Last Man Standing

March 2016

A cold wind is blowing. Spring is around the corner, but winter is having a final hurrah. The boat is supported high on its cradle and twenty feet up, standing on the deck, I can see the inner basin of the harbour, marina pontoons bobbing around and, beyond that, the churning Firth of Clyde and a snow tipped Arran. I hear the metallic grunt of the ladder and turning round, see the upper rungs vibrate with the motion of someone climbing with slow methodical steps. I see his brown tweed cap and a tool box cradled on one shoulder. A gnarled hand with big knuckles grabs the next rung. His head is bowed and just as his torso comes into view a gust of wind blows in from the Bath Rocks. It sprints across the open ground between restless sea and boat yard, then dips it’s shoulder and strikes the yacht side on. The boat quivers. I hear the surprise in his voice as he says “oh” and his hand, reaching for the next rung, falls backwards. He catches the lower rung, steadies himself and realising there may have been a witness, looks up. There’s a wry look and a quick joke about the weight of the tool box, after which he lowers his head and completes the final steps. But we both know it wasn’t the wind, or the weight of the tool box and for the first time I understand how old he’s become. I am looking at a man who all his working life was at home at the top of a North Sea oil rig, or a tower crane, but who could no longer climb a twenty foot ladder without drama.

A passer-by would have thought badly of a middle aged man idly watching someone of advanced old age scale a rickety ladder carrying a tool box. But until that moment, his age, though advancing, had not made much of an impression, so gradual and imperceptible have the changes been.

He grunts as he puts the tool box down in the companionway and, awareness raised by the near fall, I notice how breathless he is. My mind recoils from the idea of him being weak and vulnerable and I tuck away dark thoughts. I carry on as if the world hasn’t changed, knowing that someday soon it will.

I leave the boat and stroll over to the chandlery. There are odds and sods to buy before the yacht is lifted into the marina. I know there’s not much he can do while I’m away, he doesn’t know his way about boats as I do, but it helps the pretence that he is useful and I know he will sit there in the cockpit and think up jobs for me to do. Sure enough, when I return, he points to the winches.

“Have you greased these yet?”

“On my to-do list.”

He makes a face. It’s a travesty that such a boat should be in the hands of someone as technically inept as I.

“Make sure you do. Don’t want these to jam when you’re out there.”

He slings a thumb backwards over his shoulder at the grey sea and I note the unconscious way he orientates himself against a backdrop he’s lived with all his life. I retrieve the cleaning kit from a box and we strip the winches in silence. Two men on a boat marooned on dry land with only the wind and the keening gulls for company.

Requirements for Safety at Sea

• Mooring lines

• Navigation lights

• Heavy duty chain

• Anchor

• Distress flares

March 2017

It’s the same road. Same route. Same day of the week. We’re driving to a café by the sea where I’ll make conversation and receive little in return. I’ve picked him up from the house, waiting until he emerges. After a glacial walk from door to car he climbs in, muttering curses at the low slung sports seats and the weather. I seldom go in. What had once been my whole world feels claustrophobic now. It seems implausible that it once held a family of five. On the rare occasions I do step inside, the walls and ceilings feel as if they have contracted inwards. As if the house has shrunk to fit to dad’s singular existence. The conversation is shrink-fit too. Communication for one.

He’s different in the car. As the town recedes and the coast road takes us along a golden ribbon of sand, the wide vistas open him up.

“Used to collect whelks along here. Cooked them on the beach in wee cans.”

He points to a promontory of rock and marram grass

“There was anti-aircraft guns on the rocks . Planes would drop parachute flares and the gunners would shoot them.”

“Was this during the war?”

“Aye. Flares in the wee cans…collected the parachute silk and the cans. We’d pick whelks and cook them in the cans.”

“Doubt you’d see kids cooking whelks on the beach nowadays.”

“Aye…different times.”

We drive on in silence, dad gazing out to sea and another world. Fifteen minutes later, we are in the café, where my updates about family life are met with stoney indifference. His head is down for the only show in town. I listen to the slurps and watch him dribble soup onto his chin, counting down the minutes till I take him home again.

A Grand Day Out

• Ham and Lentil soup x 2

• Bread and Butter x 2

• Mug of tea x 2

• Fruit Scone x 2

• 15 litres diesel

May 2017

The weekly drive down from Glasgow, increasingly monotonous, is prompted by yet another phone call. “When you comin’ doon?” Spoken like a final demand for the electricity bill. No warmth, cajolery or preamble. Just straight from the hip, spoken like an accusation. It was ever thus.

