Last week’s column may have ended with laughter, of a fairly desperate kind, but I struggle to find much this week. I am also in a bit of a rush before going off on my daily trip to the Royal Free to see the parents (father and mother detained for kidney failure and a fall, respectively, to inform those who missed last week’s instalment).
We’ve been told that my father is to be discharged tomorrow, but how an extremely frail man who needs haemodialysis every other day at a hospital in either (take your pick) Barnet or the Euston Road – his home being at a midpoint equally inconvenient to reach from both, though such is his health now that he can barely reach the kitchen – is going to cope on his own is not a question that exercises the authorities too deeply. Then again, beds are needed: this is the NHS, after all, and the medics don’t send people home if they don’t think they are going to survive. He will get a carer popping in a couple of times a day but it looks as though I, being the family member with the most flexible schedule, will have to do a lot of the heavy lifting. Which is not exclusively a metaphor.
The mother, still helplessly supine after 11 days, awaits the result of an MRI scan to see if they missed something. While her private insurance is for the moment keeping her in relatively plush surroundings on the 12th and top floor, it does not make her any better any sooner, and neither does it prevent her from being the victim of petty theft. She had been given a pretty large bottle of Chanel No 5 by an old friend and when she asked me to fetch it for her before my departure so she could cheer herself up with a dab on the wrists and neck, I saw it had gone. What kind of a person, I wonder, steals a bottle of perfume from an incapacitated elderly lady?
It is at times like these that one sees why the torments of hell were invented, in order to soothe our outrage. I have no detectable belief in the afterlife myself (and I don’t feel any cleverer for this lack of belief, or think worse of those who do have one, by the way), so all I can hope for is that the thief’s knowledge of his or her own character is purgatory enough.
Anyway, the first of the Church’s “Four Last Things” has been much on our minds lately. Thank God – ha! – that we are untroubled by the other three: judgement, heaven and hell. (The first is death.) My father is the kind of chap who says, at a performance of Bach’s Mass in B Minor, “This would be absolutely splendid if it weren’t for all the religious stuff.” Mother, educated by nuns in a textbook manner characterised by the vicious and painful application of humiliation, may have been Got At in her youth, but if she has Views about this kind of thing she is keeping shtum about it. “I have often thought upon death, and I find it the least of all evils,” said Bacon. I am not so sure.
So this is the thing that my brother and I have been bracing for, except now it’s happening all at once. Decline, reprieve and development, for better or worse, largely worse, happen hard upon each other, so the words “discharged tomorrow” in the second paragraph above will be history by the time you read this, and anything could have happened.
Meanwhile I find it hard not to think about Larkin’s poem “The Old Fools”. “Why aren’t they screaming?” he asks at the end of the first stanza, and it occurs to me that one possible answer is: they often don’t have enough puff to manage much beyond a murmur.
The peak that stays in view wherever we go
For them is rising ground.
I thought of those lines in particular as I walked up the steep hill from the Royal Free to Whitestone Pond en route to the family home, as if, by walking on rising ground, too, in the warm sun and continuing on foot for the three miles to the family home in order to pick up keys, documents, etc, I could tell myself I was performing some kind of pilgrimage, or indeed penance, for something, I’m not sure what; or to express, with each step I took, a form of gratitude for the fact that, unlike my parents, I am able to take firm steps.
And if by some chance the thief of my mother’s perfume is reading this, may I say that: a) being in a private ward doesn’t mean you are necessarily wealthy enough to be able to laugh off the loss and b) I do not wish you the fires of hell, nor even some kind of public humiliation at the hands of the law; I just want you to put the bottle back, maybe with a little note saying “Sorry”.