Tiles, Towers, Toilets

by Christopher Worrall – an autobiographical piece

I had a dream last night.

I was in a tower so tall that the ground below was invisible. Inside the tower was an equivalent of everything and everyone I knew in the world outside.

There were crowds, and sometimes I walked through them, joyous at finding old flames and unrequited loves. Walls, floors and sweeping wide staircases pulsed with movement and excitement.

I hugged someone who might have been my favourite ever teacher, the one who really changed my life. I had no idea, but the hug was long and firmly returned and as crowds cheered around me I wept a tear for the joy of being held so fiercely.

But did I know them? I never had a teacher with that face. Who were they? Nobody could hear my questions.

Mum was in the tower, and she was herself, except that in her dementia she thought that I wasn’t the real version of me, and she was tweeting everyone to tell them. I couldn’t find her to tell her to stop tweeting, because finally I was on my side lying on a thin ledge at the top of the tower, clouds all around me, knees hanging off the edge, too scared to look down into the abyss.

It was so astonishingly blue…

Reflections bounced off the windows, and falling away below me were garlanded terraces thronged with crowds. If I craned my neck there were people who’d reached safety, off the ledge, but I was too scared to call for help.

~

Today

Last time I saw mum was over a year ago. In the old world. She was gaunt, teeth sticking out of her dry, pinched face. Clinging to me as I left the ward. Sobbing. I’m used to my mother’s tears, used to the demands, the pressure to save her. It got serious when dad left. I was sixteen. I’m older now than she was then.

Mum went into a care home just after the pandemic started, and I haven’t seen her since. The social worker told me that mum said I’m always so busy with my job. She tried not to sound judgemental. I wanted to explain the sleepless nights, the crushing fearfulness, the overpowering need to punch the little git version of me who sits in the tile on the screen, looking like me, sounding like me, mocking me, all day, every day. The words wouldn’t come. Instead, I mumbled something about feeling guilty. Actually, I’m relieved mum’s locked up in the care home… and not just because she was becoming a danger to herself. How can I begin to tell this stranger anything meaningful about who mum and I are?

The case conference takes place on zoom. Me and my husband, my uncle, the head of the discharge team, mum’s social worker, and the deputy manager of the care home. Little tiles of expertise on the screen. All the professionals are weary: grey and exhausted. The decision making ‘tool’, a document they emailed us in advance, is long and burdensome, covering twelve ‘care domains’ to assess whether mum has full control over her bowel movements, or can understand what people are saying to her. It’s hard to take the process seriously when we all know that the most important issue is whether the NHS can or will pay for the cost of her social care, the ‘timely and skilled intervention’ she might need if she can’t shit for herself anymore.  

The head of the discharge team is stern. She’s clearly the one with the power here. I enjoy her broad Lancashire accent, booming out over the speaker and from under an impressive thatch of hair and eyebrows. My uncle is clueless as usual, keeps offering little anecdotes about mum, like this is some kind of quaint family gathering. Should I have brought battenburg? Mum hated him, although she often pretended otherwise, and desperately wanted his approval. She was the oldest child, he the youngest. The favoured son, spoiled and whiney. Now grown up, late middle-aged white-van-man-racist-bigot, with the princess daughters and the tax-free backhanders.

I am, true to the aspirations of my uneducated parents, now middle class enough to know what awkward questions to ask. But it doesn’t stop me seeing it from their point of view, worrying about how tired and stressed they all are, worrying about taking up unnecessary time. The woman from the care home is genuinely lovely. We bond immediately; she’s charmed by my mum’s vanity and I laugh along with her. Mum was beautiful. I remember us clothes shopping together, fun times as I egged her on from outside the changing room.

Uncle is talking again, oblivious to the logic of the decision making ‘tool’. I stare at him in his little tile on the screen, grateful he’s at the other end of the country, that I can mute him, turn my video off and scream at the tile to fuck off and die. What are those god-awful figurines on the shelf behind him? When will I ever see him again? At mum’s funeral? That’ll be it.

Mum is smearing shit round her room at the care home. Telling the staff to fuck off when they intrude on the new reality she’s made for herself. Before, in the tiring world of adulthood, mum had been on her own for a long time. Our weekly calls used to consist of long lists of the chores she’d done, “on my own”. Now though, she’s found herself a pretend husband. Her second one, apparently. The first wasn’t quite as amenable and hit her in the face a couple of times. Husband number two and mum both like to get naked in her room with the door closed. The staff clearly expect me to be horrified. I’m charmed by her childish rebelliousness. Thank fuck she’s having some fun. In this alternate reality, mum has a son, like me, only he’s a young boy and he’s adorable. If this is losing your mind, maybe Alzheimer’s isn’t the cruellest cut, but the kindest, transporting us back to an idealised moment of happiness? And of course, the care home has been locked down, on and off, for over a year now. My very adult, very unavailable self hasn’t troubled the demented fantasy of the adorable boy I’m supposed to be. I’m pleased for her. And relieved.

