“Just got a touch of flu today,” fibbed the luckless addict in the 1980’s anti-drugs campaign. 30 years later and flu has become the preferred narrative in our house since Mum took to her bed and stayed there, accepting little more than Lemsip and offering nothing but tissues and phlegm and what you might call a new, continuous cough, but I don’t.
This is not an old lady who stays in bed lightly, so we know something unusual is up. Dad is downstairs, as ever. Forever. And I am suspended between the two of them. Halfway up the stairs. As in the song, “A little mouse with clogs on…” The mouse is me; the clogs are all this grown-up, growing old stuff. It just doesn’t fit somehow. We order some Covid tests. Better to know, right? Better to be sure.
The day of the tests become a test in itself. In the movie Goodfellas the climactic sequence is a day in which the lead character has to drop off some guns, make dinner for his family, take one of them to hospital, organise a drug deal while taking a lot of drugs and being followed by a helicopter which might just be a figment of his imagination. Today becomes my version of that.
Mum says she feels worse, can’t get up, and Dad’s morning carer is two hours late. The postman drops off the tests and runs away from the house when I open the door as if the place were about to explode. I envy him. My sister, who ordered the tests texts me to ask if the tests are here since she has had an email saying they are but wants to check anyway.
Next I have to register the tests online, unpack them without contaminating them and get Mum and Dad’s medical info together which ought to be centralized or embedded in my memory but instead is scattered all over the house, bits of paper and prescriptions and DNR’s all over the place like deathly confetti. Mum calls me from upstairs, Dad from downstairs. All the ordinary things need doing and it also takes time to explain to them both that I am going to test them and what that means and how and why.
The test registration page is a seven-page online accumulator that won’t let you save the information you’ve input, and which crashes every time I get to the end. I try multiple times from multiple browsers while simultaneously dialling into the government’s Covid helpline which like the website is overwhelmed and thus no help at all. Meanwhile I have to navigate the ongoing argument between two of Dad’s carers and my sister about the antibiotics he needs for his foot which has turned purple again. When the two hours late morning carer has made his position clear he retires to the toilet here for 20 minutes which is entirely fair enough – he starts work early and you’ve gotta go sometime, but now mum is in the upstairs bathroom and I need to go and then my sister comes around and explains her view on things to me from the drive since she won’t come in the house since she’s asthmatic but that means I have to stand out on the drive to hear her and it’s freezing and I’m not really dressed yet so then I feel like I’m getting a cold. The real headline is nothing is getting done but I’m done with government portals which must be quieter later, right? So I go out for a drive.
When I get back mum is back in bed. I lure her downstairs for some soup, let in the next carer for Dad and then try to register the tests again. The online system still won’t work but eventually I get to the final level of options on the phone and speak to someone who says they can do it though it’s too late to drop the tests off for collection today but what the hell, yes of course.
Except… I’m calling for two people without emails or cell phones and I’d like their results sent to the phone of a third person who isn’t me, and no their address isn’t my address or this number my number and so we are on the phone for thirty minutes using the phonetic alphabet to relay and recheck 11 digit numbers while not mixing the tests up and because tomorrow is Sunday a courier will have to come and collect them and he might come at 8am so I will have to wake my parents in the dark and swab them an hour before this but then again the courier might not get here till four, so who knows and who can possibly say? Either way, I’m in all day tomorrow until he comes.
Mum tries to get upstairs without using the stairlift and as I come down to intercept her I fall down the stairs and cut my hand open on the teeth of the stairlift rail. There on the stairs. Right there. I have been here for two weeks which now feels like one long day since I can’t visit anyone else because of the restrictions and I really, truly, want to get out of here.
I call my sister who says just leave the tests on the step since its colder than the fridge and makes no concession to the fact that I have given an entire day to organizing this now and so am in some way expert, before telling me what she thinks and then asking me for unknown unknowns about stuff we can’t possibly know about until the tests — which I can’t administer till the morning — have come back. My frustration is audible, to put it mildly. She says I should have texted her if I didn’t want to talk but last time I texted her she rang me up to talk anyway. We hang up. She texts me another question about next week – so there. I call my brother – who has Covid and is now worse than he was yesterday.
Now it’s evening. Dad is obsessed with strawberries and the trade-off for having to find them is that they do at least cheer him up, so I don’t mind getting them for him. This being January they have been flown in from Egypt which is funny since I call his room ‘Pharaoh’s Oven’ which sounds like a Cairo pizza joint but it’s just because the place is full of stuff and clutter he appears to want with him into the afterlife and it is always very, very hot.
“Luck is a big thing in life” – says Dad as he sets about his strawberries. He is gearing up for one of his occasional speeches, but Mum has called me upstairs again since she wants half a glass of water. Fear of spills and arthritic joints mean we deal in halves of everything now but that of course means all things happen twice as often and I set the alarm for 6 AM and lie down since tomorrow is another day though not, I hope, like this one. But if it is, well that is that, and then another line from the old drug campaigns comes back to me, another addict’s mantra: “I can handle it” Well, we’ll see. Luck is a big thing in life, apparently.