It was, in hindsight, early in the journey that my father discovered he had left his hearing aid at home. In hindsight, it was also my fault. I should have noticed the absence of the high pitched whistling the device persistently emitted, to which my father was oblivious, but which gave everyone else the distinct impression they had suddenly developed tinnitus. I swung the car around.
Our trip to Liverpool for my son’s graduation had already begun later than expected. My mother had earlier accidentally emailed a complete stranger to tell her she was off for a few days. A brief but fraught exchange of emails followed, with the recipient enquiring who my mother was and my mother believing the person she had intended to correspond with, was joking. When the individual eventually announced she was blocking my mother, my mother, whilst hurt at the slur, was secretly impressed that the person knew how to perform a feat of IT ingenuity she didn’t even know was possible.
This was not my mother’s first faux pas of the festive season. At 84, she retains a belief in Christmas cards as a medium of communication as well as greeting. Sometimes, her messages contain an entirely fictitious account of the previous year, a kind of antidote to the self-congratulatory chain letters of others. In one case, she described a completely imaginary account of her trial for shoplifting in response to a letter detailing a friend’s safari trip to Africa with her offspring.
Last year, another friend explained in his card that his wife had been moved to a care home. Not sure how to comment on this in her card this year, my mother, after much thought wrote “I hope X has settled into her new surroundings”. The next day a card from her friend arrived saying, with sadness that his wife had passed away. Quite what “new surroundings” he thought my mother was referring to when her card arrived, having crossed in the post, can only be imagined.
Returning to the journey, after the obligatory hunt for my father’s walking stick, we departed for the first time. Our initial stop was the newsagent to advise them that a newspaper delivery was not required for the next four days, thereby informing both, the newsagent and any members of the Chiddingfold underworld present in the shop at the time that, not only was a house going to be unoccupied for the rest of the week, but of its actual address.
Fortunately, they had not yet arrived with their crowbars to gain entry when we returned to recover the musical hearing aid.
I had hired a car which I believed was large enough to hold the luggage required for the trip, but also high enough for my father to get into. My father is by no means tall but he is as flexible as a brick. Getting him into a car with a low roof requires skill, patience and occasionally Vaseline for his head. I failed on both counts. At least, if the thieves had arrived, I could have borrowed the crowbar to lever him in.
The next elderly parent car game is which of them has not put on their seat belt, causing the car to launch into a fit of health and safety beeping. The answer was, as usual, both of them. Having persuaded my mother that the back seats did indeed have seat belts, the issue was resolved and the journey began.
From Chiddingfold, a leafy town in Surrey, to Liverpool, a less leafy city on Merseyside is 240 miles. The satellite navigation system confidently predicted it would take four hours and nine minutes. The navigation system was a liar.
The journey passed pleasantly enough, the three of us engaged in conversation, sometimes with each other, although this type of discussion normally ended in a minor row when my father believed my mother had said something insulting to him. My mother said he had misheard and needed to turn his hearing aid up. My mother was a liar.
My mother made my father turn his hearing aid up then talked more softly.
There is no such thing as a short stop with elderly parents, I have factored this in so removing stress. At the services, my father had hot chocolate and chips, my mother tea and a burger and I had a soft drink, pretending to myself there was a whisky in it. I knew I was lying.
On visiting the facilities, I noticed that the gents seemed to have a large number of adverts on how to cure erectile dysfunction. Whether this was an affliction that particularly affected visitors to that set of services, I don’t know. What I do know is that if there was one place in the world I didn’t want to suddenly find I had been cured of erectile dysfunction, it would be the gents’ lavatory in a service station on the M40. The thought of someone using the next door urinal to mine suddenly pointing at the advert in front of me before turning towards me and saying “see, it worked for me!” is not an image I wish to contemplate.
Having finished, we then played the “getting my father in the car” game. For a change, we tried the rear seats. This was worse. As the boot was full, it was the front passenger door again. After several attempts, my mother asked if I had a plastic bag. Misunderstanding the question I replied, “we can’t suffocate him here, people will see!” Apparently, it was to put on his head to act as a slide to make pushing him in easier, rather than over his head. I didn’t, but got him in anyway.
I have been taking my parents on short road trips for some time now. Few have been uneventful. Last year, my father wanted to see the seaside and my mother wanted fish and chips so we drove to Brighton and then embarked upon a tour of a series of dreary southern seaside resorts at each of which my mother decided to purchase some seaside rock. This proved more difficult as the afternoon wore on. Finally arriving in Bognor Regis, she alighted from the car and entered a fish shop. Having turned the car around, I pulled up by the shop, the rear door opened, after a brief period it closed and my father and I set off back to Surrey. After a few minutes of conversation I noticed my mother was not engaged and enquired if she was sulking having failed to get any rock. No response. I turned my head to find my mother was not in the car. My father, in an act of desperation, felt in the rear seat wells in case she had slumped into them. Nothing.
I made an impressive U-turn and we sped back into Bognor. Eventually, we found her, still stood outside the fish shop with a bemused and mildly irritated look on her face. Apparently, she had returned to the car to retrieve her handbag then gone back to the shop. Coming back outside she saw my father and I drive by and was surprised that we had not waved to her as we passed. She was even more surprised when we, having reached the roundabout, did not turn around as expected but continued straight on. This became known in the family as “doing a Bognor”, meaning the leaving of an elderly relative in a strange place whilst having a seemingly legitimate reason for doing so. The phrase is used quite a bit in our family. Next year, we’re planning on going rallying in the Sahara.
Indeed, physically going with my parents is not the only way we can share journeys. A while back, I included my mother on Apple’s “find my friends”. In her case, it should have been named “stalk my son”. She will email me to ask why I am not at work or enquire where I am going to, or to tell me where I am (generally, I know). A couple of years ago, someone, for reasons best known to themselves, decided to place a tracker on my car. As far as I can tell, all they found out was the number of times I visited Morrisons. Eventually, a device was found on the vehicle of one the other people similarly being bugged, the police informed and the bugs quickly removed, presumably by the miscreant (mine may have died of boredom and fallen off, who knows?). They really needn’t have bothered; one call to my mother would have given them all the information they needed on my whereabouts, in real time.
So, this is my valentine to you, my parents. For years you drove me around, never begrudging the time of day or the length of journey (although the journey back from Snowdonia where they had to drive to collect me after I injured myself mucking about whilst climbing was conducted in silence). I am delighted to return the favour, whether by road or cyberspace. Hopefully, this is better than a card, though my mother will probably disagree.
words | Marcus Killick