Gone

The following Wednesday it occurs to me that I haven’t heard from Dad for a few days. I try his mobile, which goes straight to voicemail, and the landline, which rings and rings. None of the others have spoken to him either.

On Thursday I try the landline again. Bodgana answers, sounding flustered and breathless.
‘He is out,’ she says, when I ask to speak to Dad.
‘Do you know when he’ll be back?’ I ask.
‘I have to collect the children from school, call back later.’ The line clicks dead.

I try the landline and mobile later that evening, the next day and the next, which is a Saturday. There is no answer. Josh and I are getting worried; it is so unlike Dad to be out of touch. We wonder if there is a fault with the landline, if Bodgana has taken the battery out of Dad’s mobile to prevent him from speaking to us, or if Dad is ill in bed. Josh decides to go to the house. He knocks on the door and peers through the window. He can see that the back door to the garden is open, but there is no answer. On the Sunday he tries again. Beata comes briefly to the kitchen window and looks at him, but no one comes to the door.

We keep ringing and leaving messages on both phones. I speak to Mum who tries to reassure me that there is something wrong with the phone, that Dad is being absent minded. But as Sunday turns into Monday and I realise that two weekends have passed since any of us have spoken to Dad, I can’t stop wondering if he is hurt. Perhaps he has tripped and fallen down the stairs. I imagine him lying in bed, unable to charge his mobile or get to the phone, hungry and helpless. I ring the local hospital, but he hasn’t been admitted.

Getting out of here

I knock on the front door and wait on the step. It’s a cool and cloudy Friday evening in the middle of June and I’m tired after a week of work. Dad has suggested coming over for dinner. He opens the door to let me in and sits down on the stairs to put on his shoes while I listen to the children’s voices downstairs in the kitchen. Dad’s large leather satchel rests on the carpet, stuffed to bursting with papers. When he stands up and tries to lift it onto his shoulder he staggers slightly.
‘What’s in the bag, Dad?’
‘Oh, papers, papers,’ he says, as if that explains everything. ‘Need to keep them with me.’

Out on the street Dad struggles to move the heavy bag from his arthritic shoulder onto the back seat of my car. We drive away from the house. Dad is frowning and preoccupied. He talks without pause about Bodgana, how impossible she is, her spending, their lack of money, the arguments they have had.
‘You know, this morning, I woke up and I finally felt there was a ray of light,’ he says heavily. ‘All I need to do is get a… a… what do you call it… when you go to the bank… an influx of cash…’
‘A loan?’ I say.
‘Yes, yes, that’s it, and I’ll just simply get a flight to Sweden, get out of here and put the whole business behind me. The bank should give it to me, then I’ll get a flight out of here, get back to England and say goodbye to them all.’ Dad seems weary and low. All of a sudden, as we slow down and stop at traffic lights, he rouses himself.
Anyway Chlo, that’s enough about me. How are you? How’s the pregnancy going?’ I reply to Dad and he asks me more questions, about Daniel and a situation at his work.

When we arrive at our house, Dad cheers up immediately and engages in his usual banter with Daniel. We light the barbecue, prepare salads, and stand in the garden trying to decide if it will rain and whether it’s warm enough to sit outside. Dad shivers slightly and we decide to eat indoors. Daniel tells Dad about an upcoming work trip to Israel. Dad, who competed in many countries around the world during his career, purses his lips and looks from side to side.
‘Just don’t go into the sea in Tel Aviv, is my advice!’ He laughs naughtily.
‘Why, Dad?’
‘You never know what you’re going to bump into, floating around… it’s none too clean out there… Better not repeat any of this to the locals though!’ Dad laughs and laughs, looking from Daniel to me and back again.

I drive Dad home again an hour or so later. He seems peaceful and relaxed. He watches my driving and tells me not to drive too closely to the parked cars. We talk about this and that, the weather, weekend plans, and he is lucid and clear.

I help him put the satchel back onto his shoulder and watch him walk slowly and unevenly across the road, up the front steps and into the house. He closes the door.

Chaos

Events accelerate once the savings have gone. Dad keeps trying to borrow larger and larger amounts from different members of the family, but we all agree that the only sustainable solution is for Bodgana to learn to live within their budget. Because of his confusion it is wrenchingly easy to fob Dad off with an excuse. One day he says to me, in sad surprise, that he would have thought someone would have been able to help them out.

