Monday, January 16, 2017

To China, and don't spare the warriors

A post written in November 2016, during my first trip to China, with my film The Closer We Get:

Beijing to Xi’an
I travel to China the day after Trump’s victory in the US election, and the social media control combined with the fact that it’s Just Not That Big A Deal Here has it feeling like a bad dream pretty soon. Until an American-Chinese woman working on the event I’m at tells me how the trauma made her forget to take her passport to the airport in LA, I’d all but forgotten about crying in front of the BBC news at 6am that morning.

If I was going to do a Tripadvisor review for our Beijing hotel (The Traveler (sic) Inn) – and who knows, I just might – I could complain about the tepid bath water, the flea I found biting my shin, and that the sound on my TV didn’t work, but I would praise its globetrotting breakfast (steamed buns, waffles, tofu, conflakes), its atmospheric little garden and chiefly its location, on a central but quiet ‘hutong’ fascinating enough to spend your entire Beijing break in. These higgledy piggledy, low rise areas which mix houses old and new with shops, restaurants and bars of every variety, are being fast cleared away by the city authorities, so I feel lucky to be staying in one and not one of the shiny highrises by the motorway, even if they do offer power showers. Every eating place I tried locally was fantastic, and my picture-pointing was usually augmented by the ubiquitous smart phone and its translation apps. 
Invariably, after much typing, the phone was turned towards me, and on it were the words ‘It’s a bit spicy’. I always communicated that this was fine by me.

The iDocs documentary film forum kicked off with a speech-based ceremony at Beijing Film Academy, that I expected to go on for much longer than it did. Beforehand, a trailer filled with extracts from the selected films was looped on the enormous screen. Some of the crowd were asleep, some on their smart phones and some were paying attention. Dignitaries from various countries whose filmmakers were present, took the stage. A young Polish woman spoke impressively fluent Cantonese, whereas the avuncular Israeli Ambassador spoke in English, telling us that ‘his’ and the culture of China were the oldest in the world. With my father’s voice in the back of my head, I couldn’t help thinking that a tie wouldn’t have gone amiss.

All the film-makers lined up on stage and the mic was passed along the row to each of us. My ‘Ni hao’ elicited a little wave of applause with the huge audience and caught on with the other filmmakers who followed suit. My previous travels in Japan made me prone to bowing unneccessarily though and I made a mental note to try and rein it in. I was certainly far too smartly attired in my green silk dress, but I could at least hope it stuck in the audience’s mind and that they’d return when my film was on.

We film makers realised that our international array of films were not going to be screened with English and Mandarin subtitles (as is common in other international festivals) so, a little frustratingly, we wouldn't be able to easily watch each others films. Most of us agreed to exchange screener links later. So the enticing opening film, Twilight of a Life (which had been in several other festivals with mine, but which I hadn’t managed to see yet) was not one I could stay and watch as it was mainly in Hebrew. So most of the film makers got back into our minibus and were back at the hotel within an hour.

The fantastic Cherelle Zheng, film-maker and founder of iDOCS, had assembled a team of (almost all female) festival helpers who kept everything running smoothly, that is as long as we all had downloaded WhatsApp onto our phones and looked at it very regularly. Cherelle had curated and subtitled the impressive selection of global docs presented herself, an epic work. Most shared the theme of an exploration of love, and I would liked to have spoken to her more about her selection and its resonances with the Chinese audience, but as with all film festivals, it’s a bit of a whiteout for the organisers who have so much to do they often don’t even get to watch the films or the audience Q & A’s.

The screening of The Closer We Get drew an almost full auditorium of circa 300, and I sat in for the screening, which I rarely do these days. It was incredibly special to hear the audience’s ebb and flow of laughter and tears, a testament to Cherelle’s skillful translation. The Chinese reactions and questions afterwards (simultaeneously translated) were broadly similar to those in every one of the now over a dozen countries I have screened in, and it’s hard to describe how good this makes me feel. In a world of conflict, it’s beyond heartening to realise that we are the same at heart, everywhere. After the screening a small crowd asks for autographs, photographs with me etc. and I am introduced to a smiling woman who is in charge of marriage guidance in Beijing. She pops a pink scarf on and we have our photograph taken together. She is full of excited praise for the film, and I promise to her that I will get a copy to her for her organisation to use.

