‘How’s your father’?

At night, I go and switch the light off in Mini’s room where Dad is now sleeping and whisper goodnight. It’s like I’ve got four children – only one has false teeth on the bedside table. Dad left his usual plastic container for his teeth at my sister’s house so the teeth sit there, uncontained, glistening in the darkness, a vision of pink and white. Actually, they match the colour scheme of Mini’s room very well.

I go to my bedroom and say to husband, “What is it with false teeth? Why are they so…horrid? Their grin seems to follow you around the room.”

He says, “Oh Goodness,” or words to that effect. “I’ve got really bad day at work tomorrow and now I’ve got that image in my head.”

“How about a bit of how’s-your-father then to get your mind off things?” I offer, but he buries his head under his pillow.

I take it that’s a F*** off then.

My husband finds it hard to have sex with Dad in the house. No, that’s very wrong. I mean, he finds it hard to have sex with me, while Dad is staying here. It is difficult having Dad to stay full stop.  The plan is he will stay with us in the week and my sisters at the weekend until we decide what to do. We had better decide quickly. Dad has taken over the lounge but his many varied things are seeking lebensraum in the dining room and in the kitchen. His tissues occupy the coffee table. His manky shoes, my husband calls them his ‘trip hazards’, stake a claim in the bathroom, and nobody knows where his walking stick has gone.  When it comes to the TV he is a dictator the likes of which the world has never seen before. Who knew Dad was such a ‘Murder, she wrote’ fan? He would sleep through that and ‘CNN’ all day long if he could.

The one good thing though about having Grandad as a permanent fixture in the living room, is that exiled husband is going upstairs to help Ray with his homework more. Now that he’s at high school Ray has got more school work than he’s ever done in his life and he’s walking around with a fixed expression of surprise. Husband helps him with his maths and his geography and it makes me smile to see them pouring over maps. I imagine they are planning where to send Grandad.

The following day, Ray comes home proud that he got a merit point.  Husband is thrilled too, telling me that’s his second merit point in a week and he also got top marks in R.E.  Husband wants me to high-five him but I don’t.  I don’t think he is taking this seriously. My Dad is also very proud (of Ray) although he can’t resist adding that R.E is a stupid subject anyway.

Dad was expelled from school, for writing a treasonous story about the queen on the loo although I doubt that was the only reason, it probably was the prefect excuse. I haven’t told Ray this story: I don’t want Ray thinking being a dumb-arse is a good idea. I don’t quite trust Dad to sound penitent enough about it.

On Friday, Ray comes home and announces that he has been made a school councilor.

“Welcome to the gravy train,” husband says incomprehensibly.

I ask Ray what being school councilor means and he shrugs. “I have to wear a badge.”

“A badge, eh! What does it say?”

Husband laughs. “Does it say, ‘Bully me’?” I tell him shush and I tell him that again later when he says, “Look, isn’t there a way we can expel your Dad too?”

I feel really bad but like husband, I would like our living room back. I am impatient for the weekend. At nine o’clock, when Jessica has solved the latest mystery, I say to Dad, “It’s bed time.”

He says gloomily, “I won’t be able to sleep but then I’m in your way, aren’t I?”

I say, “Oh, of course not” and “It’s ok, don’t worry!”

I expect him to say actually, he will go up, but instead he asks for the remote control. It’s time for CNN. My husband disappears, scowling.

Dad isn’t tired until long past ten. I fuss him up the stairs, then hurry to the bedrooms. I whisper my goodnights, trying to avoid meeting the eyes of the pearly teeth.  Husband has been hiding out in our bed for the last hour so I say to him in my most seductive voice, “Do you want to earn another merit point tonight?”

I’m not sure if he says, ‘at the weekend’, or ‘at worlds end’, and I’m going to ask him to clarify but I have a sudden vision of those pearly gnashers on Mini’s bedside table and I too am not that interested anymore.

