Mother’s Mind

  It took my mother a long time to lose her mind- or perhaps it just took me a long time to notice. She never claimed to be either a clever or an educated woman. “Your father was the clever one. I never had any brains,” she would say. Throughout her life, she relied on her physical vitality and the charm of her voice (people who’d never met her but only talked to her on the phone were convinced they’d spoken to a “real lady”) in order to conceal her mental and emotional absence, the extent to which she lived in a world of her own.

We all daydream, but my mother’s daydreams were a separate world. Slowly, she retreated into it as the real world disappointed her with its “messes” and its "nastiness”. . She had a horror of conflict or emotional turbulence of any kind. Even a raised voice distressed her terribly. “Why can’t people be nice to one another?" she would exclaim over and over again while she watched the latest war on the television news or read about a row at a local council meeting (emotionally, she saw very little difference between the two). “We have everything we could possibly need in this world so what there is to fight over I’ll never know.”, she’d say. Then, shifting the blame from the message to the messenger: “Why do they have to tell us about unpleasantness? We all know it goes on but we don’t need to hear about it.”

 “Unpleasantness” meant everything my mother didn’t like (and didn’t want to know about)  from wars, crime, poverty and drugs to sickness on the one hand, to quarrels, rudeness and sex on the other. “Niceness”, on the other hand, covered the things she liked, such as cups of tea and peace and quiet and having her own way. I once tried to compile a list of “unpleasant” and “nice” things according to my mother but I gave up when I realised that the facts were not the point of my mother’s dream world . The tone was what mattered, a blend of innocence and respectability, like an adult’s romanticised idea of childhood. The tone- and the fact that in my mother’s world everyone was good to one another, and to my mother in particular.

 Now that I write this, I realise she was not as mindless as I sometimes assumed. My mother did what many people do: she used one part of her mind to censor the other part, and thereby construct a world that was more to her liking. But she took the process so far, it used up so much of her mental energy, that she had very little left over for anything or anybody else. As for why she did this, it seems obvious: her aversion to the darker and more problematic parts of life came from her desire not to grow up, to remain a child, and that in turn came from the circumstances of her childhood.

She was an only child whose own mother died young, leaving her to be brought up by her father and her grandmother. Her father was a drunk, not the kind of alcoholic who drinks every day but a binge drinker. Most of the time, he was a mild, melancholy, well-loved man. Then one night he wouldn’t come home for dinner; and for several nights after that the same. To the end of her days- or until she lost her mind-my mother remembered lying in her bed , in the dark, in her grandmother’s house listening to the hall clock chime, waiting for the sound of her father’s key in the front door and his tread on the stairs, while she quaked with fear and kept her own door locked against the roaring stranger he’d become. The next morning, the house was wrapped in silence as if it was in mourning. My mother would watch her grandmother clean her son’s clothes. His suit would be covered in mud. His bowler hat would be bent and dented. When the clothes were ready, they would  be placed outside his bedroom door and her father would rise and dress and go off to his work as a jeweller without a word to anyone.

 My mother’s escape from her childhood or perhaps her escape into it came through dancing. She was 6 when the First World War began. She was 31 in 1939 at the start of World War Two. During the quarter century in between, her life revolved around the ballet. She was a talented dancer, good enough to leave home in Birmingham when she was 17 and set up her own school in Leamington Spa with a partner, a friend who was also a dancer and also 17. This was a hugely daring leap for a middle-class girl with no money in the 1920s: it reveals a boldness in my mother I was never to see in her. I imagine she discarded it when she married my father as one sets down a heavy suitcase, with a sigh of relief. But long before that, when she was still a child, dancing gave my mother both the best and the worst of worlds.

Every year, the little dancing school she attended put on a Gala Performance at a local theatre. To my mother, these events, which attracted a smattering of local worthies and civic dignitaries, were an exquisite mixture of excitement and torment. On the one hand, she was the star who would always be asked to dance the principal solos. On the other hand, she had to worry about her father. Should she invite him or not?  If she didn’t invite him, how could she prevent him from learning about the show and turning up anyway? And if he came, would he be sober or drunk? For weeks before the big night, she suffered agonies of anticipation, which mounted until the moment she stepped on stage. She never knew what awaited her. With half her heart, she hoped against hope that she’d spot her father in the audience, beaming with pride. With the other half of her heart, she prayed that he wouldn’t be there, that she’d be the only girl without a parent present, rather than his turning up drunk and causing a scene.

