Everything goes strange in the snow

Well! That’s been a memorable couple of weeks, then.

Last Friday night, the dust was just settling from the transphobic-lesbians-hate-speech-free-speech-twitterstorm debacle, and I was here where I sit now, at the damn screen, trying to work out how to proceed in life now with my new hatemonger identity, when…

…unbeknownst to me, across town, my aunt was found by her neighbour, wandering dishevelled and talking absolute rubbish. I mean, even worse than Twitter. Filthy and random, she was saying there were thirty huge killer dogs in her flat, one of whom was very tall, and stood on its hind legs, with a human face, and spoke to her in English. Judi Dench was there, too, and her mother (who died in a car crash many years ago aged 85). I think that might have been why she was wandering outside. To get away from the dogs. The neighbour brought her in, gave her a cup of tea, and called 999.

This was a culmination of six weeks of increasing confusion – and a couple of years of increasing fear. The theme of invaders with mal intent is not new, though Dame Judi (at least round number 39) is. In our books it all started on December 8, when we went over for her birthday and found her in bed. I’ll gloss over the details, of which there are millions that will remain unreported in the halls of Baroque. We fed her three meals in six hours and she ate heartily and rallied hugely.

But still sounded madder than usual for a few weeks.

On December 20 I arrived at her flat, worried by some stuff the care agency was telling me (they were saying ‘so it’s fine’), to be met at a door by a carer who said, ‘I’ve just called an ambulance for your aunt’. After many hours at A&E, diagnosis of an infection – number one cause of increased confusion among elderly people – and me staying there till midnight and explaining to the doctors that her flat was not fit to be gone back to that night, Charing Cross Hospital let her self-discharge at 2 IN THE MORNING.

They didn’t even tell me till 3am. I called the police, and she was picked up at 5.30 trudging down Chiswick High Road.

The doctor on that occasion, having asked my aunt all the rote questions, maintained angrily that she was ‘not the least confused’. Despite the diagnosis they sent her home with no antibiotics: ‘She has been advised to see her usual doctor in the morning’. Well, the police naturally took her straight back to A&E, where her daring escape became quite famous, and I hope is now a running joke at the expense of that doctor. There is more, much more in this story: they lost her Kew Gardens picture book and the medications I had taken in so they could see what she takes. And finally, next day, they sent her home without her bag that I’d packed (containing her wallet, housekeys, Freedom pass, etc). Several phone calls and a bit of aggro from me, and they did eventually send her a three-day course of pills, and her bag – and they made us pay for the cab.

Home, joyfully reunited with her dog, she said to me: ‘I nearly made it, too.’

Apparently, hospitals are about the worst place a person with dementia can end up. Awareness, I’m told and have seen, is very low – even among senior doctors. People with Alzheimers, admitted for other ailments, are three times more likely to die in hospital than people of the same age without it.

Now we have this new situation. Last Sunday I went over and retrieved the dog, a lovely little Pomeranian, and brought her back to Baroque Mansions. I thought I better had: they were saying Monday, but who ever knows. And the snow… She’d been alone in the flat for 36 hours by the time I got there, and was traumatised even on top of the real neglect I can now see she’s been suffering. She was very glad to see me. We trekked across London with a big bag of dog food, & even managed a play in the falling snow in Finsbury Park, in the weirdly glowing dark, in the magical light, everything strange and heightened.

Back here, in the pod of Baroque among no-pets clauses and Hassidic neighbours, we played house – dog food, dog on the bed, dog dish on the bedroom floor, dog hair on the rug, don’t-bark-don’t-bark. She wouldn’t eat.

The next day we went for a two-hour walk, and I bought a dog brush, and brushed about another dog’s-worth of undercoat out of her, and cut out the matted bits, and cleaned her up, and washed her eyes with cotton buds, and she looks much better now and I think she actually liked it. She lifted her legs up for the brush.

(You want some poetry? At this point I acknowledge  a debt to Deryn Rees-Jones. Her new, TSE-shortlisted collection contains a dazzling long poem after Paula Rego called ‘Dogwoman’ whose rhythms are clearly, now, embedded. Call it synchronicity.)

In the evening I had to go do my workshop, and my sainted oldest kid and his girlfriend came and sat with her. price: two large pizzas.

The hospital was vague, having said they would keep my aunt in ’till Monday'; no news forthcoming.

