Dear Readers, the most beautiful tree in Milborne St Andrew stands next to a cottage that looks as if it’s peeping over the fence. I look for the tree whenever I arrive. It is variegated in cream and green and when the leaves first open it looks like a great pistachio-tinged cloud. It’s strange how Milborne has become a second home to me, a devout London woman who always thought that the country was overrated. What’s brought me to this realisation has been my gradual exploration of the village in all weathers, over years: I know where the scarlet pimpernel blooms, where the rookeries are, where you can spot a yellowhammer if you’re lucky and patient. I have grown to love this place, and the people who live there. It has humbled me with its goodness and patience, its friendliness and its unexpected wildness.
I visit Milborne St Andrew to visit my eighty-something parents every month, and I am usually on a mission. Sometimes it’s to sort out a problem with the computer, to organise some home repairs or to accompany Mum or Dad on a visit to the hospital. But this time, it was to begin to sort out a cruise. All things being equal, we are hoping to travel next summer. It has been a conundrum to plan: the ship needs to be ‘big but not too big’, the location needs to be both ‘hot’ and ‘not too hot’ and the timing needs to fit in with not only Mum and Dad but also me and my friend J, who is coming with us.
But first, Mum and Dad need to renew their passports. They’ve been too unwell to travel during the past few years, so their passports have expired and they need new photographs. Fortunately, you can renew your passport online these days if you’ve already had one, and I can recommend it as an experience. I take several photos of Dad standing against a white door (for the requisite Plain Background) and my main problem is that he can’t stop himself from smiling.
‘Look serious!’ I bellow, with little effect.
Finally, we get a shot where his eyes are twinkling but his mouth is pretty much horizontal. I just hope that cheery eyes are allowed. At least it got past the Computerised Pedant in the online application form, who gives me a big green tick.
Then it’s Mum’s turn.
Mum is very unsteady on her feet, and has severe scoliosis, which means that she can’t hold her head up. Plus, she seems to have developed a head tilt. I take photos, pop them into the online application, and the Computer Says No.
‘ You Do Not Appear To Be Looking At The Camera’ it says, probably because Mum’s head is just a little out of the vertical.
I position her in front of the door, gently move her chin to the vertical, crouch down and fire off some more shots. I feel like David Bailey photographing a supermodel (for those of you old enough to remember who the hell David Bailey was). Dad helps by shouting advice from his reclining chair.
‘ Keep still, Syb!’ he says. ‘You’re moving about all over the place!’
‘ I can’t help it Tom’, she says, wobbling.
And somehow I manage to grab a shot between wobbles that satisfies the Computerised Pedant, and the longed-for green tick appears.
This morning I despatched the old passports, for the processing can’t start without them. And then we will see.
It is bittersweet, all this planning for the future. Today, Dad goes to Dorchester Hospital for a CT scan. The doctor is worried by Dad’s persistent cough, and his unexpected two-stone weight loss. Dad is worried by the logistics – he can’t breathe properly if he lays flat on his back because of his COPD. He has packed his dressing gown and his slippers, but he keeps getting up and down. Dad is not normally worried by these things, but today he is very on edge. And of course he won’t find out the results straight away. We are all concerned about what it might be, and we are all putting a brave face on it. Hopefully it will be nothing.
I look out of the window, and the rhubarb is in full flower. I have never seen such a thing. If I don’t cut down this magnificent florescence the rhubarb will die, and so, after taking a photo I hack it down, much to the disgust of a nest of ants who come tumbling out of the ground like lava.
And then I take myself out for a walk, as usual. Opposite the village hall there is a bubbling stream which comes from under a culvert, runs along merrily past a wall emblazoned with red valerian and ivy-leaved toadflax, turns a sharp left, then a sharp right, and finally disappears into a field. Along the whole way, the water crowfoot is in flower. Near a wall, where the current is slack, there is a raft of white petals entangled in stems and leaves.
Where the current is faster there are flowers in bloom, their heads lifted above the water on stiff stems, presumably so that their pollinators don’t drown. And the long stems and leaves undulate in the water like grass snakes. They are like the blossom-encrusted manes of water horses, galloping just below the surface. I watch, entranced, for a while, as the invisible currents and eddies of the water are made manifest by the movement of the plants. And I ask myself how life would be if I could be so emotionally supple, so able to submit to the subtle undertows and whirlpools and obstacles of life. Instead, I seem to believe that I can stare down the illness and death that stalks my parents with sheer force of will. I know that this is illogical, but part of me thinks that the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse themselves would blench when confronted by the love that a child has for their parents.
And then I leave the stream and head home. On the way I pass a patch of ramping fumitory, growing at the bottom of a wall. This is the only place I know where this plant grows, with its lipstick-pink and indigo flowers on their thread-like stems. Every year it dies back to nothing, and every spring it comes back, along with the heavy-headed poppies and the martial hedge mustard.
I pick one of the flowers, and take it back for Mum and Dad.
‘What do you think this is?’ I ask Dad. He takes it in his cold, numb fingers, almost drops it, picks it up again, twirls it.
‘Not sure’, he says, ‘some kind of clover?’
‘It’s ramping fumitory’, I say, ‘not sure what family it’s in, but I can see why you’d say clover’.
I show it to Mum.
‘Pretty’, she says.
And I realise that what I’m trying to do is to bring the outside world into the house for them, to say ‘this is what delights me, I hope it delights you too’. Doesn’t life call to life, after all? I want to turn their faces to the sun, to the world beyond the four walls that surround them. I want them to have both hope for the future and joy in the present moment. There is such a delicate dance between what I want for Mum and Dad, and what they want for themselves, and there is a fine line between ‘enabler’ and ‘bossyboots’. But I so want them to be able to eke each last drop of nectar out of their day, to go to bed having experienced something new and interesting, to feel that progress is still possible.
And now, I have to go. I’ve a cruise to arrange.