My ‘Masterclass’ was intended to be a delivered from my pre-prepared and pre-translated script, but instead it’s decided it should be in a ‘chat show’ format, opening out to questions informally. I’m okay with this, as I am now so used to talking about the film that I actually enjoy being put on the spot a bit unexpectedly. Some of the audience are clearly film-makers and field some technical questions about solo shooting and which parts of the film were ‘re-enacted’ for camera. But in general, questions are philosophical, and it seems that there is a hunger amongst the film-makers here to embark on personal stories but much inhibition and fear of offence. I try and talk about the ‘personal development’ aspects of my film, the terror I felt at its inception and how I overcame this, and I try and reassure them that whilst such films change a family dynamic forever, it can be the most positive transformation they will ever experience.

What Walrus Museum?

Xi’an is the nearest city to the Terracotta Warriors, so this is my first stop when I take the train out of Beijing. It’s a 5 hour high-speed journey, and my first class carriage has no laptop-entranced businessmen, as it would in the UK, just snoozing Chinese. It’s a marked contrast to the nonstop activity of almost every Chinese person you meet elsewhere. The ‘first class’ of the service is marked with luxurious recliners, a gift box of snacks and a woman who cleans the toilet after each visit. When I can’t find the flush and leave the cubicle, she takes my arm and returns me to the site of my shame, demonstrating the flush button in use.

Xi’an train station is beautiful, more like an airport than anything else, and I am the only Western face amidst the thousands of travellers. If there are 8 million inhabitants in Xi’an, there must be a restaurant provided for every single one. Eating places of all sorts outnumber very other shop at least five to one, and they range from ad hoc woks-on-the-back-of-bikes, to Korean barbecues to vast and eerily empty ‘banquet’ retaurants filled with circular tables each with a Lazy Susan at its centre. I choose what looks like a bog-standard one that is full of locals. As in every place I have eaten in China, I am the only lone diner - for the Chinese eating is an intensely social activity, and portion sizes make no concession to the smaller appetite. I eat an excellent ‘salad’ of beansprouts, cooked spinach, peanuts and strips of spongy wheat gluten, spiced with dried chilli and aromatic Szechuan pepper, with a room-temperature beer (the norm here) and chrysanthemum tea. Outside, charcoal braziers with lamb kebabs and vast arrays of condiments (seaweeds, mushrooms, Chinese cabbage, coriander leaves, sesame seeds, peanuts) are everywhere from dawn to late, and there are also pyramids of local pomegranates split to reveal their rich ruby interiors, candy-making stalls, spice-crusted tofu, and deep-fried-whole-anything stalls. They could teach the rest of the world a thing or two here, and not just about cooking. I awake in the morning to the unexpected sound of a Mosque’s call to prayer: Xi’an has lived peacefully with its large Muslim population for over 1300 years.
My brilliant guide Eric tells me about our forthcoming visit en route, to the Walrus Museum. I don’t remember this from my itinerary, and he’s talking as if it’s an important one, but I feel too awkward to ask for clarity. After a while of zigzagging through the city walls and out onto the freeway, hazy with smog, I realise his excitement is about the Warriors Museum. That is, the 8000 Terracotta Warriors Museum that will be today’s focus.

On the way in, as in every transport hub and visitor attraction in China, bags are security scanned. Eric tells me this is a quiet day, but nontheless vast crowds of Chinese people surrounded by tangles of selfie sticks are everywhere, screeching and laughing. It’s actually a delight to witness their joy here, and the lack of Western faces. How often we turn up at an attraction in the UK to find that there’s not a single other Brit in evidence, finding their own heritage worth a look. In fact, a Western face is so rare here that I am invited to join in a number of schoolchildren’s selfies, presumably for my sheer ginger-novelty value.

Despite the competition for a front row view of Pit 1 - which offers the ‘money shot’ of the ranks of warriors that I recall from the National Geographic magazines we devoured in the 1980’s - my first sight of this silent army brings tears to my eyes. Their number, artistry and preservation defies belief. Their sheer miraculousness is intensely moving. It has you thinking what else lies beneath our planet's mud, awaiting our future wonder.

