When I was little, we lived in a pre-fab. It was great during the summer. There were gardens, front and back, and the neighbours were friendly, mostly. People left their doors open. There was lots of life, sounds and colours; children playing cricket, using the lampost as the wicket or chasing each other on bikes round tight bends at breakneck speed.
During winter, it was freezing. The pre-fab bungalows were made from corrugated iron with single pane windows. Built to provide short-term housing for families after the war, they turned into fridges in the cold. The sole source of heat was the coal fire in the living room. Mum used to get up early to light it, making sure there was heat in the living room when the kids got up. I used to kneel as close as I could before the fire, watching and hearing the burning coals move and spit for as long as I could bear before being forced away, red welt marks on my face and legs.
I watched her clean the grate out and make ready for the next day. Later on, I learned to help her a bit. I always remember the thrill and the fear of drawing the fire out with a sheet of newspaper placed across the hearth. The sheet forced a gust of wind down the chimney, creating a fierce draught before dragging it into the blaze. I held on for as long as I could before letting go.
The winter of 1963-64 was bitterly cold. While there’s only a couple of years or so between my two younger sisters, there’s a gap of five years between me and the next one down. Midway between us was where my sister, Paula, was. Sadly, despite mum’s best efforts, she didn’t survive the winter and died of pneumonia, aged just 6 months old . Me and my mum are the only two people who keep her memory alive now.
Because it was so cold, mum used to wrap me up in layers, which I would keep on for as long as I could till it was time for a wash. It was time for a quick change. Shivering and with me teeth chattering, mum says to me, ‘Arms up to God!’ Both my skinny arms shoot straight up in the air. The goosebumps appear all over my thin chest. ‘Ooah, ooah, hurry up, mum. Ooahhh!’, I urged. She had to untie the knots on the liberty bodice and take my vest off too over my head. She ran a hot, wet flannel over my front and back and dried me off quickly with a towel in front of the fire before slipping on a clean vest and bodice as fast as she could. This took ages to me.
I hated that liberty bodice. It had ties on which were fiddly to do up and had patterns too. As far as I was concerned, liberty bodices were for girls and mum was making me wear one, to my endless shame. I dreaded anyone at school finding out. My life wouldn’t be worth a carrot. All I can say is that I survived that particular winter and several others to grow into a teenager.
I never did like family get-togethers that much. On Sundays, we often went to visit my Aunty Peggy and her family over the water, as we still call the Wirral. I got on quite well with my cousins but pretty soon, as the ale flowed, small arguments broke out; petty disagreements leading to raised voices. These were often events many years past, brought out of the cupboard but not forgotten. It wasn’t something I liked. I found it a bit embarrassing. So, at the age of 12, I remember looking at the clock in the hall and thinking how long could I stay for before going back on my own? ‘See you later, mum.’, I called to her before catching the bus , ferry, and bus again back to Bootle. Once home, I played cowboys and indians with my toy figures. If you pick up a duffle coat and hold it by the head over the couch, it makes for the most wonderful mountain when you lay it back down again, different each time. I played quite happily until the rest of the family came back home. This pattern repeated itself throughout my teenage years till I was about15 when I stopped going altogether, except for funerals. Oh, the shame of it!
Many years later, I was driving mum home after Sunday lunch. I asked her about losing Paula. ‘How did you get through it? It must have been terrible for you?’ ‘There just wasn’t any help in those days,’ she said, ‘not like today. You just had to get on with it.’
Now, fast forward to the present day. Mum’s 81 and has a dementia-type illness. She is going to a day centre. She still lives on her own in her own house but for how much longer we don’t know. The centre’s called ‘Choices’ and aims to support adults in the early to middling stages of dementia and their families. We thought mum was fairly well on but they’ve taken her and it’s made a big difference. Not long ago, they had what I thought was an open day, which turned out to be a party. ‘Come back at half past five,’ the woman told me. ‘You can get her then.’. ‘Er, but can’t I stay? I’d quite like to see inside.’ She seemed surprised but let me in. The place was lovely. Balloons and decorations festooned the long room. I’d say there were probably about 70 people in all there. A female singer had everyone joining in, singing the old songs. It brought back memories of me and mum watching Hollywood musicals on Thursday nights on the tele while Dad was out at the pub.
We took our seats at a table. I looked around. It was impossible to tell who had dementia and who hadn’t. When I asked the man sitting facing me to pass me mum’s jacket over, the three people he was with suddenly all jumped up at once, trying to reach the jacket. Just after this, mum turned to me and said, ‘Go on, son, you can go now.’ I looked at her. ‘Thanks, mum, it’s ok.’ Actually, I had been quietly wondering to myself if I could just pop out and come back later. Mum looked at me again, ‘Go on, off you go. You can go now, son. I’m alright.’. I gave her another look. ‘Mum, honestly, it’s ok. I’m fine. I really am. I’d like to stay.’ We were handed drinks and sandwiches. ‘You can go, Bern.’ ‘No, really, mum, I’m not going. I’m staying.’ and took a slurp of fruit punch, looking round. I thought of all the times mum must have had to make made excuses for me leaving early from family occasions.
I’m glad I did stay. As well as the singsong, we were all up dancing. Mum and me did some jiving and jitterbugging, as you do. The time flew and soon it was half-past five. Time to go. Reluctantly, we said taraa to everyone, mum even flirting a little with the gentleman by the door. We were among the last to leave.
That was then. Nowadays, on getting to mum’s, I’ve found her still in bed in her nightie. It can be a struggle sometimes to get her up. While she is a frail, old woman, at times she can be immensely strong. She doesn’t want to leave the comfort and safety of her bed and I don’t blame her. There was a female carer downstairs, making some sandwiches for lunch. I went down and asked her if she would help mum get dressed. I could tell she wasn’t keen. ‘I’ve only got 10 minutes left and I’ve got to be at my next call.’ Mum is strongwilled when she wants to be, always has been. From the raised voices upstairs, I gathered she was not getting dressed. I had helped mum before to get dressed. It wasn’t such a big deal. So, I went upstairs. Seeing the tussle, the battle of wills going on, I turned to the carer and said, ‘It’s ok, I’ll get mum dressed. I’ve done it before, It’s fine.’ ‘Are you sure?’, she asked. I nodded and she left us to it.
‘Come on, mum, we’re off out to our cafe. Don’t you want to go? We’ll get a nice pot of tea and a scone, jam and cream. We can ring Maria and tell her where we are. She’ll be so jealous. But you’ve got to get dressed first. The car’s outside. What do you think? Shall we go?’
‘Oh, yes, son.’, she answered and peeling the duvet away, she sat on the edge of the bed. I rolled the tops of her sleeves back as far as they’d go to make it easier to get over her head. A childhood phrase came back to me. ‘Arms up to God, mum!’ Was that a look she gave me? She put both her arms in the air and I put her top on. She did the rest herself and off we went.