Yesterday return to yesteryears

THE WRITER’S LIFE | FICTION

After many months of not being able to write much about my dad, today I can. Until now there have been many open narratives, no closure and much speculation. Last night a chapter ended when I found out dad won’t be returning home.

Over the last few weeks, things have progressed steadily, while dad has deteriorated on the same undefined scale. The final diagnosis is that he has a kind of double dementia, a bit like having Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s living in your head at the same time, chipping away at your memory and sense of self. Either on their own would be bad enough, but there are two of them in there, vandalising the place. He’s at a point where he requires round-the-clock care, which my mum and his home carers can’t fully provide. It’s every family’s worst waking dream when they have to put one of their own into a care home.

Dad will never get better, and this move could hasten his demise. I wish I could have done more. I wish I could do something besides hope that he makes friends in his new home, rather than give up. I wish I could talk him out of it, if that’s what he’s planning. I wish I could swap places, or at least be there so that he wasn’t so alone. I wish I could turn back time.

Kevin NecessaryKevin necessary

TIME FOR BED

I’ve been to my own funeral. I was there as they lowered me into the pit. There were people there. That was when I woke up and made the first jump. I didn’t mean to, I was pushed. Onto my death bed. Before I left, I wondered, will people visit my grave?

Now I found myself back in the hospital bed where I’d died, with no visitors. But when you’re buried in the ground, you have no way of knowing what time it is.

I asked myself what the point was, and perhaps explaining to myself why I’d died. I’d switched myself off in boredom and frustration at the loneliness. If I just go back to sleep, maybe I can get back there, to my own funeral.

It didn’t work. I went the wrong way. When I woke up, I’d reversed to the first night I spent in that bed in the care home.

I don’t know who decided to put me there, apparently everyone against me, wanting me out of the way where I couldn’t bother them. They visited, but with me incarcerated, they got to choose how much of me they’d put up with. A bit like visiting a grave, when the occupant can’t come to you.

After they’d left on that first night, I slept, trying to remember how I got there, how I’d come to be in this new place alone, when I’d spent much of my life sharing a warmer bed.

The next day I woke up in that other place, but it was cold. I lifted the sheets next to me but there was no indentation of a person. My partner had already left. I slept and I tried to dream.

We’re never aware of the moment we fall asleep. When we wake, we may remember some of our dreams, but we can never recall the point where we fell. I dreamed I was running through a woods, then I tripped, and I forgot my dream. I woke with a start. My jumps were taking me back in time.

I remembered my mum tucking me into bed and dad reading me a bedtime story, then checking under the bed for monsters. How ever many tales he told at the bedside, essentially they were all this one.

The scariest thing is this final jump into the past, the last chapter before the light goes out.

When you die at the end of your life, you may lose your own memories but you’ll be remembered by others. It’s but a comfort blanket to think we’re only truly gone when we’re forgotten.

Others will live on who’ve lived their lives with us, but I won’t be remembered when I’ve forgotten the people around me. When life ends the way mine will, I’ll be transported to a time and place where I never existed. It’s not the loneliness I felt in hospital; it’s a bed without me in it. And no-one to read a story, no beginning before the book is even opened.

Memories become visions of the future when you’re living life in reverse, but I can’t see the future. I knew I was never going home. Like a baby given up at birth.

They think I didn’t feel anything, but this is how it feels. It’s frightening.

And so an ending is written, a few words hammered in stone. My story is here, hiding under the bed, in the ground beneath your feet, the wind in your ears, and the memory of when we’d only just met.

© Steve Laker, 2019

So many opportunities at the beginning of life, so few at the end. So much discovery in the closing chapters, when there were few clues at the start. We learn as we live, and even though my dad’s hardware is defective, I hope his memory will be stored on some device out there. Maybe he could plug himself in, so that me and him can keep talking.

Potted picnics on speed dial

THE WRITER’S LIFE

A young friend of mine recently reminisced, pondered and rued on Facebook: Where are the guys who call to ask how your day is, if you’ve eaten, and what you’re doing later?

I thought about that in a bipolar writer way, both the poet and the horror author, in my potting shed, where I write, and where I keep my tools: A pen and paper, the typewriter, an axe, a spade, a hoe, and packets of seeds…

THESE THREE WALLS

Headphones2

Second verse, same as the first, as we fear the ringing of the phone.

Dark poetry – or verse with more than one interpretation – is a medium I’m enjoying, as I’m finding I can do as much with it as a good twist in the tail of one of my stories. My dad’s been deteriorating over the last few weeks, so writing about what’s going on in my life is difficult and without resolution.

