Archive for June, 2021

Wild Swimming

June 25, 2021

The water was like silk.

And so cool. I thought it would be colder. Even at eight in the morning it was an easy blood-warm swim and by evening I had to dive deep to feel even the faintest chill.  I saw the anchor roots of lilies then, which bloomed as sunshine on the surface.

When I looked, at noon, across the lake, the white heat of the day had scorched my horizons clean away, so that it looked as if the edge of the world had melted, as if you might tip right over it if you kept going – is that why the early explorers thought the world was flat. 

I wondered if, during the winter,  when the world is cold and cut crystal and brittle, I might see the furthest shores – where the water ends and Albania begins; somewhere in the glassy depths, which were mirror smooth when we were there, not even the faintest breeze to ruffle their surface, lies the line that separates Montenegro from its neighbour.

The beach at Godinje, Lake Skadar

I remember learning to swim. Mum taught me. In a frosty, older lady’s pool. She didn’t swim often; I knew that by the green slime and the frogs which, at six, gave me the creeps.  Here, on the lake, the frogs were the loudest I’ve ever heard; they struck up an evening chorus and at first I wondered at what they were: ducks, I thought.

It’s odd that mum taught me – she hated swimming, was afraid of the water, never put her head beneath it. And yet I love to, in the sea I love to hear the clicking conversation of coral, in a pool, the sound of my breath, on this lake the intermittent quarrel of herons, the lazy drone of dragon flies. 

I taught my own children. Except for my middle one, who learned simply by observation: watching carefully as I instructed her older brother. At 3 she nagged, ‘watch me, mama, watch me’ and I did and I was astounded as this small person doggy paddled her way across a whole width, her armbands abandoned. 

When I’ve swum, when I’ve ploughed my way through water, I feel stronger. And I feel more at peace, it’s as if my swim has drowned the noise of clamouring thoughts out.

And the world, when I get out and rub a rough towel against goose flesh skin, feels stilled.

Father’s Day

June 20, 2021

I think I remember buying the card. It seems both so long ago and so recent that the past and present bump up against one another as strangers and acquaintances simultaneously: ‘Hey! Don’t I know you?’

It was long before phone calls were a thing of such nondescript ordinariness that it meant nothing to chat for hours to somebody whose daytime meant you were in the middle of your night. No, when I bought that card, a generation ago, phone calls meant – usually – terrible news, for it is true: it does always travel fast: Bad news.

My news came a week after Father’s Day. Which is why, when we got home afterwards, the card I’d bought lay there, on dad’s desk, the envelope slit open and weighted by the paper knife that had slit it, the card propped up against a jam jar of pens. 

And it came, that news, perhaps two weeks after I’d browsed the aisles at WH Smith and bought my card and inscribed it and licked the envelope and sealed it and purchased a stamp in the post office in Fenchurch Street and dropped it into the red lipped mouth of the post box. Hoping as I did so, that it’d arrive in time. It mattered so much, later, that it had.

Your dad’s had an accident, said the voice at the other end of the line when I picked up the call at work that day.

It never occurred to me it might be that sort of accident. Never. Not for a moment. I think now it would; I think that occasion, that single experience, is what prompted my habit now to catastrophize. Now I understand the possibility for tragedy is everywhere.

No, he is dead.

And then you know life will never be the same again. There will be gaps and holes and you will always know after that that life has the propensity to gouge new ones. That plans will be tripped up. That you will never share your 21st birthday with your father’s 50th because he never made it that far: he was 47.

I remember saying to somebody at the time, I will never survive losing my mother. There will never be a father like mine.

But I am losing my mother. By painful degree.  And I am surviving it.

And there is another father both like mine and unlike him. I love him just as hard. He is just as important presence in my children’s lives as dad was in mine. The only difference, thankfully, oh so thankfully, is that he has stuck around for longer.  He is almost 62.

So sometimes, even when you think you’re unlucky, you’re also lucky.  


The Long Way Round

June 13, 2021

I’m in Eastern Europe.

This is what Lord Byron said about where I am, ‘At the birth of our planet, the most beautiful encounter between the land and the sea must have happened at the coast of Montenegro. When the pearls of nature were sown, handfuls of them were cast on this soil.’

This is where mountains soar and then dive into icy waters that are inky for their depth.

When I swim, now, here, mid June, before the summer has begun to take winter’s brittle edge off, I must swim fast, grazing the surface as lightly as I can. I picture a lily trotter and laugh. If my limbs dip too low, they are pinched by cold. But the glow that warms my body when I step to the shore to wrap myself in a sun-warmed towel is addictive; I go back for more.

I’m on my way to spend time with mum. But I must dance through Covid hoops, skirting hotel imposed quarantine, wearing my mask and brandishing my Negative-for-Corona certificate as I go: Kilimanjaro, Dar es Salaam, Istanbul, Podgorica … some airports are eerily empty and planes full of space.

I feel a long way from my own mountains, here. And so close to these. I watch an evening stripe of sun slide up sheer sides even as it sinks low over some unseen western horizons. And then I watch city lights sputter to life and gleam across black waters towards me.

I catch my breath and collect my thoughts. If I line them up, neatly, rank and file, will it make the future seem less uncertain, will it tidy my head in readiness for the making of decisions. About mum. Will it?

Hooray for Siblings

June 3, 2021

Mum has been low these last few days.

An awareness I think of both her body and her brain letting her down. 

She proclaims with such indignation, ‘well I wish somebody had bothered to tell me’ that you briefly question whether you ever actually did: tell her whatever it was she has apparently never been told. 

The slow slide of dementia’s distrustful hand is in evidence everywhere: ‘I think you are lying/I think he is cross with me/nobody bothered to tell me.’

But the paranoia that is attendant to forgetting is forgivable isn’t it: when your mind is a quagmire and all the facts are bogged down and stuck.  Muddied by a mind scribbled all over by plaques and tangles and proteins gone awry.

My siblings and I are a tight and united little force and I give thanks for that always. For their patience with my flapping and bossing and distress. For my brother’s astonishing and unstinting stamina and kindness even when Mum’s messy mind has him and his good intentions all wrong.   Because they both make me laugh – that dark humour that can only be shared by those in similarly tragicomic circumstances. 

Woe betide my husband if he makes light of my mum’s illness.

But when my brother says mum is tired after doing the ‘filing’ that morning (and she means the loading of  the dishwasher), we share a quiet smile.

And my sister and I laugh out loud when we compare the reasons mum did not get out of bed that day.

To me she says, ‘I am perfectly well. I am just very tired. I am having a day off. I think I have been working (filing?) too hard’.

To my sister she says, ‘Rob told me I had to stay in bed all day!’

As mum’s communication with us becomes ever more frayed, so mine and my siblings seems tighter and neater as we pick up the threads of one another’s thoughts.

And that’s lucky.