Remembering The Relay by Julia Jones

Here I am writing my blog on board Goldenray, again. This wasn’t my plan. I'm spending the day with my mother and I’d had it in mind to settle her on her sofa after lunch and hope she’d doze off whilst I  made a start on this month's AE post. Almost as soon as I'd arrived I realised this wasn't going to work. Mum was stomping around worrying about her youngest grand-daughter: “How can they be teaching Our Baby two languages? I've only just been told. It's an awful thing to do.” 

"Our Baby" -- alias my youngest niece Louisa-- is one year old and growing up bi-lingual.  She isn’t being taught two languages: she is learning them. It’s a joy to hear her mother talking intimately and privately to her in the fondest German while Louisa is simultaneously absorbing English from the world around her. Mum loves Louisa and communicates effortlessly through songs and funny faces and strange gruff voices. (Language number three?)  Unfortunately, as she isn't able to do any other protective or nurturing actions, she has become convinced that none of the rest of us have any competence to keep Our Baby safe. Her own words are slipping from her: no wonder she feels desperate to protect Louisa from being compulsorily confronted with two adult languages at once.
View from the wheelhouse
I did all that I could on the reasoning'n'reassurance front but I don't think I convinced her. I wished she hadn't remembered that when we had written out "Baa Baa Black Sheep" to send to Louisa  a few days earlier we had changed the little boy who lives down the lane to a little girl. At the time it felt like a neat little piece of personalisation and we had a good laugh. Today mum is horrified. “But that’s a historic English poem, Jul. We can’t just change the words!” 

The things that she remembers are often more problematic than the things she forgets. So, before the kultur-poliz come banging on the door, I shove some emergency rations into a bag and suggest we set out for a walk. 

She’s not feeling well, poor mum, but she drags along bravely. When I suggest we give up and turn back she says she’ll “just do as she’s told” – definitely a bad sign. I make her carry on and wonder what I’ll do if she has a heart attack here on the river-wall. Finally we reach Goldenray, the old Scottish fishing boat that’s coming apart at the seams almost as quickly as she is. “My special place,” says Mum, with the first real smile of the day smoothing the deepest lines away from her face. She was grey with worry earlier. Now normal skin tone has returned.

Her favourite lookout point from the foredeck is too cold and wet today (even by my standards) but with a hot water bottle and several rugs we can have the side door open and she can get comfy in a folding chair and watch people walking past on the other side of the Ferry Dock and make up stories about them - where they're going and what they've forgotten and whether they are going to miss the train. There aren't very many promenaders today but the seagulls make good stand-ins and someone’s left a wet flag fluttering. Her creativity doesn’t need much. She decides they're having a party. (I happen to know they're prayer flags and were put up weeks ago after the Nepal earthquakes but I keep that to myself.)

So she's happy and I pull out my exercise book.  It's all I have with me as I've left the typescript of Margery Allingham’s The Relay back in Mum's flat. That's what I'd been planning to blog about. The Relay is Allingham's unpublished response to the time in her life (mid-1950s) when she and her sister Joyce found themselves responsible for their mother and their aunt and an elderly cousin. The cousin had dementia, the aunt had suffered a stroke and their mother wasn’t really “safe with people”. Margery had a gift for the killer phrase and that’s one of many that I regularly summon up for my private relief.

Margery Allingham
with her aunt and grandmother
2016 will be the 50th anniversary of Margery’s death and I’m wondering if there’s still a use for The Relay?  It’s a book about shared experience and scraps of memory and the process of handing-on. I think about it often. Margery was a very practical person and an assertive thinker as well as an outstanding detective novelist. The Relay sets out her recipe for caring for these older relatives whilst still maintaining some personal autonomy. Older people, she says, can take your life “without meaning to”. 

The Relay didn't find a market in her lifetime and perhaps it doesn't have one now -- but I'm not sure. Its specifics are out of date but the problems haven't changed. She writes about family dynamics and finance and where old people should live.  That's the hard one: how to make a home that is emotionally as well as physically sheltering. If, for whatever reason, you don't move your relation into your own home, what do you do? 

Mum lives in a "very sheltered" flat in the town where she came when she was married, near the river that she loves As a family we have done our best to fill Mum’s rooms with her most comforting things. She is safe and cared for; we try to ensure she’s never alone for too long. But it doesn’t always work. “My Home” she calls it in tones of utter scorn. "Once you're in one of these places you might as well give up," she was muttering earlier. For now, blessedly, on Goldenray, she is in “our place”. She looks along the line of unpretentious first-floor flats that perch above the workshops on the Ferry Quay. “I’m living in that end one at the moment,” she confides.

