Mum is off to bed. One less thing to worry about. When they are asleep, the place is calm, quiet, beyond the arrhythmic thud and thump of the heating. You can do what you like then. Except I tend to fall asleep as well. First though, we must gather mum’s stuff before she climbs the stairs.
Unsupervised at this hour she will load herself up with things on every limb: books, a handbag (worn around the neck), tissues, spectacles, glass of milk. It is unwatchable, her tottering upwards, laden with goods. The disaster is implicit in the exercise – like the kid’s game Buck a Roo – it must eventually go wrong.
So, I try and be there for the ascensions, until the great ascension*. I have learned not to question why certain things are deemed necessary for a good night’s sleep – the heavy handbag that is her equivalent of the case with the nuclear codes the president has always nearby – but tonight she calls for something that really blows my mind.
“Where is Peter?” she asks. One is ever vigilant for dementia so this name, not a pet or a person I know of, is troubling as she trundles off (I am carrying all her stuff at this point and so, for once, less able) and comes back toting an old doll’s head from who knows where.
Peter it turns out was her childhood toy, beloved since the late 1920’s, and his severed countenance is deployed still in times of trouble for support and comfort. I’ve been back here six months and spent eighteen straight years living with the woman, but I have never seen or heard of Peter before. Yet here he is, dark eyed and ghostly pale. My mother holds him out, as though playing Hamlet.
“I am like him.” She announces. She tilts Peter’s porcelain head and his eyelids fall. “I lie back, I close my eyes.” Then she climbs the stairs, Peter’s head under her arm like a cartoon spectre. I am touched, too. Upset, I suppose. You get ambushed by the feelings set otherwise aside. When I see these old folks as kids, and sometimes it shines through so clearly, I wonder what it says about who we are underneath all this accumulated and invisible time and expectation? Stretched and desiccated babies baffled by a race we never meant to run.