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Wednesday, July 22, 2015

A Ha-pence of Sense

by Peter Wadsworth

Soon after reaching his hundredth birthday, my father decided he had finished with looking after himself and moved into a nursing home.

I visit once a week.

I enter the room to find him slumped in a chair. The thought insinuates: "he's dead!" A rattle, and saliva trickles from his mouth. I shake myself and stride towards him. "Hello dad," I say, and repeat louder when I get no answer. A gentle pressure on his shoulder elicits no response, neither does a firm grip. I retire, defeated, to fetch his jacket from his room, and pass a resident in the corridor determinedly making progress while clutching her walking frame and muttering to no one in particular. Returning with the coat and a wheelchair, I grasp his shoulder. He stirs, eyes flickering open and shut as his consciousness struggles to return to the resident's lounge. Still a little confused, he looks around and notices my presence. After a few seconds his dazed expression turns to recognition and a little smile flickers across his face. I sit next to him while he gathers strength, inspecting his face. The forehead sports a large plaster earned from his latest fall. Yellow teeth few but still his own. Hair pure white, the waves hinting at once lustrous full locks. The face still remarkably unlined, belying his 102 years.

When I was fourteen he constructed a kayak in our garage: a two person—well, a one man and one boy. We were going on an adventure. A template was ordered, paper patterns for tracing the cross members in ply, and detailed instructions on how to form the skeleton and clad it in canvas. But my father had a better idea: he had acquired the very first samples of a new development, glass fibre. Little by little we (that is he, while I watched and occasionally passed a tool) built up the frame until we had what looked like the bones of a twelve foot prehistoric sea monster. Over this were stretched layer after layer of glass fibre fabric and lashings of resin. This was not a light nimble craft but a dreadnought, only just able to be lifted by the two of us. That long hot summer my father and I cannoned down the river Wye. Water levels were low and we were the only kayakers on the river. Stories are told to this day in those whereabouts of the two crazies who barreled down the half dry river bouncing from rock to boulder to rock in a miraculously undamaged kayak.

He has little conversation, and grunts as I ask him if he wants to go out. He readies himself for our little routine. The wheelchair is positioned next to his chair. I take his hands and become his strength. "On three," I intone and pull him gently forward while he rocks his body. A second pull and he has the rhythm. With the next he pushes himself forward and I carefully draw him out of the chair as he gradually, with great effort, rises to his feet. He steadies sufficiently for me to guide his left hand to the wheelchair, and I lead him on a slow, unsteady pirouette to line him up with his destination. On my command he trustingly slumps backwards and is safely ensconced in the seat. I propel him purposefully down the main corridor towards the entrance, passing staff who wish him a good trip or teasingly place orders for fish and chips.

Inserting my father into the car takes all of five minutes for a drive of a thousand yards to an ordinary looking pub, which unaccountably but delightfully has an excellent chef. Our five minute disembarkation routine has us safely inside the building. Seating is tricky. I get my father out of the wheelchair with the one two three routine and plonked down on the bench seat. Then I need to maneuver the heavy table as close to him as possible. I gently lift one foot up and move the table base under it, repeating the procedure for the other foot. I scramble up off the floor and smile inanely at the bemused fellow diners. I roll up my father's sleeves and tuck in a number of napkins under chin and chest. We are ready. My father orders lamb, which comes on a raft of sweet potato with assorted vegetables, all beautifully presented. I have had the dish before and it is delicious. I cut the meat into bite-sized pieces and place the cutlery in his hands. Food has always been an important and serious occupation for my father and we proceed in strict silence. He struggles to grip his knife and fork, then spends much time and effort in persuading sufficient morsels of food to remain on his fork as he lifts it waveringly towards his mouth. I find myself transfixed by the spectacle, hoping that his efforts will be rewarded and saddened at his frequent failures. A residual determination drives him to persist. Forty minutes after commencing his meal he is pursuing the few remaining rebellious peas around his plate with a persistence worthy of a door stopping reporter. "Did you enjoy your meal?" I ask. "No", he responds, looking down at his empty plate. "I like it plain and simple."