As we move around the vast sunken area, individual warriors in various states of preservation are visible closer to the visitor boundary. Their individuality and benign smiles belie their identities as warriors – as if they knew the afterlife would not present any real conflict to concern themselves with. Eric tells me contemporaneous written accounts exist that show that the Emperor’s top general in fact came up with the idea for the facsimilie army, to prevent his boss from slaying the 8000 best-trained soldiers in the land, and presumbly soldiers who would protect his son, the next Emperor. Like the sculptures of European antiquity, the warriors would have been gaudily painted originally (this is approximated in a rather shonky film projection that concludes the visit). What a fantastical, Disney-esque sight this would have been.

The steep, earthen walls around each pit strongly convey death, and they serve as raised walkways for the odd archaeologist with a wheel barrow, dwarfed by the arched roof and the crowds. The scale is akin to that of a football pitch. Eric tells me that excavation and conservation work here will have no end, and that China accepts this onerous responsibility. I am drawn to a large flat area near the exit with rows of regimented desks, spaced far apart as in an exam hall. Each has an overhead lamp, and behind them there is a hospital-style bed.
At one desk a single archaeologist bends over something far from our view, his lamp glowing orange in the cool, bluish haze of the enormous hangar. He has a lifetime of work ahead.

Thursday, September 01, 2016

Lightning Sometimes Does

I recently had the incredible experience of having my first ever film screened on television. As a child of the 1970's, actual terrestrial broadcasting somehow retains its excitement for me, despite the fact that I now consider most of too lousy to actually watch. Despite all the catch-up online possibilities, there is something almost magical about the idea that the BBC has your film and has pressed play out NOW. For everyone to watch.
I was one of those kids that hankered after a personal connection to TV to an almost psychotic degree - I think it's the same for lots of people who grew up in provincial towns that felt as far from 'Broadcasting House' as Mars did. I tried to get my drawings onto Take Hart almost weekly, I was continuously writing into Jim'll Fix It, Swap Shop and the like. The zenith of this phase of my life was when I was runner-up in a Blue Peter competition to design a theme park, meaning I received the much coveted Blue Peter badge. A close second was having Noel Edmunds read out my letter live on air, suggesting improvements for litter bin design. (Well, I did grow up in a seaside town where beachside bins were big news).

So it was a huge delight to sit on a sofa in Paisley month ago with my siblings, nieces and nephew to watch 'The Closer We Get' go out to the nation on BBC2 Scotland. We were in high spirits, my sister had even baked the same cake that appears in the film, and though mass viewings of the film have happened often, we were still excited to be together on and off film. This was in many ways the culmination of over a year touring this 'family project', in cinemas, church halls and film festivals all over the world - talking to each new audience and sharing our story for so long has become second nature to me, so the surrealism of watching myself on TV felt only fleetingly like a weird dream. I think I did squeal when the serious - sounding BBC announcer read out my name though, and even the youngest in the room joined in the collective delight at each new on-screen appearance, whether it was a dog, a family member or a cake.

But someone important wasn't in that living room: my dad, Ian - arguably the star of the film, and a man who against all expectations has become as proud of the film as we all are, turning up at screenings and taking film critics' sterner judgements on his character squarely on the chin.

Dad was nearby though, in the big new hospital, having suffered what we now know to have been a stroke.
Like my mum Ann, he managed to walk into the hospital, and like her, it seems unlikely he will walk out. Also like her, a cascade of 'minor' NHS oversights came to tragic fruition in the stroke, perhaps this time round we will chase answers more vigorously,  but it's too raw to think of all that yet.
Although a very different stroke from Mum's (affecting the opposite side of his body, and also his cognitive capacity) I find myself wishing I could un-know her five last years, return to the state of blind optimism I felt once, to encounter this vicious foe as if for the first time.

I attend a session of physiotherapy with Dad, a dogged and determined patient. I sit in front of him, bowed towards him at an encouraging distance - like a parent watching a toddler making its first staggering steps. His expression reminds me vividly of Mum's immediately after her stroke - they seemed to both age and become childlike at once. There is an open-ness in the face, a stare so penetrating you would feel it through walls. Two therapists support his lower body, a bench allows his one good side to balance. Instead of the stooped old man he was a few months ago (dreadful knees, despite the replacements) he is taller than he has been in years, his chin up, reminding me of his proud, knowing handsomeness in those black and white rugby team photographs from the '50s. But there is nothing of him in this stance, the women bear all his weight, and they shunt each foot in front of the other with a great effort, interspersing each 'step' with encouraging words.
The trio debrief, and when Dad's asked how much of the walking was 'down to him', he says 'Oh, probably most of it'. The therapists look down and say nothing.

