Here is the latest in the series of short stories written by members of the 390-strong Portsmouth Writers’ Hub.
Her eldest daughter, Charlotta, used to laugh when she said this but inside, Charlie – as she was known – felt that her mum must have already started the long, cruel descent, otherwise the mother she knew wouldn’t have come up with that sort of statement.
That was in the days when Charlie could still distinguish between those isolated and brief periods of ‘madness’ and her mother’s normal self. Unlike now, where every hour of every day was spent in the deep dark forest of dementia.
Her madness at the beginning seemed to be mainly directed at Mr Morgan – poor man. He endured her mood swings and her manic outbursts, but he was increasingly confused and worried about them. He was still trying to figure it all out as he drew his last breath.
Mrs Morgan, though, lives on. One moment indomitable, the next like a pathetic child. Relationships do an about-turn when dementia creeps in. Mothers become children. Sons and daughters take on the parental role. ‘She is no longer my mum,’ Charlie often mutters to herself.
Mrs Morgan has been in the care home for nearly two years now, but this was merely the elapsed time.
In dementia time, she had been there since time began or she had just arrived, waking up to find herself in a strange bed in a clean and characterless room. Time no longer had any meaning.
Charlie entered her mum’s room to be greeted with her mother’s tiny figure, half sitting up, half lying down in her bed.
Barely five or six stones, she scratched haphazardly at her spindly bare legs. Her face contorted. Her bed clothes entangled around her body like a creeper.
Her prison is a state of the art NHS bed controlled by a handset with buttons to raise or lower any component part. The sides are up today because she has been making attempts to escape.
Charlie doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry. She has a momentary image of her mother scaling a wire fence with searchlights playing across her back.
Under the control of the care home with its inadequate staffing numbers, it boils down to a simple choice between resident imprisoned by raised side bars or resident on the floor with a broken hip.
As for Mrs Morgan, she only rails at the terrifying confusion surrounding her. She knows nothing of broken hips and side bars.
Why am I here. I don’t want to be here. I want to go home. Why is she crying? Whose mum, not my mum.
‘How are you today, mum?’
Charlie does not expect anything even approaching a reasonable reply. It’s just an opening gambit in the helpless exchange of half sentences that will fill the time of this visit.
Charlie knows that there is rarely any chance of developing a conversation. Her mum’s utterances exist in isolation like dissonant radio sounds.
Small groups of words issue from her mother’s dry mouth, leading nowhere, meaning even less.
Sentences start and quickly fade away as she can’t remember what she was going to say or she can’t find the right word and if she finds the right word, the sentence it didn’t belong to has long since dissolved into the air.
She doesn’t know anything. I can’t make her out. I can’t see you, Jack. I see your shape by the window, but that’s not you. You go. Get out!
‘It’s all right, mum. That’s just the curtains. There’s nobody there, just you and me.’
I know who YOU are!
This said with venom, spat at Charlie. Charlie is annoyed with herself. The nurses advise that you should play along with their hallucinations, not deny their existence.
They recommend that you avoid confrontation at all costs, but Charlie sometimes feels that she wants to get a passionate response from her mum, however misdirected and nonsensical it is.
Everybody has gone.
‘Who’s gone, mum?’
Another rookie mistake. Don’t question.
Everybody, everybody! Don’t you know…
Charlie rapidly changes the subject.
‘I’ve brought you some cake mum. I know how much you like cake.’
A nurse or care assistant – Charlie’s not sure which is which – puts Mrs Morgan back sitting up with her pillows supporting her back and her bed clothes untangled and folded over her knees.
Mrs Morgan is fed liquidised meals because she won’t eat enough solid food. But cake is consumed straight out of the packet and voraciously.
It is as if, Charlie wonders, that amongst all her mother’s dying brain cells there is one cell that functions perfectly well. Unfortunately, this cell only controls cake-eating.
Charlie tries to bring her mother’s thoughts round to happier times. It is an approach she tries at most visits.
‘It’s a lovely day today. A bit cold still.’ This said to deter thoughts of being taken out in the wheelchair for what would be an entirely traumatic experience.
‘Do you remember when you used to take me to that big park near to where Great Aunt Alice used to live in her new council flat? You would push me on the swings and I’d try and kick you when you turned your back.
‘You would stagger about, pretending I had caught you, and I would howl with laughter. Do you remember that, mum?’
What are talking to me like that for? I don’t know about... anything. They’re waiting there… by the...
Charlie remained expressionless. How else could she be? She walked over to the window in her mum’s bedroom.
There was a park opposite the home. Charlie watched as a woman walked hand in hand with a child along the pathway through the park.
Charlie watched the girl and adult intently, trying to make out their features, to see how they felt. She watched until they had disappeared from view.