One lunchtime I call Dad and he tells me that he can’t talk because the police are there.
‘And all because I can’t remember an appointment I had with some doctors’. He sounds furious. ‘Bodgana keeps telling me I’ve got this dementia thing and I tell you, it’s an absolute load of nonsense.’ I hear Bodgana and a male voice talking in the background and ring off. Later that day, Dad’s brother Martin gets a call from Dad, saying that Bodgana left him the night before and took the children with her. Hearing how upset Dad is and taking him at face value, Uncle Martin decides to drive from his home in Peterborough to see him. He finds Josh already there. They make Dad a meal, listen to his worries about the children and take the opportunity to look at some bank statements which are lying around. Uncle Martin is shocked at the extent of Dad’s illness and the scale of the spending over the last few months. He notices a loan website open on the computer with £15,000 entered into the repayment calculator. Bodgana and Beata finally arrive back at the house at 10pm. Bodgana, who is always more friendly to the men in the family, tells Josh and Uncle Martin that Olly is in hospital with asthma and that she has been with him all day. She lists many examples of Dad’s strange behaviour. He has been refusing to let them open the back door, he has been wandering around Stoke Newington at night talking to strangers, he has become friendly with some Jamaican men he thinks are old tennis players and they are now ringing up and abusing her. She says that it was Dad who called the police that morning; he reported that she had assaulted him.

The following day Ellie takes a present and card for Olly to the children’s ward and bumps into Bodgana and Dad at his bedside. When Ellie offers them a lift home Bodgana starts shouting.
‘Why are you here, there is no need! You are just creating havoc! We are trying to get over everything that happened yesterday and here you are, causing us more trouble!’ she rants.
‘I’m just trying to help -’ says Ellie, helplessly, but she is interrupted.
‘We don’t need your help, we are coping!’ shouts Bodgana.
‘Well it doesn’t look like it!’ shouts Ellie back, while the other families in the ward listen in silence.

We start getting regular calls from Dad saying that he is hungry and that there is no food in the house. One Saturday afternoon towards the end of May he complains to Ellie that Bodgana has gone out for the day leaving him without money or food. Ellie and Annabel decide to go to the house where they find Dad sitting in his car, having tried and failed to drive the short distance to Ellie’s house. Ellie and Annabel take Dad to Tesco and buy him a shopping basket full of basics, but when they get back to the house Bodgana is back and has locked the front door from the inside. They knock and ring and call, asking Bodgana to let them in. They look through the letterbox and see that she is standing in silence on the other side of the door. The children come to the window briefly, look at their father and sisters sitting on the doorstep, then disappear again. Ellie and Annabel wait for a while before calling the police. Bodgana lets Dad in when the police arrive and the policeman and woman are inside for twenty minutes.
‘Well, there’s obviously a lot of issues there…’ the policewoman says to Ellie and Annabel on her way out.

The next day we decide to approach Hackney Mediation Services, who agree to take on our case and write a letter to Bodgana trying to initiate it. They don’t receive a response. Annabel takes Dad for lunch and he talks about a caterpillar on her plate that isn’t there. He mentions that London is inundated with caterpillars and thinks that maybe they have a message from God.

He calls me a day or two later and tells me that Bodgana called the police to the house the previous evening, saying that he had threatened her with violence.
‘Oh, she just exaggerates everything,’ he says, with contempt in his voice. ‘The police are getting very weary with all this. I don’t blame them – the whole business is ridiculous.’ Several hours later he calls again.
‘It’s very peculiar,’ he says. ‘I went down the road to get a newspaper, and as I was coming back I bumped into Bodgana, running down the street, hair all over the place, hysterical, accusing me of killing the dog!’
‘How strange…’ I say, ‘um… was the dog OK?’
‘Oh yes, we soon found her hiding under a blanket.’

On 12 June Dad calls again. His car has some sort of sticker on it which instructs him not to move it. The initials SORN are on the sticker. I try and pick through the confusion, do some googling, and work out that Dad must have let his road tax run out. Clearly Bodgana has not taken over this kind of task from him.
‘Do you know if you’ve paid your road tax recently?’ I ask him.
‘What’s road tax?’ he says. ‘Do you know, no one in this house has two pennies to rub together. The cupboards are completely bare.’ He has stopped asking us for money, but when he rings and says he is hungry I usually go and collect him and bring him to our house for a meal. Each day is full of texts and phone calls between Annabel, Ellie, Josh and me as we try and work out what to do about each new crisis, and debate whether to report the situation to Adult Services. Because we hear everything from Dad we don’t know what is real and what isn’t, but although we try many times to speak to Bodgana she will not answer or come to the phone.

