Mother is sitting on her sofa peeling a satsuma or clementine, or some other small, orange citrus fruit. She has removed the skin in small, finger nail-sized pieces, and is now carefully removing quivering strands of pith, and placing them with precision next to the teetering pile of skin on the arm of the sofa. I will be clearing them off later.
After removing as much of the pith as she is able she will eat the satsuma or clementine or whatever it is, chewing each individual segment with the three teeth she has left in her mouth and extracting the juicy orange flesh from inside the translucent membrane with her tongue. Then, one by one, she will remove the fleshless membranes from her mouth and place them with the pile of skin and pith.
When she has finished this process, which normally takes around 30 minutes, she will sit for a time, turning now and then to look at the pile of skin, pith and membranes, perhaps rearranging them a little. Very occasionally she will carefully remove the pile of detritus and instead place it on the coffee table in front of her, where she will sit for some further time, regarding it judiciously.
Eventually, she will shuffle forward on her seat, and with some effort stand up and walk over to the the fruit bowl, placed in her eye-line on top of the television cabinet, and spend some moments selecting another small, orange citrus fruit. Thus the entire process will be repeated, ad infinitum should the fruit supply allow.
I have learnt to pace the small orange citrus fruits. Three for the morning, three for the afternoon, or occasionally, on a bad day, four. None for the evening. In the evening she will doze, lulled by the clatter of family life and television drama. But during the day, it is just her and I, and neither of us sleep.
She has eaten the final fruit of the afternoon and is agitated. It is only 3 o’clock. Glancing up now and then as I slice countless oranges for marmalade, I silently observe her, hovering beside the fruit bowl, now and then grasping one of the apples before putting it back. She cannot eat apples, her three widely spaced teeth will not allow it. She knows she can’t eat apples, yet she doesn’t know who I am.
As she stands next to the fruit bowl, projecting her frown into it, she makes small, indecipherable sounds. Words? I’m not sure, but they communicate all that needs to be communicated. I go over to her and gently hold her arms.
“Come and sit down mum. Do you want a cup of tea?”
Her previous cup of tea stands untouched on the lamp table. But then, there were satsumas. Now, there’ll only be tea.
She submits and allows me to guide her back to her sofa, still mumbling. She sits for a while with her hands fidgeting in her lap. Sometimes she will place one hand on the arm of the sofa, and with her index finger make small rhythmic stroking movements over its worn velvet cover, as though it is the head of a cat. I notice this as I carefully place the cup of tea on the coffee table in front of her, and to alleviate her restless, satsuma-free hands I pass her the knitted tube of fabric given to us by the Alzheimer’s Society. Various items are sewn into it – buttons, silk tassels, beads which can slide back and forth. It wasn’t so long ago that my children would have found the very same item as fascinating as my mother occasionally does. But in truth, it is no substitute for a satsuma and I can see the muff will not pacify her for long.
Suddenly, she turns her head towards me and says, clear as a bell, “Where’s Gerald?”
She does this sometimes. It is as if somebody has flicked a switch in her brain causing random connections to be made. They will sputter out again soon enough, but I always enjoy her rare moments of apparent lucidity.
Gerald is my father and her husband. Was her husband. He left, 20 years ago, one day after mother’s 64th birthday, for a woman fifteen years his junior. Mother was humiliated and furious in equal measure. She wore her angry heartbreak like a badge, telling anyone who would listen about the “philandering schister”.
“Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m 64? Apparently not!” she would delight in trilling, accompanied by a defiant laugh, whenever she could feasibly slot it into a conversation. My sympathy for her began to wain after about two years, but mercifully, just as I was at that point, she found a friend. Her next door but one neighbour, himself recently bereaved, his wife having the decency to actually die rather than run off with a younger man. It was a new lease of life for her, and was lovely while it lasted. Barbed comments about “your father” lessened, and for a time life was harmonious for everyone. For a time. “He’s gone out, mum. He’ll be back later”. The upside of dementia – never having to tell the painful truth. For good measure, and knowing the comment would be forgotten within seconds, I add, smiling, “he’s gone to get some flowers for you, mum.”
She stares at me, vacant and unblinking and I can see the lucid moment has already passed.
I turn back to my pile of oranges, warm and gloopy from being boiled. I am scooping out the bitter orange flesh before scraping away as much pith as I can and finally slicing the waxy orange skin into tiny, precise slivers. I’d been looking forward to making marmalade. The entire process would take an entire day and by the end I should have around ten jars of delicious homemade conserve. Then I will only have four days left this week to fill with kitchen-based activities. Non-kitchen based activities means mother is less regularly monitored, and mischief is made.