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First memory

Now that Arnie and Ray have reached the giddy heights of being mediocre at swimming, it is Mini’s turn to learn. I loathe taking the children to the pool. As well as the heat and the smell, there is, of course, the pathos of the abandoned armbands, the way the children’s ears don’t know whether to go in or out the swimming hats and worse, the way you are just composing a text when they come out shivering and needing a wee. So when my husband offers to take Mini to her class I am thrilled. Dad is at my sister’s for the weekend so its officially ‘time off’. Whoop.

One hour later, husband comes back whey faced. “Mini came out the pool and I didn’t see her. I found her crying alone in the changing rooms. She said, ‘why did you go away?!'”

I don’t do the ‘how the hell did that happen?’ because I am now a kind wife and I can see he is upset. Plus, it makes me like myself more if I hold back. Criticising him on this would be as easy as shooting ducks in a tin or something.

Husband is very upset. I feel his agitation is a little disproportionate to the incident but I pat his shoulders absently. “there, there.”

“She just cried and cried,” he says. He looks at me anxiously. “It might be her first memory.” And there’s the rub. We read somewhere that memory starts at about three so since Mini’s last Birthday we have been extra nice to her. This incident will go against everything we’ve achieved.

“No,” I say regretfully, “I’ve got the first memory covered.” A few nights ago, Mini fell out of our bed. It was somehow more poignant because she didn’t cry. I know she remembers it because in her book – A Bear’s Life – Parker tumbles out of Oscar’s bed and she pointed to it and with a heavy sigh said, ‘I fell, Mama!’

Ray’s first memory is getting stuck in a toilet with his cousin. Two little cousins stuck in the lavatory – how hilarious – I find this a painful one though because I wasn’t there. It was shortly after me and Ray’s Dad split up. I’m not even in my son’s first memory! I don’t know which is worse: letting my daughter fall out of bed, or not being there at all.

I ask Arnie for his first memory but the kid doesn’t even remember how old he is. I wonder how easy it would be to plant a trip to Lapland in his maleable little head. ‘Oh don’t you remember, the icicles in Santa’s beard? The beautiful reindeer…the lovely presents…’

My first memory is of having a nappy change, (Over here, Freud!). The other early memories are a blur: an uneven timeline of disconnected events. I remember leaving my mum in the playground on the first day of school. I remember getting out the van and waving at my dad. I remember shutting the front door and running to see a friend.  So many walking aways.

I was once told that all stories can be boiled down to one of two types. One is the leaving home type of story – going on an adventure, a search for something, ‘an external quest’, and the other type of story is trying to return, to get back home, to restore what has been lost ‘internal quest’. I wonder if our early years are spent on one and then our later years on the other.

Later that evening, in bed, husband is retelling the swimming pool drama and its the fifth time and in this retelling Mini’s sobs are howls, the floor is as slippery as an ice rink, and every other waiting parent is thinking: ‘Bad dad, bad dad’.

I say, “Why are you telling me this again?” and he says, “I need to get it off my chest, I feel so bloody awful. Once I found her, she was so sad, she wouldn’t even meet my eyes.” And I can contain myself no longer. I say, “How the bloody hell did you miss her? you stupid oaf. That’s never, ever happened to me.”

There is a third story type: Revenge. Punishment or retribution quest. I will be taking Mini swimming next week.

Heart-breaker

I pick up Arnie from school. He has done eight days in Reception now. He can’t believe school is five days long and the weekend is only two. “It’s not great, is it?” I say, “but that’s life.”

The reception children queue up at the school gate and wait for a parent to claim them. There are four or five kids who look just like Arnie so my arm is in a semi-permanent wave until the right Arnie appears. I’m reminded of what Dad told me about being evacuated. “They lined us up in this hall and we waited for someone to pick us. I was the last to go.”

“What did you do today?” I ask Arnie after he has peed up the nearest tree outside the school. Arnie has not yet acquainted himself with school loos.

“Nothing,” Arnie says. This is disappointing. At least last week, he told me whether he had apple or pear.

We drive to pick up Grandad from my sister’s place. We are going to take him to have a blood test. Arnie is happy because there are Haribos. My car is a Haribo landfill.

“What did you do today?” I ask Grandad when he has negotiated the five metres from front door to car.

“I had a terrible night,” he says, “flailing around like a ship on high seas. I think it was the sleeping pill. Or the statins. It’s getting worse and worse.”