 I find this memory almost unbearable to think about, though my mother told it to me in her usual, no-nonsense, “let’s not make a fuss” manner. Although she never knew it, so much of the way her mind worked was typical of adult children of alcoholics. Her dread of anyone expressing anger. Her secretiveness in small ways. Her relentless and hard-won cheerfulness. Her rigid devotion to appearances. Her attempts at self-effacement. Most of all, her insistence that everything was fine, nothing was wrong, that she never wanted anything for herself- along with the underhand methods she was then forced to employ to get the things she wanted.

 A child with an alcoholic parent has to behave in two contradictory ways at the same time. She has make herself as small and invisible as possible, in the hope of escaping the madness going on around her. And she make herself bigger and more responsible than she is, grow up before her time, in order to act as the parent to her parent, preserving the status quo and keeping the family secrets. To such a child, normal life must seem like an impossible dream. As she lived through her 70s and on into her 80s, my mother’s oft- repeated demand was for normality. “I just want a bit of normal life” she cry. By then, she was a widow herself, living in a small semi-detached house in the north of England with the mortgage paid and a minimal but sufficient income. She really had nothing to do. But in her mind, she was under constant, terrible pressure. Dustmen, laundrymen, gardeners, and plumbers, gas companies and telephone companies, salesmen and shop assistants all drove her crazy. There was too much going on and she couldn’t cope- couldn’t cope mentally, as she put it. It didn’t matter that, for example, the gardener came the same afternoon each week and the laundry was collected every Tuesday morning without fail. To my mother, each event was unexpected, de novo, something she had to think about and get ready for, an unlooked-for and unwelcome deviation from some notional “normality” where everything was under control and she didn’t need to think at all. “Can we have some normal time together?” she would plead with me when I visited. “If we can only get back to normal.”

It drove me crazy. My mother talked about getting back to normal so often it was funny, except that every time she said it I heard the distant echo of the child with a drunkard for a father, the child for whom literally anything could and did happen and therefore the child for whom normality- boring, routine, everyday life- must have been infinitely desirable.

My mother’s dream of niceness and normality never came true when she was a child, and it didn’t come true when she was an old woman, and the normality she craved had long since become a metaphor, a reflex of her imagination. Nevertheless, she continued to long for it. Even after her health failed and she had to go into an old people’s home, our weekly phone calls always began with her complaining that “everything is topsy-turvy”, there was “too much going on” but she hoped “everything will get back to normal one day.” Each week, she explained to me that the fundamental problem was it was the school holidays; once they were over, calm would return- a memory she retained from my father’s job as a teacher when school holidays and half-terms did indeed bring changes to our domestic routine (But it wasn’t the school holidays or half-term. My mother was losing her mind). As a series of small strokes shut down her brain, a process that took years, the bricks and the plasterwork of her personality fell away. The slates tore off her mental roof and the doors blew in and she lost her physical abilities along with her reasoning, one by one. She fell in the street. She became incontinent. She could no longer walk. Still, she clung to the notion that she’d back to normal one day; along with the ostensibly opposite idea that nobody need worry about her because she was fine. These two ideas endured like the twin foundations of her character.

Both were deceptive. Both meant something other than what they said. My mother’s notion of normal life was having as little to do with reality as possible. And she wanted someone to worry about her all the time. “All I want is people to be nice to me!” I must have heard her say that a thousand times too, whenever she couldn’t get her own way or was faced having to do something she didn’t want to do. When she was sick and I insisted she go to the doctor’s, she would reply “why are you being so horrid? I just want someone to be nice to me!”  My mother was the mistress of mixed messages. If she began with “I just want someone to be nice to me”, the second sentence was always “forget about me. I don’t need anything” (and the third, “what are you making such a fuss about?”). After my father died, I would go up to stay with her in her small, semi-detached house in Southport. When I arrived, she would present me with a list of problems she had saved up since my last visit: a plug had fused; a lamp had broken; she didn’t know what to do about the renewal form from the insurance company. But as soon as I tried to solve them for her, she would turn on me and say sharply “there’s nothing to worry about. I don’t know why you’re making such a fuss.” If I then took her at her word and dropped the subject, she would find a way to return to it, this time around making sure she let me know how difficult it was for a woman on her own, how she had no one to discuss things with, how she had nobody to help her.

My mother wanted what she wanted, but she could never admit to wanting it. Not only did she want me to solve her problems, but I also had to do her wanting for her-and even then, she would tell me, with a real edge to her voice, to “stop making a fuss.” It was as if she denied herself, and then denied the self she heard repeated back to her by me, when it must have struck her as amplified, like a megaphone, judging from her anguished “stop fussing!” or “you’re getting in a state!”- when all I’d done was suggest we buy new fuses or ask her where she kept the insurance papers.