I measure my weeks by half days – ten neat strikes from Monday to Friday. Mother spends the weekends at a nearby care home, their only part time resident. I deliver her and two bags of satsumas (or other small, orange citrus fruits) on Saturday mornings, and then skip home feeling like a child who has been let out of school early. I don’t let Monsieur Guilt bother me at the weekends. I save him for the long, silent weekdays.
Mother is up again, at the fruit bowl. Her noises are becoming more urgent and she punctuates her investigations of the bowl with wildly confused looks in my direction.
“Mum, have you drunk your tea? Look – there it is on the coffee table.” I quicken my slicing. I’d like to get this done before my two teenage boys get home from school, at which point the kitchen will transform into some sort of pop-up refectory for 15 minutes or so, with sandwiches messily made, cup-a-soups noisily stirred and slopped, and crisp crumbs strewn before the packets are scrunched and inaccurately thrown at the bin, all accompanied by a soundtrack of grunting, indifferent responses to my tentative enquiries about their day. Then, as if by magic the teenagers will disappear until the next occasion for food, leaving the wreckage of their snacking strewn about.
Mother is on her way over to the kitchen. She is staring at the worktop with a purposeful look on her face that I’m finding slightly alarming. I realise just in time what her quarry is – the pile of soggy, boiled oranges waiting to be eviscerated and sliced.
“Oh no, mum, you can’t eat them!” She pauses and looks at me, her hand hovering over the pile. “They’re for marmalade. They taste horrid,” I explain, putting my knife down and moving quickly over to the basin to rinse my sticky, orangey hands.
Mother presses her lips together and makes her noises. She is trying to speak and is staring at the oranges in a determined way. After a moment or two, she explodes, “Satsuma!”
She looks at me defiantly and begins moving towards the oranges again. Before I can intervene she takes two of the sloppy fruits and pushes them into the generous pockets of her cardigan.
“No mum, oh gosh, they’re all mushy….you can’t….,” but she’s already reaching for more.
Gleefully she grabs another two and shoves them in on top of the original two. I can see their sticky orange liquid seeping through the fabric of her shapeless beige cotton cardigan, hanging limply from her stooped and fragile frame. It’ll need to be washed now, and I wonder what other horrors she may have stored in those pockets, and whether or not the oranges are write-offs. I think all this whilst hurriedly drying my hands on a tea-towel, and watch with mounting concern as she reaches to take another dripping orb. She seems to change her mind and pauses for a moment holding the soggy orange uncertainly in her hand. I finish drying my hands and without taking my eyes off her hang the tea towel clumsily back on its hook. It immediately drops to the floor. “Mum, wait, let me just take those”. She blinks and drops the orange she had been unsure about. It lands with a wet thud on the floor, partially disgorging its innards.
“Satsuma,” she states, calmly, and starts to wander back to her sofa, her hands in her pockets, presumably fondling her new acquisitions. Envisioning a trail of sticky disasters I start over to her, but my foot lands in the orange grenade on the floor and I skid, inelegantly, my arms whirling around my head in slap-stick fashion, before falling to the floor. My foot, complete with a squelch of marmalade orange protruding from either side of my pink fluffy slipper, slams into the wall, and I hear a distinct crack followed by a searing, hot pain shooting through the side of my foot and up into my ankle.
Grimacing, I drag myself across the floor to the worktop and sit with my back resting against the cupboards. Through the tangle of table and chair legs that separate the kitchen from mother’s sofa, I can see that she has made it back to the coffee table having jettisoned all but one of the oranges en route. My head is resting on the bent knee of my un-injured leg and I’m pulling hard against my shin, waiting for the pain to subside in my outstretched leg so I can test out what damage has been done. There is a crash, and I note with some dispassion that Mother has knocked into the coffee table sending her cup of untouched tea to the floor. I watch the brown tendrils of tea snake along the laminate floorboards, and wonder idly if it’ll reach the rug. Mother places her prized orange where the tea had stood and carefully lowers herself onto the sofa.
Just then, my son arrives in the kitchen. He has already thrown his bag at the foot of the stairs and as he takes the three strides from the doorway to the fridge he glances down at me. Without pausing in his actions he takes in the rest of the scene – the long orange slick along the kitchen tiles, three orange splats punctuating the dining room floor and mother, sitting quietly on the sofa, peeling a large wet looking orange with her usual studied patience. He looks at me.
“What’s for dinner?”
This is a four satsuma afternoon.
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