August 2017

The slow walk to the car. A wee bit unsteady, but it’s only eighteen footsteps from his door to mine, so I watch rather than intervene. He curses as he manoeuvres into his seat; wants to know why I can’t get a new car, one that’s easier to get into. I’m sick of long drives, so we go into town.

The sky is blue and there’s the promise of summer in the air, but Dockhead Street is stuck in permanent winter. The newsagent has closed, windows smeared with expansive swirls of Windolene. Flyers for pub quizzes and a low rent circus adorn the doorway. Discarded chip wrappers and polystyrene kebab containers blow down the street. Here and there are the obligatory pools of vomit. The once thriving street is now lined with the universal and obligatory charity shops and run down pubs. Pale thin people with soulless expressions push second-hand baby buggies to nowhere. The focal point is the rotting carcass of the old cinema, its last incarnation as a 90’s nightclub lingering on in the rusted metal “Metro” sign sagging from the façade.

We go into the one decent café and I watch an old man slurp soup for half an hour in the vain hope that someone I know will come in, pass by, say hello, make conversation. But no one does. They moved away a long time ago. In search of a job…in search of a life.

The Rise and Fall of a Seaside Town

• ICI built an explosives factory and a nylon plant at Ardeer. It employed over 13,000 people.

• No one bothered much with school. If your dad worked in ICI, so did you.

• It closed in 1980. Mass redundancies. Thousands of boys left school and went straight onto the dole.

• Ardrossan, Saltcoats and Stevenson have the highest unemployment rates in Scotland and the ‘Three Towns’ are in the top 5% of the most deprived areas of Scotland.

• The high street is dying. Unemployment, stagnating wages, business rates and the shift to online shopping.

September 2017

“Harry Bell’s deid.”

“Eh?”

“Harry Bell…’Ting’ Bell…he’s deid. Funeral’s on Friday.”

I’m getting used to these left field announcements. The erosion of his social circle, once expansive and varied, reduced to a triangle of two men a few years younger than him. He’s last man standing in his own age group. I vaguely remember Ting. A smiling portly man with glasses who worked as a BT engineer.

“Sorry to hear that. Was it sudden?”

He shakes his head.

“Cancer.”

I could ask what type but there hardly seems any point. It’s the number one cause of death amongst his old pals, closely followed by heart disease. Knowing how they died seems irrelevant. Another one gone. Life expectancy in Ardrossan is 74 years but seems less for his pals. Dad soldiers on with his ham and lentil soup.

Most Common Causes of Death in Old Age

• Heart Disease

• Cancer

• Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease

• Strokes

• Dementia and Alzheimers

November 2017

The café is empty save for the Thai owner and a plump local girl with lank brown hair. The place stinks of old cooking oil. I regret not going to Nardinis. Fuck the expense, at least there’d been something to kick start a conversation there. Dad is sitting at the window seat. As usual, we run out of chat somewhere along the coast road. I whirl the conversation carousel in my mind. Nope – asked him that a minute ago. Nope – asked that a hundred times. Nope – don’t mention the girls, he’s not interested. I light upon ‘Upbringing’ and launch into a monologue about the changes in his home town. He instantly comes to life.

“The street ah was born in no longer exists. Harbour Street…Knocked down after the war.”

Thank Christ. Conversation.

“What were the houses like?”

“Shite. Auld sandstone tenements. Outside toilets. Down at the docks. Naebody wanted to live there so they gave ‘em tae the Catholics.”

I’m on fertile ground here.

“Is that where yer grandfather landed, after coming over from Ireland.”

“Aye. Along wi’ the Mulherns, the Mathiesons and the Cahills. So many Irish in that street they called it Fenian Row.”

It was all knocked down before I was born, but I picture 19th Century unsanitary social housing. It prompts thoughts of high mortality. Dad had two brothers and a sister; a small family for Roman Catholics. A question enters my head and before I’ve thought it through I’m asking it.

“Did any of the families lose children at a young age?”

He’s quiet for a bit.

“Had a wee brother who died when he was a wean.”

I put down my tea, for fear of spilling it. I look up to see if the girl and the owner are listening, but they are engrossed in their own idle conversation. I lean a little closer.

“When was this?”

He looks sorry he’s mentioned it and for a moment I think he’s going to clam up, but after a few seconds he turns to his view of the sea and speaks again.

“His name was Thomas. Yer gran left him in a tin bath in the back yard. She went into the house…came back… found him drowned.”

“How old was he?”

“Eighteen months.”

I sit back in my chair. Dad continues to out-stare the sea. He’s got nothing more to say and I’m so dumbfounded that I don’t know what to say other than “sorry to hear that”.

