It’s a warm day in late May, just perfect, and I’m as hopeful about this outing as I am desperate: the two of them, the three of us, we’ve always squabbled. Wrangled is probably a better word. Over the decades there have been huge eruptions, and long, siege-like silences, along with a great deal of routine sniping, and, though peace has occurred, it’s not the norm. I have tried—and failed, sometimes spectacularly—to do differently. Yet none of us have ever quite given up, and here we are again, crowded, this time, into my father’s small room in the care home.
All three of us know that time is running out. In two days’ time I fly home across the Atlantic, and I shan’t see my parents again until the next visit in September—if I do so: they’ve reached that age. What we want is simple enough: the afternoon spent in some kind of harmony, enjoying each other’s company and sharing the casual pleasures of existence. This must be possible, I told myself, as my mother and I climbed the stairs. And I think I yearn, as well, for something to hold onto—a memory or a talisman, proof of some kind.
Dad’s room bristles with furniture: the bed, two large armchairs, one smaller chair, TV, side tables, bookcases, walker. Almost ninety, he only recently moved here. He needs a lot of help with practical things, forgets the day of the week, but remembers swathes of nineteenth-century verse. He has abandoned brilliantine and allows what is left of his hair—bright white and very sparse—to stick straight up, the pink scalp gleaming through. Imagine also some lop-sided bifocals, slipped halfway down his nose. It’s an owlish style that I somehow like, though it’s disconcerting that our eyes now meet dead level, instead of me having to look up.
My mother is the same age but forgets nothing at all, still lives independently, and even rides a bicycle now and then. Once beautiful, still proud of her appearance and very well-presented, Mum has always been a fighter. She is tiny, sharp-eyed, vigorous and fitter than many people my age, but she’s never been strong on sympathy or patience. I can tell from the set of her jaw as she watches my father prepare for the drive—the slow lifting of each swollen foot, its painstaking insertion into a shoe positioned just so, the push downwards, the grind against the shoe horn—that she is both bored and appalled.
To rise from his high-seated chair, Dad leans forwards, gripping its arms, then pushes down with his entire strength. Someone has to be waiting with the sticks, and then there’s that last, precautionary visit to the toilet: pants dropped to the floor (at this point, he curses) then hauled up with the grabber and somehow fastened again. Breath hisses between his teeth and Mum grips the arms of her chair, her foot tap-tapping on the floor.
“Let me put on my own hat!” he snaps when she plonks it on his head. Still, she lets that pass, and he keeps the hat on, prepared to go through with all this. He’s not given up. He wants to get out and his face is rapt as we drive through the lush, tree-lined streets and on into the Cotswold hills.
“What’s that?” he asks. “Lilac? Ceanothus! This view—” he says, “I’d forgotten!”
The foliage is fresh and delicate, paler than it will soon become. Horse chestnuts thrust up, pink and white candles of bloom. May trees explode pink in all directions, like bubblegum fireworks, banks are rampant with cow parsley and comfrey, foxglove and buttercup. In every village, the famous Cotswold stone glows gold behind gardens quivering with colour. “Marvellous,” Dad says, “The journey is as good as the destination. Where did you say we’re going?”
“I told you!” Mum says, “Snowshill!”
We overtake horses, pass fields of ewes and lambs and quite soon find ourselves taking the final turn into the manor grounds. According to the book, this is a five star attraction, accessible, with a good café.
Dad struggles out of the car by pulling hard on the door while I hold it firm. Bent double, wielding the two sticks, he crunches slowly over the gravel towards the entrance.
It’s when we reach the ticket desk that Mum grabs my arm, hisses:
“It’s a waste buying your father a ticket! He’ll hardly see any of it!” I pull air into my lungs, release it slowly.
“Never mind, we’ve come all this way,” I point out, “I’ll get one, anyhow.” At this, Mum scowls. “Made of money, are you?” she says, then strides away, turns her back on me and glares out of the window and I realize, too late, that she was trying to persuade the receptionist to allow Dad in for free, and that now she will be angry with me for being so dense. Nonetheless, I intend to keep smiling and move on through the kind of day I want us all to have. I purchase the tickets, my father propped on his sticks, frozen and silent beside me.
There’s a sweaty uphill hike pushing a borrowed wheelchair, then a ten minute level stroll through more wildflowers and blossoms. The formal gardens at Snowshill are terraced down the hillside and impossible for my father to venture into. Still, the view across the valley is soft and intricate.
He studies the leaflet and reads us the high points: derelict sixteenth farmhouse bought by Charles Wade in 1921. Architect and collector. Arts and Crafts movement… He reads perfectly, but very carefully, as does a child who has not quite mastered the art of anticipation.
A few moments later, I heave Dad out of the wheel chair: more gravel, four steps, a metal bar at the threshold, uneven flagstones… We step into a musty smell, dark rooms with muslin blinds and wormy beams. Another step. Dad’s swollen hands clutch the two sticks as his eyes search the gloom.
What is all this stuff? Will he like it?
We examine carvings and several large, intricate model ships… A plump woman in a pleated skirt steps forwards to tell us more about the eccentric and impassioned Mr Wade, who had no shortage of funds and loved a well-made object of any kind. The entire house, she says, is filled with the fruits of his obsessive collecting, all of it, as he instructed in his will, unlabelled. Dad’s eyes flick between the woman, Sara, and a large iron chest. The curlicues of metal we see in the lid are just to protect the mechanisms, she explains, to prevent things from getting caught in the levers. It’s an Armada Chest, an iron box with locks that shoot under a ridge on each side, which makes it impregnable. Half of every sailor’s wage used to be saved for him or for his widow, and stored by the Admiralty in boxes like these…
“Remarkable!” Dad pronounces. “To think they were making pension contributions back then!” He’d be appalled to know that these days his own workplace pension just about covers his care at the home.
