Sea of Memories by Fiona Valpy
‘Welcome to the Drumbeig Nursing Home’. The words on the sign belie the fact that I’m standing in the pelting rain, on the wrong side of the glass door, stooping slightly to bring my ear nearer to the Entryphone in the hope that someone’s heard me press the buzzer and will respond. I huddle in closer, trying to flatten myself against the wall beneath the shallow overhang of the guttering, which drips even more water down my back. The wind tears handfuls of yellowed leaves from the plane trees that encircle the grey stone building and throws them against the windows, where they plaster themselves for a moment before being washed to the gravel by rivulets of raindrops. I check my watch, impatient, my mind already on home – Will Dan be coping? Will he have remembered Finn’s medication? – then press the buzzer again, a longer and more assertive ring this time.
‘Sorry to keep you waiting. If you could just sign in for me.’ The receptionist hands me a clipboard and a pen. I slide off my sodden coat so the sleeve won’t drip on to the polished surface of her desk. ‘Have you visited us before?’
I shake my head, signing my name and the date. In the column headed ‘Visiting’, I write my grandmother’s name, ‘Mrs E. Dalrymple’.
She turns the sheet to read what I’ve written. ‘Ah, you’re here to see Ella? That’s nice. She’s settling in well, and her son comes to see her regularly, but it’ll be good for her to have some more visitors.’
Guilt makes me bristle slightly. I want to tell her that I’ve not been able to come before – I work full-time as a teacher, you know, my son has problems, it’s not easy to make the time . . . But I leave my excuses unsaid and force a polite smile back, raking my fingers through the wild strands of my hair that are already turning to frizz in the hot-house air of the nursing home.
It was the call from my uncle, Robbie, that prompted this visit. ‘She’d love to see you, Kendra, if you can spare the time. There’s something she wants to ask you. But I have to warn you, she’s not so strong these days. You’ll see a change since you last saw her at the house. Her mind’s wandering a great deal more now.’ His tone was gentle, although there was a hint of insistence, which increased my sense of guilt in not visiting her before. But my mother isn’t close to Granny Ella – some complicated, never-spoken-of mother–daughter strife – and so there wasn’t much contact when I was growing up. It makes visiting all the more complicated. I doubt I’ll tell Mum that I’ve been to the nursing home today. It might feel like a kind of betrayal, even if I’m not sure why. I know if I mentioned it in passing, no matter how casually, there would be a sniff and an abrupt change of subject at the other end of the phone.
‘Second floor, go right along to the end. She’s the last door on the left.’ The receptionist directs me with a professional smile.
There is a thick, oppressive smell of cooking cabbage, which seeps from beneath the dining-room doors to mingle and clash with other scents of air freshener and disinfectant. My footsteps make no sound on the thick blue carpet. I decide the lift would be even more claustrophobic and take the stairs, a reminder to be grateful, suddenly, for the use of my legs. By the time I’ve climbed to the second floor, I’m sweating and my scalp prickles with the heat of my own body. I pull the high neck of my woollen jumper away from my skin, hoping to cool down a little, trying to breathe. How is my grandmother adjusting to living in the stifling atmosphere of this institution, I wonder, no matter how clean and warm it may be? Are the nursing staff kind? Is she well cared for? Does she miss the independence of her solid Morningside home, the generous, high-ceilinged spaces, the rooms filled with a lifetime of belongings? Or does all of that no longer matter to her? Has she forgotten it, as she forgets so much these days? Her mind seems to be discarding memories in the same way that she’s discarded so many of her possessions, paring back her life to just the bare essentials. Downsizing not just her accommodation, but her life, her whole being, as her days draw to a close.
The last door on the left has the number 12 stencilled on to it and a name card beneath it in a little metal frame: ‘Ella Dalrymple’, printed in neat, rounded handwriting. A young hand, not her own elegant italic script which waves and trembles these days on the cards she sends out at Christmas.
The noise of a television, the volume turned up high, emanates from the room on the opposite side of the corridor. But, as I pause outside Granny Ella’s door, there’s nothing but silence on the other side of it. I tap softly. Maybe she’s asleep. I can leave a note, creep away without disturbing her, get home in good time to check on Finn, start supper, get on with the marking I’ve brought home with me: thirty-one essays on ‘Who’s to blame for the tragedy in Macbeth?’ I suspect that some of those essays may well turn out to be tragedies in their own right.
The urge to turn and leave is strong. After all, I could honestly say now that I’d tried to visit, and my conscience would be clear. But at the same time I can’t help registering my reluctance to go home. I always seem to feel that way these days, knowing that as I come through the door I’ll be wary of meeting Dan’s eyes in case I catch another glimpse of the look of defeat that flickers there now, overshadowed by the guilt he can’t conceal at seeing me coming in, tired, from another day’s work. We’ll both try to pretend that it’s fine. He’ll put on a brave face and try to be positive about the latest job application he’s just sent in, and I’ll make an attempt to be bright and breezy about my day, dredge up a smile and a funny story about something one of the kids at school said. But we’ll both know. Despite trying to protect one another, we’re worried sick about our current financial predicament and even more so about the future. Whatever lies out there for our beautiful, unreachable son? Finn was a difficult baby from the start, and the doctors put his listlessness, which alternated with terrible, terrifying fits of rage, down to colic or teething or some vague, undefined ‘virus’. And then when he was two years old they realised that, in fact, there were ‘significant developmental delays’ and started referring us to the specialists who finally diagnosed his autism. Every day since has been an exhausting struggle, whether we’re trying to help Finn through his anger and terror or whether we’re battling with the authorities to try to get more help for him. And while Dan and I both put a positive gloss on things during the day, there’ll be that awful chasm again later tonight, when we lie in bed, miles apart. It feels like each of us is drowning in our own sea of worries, unable to reach across and pull the other to safety. We’re drifting further and further apart, unable to summon up the strength, any more, to fight the undercurrents that are dragging us both down.
