My wife plays a Brahms intermezzo on the piano while I read the Times Literary Supplement. This sickening scene takes place at our holiday home in Charente. But there are worse things to be accused of than being middle-class.
We returned from France on 27 February – and here we are again. They are forecasting sunshine for the rest of the week, but today it’s cloudy and none too warm. On dull days there’s always something to keep you occupied, such as arguing with governmental bureaucracy about the square meterage of one’s dwelling.
Scroll back to late February…
It is a bright and sunny morning, with a blustery wind, as we finish packing the car. Just as we are ready to leave, I find I can’t close the shutters. The overlap is nearly a centimetre so there’s no amount of shoving and slamming is going to help. This has happened before. Why have they expanded? And why now? Has it been unusually wet or cold? Certainly not too hot. Fortunately it’s only the back shutters that are affected, and the house is not overlooked. All the windows and doors are securely locked, but the insurance policy requires the shutters to be closed. We have no choice but to drive off and hope for the best.
We take the road north through Aulnay, with its Sunday market and superb Romanesque church. We have been there before, at least 20 years ago. A worthwhile detour. The stiff cold wind never lets up, and by the time we reach Saint-Malo, four hours later, it is blowing a gale and freezing to boot. And so, after an excellent dinner at the quaiside, to bed.
The following morning we are on the ferry, sitting down to a French approximation of a full English breakfast, when my phone rings. It is Upton Manor care home. Mum has had a suspected stroke (probably as a result of Alzheimer’s), and is on her way to hospital by ambulance. There is nothing I can do; we are already on our way to Portsmouth so it is impossible to get back any sooner. What goes through my mind? I have a confession to make: it seems obvious that Mum will not live much longer, stroke or no stroke, but if it could wait until I’ve finished dealing with Dad’s estate that would be helpful. At any rate we should be in London by 9pm.
That afternoon, still on the ferry, I hear that Mum is back in the care home, drinking tea and eating cake. For the moment, at least, another crisis is averted.
Two days later we take the train up to see Mum
She seems none the worse for her experience. It is as if she’d been turned off and turned back on again. She relates familiar stories of her wartime childhood in Crieff.
At such times one’s emotions take a battering but, as always, there are practical things to get on with. I am trying to maintain a house that I only visit every four weeks or so. Dad’s Astra’s battery has gone flat but as we’ll be leaving in a few days there doesn’t seem any point in charging it up. But first of all I need to talk to the head nurse at the care home, then to the lawyers about probate, then pay the man who put up the new garden fence and check in with the neighbours. I am also starting to think about putting the family house up for sale, and the Astra for that matter. That will entail a big clearout. I dispose of some clutter but it is like emptying a bucket with a teaspoon.
The following day I have a Zoom meeting with the Herne Hill Society, whose AGM is coming up, after which Anne has a Zoom with her colleagues at the Wordsworth Trust, On Saturday, after lunch in Liverpool with a friend from my teenage years, we take the train back to London. Our usual swim on Sunday morning at Dulwich College is followed by a couple of hours reading the papers, then preparing dinner at which, as always, Anne’s father will be a guest. We find somewhere upstairs to hang all the damp washing…
The next couple of weeks are largely given over to catching up with friends, Anne’s piano lessons, visits to the dentist, two trips to art galleries and and two more to the cinema to giggle at Cocaine Bear and The Banshees of Inisherin.
And then it’s a week on the road: London – Wirral – Grasmere – Wirral – Oxford – London.
It’s just one night in the Lakes, but worth it as we enjoy a couple of walks and an excellent dinner.
The Oxford weekend is mostly spent at Glasshouse Studio with my muscial pals from One for the Wall. We rehearse and record eight or nine new songs.
The next two days continue in similar full-on mode: on a single day I visit the Spain and the Hispanic World exhibition at the Royal Academy (for the second time in just over a week) and the Wallace Collection with a close friend from college days, have lunch at a Chinese restaurant, then dash off to East Dulwich to see The Night of the 12th, followed by dinner at a Japanese restaurant.
On Wednesday, packing done (again) it’s the usual drive down to Portsmouth for the ferry to Saint-Malo and the onward journey to La Bréchoire.
Which is where we came in
I’m pleased to see the shutters are sorted; I have had someone in to do some jobs in our absence. I arrive tired, but after a couple of days I’m back on form.
To a large extent (aside from the unscheduled trip to the Wirral) all this dashing back and forth is our choice. When something crops up unexpectedly you are under extra pressure, but that’s the price you pay for having a social life, for going out and doing things you want to do rather than the bare minimum. Being retired does not mean having an empty diary. Not in our case, anyway.
Other people have their commitments too, so if you want to see them you have to compromise and sometimes choose dates that are not ideal for you. Even so, years go by without us seeing some of our “close” friends simply because we can’t find a time to meet.
Is all this activity worth the inevitable stress? Now that Anne and I are both retired we could put our feet up a bit more, as my late father used to advise me to do. “You’re not getting any younger,” he’d say. Well, exactly! It’s always easier to do nothing. But when you’ve watched your parents gradually withdraw from the world until they just sit in front of the TV all day, you can’t help but wonder how many good years you have left. I have a few long-term medical conditions. I am no worse off than most people of my age but there are signs of the inevitable decline.
Of course there is a balance to be struck. I’m all for getting eight hours sleep at night and am not averse to taking the odd afternoon nap but, to be frank, I’m frightened of getting used to sitting around all day. (And anyway, Anne wouldn’t let me get away with it.) I still need the stimulation, the opportunities to converse, to think, to create.
One day I will grind to a halt, but not yet… please. My mother, now entirely passive and almost drained of personality, is less than 25 years older than me.