Dear Readers, with the audit at work over and my period of full-time work at an end, I was able to head west to Dorchester to visit Dad. I have been so anxious about work this past few weeks that it was a relief to get back to some sort of normality – I think that I have been so worried and upset about Mum and Dad over the past few years that the slightest stress plunges me into a state of nervous agitation. I did read somewhere that once your cortisol levels have been consistently raised it takes a very long time for them to return to normal, and so I suppose that’s why these basically trivial concerns have loomed so large. While the rational part of me knows that no one is going to die if I’ve done something wrong in the audit preparation, my body still thinks that maybe someone is actually going to die if the salary calculations are out. And then there’s that pesky perfectionism again. What would it feel like, I wonder, to drop all pretence that I can control everything? The very thought makes me anxious and so I shelve it, for now.
I get to the nursing home, and Dad is nowhere to be seen. I go to his room and there he is, curled up on the bed like a baby, deeply asleep. He is just finishing a course of antibiotics, and they generally knock him for six.
I go to my bed and breakfast, unpack, watch an episode of ‘Escape to the Country’ for light relief, and head back. Dad is still asleep. It’s a pleasure to see him sleeping so peacefully though – for years he’s been a very agitated sleeper, I think because he was worried about Mum, who had a habit of falling out of bed.
And so it’s back to the bed and breakfast, and more television. Strangely enough, although it’s good to rest, it doesn’t actually help with the anxiety, which is there in the background, searching for something to be anxious about. Whenever I find something it’s like an electric shock of fear – heart racing, mouth dry, sometimes even a cold sweat.
Next morning, I decide that what I need more than anything else before I pop into see Dad again is a walk, so I head down the High Street to the riverside walk that we discovered at Christmas. I want to see where it goes, and how it connects to the rest of the town. It’s freezing cold but bright and breezy after the storms of the past few days.
The white stag, a remnant of the old inn that once stood on the site, marks the spot where I turn left and onto the path.
The white stag
The water is high, and rushing along, and there is no handrail, which adds a pleasant frisson of jeopardy. After all, if I tumbled in I would have more to worry about than our procurement policy. There is a handsome gothic angel sitting on top of the wall opposite, head in hands. I wonder if I would have noticed it if my current state of mind wasn’t so peculiar.
There were a few mallards here in December, but now the breeding season is in full swing. One duck is being pursued by three drakes, and very sensibly escapes onto the bank to avoid their attentions.
Further along the stream I notice another duck swimming as hard as she can into the current, two drakes behind her. The flow of the water is dragging her back towards them, and I think that she can’t get up the momentum to fly away. I wonder what genetic accident has made the ‘courtship’ of these animals so brutal – females are often injured and sometimes even drown during what looks to me like a gang-rape. Surely this can’t be beneficial for the species as a whole?
Duck swimming into the current, hotly pursued by drake.
And then there are what I think of as the ‘smug married’ ducks, who have found a partner and are all paired up already. They are dozing peacefully in the water-plants by the side of the stream, occasionally opening one lazy eye to watch the shenanigans going on all around them, and if that’s not a metaphor for something I don’t know what is.
I take a detour through the tiny nature reserve even though I can clearly see that the boardwalk has turned into a ‘road to nowhere’.
The boardwalk through the nature reserve
I have noticed how each local area seems to have a weedy ‘spirit’ and around here it’s definitely the cuckoo-pint. The damp woods are bursting with them, mostly the native British species (Arum maculatum) with its bright green leaves, but a few examples of the Italian species (Arum Italicum) as well. It will be interesting to pop back in the summer to see it in flower. I love that this species generates its own heat to attract insects to pollinate it. All the old scientific certainties (about what is and isn’t ‘cold-blooded’ for example) continue to fall away as we learn more and more.
Leaves of British cuckoopint (Arum maculatum)
Leaves of Italian cuckoopint (Arum italicum)
And there are the heart-shaped leaves of that spring ephemeral lesser celandine, with its yellow flowers just appearing here in the shade, though already in full bloom at Dorchester South station.
I love the reflections. It’s possible, just for a moment, to lose track of what is up and what is down, what is real and what is a mirror image.
And then it’s back onto the main path, where someone has provided some bird feeders, and the sparrows are taking full advantage.