Around this point the medical professionals dealing with Dad’s case start to close ranks. Annabel tries to speak to Dad’s GP, who had been very helpful and open the previous September. This time she says that she has discussed the situation with the other partners in the practise and that they feel they cannot tell Annabel anything without Dad’s consent. Despite the memory clinic agreeing to copy Ellie into all correspondence and reports on Dad’s health, when she rings to ask where the letters are they are evasive.

‘We know what’s going on and we are keeping a close eye on the situation,’ says the GP to Annabel. ‘But there isn’t really much we can do if there’s another family member involved – in this case your father’s wife – who does know what’s happening.’

Hitting the fan

The phone calls start on the 8th of May. I listen to Dad’s message on my voicemail, feeling awful for not picking up. ‘Err, Chlo, can I come over and borrow some money… about £200 would do it, I’ll pay you back next week. Call me back when you get this, will you?’

I call Annabel instead. She has had three missed calls while she’s been in a meeting. Two days ago Dad told Annabel that he had £32 left in his bank account, so we are prepared. But despite being in agreement that lending them money will just perpetuate the situation, and that we will take bags of food round to them instead, none of us can bear to say no to Dad. His calls come thick and fast to the four of us and eventually Annabel picks up. When Dad repeats his request for a loan, Annabel asks to speak to Bodgana. She comes onto the line, sounding flustered.

‘Oh… we have been caught out…’ she says, ‘waiting for some income bonds to come in. There is a Post Office strike today so we cannot pick up the cash.’ Post Office workers had been on strike the day before.
‘But the income bonds are all gone,’ says Annabel, ‘Chloe and Josh have seen the paperwork.’
‘No, no, that is not the case,’ says Bodgana. ‘Listen, I did not want Brian to call you, I was going to rely on my own sources. But if you can lend us some money that would be helpful to us.’

Annabel arranges to meet Dad and Bodgana after work. Later that evening she takes the bus to Church Street and they meet at the cashpoint in the dusk. The children are nowhere to be seen. Dad is clutching a recent bill from the Inland Revenue and talking nonsense about it.
‘He has been obsessed with this all day,’ Bodgana tells Annabel, who hands over £100. ‘We will pay you back next week.’

‘She looked beyond stressed,’ Annabel tells me later. ‘I reckon she knows they’re in trouble now.’

Dadisms

‘What are you doing Dad?’ I asked.

Dad was bent over in the garden outside the kitchen window, holding the end of the long pole used to prop up the washing line with one hand while with his other hand he picked something up from the ground. He was sniggering quietly.

‘Shhh…’ he said, and pointed up to his and Mum’s bedroom window, where I could see Mum’s elbows leaning on the sill. Summer sunlight shone on the leaves of the apricot tree, the pale orange fruit ripening around the window, and Mum’s hands holding a paperback.

I looked back at Dad, who was draping a wriggling brown worm over the end of the pole. By this time Annabel and Ellie were standing around me, eyes wide. With a look of glee, concentration and triumph Dad raised the pole carefully up until the top of it was level with the sill, then jerked the pole so that the worm landed on the sill. Mum shrieked and dropped her book into the garden.

As much as he enjoyed teasing Mum, Dad relished making his audience of four delighted children laugh. Whether he was coming up behind Mum as she washed up, pretending to cuddle her, then dropping a plastic finger from the joke shop into the soapy water, or sitting at the kitchen table after an evening meal with the smallest of us on his lap, telling terrible jokes, these times were when he seemed happiest.

We also realised that Dad had a strange way with words sometimes, and would answer the question ‘what’s the weather like there?’ with something like ‘oh, blue clouds,’ not hearing his error. We lived in a ‘three-florey’ house, he said, and once mentioned that he wouldn’t go to India with a barge pole. We began to call these unconscious slips and muddles of speech Dadisms, and collected them to enjoy together later.