The nearest my mother came to realising her dream of normality and niceness, of a world where nothing bad ever happened to anyone and only good things happened to her, and without her asking for them, was during the time she was married to my father. She didn’t just marry him. She gave herself over to him completely. While my father lived, she felt safe, protected, like a fugitive in a witness protection programme, her old identity erased and replaced by a new one as a wife and mother. My father was a teetotaller-I later discovered one of her conditions for agreeing to marry him was that he give up his occasional glass of beer- but he was much more than that. He was a sober individual in every sense: rock-solid, dependable, steady. He was also a lot brighter than she was.

Which suited my mother fine. By the time they met, she was already practised at repressing her own emotions, recycling them into her fantasy of normalcy and niceness. But as with all paradises, the greatest threat to her construction came from its own creator. Her fantasy kept the rest of the world at arm’s length, but the person it was really intended to keep at arm’s length was my mother herself, and here there was a catch. She had constantly to keep her guard up in case rogue feelings, like rage or sorrow or bitterness or grief, intruded and destroyed her carefully arranged illusion. Once she met my father all that changed.  First, he interposed his capable, very masculine self as a buffer between my mother and the outside world. But second, and more important, he gave my mother daydreams what I can only call a rational foundation. She learned from him that what she had been doing instinctively had been the right thing to do all along. The right thing to do morally. The right thing to do in principle. My father believed that everything wrong with society was due to a lack of reason and to people giving way to their emotions, which he equated with selfishness. His passion for reason-and it was a passion, though he would have been horrified to hear it described that way- matched her passion for niceness. Without intending to, he provided the intellectual structure for my mother’s emotional absence. Their two passions were like parallel universes, universes had in common everything they left out.

One of the things they left out was my real mother. She made a marriage that was at first all about my father, and soon afterwards, all about my father and me, while she was relegated to being our skivvy and our cheerleader. It was as if the prima donna had been sent to clean out the dressing rooms and scrub the stage before taking a seat in the rear stalls to cheer on the other actors. My mother may not have been much of a thinker- I “I don’t know how your dad put up with me,” she used to say after my father died- but had talents. Her skills, left over from her dancing days, were instinctive and creative. According to one of her ex-pupils, she was never a great dancer either but she had a gift for choreographing amusing and inventive dances, revue “turns” really, complete with  props and costumes that my mother designed and made from scratch. In one solo, she appeared dressed as a champagne glass and danced a pas de deux with a huge inflatable champagne bottle. In another, she was a country lass struggling to control a garden hose that had taken on a life of its own.

 Those sorts of talents weren’t needed in our house. In fact, they were expressly forbidden by order of my father, who would have considered them frivolous and self-indulgent. Seen through the distorting lens of childhood, my parents’ marriage was like one of the images produced by the Viewfinder I proudly owned I was nine, a device supposed to show pictures in 3D but in whose black plastic barrels the two images never quite coalesced. My parents were such an obviously mismatched couple- she reading Woman’s Own or the latest novel by Mazo de la Roche while he tried to explain to her the voting mechanism at the United Nations or the issues involved in underground nuclear testing-that for years I assumed they must have been unhappy (although my mother always insisted she had a perfect marriage). It’s true I never saw them quarrel, growing up but on the other hand, I can’t recall witnessing a single instance of physical affection between them (perhaps that was forbidden too). When I tried to find out for myself, the few people left alive to ask said my mother, for once,  was telling the truth.




People who knew my mother in later life thought of her as a cheerful, practical person, short and energetic with wavy white hair that had once been red,  pale blue eyes and the remnants of her youthful prettiness, like a small animal with quick movements and a bright, perky quality. In other words, they saw her as she wanted to be seen, her character projected on to the screen of her charm. That charm was based in equal parts on her habit of self-deprecation and on her other habit of genteel condescension. My mother had only to meet someone to thank them, and she thanked them with the offhand benevolence with which a film star signs autographs for her fans. Her years spent on the fringes of showbusiness had taught her how to put on an act. For her generation of “theatricals”, as she called them, the correct “act” was English genteel. Both on stage and off, actors and dancers strove to be more bourgeois than the bourgeoisie. In the 1990s, when my mother went into a retirement home, she was still thanking the staff every two minutes, while condescending ever so slightly to her fellow residents. Most of her mind had gone by then, but the act, the front, remained, together with the faint echo that was always present in her manner of someone giving a performance.

