On the way to see my grandmother, my first weekend home, my father tells me to be prepared. She’s been very aggressive. She hits out, and when she hits out at the old men they hit back. She’s broken windows. They’ve had to tie her down.
We go by car to Northampton. On the way we pass nothing but these little hatchback cars. They’re like dogs’ heads. They’ve that kind of shape, like little Australias speeding up and down the motorway. With their radiators and with their lights on because of the fog that day, they look like something out of The Hound of the Baskervilles.
My grandmother is my father’s mother, on the Welsh side, and in Welsh grandmother is nain. My father is the youngest in his family, he has two elder sisters. None of the children live in Wales anymore. For as long as I can remember my nain has lived with my father’s younger sister. She meets us on this foggy day at the hospital. She asks me how I’m finding university and tells me I’ve grown across the shoulders.
“You haven’t got a beard yet, or a moustache?”
The hospital is St Crispin’s. At the end of the first corridor there’s a circular painting of him toiling up a mountainside. “According to legend, in the sixth century, the Saints Crispin and Crispian fled Rome and came to settle in Soissons, France, where they made their living from shoemaking.” St Crispian is a blue-brown spot on the lower slopes. The thing reminds me of an icon, and that’s what I think about, iconography, iconastases. I don’t think about the significance of St Crispin. Of his shoemaking. That’s not the mode I’m operating in.
We walk past the kitchen. We walk past the little gift shop selling children’s toys, small jigsaws in dusty-looking boxes. There’s an old man lying on the floor below the window. I think about jigsaws I’ve owned. My father says hello, cheerfully. We walk past. It sounds unnecessary to me but it’s the first thing any of us has said.
My father rings the bell and we wait. My aunt looks through the window in the door for someone to come.
“You can smell it from here,” she says.
A male nurse unlocks for us. He wears a white plastic apron and he calls my nain, Alice. He leads us up a short buffer corridor. There are more locks, I think about the mechanism, and we’re in.
The smell hits you first but after a while you realize it’s only some strong disinfectant. I don’t wonder why it’s disinfectant. Think about something else to take your mind off it. I think of a jigsaw of a lock mechanism.
We watch my father look for her in the TV room. It is so obviously like trying to identify a body. Finally, he helps her up. It’s my grandmother all right, but it takes me a long time to recognize her. Long enough to think that I can’t actually remember what she looks like, or that my father’s made a mistake. I don’t think that.
“Look who’s come to see you.”
I hug her, clumsily because I have to stoop so low.
“Here you are. Aren’t you lucky? Paul’s come all the way from Manchester to see you.”
She smiles, even looks delighted. I can feel the prickly texture of her nylon cardigan. It catches my fingertips. I think about electrostatics, polarity.
I have the feeling all the old people here are watching us but I don’t look around. I never want to look directly at any of them. I don’t want to give them an excuse to know me. It’s a relief to focus all my attention on my nain, to hold on to her hand even though she keeps it closed around a crumpled tissue. Still, I also feel uncomfortable like that. I don’t want to draw their attention to her.
Just because their faces are pinched and harsh, I tell myself.
My aunt opens Nain’s hand, tucks the tissue up her cardigan sleeve and presses the hand into mine. Stunned by the speed of it all, the hand closes slowly and without conviction. I should say, my aunt is a social worker.
We lead her away from the ward lounge, off to one end of the day room. Once we get her settled and we’re all sitting round, they try again.
“Who’s this then, cariad?”
“Who’s this come to see you? Do you recognise him?”
She looks from one to the other slowly, says something in Welsh, quite a lot in fact. I don’t speak Welsh but even at home she’d do this occasionally. I nod and smile my way through it but I’m out of practice, it doesn’t satisfy her. My aunt answers her question. I never know the question.
Out comes the thermos. It’s older than me, a wedding present or something bought on a honeymoon picnic. Geodesic design. My grandmother loves tea, absolutely adores it. I’ve written school essays all about her and tea. It’s such a reliable subject I’ve even used it in exams. My nain has an innocent love affair with tea.
