I am at my friends Ben and Janine’s, having Sunday lunch. They live on the 16th floor, and I have a fine view of Storm Isha working herself up into a lather against the walls of the marina, about a mile away.
The phone rings. It’s my brother. I am very fond of him but a call on a Sunday afternoon is not normally good news, and it isn’t: our mother has fallen, broken her wrist, been discharged from hospital far too early, and is now – I shall draw a veil over the undignifying details – in a bit of a state. As it happens, my brother is in a bit of a state, and once he explains the circumstances I can see why. So the upshot is that I will go to London to take over the care until the professionals can get stuck in.
My and my brother’s offspring had all volunteered to help, but once they saw the reality on the ground they agreed, with one voice, that this was beyond their skill set. From what I’d heard, it was beyond mine too. But what can you do? When petty crises occur, it’s usually enough to say “I live two and a half hours away” to get off the hook, but this was the kind of situation I could only wriggle out of if I lived in Australia.
She was asleep when I got there – I was held up by a deadline, and my glasses breaking, and, let’s be honest, extreme reluctance – and my brother gave me a rundown. He had the haunted look of someone who has served in wartime. Then he shot out of the door as if there were hounds at his feet. (He had an appointment and I was later than advertised.)
Looking after a querulous and opinionated old person with a voice trained to reach the upper circles of the New York Met without amplification would, I imagine, be bad enough; when the person is your mother, whom you find exasperating enough at the best of times, it is something else. It is heartbreaking to see the physical decay, and worse to see it up close. I find myself concentrating hard on the capillaries of her feet. But it could be worse, and I get off relatively lightly compared to what my brother had to deal with.
Actually, things don’t go quite as badly as I feared. The knowledge that my bedroom is up the stairs and she can’t climb them is a comfort I latch on to. She never learned how to knock.
There is the occasional glitch.
“Close the curtains,” she said at one point in the evening.
For some reason, this made me bridle. Well, I had been running after her for a while, and all sorts.
“Do you think you could say ‘please’ in future?”
“Huh, I know you well enough not to have to say ‘please’.”
“Um, I’m afraid that’s not really it,” I said, although quite a lot of it was. “I know it’s not so much a thing in America, but it rather is here. And you’re going to be having care workers in, so it might be a good idea for you to get into the habit.” In the evening a social care worker comes round to assess the situation. She strikes me as competent and experienced but she still says “God help me” as I show her out of the house.
Later that evening I get a text from my brother’s wife. She is a consultant and is a very good person indeed to have on your team during a medical situation. “Tony has bad D&V,” it begins. Domestic and violence? No: the context makes it clear that it is the other kind of D&V, little more welcome, which you get when you contract norovirus. Selfishly, I think: “But this is on the evening before Tony comes back to relieve me. Will he be able to make it? I need to get out of here.”
As it turns out, I can’t, for the next morning I find myself floored by GI problems, which is what we people who have doctors in the family call gastrointestinal. I was meant to leave at ten – for I have both a deadline and a doctor’s appointment of my own to worry about – but that shot isn’t on the board any longer. But, hallelujah, my brother does turn up. The worst of his symptoms are over and he has been topped up with Imodium and some heavy anti-nausea medication. He brings them with him and asks if I want any. I do. He looks at the leaflet for the anti-nausea pills.
“Hmm,” he says, “apparently possible side-effects include both diarrhoea and constipation. And itching. Take half.”
He goes on to talk about the norovirus.
“It’s transmitted via the faeco-oral route,” he said. “In other words, you can’t transmit it by breathing on someone.” He paused, and then repeated the phrase, with emphasis: “The faeco-oral route.”
“Yes, I get it,” I said.
In the end, far later than I’d planned, I stagger out of the family home and begin the journey back to Brighton. It is not a pleasant journey but at least I am going back to my own bed. Nausea isn’t a very relaxing ailment, is it?
I get a text from an old friend. “Is there anything I can do to help?” she asks, which is very sweet of her, but I’m not sure what she can do because she lives in Australia.
This article appears in the 31 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Rotten State