The next day I rang my aunt’s one remaining friend to tell her the news. She went to visit, which I can’t do because of leaving the dog alone in the flat, and sent a highly descriptive and informative email account. Then a three-hour walk, insane-joy gambolling in the snow in Clissold Park. Back, straight to the kitchen to have her legs and tummy washed and wiped from the mud. The spare duvet is now on 2/3 of my bed. At the hospital I was put through to an occupational therapist who was contacting social services. She thought it might take a day or two. I asked if there was any chance that my aunt might still be in the hospital in, say, a week, and she said, ‘None’. I was writing writing writing on a late deadline, with the dog all cowed and brushed on the bed. Which needed changing, everything: three loads of laundry.

All I’ll say to that is, it’s a good thing I did a bit of a shop in Chiswick on Sunday! Because the dog does bark, shrilly, and growls at small random noises; I just can’t leave her alone here. And you can’t take a dog into the supermarket. With presence aforethought I laid in  provisions on Sunday, milk and eggs and so forth. I made a lovely creamy onion soup with haddock in it. And a little half-priced artisan loaf lasted very well.

Feedback from the editor: great piece but more research needed. Also, emailing about three poet profiles I have to write.

On Weds I spoke to my aunt. First time all week she’d been available to speak to. She was asking about the killer dogs.

No killer dogs, Aunt B. Just Charlie. (Asleep on the floor beside me as I speak.)

‘What about Judi Dench?’

But at about 6.30 the phone rang, and it was someone telling me my aunt had become violent, punching and kicking, and they had had to physically subdue her (she’s 5’10”) and give her an injection of sedatives… Fifteen minutes later, they’d gone to check on her and found her missing. They’d called the police. Yes, her coat was missing. Phew. And her filthy trousers, which she wouldn’t let anyone wash.

It turned out she’d done a runner the day before, too. But within 20 minutes they called back to say she was found. I spoke to her: ‘I was very worried, they said they didn’t know where you were!’

‘Ye-es, that is a problem they have. And they’ll keep having it.’

She spoke of ‘fisticuffs in the hallway’.

Across Thursday we will draw a veil. I woke from sad, dead dreams to a sad dog and a dead day, another freezing hours-long walk in the slush, meeting only strangers distrustful of my dog’s desire to play with their dogs. Information not forthcoming, several phone calls to the hospital – in yet another new role, this time as ‘tedious resentful relative with dog’. Fed up with the sheer difficulty of everything, the utter lack of company – I was going to walk the dog with a friend who has one, but she went out early, and I just wanted to cry – and a strange feeling of being under house arrest, or of somehow turning into my aunt. Same jeans and ancient trainers all week; filthy hair, nothing else doing, and everywhere I went, the dog: padding along behind, looking up at me, expectant…  into the hallway, there she is; into the living room, there she is; underfoot. On the bed. On the clean clothes on the pink couch. Sad. Expectant. Worried. And overly used to having people’s emotions projected onto her.

But happy, joyously happy, when out, so out we go. Me not happy anywhere. Stuck at my desk not making any noise, except for several long tedious conversations about all this every day. Life itself just precarious, and shrunk to the darkest room in the flat, all covered with hair, while in the living room the guinea pig cage grows more and more rank, and trying to change it now just too too too much work, and rifling therough the fridge to find something to give Frank and Chet because I can’t go in the greengrocer’s… my only outlet the discovery that she could be tied up for a minute outside the bakery because it’s a side road and felt safer, so I could get a takeaway coffee. And, goddamn it, a bun.

BUT, by a miracle, the girl network steps in! One of them came over all bright and chirpy and sat with Charlie on Thursday evening so I could go to the Rack Press launch, which was important for other reasons. I washed my hair. I put on tights and a skirt. I stopped at Sainsbury’s and bought a small pack of dog food and a cucumber and something to eat on the way. I arrived very late, and distracted, with dog food in my bag & strangely on the verge of tears, and when a friend turned around in the audience and mouthed at me, ‘Are you all right?’ I did have to blink them back. But in the end, a wonderful evening. A fabulous relief and great.

In the pub, a picture arrives on the phone from Mlle B showing that she has dyed her hair bright green and looks like an extremely pretty leprechaun.

