Three Years Ago
Nancy is standing at the window again, the one with the spectacular view, worrying about how the oil tanker will manage to get out of the bay. She is making her anxious hands, rubbing each palm against the back of the other in turn, brisk and rhythmical.
“I just don’t think it will get out of the space, it’s too big,” she says, rubbing harder, her eyes full of concern. She is wearing all the cardigans she could find in her bedroom, in layers, having insisted on doing up all the buttons on each and tucking each sleeve under at the wrist. Her mood has improved since breakfast time, when she woke with the now- characteristic belief that she was newly discharged from hospital into the care of strangers: “But where is my family? Are they coming for me?”
“We are your family, honey,” I soothe.
She laughs disdainfully, shaking her head. “Either you’re a liar, or I’m going mad.” Most mornings, there are tears. Tears and confusion. Dressing is hard. She wants to do it herself, but bras and trousers go on backward. If we don’t get to her quickly enough, she wanders the halls in her underwear. She looks younger than seventy- nine, everybody says so, and this is especially evident in her near- naked wanderings. Physically she’s amazingly good for her age: unstooping at five foot seven, well proportioned other than a mild potbelly, determinedly upright.
Her legs are strong and shapely. She can walk for miles, has thick silvery hair cut in a bob (it was sandy colored once, set into soft curls at the local salon once a month) and a charming smile, her pale face barely lined, though her blue eyes are rheumy now and her nose growing hooky. She’s acquired a prickly white beard under her chin, which my husband, Chris, shaves off every now and then. She won’t always let him at it. She can be protective of it, sitting stroking it in her chair. Some days it horrifies her. “Who put this here? Where did this come from? Take it away!” Or she thinks it’s a wound, a scab. “I must have tripped and fallen. But it’s getting better now.” Nancy’s at a good- days and-bad- days stage of Alzheimer’s, and on bad days she accuses Morris of having given her the stubble, perhaps because she recognizes that beards are properly the province of men.
She returns to her little sitting room, her coal fire, her husband, and sits in her pale blue winged armchair. She asks, now, if it’s hers and if she can sit there. She hasn’t had it long enough to remember it. Only the very- long- term memory is functioning. Morris is sitting in the chair beside her, is always sitting in the chair beside her. His is electrically powered, tips back, is upholstered in orange tapestry. He was stout once and, with his square face, mischievous dark eyes, dark hair combed over, and mustache, resembled a rather better- looking Oliver Hardy, and was just as likely to suffer fools gladly. He’s mellowed. He appears to have shrunk, in all dimensions.
I’ve known Morris and Nancy for twenty- two years. When I first met them, brought home by Chris from university, I thought them old- fashioned, thrifty (furnishings and appliances had remained unchanged over de cades), sociable, hardworking, right- wing. They were Daily Mail readers, natural conservatives, but generous about our student leftiness. I don’t recall anything much in the way of ideological standoff. They were all hospitality, bailed us out when we got into financial hot water, let us stay with them on an indefinite basis when work plans went awry. Despite finding our postgraduate ideas about office jobs and steady security highly provoking (we didn’t fancy either of these much), they were nothing but kind. Kind but unforthcoming, opinion withheld. This has been a pattern in our relationships.
Nancy and Morris moved here with the rest of us this summer. We have a lot of latitude in where we live. Latitude and longitude. Chris is an internationally known- in- his- own- niche expert on a specific use of new technology, and he consults widely, mostly from his home office, though there are bouts of meetings and flying. We have two teenage girls— Millie, sixteen, who’s tall and dark like her mother, and Caitlin, fourteen, who shares her father’s ash- blond coloring— and a boy called Jack, ten, a senior at primary school, tall and lanky and Italianate, with a scruffy dark shock of hair.
Moving, it turns out, isn’t good for Alzheimer’s patients. Leaving behind the familiar, having to adapt to the new. Nancy’s disorientation is ongoing. “I don’t know where I am,” she sobs, “I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing.”
I’ve been reading about memory. In cases of transient global amnesia (total but temporary memory loss), people ask over and over where they are and what they should do, how they got there, what they should do, what should they do now? Doing is a big preoccupation. They don’t ask what might seem to be the obvious question: Who am I? That doesn’t seem to be a question the self asks of the self. Instead, it looks for clues from context: where, how, what.
Chris and I have different responses to her anxiety. He takes her hand and is tender, explaining that they weren’t coping, she and his father, and have come to live with us. I go for a jollier approach. “Well, lucky for you you’re retired now and you can sit in this chair by the fire and eat biscuits and watch the afternoon film on the telly,” I say. “Not like poor old me, I’ve got washing to see to, dogs to walk and vacuuming, the dinner to sort out, and you should see Jack’s bedroom.” Jack is proving dedicated to the acquisition of stuff, particularly electronic stuff (gadgets, dead laptops), as well as guns, swords, and lighters. Sometimes I worry about where these interests might lead.
