Pray the universe, dad to keep

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. There’s a cloud stuck in my head, which is why it keeps raining on my face.

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, like some kind of monster which had to be caged, 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. He said they only hid under there because they were scared. 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 regress 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.

I’m alone and I’m afraid.

And so an ending is written, a few words carved 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.

For all of the most important things, the timing always sucks. Waiting for a good time to quit your job? The stars will never align, and the traffic lights of life will never all be green at the same time. The universe doesn’t conspire against you, but it doesn’t go out of its way to line up the pins either. Conditions are never perfect. ‘Someday’ is a disease that will take your dreams to the grave with you.”

-Timothy Ferris

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. 

There’s a crustacean on the dog

THE WRITER’S LIFE

“Lobsters have hands (of sorts), which they could use to pick up the phone every now and then.”

Lobster Phone

It’s been a while since I confided in my personal diary, partly because it’s online for all to see. It’s a paradox when I’m a writer craving readers, but my absence has been for want of words; not writer’s block so much as too much say and not enough time to tell the story with a sore throat. With little else to do tonight, I thought I’d seek momentary expression in my typewriter, the depression of keys…

As a writer, I should be able to tell my own story just as I can a horror fable, or a story of another life. I’ve always been able to combine the two in the past, placing a part of myself in every story I wrote, some of them stories of various futures which I may inhabit only in part.

The past is a story already written, the future what we make, and the present, how we make it. In reality, we’re all connected and living the same life, however we tell the story. None of us is any further than a few steps from where anyone else lived.

Amidst the dust in my keyboard, there are many untold stories: fiction which I’m trying to use as a medium to explain my prevailing confusion; poetry, in all its forms of speaking sentences with single words; and fact, which is almost overwhelming my mind, there’s so much I can’t unburden it on this blog in the time I can make or create in any space.

This place – this blog – was something I started when I was homeless, my means to communicate when segregated and sidelined, by a world which didn’t want to listen when I had so much to say, to myself. A means to an end. It’s still that, and a mixing pot of reality and the surreal, life and the fiction I created.

My ongoing isolation is a personal construct coping mechanism, for a life which only differs from the birth of this blog in the roof over my head, and a keyboard which isn’t chained to a library desk. That was when I was drunk. I still drink, the functioning alcoholic, which – not who – few understand.

I’ve been moping around my inner self for a few months now, as I’ve allowed those vascular passages to become compressed by a situation designed with suppression in mind, like being buried alive; the fascist machine which is currently consuming my country and my friends, by turning each on themselves. While I’ve been quiet here, I’ve not ceased the political debate on Facebook and Twitter, none of which will help me engage with a crumbling mental health and social structure, dismantled by a regime intent on social cleansing.

If I regress to that time when this online version of me was in its infancy, when I slept on a packing crate, I’d wear my heart on my sleeve and tell it as it is with me, the body still breathing in the coffin as the shovels pile on the dirt.

Back then I’d have many pages of notes in journals, and limited library time to edit the contents on a keyboard, most of my thoughts falling between the keys to mix with those of others in the dust of human skin. Now I have more time and only my own flesh, eight digits crawling over the typewriter, like a tick on a dog, or a mite on a communal mattress, competing with other tenants; a lobster trying to pick up the payphone.

Given the choice between heating and eating in social accommodation, most humans will perish in a kind of Buridan’s Ass paradox, where two choices share importance, and so separation becomes impossible. In an world swept beneath an invisible carpet, where visiting a food bank is beyond the means of public transport from a remote depository of vagrants, there are imaginative chefs. These people make shepherd’s pie with Pedigree Chum. Any cat food from a pouch is gourmet, and comes with gravy.

I can take a walk among my past self by just reading this blog, a diary of the last few years. I can write on the walls, like so many others left scars in my synapses and arteries. I can talk to myself.

I can still write. All this, without mentioning what’s weighing on my mind the most, the inner and hidden horrors in a wooden casket or an aluminium tin.

I’ve written indirectly about my dad‘s faltering health, and about losing my brother-in-law. I did that with poetry. I don’t know which formation of words can best convey an inner feeling I have, one in myself which is both mental and physical. It’s a lump in my throat which sometimes makes it hard to swallow.

There’s an itch in my mouth but I can’t tell anyone else, as everyone besides me has their own greater self-consuming issues. Those are the people immediately around me, and they don’t need me being needy when they have their own needs. It’s just a shame we don’t all have more time to talk.

Life changes when it ceases to be linear. Although we live in a connected, borderless world, we’re anything but. People don’t talk any more. Humans are unique in their ability to communicate with the spoken word, yet we don’t. Some can’t. We invented the internet, and my means of speaking to my diary, to myself, and to you, has divided and broken us. But I can still speak, at least about me.

It’s personal matters I’ve been keeping between me and myself. This blog is part of both, and I feel a bit better already, having just let my fingers dance. It’s talking through the hands; a sign language no-one’s obliged to listen to unless they look.

When I can’t speak, the incoherence of my words is not through drink, but a frustration with being disconnected; and that disconnection is a problem we all share. If I lose my voice, at least I can still write. Sometimes I ask myself if anyone will read what I write, when it’s impossible beyond telepathy to hear what I’m saying.

Every human life is a horror. Most of us have the same number of limbs, and we’re all connected by quantum entanglement. We’re all living the same life.

The last century of yesterdays

POETRY

IDENTITY THIEF

jo-watson-typewriter

Message in a Marmite* jar

THE WRITER’S LIFE

00cat_marmite-780x439

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.