******

Now they are coming thick and fast. As the spring goes on and his confused state settles into permanence, every call or visit from him contains something absurd. He has had another argument with Bodgana about money, he says on the phone, and he’s told her she needs to get a job.
‘I’ve told her there are big adults and small adults, the small ones eat less food so they get paid less, and the big ones have to work for a living. She bridled at that but I said to her that’s how it is.’ He pauses for a second.
‘By the way, how did it all come about, how did we get her, this Polish girl? She seems to have a semi-assistant role, does some cleaning around the house for money. How did it all start?’
‘Well… you married her Dad. You met her at the tennis club and you married her.’
‘Ah of course’, he says, pretending he had known all along. ‘So it all built up from there, right.’ I put the phone in my bag and walk along platform 2 at Victoria Station, unable to stop myself laughing out loud.

He calls again.
‘It’s been suggested to me that Beata and Olly are my kids. I must say I’ve had a suspicion about that. Now the thing is, where are they going to go to school? Bodgana wants them to go to a Catholic school round here, what do you think about that?’
‘Err, which school is that, Dad?’ I ask, on the spot.
‘St Trinians’, he replies.

He comes over, bringing all his Income Bonds statements, even though he wanted my advice about a tax bill. He spreads them out in front of him and I take a thorough look, noticing that in 2007 he had £86,000. He complains about Bodgana.
‘Oh god, she’s a foul-tempered creature,’ he says. ‘She stomps around the house like a corpse with no ears and no eyes. You know,’ he gestures around his body vaguely, ‘no pleasant attachments’.

Even for Dad this is unexpected. Laughter forces up inside me and I try desperately to keep a straight face, covering my mouth with my hand, feeling miserable. I think this is the first time I have laughed at him without his knowledge.

You have no idea

I’ve had dinner with a friend and we are wandering past the Royal Festival Hall in the evening sun when Dad rings. He sounds distressed and tells me that he’s been struggling to get hold of anyone. The problem is that the TV has broken, Josh has been round to try and fix it but failed, he has had a row with Bodgana and she has gone out in a huff. ‘I’ve been trying to, what’s the word, collate everyone’s numbers,’ he says, ‘it’s taken me ages, I can’t seem to find them.’ Then he pauses and says, ‘Tell me Chloe, just help me out a little bit here, who is the father of Josh?’
‘You are,’ I say, and he laughs apologetically.
‘Oh, yes.’ He pauses. ‘The kids don’t seem to want to… fraternise with me.’

The next morning I try calling Dad on his mobile and on the landline but there’s no answer. It’s unusual for Dad not to return my call straight away and I start to worry. I call the landline one last time and Bodgana answers with her impatient ‘Yes, hello?’
‘Bodgana, it’s Chloe,’ I say, ‘Dad phoned me in a state last night saying that the TV was broken -’
‘Chloe.’ She interrupts me. ‘Do you have any idea what he is going through?’
‘Of course I do -’ I say, baffled, but she talks over me.
‘The TV is the least of his worries, the TV is nothing, he is very unwell. Do you think I am incapable?’
‘Of course not!’ I say.
‘I suggest that you try to get hold of him directly,’ she continues, putting the phone down as I am explaining that this is what I have been doing all morning.

I look at my phone, trembling with anger. Without thinking about it I decide to drive round to the house. Fifteen minutes later I walk up the steps and see Bodgana through the kitchen window, filing her nails on the sofa. I knock on the door. She opens it, draped again in her long black dress patterned with red flowers. She looks at me, expressionless.
‘Is Dad there?’
‘No.’
‘Are you going to tell me where he is?’
‘Yes, come inside.’ She holds the door open for me. ‘He has gone to Hackney Town Hall to renew the parking permit,’ she says, closing it. ‘I was too afraid to get in the car with him, the state he was in. You have no idea what is going on, how unwell he is. You don’t know what we are living with. I don’t need to be harrassed about something so trivial as this TV business, the TV is not broken. Listen, I would not try and come between you and Daniel, but there are these constant interventions, you hear there is something wrong with the TV, you come round like a knight in shining armour saying you want to fix it, but there is a lot more wrong than this TV, he is not going to get any better…’

She carries on and on, her voice raised. I stand by the door to the sitting room and find myself stretching my arm across the doorway, as if widening my body will help me withstand her attack. She asks me again and again if I know what Dad is going through. I stare at her, repeating, ‘Of course I do,’ but she talks over me and every time I try to interject, telling her that I just wanted to help, she talks more loudly. She tells me that last night they had an argument about the remote control and which channel to watch and that he had got upset. All of a sudden she abruptly changes tack.
‘Look, I have calmed down. I will give you some tea.’