“Did you eat?”

“I had some toast and Ella was here but she’s gone to work and I’ve been trying to call all morning, where were you?”

“Nowhere,”  I say. Grandad looks at me like I look at Arnie. His face says really?

Grandad can’t believe the clinic. He loves a shiny new health centre. “This is fantastic!” he says running his hand along the surfaces. You would think we had touched down at Vegas.  He doesn’t know where to sit. There is too much choice!  Black or red? Arnie too is delighted. He springs into the play section, ‘the germ repository’, as my husband likes to call it and sucks at toys. The only other person in the waiting area smiles and Grandad whispers to me, “Everyone loves Arnie, don’t they?” I hope the lady doesn’t hear. She is just being polite.

The blood nurse calls Dad’s name and I say, “You don’t want us to come in, do you?” but he does, so we go through with Arnie hiding between my legs.  The blood nurse asks Arnie if he wants to help and he nods. He has to say the magic words, “ready, steady, GO!” as the needle goes in. He bellows it as if starting a race and the blood creeps up the tube. I feel woozy but Grandad is fine, he says he’s had worse. Chatting to Dad, the nurse calls his blood ‘claret’.

I try to reassure Arnie. “They did this loads to me when I was pregnant,” but he looks at Grandad’s distended stomach, and I can see he is thinking, Is Grandad pregnant now?

“He’s a heart-breaker,” the nurse says and Grandad agrees, and I hate that phrase – why would I want my boy to upset people? – but I like this blood-nurse and her magic so I ruffle Arnie’s hair uneasily. She has finished but Dad stays in the chair. He’s too busy watching an imaginary roulette ball spin around.

“All I want to know is; how I can get better for the knee op?”

“Well, what have they told you?”

“Nothing.”

I say, “Let’s wait and see the results of this first before we worry about your knee.”

The blood nurse looks at me and I look at her, then Arnie tugs me to go. He wants another sweet. Or perhaps he needs to find another tree. Grandad leads from behind. I think, Heart-breaker.

The end of the world

Arnie is worried about the end of the world. He is changing out of his Batman suit and into his Spiderman pajamas. He has just brushed his teeth. Mini is already in her bed in Arnie’s room although she is not yet asleep. They are sharing because Grandad is sleeping in Mini’s room. Ray is in his room painting models of fighting men from the year 40,000. Granddad is downstairs watching the news.

“The end of the world is not for a long time, is it?” Arnie asks. He holds my hand. I connect the question with finding Grandad prostrate on the floor yesterday. This must be it.

“Nothing for you to worry about,” I say briskly.

“But when will it be?”

“Never,” I lie.

Downstairs, I tell husband. I say I thought the kids were enjoying having Grandad here. I wonder if they are worried about him too. They know he has changed. He used to play ball with them in the garden or push the swing. He would draw pictures of cats for Mini and make playdough superheroes for Arnie. He used to read “We’re going on a Bear Hunt.” Perhaps Arnie senses that it might be an end of an era. He is our emotional, intuitive boy. The one on whom our hopes of a great future rest. The one who will take us in when we are old, unlike Mini who will say, “I want my house back,” or Ray, “Sorry mum, too busy with warhammer to feed you…”

It isn’t until sometime later, that husband looks at me and says, “Oh. When Arnie was eating dinner, he spilled a bit and I said, ‘it isn’t the end of the world...do you think it’s that?”

Dinner

Dad won’t eat my lightly smoked salmon wrapped in parma ham, new potatoes and peas. He says, “It’s fine don’t worry about me,” but he sneers at it and prods it. “Just do me a sandwich,” he says. I hear, what is with this twatty middle class food? 

The next morning, I say, “Shall we try to take you home today?” He says, “Oh yes, fine, don’t worry about me.”

“He can’t go home yet.” says my husband. I think, salright for you to say, you don’t have to dish out his drugs, give him food he refuses and wipe around the toilet that he misses so often that sometimes I wonder if its deliberate.

“You really do want more blow jobs,” I say.

“Seriously,” he says. “He’s not well enough.”