Monkey Black heart Said and done

Dad was a gardener, usually tending the ornamental garden of a very large house. The house also had a kitchen garden, which is where dad seemed happiest, raising vegetables for the table.

There are many moments in life when I remember dad finding me: When I helped out on a gardening project and he paid me out of what little money he got; when I was stranded in Chicago after 9/11 and he called me in my hotel room; and when I was homeless, and he came and found me in McDonald’s. A man of few words, he never needed many; I just knew he was there. Now he’s much the same.

Then there was him, mum, and so many friends when I got knocked over exactly 33 years ago today, when I was 16 and spent several weeks in hospital, like my dad has lately.

In the school holidays we didn’t go away much, but running around that country estate where the gardens were dad’s, I always knew where to find him. Whenever an argument had kicked off in the confinement of a summer holiday family home, when it felt like my mum and sister were ganging up on me, I always knew where to find dad, in the potting shed.

I can’t find dad now, and he’s as lost as I was back then. The generations are reversed, and now I know how I made him feel when I did weird things, or wouldn’t be held accountable for the things I did.

jo-watson-typewriter

On the other side of the sandwich, it’s my son’s birthday this week. I designed my own card:

Cow Car Nothing Worth Doing

I had it sent to me first, so that I could add a personal message:

I don’t get to say this as often as I should, but I’m proud of you and the young man you’ve become.

I’m hardly the model father, but I’m proud to have you as a friend as well as my son.

You are not doing it wrong if no-one knows what you’re doing

Three generations, all with their own deeply personal space; each in their own potting shed of the mind; one in a garden, one with a typewriter, and one with a computer; each of them rarely picking up the phone. I know both slices of bread which hold the Marmite sandwich together are there on a platter. I hope the other two know that the other two are too.

And in among all this, my mum phoned me at 4 O’clock this afternoon and I was in bed. I answered, woke up, and she apologised for waking me. That’s how things are. I didn’t get the chance to explain I’d crashed out in the afternoon because I’m up at this time, writing, because I can’t sleep, thinking of dad. And there’s the other side of the family, besides the mother ship; the jam sandwich of sister and daughter, all on the same plate as the Marmite.

Family picnics, and those with friends who are mi familia: Somewhere, someone is glad you do what you do, even if it’s only you who bangs on about it to yourself. It’s a personal and human sense of family survival.

Where are the guys who call to ask how your day is, if you’ve eaten, and what you’re doing later? They’re there, in their own place, wondering if they should call. 

Best delivered by Brian Blessed

POETRY

Sometimes people play a greater part in another life than they ever realise. And we regret never telling them. I needed to write. I needed to get out what I was thinking, about my own mortality, and how I might express myself when I say farewell to a departed friend. Poetry seemed the best medium for a return to nature, and in my head it’s recited by Brian Blessed…

Moth Effect Poem2

Safe journey mate. For every push-up we didn’t do, there’s a daisy to do one on in the afterlife. Gordon’s alive, in the world of missing persons x

A decade in a haiku trilogy

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Since the good ship Simon set sail, I’ve been going through some old family photos on Facebook. Never one to shamepost pictures of my young adults when they were kids, the memories are nevertheless contained in the ten years I was married, when Mountsfield Park and Manor House Gardens were my 100 Aker Woods. The young ones are pure Catfordian, from Kentish and Irish blood, and that decade in the London Borough of Lewisham is where I learned Japanese and wrote 51 syllables…

WHEN WE WERE VERY YOUNG

Lollipop

THEN WE WERE FOUR

Dinner lady orange

I’LL ALWAYS MISS YOU,” SAID EEYORE…

Ambulance police

…to Piglet and Pooh, Kanga and Roo.

You can take the poet out of Catford, but that Two-tone cat will never stop scratching me.

catford se6 cat poem

The Apoplectic Apologist

THE WRITER’S LIFE

We can only apologise to the past, and the most difficult person to say sorry to, is you…”

CharlieBrownSnoopyOnDock

Yesterday was one of the occasional ones out with two young friends (they’re 14 and 12 now, so they’re not my kids, they’re young people), and we were back to the familiar stomping ground of Milton Keynes. As ever, it was a very pleasant day, spent in good company, with intelligent conversation. But something played on my mind throughout, and now I feel deflated because it’s too late to go back and change it. Like much of my life then, full of regrets over things I’ve done and live with the guilt.

