looked down at her feet, blinking back tears for the first time. She found herself telling him all about her mother. A week on her own with nobody to talk to but a busy daughter on the end of a mobile phone who wanted to know if she was enjoying her holiday and only wanted to hear that everything would be perfectly fine for her grandmother so that she could go back to thinking about her own concerns had been hard. She needed to let someone know what she had done and hear them say that it was all right. When she finally ran out of steam he nodded slowly.
“She’ll be right enough.”
“I hope so.”
“Course I’m only in there to be near my son. I’m not daft, not like some of them. Or no dafter than I ever was.”
“87. I don’t do so bad do I?”
“You do very well.”
They both laughed. He was allowed to say things like that at his age.
“They let me out because my son got this mobile phone with big numbers on it and I’ve their number written on a bit of paper. See?”
He got out a tattered piece of paper with a phone number, carefully written in large black letters.
“I only go as far as here anyway. I could nigh on wave back at them if they looked out of the front windows.They want me to have one of them bloody walker things but I said no. I’ve had this stick for years and I trust it.”
He jutted out his chin proudly.
“I’ve never fallen once. I make sure of that. I’d never hear the last of it if I did. I’d be locked up.”
“Like my mother.”
He pointed at the memorial.
“My grandfather’s name’s on there. My dad’s dad. Albert Jackson. That’s why I come. I never knew him- never even saw him. All I’ve got’s a postcard. Kisses for our George it says. George was my dad- he kept it in his wallet for years. That’s the most he ever managed to get, kisses on a bit of paper. My gran couldn’t believe it when it all started again and I got called up. I’m lucky my name’s not written on there myself. Bloody Rommel tried hard enough.”
Sadie turned to look at him. His eyes were still bright, pale and intense. They had seen more than she could ever imagine.
“My generation don’t know we’re born.”
“That’s true enough. All the same I wouldn’t want it any other way. No point otherwise.”
Sadie’s thoughts began to drift off. She was tired. She had done too much. She let her eyes close and set her mother dancing with the young men who would always stay young and sending them off into the void one by one, leaving her mother to continue on among the wreckage, writing letters that would never be answered. A dance which stamped its way down the generations. Lives not lost, but altered irrevocably. Lives endured as second best.
The old man got slowly to his feet.
“Well I’d best be getting back. I don’t want them coming to look for me.”
He gave Sadie one last piercing look.
“She’ll be right enough your mum. They’re not a bad lot in there. I might moan about them a bit but they’ll see she’s all right.”
The old man got up carefully.
“We have steak and kidney pudding on Wednesdays. I look forward to that.”
She watched him walk slowly towards the gate of the park.
“Her name is Beattie.”
He lifted his stick in salute.