I follow the stream on around the back of the deserted prison, which is still waiting to be redeveloped. There is a path on the bank opposite which is no longer accessible to the public, and I see that a whole meadow of snowdrops has sprung up. It seems to me more beautiful for its isolation, and I am reminded that I was going to buy some bulbs in the green this year, having had minimal success with snowdrop bulbs planted in the autumn.
As usual, I notice that I have slowed down enough to start to use all of my senses now. I am taken with the sound of the water as it rushes past a wall and narrows into the smaller stream, and I see how the swirls of the water eddy out and around, each one similar but subtly different.
I notice the red stems of the dogwood in the scrappy woodland next to the path.
And, buried in the woodland I notice the yellow paintwork of some ancient and semi-derelict machinery, the seat torn, rust showing through. How expensive it must have been to buy, and how strange that someone would just leave it to become a pile of scrap metal.
Ahead, I see a low stone three-arched bridge, and some sluices for controlling the flow of the water from one stream to another – I have now reached a confluence of at least three streams. To my immediate right, water has been diverted from the stream running ahead.
The path continues to a junction where I can follow the river left or right, and next time I think I might head right and see where that goes to. But today, I need to head back to the nursing home to see if Dad is mercifully awake, and so I head uphill and away from the river for today.
When I get to the nursing home, Dad is sitting in his favourite seat, next to the nurse’s station. It often takes me a second to recognise him – I think I am still expecting to see the bearded Dad with an Elvis Presley quiff who was his previous incarnation, rather than this frail, clean-shaven man with a side-parting. But he recognises me, or at least knows that I’m someone. His face brightens and that is worth everything.
We decide to go out for a coffee, and I get Dad wrapped up and pop his new hat on his head. Then we find a wheelchair, and off we go. Dorchester is a fairly hilly place, and so it’s an extremely good upper body workout. I was hoping to take Dad to the pub for lunch, but he wants to get back for lunch at the home. I suppose I should be happy that he feels so comfortable there, and wants to preserve his routine.
As we joggle across the cobbles, I notice that the hat has shifted so Dad can’t see a thing. I adjust it.
‘Thank you’, he says, ‘I thought the lights had gone out’.
We sit in the coffee shop, and Dad decides he doesn’t like the coffee. He eats a Portuguese custard tart with great enthusiasm though, and watches the usual stramash as people try to maneuver their prams through the maze of tables and chairs.
‘They could do with one less table in here’ he says, sagely.
And then it’s time for lunch, so we head back to the home. Today it’s chicken pie, and we chat with one of the other residents who has terrible arthritis in her hands but doesn’t seem to have dementia (though it can be hard to tell). Dad tells her that he’s going to have an operation on his hip. If he is, that’s the first that I’ve heard of it. He also tells us that he was in France last week. I think this unlikely, but when I have a chat with the staff nurse I discover that, no, he isn’t having any kind of surgery, but that, actually, the France thing is semi-true – the middle floor has been done up to look like a cruise ship, and every month they have a themed day for a particular country, with appropriate food and music and activities. Last week it was France, and it’s something of a bonus that Dad,who will probably never travel abroad again, thinks he’s been across the Channel.
I try to tell Dad that he isn’t going to have an operation, breaking my usual habit of meeting him where he is rather than imposing what’s ‘real’.
‘So, I’m not having the operation today’, he says.
‘You’re not having an operation at all, Dad’, I say.
He thinks for a minute.
‘Well, it’s good to know that i’m not having it today. I’m sure they’ll take me down when it’s time’.
I give up. It’s time to go and do some shopping for Dad (Polo mints and some kind of after-shave balm with no alcohol).
‘I’ll be back again later on Dad’, I say as I head off on my errands.
And he turns to the other resident and says
‘Yep, she’s going to be in to bore me to death for the next few days’.
And, strangely enough, I see something of the old Dad in this. He used to hate to be ‘crossed’ or argued with, and prided himself on the way that he would ‘get someone back’ if they upset him. I wonder if he was annoyed because I had tried to put him right about the operation?
‘Oh Dad!’ I said. I was about to say something cutting and sarcastic, but what’s the point?
‘Only joking’, he said, in a way that was also typical Dad.
Much as I loved both my parents, they weren’t saints. But with Dad, his determination not to be bested has probably been an asset when I balance everything up. And I know he loves me, because his heart is on show now in a way that he would never allow before he had dementia.
Now, I just have to think of an extremely non-boring outing for next time that I visit. Maybe sky-diving or something.
Dad in his new hat, wearing his Christmas tie.