In the 'team meeting' we are invited to later, various nurses join the physios, perched on desks in a tiny office, to summarise what is called, with a little embarrassment, 'progress'. There are no surprises. I look across at my sister and notice how young and old her fearful face looks.
There are no surprises.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

There Was A Boy...

....who - on a busy morning, at a busy station, at the busiest time, just before Christmas - walks purposefully into the shadows beyond the platform. He calmly removes his top and shoes, and throws himself under the oncoming train. Over their morning tea, his family hear news reports of a fatality causing commuter chaos. No-one thinks it's him.

In fact, X was roughly my age. But I knew him best some years ago, when we shared a flat, and even then he seemed so young, so - well - boyish. Thankfully, he never lost this quality. It was embodied in a kind of innocence, an inquisitiveness, and a wayward sense of mischief. Despite a fascination with deeply unfunny spiritual people such as Gurdjieff  - and an occasional devotee of their practices - he was never remotely dour about his quest for enlightenment. He was - literally - a clown, a performer by trade, and my memories of life in that flat are of him struggling to meditate crosslegged in our chaotic lounge, his white face panstick-ed and giggling hysterically, very loud Jungle on the sound system. We'd Hoover round him, trying to distract him even more.

I plan for his funeral, and I look out a suitably neat and ladylike handbag. It won't do to lug my usual gargantuan bag, in its jolly orange hue. I check through the temporary bag and find a few things in its depths - a reel of black thread, a tape measure and a Post-It note, which I turn over and read:
"Funeral List: Black dress, tights (2 prs), nude shoes, cardigan, speech"
I realise the last outing for this bag was a funeral, my mother's. I'm a bit startled by the list - it's spare, uncharacteristically neat and orderly. "Wasn't I distraught, bereft?" I think "How come I managed to - for once - make a list??"

When I get to the crematorium for X's funeral, and squeeze in behind the rows of his family. Though it's been years, I recognise each one of them by the shape of their shoulders, now hunched and stiff with suppressed emotion and purpose. X's mother gets through her eulogy somehow, returns to her seat clasping her notes. She's holding it together better than anyone else in the room. Then it's X's brother's turn, he reads from his iPhone, voice faltering and yet he raises much laughter in the crowd, reminiscing about much boyhood bad behaviour. Then a close friend delivers a brilliant and brave speech, explicitly acknowledging that X's death had been a brutal suicide, and eloquently describing this act's emotional ambivalence for all those who thought they knew him best. People are beginning to cry a lot now, and still X's family hold their nerve. I remember this well from Mum's funeral - you're so glad to have something to do, a role, that it's a relief to have a schedule, a list, a speech in your hand. After a death, however it came about, the haunting of those of us left behind, starts in earnest. Could I have done more, stopped this? Will I feel any different, better, tomorrow? So the distracting work of the funeral is welcome. Even a secular service, like this, has much to busy yourself with.

The final music of the service, 'Nature Boy' is devastatingly evocative of the 'very strange, enchanted boy' present in all our memories. I can't bear to think of how it ended -  the violence, the pain that must have engulfed him.

After the service, the dazed crowd mingles outside in the wintery afternoon sun, browsing the floral tributes and organising taxis and lifts to the pub where the wake is to be. I'm struck - not for the first time - by the warmth of strangers at times like these, as we realise and are glad that we were all parts of X's world, and that we aren't strangers anymore.  It feels odd but welcome to be recognising old friends here, catching up, raising a smile through our puffy and teary faces.

When I eventually reach X's father to offer my condolences, he recognises me instantly. He smiles and hugs me, then suddenly crumples against me, weeping. We stay like that for what feels like a long time, and I realise that I have unwittingly taken him back in time, to when his youngest son was that boy, that strange, enchanted boy with his uncharted life stretching limitlessly ahead of him.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

It's About Time

Two years exactly since Mum's death, and I spend a solitary weekend on the kind of pursuits that filled most of her life - Gardening, baking, sewing, cleaning cupboards, fruit-picking and making jam. She wraps herself around my every task, especially in the kitchen - her natural domain. I hear her chide my disorganised worktop, she slurps the foam from the jam-spoon with relish, checks my jars are clean, worries about the set.

