I am on holiday and loving Emma Healey’s novel Elizabeth is Missing. I know I’m late to this, and that this debut novel has attracted huge praise, and I can see why. I have it in paperback at home but happened to find a well-thumbed copy on the well-stocked bookshelf in the little house we’re staying at in Deia, Majorca.
What a book! I have shied away from reading it as the protagonist, Maud, is an elderly lady with some form of dementia – like my mum. Too upsetting, I thought, but it’s not at all, due to Healey’s wonderful writing.
Somehow, she manages to channel the confused and meandering thoughts of a person for whom the world is becoming an increasingly frustrating place. She injects humour and writes with such credibility about why someone with such a condition might try to piece together snippets of rational thought and logic, aided by pockets stuffed with hand-written notes.
I’m seeing much of myself in Helen, Maud’s daughter, who is clearly at the end of her tether a lot of the time, particularly when her mother insists that her much-loved friend Elizabeth is missing, that something terrible must have happened to her, and that she herself has been burgled. My mother imagined numerous burglaries and, like Maud in the novel, visited the police station time and time again. She was insistent that silverware and her broken spectacles had been stolen. I am loathe to liken a person with dementia to a small child but I found myself trying to be patient, just as I had when one of my three children had refused to eat something I’d cooked, or to settle down to sleep at bedtime. I’d coax and cajole and, occasionally, I’d lose it.
In Elizabeth is Missing, Maud repeatedly goes out wandering, despite being told not to – often to try to find her ‘missing’ friend – and smashes a cup in a restaurant in frustration. Mum’s insistence that people had broken in her house began to drive me to distraction. Our extremely kind GP came to her house and, together, we tried to talk to Mum about how her doors were locked at night and how on earth would anyone have broken in?
‘They’ve been again!’ she insisted. ‘D’you think I’m a liar?’
‘Mum, please believe me, no one has broken in. You didn’t actually have any silver and, look, here’s the handbag you said they took.’
‘They broke in. I saw their faces. Why won’t you believe me?’
I felt my emotions bubbling up and, to my shame, kicked her waste paper basket across her living room. Bits of paper flew everywhere. I couldn’t believe what I’d done. Mum was terrified and burst into tears, and I did too. Who hasn’t thought, ‘I’m a terrible parent’ after shouting at a child? There’s the, ‘I am a terrible daughter’ version too – someone who yells at an elderly lady who has a clearly frightening mental illness. I hurried home and dived on a bottle of sauvignon in the fridge.
I am loving reading Elizabeth is Missing because Helen’s frustrations come across clearly and are utterly understandable. I’d love to report that, in the four years since Mum’s diagnosis, I have been a model of calmness and understanding – but it wouldn’t be true.
Mum’s condition is now more advanced than Maud’s. She lives in a wonderful care home and I am no longer the daughter who visits daily with meals and reminders for her to stop buying litre bottles of Irn Bru or multiple purchases of toner from the Clinque counter in John Lewis. I no longer have to deal with the crashing waves of guilt that followed any losing of the plot on my part (e.g., the waste paper basket incident).
I am so glad I picked up Elizabeth is Missing as it reminds anyone with a loved one with dementia that we are not only daughters, sons or carers, but human beings too. Yes, sometimes we lose it and behave in ways that are perhaps not ideal. But we try, we do our best at that precise moment, and that’s all we can do.
12 July, 2016 / General
I was in London last week and had a few hours to spare on a sunny afternoon before catching my train back to Glasgow. So I thought I’d take a stroll along the Regent’s Canal in Islington, where I lived on a pea-green narrowboat called Parsley.
I hadn’t been back to this stretch of canal since my then-partner and I sold our boat, although I’ve had an inkling to visit for a long time. In our early twenties, we bought the boat on whim from an advert in a narrowboat magazine, and brought it down from Rickmansworth with no idea of how to handle the thing, or where we might ‘tie up’ (I don’t think we even used the term ‘moor’). By some happy accident, having negotiated the gloomy King’s Cross tunnel, the world opened up and we found ourselves on the pretty stretch of water which runs alongside Noel Road (where, incidentally Joe Orton was murdered with several hammer blows to the head by Kenneth Halliwell). However all was peaceful that day, and we found a space which seemed to be waiting for us, and so began two years of communal living.
I’d never have imagined that that kind of lifestyle, with everyone knowing each other’s business, would suit me – but I made friends who I’m still in touch with now, thirty years on. Mostly in our twenties, we quickly became a gang of a dozen or so boaters – known, disparagingly, as ‘water gypsies’ by the well-heeled Noel Roaders – who lived and socialised, partied, fell out, made up and ran to each other’s aid in emergencies. We became exceptionally close. It was almost like living in one enormous, bobbing house.