“Oh, poor you, having to do all that,” Nancy says, fleetingly lucid, playing along, and I’m embarrassed at being caught out talking to her in this nice- nurse fashion. But the moment passes and she’s back at the window. “Look at all that water.” Her voice is astonished.
“Yes. We live here, out on the peninsula; the sea’s all around us. Do you remember coming here with us to live? We came last month. Do you remember?”
“Edinburgh,” she says under her breath.
“You used to live in Edinburgh, years ago. But then you moved up to Speyside, near our old house. Do you remember the bungalow? By the river?” She looks blank. “And now you live here, with us.”
She looks at me, grim- faced. “That’s all very well, but they laugh at me, you know. Not you, I’m not talking about you, but the others. They look me up and down in the street and I can see that they’re thinking, Who the hell does she think she is?” Paranoia, an Alzheimer’s marker, is just beginning to get its grip on her. But she’s been lovely to the children all summer, which is reassuring. Her face lights up when they go into her sitting room. She pats her knee, like she used to; Millie’s five foot ten and can’t help laughing. “Now come and tell me all about it,” Nancy says. About what, she doesn’t specify. The girls are good with her, as Morris is always telling me. They’re patient, tolerant, don’t rise to verbal bait. They do things at Granny’s pace, taking her arm in theirs. “Come on, Gran. Let’s go and make Granddad some tea,” talking her through the operation step by step. “Put the tea bags in the pot now. In the pot, not the mug. That’s it. Right. Hot water next, can you manage the kettle okay? That’s the kettle. Yes. Here, let me.”
Morris prefers television to conversation, or indeed anything, and it’s been this way for a long time. Depressed and immobile, he is master of the remote and flicks between channels with a desperate air. It’s like he can’t look away. Things are too awful in his present to contemplate them squarely. Because he’s so focused on his television day, Nancy’s life is frequently lonely. She can’t follow a television program any longer. She’s more interested in being with me, because— when running the house hold, at least— I appear to be doing things. She’s less keen on me when I’m writing or reading. “The men just sit there,” she tells me scornfully, unable to distinguish between one kind of sitting and another: one at his desk on his laptop and phone, consulting and earning, and the other in the armchair next to her, absorbed fifteen hours a day by the flickering screen. She follows me around. She wonders half a dozen times a day where the friends are, and if they are coming.
“I don’t want the friends to know I’ve been ill,” she says, as we pick tomatoes in the green house. She eats the ones she picks or puts them slyly in her pocket, thinking I haven’t seen. Or just picks the dried- out leaves from the plants and puts those in the basket, smoothing them carefully. Then she takes them out again. “I don’t think these are ready,” she’ll tell me, trying to fix them back on the trusses.
The friends— imaginary friends— visit us sometimes, and she has days when she worries about how they’ll get here and how they’ll get home. In truth, her real friends have long deserted her, had deserted the two of them long before their move north. Desertion is a strong word; the truth is the process wasn’t so premeditated— it was a more gradual loss of attentiveness, a social slippage, the kind that happens when people get sick and have little to talk about other than their problems. Three from their old circle telephone from time to time, but it’s us they want to speak to, for reports.
“I need to say good- bye,” Nancy insists, twisting her handkerchief. “I need to see the friends off.”
“Don’t worry,” Chris says, trying to ease her agitation.
“They’ve gone already. I saw them leave earlier.” And then, seeing her expression, he adds, “But they said to tell you they’d had a lovely day.”
“Gone already? But they didn’t say good- bye.”
“They did, don’t you remember? I think you might have been asleep.”
“They haven’t gone.”
“They have. I saw them; they left on the bus.”
She looks indignant, draws her shoulders up tight. “They didn’t come on a bus.”
She appears to be having hallucinations. These are new, have arrived quite abruptly, and it occurs to me that our moving her here has aggravated the decline somehow, has accelerated it. Guilt is something I’m going to get used to, but for now it’s fresh and new. I take Nancy into the drawing room and we look through a stack of interiors magazines, me commenting and Nancy cooing. My laptop’s open on the table, and my attention is 80 percent diverted while I trawl the Internet for answers. Temporal lobe damage, it seems, can cause autobiographical hallucinations. Does she see the friends striding toward her across the lawn, looking just as they did twenty years ago or more?
Sometimes I think I can see them myself. The house doesn’t feel haunted— some big old houses do, but this one doesn’t— though there have been sightings, I’m told, in years past, of Victorians paused on the stairs, their eyes oblivious to the present. The first day we were here and went to the pub for supper, a fisherman propping up the bar asked how we weregetting on with the spooks. I haven’t seen anything or heard spectral footsteps, but the whole property is soaked in what I can only describe as pastfulness. It’s pastful, and sometimes, even though I know it’s just this, I’ve half believed there are women in rustling silk frocks in that part of the wood that was once the rose garden, have half heard brief melodious laughter in the paddock that was once a tennis court. Who are these people, the friends Nancy talks about? It’s occurred to me that the altered perceptions of Alzheimer’s might allow people to see ghosts.