The first time I went to Chester Zoo I just wandered off into the abyss of legs and feet glancing at the big eyes of the captive beasts.
Children shouted and parents pointed. I had no idea where I was and I didn’t care. It was a sunny day and I was in a wonderful place. Somewhere by the sea-lions my parents caught up with me. They looked red. Dad was panting because smoking and running about in a crowded area like a headless chicken do not go well together.
He gave up soon after. Which brings me to Mum.
Two months into the giving up, I saw my mum and Auntie Agnes lighting up in the living room of 10 Berwyn Road. (My Auntie’s house.) “I’m telling,” I squealed in disappointment. The ensuing admonishment was instant and rapier-like.
I felt disappointed. For the next twenty plus years, I awoke every morning to the faint smell of cigarette smoke drifting through the house from the back yard all the way up to the front bedroom. I felt the same way as I did in Auntie’s living room. I wanted her to stop. She knew it. She knew my dad knew but it wasn’t enough. The big shock came in 2000 when she’d been rushed into hospital after my dad found her crawling on her knees in the back yard gasping. She still had a fag on.
Yet despite the scare my dad still had to seize her little sticks of comfort and pleasure and crush them during one of her late night yard visits.
I don’t know if she ever smoked after that. It pales into insignificance with what was to come next.
My mum developed dementia. To see the person who had brought you up and gave everything for you turning into a stranger is the saddest thing I have ever known.
“And do you know who this is?” asked the doctor pointing at me. “I think his name begins with S,” she replied. How do you control the anger and frustration? It was darkness. This darkness lasted another two years. That’s two years of confusion and hurt. I turned up at the house once to find one of their wedding pictures torn in half. She was denying their years together. Dad was recovering from his second stroke. He had no chance. When she left us in October of 2005, it was a feeling of being cheated.
In an ideal world, Mum would have nodded in agreement at everything Dad said, expanded on it and then made sure he was looked after and loved just like it had always been. But it never happened. The end was desperate. My mum assumed she was no longer loved and died in a hospital bed all alone. Of course she knows the truth now. In the far reaches of her tortured mind, she also knew then. But Mum was a serial carer. She was dedicated to her three boys and my dad Joe.
Every Monday she would come home from work and get the boat and bus up to my Nan’s in Fazakerly. The cottage pie she’d made in the morning and lunch time was always simmering away deliciously in the oven.
We’d sit on the sofa and watch a western with my dad. It could have been High Chaparral or Hondo Lane. Boys’ bonding time. Now you know the relief you feel when you hear the front door open and close? Mum was home and we’d ask her all sorts of questions about everything. It was the family at the end of the day, back together again.
As we grew older the westerns stopped but we still had the cottage pie and the sense of togetherness at the end of the day. Mum wasn’t always the last one in but it was still the sense of getting through the first day of the week and being a family, laughing and joking about the day’s events with tea, coffee, sarcasm and love.
Now the 8620 business; in 1977, my parents finally had a phone installed. It stood proud on the top of the electric cupboard. It was creamy white and made that satisfying whirr as you dialled a number. “8620?” would be the greeting my mum gave to our callers. It was said in a questioning tone with my mum’s unmistakable articulation. It was a mixture of hope and dread.
One of the first calls they had to take was regarding my car accident somewhere near Delamere Forest. Just over a year later there was a call about my younger brother’s accident. But after that Mum’s answer was beginning to become a popular routine. Friends began to do their own version of her famous greeting. The accuracy of such impersonations varied wildly. Some would make her sound like Dot from Eastenders whilst some verged on he positively aggressive. Mum was never aggressive but that was the price of legend.
Of course, my impersonation was the best. (What else would I say?) If anyone was calling for me, there was a good chance that I was out. “When will he be back?” the little voice would ask. “Oh I don’t know,” Mum would reply. “He never says.” There would be a hint of pride in my mother’s voice. She loved all three of us getting on and doing things.
Mum would often be seen chatting to neighbours in the road about what the three of us were up to. I’m not sure if she ever realised that Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells were two different places but that was part of the charm. Every year between 1995 and 2002, both my parents would spend a week down South with me. It was an adventure for all of us. Mum and Dad were delighted to meet my friends. My dear mother would find stories and anecdotes to make any son cringe. I smiled and bought another round. I cannot possibly write down all that my mum meant to me. But to so many others she was the voice of 8620 and she had spent her whole life grafting for the good of the family. She would often get in from work after we’d come home from school. Then she’d get straight into the role of the domestic goddess. She never asked us to do anything other than nip down the road for some milk.
The dementia seemed so unfair. It was unfair on her. Those last two years were an enormous burden on my father and elder brother. I could go on about our Tom and the way we could wind each other up but during that time he took on the mantle of the true eldest son. He wasn’t prodigal, just supportive.
The end was sad; sad for those lost years when someone is still with us but they’re losing the reality of their history. The last time I saw my mum alive was in a hospital bed. She was deep inside an incident from her past. She didn’t recognise me. Thank-you for reading.