End Of The Season

A friend took this photograph of the last leaf clinging to a tree near his place of work.

He wrote of Autumn, still hanging desperately on at this late hour, before finally conceding to the inevitable winter.

The symbolism is obvious, but to me it reminded me of another liminal point. My Mum, suffering from Alzheimer’s, is nearing the end. She is still hanging on despite a possible chest infection. A stab in the dark Hail Mary, she is receiving antibiotics to counter any such infection, with the hope of an improvement over the next 48 hours (I’m writing this on the Saturday).

If that doesn’t materialise then end of life care will begin.

To be honest, I kind of hope it isn’t a chest infection. What is the point of coming back from the brink for further struggle? A struggle she won’t even be aware that she’s in. A struggle she cannot win.

The irony is that for a while now my wife and I have been administering medication and calorie-providing drinks to prolong what she didn’t want prolonging. To keep her where she didn’t want to be. (Such is the nature of her illness that, even though she is still here, I speak of her wishes in the past tense.)

But it’s not for us to decide the hour. A ‘time for all seasons’ and all that. At least not until we react to her failing heart and begin the end of life care.

Maybe the leaf in the photograph can also stand for one final moment of clarity, glimpsed among the fog of confusion, where those clouded eyes show recognition, and the lips twitch in that old grounded humour.

But I fear that is wishful thinking. The leaf is hanging on but, despite those blue skies, there’s a cold breeze blowing now. The natural order cannot be defeated. One season is giving way to the next.

My Son Slowly Killing Me (Holiday Update #2)

My Fitness app blew up. We had been walking that much it stopped counting my steps and went into meltdown. Sun cream was running into my eyes, stinging as they were as I squinted against the sun.

I convinced him that it was time, after hours walking around Blackpool in the heat, to head back to the B&B for a shower.

Cold shower done, it was bliss to lounge on the bed in the shade.

“Dad, can we go on the beach now with the football?”

I silently sighed in exasperation.

“Why don’t we take a break for a bit first? We don’t have to do everything at once. We’ve still got three days here.”

“Please. I want to go into the sea while you take shots at me.”

I mentioned the sun, how it might be cooler and safer in a few hours, but he broke down all my walls. So off we went, sun cream back on, into the oppressive heat. It was a million degrees.

There wasn’t much relief in the sea breeze, either, and as he waded in there a few feet I began launching the football at him beneath the sledgehammer sun.

The only thing off-putting to him were the jellyfish, they were washing up everywhere on the sand. It wasn’t enough for him to call it a day, though. Maybe he felt challenged by the two younger kids (they sounded Australian) who were scooping them up and throwing them back into the water.

And then came was Divine Intervention.

The next day was the first of the annual Blackpool Airshow, with the Red Arrows, Spitfires and all others expected to attract a further 100,000 people to the holiday resort. While we were stood there, he up to his waist in the sea, me wilting on the beach, two low-flying jets came screaming in above us. Maybe they were coming in early for tomorrow’s show, or the pilot’s were familiarising themselves with the route they were due to take.

“What are those?” he shouted in alarm, looking upwards.

“Quick!” I said, taking the opportunity, “we have to get back to the B&B. It’s the Russians!”

We returned later, just before sundown.

My Son Slowly Killing Me (Holiday Update #1)

It was the first day of five spent in Blackpool, and he was eager to try out the rides on the South Pier. So, after a Maccies breakfast, we had a walk over. The day was young but was already heating up, our stay coinciding with another August heatwave.

We purchased tickets from the booth – twenty five tickets for twenty five pounds – and he nudged me towards the first one that he wanted to go on. I can’t now recall its name, but that became the least of my worries.

We were locked in and the ride began as the music started to blare, the speed building as we began to spin in our seats as the mechanical arms holding us moved us in and out of the attraction’s outer edge.

In/out In/out.

Within minutes I thought I was going to throw up (did I mention that this was straight after a Maccies breakfast?).