“Hey,” my father says, “don’t forget your biscuit.” He breaks off a piece and rubs it against her lips until she opens them and he places it on her tongue.
Tea, as I say, is a reliable subject, we all know how to respond. Also, when she’s eating, she’s occupied.
“She hasn’t had her hair done,” my aunt complains softly. “I told them about it last time.”
“She gives them trouble, Kath.”
“Is that good, Nain? Mind you, you’ve got to be careful, you know. You’ve got to watch your figure.”
I haven’t the talent or the timing. The question is much too long and she’s more interested in her biscuit. She gets confused and I get to see the inside of her mouth.
“Hey, Mother,” my father says, “are you catching flies?”
“Paul told you to watch your figure. If you get overweight you won’t be able to compete with his young ladies.”
Oldest joke in the book. So old it started life designed to embarrass me. I used to say I was saving myself for Nain. These days I keep promising I’ll bring someone to see her. I’m glad I don’t have to think about that because I know that though she might remember the joke forever she always forgets the punchline. She can’t remember one visit to the next, not even my father’s which are twice a week.
“He’s hiding his young ladies from you, Mam.” My aunt is watching me. To see if I have any girlfriends? But Nain is wandering.
“Would you like some more tea? I know, would you like a chocolate?”
My aunt pulls some sweets out of her handbag, hands one to me and unwraps the other for Nain. What she thinks is that I’m too young for girlfriends. She pops the chocolate in Nain’s mouth. She’s still sucking on it when she suddenly has to go. My aunt leads her away in Welsh.
I watch them go. “Is this the worst you’ve seen her?”
“Pretty much. On Wednesday she was laughing and joking with me.” He smiles slightly at the memory. “You’re all right, are you? We won’t stay too much longer.”
“I’m fine,” I say. “I don’t think she knows who I am.”
“She doesn’t know who you are. I’m convinced she doesn’t know who I am some nights.”
“What’s she on now?”
“Nothing at all?”
He shrugs. “They took her off the water tablets she was taking before. That’s why her face and ankles are so swollen.”
“I can’t believe how bad she looks. Her face. The way she walks.”
“This is what I told you,” he says. “This has been coming for a long time.”
I watch two old women, one very gaunt and proper, the other short, potato-shaped, trail by.
“Can’t they do anything for her?”
“What can they do? She won’t even speak English with them to tell them what’s wrong with her. When she talks to you try and get her to talk in English.”
“How much better is she with you in Welsh?”
“Not much,” he says shaking his head. “Not much better at all.”
The two old women go over to one of the doors and the tall one tries it. It’s locked. She rattles it for a long while, but nobody comes.
“Can’t get out that way, can we?”
She turns away, shuffles off pulling the small one after her like a little sheep. That could be my nain. I notice both carry handbags. Clothes are pooled here so those bags are their only identity. Very few personal items are allowed. I’d bet the bags are empty or filled with tissues and stolen bars of soap.
Five minutes later the pair are back at the door. Same routine.
“See,” my father nudges me. “Some of them are quite funny.”
My aunt brings her back.
“Here you are. Are you feeling better now?”
“She’s got the same tummy trouble as before.”
My aunt shakes her head. “She’s very uncomfortable.”
“Well, can’t they give her something for it? If she’s constipated, it’s a simple enough job.”
Nain says something.
“Nonsense. It’s nothing to be worried about. It can happen to anybody.”
There are hesitant footsteps behind my chair. Someone grabs the back. I feel the trembling though the chair. I look at my hands. I stop thinking.
“Come on, Albert. Someone’s having visitors here.” The nurse gives us a smile, passes the old man on and comes back.
“Everything all right?”
“Fine, thank you. How’s she been today?”
“Not too bad really. A little restless.”
“She’s a bit preoccupied with her tummy trouble.”
“Yes, that’s what we thought.”
“Has she been speaking English with you?”