Through the plate glass windows of the café I can see along the coast to Portencross. The late afternoon sun has been semi-eclipsed by a thousand foot cumulus cloud that towers over the sea. High atmospheric winds are blowing the topmost parts into a quiff and the sun, half obscured, throws biblical rays over the Cumbraes. It’s the kind of majestic seascape I’d normally comment on, but I have all sorts of pictures in my head, disturbing and unsettling. As if sensing where the conversation might go next he turns to his tea, gulps it down and announces that, “these things happened.”

He’s closed the door and I’ve no appetite to press home with more questions. I take his cue, finish my tea and pay the bill.

January 2018

I ignore the first text. I’m cooking dinner and the iPhone shows that it’s from Sal, so I pass it off as potential nonsense from a sister who believes in angels and ley-lines. Then another, so I wipe my hands and swipe the phone.

Dad has collapsed in the house. He’d reached for his mobile phone and called a doctor, who has phoned an ambulance. Now he’s in Crosshouse Hospital. I text that I’m on my way. Sal tells me not to rush, she’s already there with my brother.

I drive over empty snow-layered moorland and down a slush covered motorway to Kilmarnock. Dad is still in A&E and to my surprise he’s on a gurney in a waiting room, sitting up and fully clothed. He looks embarrassed and, to my eyes, reasonably healthy. Sal raises an eyebrow. Rob shrugs. I look at dad.

“You ok?”

Dad nods and looks away at a poster on the wall. It describes the correct procedures for CPR.

“Bloody legs went, so I phoned the doctor. Next thing I’m in here.”

I’m relieved he’s ok, but a little pissed off. It sounds like a stumble he could’ve got up from. A nurse comes in. He’s being kept in for observations but they can find nothing wrong and he seems ok. There’s a general feeling of anti-climax. As dad is being wheeled away he shouts to Sal.

“Bring me a change of clothes. My pyjamas. And my glasses.”

The nurse nods.

“Might be an idea.”

Sal stares at me. She’s pissed off but says nothing.

March 1986

Two months after my mum died, dad assaulted a man in broad daylight, in a public place, in full view of other people.

We’re travelling down Glasgow Street, a road built wide and handsome in the expectation that Ardrossan would be the epicenter for global sea trade with Glasgow. It never happened. After a century of slow decline, the old Victorian buildings at the harbour end of the street were demolished to be replaced with council housing and a library. A row of shops was created with small flats above them; a chip shop, a convenience store, a chemist and the Jaipur Indian restaurant. And the Cheery Cup cafe. It was, as now, a place in which there was little to be cheery about.

Dad is a taciturn man, a product of his upbringing. We were never close. Our relationship buckled further under the stress of caring for my terminally ill mother, who dad insisted would be cared for at home to the bitter end. It was his decision that she never know her prognosis. A decision as inexplicable to me then as it is now and I resented the burden it placed on us all. After eighteen months of claustrophobic abnormality we were desperate to break free and when the end came we were emotionally exhausted. I harbour a deep resentment, borne out of an unshakeable conviction that we should have discussed my mothers prognosis with her. I have never forgiven him for demanding we kept it a secret.

And so it was that I drove down Glasgow Street on that clear bright morning. We are on our way to the registry office to collect mum’s death certificate. Dad is in the passenger seat deep in his own thoughts. It’s only as we approach the bottom of the mile long street that he bursts into life.

“Pull in. Right here.”

The tone is angry and urgent. I pull the car into the kerb, but he’s out before I’ve stopped. A large blur passes the car bonnet and onto the roadway.

I don’t recall him running. Just a fast measured movement with single-minded purpose. He crosses the street in a few strides and, like a missile, converges on the trajectory of a man walking on the opposite footpath. It’s a seamless connection. He grabs his target with an easy power, his large hands bunching at the lapels of the mans’ jacket, taking him two feet backwards and up.

Dad’s upper body strength, honed from decades of hard physical work, takes the wide-eyed target straight onto the plate-glass window of the Cheery Cup cafe. The force of the impact and the combined weight of the two men bends the window inwards. It flexes like one of those bubbles you make with washing up liquid and a little plastic hoop. Light bobbles and ripples across the distressed glass and for a moment I think they will crash through, like bar room brawlers in a Wild West movie. Instead, the window regains its composure and wobbles into equilibrium, leaving the man pinned there, feet clear of the ground, paddling as if trying to run.

The man, both hands on my dad’s broad shoulders, nods ashen faced as dad jerks his head in the direction of the harbour. My window is down, but I hear very little. No shouting. No swearing. No angry words. A knot of passers-by stop to watch from a safe distance, but no one intervenes.

