The death of a close family member is always a harrowing and traumatic experience.
My close family, until I married and had offspring of my own, consisted solely of my mother and myself, but for eight years of my early life I had also had my grandparents, affectionately called Nan and Pop.
My mother taught me not to rely on anybody’s assistance and fend for myself. She was also very happy that as I got into my early teens I had decided to follow in her footsteps and tread the boards.
In my mother’s latter and middle aged years she continued to run the boarding house that she had been left by Nan and Pop.
With the passing of years the demand for fan dancers had been swamped by the growing demand for topless pole dancers at the discos and strip joints that had sprung up in Blackpool and across the world. So the running of the boarding house provided her with a stable income from the summer guests, the occasional long term tenant, and it also gave her a capital asset.
I did try at various resting periods to visit the old home town and my mother. But these visits were few and far between due to a constant lack of funds, especially during the years that I was trying to raise a family of my own.
I did however manage a few unexpected visits, like on my return from the Edinburgh festival, when I arrived with a face that looked like an enlarged blow-up beach ball.
I had a sore throat during the final days of the production and been prescribed some penicillin by a young Scottish doctor. But I suddenly had an allergic reaction to the drug. So a quick visit to the local general practitioner in Edinburgh where we were performing, a jab in the rear end of anti-histamine, the penicillin, and an overnight train ride to Preston, where I was met by an old school friend with a car, and the problem was solved.
Later in life; the mid-seventies I received a garbled message from an old age care centre in Kirkham, a small town in the Fylde near Blackpool. The message on my answering machine, in pure Lancastrian, was a simple, “Cum as soon as ya can !”
My mother had been in residence there since she had sold the boarding house to a property developer at an exorbitant price. They planned to demolish the old house and turn it into a seven story complex, with two luxury flats on each level. This depressed the hell out of me as all my childhood memories of life in the attic, the summer months in the garden sheds, and Pop’s veggie garden and pigeon loft would be gone.
She had admitted herself as she suspected she was descending into the same ailment that Nan had suffered. Today it’s called Alzheimer’s, back in Nan’s era it was called age-old-senility. Or as the locals said, “Aye she’s going a bit daft.”
A regular not so daft routine of Nan’s was to mop the downstairs corridor which stretched the full length of the house.
At nine o’clock sharp she filled her metal bucket to the brim and would continue till four in the afternoon breaking only for a cup of tea and her favourite biscuits, Jaffa cakes. These were a crunchy biscuit base covered with an orange flavoured jam and then coated in chocolate. They were only offered to special guests and I wasn’t allowed to touch them unless I was offered one. Nan would polish off a whole packet in a day and my mother told her, “Them things are going to kill ya.”
I was never sure how much Nan took in or whether she understood what we were saying to her, but she pottered on her own sweet way, smiling and whistling a Perry Como tune. She enjoyed cooking and her offerings from the kitchen were eventful to say the least.
On one return visit in the early-seventies she decided to cook me an evening meal. She had remembered that I loved braised lamb’s liver with onions, laying in mashed potato and crispy bacon on top. My favourite pudding in those days of rationing just after the war had been mashed banana with home made custard. Bananas were a rationed luxury item so it felt as if one was enjoying an exotic tropical fruit.
I was sitting at the table in the downstairs lounge when Nan’s voice rang out, “Cum get it Chuck!” As I entered the kitchen the smell set my gastric juices in eager anticipation of a glorious feast, but when I looked at the plate my heart sank with utter dismay.
Yes, there was the liver and onions piled high on creamy mashed potatoes and even the crispy bacon garnish was there, but this majestic dish was surrounded by mashed banana and custard.
Nan said, “Saves on t’ dishes, less washing up.”
I thanked her and made the excuse of going to the loo. I crept out of the house to the local chippy and to see if an old school chum fancied a pint of best Boddingtons Bitter.
So, a couple of years later, when I’d managed to borrow the money and make the trip to see my mother I was very worried as to state I’d find her in. If she’d reached the custard and liver syndrome, I knew I was in for a harrowing time.
The care centre was called Serenity House, I mused that Senility House would be a better name. I thought this as I walked up the long driveway and caught a glimpse of some of the inmates.
Wheelchairs and motorized walkers were in evidence and an old couple holding hands on a bench staring at the sky. My mind raced and I thought of our general disrespect for the elderly, hoping that when I departed it would be a rush job, like getting killed by a truck careering down the road while I was in a state of inebriation.
As soon as I entered a hawk-like lady swooped down on me and announced she was the senior warden and I should follow her to her office.
“Tek a seat,” she said.
I’ve always been amazed at the Lancastrian accent. The number of times I’ve been invited to indulge in petty larceny. I had a seat, and sat down, wondering if she’d be offended if when I left I took the chair with me?
“What canna do you for?”
I though of answering theft, but thought better of it and replied, “I’m here to see my mother, Mrs Poole, you sent a message.
“Oh aye, that’s right we did. She not too good you know. Seeing things and hearing voices int’ walls.”
“That’s my mother, been doing that all her life, she calls them, her angels and they bring her good luck. She first heard them the night before Ken Dodd and her groups of dancers were invited to the Royal Variety show at the Palladium in London.”
“So she doinit for a long time?”
“All her life, as far as I know.”