“Some of the time, but we’ve known about this for a while. The doctor’s coming tomorrow to see her. Is that all right, Alice? The doctor will be here tomorrow.”
Nain smiles uncertainly. She says something in Welsh to my aunt.
“Oh. She’s got to go again.”
We watch her leave with the nurse this time.
“What does she need the doctor for?” my father wants to know.
“Her trouble’s not just that she can’t go, Alun. She’s all blocked up inside. It’s all compacted.” She lowers her voice and leans in towards us. “She has to be emptied manually.”
What I’m thinking of is a machine. A spaceship. It’s old and carbon scored, pitted by micro-meterorite collisions. It’s rediscovered corroded throughout its length. Deserted. That’s why it needs manual operation. That’s what needs override.
“It’s called an enema.”
“I know what it is, Kath. She just doesn’t have the strength any more. The body’s too weak.”
“Sorry about this, Paul.”
My aunt understands this situation. She understands that our thinking has to be vey careful here. We’re talking about a machine, we must remember that. Jargon words like “psycho-geriatric” help. Above all, we must remember that a machine can’t feel, can’t think.
The nurse brings her back.
“She managed to do a little. I’ve cleared the anus.”
Walking down the corridors again, I read about St Crispin again. Perhaps I look at the tiles on the floor, perhaps I look in the window of the gift shop where there’s a pyramid of Easter eggs. Because of the holiday there are quite a few visitors about but we’re a little late today and they pass us on their way out. Sometimes it’s hard to say if they are visitors. Everyone looks ugly here. I think that’s just as well. We should all look ugly when we visit here. I notice everyone sounds crazy too, especially the kitchens when they slap trays around on stainless steel. Someone laughs inside but I don’t look who. The tiles are stone. They’re smooth and slippy like ones I played on at school. They remind me of a mosaic. They remind me of an icon.
This place is full of tradition, full of routine, full of all the right kinds of preparation. St Crispin, the kitchens, the shop are here for a reason. The corridors and locks all require specific responses. They have more than just physical utility, everything means something, everything is metaphoric. It’s all a conditioning process, I think, altering our metabolisms so that we can live in the ward atmosphere. I don’t mean the smell of the place, which in any case is less assaulting today because windows are open to the fine weather, I’m talking about the atmosphere of routine. We are adapted to their routine and we obey it at all times in their company since it is their custom. This means we have tea and biscuits and jokes about girlfriends because they rely on that routine. It’s the very molecules they breathe. The tiles here are patterned. That’s the theory anyway.
Despite the open windows the smell is still here. I remember the last time I could smell it on my clothes all the way home. All the same people are here too. This is only supposed to be an observation-assessment ward but I don’t think many of these faces are new. I wonder if they recognise me and are all suddenly remembering how long ago it was that I was last here. Time must be important to them, I suppose. I think they hate me for being young and telling time. I don’t think about time and what that means to routine. I think about my new gills and the way the water we breathe has a different refractive index to the air I’m used to. That’s why everyone’s ugly here. I don’t think: my nain wouldn’t be mad if they didn’t think she was mad. I think I’ve been conditioned right. I don’t think I’ve been lobotomised.
Nain is better. She’s had her hair done and doesn’t look as bad as I remember.
“I see you’re looking glamorous again, Mam.”
She’s always happiest when my mother comes. My mother spoils her and is very imaginative despite the conditioning. Today we have tea and biscuits and jokes about girlfriends, certainly, but we’ve also smuggled in a little gift from our own world. An Easter egg.
Nain loves it, is delighted with it. She keeps hugging my mother, really overcome. Ever so happy. She says she can’t believe it, she thinks she’s still dreaming. She dreams a lot these days. Because she’s so happy to see us now I can’t help wondering how she feels when she’s alone here, so I’m glad for her to dream us here as much as she wants.
The tea is like honey.
“You’re so good to me.”
My mother is good with her. She opens the egg, carefully pulling the box apart and opening the foil in Nain’s lap. She breaks the egg up for her. She knows what to say, too. She knows to ask her about the hens they used to keep, the dogs on the farm, the pony, or about Nain’s time in London when she worked for a family of White refugees, when she used to eat cream horns.