How embarrassing would that be? Me, at fifty, by far the oldest person on it, surrounded by young children with my eleven-year-old son cheering alongside me. As the speed increased so did that feeling in my stomach. I painted on a smile for James every time he glanced at me in this, our great shared experience, and tried my best to contain myself.

The relief I felt when the ride began to slow. I’d managed to get through it without raising any suspicions of how I was feeling, thus maintaining an aura of heroic cool in his eyes.

But soon I discovered that the only reason we had stopped was because a kid, about seven years old, had banged his head and they were letting him off as he was upset.

And then, over the speakers: “BECAUSE WE STOPPED EARLY, WE’LL SEND ALL YOU ‘ROUND AGAAAAIIINNNN !”

Jesus.

“SCREAM IF YOU WANNA GO FASTER!!!”

Keep your fucking mouths shut I thought to myself.

I could hear them over the music.

In an effort to distract myself from what was building within, I began reciting a mantra: don’t think about food/don’t think about food/don’t think about food

But the only word my tormenting mind was focusing on was ‘food’.

It got worse. I kept my mouth closed and my eyes down to avoid the swirling, dizzying landscape around me. Somehow, I’m not sure how, I managed to contain myself until the ride’s end and clambered out of the carriage on shaky legs.

An oblivious and excited James was eager for more fast-thrill stuff, rhyming off a list of all of the rides that awaited us. I managed to convince him that if he went on the rides alone from now on his tickets would last longer and he’d get to go on even more rides. He appreciated this altruistic gesture as I waved him off on the Waltzers and then hurried forthwith to the toilets in the amusement arcade. I thought that if I could induce myself to vomit, getting the seeming inevitable out of the way, then I’d be okay after that.

There was no toilet roll. With there likely to be someone waiting outside to use the toilet after me I couldn’t afford to miss the target. I’m going to have to get this right. I lifted the seat to avoid any splashing, bent right over the pan and stuck my finger down my throat. Twice.

Nothing.

I abandoned my plan as my still unsuspecting son would be coming to the end of his ride. I went outside to be confronted by the sight of a boy being sick at the pier rail. He was about ten. A security guard was asking him if he was alright, speaking into a radio when the lad shook his sweaty head in response in-between heaves. I started in horror at the idea of him having to deal with middle-aged me if I followed suit. The current casualty list age being: seven, ten, fifty.

I looked out over the seafront and took deep breaths, hoping the sea air would help but the sight of the rolling waves made me worse.

That was great!” James said when he found me, his hand finding my sleeve to tug me towards the next ride in his sights.

And again. And again. Literally: ad nauseam.

Eventually he ran out of tickets and we ran out of morning.

Which meant only one thing: lunch time.

Although feeling a little better, I was still slightly queasy, and everything he suggested sounded greasy. Chips; burgers; hotdogs.

I tried to play it cool. “How about a nice salad bar?”

“What’s one of those?!” he asked with barely disguised disgust. “A salad bar? On Blackpool front?” While pointing out a stall nearby that had onions frying at eye-level. I needed to avert those eyes.

There’s four days to go.

It’s a thousand degrees.

Traumatic Scene

To Conker Her Fears

It was maybe an hour from dusk. A little girl was running ahead of her mother, kicking all of the yellow and brown leaves out of her way as she came.

“Where are all the conkers?” she asked me.

“Conkers?

“Yeah, there’s all these leaves but no conkers!” Her cheeks were red with either all of the running she’d been doing or the cold air. Maybe a combination of the two.

I gestured towards the bottom of the hill. “There’s a conker tree down there, on Wood Street. Right to the bottom then turn left.

She whirled around. “MUMMY!” She didn’t have to shout as her mother wasn’t really that far behind. “THERE’S A CONKER TREE DOWN THERE!”

Maybe her mother didn’t really need to hear that. I shrugged apologetically. “It’s about ten minutes away.”

She nodded her thanks and they went on their way. Or rather the girl did, speedily, and her mother followed the trail she left through the foliaged pathway.