This was something I hadn’t done, but which I’d said I would. No promises were made and no undue pressure was applied, but there was something I should have done and didn’t, and although no-one’s told me so, I feel I let people down. Paranoia has always lived comfortably with its depression and anxiety siblings in my head.

Apologies don’t always come from the natural apologetic. There’s regret and there’s sorrow, and there’s two types of that: saying sorry; and bearing true remorse, meaning it when you say it. When paranoia has a habit of knocking you around, it’s difficult to accept having an apology accepted, because the guilt lives on, feeding on your guts. I can’t accept forgiveness when I can’t forgive myself. It’s just the way my mind works.

This latest episode revolves around my brother in-law, Si(mon); actually my ex, because he’s divorced from my sister, with whom I’ve been estranged for several years since my alcoholic breakdown, and we only recently made up (thanks to intervention from the mothership, who pointed out that you’ll never see someone’s a different person if you avoid them). I hadn’t made a promise to my sister, but I’d said via our mutual mum that as I was in London yesterday, I’d try to pop in and see Si.

Si’s not well, in a high dependency unit at St. Thomas’s Hospital with malfunctioning kidneys. He’s unconscious but can hear people talking to him. When I was asked to leave the family home six years ago, Si was there to give me a hand. When I sobered up and called my sister after two years of not talking, I was glad Si answered. Lovely bloke, likes his custard, doesn’t judge. I was going to visit him, to talk to him, to thank him. The worth of my words is subjective, but I’m good at talking to people in tough spots. My dad (who has Parkinson’s) says likes talking to me, probably because I speak to people as I always have, paying little regard to any ailment inflicting my audience.

The plan was to spend the day with my young co-conspirators, then visit by brother by another mother when I got back to London. On the way up to town, my mum phoned me and said my sister would very much appreciate the gesture on my part, to visit with Si. As we’ve only recently patched things up between us, I was quite moved that my sister placed a value in me, hopefully now able to see the good in her brother which I lost through drinking and verbal abuse towards others. I couldn’t not visit Si.

I had a pleasant lunch with my young friends, while we made future plans. The eldest is interested in poker (the analytical mathematical odds aspect which makes up 70% of the game, not the 30% which is luck), so I’ve promised him a trip to the poker room I used to frequent when I was a semi-pro, at The Empire Casino in Leicester Square, for his 18th birthday. The younger one wants to go to a West End show, and there’s no-one I’d rather make my next trip to the theatre with. They’re promises I intend to keep, unlike the one which slipped away as I travelled home.

I slept on the train back to London from Milton Keynes, as usual. I don’t tend to sleep the night before I meet the young ones, a conspiracy between my anxiety and circadian clock. I woke at Euston and went straight to the Victoria Line, as is my usual underground habit. I’d forgotten I was meant to go to Waterloo (to the hospital), not to Victoria (for a train home). I needed to get back on the tube, onto the Northern Line, which was part-suspended. The Bakerloo Line then. Then I realised at the ticket barrier that I didn’t have a Travelcard, just a return from home to Milton Keynes, which allowed me one cross-London journey. Then I got stressed. I wasn’t panicked, but I was anxious (it’s like being followed, but before your mugger attacks). I couldn’t leave with a guilty conscience but I couldn’t cure it by staying there. So I gave up on myself, and that’s when I let everyone down, when I decided to just get on a train and go home.

I was tired (no excuse), I was broke (ditto, could have walked), and I was starting to have panicky thoughts (not unusual). Funny thing is, I’d have walked miles for shelter when I was homeless and skint, but the streets are where most of my PTSD originates. Nevertheless, I broke a promise I’d made to my sister after so many years of estrangement, and I’d left a very sick man alone, when a simple act of human contact might have helped him. I got on the train feeling selfish and alone, full of guilt, revolving around myself instead of a hospital bed. I was a coward. I was afraid to see my friend looking frail, and I should remember that when I’m on my own death bed with no visitors.

I haven’t phoned my sister or our mum, and they might even be surprised I’m beating myself up so much, when I hadn’t promised anything. But I’d made a promise by proxy, to a fellow man and kindred spirit, and I feel as let down myself as anyone has any right to be disappointed. My biggest fear is being seen to revert to type, when once all I’d wanted to do was get home and drink. I wanted to get home, to escape the situation and to sleep.