Like all seventeen year olds I realised that I knew more than my parents. They were old, behind the times, could not understand. One of the less objectionable manifestations of this obvious truth was that I believed I was a better cook than my mother. So, with the arrogance and ignorance of youth I took over the preparation of the evening meal. Not having trained with Escoffier I would raid the pantry and refrigerator, pillaging anything vaguely edible. Unique and scary concoctions, often of ill-assorted vegetables, perhaps some dubious meat or fish, seasoning, spices and/or herbs, were placed triumphantly in front of my long suffering parents. Unlike my mother, who often retreated to wedges of bread smothered in butter, dad reveled in the strange and unexpected,and so looked forward to his evening repasts. After a particularly enjoyable meal my father said he would like the dish again sometime. I did not reply. I had created a concoction of such complexity that re-creation was an impossibility; I could not recall all the ingredients or quantities. I sighed, another culinary masterpiece was lost to the world.

After the meal we complete the afternoon by a drive in the country. The hinterland of West Yorkshire is a mosaic of crisscrossing roads linking once industrial towns with ribbon development. But this seeming megalopolis contains unblemished hills and moors, prosperous farms and dense woods. These hidden places are what we seek. Each of these trips is an exploration, every turning done on whim, meandering through unexpected villages and stone bounded fields. My father gazes around, trapped in a metal box but enjoying the views. "Perfect clouds," he volunteers.

In his fifties he took up gliding. It became a passion. The silence, the freedom, the vantage of an eagle. He became a skilled but individualistic pilot. Low speed flight was a fascination. As air speed drops lift caused by airflow over the wings decreases and eventually the craft stalls, one wing losing lift completely. The glider drops suddenly to that side, spiraling down out of control unless the pilot has the skill and sufficient altitude to recover by putting the nose down and diving to gain speed. My father wondered if it would be possible to keep a stalling glider from losing control. On a series of flights he gained maximum altitude for safety, and gradually, after repeated stalls, he found he was able to keep flying by innumerable subtle adjustments of the ailerons. The slower he travelled the faster the plane dropped, but still under control. Back at the clubhouse he eagerly told the flight instructor of his discovery. The instructor was furious, said that was impossible and that if he tried such a stupid maneuver again would be grounded.

Later that season my father had a launch by winch. The driver, inexperienced, released him too soon. He did not have sufficient height or speed and was therefore unable to circuit round to land. Rather than spiral into the ground, he used his new technique to keep flying, dropping ever faster to the ground. The glider landed normally but very heavily. Both he and the glider survived. He with a painful back, the glider with scratches. Ground staff were astonished. "Why did the glider not crash, you could have been killed!" My father kept his silence.

He awakes as we pull into the nursing home drive and I decant him into the wheelchair. He needs his bathroom; I can see that his pad is leaking. In his suite I manhandle him onto the toilet seat. Exhausted, he rests for a while as I close the door to give him privacy. Looking around his bedroom I notice a faded photograph in a silver frame. A pleasure boat on a river, a glimpse of a man leaning out of the cabin. My father swings open the bathroom door. He is ready to have his pad replaced.

When my sister and I were in our early teens our parents bought a thirty foot cabin cruiser: four berth, galley, washroom, centre control cabin, gleaming white timber hull, sparking chromium fittings. It just happened to be called Yvonne, my sister's name. My mother was afraid of water but that was of no concern to my father. It was his pride and joy. The boat was berthed in a small marina hidden on a minor tributary of the river Severn, a pastoral idyll. We would drive down for the weekend, my parents disappearing into the boat to get things ship shape while my sister and I were free to wander. I loved exploring further up the little river, now too narrow for pleasure craft. I passed through swathes of nettle, both white and pink flowered. Tempted to stroke the leaves in the direction of the barbs to avoid being stung, invariably I had then to search out dock leaves to rub on my inflamed hands and legs. Being brave in the face of adversity, I would continue further into the wilds. A plop caused me to look across the river bank, a plump water vole was sculling towards its muddy hole. On a stagnant outreach of the waterway busy water boatmen skittered on the placid water surface, whirling legs bending the elastic membrane. A little upstream I caught a flash of turquoise and froze, moving my head round very slowly until I espied a kingfisher perched on a thin branch stretched out over the water. A full five minutes passed but the bird remained a statue. I slowly and quietly withdrew, only to hear a splash. I hurried back to see an empty branch and ripples spilling out from the water below.