That was one thing I missed. When my kids were primary age we used to pass the horse chestnut tree that I’d referred to on the school run, and at this time of year we’d forage for any fallen conkers along the way. Especially after a previous night’s storm.

But the kids are older now. High school age. When I was in high school conkers were still a thing. The playground was the battleground, and the more fair-minded (or more likely the naive) among us would come up against the devious cheats who had strengthened their conkers by baking them in the oven or coating them in nail varnish. Ways and means, with the assistance of conspiring adults.

That was in the days before the schools went on a health and safety overdrive and either banned them outright or insisted safety goggles had to be worn when playing.

So now they’re not a thing.

The last time any interest was shown in conkers in my house was when my daughter had come across the claim that spiders were scared of them. Before you could say show me the scientific proof there was a defensive line of them along her window ledge and more strategically placed upon her bedside cabinet.

They lasted until the night she encountered a spider that was big enough to juggle them.

ABBA And The Friday Feels

You guys have heard me say it before: I’m a creature of nostalgia. That’s nothing new. (Literally.)

I’ve often thought, without having a death wish, that, of the gang I used to hang with in my youth, I hope I’m not one of the last to go as I don’t think my heart could take the sentimental overload.

I was born in ‘71, which means that in three months time I’ll be fifty. I’m sharing that half a century milestone this year with some of my favourite albums: The Doors’ La Woman, Lennon’s Imagine, and the Stones’ Sticky Fingers, among others. Music that I’ve connected with and taken with me across the decades.

Last night I watched the reveal about the quite astonishing return, after all this time, of ABBA, unveiling not only a whole new album (Voyage) and two songs from it, but also a concert that is being planned in London with the aid of technology.

ABBAtars, no less.

I saw this photograph of the four Swedes dressed up in the outfits that they wore to help create these new altar egos. They look like something out of the 80’s science fiction movie Tron.

The finished result, based on their look in 1979.

Experiencing the two new songs from this first album in forty years transported me right back in time to the first family home that we all shared back then. I’d only be about five years old, my brother eighteen months younger. My folks had a cassette player on the wall unit by the door, with an early ABBA compilation album primed to play. My Mum introduced us: “Ladies and gentlemen, let’s hear it for . . . ‘THE MURRAY BROTHERS!’” We’d both be playing drums on an upturned bin and a biscuit tin respectively, while we sang along.

That was, of course, the seventies, the hazy, intangible seventies, where my affected memory always reconstructs those times in the brightest and gaudiest of colours.

My Dad is no longer with us, and my Mum no longer remembers ABBA (Alzheimer’s), but those happy days (and that group in particular) is something I’ve brought along with me to this very day. And that connection has been reinforced by listening to this new material.

Both songs (maybe more so because of the lens that I experience them through) are rich in sentiment. The first one, I Still Have Faith In You, is a ballad sung by Frida, about the special relationship shared by all four group members. I thought that this one was just okay, maybe a grower, the emotion of it coming more from the accompanying video that shows the four of them in their prime, until replaced by the ABBAtars that appear towards the end.

But it was the Agnetha-led second song, Don’t Shut Me Down, that cranked up the feels a notch. I wasn’t expecting the emotional punch that took me right back to my crude beginnings.

It sounds like classic ABBA, recognisable ABBA, and when Frida joins in it demonstrates that, no matter their age, when those two singers combine those two voices, magic is created.

It’s a magic sorely needed in our world, a magic capable of time travel.

And like all true nostalgists, I see hidden meaning and significance in everything. Making it relatable and personal, I excitedly informed my wife:

“Jen – ABBA have got back together for my 50th!

Happy Birthday to me.

Eleven Heavens

My son is eleven years old tomorrow and last night we took him and three of his friends (along with his tag-along sister) for something to eat.

I was surprised when we came back outside to stumble into a proper, bonafide Summer evening. A nice reminder that the season hasn’t conceded to Autumn just yet.

I have to say that it didn’t feel particularly summery when we went inside. The summer lovin’ happened so fast.