“Ah think yu’d better speak t’ doctor Mr Poole. He’s second door ont’ left upstairs. A’l goin tell ya Ma y’ here.”
With that she jumped up and opened the door, “Stairs is just round t’corner.” as she pointed her spindly fingers that looked like they’d been used as “finger-stand-ins” for Hugh Jackman in the X movies.
I knocked on the doctor’s door and heard what I thought was an answer to come in. I entered only to be immediately told to get out and wait till my number appeared on sign above the door.
I traipsed back down stairs and went to the reception.
A gleeful smiling young lady greeted me with the standard Lancastrian, “What canna do y’ for?”
“A number. To see the doctor who I’d worked out was the resident psychiatrist , Dr Padiachee from the name on his door.
“’Ave y’ got an appointment?”
“No the senior warden said I should speak to him in relation to my mother Mrs Poole.”
“Oh, why didn’t y’ say int’ first place? Mrs Poole y’ say?”
“That’s right, with an “e” at the end.”
“Just be a mo’.”
She punched into her keyboard what seemed like Homer’s odyssey judging on the time she took, and said, “Tek a seat, y’number’ll be up in a minute.”
I heard a printer and two minutes later she called be back, handing me a small slip of paper with the number three printed on it.
I climbed the stairs and again faced the doctor’s door. Above the flashing number three. I knocked and entered.
“What kept you?” enquired Dr Padiachee.
“I had to get a number remember.”
“Oh yes, dam stupid system if you ask me. What’s the problem? Have I seen you before? You look too young to be a patient here.”
“I’m not. I want to talk about my mother, Mrs Queenie Poole. I believe you’ve been seeing her.”
“Yes, the fan dancer?”
“When she was a youngster, yes.”
Dr Padiachee went to his filing cabinet and pulled out a blue file. “Got them colour coded. Yes, yes, paranoid schizophrenia, usual symptoms, delusions, hearing voices, seeing things.” As he read his file, “pretty conclusive, don’t you think?”
“You’re the doctor, not me.”I replied, “What are you doing with her?”
“Ah, yes, standard medication, just a mild sedative.”
“You know she’s been hearing voices and seeing things all her life?”
“No.” he said in a state of shock. “I wasn’t informed of that. We found it vey difficult to trace any of her medical history. She tends to wander in her sessions with me. I’ve been finding it difficult to separate the facts from delusions. In fact the address we’ve got for you is a prime example see”, as he handed me a sheet of paper from the file.
I glanced at it. It read “The Forest, Johannesburg, South Africa.”
I laughed. At the time I was living in a suburb of Johannesburg called Forest Town.
It was no wonder that the Doctor’s monthly reports had not been reaching me, but at least they had the home telephone number right.
“Well, from what you’ve told me, this puts a different complexion on the whole diagnosis. Seeing things and hearing voices all her life; you say?”
“Yes, but I’ve always thought they were just flights of her imagination, they were usually about her work, whether she get more, was she getting fat, how long were fan dancers going to be needed, they should shut down the strip joints; that sort of thing.”
“Nothing about people walking through walls?” asked the doctor.
I laughed as I remember her watching with me my favourite TV show of my youth, the BBC’s Dr Who. It was the episode of the first change of actors, William Hartnell to Patrick Troughton.
In those days computer graphics were a thing of the future, but cross-fading through two identical looking sets with a different actor in each set was in the game in 1966.
“How’d they do that?” my mother asked.
“I dun’t know,” I replied.
“It’s like he walked through the wall.” This was her explanation.
I told Dr Padiachee the story, but he didn’t see either the connection or the comedy. At that moment his phone rang. It was the senior warden advising me that I should get to my mother’s room as she was up and about. I apologized to the doctor and told him I’d try and return after I visited my mother.
“It’ll have to be tomorrow,” he said, “I’m off home now.”
“Ok” I said as I left the rooms of who I thought was a snotty English educated Indian or Pakistani immigrant, who knew he was onto a good thing working for this private establishment who had a lot of rich old-age residents.
“Hi there Ma,” as I entered her room.
Her head swung round, eyes glued to a blank wall to greet me. She extended her bony almost completely flesh ridden arms and a smile engulfed her crinkled face, “Cessy my boy,” croaked from her dry mouth. I handed her a glassed of iced water.
“Thank you,” as she took a sip. “You still in the forest?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“I keep sending letters y’ know, but they come back marked address unknown.”
“I’ll write it down for you and the warden.”
“Ooh don’t do that! Don’t give them anything! They come at night, through the walls, you know, steal your pension book, look!”
She said this whilst she leant forward and lifted the corner of her mattress and pulled out a press-zipped plastic bag.
“Tek it all, all of it, I’m glad you came, it’s been worrying me.”
I looked at the bag. It must have at least a thousand Pounds along with her tea stained pension book.”
“No I can’t Ma. You’ll need it.”
Smiling she said, “Not after tonight.”
And how right she was.
That late evening I few back overnight to Johannesburg.
I landed at 9am local time and had just downed a home-made-expresso , when the phone rang.
I picked it up. I immediately recognized the senior warder’s voice, “Mr Poole?”
“Ja” I said back in my SA mode.
“Ya Ma, she went last night, in her sleep. It were peaceful. We’ve got her will and instructions re burial. When will you be coming?”
I put down the receiver as a tear rolled down my cheek.