~

1987

Mrs Williams, my A-level Sociology teacher takes me aside after class today to ask me how I am. The teachers are worried about me. Mrs Williams let me join her class six months into the year, something she’d never done before, and I feel vindicated in dropping A-level music when she gives me a B+, her highest mark, for my first essay. I walk home from school feeling happier than I have for ages. But that familiar burning settles in my tummy as I walk towards our front door.

Mum is sat in the lounge, crying again. I sit next to her and ask her how she’s doing. Suddenly there’s glass shattering against the wall, and mum’s screaming about how she can’t cope, how she hates him and will never be happy again. Then she sobs about how sorry she is; tells me again how special I am, that nobody else understands her like I do. My hands are shaking. There are shards of glass on the floor, next to the puddle of water from where she threw the glass. It’s six months since dad left. And another year before I’ll be leaving to go to university, to the far end of the country. I give her a hug. Everything will be okay. She won’t feel like this for ever. She just has to feel like this till she doesn’t feel like this anymore. I put the kettle on and get the dustpan and brush.

~

Today

One vaccination, two self-administered tests and five cancelled visits due to changing guidelines, and now I’m booked to see mum on Friday. I feel like I’m back on the ledge, knees hanging into the abyss. The tower throngs with crowds. Are they the reason I’m visiting her? Are they watching? The social workers, and care home staff, the solicitors and the doctors and the family friends, my uncle, and my colleagues, my neighbour who cries when he speaks about his mum, my dad, still guilty, and maybe the teenage boy who still feels it is his job to save his mum. Good boys visit their mums in care homes. Good boys weep for a locked-down year’s worth of missed hugs.

Arriving at the home for my Covid test does nothing to settle my unease. The volunteer who administers the test, a brisk, chatty woman with huge glasses, regales me with tales of the hardships the home has suffered: the staff who’ve burned out, the deaths, the wider neglect of the elderly and vulnerable. I flush with shame, and look for signs of judgement in her face. All I see is jolly helpfulness. She’s here to help the home and its residents, why should she care about my story? I relax into the onslaught of her chatter. The room is a repurposed resident’s bedroom, with a door out onto the car park and a grassy area bathed in sunshine. It’s a beautiful day.

After the result confirms I don’t currently have any antigens, she leads me back into the building and I tense for what’s to come. Will mum remember me? Will my presence unsettle the scraps of self still grasped by her demented brain? We emerge from the lift and are met by one of the unit’s nurses and slowly follow a couple of old women down the corridor. One is short, the other tall and leaning against the handrail. Both are grey, stooped, slow. The nurse calls to the taller woman, reminding her that she’s been so excited about her visitor. The woman turns, and it’s mum. She looks ten years older, but her features are softer, less troubled and more well fed than a year ago.

Her face crumples as she recognises me, and she staggers into my arms with a huge sob, ‘oh it’s you… I didn’t know if I’d see you again’. I yield into the hug with a quiet sigh, waves of relief and compassion rising through my body as it relaxes.

Almost immediately she recovers and steps back, smiling. I take her hand and we walk towards her room. She’s chattering constantly about how lovely it is to see me, until we get to the open doorway and a small old man in a nylon cardigan emerges from what is apparently her room. Mum scolds the man sharply, telling him he shouldn’t have been in her house. With a smiling wink, the nurse closes the door on us and we’re alone. The room is bathed in late afternoon sunshine, and outside her window the hillside is a deep lush green that you don’t see down south in the dusty, chalky downs. I sit on the bed next to her chair. She holds my hand, beaming at me.

‘Are you happy, mum? Do you feel safe here?’

‘Oh yes. You know Marks and Spencers,’ she extends her arms to encompass her room, and the home beyond, ‘they look after you.’

~

1982

We find a field up the hill, just below the railway line. It snowed again last night, but today it’s bright and clear and the world looks reborn. The gate is broad and too stiff; mum laughs, giving up, and I feel very grown up when she moves aside to let me tug it open.

I’m twelve, and the Christmas holiday is a welcome break from the terror of my new school. Since we moved here six months ago I’ve been going to the toilet six or more times a day. But today is good: it will be Christmas day soon, and the holiday stretches before me with the promise of videos to watch and fried egg butties to eat.

The dog bounds off into the unbroken snow, yelping as he disappears below the surface with each leap. Mum smiles at me and her eyes are shining in the sunlight. We turn together, giggling and huffing across the snow-covered field. A crisp, sparkly crust has frozen over the deep soft drifts below, and it cracks with a joyous snap with each wellie booted step.

We stagger towards each other, half laughing, half gasping, and she takes my hand, pulling me towards her. Her breath is warm against my cold cheek and smells of Polo mints. We turn and look down the hill over the fields. Below us the town is pristine and still, nestled in its downy blanket.

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