My father says: “We had a goose for a while. Do you remember the goose?”
We let my mother take the lead. I suspect she’s better with Nain than my father or aunt. It’s because she never really knew her before she was old and forgetful. The same goes for me, but for me it’s not just that I find it easier to accept her like this. I am detached. Perhaps I have no gills, perhaps it’s a special suit with a thick helmet that bangs her head whenever I hug her. My aunt’s gills are fashioned of Nain’s flesh but I don’t know about my father. I think he holds his breath. I think he has huge lungs.
“Are you bored, cariad?”
She said that. It’s so normal. Except it comes straight out of my youth. The past. If it’s not water we’re all breathing, if it’s air, then the air she just breathed at me is very old. I’m surprised the fabric of the lungs around it hasn’t perished. I’m surprised she doesn’t exhale and speak through a cloud of dust. She gives me a piece of Easter egg for my boredom.
“Have you had enough of that now, Mother?” my father says. “Yes, I think you’d better not have any more.” Conspiratorially, “Here, hey. Have you been today?”
I hear a little rattling in the background as I watch her form the words. I decide it’s the whirr of the compressor on my suit flooding the system. Tiny valves iris and dilate.
“It’s…it’s a secret.”
Wonderful. What it was, was the sparking of the time machine again. The huge disc and the fine little comb and just the right humidity in the atmosphere.
In truth what it was, was footsteps paddling behind my chair. It’s some old man. He comes up, doesn’t say anything, just looks at us, stands right next to us with his hands on his hips waiting for us to begin. I can’t have been conditioned right. I forget that we’re not just part of her routine, we’re part of all their routines. I forget there are no personal possessions here. I remember privacy. I hate him. What do you say to him?
“Hello. Are they calling you? I think I can hear them calling you. Can’t you hear them? There’s someone down the bottom calling you for your tea.”
There’s nothing. No one called. This is the form of my father’s routine with them, a game. Finally, he goes but there’s really no escape. Before long they’re all around us. I hate them. They’re like little mindless zombies, little vampires. I’m sure they come to feed off our love. We sit around Nain like a fire and they want to warm themselves off our backs. They’re jealous of our youth and love.
I suppose they’re rather pitiable really. They’d suck us with toothless gums. For some of them it’s much too late. They’ve been in the sun too long. One of them breathes terribly. I look at the floor, watch him out of the corner of my eye. I wouldn’t be surprised if he died now. I wait for the body to pitch forward on to the carpet so I can look at it properly.
I smile half-heartedly at Nain, squeeze her hand. She leans forward.
“I’m a very lucky person, I know that.”
I don’t know what to say. I listen to one of the old women. She shouts a lot.
“Are you all right, Mum? Are you all right? Have you done your sums, Mum? Mum, have you done them?”
She shouts at the two old men next to her. They’re the one trying to breathe and another trying to sleep. They don’t react. I don’t understand what she’s saying. I don’t trust this atmosphere or my suit, there’s some distortion.
I think we’d all be relieved if one of the staff moved them away, but none of us wish the staff would move them away. The conditioning is very precise on these points.
“Our friend’s back.”
The old man again. He comes up and looks at us.
“Have you had your tea, then?”
He says something. He might just be breathing those special molecules, but I think he says something. I think he says, “I haven’t got any children.”
“Would you like a biscuit? Here you are, would you like one?”
“Oh, yes, please.”
Nain touches my arm.
“Are you bored? One day we’ll go for a tramp on the mountain. We’ll leave them all at home. Just you and me.”
I look at my nain. Behind me the old man says, “I haven’t had a biscuit in four days.” My nain who climbed Snowdon at the age of sixty. From the top of which you can see the Wicklow Hills of Ireland on a clear day.
I look at the old man with his biscuit. He’s sat down. He’s going to sleep. He looks like a big old cat. Looks happy.
I think I love him.