I pack Dad in the car with his two plastic bags and no clothes to speak of. When he tries to do the seat belt up, he can’t and he says, “I’m as weak as a baby.” He rolls up his sleeves and says bitterly, “My arms are like kittens.”

I say, “I like kittens,” and he does a half laugh, half snort.

I get the idea he’s not keen to go. I am not totally insensitive. Still Arnie wasn’t overly keen on school this morning, and Mini is always whinging about play school.

He says, “I’m frightened of ending up an old man, watching TV all day in a home.”

I don’t say what I’m frightened of.

I pick up the letters from the door mat. It is disappointing there is nothing from the hospital. I watch him wobble up the stairs. His flat is a disaster-zone. As always, I double-take: Has there been a burglary? Then realise, no, no, unfortunately nothing is missing. There are the books, socks, newspapers, photos, medicine packets, plates, and cups everywhere as usual. There are photos of me with my first husband. I find them embarrassing but if I say anything Dad will say, “Oh, but he is like a son to me.”

There are photos of Dad with Ray when he was a baby, and even more photos of Dad with Arnie and Mini. There are photos of Dad with Mum taken twenty years ago when they came to visit me abroad – the last time I saw her. I can feel her looking at me.

“Shall we go back to mine?” I say and Dad nods. We pick up some clothes and go back home.

The lift

I make up the sofa bed for Dad. I fetch him pillows, sheets and a blanket. The room looks cosy. He is not overwhelmed with gratitude but hey.

In the morning when I go down, he is sitting on the floor about one meter from the bed. He can’t get up, he says. I feel sick. It is a terrible sight: my dear Dad is on the carpet and he can’t get up. I remember when he was young, when we both were young, he slipped a disc while loading his van and the noise that came from just beyond the back door was terrible. This is different though. A whimper not a howl.

I try and help him but he won’t budge. It’s like he’s not even trying. The sofa is so near. It’s as though a boat is capsizing one yard from the shore.

“Why did you make it so dark?” he says. “I couldn’t see a thing and I fell over.”

I think, so now I’m responsible for the sky at night.

“You should have called me,” I say.

“I did,” he says.

I send Mini up to get my husband, the muscle. She disappears up the stairs, sucking her thumb. She knows this is important. Arnie comes down and looks frighted. I tell him, “It’s fine honey. Grandad is on the floor.” Ray comes down and starts reading his Warhammer book on the sofa.

My husband does not appear. I go up trembling.

“Didn’t Mini come up?”

“Yeah I told her off, she was pulling at the door.”

“Oh,” I say. Poor Mini. “Grandad’s stuck.” My voice is croaky. “He can’t get up.” It seems like the worst thing that’s ever happened.

“I’ll be down in a minute,” he says. I try to make my eyes say its urgent but he’s not looking at my eyes.

I can’t tell if he is playing a power game with Grandad – this is my house and I’ll come down when I like – or if he urgently needs a poo. I think its the latter.

Ten minutes pass. Grandad doesn’t want tea. Or a biscuit. He too is getting desperate.

Ray puts down his book and holds Grandad’s hands. I hover behind. Na-da. He will not budge.

“I’m a dead weight,” sighs Grandad.

Husband comes down brightly. He has an idea. He demonstrates the lifting manoevre we will employ on little Arnie. Arnie laughs and laughs. It involves the tickly elbows. He laughs bordering on hysterics.

“It will never work,” I announce. Me and Grandad look at each other. We are united, for once, in our mutual scepticism of husband. I get in position one side and my husband on the other. “He’s a dead weight,” I say.

But Grandad glides upright to his feet. He is Lazarus!  Husband is as smug as he is running late. “I can’t remember where I learned it but it was good, wasn’t it? I’d better go. Bye.” I want to say that this is the jam jar effect. One person does all the hard work to no avail only for the other person to come along and achieve it – based on the first’s efforts. But it wouldn’t be true, I have flapped but I have not done anything.

There is more news from Barcelona. My sister is staying somewhere near Las Ramblas and she is having a brilliant time.

Later that day, I see there were three missed calls on my phone from Dad at 4 am.