I fretted for the rest of the night, over telling my mum and sister about this. I chose to write it down, in the hope anyone reading might understand. I went to bed at my usual 5am, ending a 39-hour shift unbroken by sleep apart from that nap on the train.

Today I feel just as bad, truly selfish, like self-absorbed. That guilt joins all the others which trouble the mind of an alcoholic, all day and every day after they’ve sobered up. It’s a life sentence I live with like the alcoholic label, while I refuse to get drunk to numb and lighten my mood. I think I’m meant to find some strength and reassurance in that, and I suppose it’s better than not waking up like I used to and not knowing what happened the day before. I feel like I did yesterday, but not the day before that. But I feel like I did when I didn’t visit my dad in hospital. I couldn’t afford the travel and I remembered my dad the last time I’d seen him, when he said my words were helpful. I feel the same very time I have to leave my two young friends. I feel cruel.

It feels like I’m losing parts of my past, much of which I wouldn’t mourn, but that which I treasure is being taken. After I patched up so many differences, I’m pushing away further chances to get better. I don’t blame anyone for not phoning me, when I find talking to myself so difficult and confusing. My mental illness means I’m always sharing space with a kind of anti-me (I’m very anti me at times).

I’ve paused writing on my family history book, Silent Gardens. The original purpose of the book was to help dad remember things, but I feared not finishing it before he forgot, even though reminders of the past would engage his mind. I felt I might be tempting fate, my anti-Midas touch turning everything to shit, when so much of my past has eroded.

I have few people to talk to (and I make it that way), so I’m glad I can write. I’m miserable alone, perhaps karma for the way I’ve left other people. Even if it doesn’t all make sense, it makes sense for me to get it out. It’s like someone else hitting me, to save me time beating myself up.

All I had to do is say sorry, but that still doesn’t solve the paradox, when saying it doesn’t take the feeling away. I’m not looking for anything, least of all sympathy and understanding, when only I know how I feel. “How you doing?” Read my blog.

How can I lift the guilt? How can I stop feeling sorry for myself? By apologising to myself? We can only apologise to the past, and the most difficult person to say sorry to is you, when you are unwilling to forgive yourself.

I wish we could go back to the old days, when we had so much time to talk but we rarely did because we didn’t need to. The cruelty of life, inflicted on those trying to live it; the human condition.

You’ll get over your apologetic apoplexy,” is something I’m only likely to say to myself. Although I’ll have an unexpected upswing in mood at some arbitrary point, when something random and beyond my control happens, I don’t know when that will be. It’s the paradox of living alone in your head with depression and daily confusion. If you apologise for what’s to still to come, you’re probably a sociopath if you’re talking to someone else. I can only apologise to myself for whatever the future may hold.

All I need to do is keep talking to myself. Despite being a sci-fi writer, I find looking forward difficult. Or maybe I’m just paranoid. Sorry about that.

Snoopy3

EDIT: Simon passed away today (Sunday, 25th August). He’s survived by his mum and four children. Safe journey brother x

Message in a Marmite* jar

THE WRITER’S LIFE

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As the middle generation of my living family, I’m the filling in the sandwich. Since my benefits were cut (my human rights taken away) by the government, my parents have helped with the humanitarian cause of visits to see my children. With my war on the Department of Work and Pensions looking to last at least another year, my days out with the kids are likely to become less frequent; and with dad’s health not improving (he has a Parkinson’s-related condition), getting all three generations together in one place will be a rare event.

I usually update the mothership with personal news during our weekly phone summit, and she relays highlights to dad, which of course he has trouble remembering. So I thought it might be quite nice if the sandwich filling wrote a letter to one slice of bread from the other; something for mum to read to dad, to keep the moment, and to read again when dad needs reminding of who everyone is and where they are.

Marmite2

THE MARMITE REPORT

I was out with the kids in London on Sunday. They said to say hello and back atcha with the love.

The day started well, when I got to my local rail station (West Malling) and the ticket office was closed. There were three other people there already who’d taken the seating area, so I stood like a hat stand at the ticket window. Eventually the curtain went up, and ever aware of people in the same space and their perception of me, I felt I should ask if I’d jumped the queue (if so I’d surrender the window, but I hadn’t). I was rewarded by a splendidly distinguished-looking headmistress of a lady, who simply smiled at me and said, “Well done.” Rather than increase my paranoia of being followed, studied, monitored and reported on, I felt a little self-satisfied with this approval.