I haven't written down much lately, apart from lists and administrative emails. Lots of them.
But the writing-in-my-head hasn't stopped, though 'The Closer We Get' - where it all went for 4 years - is done and dusted and out in the world now.

And that feels very strange, and rather sad. Where should all those thoughts on grief and bereavement, joy and wonder, go now? In Julian Barnes' fine book, 'Levels of Life'  - written in the aftermath of his wife's death - he divides the world absolutely, thus - when we are young, by those who have had sex and those who haven't. And then - usually, though not always, later - into those who have grieved the death of a loved one. And those who haven't. Yet, that is.
Perhaps I am now in Barnes' own farther-flung category - those who have shown the world that grief, for a while.

Both the significant and insignificant things I inherited from Mum are now embedded in my domestic and working landscapes, like a matrix of archaeological finds suspended in insignificant mud. But only I would know them as special - I dry my hands on an old striped towel I rescued from her house as we emptied it, I cook with a packet of cornflour from her cupboard, I swallow a vitamin pill from a bottle she began, use her German stapler on my desk.

Mum shared my passion for plants and gardens. In fact it was our strongest bond in my wayward teenage years when we could barely speak to each other civilly, and yet could happily visit the local garden centre for hours together, a boot-full of plants and a treacle scone in the tearoom to recover from the array of choice. She insisted she lacked expertise as a gardener, and yet she effortlessly grew enormous, slug-free clumps of some of the choicest plants we found together.  She always deferred to my tastes when it came to her garden, perhaps regretting it at times. I remember a year or so before she died, she told me, from her wheelchair parked up at the window, 'I really miss that wee patch of lawn we dug up, you know".
For over a year after Mum's death, gardening - which I'd done so habitually since childhood that I wouldn't even call it a 'hobby', to me it was just something I always did a great deal of -  meant suddenly very, very little to me. The ebullience of nature felt like an affront, how dare it return? Gradually though, we have found each other again, and I take pleasure in the imaginary chats I have now with Mum as I garden - she'd 'shoot the boots off that cat' who's done its business in the border, and she'd certainly have those goosegogs in the freezer by now.

I find this plant label (pictured above) at regular intervals during my sessions in the garden now, and it always stops me in my tracks. Somehow I don't want to 'save' it indoors, I want it to live the ad-hoc life it should have had, a life of insignificance, not the life of a memorial. In Mum's neat hand-writing - note the 'dashed' number seven, another thing I inherited from her -  a sowing of hardy annuals is recorded. I hope they came up, and I hope they were beautiful. Because 2007 would be the last summer before her stroke changed everything. Summer 2008 was spent in hospital, windows jammed shut, garage flowers at the end of the bed. The later ones were spent wheeled out onto the specially-modified deck at home, watching me fight back the ever-increasing wildness of the garden and murmuring appreciatively when I brought tiny cut flowers to her table for her close inspection.

Last summer, we planted a young tree in the churchyard garden in Mum's memory - a spot overlooked by the handsome big house that was our family home for over thirty years. It's not doing well, apparently, so out it must come. Mum would be unsentimental about such a thing. I think we should replace it with one from the garden centre up the road, the place that kept us together all those years ago. "Well, what on earth are you waiting for?!" I can hear Mum say impatiently.

Mum in her garden in 2009, with the trowel I made her at school !

Sunday, March 30, 2014

On Mother's Day: I am Feeling

I’ve finally watched I Am Breathing, a feature documentary directed by Emma Davie and Morag McKinnon, and it inspired me to write the Blog entry below. 
The film documents the last year or so of the life of Neil Platt, a sufferer of Motor Neurone Disease, which also claimed Rose Finn-Kelcey recently, an artist and inspiring former tutor of mine.
The film has been on my radar for ages, initially via our mutual connection with the wonderful Scottish Documentary Institute and then latterly because it’s simply been a huge and deserved success story of a film.

So why did it take me so long to watch it?
In a nutshell – because when you have just lived and filmed an end-of-life story of your own (The Closer We Get) it doesn’t exactly make you hungry for others. Even if you know they will be as life affirming, charming, profound and damned important as I Am Breathing is, you find your appetite veering off to some decidedly escapist film fare instead.

