Saturday, July 16, 2011
Last Friday my mother left the home she has lived in since 1963 (she knows where she was when Kennedy died) and moved to a sheltered accommodation flat in Lewes. I had no idea how she was going to react to the change and worried that beyond her facade of stoic resignation, my mother might feel utterly miserable, but to my relief she seems blissfully happy in her new home. It's as if she has been released from a terrible burden.
The process of moving was quite frenetic. I'd been given ten days' notice and, in addition to working full time, I had to find a removal company, decorate the flat, get a carpet laid, install an electric cooker and assemble several kits of flatpack furniture.
Finding a removal company was particularly difficult: three answerphones (one of which had a 'comedy' message) and a wrong number. The final call also seemed liked a wrong number, as the phone was answered by an aristocratic gentleman called Peter,who sounded as if he'd taken too many drugs in the 60s.
The phone call began awkwardly, as Peter seemed reluctant to commit himself to anything, including the nature of his business. Perahps it was a wrong number, but I was desperate. Could Peter move my mother's possessions to Lewes? After many awkward silences and strange noises in the background, Peter said that he probably would be free on July 8th, but needed to check a few details. Could he phone me back in the evening?
A day passed and I hadn't heard a thing from Peter. I phoned him:
"Ah yes, Mr...er...I'm glad you phoned me because I don't appear to have your number. Anyway, July 11th should be fine in Storrington. What? July 8th in Teddington? Oh...well I'll have to check my diary...hmm...hmm...yes, that should be fine too."
My heart sank.
To move couldn't have been simpler: 30 boxes, three chairs and one fridge, but when Peter - a portly, ruddy-faced man in his late 50s - arrived an hour late (only a minute before my mother ceased to be the legal owner of her house), he seemed overwhelmed by the task ahead of him.
"You said there were 20 boxes," he complained. I patiently pointed out that they were very small boxes and would have filled 20 normal ones, but he was determined to feel hard done by, pointedly refering to the refrigerator as the "fridge-freezer", as if we'd deceived him.
My mother turned to me and in a whisper that you could hear 50 yards away, said "He's a drinker."
Suddenly a van door opened and a young man walked up the garden path. "This is my er...son," explained Peter. The young man said nothing, but slowly started to rearrange the boxes as if he was playing Tetris. This was going to take all day.
I went up to my bedroom for the last time. To my surprise, my life there flashed before my eyes in a slightly crass, cinematic manner. All that was missing was a soundtrack - maybe the oboe and harp version of the Crossroads theme tune that they used to play during particularly sad moments.
I thought of the time I first discovered Radio Four, when I was eight, and listened in the dark to Mrs Rochester's terrifying wails. I also remembered the patterned wallpaper that seemed to come alive and dance in the semi-dark; recording songs from the Top 20 on Sunday evenings; practising scales on my new piano, recovering from my first hangover; listening to late night phone-ins on LBC; being cold; the sound of trains trundling past; reading Enid Blyton by torchlight; and, when I was two, being carried around the house by Dad to show me that there were no strangers hiding.
I closed the door and said goodbye.
I went downstairs and told Peter that we were going to leave. We would wait for them in Lewes. All Peter had to do was leave the door on the latch and shut it behind him when he left. What could possibly go wrong?
Mum and I got in the car and as I turned the key in the ignition, I realised that this was it. We could never go back. I had expected this to be an emotional moment for my mother, but she was too preoccupied with an anecdote about Auntie Betty to even notice. I interupted Mum and said that we should say goodbye to the house. She looked back briefly and said "The funny thing is, I don't feel anything. I just want to get to the new place."
When I had arrived, all that Mum was concerned about was being able to make a cup of tea for the removal men. It took quite a lot of persuading before she agreed to let me pack the kettle and tea bags. Later, as we joined the M25, she said "Well, I'm glad I didn't make him a cup of tea now. He's absolutely useless. I wouldn't be surprised if he locks himself out of the house."
After 40 miles, the hazy outline of the South Downs appeared in the distance. It had been raining heavily for most of the journey and I worried about my mother's chairs getting wet. But as we drew closer to Lewes, the clouds broke and the sun appeared. "This is a good sign," my mother said.
As we entered the hall of the flats, I felt like a nervous parent taking their child to university or boarding school. How would my mother get on? Would she make friends? Would she wish that she'd stayed in Teddington? These questions had haunted me for the last few months.
Walking towards the lift, we heard a loud voice behind us: "Now, who's this trying to sneak past me without saying hello?" It was the house manager. We barely knew her, but she threw her arms around my mother as if she was a long-lost relative. It was a good start, but I was still anxious to see my mother's reaction to the flat.
I opened the door and let my mother go in first:
"Ooh, what a lovely carpet...cor, you've been busy...oh I like this...and you can see the hills...and the curtains aren't too bad...I might keep them...this is lovely, really lovely."
As we stood by the window, looking at the sheep grazing on the Downs, my phone rang:
"Hello, this is Peter...no, we're still in Teddington. The thing is, I did as you suggested and took the door off the latch and shut it behind me, but then I remembered that I'd left my briefcase in the kitchen and I really need it.What should I do?"
Several responses sprang to mind.
Peter and son eventually arrived three hours late. I decided to help them rather than waste another two hours and by 6.00, it was all over. At the end Peter was charm itself, wishing my mother a happy time in Lewes, recommending local places for a good lunch. We said goodbye and I comforted myself with the knowledge that I would never require Peter's services again.
One week on, I have been amazed by the ease with which my mother has adapted to her new circumstances. She seems genuinely happy in a way that I never dared to imagine was possible and I hope that without the burden of trying to manage a cold, damp house in a street with no shops, my mother still has at least another decade ahead of her.
The last few weeks have been exhausting, but they have also been a welcome distraction from the main thing that is going on in my life at the moment. Three weeks ago, my oldest son was diagnosed with a neurodevelopmental disorder (it's complicated, so I'll avoid labels for the moment).
On the one hand, this news is heartbreaking, but on the other it comes as a relief after five very difficult years that culminated in us having to take our son out of school. We now know why he has found ordinary life so difficult and, more importantly, we will now be able to get him the help he needs.
It's a great pity that some of the psychologists at CAMHS didn't recognise my son's condition earlier, as he could have been spared a lot of pain and distress. Instead, we were accused of trying to 'medicalise' our son and the spotlight was turned on our parenting skills. If we had seen a psychiatrist (as opposed to a psychologist) at the beginning, our lives might have followed a very different course.
I have avoided writing about this subject for a long time because I'm aware that the appeal of this blog, for many, is the things I come across in my job: the strange book covers, old photographs and Derek's diaries. But since my son's diagnosis, I have found it increasingly difficult to write the usual, mildly amusing blog posts whilst my life is undergoing what feels like a huge, techtonic shift.
I apologise for the self-indulgent nature of this post, but it has been cathartic. I will return to the Victorian photos, politically incorrect book covers and strange ephemera soon, but for the moment, this is what I needed to write.