I rather wish he hadn’t, but our young Australian houseguest reminded me at dinner last night that the longest day is fast approaching. He comes from near Adelaide, where night falls comparatively early, even in the height of the summer. As part of his grand tour of Europe, he has spent a couple of days on Skye, where the sun barely sets.
June is racing by in a frenzy of activity. I’m ticking off landmarks with depressing rapidity. Last week, old friends from London flew into our nearby white-elephant airport and we watched Rafael Nadal stroll through another men’s final at Roland Garros. It doesn’t seem long ago that I was watching a profile of two young great white hopes, due to play each other in their first French Open: Nadal v Gasquet. We all know what happened to the boy from the Balearics with the winning smile and the humungous biceps. And some will know what happened to the mercurial Gasquet, who never quite got his act together – despite his imperious backhand.
The clay-court shenanigans are over for another year. Meanwhile, nearer to home, our magnificent front-of-house rose, which still stubbornly refuses to reach the first-floor balcony, is in full bloom. It was The Daughter’s hope that she would be back home for the summer to see it in its pomp, but already it’s heavy with flower and bowed from the onslaught of all this unseasonable rain. Despite all the banana skins I have laid by its stem and despite all the stones I have spread to stop Myrtle peeing in its vicinity, the leaves are beginning once more to turn from a succulent green to a black-spotted yellow.
All is not lost, though. The climbing rose that we planted out back a mere three years ago is invading the side terrace. Every time I open the door, its perfume pervades the air, alive with the activity of bees that have thus far managed to survive the poisons of Big Aggro-Chemical. With luck and a fair headwind, the kid should be back in time to catch its grace and majesty.!(upload://3Y78G5WJdbHUNPEqJQo4aFjoq41.jpg)
Her first academic year, the year of torture, is over. For all the desperate telephone calls and the familiar congenital plaints of I am not worthy, nor gifted enough, she waltzed through her ‘jury’ and came out top of her class. So she has committed herself to textile design and booked another two years, which means that her father will have to roll up his sleeves and commit himself to Work with a serious capital W. She’s enjoying some time off for good behaviour at present in the form of a stay oop north with her grandma. She stopped off to see her friend Alice, who’s finishing her first year at Leeds University. Tilley had more fun in two days in that dour Yorkshire city than she did in a whole year of gay Paree. I just seem to get on so much more easily with English people, she told me apologetically on the phone.
So, very soon it will be Wimbledon. They’re already in training for grass at the Queen’s Club. Before that: cometh my father’s 86th birthday. He survived his operation thanks to the miracles of modern-day keyhole surgery. When I went to see him the following day at Southampton General, he was sitting up in bed looking chipper and explaining the procedure to my brother-in-law. I can’t even attempt to explain how they send their cameras and surgical equipment up through an artery and then fiddle, cut and stitch – or whatever it is they do – any more than I can get my head around the concept of storing music and photographs on a chip the size of a sliver. Suffice to say that he told me before I left for home that he felt fine – apart from a bruised bladder and a blocked bowel.
Subsequently, his wound – tiny enough – has started to weep. It’s nothing serious, but it means that one of my already hard-pressed sisters has to take him regularly to the local health centre for a change of dressing. Which means leaving my mother alone while he’s gone. She did her fair share of weeping while I was serving my time at Punishment Park. It’s bizarre how dementia befuddles your thoughts. At times, I found her wandering lost and confused on the first-floor landing, wondering perhaps where her ‘brother’ was and not knowing her eldest son from Adam. At other times, we would sit and have the kind of easy, intimate, natural conversations that I’ve never before been able to have with her. Up until those surprising four days of close proximity, I’d never quite managed to equate the woman I once described in a moment of frustration and rage as a psychological terrorist with the charming, entertaining and humorous woman that both my wife and my best friend have described to me. It’s as if the turmoil in her head prevents her continuing the uneasy role of ‘mother’ and she has reverted to her core being.
In moments of terrible lucidity, she would look into my eyes and ask me, Am I going mad? or They’re not going to put me in the loony bin, are they? Like George Washington, I cannot tell a lie. Yet I found myself skirting the issue in the manner of a seasoned politician and dwelling on the facts of short-term memory loss. But you know that she knows. Several times she told me sincerely that she wanted to die and, after nearly 85 years on earth as a card-carrying timorous worry-wart, you can understand why she must feel worn out by the strain of it all. And if they – or we – put her in the loony bin, then she surely will die. My father told me on his hospital bed that he missed her. Realistically, though, he is ill equipped to cope with someone so unwittingly demanding. Inevitably, the family talk is not happy-talk. It’s all about carers and sheltered accommodation and mobilising resources to keep someone alive who would really much rather pop her clogs.
I’m back at home now and for the time being I can simulate my filial duty by Skype. The perils, irony and sadness of old age aren’t something that our young Australian back-packer needs to worry about. He’s flush with the energy and optimism of youth, and looking forward to getting back to his family and fiancé in South Australia after all the weeks of his Grand Tour of Europe. He’s due to marry his sweetheart named Tegan in October and is talking already of two children and playing with them in a garden while he’s still young enough.
Cade is a devotee of Grand Designs, who’s bought the book, the t-shirt and the DVD. He’s watched our programme, he tells me, about 30 times and he has vague plans of building a home for his family-to-be in straw. So he contacted Debs by e-mail and asked cheekily if he could come and see us while flitting around Europe. We like cheeky individuals in this house, particularly with dollops of youthful charm. How can you refuse such chutzpah? Debs proposed a deal of dinner, bed and breakfast and a starter-pack tutorial for some nominal charge – and then departed for England. Dinah Washington would surely have been mad about the boy and I know that I’m even now far too fond of him to raise the matter of filthy lucre.
For one so young, he’s sorted his life out with enviable clarity. He’s already raised the money to buy two houses to let in the environs of Adelaide and already learned that time is more precious than money. On the back balcony over a protracted breakfast this morning, he sketched his plans to pay off the loans before term and start building the modest family home of his dreams with the profit.
I’ll take him down to the station, so he can catch his train to Paris and thence, early tomorrow morning (charmingly), to Luxembourg. I’m tickled pink because I’ve never met anyone in my life before who actually wanted to visit Luxembourg. I’ve made him promise to e-mail me his impressions of the principality.
In return, I’ll give him a signed copy of my book that was remaindered before it brought me my fortune, and forgive him the indiscretion of reminding me that the 21st June is just around the corner.