The spirits continued to favour me when I thought to ask if I could buy the kids’ London Travelcards at the same time as my own ticket, gaining a 1/3 discount with my Network Railcard. Usually I buy the kids’ wheels tickets in London and they’re £5.60 each. It turns out, if the kids are travelling with me, I can buy their tickets on some grey market on the other side of that curtain behind the Perspex. I pointed out my lack of children as proof that they wouldn’t be travelling to London with me, just meeting me there. “No problem,” said the wizard, “Your ticket doesn’t say they’re travelling with you, only theirs do.” And that little bit of out-of-the-box thinking, that small piece of human logic, meant I got to ferry the kids around London for £2.50 each.

We went to Spoons for lunch, as it’s always nice to sit down with the next generation and have time to talk (I continued the value day out by not eating or drinking; I was there for conversation and decoration). Both are doing well at school and applying themselves in their respective areas of personal interest. One is taller than all of us, and the other is almost as tall as our shortest.

The eldest is enjoying media studies, especially journalism and screen-writing. He’s looking forward to some upcoming modules, including one where he has to watch science fiction films. Naturally this makes me happy. The littlest is quite the accomplished artist, and has a thirst for language. As well as the three European ones she’s learning already, she has a fascination with all things South Korean, so she’s thinking about learning their lingo as well. This also makes me proud, while I myself can just about hold a conversation in British Sign Language. Handy when standing in front of a mirror.

The littlest’s linguistic timing skills were demonstrated over lunch, when she unexpectedly emerged from one of her existential trances (she stops talking when she’s eating, and switches to deep thought mode): “You know what really pisses me off?” my 12-year-old daughter asked.

The kids’ mum and second dad are fairly liberal when it comes to personal expression, and neither of the young people use expletives for their own sakes, nor because they lack vocabulary; they use syntax appropriate to the prevailing environment, reserving their more colourful language for deserving causes, and often to great comic effect. Anyway, what was pissing the littlest off was lost in the moment and buried in the subsequent outpouring of thoughts from trance mode. At various moments, we were transported in retrospect to North Korea, Japan, and Trumpland.

Both kids have a keen interest in world politics, far greater than I did at their age. They’re much more aware than I was in their technological age. We talk about the planet, about science, the future, and inappropriate humour. I envy the choices they have in education now, but they question its validity when there might be no tomorrow with freedom of choice. I’ve apologised on behalf of preceding generations for everything we’ve lumped on them. But as our sans Les Deux Magots intellectual debate concluded, we all need to work together and bear no grudges for the past.

The younger’s hunger for all things Asia was fed by a visit to a new South Korean food market which has popped up on Tottenham Court Road, then we were off to a Manga exhibition at The British Museum. It was less extensive than I’d expected, but it added to our collective knowledge of art and culture.

Wandering around the West End and Soho, the elder demonstrated something I hadn’t previously been aware of: an encyclopaedic knowledge of cars. Several times he ran down the Top Trumps scores of the various supercars we saw (Ferrari, Lamborghini, McLaren…) and pointed out the many electric vehicles in central London (including police cars), while reeling off their stat sheets. I was impressed, and once again proud.

Like all days out with the kids, it finished with a heavy heart as all good things must end. I made it like that, but I can never stop being their dad. They’re a credit to their mum and other dad, which is why we enjoy such engaging, intelligent and witty conversation on the odd day out. What makes me most proud, is that both of the kids ask me questions, about life, the universe and everything, and they note my answers. They bear a great burden, but they don’t begrudge it. Our children, and their children’s children, can teach us a lot. I have a faith, not in some human construction of a false deity, but that the next generation will see their own grandchildren, in a world which we’ve repaired. We can never stop being parents.

They send their love (again), but still refuse to pose for anything other than school photos. I admire their freedom of choice, as I know how much I hated having my photo taken as a teenager. Now we have social media. 

Times change and people change, but we’re all in this together and grateful of the past, when we wrote letters and closed personal sentiment in an envelope.

Marmite leafMarmite on toast recipe on BBC Good Food

So there we all (and you) are. Just as my parents used to read bedtime stories to me, and me to my children, now I’m writing stories for mum to read to dad. An occasional budget travel and social culture dispatch, whenever the reporters are free to roam, The Marmite Report binds the sandwich.

*Other yeast extract products are available.

Le père de cet homme est à moi

POETRY

That man’s father is my father’s son: A poem about parenting, and about changing generational roles, from the big ones (nearby) to the small (far away); about absent dads, where the Marmite goes in the middle…

GHOST DAD

Shadow monkeys Fathers Day