 Who was my mother acting for? On one level, she was playing to herself, acting out for herself a story that ran, “isn’t it amazing that a woman born without any brains manages to keep going and survive against all odds?” It’s said that everyone wants to be a hero or heroine in her own life but our conception of heroism is so limited- and our fears are so great- that we are driven to invent a negative and hostile world in which we  triumph solely by virtue of our continued existence. My mother strove to “keep going” or  to “survive” despite the forces ranged against her on a daily basis. In her retirement home, those forces increasingly became figures in her mind. While she still lived at home, they consisted of an army of laundrymen, dustmen, gardeners, plumbers, handymen, central heating engineers, meter readers- “the men”.

“The men” tormented my mother. They tormented her by failing to show up for appointments, forcing her to wait in the house for them all day. Or, if they did arrive, they tormented her in other ways. Either they drank too much of her tea, or they refused to drink her tea at all. Either their manner towards her was too familiar, or it was too brusque and businesslike Either they didn’t do the work properly (to my mother’s mind) or they did it too well, blinding her with the science of boilers or twenty different ways to kill the weeds in her lawn, until she became convinced the original problem was far worse than she’d thought and she would have to hire more men to sort it out.. Whatever the individual story, it always ended in tears, with my mother wailing to me down the phone: “It’s not my fault! I just want people to be nice to me!”.  

My mother’s real problem with the men was that they were not my father. Her real problem with me was that I was not my father either, but some strange hybrid. On the one hand, I was superior to “the men” because I lived a long way away, whence I made sudden, mysterious descents on my mother’s house three or four times a year, but mainly because of the second-hand godlike powers I’d inherited as my father’s son. On the other hand, I was inferior to “the men” who lived locally rather than running off to London, who belonged to a recognizable male type, and who, for all their caprices, had at least mastered a useful trade. I was the god with the feet of clay, the one to whom my mother appealed to solve her difficulties, then scoffed at and ridiculed because I didn’t live with her and didn’t understand how serious and intractable those difficulties were, how many obstacles lay in the way of overcoming them. My mother needed those obstacles: that was what I didn’t understand. She didn’t want her problems solved, certainly not by me, and certainly not solved at a stroke, as if there hadn’t been any real problem in the first place. She wanted my sympathy and admiration for the troubles she knew and for the fortitude with which she endured them- something I failed, over and over again, to give her.

The rubbish was her worst nightmare, and the source of more irritation between us than anything else. Somehow my mother got it into her mind that the dustmen would only collect a single black plastic bagful of rubbish each week.. If she put out more than one bag, my mother was convinced, the extra bags would be ignored or worse, the local dogs would tear them apart, leaving rubbish strewn across the pavement while my mother herself would be liable for prosecution and probable life imprisonment. Week in and week out, as she produced too much rubbish for a single sack, she went through agonies, devising complicated stratagems to dispose of it. In vain, I tried to persuade her to throw caution to the winds and put out two, or, god forbid, three bags. I pointed out that her neighbours on both sides regularly left out four or five bags and they were always taken. But you couldn’t change my mother’s mind that easily. She never missed a beat in our dialogues. Obviously, she replied, the neighbours had pull with the council. One of them was a midwife, wasn’t she, and the other had a son who was a fireman? All those people knew one another. “Which people?” I asked her. “Uniformed people,” said my mother. Midwives, police, firemen, hospital workers, and council employees like the dustmen: they were all connected with the authorities in one way or another. They all did favours for each other.

To my mother, believing in a conspiracy that ran her town and extended down to the level of the rubbish collection in her street was preferable to admitting she was wrong and being able to put out as much rubbish as she liked. That was how her mind worked.  I don’t mean to say that all her problems were invented. Her team of regular helpers, for example, were a motley crew consisting of a one-legged gardener, a deaf plumber and a painter and decorator with a bad case of vertigo (I was always threatening to find her a blind electrician to complete the set). In a town with high unemployment where every man was proficient at “do-it-yourself”, my mother spent twenty years unable to find a decent handyman. “They don’t want to do the small jobs”, she insisted. “They’re making too much money” (she meant they were fiddling the taxman and the benefits system). Whenever I pressed her, she fell back on her favourite rationale: “They don’t want to work for a woman!”.