We must have reeked of woodsmoke and spent long summer’s afternoons lolling on other’s decks, drinking beer and chatting. For the price a shabby car, I had a home in a beautiful part of London with friends living mere feet away.
I’m not sure anyone could live that way now. In fact, it would be impossible in any part of London, let alone the leafy enclave of N1. As we were merely squatting the bank, we didn’t pay mooring fees, yet no one moved us on (we wanted to set up an official mooring as a sort of collective but our nemesis, the BWB – the British Waterways Board – weren’t having it). If anyone wanted to take their boat on a trip, the others would move theirs along the bank to absorb the space until their return.
Although there are fancy new flats past the lock, barely anything had changed as I strolled along my old stretch of towpath last week. There was still a motley collection of narrowboats (it’s now an official mooring) including one turned into a cafe, selling carrot cake. Yes, it’s posher, but the friendly atmosphere still prevailed. A young American woman, who’d been taking pictures of the boats, screamed as her Nikon camera fell into the murky water. She plunged in to try to rescue it, and moments later one of boaters ran to her rescue with an extra-strong magnet on a rope.
I walked in dappled sunshine, chatting to boaters, my head filled with all the adventures and larks we had, when buying a rusting old boat to live on from a small ad seemed like a perfectly sensible thing to do.
01 July, 2016 / General
One of my sons returns tomorrow after six weeks of travelling around Thailand and Cambodia. His trip has also been quite a lesson for me. The day he left – first time on long-haul flight without me or his dad – I was in a bit of a state, even though he’s 19 and perfectly capable of looking after himself. It was the lack of planning, frankly, that was doing my nut in. No accommodation booked and he seemed to have only the vaguest plan of where to go, what to do. And what if he ran out of socks, or toothpaste?
It’s how young people travel, of course. It’s the approach my friend Jane and I took when we cycled all over northern France in 1983. We ran out of money (of course), had to resort to busking and spent a freezing night in Chantilly railway station’s waiting room where a creepy man pressed his face up against the window in the night. As an adult, with your plans and lists and itineraries, it’s easy to forget that travelling is an entirely different proposition when you just shove your passport, your money and a spare pare of pants into your bag and go. You arrive and decide, ‘This looks great!’ Or you look around and think, it looks a bit crap actually, and simply go somewhere else. You don’t even realise how liberating it is as you’ve never done things any other way.
Having children requires a different approach, unless you’re the type to strap a baby to your chest and go hiking into the foothills of the Himalayas with nothing but a bar of Mint Cake – in which case I am in awe. I was never that type when my kids were young. We’d set off in the car to our favourite holiday house in southern Brittany, the car stuffed with games and toys and guidebooks. I’d turned into an obsessive planner – more to combat anxiety than anything else – but even then, things still went awry. In the midst of selecting CDs to take with us, I’d somehow forgotten to book the ferry. One of our children tore a radiator off the wall in the holiday house, simply by sitting it, and snarled up the workings of the pool by dropping a tumbler into some mysterious drain, whilst trying to trap ants.
No amount of planning could have averted that. We have pranged numerous hire cars and infuriated a Corsican cleaner so much – by leaving croissant crumbs in the grill pan and having a barbecue in the garden – that she pursued us to the airport in her own car.
I’d like to think our children regard their childhood holidays as smooth-running, impeccably organised affairs but, in fact, there were an awful lot of breakages, minor injuries, vital things being lost and trying to conceal dents in hire cars by propping an enormous suitcase in front of them. On one trip, we drove for over an hour with the boot wide open, my laptop slithering closer to the edge, as we remarked on how well the air conditioning was working that day. In the Roussion region of France, when our sons were babies, our carefully-selected (and filthy) apartment was owned by a drunken Englishman who called me a ‘slapper’.
In contrast, my son’s travels have, as far as I am aware, been entirely stress free. While I don’t think I could ever set off blithely in the way a young person does, I recognise that un-scheduled journeying can throw up experiences the fearless teenager will never forget. I look forward to hearing about my boy’s adventures and hope to God he’s remembered to clean his teeth.
22 April, 2016 / General
I’ve just started running again. I did my first 10k about eight years ago, but since then it’s been an on-off affair. Each time I think, I really should start running again, I’m filled with dread about the pain and torment I’m about to put myself through.