But, of course, the grief of bereavement will get you in the end whatever you are watching. A few months ago I went to see the blockbuster Gravity in 3D, in a small local cinema. I had popcorn and Coke in hand, I was expecting to have fun. From almost the first instant, I was shocked to find myself weeping behind my 3D glasses. It doesn’t take a psychotherapist to work out why – a woman, alone, in a dark abyss, trying to fix something she knows probably can’t be fixed.
So to endure I Am Breathing was hard for me. I managed to stay dry-eyed until about half way through - not too shabby. Amongst the people around Neil is his mother, an unimaginably brave woman who has survived the death of her husband and now of her son from the same dreadful disease, as well as Neil’s wife and small son.

So, it seems timely to publish this text about my mum Ann on Mother’s Day, and to dedicate it to the two mothers Neil Platt left behind.

Ann & Karen playing Beauty Parlours

I am Feeling
Exhausted from digging a large plot in the vegetable garden in early Spring, I lie down, utterly flat on the still compacted ground nearby. How seldom I do this now, when as a teenager I think it was a near-daily occurrence, even in the damp West Coast of Scotland. (If further evidence is sought, see final scene of Gregory’s Girl, filmed up the road from my hometown and featuring kids very like we were).

For a spell I gaze upwards into the clouds and the bluest of skies, listlessly tracking the odd bird overhead and feeling the good, cold, dense clods support my body’s form. My breathing slowing, my heaviness reminds me of the body my mother inhabited for those last 5 years, inert bar for her head and neck, and an ever-deteriorating right arm. I remember in the mornings the carers manoeuvring it onto its edges, first one then the other, as solid as clay, a deadweight which must be cleansed and dressed. As the women worked across and along her limbs, my mother’s face held the expression of one who is wondering about a barely perceptible distant sound – the vestigial nerves in her flesh were relaying confused yet tangible sensations she could not quite place. If something was uncomfortable to her, and it often was, she struggled to describe to us how, choosing peculiar words like ‘tight’ and ‘soft’ in an attempt to convey what this new relationship with her body felt like.

The sky above me suddenly darkened and sleet began to fall on my face. It felt wonderful. In such moments when the natural world seems at its most electrifyingly complete and beautiful and part of me and of all of us, I always think of my mother and I usually cry. In a photograph of her as a teenager walking on a beach with a dog, it’s evidently cold, windy weather as she wears a big jumper and a headscarf. But her legs and feet are bare and her face beams with the sensual joy and fun of cold sand and spray. Until her stroke she retained this appetite for earthy pleasures - eating crusty bread, cycling into the wind along the seafront, stroking a supine, sun-warmed cat.

So as I blink in the tumbling sleet, my tears find their path of least resistance from the outer corners of my eyes, down my temples and into my hair, their dampness instantly provoking shivering. I don’t wipe them. Mum very seldom wept after her stroke, it was a very grave sign if she did, but when it happened she could not wipe them, could not lift her hand, and so if I was there I would oblige. But what of the times – there must have been some –when I was not there?

After the stroke, Mum’s short spell in physiotherapy ended with a tacit acceptance that this once sprightly woman, the kind of woman that rarely sat down for long, would be wheelchair bound for the rest of her life. Her damaged eyesight meant a self-drive chair would be impossible. Along with the myriad other dependencies (personal care, feeding, medication, dressing) she was also, suddenly and forever, unable to autonomously decide where she would be and when. After a few months of our caring routine kicking in, I began noticing how listless Mum could become with the clockwork carers visits, the porridge and lukewarm tea, the endless daytime television in the over warm lounge. Her bright blue eyes literally clouded over for days at a time.

What brought back her sparkle was always something unexpected and invariably something sensory, so I became adept at inventing and stage-managing as many of these as I could fit in to her waking hours, and sometimes also into the hours where she was meant to be sleeping but often wasn’t: Whether it was sharing a fruity face-pack or a blast of loud music with our terrible vocal accompaniment, feeding her a very ripe mango or a very salty chip, manoeuvring a furry cuddle from the longsuffering cat Jack, a cold skoosh of Rive Gauche on her neck, an illicit chocolate eaten in bed or a noseful of fragrant sweet peas.