As she aged from her 70s into her early 80s, my mother’s obsession with “the men” started to merge with her other obsessions about “keeping going” and “getting back to normal”.  Because the men she needed to help her didn’t show up for their appointments and wasted her time, she fell behind with everything (“With what exactly?” I cruelly pressed her. “With everything!” she cried). The result was that it became harder and harder for her to “keep going”. If the men did show up, then the questions they asked, the tea they drank, their mere presence in her house confused and upset her and made her desperate to “get back to normal” which she expressed as “needing time to sort myself out” or “time to get my brain back”. Another impasse. Now, when I went to see her, I no longer spent the first night with a list of jobs that needed doing during my visit. Her problems had become too numerous- or too overwhelming- for her to put them into words. I listened to her various obsessions elide one into another until they formed a single whole. “It’s all I can do to keep going, I can’t do anything more than that. Now if I can just have a little peace, a little time to sort myself out mentally. Give me a few days and I’ll be alright.” But two weeks later, when the time came for me to catch my train back to London, she was still saying, “if only we had a few more days, I’d sort myself out.”

In my self-centred way, I interpreted this change in my mother as having to do with me. I thought she was making a point that I couldn’t leave her alone all year and then imagine I could put everything in order in a couple of weeks. And it’s true that, in this mood, she would tell me how she dreamt that one day I’d come home to live, if not actually with her, then around the corner, and we could be a “proper family again”. Maybe there was some score-settling in what she said. But I think there was more than that. The one thing I never did with my unsutble mother was to pay her the compliment of taking her literally. When she told me she needed “time to get her brains back” or that there was “too much going on”, I took her to talking about us, our relationship. It never occurred to me she was reporting on the condition of her mind. I could see she was getting more confused and forgetful, but I put it down to the ordinary process of ageing in a woman who was none too rational to begin with.

 As my mother’s mind loosened its grip on the world, so the physical world turned on her, as if in revenge for its years of subjection.  Her life took on elements of slapstick comedy. She became the clown for whom ovens explode, door knobs come off in her hand, lamps go out when she switches them on and light up when she turns them off, and so on. We laugh at the little man’s (it’s usually a man) bumblings and stupidities but we also laugh in sympathy with his pain and the unfair things that happen to him because it’s our nightmare too. We all fear that one day we’ll wake up in a world turned unpredictable and beyond our control. It actually happened to my mother. Her decline began in a modest way. Objects disappeared around her. She had only to put something down, turn her back, and the object became invisible to her, and to her alone, while to the rest of us, it remained in plain sight. She would scour the kitchen for her house keys or her purse, which I could see lying right in front of her on the sideboard. Inevitably, my mother would start by looking everywhere else but the sideboard and she would go around the whole room before arriving at the sideboard last of all. Still, it an even bet whether she would find the keys or the purse or overlook them entirely as if they were covered by some sort of  invisibility charm. The spell was capricious. It would render some objects invisible, and then, without warning, it would move, restoring those objects to view and settling on a different group, which promptly vanished. Thus my mother, after searching for half an hour, would finally find her purse only to discover that her keys, which she had set down for safe-keeping while she hunted for the purse, had disappeared in its turn.

Things that were too big to vanish developed minds of their own. At one point, she became obsessed with her central heating, which turned itself on and off twice each day, heating the house for a few hours every morning and evening. My mother refused to believe it. She convinced herself the boiler’s natural state was to break down. Twice a day, she waited and, for all I know, prayed for the miracle of the central heating to be repeated. Only by anticipating the worst, by worrying about it every minute, by harking to the admittedly aged system’s every wheeze and groan and metallic wince, , like a savage propitiating the gods, could disaster be persuaded to pass her by. Then she had to get up the next day and do it all over again. What was she so afraid of? I asked her. If the central heating did break down- as it occasionally did over the years- she was insured. All she had to do was pick up the phone to have it repaired. But that meant dealing with the outside world and with the dreaded “men”, in this case not just the local men she knew but worse still, frightening strangers from the regional Gas Board in Manchester.

It also meant using the phone, second only to the central heating in my mother’s demonology. She could never get it into her mind that she sometimes misdialled and that other people also sometimes misdialled and therefore rang her number by mistake. To my mother, her own wrong numbers and the wrong number calls she received from others were magical events, instigated by the telephone itself, which was therefore not to be trusted. Rather than seeing the phone or the central heating as labour-saving devices that worked for her, she saw them increasingly as entities with minds of their own, out to torment her. Hence her flat refusal to let me buy her more machines, such as a washing machine, that would have made her life much easier, if she hadn’t refused point-blank to master the instructions.

After my father died, the Southport house was my mother’s main motive for “keeping going”. She wanted to preserve the house so she could leave it to me, and nothing I said could dissuade her. Butr the house was also the principal obstacle to her keeping going because of the problems it caused. I imagine it turning in her mind into one of those cartoon houses where all the appliances start up at once, the kettle shrieks, the toaster pops, the washing machine spouts water, the radio and TV blare, and the walls and roofs break into a merry jig until the terrorised householder runs out of the front door and down the road, her hands clasped over her ears.