After a minute, a long time to be holding a man off the ground against a cafe window, dad puts him down. But. Rather than move backwards to allow his victim to step out and away, he stands his ground. Instead, the object of his anger, arms splayed out, slides from between dad and the window, steps backwards a few feet then turns and walks away, head bowed.

Dad walks back across the street and climbs quietly into the car. I am still buckled into the drivers seat, car parked at an angle to the kerb, engine still running. Dad puts his seat belt on, looks over and simply says,

“Let’s go.”

My heart is thudding. The way it does when you find yourself in close proximity to someone who has just been involved in an act of violence. The residual menace radiates from them.

I drive off. There are people watching on the opposite footpath and I want to put as much distance between us and the Cheery Cup as I can, but no-one emerges from the cafe at any time. Owner, or customer. As if it was a daily occurrence and nothing of note. No one phones the police.

We are almost at the registry office before he speaks again.

“That was Alfie Cochrane. Wee bastard has made ma life a misery this past year.”

This is news to me.

“For what?”

“When yer mother fell ill, that wee cunt started his shite about me being a sponger. Every time I went into the Dockers, there he is, snidey bastard, passing comment, making jokes.”

Dad had taken redundancy as soon mum’s condition had been confirmed. She’d been given a year to live and dad had downed tools to care for her. Jobs in the North Sea were rare and very well paid back then. In a strong working class community, still reeling from the closure of the ICI, the idea of someone giving up a well paid job was unheard of. Unless you had a situation like ours to contend with.

“Surely he knew what was happening?”

He shifts uncomfortably in his seat.

“That’s nae business of his.”

We’ve pulled into the car park of the registry office. I sit dumbfounded that he would endure the bating without explanation. But that was the code of conduct for my dad and many others like him. You kept your business to yourself and sorted out the matter yourself, at a time of your own choosing. It was in any case, a catharsis. The revelation of his personal torment and its explosive resolution pushed away the shadows of grief for a time and seemed to draw a line under something, somehow. Time, that until that moment had seemed moribund, picked up the traces and galloped onwards once more. The months and years spiralled outwards. Life went on. A year later I left home and went about living my own life, at the spiral end of an other universe.

The years have rolled on. The months of my mothers illness and her death seem more and more like a dream. As did the incident at the Cheery Cup Café. Life’s other experiences have settled on top, like sediment, so that it feels harder to reach down and recall with clarity what I felt back then. Some memories lie forgotten until the sediment is disturbed by something else.

Things I’ll Never Do Again

• Go on an expedition armed with sultana sandwiches and orange juice.

• Fish for flounders with a fork strapped onto a bamboo cane.

• Develop an all encompassing crush on a classmate.

• Fall in love again with an old flame.

• Give my mother flowers.

March 2018

Another fall. Head versus outside wall, the harling gouging away a layer of skin. He’s seen by a physiotherapist. Then an occupational therapist. ‘Adjustments’ are made to his house. A handrail is installed at the front door and little white hand grips in the bathroom and kitchen. He gets an alarm and a wrist tag with a big red button on it for emergencies. For the very first time I wonder if he’s ok to live on his own.

He’s not drinking enough. Angry that he has to go to the toilet more and more often. Scared that he’ll wet himself in the night. Home care is arranged. He gets breakfast and bed time visits.

May 2018

I’ve gone for a change of scene. We’ve exhausted café life north of the Three Towns, so it’s south to Irvine we go, the town where my mum grew up.

He’s even less communicative today, as if that were possible. I wonder why I bother. An eighty mile round trip to sit in a random café with an ill tempered old man. He stirs briefly into life to order ham and lentil soup and I give secret thanks to all the cafes who serve it. He slurps his soup. I gently point out the dribbles on his chin and when he’s finished he puts his head in his hands and stares at the table.

“What’s up?”

Silence.

“You ok?”

“Walls are closin’ in.”

“Where?”

“The hoose. Walls are closin’ in.

But he doesn’t want to talk about it. I suggest day care, or the ‘Post Retirement Club’ for old folks in the civic centre. I insist he contacts his GP. But he’s not interested. He just wants to sit with his head in his hands. And go home.

Depression And The Elderly

• The number and proportion of older people in the UK has grown by almost 50%.

• The number of people aged 75+ has increased by 90% over past 35 years.

• Depression affects around 22% of men and 28% of women over 65.

• It is estimated that 85% of older people with depression receive no help from the NHS.

• It has been estimated that the total cost of dementia in the UK is £26.3 billion, with an average cost of £32,250 per person.