Occasionally these energising episodes also happened without so much pre-planning by me: Shortly after Mum had been returned home from the hospital, we decided to pay a visit an old friend of hers, now residing in a large old peoples home along the coast road. At this stage I’d not yet got used to the fandango of getting Mum into her coat, hat and gloves whilst she was already seated in her wheelchair. But she was patient and after about twenty minutes manipulating awkward limbs and digits and with me in a light sweat by now, I had swaddled her from head to toe and we careered our way out of the house and the close and onto the deserted street. I should have recognised what the peculiar soundlessness and pallor of the day foretold, but keen to reach the beachside ‘Prom’ which had been a daily landmark of her entire adult life I pushed the chair onwards at speed, Mum occasionally complaining good-naturedly over the potholes encountered en route.

Doris, our hostess, was a big, robust woman some ten years older than Mum and suffering from dementia. In her small, neat room, I loosened Mum’s layers and listened in to their conversation, smiling benignly. Doris was convinced that Mum and her had been Wrens in the War together, and no matter how often Mum reminded her of their actual relationship – Mum had been an occasional cleaner and housekeeper for Doris – Doris’ mind would wander off to those wartime escapades she was certain they’d shared. Occasionally Doris would turn to me and speak as if Mum wasn’t there – “She was a gifted telephone operator, you know’. I could not help reflecting on the odd couple they seemed – each with infirmities at such odds with what remained. 
What if Mum had that fit and strong body of Doris’, and Doris could adopt the alert and perceptive mind Mum still had?

We left Doris in time to speed back along the Prom in time for the carers’ mid afternoon home visit, and almost as soon as we were parallel to the pewter gray sea the sky whitened dramatically. A blizzard began and within minutes enveloped us to a dramatic degree – we could barely see 5 metres ahead. By now I was almost running behind the wheelchair, terrified that Mum would be scared and confused, or at the very least rather cross with me for getting us into this mess. Bellowing over the chair handles, I assured her we’d be home in no time, who on earth would have guessed this snow was on its way, etc etc. Snow clung to our every surface, it wasn’t so much falling as propelling itself horizontally onto us. Every hundred metres or so I stopped the chair, dashed round to the front and readjusted Mum’s hat, scarf and collar so that barely her nose and eyes were open to the elements. With every pit stop she was giggling more, until be the end of the journey we were both howling with laughter.

When we finally reached home the carers were already indoors, more than mildly concerned as to our whereabouts given the extreme weather. They gently scolded me for being caught out in that with Mum, but as they removed her layers and the fast melting snowflakes we caught each other’s eye and shared a deeply conspiratorial smile.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Closer We Get - life becomes film

If you follow me elsewhere you may have noticed my new feature doc The Closer We Get (a hard-won title!) now fundraising on Indiegogo here until end of Sat. Jan 18th.

Much of this film was inspired by writing here in this modest Blog, and getting the occasional lovely message of support from this audience - here has always felt like a good place, where I wasn't writing for work, or because I was obliged to. I always wrote here because I wanted to, and the result is a sort of diary of my last few years, of much sorrow but of some joy too.

And this is what has become The Closer We Get. So I thank you Blogger :-)

I'm biased of course, but I think it's an important film that I encourage you to support, especially if like me you have found yourself suddenly in a family 'car crash', reconfiguring your life and beliefs after something earth shatteringly dreadful has happened.

For everyone who has survived that, and for everyone who will have to in the future, this is a film that must be made. So please - come and be part of that with me.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Managing. Christmas. Expectations.

Ah, Christmas in your hometown. Twenty odd years ago I might have been that girl outside this bedroom window at 3am, making a bit too much racket en route back to her parents' - to late, too many drinks, too high heels, too many school friends to catch up with in the three day (and three long nights) festive home visit.

Now I don't seem to know any of my school friends any more. At least not outside Facebook.I was rather too good at making a life elsewhere for myself, and perhaps they smelled my arrogant derision for this place, the home town that had formed us all, and that I was too good, too interesting for - or so I thought.

Occasionally now I'm in the local Tesco and I suddenly recognise a familiar face from a gym class, a choir rehearsal or a school dinner queue - but now it seems to be set in an overweight and hurried middle aged person - shopping or behind the till. They are looking at me thinking the same, probably - don't I know that tired woman from somewhere?

