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Authors: Patrick Gale

The Whole Day Through

BOOK: The Whole Day Through
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The Whole Day Through
Patrick Gale

For Aidan Hicks

Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight? I am waiting for you, for an interval, somewhere very near, just around the corner. All is well.

(Henry Scott Holland)

EARLY MORNING TEA

Laura had been awake for several minutes before she was aware that there was a problem. She always drew her curtains back just before climbing into bed because she preferred waking early and slowly to daylight than with sudden violence to an alarm. (It was one of the few pleasures of her self-employment as an accountant that, in winter months, she simply started her days later.) So she lay there, entirely comfortable, gently reassembling her sense of where she was and why, catching sweet wafts of the Sombreuil rose that half-obscured her view of the garden and listening to the ravenous cheeping of the blue tit nestlings in the box beside her windowsill. She took in the unsatisfactorily emollient American novel she persisted in reading, then the purple bloom left inside the wineglass she had brought to bed. And her comfort diminished as furniture and pictures reminded her that she was no longer in Paris but in
Winchester, that this was not her room, at least not yet fully her room, but the spare room in her mother’s house.

She had just observed, with an unvoiced sigh, that she had been staying in the house long enough now for such a distinction to smack of cowardice, when she realized that the murmuring in the background to the blue tits’ noise was not, as she had thought, a collared dove, but Mummy calling her name from the garden.

She swore softly to herself, seeing now that it was still only six-thirty, and went to peer between the rose branches. Then she swore again, less softly, and hurried out, pulling on her dressing gown as she went.

Mummy didn’t see her coming and was still calling up at her bedroom window as she emerged, keeping her voice low in an effort not to draw attention from further afield. She was sitting, heavily, inside a rather pretty pink-flowered leptospermum, naked, naturally, and clutching her secateurs in one hand and a Fabian Society mug in the other. She had managed to lose her balance without spilling all the tea and took an absent minded gulp of it as she awaited rescue.

The tableau might have encapsulated the sad decline of a brilliant mind, the pathetic geriatric dementia of the eminent virologist known to her students and peers as Professor Jellicoe. Her mind seemed as sharp as ever, however; only her limbs, not her wits, were failing and her nudity was not a symptom but a decades-old private habit.

Laura’s late father had introduced her to naturism early in their relationship and Harriet Jellicoe – Mrs Lewis, as he jokingly called her in conversation with Laura – had practised with a convert’s zeal ever since.

‘How long have you been stuck out here?’ Laura asked her.

‘About an hour.’

‘Mummy!’

‘It’s all right. I was only just starting to get a bit cold and only because I’m not moving about.’

‘Nothing broken?’

‘Just couldn’t get up on my own. Bodies are a
bore
!’ She continued chatting as Laura offered both arms, cupping Mummy’s elbows as Mummy did the same back, sparing them both wrist strain. ‘I’d just made myself a cuppa when I saw how that shrubby stock needed cutting back before it set seed then something must have distracted me, a bird or something, and down I went.’

‘Come on. Upsadaisy.’

‘You’ll simply have to put me into a home,’ Mummy said as they made their halting progress back indoors.

‘We’ve been through that.’

‘Oh yes.’

‘You’re freezing! Come along. Back to bed for a bit or another cup of tea.’

‘More tea, I think. Then I want to get back to that article on bluetongue.’

There was an elegant dressing gown, in sea-green cashmere, kept on the back of the kitchen door in case of
unexpected visitors. Laura briskly slipped it over her mother’s arms and shoulders and fastened its belt. When she turned back from filling the kettle and lighting a gas ring, Mummy had instinctively shrugged it off.

‘Not cold,’ she said as Laura made to pick it up. ‘Don’t fuss so.’

Laura let the garment lie and watched her mother drop violently onto the ancient armchair where she spent much of her day.

Out-manoeuvred into irritable retirement, then imprisoned there by disability, Professor Jellicoe was still able to feel she kept her hand in, as she put it, by two or three compassionate younger colleagues and editors who ensured she was sent articles and books to review. Though largely sedentary, her days were therefore sometimes as full, if not as fulfilled, as when she had headed a research team of her own.

Laura’s father, Mr Lewis, had been blithely low-wattage, content always to take second place, and Laura had recently recognized in her own thoughts and behaviour around Mummy distinct traces of his only occasionally mocking respect for her mother’s innate superiority. Like him she had become her mother’s attendant vestal. Hips, ankles, neck, all might fail in time but were somehow less important than the flame of intellect they supported, which must still be fed and protected for the benefit of all.

This baggily floral throne, with laptop and telephone, printer and Keiller’s marmalade jar full of pens and
pencils crammed onto a coffee table close at hand, had effectively become Harriet Jellicoe’s office, a mahogany invalid table on little wheels, her desk. Assessing the situation soon after moving in, Laura had raised its seat with a stout layer of upholstery grade foam to make it easier for her to sink into but still Mummy could only get out of the thing unassisted by dropping a garden kneeler in front of her, rolling forward to land with her knees on that then clambering her way back to a standing position with the help of other bits of furniture. Before long the chair would have to be replaced with an electrified one that could gently let her down or tip her back out. Laura had brought back brochures from an eager salesman and tried to sell the idea on the basis of how comfortable such chairs were in full reclining mode but Mummy was still powerfully resistant.