A wish upon a turkey wishbone

THE WRITER’S LIFE

The shit sandwich finally arrived in the post last Thursday, and it’s taken me this long to compose myself to address it. This benefits process is exhausting by design, and it’s exacerbating my anxiety and depression. I haven’t quite lost the will to live, as that would validate the Tory social cleansing machine’s purpose. It actually says in the rejection letter, “Personal Independence Payment is not for visiting relatives.” I’m appealing, so there is much more writing to do.

NovaNaked Lunch, David Cronenberg

It took nine and a half weeks for someone to decide I wasn’t deserving of my Personal Independence Payment (despite being in receipt of it for the last four years), so denying me much of my liberty and ruining what might have been mine or my parents’ last Christmas. On behalf of myself and my family, we’d like to wish upon the bone of a turkey, a Christmas free of guilt and conscience to the Department for Work and Pensions. With nowhere to go, I’ll be an empty box, a vacant chair; I will haunt their Christmases.

With my benefit payment reduced to a statutory minimum, I’ll have to borrow money to buy my kids’ Christmas presents (why should they go without?) I can no longer afford to visit my parents (nor buy them gifts; they say the children come first), so I may already have seen my dad for the last time while he still remembers who I am. Last time I was there, he said how good it was for him to have me around. Now all we have is memories of Christmas past.

There were past Christmases when I was estranged from my family, after I’d steamrollered through their lives like a drunken shopping trolley, and when I’d be represented by an empty chair at the dinner table. My sister still bears a grudge, somehow having it in her head that I’m the cause of our dad’s Parkinson’s. So while she won’t pick me up on her way through to my parents, my Christmas will be spent with a turkey baste on a true story: That I couldn’t afford Christmas dinner.

I could do as I did in those years of estrangement, and volunteer to help at a church homeless do, provided I can get the transport. But that would involve other people, and this dehumanising process also threw fuel on my social anxiety. The signpost to Christmases future.

Christmas will be cold, because I can’t afford heating. And it’s all thanks to the Scrooges who’ll be stuffing their faces at Christmas dinner, and counting all the money they saved through social cleansing. I’ll be present in spirit, at each and every table, wishing upon that wish bone, to stick in many throats.

Simons CatSimon’s Cat

Crosswords and headwinds

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Among my sideline interests, I compile cryptic crosswords. Some of my favourite past clues for flavour:

1. Powered flight? (9)
2. GESG (9, 4)
3. DIM (5, 8)
4. (4,3,3,1,4)

The answers are in this meandering post…

dirty_scrabble

Today is nine weeks since I had my PIP assessment, and still I’ve had nothing in writing. I eventually got to speak to someone at DWP last week, only to be told that my application was still being processed. At least I haven’t been forgotten. Still I’m on a statutory benefit, sans a payment which permitted me some independence with my special needs. One of the freedoms taken from me is the ability to visit my parents, where PIP used to cover the train fares.

Dad says it’s good to have me around, and I know that contact with others can help with dementia and other degenerative conditions (he has Parkinson’s). So if I’m denied my independence, the system has already made me much more unwell, and quite possibly my dad too. If I’m declined, I’ll be unable to spend Christmas with family (and it could always be the last for my parents or me), no gifts for my kids, and unable to see my dad while he still remembers who I am.

I borrowed money to make the monthly visit to see the kids yesterday, but without my PIP payment, those trips may have to be reduced in frequency. A life is not a singular thing and there are people denied (or spared) my company. Despite winter approaching, I’m eating less and heating less.

The day with the children was very much as usual: lunch and interesting conversation, then shopping and further debate on matters of the world, of nature, medicine and science. We question things, and yesterday I wondered how the Romans did maths, if they only had Roman numerals. An interesting aside too, as we noted that as well as having alliterative names, my eldest is taller than me (not difficult) and therefore the longest Laker; the youngest is just a little shorter than my mum, and the littlest Laker for now.

It was a day punctuated by escalators. The first was one I’d ridden hundreds of times before, and its brothers and sisters around the London Underground estate, possibly millions. And yet, after more than 30 years of working, living and just being in London, something occurred to me for the very first time: ‘Dogs must be carried’. I don’t have a dog. It’s a terrible sentence, implying that carrying a dog is compulsory for riding the moving stairs, and it will haunt this pedant for the rest of my days and every time I see it.

Back at Euston later, ‘Stand on the right’ is the first on the list of London Underground’s levitation instructions, and invariably some people don’t. I tend to walk down and float up, but I was anxious of time and chose to walk up the left of the escalator, to be greeted by a backside, talking to her friend on the right. “Excuse me,” I said, perhaps impatiently with someone too ignorant and arrogant to read signs. “How rude,” I was told.

I apologised for having excused myself so that I could travel freely and not hinder the transit of those behind me, but apparently that was rude and I should be more patient. I passed this down the line behind me, asked if she’d rather have my blood, and told her to get over herself, which elicited a tut. Finally I pointed to the signs at regular intervals on the way up: “Stand on the right,” I read aloud, and added “like fascists”. I was tired of walking by now, so I stood on the right of the escalator, in front of my verbal assailant. As I rose to ground level, I let one go silently and shared the scrambled eggs I’d had for breakfast.

I can only hope that more than nine weeks of stressing and growing more anxious by the day is enough for the dehumanising machine, that nine weeks is considered sufficient suffering, and now I can be returned to an independent life with sufficient funds to live it. If not, if I’m found undeserving for some reason (even though I’ve been on PIP for the last four years), that’s a pretty sick trick to play on someone. Those days out with my kids are about all I have now, and that may be denied by the Tory government’s social cleansing machine.

Life has changed over the last few months, ever since this benefit reapplication process started. Even if I am forced through the tribunal process again, knowing where I stand would be better than where I am at the moment. Right now I have not got a clue what the answers are.

Did you find them all?