What my mother disliked and distrusted about machines was that they weren’t people. What she disliked and distrusted about people was that they were too muchlike machines, and becoming more so every day. Supermarkets replaced corner shops. Computers replaced friendly bank managers. Answering machines and call centres took over from the local office where you could stop in and everybody knew your name. My mother wanted to deal and be dealt with personally, individually and “nicely”. A lot of what went on in her mind involved throwing up barricades and strengthening her defences against the possibility of being dealt with in any other way. Since niceness isn’t available very often, even among friends and relatives, it’s not surprising she made up a world of her own in which to live, and it’s in this tea-garden Eden that, if I close my eyes, I can see her as she would have liked to be- no longer a wizened, senile, doubly-incontinent 90-year-old but a pretty red-headed girl aged 10 dancing through a field of flowers on a summer afternoon.



Looking back,  I wonder if my mother’s attitudes to the phone, the boiler or the fridge, all of whose workings were equally mysterious to her, which she regarded as equally liable to revolt or break down at any moment had their origins in her mind rehearsing its own loss- a loss that still lay some years in the future. She was in her 70s when she began to find the physical world increasingly irrational and unpredictable. By the time she was in her mid-80s, she found it totally incomprehensible. Her progress or rather her regress became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Now, every time she picked up the phone, she hit the wrong buttons so it was effectively impossible for her to make a call. Lamps turned themselves on and off. Radios played or fell silent for no reason. She kept adjusting the controls for the central hearing without realising that she’d done it so that one day she would sit in a freezing room and the next, swathed in scarves and cardigans, she would be sitting in 90 degree heat, wondering why she was so hot. Some of the connections in her brain had been cut, severed by the TCIs she suffered from (and what were they but the revenge of the physical world, misfirings of the machine, so maybe my mother was right after all?).

By then, things were no better for her in the outside world than they were at home. For more than twenty years, my mother took the same bus every day to do her shopping. At the same time every morning she left the house and walked to the bus stop, conveniently situated at the end of her road, where she caught the number 36 to the town centre. During my visits, I went with her. Southport’s bus service was very good in those days. It was so reliable that my mother and I could time our departure from the house so that we reached the corner just as the bus was approaching down the hill: we never had to wait at the stop. Then, in between one of my visits and the next, everything changed. My mother convinced herself the bus wouldn’t come. Something had happened to the bus! (Actually, something had happened to my mother’s mind.) From now on, every morning as we walked to the stop, I had to listen to my mother announce that in all likelihood the bus wouldn’t come and we’d have a wasted journey. We might be lucky today- but more than likely not. This would almost certainly be a day with no bus. If I protested that, as far as I knew, nothing had changed and the bus was as punctual as ever, she would produce her trump card. “You don’t know,” she would tell me with a triumphant verbal flourish, “because you don’t live here.”

The bus united in a single object all her favourite themes: the vindictive “men” (bus drivers and officials who cancelled buses at random and left passengers waiting at the stop in all weathers); rogue machinery (buses ran or didn’t run according to how they felt); and losing things (the bus you saw one day had disappeared the next). As with the phone, the boiler and the fridge, it was the system that lay behind the objects rather than the objects themselves that she could no longer grasp. She knew a bus when she saw one, just as she knew that a boiler was for heating water and a phone for making calls, but the objects had been severed from her mental order, the web of connections that gave them meaning. To put it another way, the bus had left the material world and entered my mother’s mental world, a place of uncertainty and instability where anything might happen.

 At 10.23am precisely the bus’s flat, yellow top appeared on the brow of the hill before rolling down towards us, swaying from side to side like a wardrobe on wheels, before it reached the flat and quieted itself to a stop. “There, you see, it came” I’d tell her as we filed aboard with the other pensioners, most of them widows seeded with a handful of widowers looking shipwrecked in this alien, female world. “Well it’s the first time for a long time that it has,” my mother muttered fiercely. The arrival of the bus was one of the miracles alternating with mysteries that made up her day. After she developed her bus obsession, the number of miracles remained the same but the number of mysteries multiplied. The bus represented some kind of turning point or tipping point in my mother’s mind. Her irrationality had left the house, breached her own four walls. Rather than freeing her imagination, my mother freed her delusions, which grew ever more elaborate and singular, requiring less and less of a basis in reality.