How did we all get like this? And have they been in our town all those years since school - and if so, doing what? How come I didn't I notice them before, on those annual visits I used to make when all was well and my parents' were conveniently (for us kids) trapped in middle age. Or have they too come back here because of family woe, a private tragedy like ours, something that somehow marks their face and demeanour and makes it recognisable to me again - a mark of some kind, that we afflicted daughters and sons share?

So there's no time off or social distraction from the parents and the house now, and anyhow there's far too much to do here now.
As kids our pre-Christmas calendar was a delicious cycle of homemade tree decorations, carol concerts, un-PC telly comedy and revising lists of what we wanted from Santa. My sister had a talent for wrapping gifts, my hand writing was deemed good enough for the tags. After homework on long December nights we were tasked with sorting the many gifts our family would buy for our nine cousins and all our many aunts and uncles (great and otherwise). Our (real of course) tree was always a breathtaking and magical spectacle in our playroom bay window, and it was a stolen night time treat to kneel silently on the edge of the vast pool of gifts beneath it, inhaling its delicious scent and believing that surely every Christmas for the rest of your life would be this wondrous. My father's huge, stripy rugby socks were hung up on Christmas Eve, four in a row on the mantelpiece. On Christmas morning we would often swear to each other we'd glimpsed Santa's sleigh in the sky as we'd struggled to stay awake, and we always seemed to have literally piles of gifts, plus the obligatory tangerine in the sock toe. Great Auntie Minnie (our ersatz grannie) and her brother Uncle Robert (a cantankerous old Capstan-smoker) would join our family of six for Christmas dinner, our grandparents having long since died. I was an adult before I had the very straightforward realisation that Robert WAS my grandfather in fact, having been Mum's adoptive father. For some reason Minnie had always seemed the important one, the do-er (a feminine traie in our family) and Robert was so repellant to us and so it also seemed to Mum, that I literally failed to make the connection. It wasn't concealed, it just didn't fit my world view that we could be in any way related to such a man.

One of my strongest Christmas memories is however one of disappointment, albeit of a rather hilarious and very Scottish sort. We four kids all raced down one Christmas morning - I think it was 1978 - to find an impeccable child-scale golf bag replete with clubs, under each stocking. The disappointment was crushing - I'd asked Santa for a Girl's World after all (a rather grotesque doll's heads you put makeup on) and had less than zero interest in fulfilling Dad's ambition that I would one day become Scotland's Ladies Golf Champion. The only aspect of this gift I appreciated was that the leatherette of my bag was the very ginger shade of my hair. After examining these woeful presents for a brief spell, my oldest brother Mark turned to us and confessed that he'd found them under our parents' bed weeks ago. And he'd known it would be best to spare us the news and let us keep our Christmas hopes up. Bless him.

Five Christmases ago we'd only just extracted Mum from hospital some six months after her devastating stroke. In the family photo taken after the Christmas dinner, she still wears her cracker hat, poised and regal in her wheelchair, having managed to feed herself her meal. And boy had she eaten. I didn't know then that they starve the elderly in hospital. Not on purpose, but with every discharge since she has been literally famished for weeks. So the event was something of a milestone.

I don't honestly think I expected her to make another 4 Christmases on top of that one, so it's not surprising I'm feeling a little maudlin now. Today I cooked the meal at her house solo for the first time, the baton having been passed around a few siblings and venues before resting with me. My father, my brothers Mark and Campbell, Mum and me ate together - Mum can no longer travel far enough to enjoy a dinner elsewhere. This time, Mum reclined in her vast bespoke lounge chair, a little vacant and under the weather. I positioned myself beside her, where I could split my attention between our plates. Mum's appetite was modest this time, and she can no longer feed herself anything more complex than a bread stick. The atmosphere of the event struggled to rise, alcohol helped eventually as did stories about the family Chuck Berry cassette (one of only 5 our father ever possessed) and our pets. The men all ate my feast very rapidly (and who knows, perhaps appreciatively - they don't say much, the men I'm related to) while I seesaw-ed between Mum's plate and mine, swapping cutlery and bite sizes.

Mark had made a very decent cold dessert, which vied with the traditional pudding, but shortly afterwards he vanished upstairs. Working nights, he has a very odd body clock. Or maybe he just wanted to avoid the washing up. Which he did - he always was a clever boy.