We had carers in the house for over eleven years and, in all honesty, they were some of the most wonderful people I’ve ever known.
They thundered through the hallway, and brewed tea until you could stand a spoon up in it, but they genuinely felt for my mother.
So often, there’s talk but little else, about the abuses older people have suffered at the hands of those who are charged with administering their care.
We barely caught a glimpse of that.
It’s a high-turnover industry. The duties of caring take a lot of strength to achieve. I suppose some people drift into it but those who have a real talent for caring suffer quite badly. Visiting a person daily, being immersed in their lives, absorbed into the fabric of a household, learning their likes and dislikes: it can’t fail to hurt to watch somebody – at least, not getting better. I have nothing but respect for people who can do this.
Between the six agencies my mother got through during the worst of her illness, we must have had a couple of hundred carers. They saw her through coughing fits, fractures, and lowering the dose. They saw me through teenage funk, alternative mascara, moodiness and various perfectly legal but not especially healthy habits.
There was one girl who turned on the gas hob, failed to light it properly and nearly killed us all when she went for a cigarette. She was an exception.
Another said that my mother could leap out of bed and do a tap dance if she gave her heart to the Lord. That girl might have met with the Lord a lot sooner than she would have expected except that I was stuck at work.
She didn’t last.
To reassure you – I didn’t personally finish her. I called the agency and said if she ever came back my next call would be to the police.
My mother had an excellent, if rather full memory. It’s something that happens when you get older, I’m told. Things that happened thirty years ago are crystal-clear, surround-sound and technicolour. The capital of Lichtenstein is another matter entirely.
She had the words, they just didn’t come as freely as they once did.
One day, as I came through the door fresh from work and a missing dry cleaning delivery, a rather frazzled carer met me on the porch.
“Your mother says there’s a place,” she started, wild-eyed, “near Iraq. Beginning with ‘M’.”
I’d had many conversations that headed this way.
“Tell her Kuwait,” I answered.
The girl went through to the bedroom, shaking her head and muttering. She returned to me a little grey-faced. I was right.
I see this more and more in myself as I get older. It’s either near Iraq or it begins with M. It might just as easily have been Maidenhead.
One area where there was difficulty was the closeness.
The carers looked after my mother in all her illness, in her nightie, in the bathroom. It was the job, but the balance of intimacy was off.
They resolved this with surprising ease when they started telling my mother about their love lives.
One of the carers had a rather muddled romantic attitude. My mother especially enjoyed their talks.
“I’ve been with my husband for a long time. Well, he’s not really my husband,” she clarified, “but, you know, as good as. It used to be good. He understands me. Really well, actually, we hardly talk to each other.
“Thing is, he doesn’t think about presents, or flowers, anything like that. And we don’t even sleep together anymore..” she sighed, disappointed.
My mother shook her head. She didn’t need to know.
“Anyway, I’ve got this boyfriend. He’s lovely to me. He takes me out to dinner and the pictures, we have proper dates. He buys me jewellery and..”
My mother raised what would have been an eyebrow, but had become a drawn on line. As if she was always quizzical. She got inspired by David Bowie in the seventies and just like that, the eyebrows were sacrificed.
“This is not the husband?” she asked.
The carer choked, “Oh God no! Anyway, he wants me to move in with him. I’m not convinced. We sleep together but it’s not earth-shattering. He’s a very nice man, though. It’s just that I’d have to get my post redirected and who needs the hassle?”
My mother shook her head. There was nothing to say.
“So anyway, there’s this guy I’m seeing, and he’s amazing. No question, he’s the best I’ve ever had, but he doesn’t want to be serious. He doesn’t buy me things, and I don’t know if we have anything in common, but he’s like a Viking in the bedroom.”
This was much more than my mother needed to know. Deep down, I’m sure she would have told the girl that if things were truly tickety-boo with her husband, she wouldn’t have seen the other guys; that the fella who bought her things but didn’t rock her lady-parts was sounding like a client; and that the new man, if truly worth it, would wait until she’d worked on herself.
“So, what should I do?” the carer asked.
“Enter a convent,” my mother answered.
When I was around eighteen, the head of the carers’ agency called me at home. She had spoken to me before, of course, but only because I tended to be the one to answer the phone before passing her on to my mother.
This time, she said, she wanted to speak to me. This was odd. I had no idea what she would want to talk to me about.
She had thought I was younger, she told me, and as such hadn’t thought that we would need to have this conversation for some time. However, one of the carers had seen a birthday card, hence the call.
No. Still no closer.
I was eighteen, she told me. I was aware.
As an eighteen year old, there may be times, she explained, when I might want to go out for the evening.
Totally clueless. I couldn’t drive yet, and if I wanted to get out for the evening, I’d have to take a bus into town and then, I suppose it was conceivable I could get a taxi home but that could get expensive and – nope, I got nothing.
She spelt it out.
“You might want to go out for the night. To stay over – somewhere. With – someone.”
She was almost as uncomfortable as me.
“Thing is,” she said, “if that’s something that might happen, would you mind calling me first? If you could, I’d only need a couple of weeks’ notice and then I can sort out cover for the night.”
I don’t know where my response came from. I must have been channelling my mother from the next room.
“Steph,” not her real name, “are you saying that if I want to get laid, I should call you?”
Cue several seconds of choking noises before I hung up.