Yesterday, more weird dreams. I rang and spoke to my aunt. She sounded much more normal. Again relieved to hear that I saw no killer dogs in her flat, and had forgotten it was Dame Judi who was tasked with fighting them off. Asked about the kids, in detail. Took in what I said. Was pleased that I’m looking after Charlie. (& remembered it.) She’s had proper meals for a week now, and a shower, and just a lot of calm (not counting the two escape attempts)… Apparently, due to being such a nightmare, she now has a 1-1 assigned worker, which means tons of dedicated attention and care. I mean, she’s kind of needed that for years. 25 years ago it was true.

A development, though: the future is now in the hands of the social worker, and a further (hard-won) conversation yields the information that my aunt will be in the hospital for another week. Next Friday is now the deadline for working out what to do. Home is not being thought of as a place my aunt can really, in practice, go.

But at 9 this morning, a call from a beleaguered 1-1 worker: my aunt is protesting, she wants to get out, she won’t wash or let anyone get her dressed, she needs clean clothes. Can someone bring clean clothes please? Can I speak to my aunt? Yes.

‘Oh there you are. They’ve got all the doors locked, they won’t let anyone leave, they just try to keep you her: the longer you stay, the more you pay. You need to come at once, and bring lots of people. Yes, they do keep saying I need clean clothes, it’s completely ridiculous. I have to get out of here right away, I just want to leave. I don’t think you’re wise to come alone, they’ll just get you in here too. Bring lots of people with you. Thank you, dear. See you later.’

Also: ‘Did you see Kate on your way out yesterday?’

It’s definitely a new chapter. Of what, well, we both know and don’t know.

The big news for right now is that one of the girls has persuaded her parents, my lovely friends, to have Charlie in the short term! Yesterday she took her for four hours and I managed to get groceries and hoover the flat and do some cleaning and change Frank & Chet’s cage. And apparently even her dad fell in love; when she left to bring the dog back, he rushed outside with his phone to take more pictures.

And by the way I did ring the Cinnamon Trust, the charity for elderly people and their dogs. It’s not as simple as that. And they are very overstretched, especially in London for the obvious reasons.But as and when the time comes, I should get the social worker to ring them, as they have lists of pet-friendly care homes, and can offer walking and taking-to-vet services; not sure if the council could be bothered, or what kind of place my aunt will end up in, or for how long she will really care about her dog. But we shall see.

This is GREAT news though and means I can visit my aunt, and speak to the nurses and take the social worker to see the flat, and my aunt can be in hospital having her fate decided, and Charlie can go in the garden, and nobody (except my aunt) will have to be under house arrest. And I can see her, and maybe I can even get to see someone else (even if just the lovely friends putting Charlie up), and maybe it will all be better.

Who knows what’s going to happen, though. The terrible truth is that if my aunt goes into a home my life will grow exponentially easier. (Once we’ve dealt with the flat, that is; and she’s a hoarder of fairly epic proportions. I mean, of rubbish.)

Work is a bit of a mess. I had to cancel today’s workshop, The Poem is a Question. We’ll do that next month. Not sure of the date yet. My current deadlines are still a little bit fluid, providing that I can manage to do the fecking work, so that has to happen. I have, somehow, to get to the Poetry Library. And, er, concentrate… and we can just forget about the desperate, urgent search for more work. My ability to pay my rent on April 1st is now officially moot.

All other things being equal, however, I’m going to go to the Inpress Festival of Publishing on Thursday – a reward and breakout. Incentive.

It’s been a hard week on everyone’s nerves. (And let’s face it, last week was hard on the nerves too: all that free-floating semantic parsimoniousness and anger flying around over abstractions. And the week before that I had a stomach bug for a week, but still managed to go to funerals and job interviews and sort out a child crisis and my aunt’s food; and no, I haven’t got the job). To say nothing of my glaucoma! The eye drops have suffered a bit this week, I have to say. Nobody can do everything.

And this is what it comes to. All that other stuff is luxuries and fripperies, all of you lot worrying about marketing your books and being chosen for this or that anthology and is this skirt cute enough, and going on a date, or to Paris, or Thailand, striking the exact correct political attitude and being right, or being poetically sensitive to even the most banal thing… Eventually it seems to come down to nothing working, and no one there, and a problem no one can solve because it is life itself and whatever project you had in mind burns up in front of your eyes. Raw and cold and whatever comfort you find comes from the beseeching look on the face of your problem, and the knowledge that there is only you, in your bones and the universe. And six-foot-tall killer dogs, with human faces, who are very pedantic and can speak English.