Good choice Mum. That was Frank Knights's flat. He was the Barnados boy who became a master shipwright. His spirit haunts this place. I can remember standing exactly there, at the base of those steps, looking across the dock as he told me he remembered Mum arriving here with her own first boat. “That were sixty years ago. When she were still June Scott.”  He was pointing to a berth very close to where she and I are moored now in Goldenray. Invisible connections, shared scraps of knowledge, the handing-on process between generations. 

Do you know, I think my blog about The Relay has been written after all.

Looking across the Ferry Dock
(thanks for photo John Smith)


Jan Needle said…
Ah Julia, Julia. Lovely and beautiful and moving as ever. Thank you.
Bill Kirton said…
Just to echo Jan, Julia. A beautiful, tender evocation of the way just sitting on board a boat changes perspectives, brings us back in touch with the important things.
Susan Price said…
I can only agree. A beautifully written, thoughtful and moving post - thank you, Julia. Given all you have to cope with, I am always amazed at the quality of the post you give us.
Penny Dolan said…
Julia, this is such a beautiful, sensitive and haunting post: practical, elegiac for a range of past times, and a picture of your mother seated where she is happy and content, if for a while.
The Allingham book does sound as if it should be published. Maybe it would work as a "blend", a book where you intersperse her chapters with your own words, both about the caring you are doing now - as anonymously as you wish - and about the sea and past times, as well as linking in to Allingham's life & work? The "Reading X in Y" sort of format? Apologies if that squidges too much uncomfortable together. It's just a suggestion, but one that this post makes me think could be possible.
julia jones said…
Thank you all so much. Feeling a bit blitzed after mum had one of her esp bad days and the amount I could do was so limited. Poor woman really cannot read now, she holds up a loving message and can make nothing out of it. Just squiggles. This is a very low point - especially as she is aware that she can't do it.
Thank you particularly Penny for the structural suggestion. I had a bit of thinking time while mum fell asleep yesterday and realised that Allingham's concept of old age as being like the handover phase in a relay, when for a certain period the two generations are running along together (ideally) could perhaps be applied to what The Relay is doing for me as Allingham passes across various "batons" of insight. I feel almost ready to put fingers to keyboard and experiment.

The support of AE is real and appreciated and I'm sorry I'm not handing much back at the mo
Jan Needle said…
you are, jul, you are. xxxxx
Lydia Bennet said…
Beautifully written and considered piece Julia, and a very moving celebration of your redoubtable mum. People like your mum and mine who remain verbal for a relatively long time give us a glimpse, sometimes tragic, sometimes a joke we can share with them, of how they see the world. It's interesting that she is still creating new shortish term memories (eg about Our Baby) and attempting to fill the gaps in her memory with made-up lives. it sounds like your Allingham book idea could turn out to be a cracker and something very different from other books about dementia. (It's become 'the new aspergers' in literary terms with novels narrated by or about dementia sufferers proliferating.) In the meantime, your mum still enjoys much of her life it seems and there's plenty of 'her' left for you to enjoy and spar with.
Sandra Horn said…
Oh, lovely...and it reminds me so much of my dear Mum and her valiant ways in the handling of old age and infimity. Thank you, Julia and good luck with the book!
C.J.Busby said…
What a lovely, moving post - and your boat looks like such a great haven for both you and your Mum. I think Penny's idea is brilliant - I hope it inspires you to do something along those lines. We all need those relays, passing on thoughts and experiences and sharing wisdom. Thank you!
Kathleen Jones said…
Such a beautiful post, Julia, with so many insights. Personally, I would be very interested in The Relay, and I think Penny's idea is good - I would definitely want to read it!
Sending warm thoughts.
Enid Richemont said…
Have you read "ELIZABETH IS MISSING"? An amazing piece of writing with a totally unexpected ending - so clever. Have you also picked up on some very recent research re- champagne (no, I'm not joking). An occasional glass of cheapish bubbly might be passed off as fizzy lemonade...
Mari Biella said…
I've nothing much to add, Julia. I can only repeat: a beautiful post. So moving.
Dennis Hamley said…
Julia, this is a truly lovely and very moving post. I've had contact with my own mother's dementia years back and now a close family member is dealing single-handedly (with shameful - though, through 'Austerity', partly excused by having no money - lack of support from the local authority and the NHS) a similar situation, so I recognise a lot here. Allingham's book sounds important and still relevant. One for Golden Duck? I agree with Enid. A marvellous, unexpected yet strangely fitting conclusion. Only an accomplished novelist could manage that!

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