Behind the Southport house, between the kitchen and the garden, there was a small paved yard with a couple of brick outbuildings, including an old-fashioned outside toilet. When I returned home for Christmas in the year of the vanishing bus, I found a notice in my mother’s handwriting pinned to the toilet door. The notice read “Out of Order. Do Not Use.”

Thinking we needed to get it repaired, I asked her what was wrong. There was nothing wrong with the toilet, she said. She’d put the notice up to stop strangers using it.

“What strangers?”

“The strangers from next door,” my mother said. “The visitors. The ones who built the patio.”

It was true that the neighbours had had their patio repaved over the summer. But what did that have to do with anything?

“Do you mean the workmen?” I said. “Did they have workmen in to build their patio? But why would they use your toilet? They have toilets of their own next door.”

My mother looked at me with the patient look she gave to people who didn’t grasp her point.

“No, not the workmen,” she said. “The visitors.”

“What visitors?”

“The visitors who built the patio. I think the next-door people let their visitors sleep there and in return the visitors built their patio for them. They worked at night after their day jobs were over. Doing it on the cheap.”

“How do you know this? Did you hear them?”

“Oh, there are always noises round here at night. You’d be surprised,” my mother said.

“I’ve never heard any noises at night,” I said.

“That’s because you don’t live here,” my mother replied.

I took a deep breath.

“And you’re sure these mysterious visitors built a patio at night?” I asked her.

“Probably” replied my mother who was too shrewd to be pinned down even or especially in the midst of one of her imaginations.

“And who were they? Did you meet these mysterious visitors?”

“Oh no, they keep themselves to themselves next door. Not really neighbourly, if you know what I mean,” my mother said. “I don’t know who they were. Some men who can build things. That’s why we had the planes.”


“The planes flying overhead. We’ve had one or two recently. I think it’s the police.”

“And you think the planes were checking on the patio-building visitors.”

My mother ignored the irony in my voice.

“Well, we’ve had a lot of burglaries round here. They come over the railway line at the bottom of the garden.”

“The burglars come over the railway?”

“No, I’m talking about children mainly. Kids. The ones who use the toilet.”

“I thought you said the neighbour’s visitors used the toilet.”

“They did. So do the children. Several mornings I’ve come down and found the toilet door open. Kids use it in the night. Very sensible. They need somewhere to go and they think, why not?”

I was having trouble following my mother’s argument while at the same time, I was fascinated to see where it would lead. As for the toilet door being open, the latch had been faulty for years. Every so often the gales that are common in Southport blew the door open.

“These are the kids who come across the railway line,” I pressed her.

“Yes. The ones with the lights. We’ve had bright lights on the railway. Lovely to look at but you don’t quite know who’s doing them. There’s no point in trying to find out or reporting them to the police. They don’t care. You’ll get so far and then you find out one of the top people in the town’s got a hand in it somewhere.”

“A hand in the lights or a hand in the children?”

“In that piece of waste ground next to the railway line. It’s been a disgrace for years.”

“But what about the children with the lights?”

“Oh, I don’t mind about them so long as they don’t knock over the geraniums.”

“What geraniums?”

“Any geraniums. Anything in pots, you know. Children chasing after their ball.”

“The only children who chase balls that I know are the children next door. Are these the same children we’re talking about?”

“Well, they’re all children, aren’t they?” said my mother with the complacent smile of someone whose opponent has just made a fatally dumb move. “They have different children next door too, you know. One person brings their children round or the next- door people take their own children and leave them with someone else to look after. You never know what’s going on these days. It’s not like a real family.”

If I had to choose one sentence to represent my mother’s mind in the years of her slow decline, it would be “it’s not like a real family.” The phrase sums up all the losses in her life- of her mother; of my father; of me and my failure to get married and provide her with grandchildren; of the old days when her neighbours were all housewives like my mother whereas now they were divorcees or single parents who went out to work. The last relative who was a link to her past had died a couple of years before. I was the only family she had left. Everybody else was in her mind.

And what was in my mother’s mind came out of her mouth, sooner or later. Isolation made her voluble: her repeated wish for the two of us to have “a good long talk” and “sort everything out”, wasn’t so much a wish for conversation as a yearning for company. So it was deeply ironic that, by the time she was forced to leave her house and enter a residential home, she was no longer interested in other people. She made no attempt to strike up friendships with any of her fellow residents. Instead, she began to talk. She opened her mouth and talked, without any restraint, in a kind of stream of consciousness that took no account of whether anyone was listening to her or not.

