It is a curiousity how the brain edits the electrical storm that crosses the many floors of the mind. Lightning flashing while synapses blast and turmoil , ripping changes across dimensions and oceans of shardy, tarnished memories.
I’m in a bar sometime in the late 1950s or possibly the very first or second year of the 1960s. That near-mythical decade that those living through took mostly for granted .We had no idea then how such a Big Deal we would make of it all and , in turn, it would be made of in retrospect. I would have been eight, nine or ten. If it was one of those time travel films , I could possibly maybe pin-point the year with greater exactitude by whatever pop song was playing on the soundtrack.This isn’t some film though. This is only a life-blasted recollection and you know what a trickster memory can be.
I’m sitting on a bar stool with my bare legs a-dangle. I’m wearing short trousers back then. In front of me is a tall half-pint beer glass.I always thought of it as a particularly elegant sort of glass. It is a graceful shape and design. My father would have called it a “sleever”. That’s what it’s pronounced like but it may have an old unfamiliar Gaelic/Scottish/Irish pedigree lost in the mists of time. It is full to the top with an orange mineral drink .This is a rare treat! The orange drink sold in bars couldn’t taste any more “orangey” than it did back then.It tasted like one of those big “Outspan” oranges you only really saw at the bottom of your Christmas stocking or at the Big Christmas Party in the City Hall that your auntie got you tickets for every Christmas. At home , Mum might buy little tins of “Cremola Foam” .You put a spoonful of this bicarby powder into a glass of water and it fizzed up like a weak lemonade.Supermarkets didn’t exist back then and lemonade wasn’t sold to rolling children in quarter gallon packs. This “pub” lemonade was the real deal though. This was a rare treat to be carefully savoured, like the way the little boy slowly consumes that creamy cake in the film “Cinema Paradiso”.Like that unearthly cake , this libation must be sipped slowly ,as an art-form, each mouthful played and squeezed of all joy.
Beside me ,my father is sitting drinking his pint of black stout.Bluish smoke is coiling up from his untipped Gallagher Blue cigarette.Specks of floaters are being caught in the sunny light shafting through the gloom of the early afternoon bar. There is no one else in the bar so early in the afternoon and it’s an unusual occurrence. He must have taken me to the optician or the dentist or maybe my mother had just had a baby…one of my younger sisters…and he was keeping me away from the commotion of the household. He was gossiping with the barman, possibly telling him one of the “Legendary Stories” that he could regale company with and which everyone in the family would soon take for granted.
What a memory he had!
A natural storyteller.The stories were all true too. We would hear them all oft repeated over the years. It may have been the one about the old sentimental lush who would go on a “bender on the drink” and would have an occasional “Lost Weekend” that would last all week. During one of these, he continued to feed his little donkey for four days after the poor beast had died . As my father would put it …”He forked in a ‘fod’ of hay every time he passed its stall , call an endearment ,even though the little creature had long expired” .A Monty Python story in real time. Or it might have been the story about the ghostly visitation that had disturbed him and his friend while working “down country” on a bricklaying job , staying in digs. During the night , much to their consternation, an unseen presence had sat at the bottom of their bed across their feet. They were to discover the following morning that someone had hanged themselves in that very room.We loved to hear him tell that one.
Memory is an odd thing. I can only fix a mere handful of those outings with my father . When I was older , we were never ones to share a pint down at the pub like some father / son relationships evolve. We would share an interest in old black and white gangster films on television with jimmy Cagney and Humphery Bogart or Laurel and Hardy comedies which I grew to love and appreciate. We never really shared a pint in a pub though.He’d seen a few things in his time. He had been in London during the World War Two Blitz and had met his future wife, my mother, there. They had a whirlwind romance and had married within about six weeks, honeymooning in Brighton . In his life he had travelled to many places in the world such as the Middle East and America, always open to new and novel experiences.
He lived to a grand old age of ninety-three but it all began to unravel some ten years or more before his death.My first inkling came in what is sometimes referred to as “The Man Who Forgot It Was Christmas”. I fix it in my mind in much the same way I remember film or book titles such as “The Man Who Never Was” , “The Man Who Knew Too Much”…”The Man Who Would Be King”.
My father , with his storytelling memory, like a steel-trap, was gradually robbed of that great ability to entertain a room with his drollery. My mother was already dead and he lived without her, on his own for some twenty-odd years .A small tradition had evolved where he would always have his Christmas dinner at my home, since my mother’s death.Everything had been arranged as usual .All the fine-tuned Christmas tweaking that women especially love to do.I went to pick my father up to bring him to the festivities which were already getting under way.The turkey almost done .The ham resting .Wine opened to breathe .The hundred-and-one fine little details that my wife is so extraordinarily good at . My three daughters full of Christmas glee, fussing about, still opening presents. The Big Christmas Dinner moment beckoning….
When I drove up to pick him up, my father was in bed sleeping.He had no idea that all of this revolved around his appearance. I had reminded him several times over the previous days but he had literally forgotten Christmas.
It was the first intimation that something was seriously amiss. Other strange things began to occur, in the days, weeks , months and years following. For example, he would make the same breakfast over and over until the little plates of unfinished meals began to clutter up his fridge and oven. It finally, incrementally , dawned on us all that my father was suffering from dementia and he was no longer safe in his own home. The cruelty of this illness cannot be over-estimated.
That same storm of electricity that lashed across my brain and time-travelled my memories back to the 1950s gradually deposited my father, a stranded survivor of his shipwrecked life, somewhere lost in space and time in a jumble of 1920s and 1930s and 1940s memory landscapes. I’m not sure to this day if he remembered any of us at all. He gradually lost the use of his bodily functions and his ability to converse.
Eventually he needed full-time care in a nursing home.The impossibility of his situation left everyone close to him bereft. I visited him most days to help feed him his dinner and talk to myself because he was no longer there.
I always left the nursing home with a lump in my throat. I was glad when he finally died .Glad for him and glad for all of us.