A nurse comes out of the room opposite carrying something covered with a towel. She shoots me a brisk, no-nonsense smile and I turn back to Ella’s door and tap again, a little more firmly. My grandmother’s gentle voice, as cracked and age-worn as the old seventy-eight gramophone records that she used to own, invites me to ‘Come in’.
‘It’s me, Granny, Kendra. Just come to see how you’re doing.’ My voice sounds false to my ears, with the over-brightness of a guilty conscience.
I don’t know whether she’ll recognise me. There was that one time when I went to see her at the house and she called me Rhona, her lined face breaking into a radiant smile of joy and relief, thinking her daughter had come back to see her at last. ‘I’m not Rhona, I’m Kendra. Rhona’s daughter, remember? Mum will come and see you one of these days, though, I’m sure.’ And it’s high time she did, before it’s too late, I didn’t add. She hasn’t been back to Edinburgh for years, refuses to see her mother and has left it all up to Uncle Robbie, even the move to the nursing home and clearing out the house to put it on the market.
But I can see that today’s a good day. Granny’s eyes are bright, her mind sharp.
‘Kendra, dear, how lovely. Come in and pull up that chair. But you’re soaked! Here, hang your coat by the radiator to dry out a bit. It’s a foul day out there.’
I give her a hug, noticing how frail she is, how fragile the skin of her cheek feels against that of my own.
I drag a chair closer to hers and take a good look around. Robbie and his wife, Jenny, have done a good job, arranging the few belongings that could be brought from the house so that the room, with its bland, magnolia-painted walls and beige carpet, has been transformed into something a bit more comforting, more personal.
Ella’s paintings from home have been hung, with my favourite one – the beach scene with the sailing boat – on the far wall, where she can see it from her bed. There are a couple of the old rugs on the floor, their colours still jewel-like despite being a little threadbare here and there with the passage of thousands of footsteps down the years. And her books and ornaments are arranged on the shelves that Robbie made to fit around two walls of the room, and beneath the window that looks out across the treetops to where Edinburgh Castle floats in the distance, illuminated, as though sailing on the storm-tossed sea of branches in the foreground.
On the cabinet at her bedside sits a delicate, deep-blue bowl, shot through with a vein of pure gold like a bolt of lightning, containing a handful of seashells. Those shells are particularly poignant somehow. There’s nothing special about them; they are a beachcomber’s modest pickings. And yet, for her to have kept them like this, they must be more than they appear: treasured memories of holidays long ago, perhaps, reminders of days gone by spent on far-flung beaches awash with sun, wind and sea. I swallow the emotion that rises suddenly in my throat.
‘How are you settling in, Granny?’
I know this move has been hard for her, that she sees it as an admission of defeat, an ending, and I glimpse the look of sadness that flickers around her eyes at my question. But she quickly composes her features, a customary calm smile on her face as she replies, ‘Oh, fine really. This place wouldn’t be bad at all if it wasn’t for the fact that it’s full of old people.’
I nod, grinning back at her. ‘I see. And at the age of ninety-four, you’re excluding yourself from that description, I take it?’
‘But of course.’ She raises her eyebrows in a look of mock innocence. ‘Despite appearances to the contrary, I’m really only seventeen you know. I have a theory, you see, that, when you’ve lived as long as I have, your memory chooses whichever age it wants to be; and today my mind has been back in my eighteenth year again.’
I look at her a little askance, worried that she’s having another one of those lapses where her brain loses its connections to the more recent memories and transports her back into the past, stealing her from us, little by little, with this cruel trick of the aging mind.
But her eyes are clearly focused, watching my face intently. She must have seen the giveaway flicker of concern in my expression because she reaches for my hand and holds it in both of hers.
‘Don’t worry, Kendra, I’m teasing you. I’m all here today.’
My cheeks flush and I put my other hand over hers, turning to face her more squarely. The realisation that she knows – that she’s aware of her lapses of memory, the frightening, dark flickering of a candle flame that had always burned so steadily up until now – hits me suddenly, bringing a lump to my throat again that silences me.
‘But,’ she continues, ‘I do know that I’m losing my marbles.’ She squeezes my hand as I try to find the right words to protest, to say No, that’s not true, you’re fine, as if those lies would make it better for both of us.
‘No, dear, I am. There’s no point in pretending otherwise. And so I want to ask you a favour. You’re good with words, and now that I’m in here’ – she nods at the room around us, which is all that remains for her – ‘I have a great deal of time on my hands and a head full of memories. So, before I forget them all and there truly is nothing left, I want you to write them down for me. To tell my story. Would you do that for me? I remember you used to say you wanted to be a writer. Here’s a chance for you to exercise that talent.’