For two years, she talked virtually non-stop, an unending monlogue that must have driven the staff and everyone else at the home crazy. Then one day she stopped, as if her mind had taken a different turn, the way someone walking along a road might decide, on a whim, to turn left or right. She could hardly walk by then and she slept increasing amounts of the day, curled up in her chair in the big communal living room with the giant television and the fish tank, waking to murmur “I feel as if I’d been dropped in the sea.” She still spoke, though less than she had done in her prime, let alone in the months of her mad monologue. She kept trying to tell the staff what she needed that week: a loaf of bread, a bag of potatoes, milk. She scrawled shopping lists in the back of the Visitors Book (since the home provided meals, my mother’s “shopping” was   unnecessary-unreal). She kept a black plastic shopping bag hanging on the handlebars of the wheeler she used to dodder a few steps. She was always taking the bag off and putting it down and losing it. Whenever I visited her at the home I listened to her pathetic complaints about the lost (or had it been stolen?) bag, which had been her most precious possession. What do you need it for? I tried to ask her gently. “Potatoes,” she said. “Eggs. Very good for carrying eggs.”

No longer able to shop for real, she shopped mentally. No longer able to walk, she walked mentally too. During the day, when I pushed her wheelchair into town- the retirement home was close to the town centre - I found myself treating her like a child, stopping in front of shop windows that were full of toys or bright, glittering objects that might distract her. I’d grown used to deciphering what she said, since even her wildest statements turned out to have some link to reality, to be constructed from elements taken from her past and her surroundings, all jumbled up together, like a dream.  But often now she went too far for me to follow. I used to see her go away in front of my eyes, the way her head turned and her own eyes looked aside where they had been fixed on my face a moment before. All I could do was to call her back.  I was the one who talked now, who made conversation or rather, who delivered my monologues. Often she wouldn’t answer me. I had to make a physical claim on her, put my hand on her hand, or hold her hand in mine while I spoke. Then her mind seemed to wake up behind or inside her body, to pay attention and, eventually, to respond.

My mother’s new favourite cry was, “Girls! Girls! Help! Help!”. She uttered it when she no longer remembered much else to say, after she had begun to lapse into long silences. None times out of ten, by the time the  middle-aged, working-class women who staffed the home and treated its residents with amazing cheerfulness and tolerance, reached her, my mother had forgotten what she wanted. When I visited I stayed close by her. I ate dinner with her in the communal dining room and after dinner I took her up to her own room and sat with her beside the window looking out at the orange lights of the houses, the back streets and the deep northern blackness. She was quiet, lost somewhere inside herself, but when I asked her where she’d gone, she surprised me with a literal response. Pointing to the line of streetlights through the window, she said, “The 1-2-3rd light on the left. I was wondering if I should go farther, to the 4th or the 5th, but I think that’s enough for one day.”

Most of her answers made less sense than that. On another night, when she was curled into a ball in her chair, shrunken and incommunicative, and I asked her what she was thinking she gave me a slurred reply about talking to some tiny figures she saw balancing on the windowsill, but I could never decipher who the figures were or where they came from, shadows from her past or mythical, fairy types. Every so often, she’d say something astonishing. At the last- because it was the last, my mother was slipping beyond anyone’s reach, not so much dying as retreating into her mind and closing the door behind her- I got an insight into the way her mind worked that I’d never expected, and that chilled me. We were sitting in the outdoor café in the middle of town drinking tea together. My mother was bundled up in her wheelchair- it was high summer, but she was always cold now- just about able to raise the cup to her lips with a clawlike hand. Suddenly, and quite deliberately, she tipped the cup and spilled some of her tea on the ground. A moment later, she did the same thing again.

“What are you doing?” I asked her.

She looked at me out of the corner of her eye with an expression of sheer wickedness.

“Making patterns on the carpet,” she said, though there was no carpet, only concrete. “It kills all the nasty things down there. I’ve been told I shouldn’t do it.”

“You mean you do it at the home as well?”

“Oh yes,” she said, smiling like a naughty child. “I’ve been banned from a third of the old people’s homes in town.”

“Well, don’t do it then,” I said as calmly as I could.

“I mustn’t do it. I’ve been told in no uncertain terms not to.”

She deliberately spilled her tea once more.

“Mother!” I said. “You did it again! If you know you shouldn’t do it, then why do you?”

Clear-eyed, and I’d swear as clear-headed as she’d ever been, she squinted at me and said, “That’s the natural part of me that shouldn’t exist. I mustn’t let it exist”- leaving me to wonder exactly what had gone on in my mother’s mind for the previous 93 years. All contents © mike bygrave 2014