‘That nasty velour would be sweaty on my skin,’ she said. ‘I’d never sit in it. It would be a waste of money.’

So for now they made do with the old chair, the garden kneeler and, in case of emergencies, an old china potty discreetly masked by a pile of back copies of
Journal of Virology
(and, increasingly,
Country Life
).

‘I pissed in that tea tree,’ Mummy observed as Laura set her fresh tea beside her. ‘But I don’t suppose any harm will come of it. Surprisingly itchy.’

‘Just be glad it wasn’t a berberis.’

‘I’d never plant berberis,’ she said hotly, as though the suggestion were demeaning.

‘I know,’ Laura said. ‘I was teasing. Sorry.’

Both her mother’s gardens had been free of thorns or plants like rue or euphorbia which gave rise to rashes. She made a single exception for roses and these were rarely of the thorniest types and were trained well away from paths or sitting areas.

Laura set the digestives tin on the trolley at Mummy’s elbow. ‘I’m going back up for a bit,’ she said. ‘Back soon.’

Mummy had already gone back to her laptop and the latest article for which she was writing a peer review and gave no acknowledgement so Laura slipped out to retrieve the day’s newspaper from the big wooden letter box on the back of the garden gate and took that and her own tea back to bed, leaving her to work in peace.

Before all this, years ago it seemed to her now, Laura had been living in Paris in a tiny apartment between the Rue de la Roquette and the Rue du Chemin Vert which she rented very reasonably in return for minor caretaking duties in a grander apartment three floors below which belonged to a largely absentee American ex of hers and his complacent wife.

Whenever fleeting contact with some successful contemporary prompted her to self-analysis, Laura perceived with a flush of feminist shame that her adult life, her life since university, had been mapped out in relationships not achievements. She had always been in work, never gone hungry, which was success of a sort, but work had never been more than a source of rent and food for her and it was a succession of men, not appoint
ments, that came to mind when she pictured her life story.

Already self-employed for some years, in her own peculiar accountancy field, she had moved to Paris at thirty in flight from the aftershocks of an especially misguided relationship with an alcoholic solicitor. In the deluded confidence of love she had believed at first she could save him from himself. When he realized her third attempt to break off with him had succeeded, he tried to take his life. Violently cured of delusion, she was driven away less by any terror of him, though she did fear meeting him without preparation, than by the hurtful condemnation of mutual friends who could not understand the necessity of her not even visiting him in hospital.

In a tiny, rented bedsit with no natural light, she licked her wounds and unexpectedly recovered her self-esteem with Graydon, an American banker who favoured the same little café she did for breakfast and took her on as a sort of challenge because she initially despised him, quite irrationally, for not being French. For nearly a year they had an immensely enjoyable affair, all lust and admiration with courtesy standing in for love.

The affair petered out just when he appeared to be establishing her as an official mistress. His Paris contract was considerably improved on renewal so he bought two apartments in the same building on the fringes of the Marais and persuaded her to move into the smaller one, little more than an extended
chambre de bonne
under the eaves. Even had regularity and domesticity not dimmed their ardour, Graydon brought a subtle, if risky, end to their involvement by introducing Laura to his wife. She liked the wife instinctively, as he surely guessed she would, and gradually realized she preferred lunching with her to sleeping with him. She stayed on in the tiny flat, however, because she still liked them both and they were away so often they needed a caretaker less recalcitrant towards Americans, and with better English, than the building’s concierge, someone to take in parcels, oversee decorators or to welcome occasional visitors who rented the bigger apartment in their longer absences.

She had spoken to Mummy regularly – far more so since her widowing – and arranged annual visits in either direction but had maintained a coolly loving distance for the most part, which had suited them both. Mummy wrote, gardened, attended conferences and was in every way the independent, elderly parent of every adult child’s dreams. But then she had tripped on a piece of uneven pavement or slipped on a leaf and found herself in hospital with a broken hip.

Only now, far too late in life for much useful treatment, did it emerge that she had advanced osteoporosis. This seemed especially cruel since it was usually the scourge of earth mothers, not mothers-of-one. A brace of surgeons pronounced her an unsuitable case for a hip-replacement so her broken bone was merely pinned – a repair that had left her wary and, it seemed, increasingly
crippled by pain. When she broke the ankle on the other leg, this time in her thickly screened garden, she lay there overnight and for several hours into a drizzly morning before someone heard her shouting for help.

At that point the permanent return from Paris became inevitable. Arriving at the hospital, Laura had faced a thinly veiled inquisition from a social worker. It wasn’t hard to explain how she could be so sure her mother’s unsuitable lack of clothes had nothing to do with senile confusion – given her upbringing, Laura was long past embarrassment – but she could tell the young man disbelieved her or was too easily disgusted, for all his training, to find the idea acceptable. She faced a similar problem when she looked into the possibility of retirement housing, even on a short-term basis. Even had Mummy found the prospect bearable, she could not have borne even the most kindly imprisonment if it meant having to wear clothes all day. And Laura doubted whether even Nordic countries had old peoples’ homes or sheltered housing where the residents could do the weeding with nothing on.

BOOK: The Whole Day Through
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