August 2018

He’s in hospital again. Another fall. Complaints of dizziness. I drive down the motorway past green and brown moorland, wondering if this all ‘snow off the dyke’, and that after so many years of healthy life, he is catastrophically deteriorating.

When I reach the assessment unit he’s asleep. He’s on his back on the hospital bed, stick thin, skin drawn tight onto his skull. He looks ancient and skeletal. His mouth hangs open in a tight ‘O’ and so devoid of colour is his face that I see him for the first time as a dead man.

His eyes snap wide open. I jump at the reanimation, but it’s clear that he’s not altogether there. He gazes around the room and he looks confused, his hands shaking uncontrollably. A nurse comes in.

“You’ll be his son.”

By way of explaining her clairvoyance she follows this announcement with the words I’ve heard so many times before.

“You look just like your dad.”

I tell her that I hope it’s many more years before I look like him, but she doesn’t smile. She asks to speak outside the room. They’ve examined dad and think he’s not been drinking or eating properly. On top of all that they are actively considering that he may have a form of Alzheimer’s and he will be in for several days for assessment and treatment. I tell her that I think he has depression. It crosses my mind that this is the best place for him.

September 2018

Three weeks. He’s still in hospital. Alzheimer’s has become Delirium. A range of medication is being tried out, doses and variations altered until they get the ‘right balance’. Consultant is a cheery little man from India who seems disappointed when his initial theory of a rare form of Alzheimer’s is crossed off, but goes at the Delirium with enthusiasm.

Dad is recovering. From confused old man with hallucinations of ‘wee green men’, he’s got his fine motor skills back and plays cards and dominoes when I visit.

I press for more home care. He gets it. Morning noon and night. Meals and drinks made for him. Regular visits. I try to persuade him to go to day care, but he’s simply not interested.

Indicators of Delirium.

• Cognitive function: e.g., worsened concentration, slow responses, confusion.

• Perception: e.g., visual or auditory hallucinations.

• Physical function: e.g., reduced mobility, restlessness, agitation, changes in appetite, sleep disturbance.

• Social behaviour: e.g., withdrawal, alterations in mood and / or attitude.

December 2018

Another hospital in another town. I pick him up from the ward where he’s recuperating after surgery. Non malignant cancers that regularly appear on his scalp, a legacy of an outdoor life, are becoming malignant. A tumour has appeared and a biopsy has confirmed the need for surgery. He looks tired and beaten. There is a thick dressing on top of his head and I can see a patch where blood is seeping through. The consultant is there. Another unnaturally cheery man. The operation has been a success it seems but there will be radiotherapy to ‘make sure’. The blood soaked dressing is ‘normal’. A nurse will visit him at home and change it every day.

He is wearing his outdoor jacket and his holdall is packed, ready to go. I wheel him out of the ward and down to the car park keeping the conversation light.

We set off through busy city streets and head onto the motorway. He looks worried. I cast a nervous glance at his dressing. It looks ugly.

“All you need is a bolt through yer neck.”

He laughs. The first time in years.

A Service From Cradle to Grave

• Cancer is the most common cause of death in Scotland.

• Skin cancer did not feature in the Top Ten of cancers in 1996. It is now 5th.

• Cancer rates are increasing. An ageing population accounts for some of this.

• There are 5 radiotherapy treatment centres for cancer in Scotland.

• Malignant melanoma has the highest 5 year survival rate at 87.9%

March 2019

Radiotherapy. Dad needs transportation. There is a charity who provide this but that doesn’t feel right so I drive from Glasgow to the coast, pick him up and take him to the Beatson. It’s his first day. He barely says a word the whole way. I make the kind of small talk that hurts my head and getting nothing in return, switch on the car radio. I glance at the familiar empty moorland and reflect on the mysteries of life.

“What crap’s that?”

“Radio 6 Dad.”

“Jist noise to me.”

“It’s a bit hit and miss to be fair, but there’s always a wee gem or two.”

“Switch it aff. Does ma head in.”

We arrive. I wheel him into the day room. Morose and uncommunicative, he sits and stares at the TV. A programme about people buying shit property at auction and spending as little as possible making them habitable. We watch; there’s nothing else to do but wait until a bed is made up. The final scenes are of empty rooms painted in cheap magnolia, tiny kitchens and cheap kitchen units. An upbeat presenter chats to happy landlords radiant with the prospect of making money from desperate people. A nurse comes in, all bright smiles and reassurance. Dad shuffles off, eyes wide like a wee boy, full of fear and loneliness.

© Brian Cook and The Absentminded Scribe Blog, 2019. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Brian Cook and The Absent Minded Scribe Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original story.

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