And of course, it’s never like that. Every time, I forget that going back to running isn’t like starting from the very beginning, when you stagger along, gasping and purple, worrying that you’ll fall over or puke. Starting again is painful – for ten minutes max. That’s all it takes to overcome the initial ‘Why the hell am I doing this?’ bit and be back on your way.
In fact, going back to running has loads to recommend it. For one thing, you’re always way better than you think you’ll be. Also, you remember, pretty quickly, why you put yourself through it. It’s liberating and exhilarating – it’s probably the closest a human being gets to feeling like a dog. All those knotty problems start to unravel. A bad mood miraculously fades away. The only thing that makes PMT bearable is pulling on my manky old trainers and getting the hell out of the house.
I read recently that writer Caitlin Moran swapped running for swimming when her joints started to feel creaky. Mine did too, so I now run on an abandoned railway track that’s conveniently grassy and soft. I try not to run on consecutive days and am building up slowly – 40 minutes is about my limit at the moment. But then, I’ve only been at it a couple of weeks. My friend Tania and I fell into a habit of meeting at 7.30 am in the Easter holidays and running with our dogs. I prefer running with a friend, and chatting all the way – listening to music doesn’t do it for me. I’ve never liked earphones plugged into my lugs and I’m always worried about some approaching hazard (escaped bull, angry golfer) that I’ll be unaware of with music blaring.
26 June, 2015 / Parenting
University looms. Our twin sons are counting the days until they can flee the nest. One has chosen Glasgow, while his brother is heading for Edinburgh: they are going their separate ways. I’m not surprised. While Jimmy and I have rarely thought of them as ‘the twins’, they have put up with being a pair for 18 years.
Naturally, it hasn’t been all bad. They were playmates as children, taking delight in the pranks which caused my hair to turn grey and their dad’s to fall out. Loneliness has never been a factor for them. Yet spending so much time together can’t have been easy either. Imagine being married to someone, with whom you are also expected to work and socialise. Imagine people constantly exclaiming, ‘Wow – you’re really quite different people!’
Our boys have always sat side by side at the dinner table and in the car. They’ve been taken out to buy school uniforms together and been in many of the same classes at school. Occasionally, friends have sent them shared birthday cards – a massive faux pas in their book – and, of course, larger presents (eg, the wooden fort) were bought for them to play with together. Until secondary school they shared a bedroom and on holidays they’d be squished up together in a tiny tent. Who wouldn’t be a little sick of seeing that other person’s face?
As an only child myself, I can’t quite imagine how it feels to have a sibling – let alone a twin. But I’m sure it’s pretty annoying to have a relative refer to you as ‘that one’ or ‘the other one’, or to attract your attention by calling out, ‘Boys!’ when only one of you is present.
I can understand their fierce desire for independence – not just from us, tedious Mum and Dad who nag about untidy bedrooms and staying out too late – but from each other too. To be able to reinvent yourself as an individual is a wonderful thing. I vividly remember the day I left home, in 1982, when my parents dropped me off at a bedsit in Dundee where I was starting a new job. The fact that I would be living on the east coast of Scotland – while my parents were on the west – felt about right. Suddenly finding myself alone felt thrilling and slightly scary. It also occurred to me, as Mum and Dad drove away, that now – within reason – I could do, and be, anything I wanted.
Before our boys picked their courses, certain friends suggested that we should encourage them to choose the same uni and buy a flat for them to share. Never mind that we don’t have the cash for investing in property. Imagine being forced to be flatmates with your twin! They have bickered over who finished the last of the milkshake for long enough. They deserve a break from all that – and from each other.
Although Jimmy and I have tried to make each of our sons feel like their own person, there’s a limit to how much a time-pressed parent can do. Friends with triplets used to make a point of taking each daughter out individually for some one-to-one time. I was in awe at how they managed it. Jimmy and I tried this too – but, realistically, it was so much easier to go out en mass. Perhaps a better mother than me would have read each child their own bedtime story – but, realistically, who has the time or the energy for that? They were lucky if I managed to get through The Elves and the Shoemaker without conking out and dribbling on their pillow.
While I’m sad at the thought of our boys leaving us, I can understand their keenness to be viewed as individuals and not just one of a pair. So I’ll put on a big, brave smile as we set out to buy two duvets/pillows/starter packs of crockery. I’ll comfort myself with the thought that, while we haven’t been perfect parents, we’ve just done our best. And now they no longer need us.
It’s fine, of course it is. What am I, one of those mothers who hates the idea of her kids growing up? No… I just seem to have something in my eye.