We inch into the Dragon Room, so named because it’s the kitchen, and the fireplace used to smoke. The docent here is Graham, a smiling man with iron grey hair who announces that it’s his eightieth birthday today. A display of door locks covers the wall behind him and suits of armour stand either side of a gallery to the left.
Everything and everyone has a story. You could spend half a day in this one room, Dad points out—and there are sixteen more to explore, but he’s beginning to wonder about lunch… Working against the flow of visitors, we emerge over the metal strip, down the steps, and this time catch a buggy that runs us over to the restaurant.
Dad spreads a napkin in his lap, leans forwards and begins to eat. He’s never been shy of food, but his appreciation of it has grown of late, and this is a good solid meal, meat, gravy, potatoes, after which he wants to linger over coffee and dessert, whereas Mum prefers to see the rest of the house. “After all,” she says, “we’ve paid for it” and there are sixteen more rooms to see. Less could be more, I feel.
“You best stay with him,” she says, striding off.
“Look—“ Dad tells me when I bring him his cake. He gestures through the lobelia-fringed window at a young woman in a red cardigan, sitting amongst a large group at one of the outside tables. “She’s cold, don’t you think?” Dad’s voice is low, though no one is close by. “Look at her shoulders and her husband next to her: that sweater goes up to his ears, but he doesn’t think to offer it to her. Rather selfish… I don’t like him. She could be—you know—expecting, don’t you think? And that’s her mother to the other side, you see? Same nose…” Dad slides the fork through his chocolate cake, slips a glistening morsel into his mouth. He reaches for his coffee, looks over at me, his blue grey eyes meeting mine over the top of his lopsided glasses. “People-watching. One of the best things,” he says, and then his gaze returns to the unknown girl in the red cardigan, and his eyes drink her up.
I’d like to do leave this now, while it is consoling. My father is close to the end of his life. These are his last years and every movement is conscious and often painful work, and yet, as we sit together in the cafe watching the woman in the red cardigan, there’s no doubting the keenness of his pleasures or the strength of his attachment to the world. His enjoyments have been distilled, what was perhaps once diffused across his entire life into a vague sense of well-being is now concentrated in an intense appreciation of a few good things: fresh coffee, chocolate, flowers, sports on TV and people-watching on a summer afternoon.
Though, it does grow cooler by the time Mum returns, full of what she has seen: an entire floor full of antique bicycles! Incredible pottery! So many chairs! Dad is complaining that he’s cold.
“He doesn’t like a breath of wind to blow on him!” Mum tells me, rolling her eyes. I produce the beige sweater she chided me for bringing along on a day like this. “He’ll soon warm up in the car,” she says.
“What would you like?” I ask Dad.
“I’m cold,” he tells us again, and removes his glasses. One each side of him, we tug the sweater over his head, feed his arms in. It’s as his hands begin to emerge that things become difficult. Try as I might, I can’t get my side on, though Mum succeeds.
“It’s too tight!” Dad says, lifting his hand.
“You asked for it!”
“But it’s too tight,” he repeats. She turns to me, livid. Things—the dropped plate or missing glove, the stained carpet, the burnt pan, have always had a terrible power over her.
“That care-home laundry has shrunk a perfectly good sweater! I’ll have words with them,” she says. I think, but don’t say, that it’s just as likely that Dad’s wrists, like his feet, ankles and fingers, have swollen. In any case, his left hand is definitely bigger than it was a minute ago and he sits there, half-in, half out while we argue.
“Leave it!” Mum tells me. “He said he was cold!” My father, eyes wide, says nothing, and this—his abdication at crucial moments of the struggle—has always been an issue. He’s not innocent, my sister always points out. He has a role.
“What do you want, Dad?” I ask, playing mine.
“He’ll say he wants it off, then he’ll say he’s cold again!” Mum tells me. I, who have always taken his side, ignore her.
“It hurts!” Dad says again. I begin the removal process, starting with the easy arm. When I get to Mum’s side, she doesn’t move.
“Excuse me,” I say. Jaw clenched, she stares straight ahead, blocks my way. I crouch down, face her.
“Excuse me,” I repeat. Somehow it helps to be in a public place. “Excuse me, but I am not going to make my elderly father sit in the car for an hour with the circulation to his hands cut off. If that drives you wild, you’re just going to have to put up with it.” Mum springs up and strides over to the ice cream cabinet. Out of the corner of my eyes, as I tug the sweater arm free, find the glasses and help Dad up, I see her carry a choc-ice over to the desk, exclaim at the price, then return her choice to the cabinet. Silently, slowly, we three make our way back to the car.
Why are we like this? Why can’t we all see how little time there is left? It seems impossible to do other than we have always done… Though after all, I console myself, today could have been far worse. I turn up the heat, start the engine and leave Snowshill behind.
Next to me, Dad is already asleep. Mum, sitting in the back, gazes out at the country for some time, before she sighs, leans forwards and says, loudly, right in my ear, “That, dear, was a perfect day.”
Nip, tuck. Omit, forget… I should do the same, but have never had the gift. Birds dart in front of the car. Drifts of blossom carpet the road. And knowing that Mum, too, wants to improve upon our shared reality is no small thing; the May colours brighten, waver, spill over, as I tell her yes, it was.