During one long languid summer spent on the river Severn we ventured down a small tributary of the main river and chose a shady clearing to camp. My father made the craft secure, then began to forage. Mystified, my sister and I watched as he gathered broken tree branches and bunches of reeds. Squatting down beside the boat he began to strip the branches of bark, the green wood shimmering in the dappled sunlight. To our delight, half an hour later an elegant yet sturdy child sized stool with willow frame and reed woven seat stood before us, created using but saw screwdriver and hammer. The stool was used constantly all summer, supporting our fidgeting bodies without complaint until joining that optimistic group of goods mentally labeled “will be needed again” and consigned to the furthest recesses of the garage.

We head for the lounge and his favourite armchair. I retrieve his walking frame and he transfers to it from the wheelchair. Always a man of few words, he waves at the chair. I eventually deduce that he wishes for it to be moved alongside the adjacent armchair. "Not fall," he mutters, and I realise that placing the chairs together would prevent cups or biscuits placed on the arm falling down the gap. After flopping down into the soft upholstery of his chair he fiddles with his walking frame against the chair front. I reach over and move it to one side. He bristles and harrumpfs. The thought comes to me that his fiddling had been to some purpose. He had placed it hard against the chair so that his leverage would be maximized when he later had to struggle out of the chair by himself. I am comforted that in such a reduced existence his intelligence was still at work.

He hated school. Most of his teachers regarded him as "thick"; dyslexia had yet to be recognized. But in mathematics he excelled, particularly with problems, exercises in logic, the harder the better. Later in life he ran a plumbers' shop in a chemical works, but spent much of his time solving problems throughout the massive site. On one occasion he was presented with the first samples of a new wonder plastic, polythene, and asked to play about with it. Some of the samples were of tube, which sprang back into shape if bent. This was a challenge to my father, and he tried many possible techniques until finally succeeding in having them retain a bent configuation. A little while later he attended a seminar run by the scientists and chemists who had invented the plastic. During their presentation it was stated categorically that the tube could not be bent permanently. Although a man of few and hesitant words, my father stood up and explained that he had devised a method of doing so. The experts laughed him down. "Impossible", they cried. Dad, disgusted, walked away fulminating against "so called experts who don't have a ha'pence of sense between them." In his nineties this under-educated man obtained one patent for flood defenses, and a second for generating electrical power from ocean tides.

He looks around at fellow residents, some asleep, others staring into the void. Helpers position a hoist over a chair and gently lower an old lady into place. A heartbreakingly dispiriting environment. He wishes to be moved to the dining room, even though the evening meal is an hour away. We go through the one two three routine, I move him the thirty feet to the dining room, and lift, adjust, cajole, and shuffle him into place at his favourite table. He is dismissive of the food at the home. “All reheated from the day before,” he grumbles unfairly. But any food is better than no food, and so alone in a sea of plastic tables, confident that he will not miss his next meal, he retreats into his memories as I withdraw until next week.

After leaving a long career as an architect, Peter Wadsworth now uses time once consumed with his work to pursue writing. Following the advice and encouragement of Alex Shoumatoff, the renowned Vanity Fair travel and environmental writer, Wadsworth has recently dusted down old scribbles and now works on new ones, delighting in recording the lives of people in all their complexity and the places they inhabit. He loves to travel to far flung places, recording both people's differences and their common humanity, but is always drawn back to his homeland of West Yorkshire with its gritstone towns, purple moorland, and proud, friendly people.

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