Dazed, I sit at the kitchen table and ask for a glass of water. Bodgana talks on, about how hard things are every day, bringing up her visit to the doctor to report Dad for hitting Olly last summer, justifying her actions. ‘Olly was severely attacked, I am telling you,’ she says, then mentions that there were no bruises, cuts or any other sign of an attack, and that no one witnessed it.
‘Listen, Brian uses these little things, this TV thing, to create havoc, he rings you up just to create havoc, that is what he is trying to do. Every day he asks us where he is. We cannot win, if we tell him he is at home he doesn’t believe us, he becomes aggressive, verbally aggressive, if we try to avoid the question he becomes aggressive anyway. Every day, every other day, he packs his bag and says he going to his ‘real’ home, we just let him go, we have become used to it. He questions our relationship, he asks me who is the father of Beata and Olly, in front of the children, they are part of it, I cannot keep them out of it.’

She tells me that she is making efforts to get him seen and diagnosed.
‘But I am not trying to hurry them up. There is very little that can be done; it is atrophy of the brain. A doctor came on a home visit but Brian was very suspicious. Unfortunately he answered all of their questions about memory very well. I have to do many things for him. I have to go to the cashpoint with him because he cannot use it. We keep him in a routine, that is the best thing, that is what helps him. We cannot leave him by himself.’

We hear the front door close and Dad’s footsteps on the stairs to the kitchen.
‘Ah, Chloe!’ he says coming into the room, surprised but smiling, then, ‘wow, look at that!’ as he gestures to my bump. He is in a good mood. He has managed to renew the parking permit despite the idiocy of the Hackney council employee who asked him for the same details over and over again. Dressed in a smart new jumper, he holds the permit in his hand and shows us the expiry date on it, grinning proudly and almost boyishly. Through some strange unspoken agreement, Bodgana and I pretend that I was just passing and have only been there for five minutes. I want to get out of the house and I tell Dad my car is on the meter. He walks me up to the front door, suddenly looking worried.
‘Was Bodgana OK?’ he whispers anxiously, standing close to me with his hand on the door. ‘How did she react when you came round?’
‘Oh fine, fine,’ I say.

While we can

I mention Dad’s illness to a colleague and she emails me offering support; her mother had dementia. She writes:

In some ways I think the early stages are hardest because you don’t ever know what’s coming next. If I had to live through it again with my eyes open to what was happening I think I might try and take things more one day at a time rather than worrying about what was around the corner, because in reality we just don’t know about how long things will take or what the next stage will look like.

As Dad’s condition deteriorates I think about this advice and decide to make an effort to enjoy time with him as much as I can. Daniel and I invite Dad over to watch a BBC documentary about tennis which, being an expert on the subject, he was filmed for last year. We sit on the sofa with cups of tea and Dad happily gives us a running commentary, providing background on all the talking heads with occasional anecdotes about the various characters he encountered in the sport. When he appears briefly on the screen our eyes meet and we grin at each other, and it’s good to see how immersed he is in the programme, the experience and his memories. Afterwards Daniel and I ask him questions about his career, keeping him talking about better times for a while, before his anxiety about what Bodgana and the children are doing takes him prematurely home.

Another day I take Dad out to lunch at his favourite Italian restaurant.
‘Aha, how’s the mum?’ he says when he sees me, patting my emerging bump and smiling delightedly. We eat pasta and I try and keep the conversation away from Bodgana and money. Dad asks about Daniel and his job, how my new tenants are getting on and whether we have chosen any names for the baby. It surprises me again how well his short-term memory is working. We have noticed that when he isn’t in an anxious state or fretting about arguments with Bodgana, Dad is more solicitous than he used to be, showing his interest in our lives and his concern for us more openly than he ever used to. During lunch he slips in and out of confusion, muddling up names, people, circumstances and subjects, and I follow the threads in what he is saying, picking up on clues and relying on what I know about his life to guess what he means. I gather that he has sent a copy of his autobiography to the recent widow of an old friend of his, hoping that the descriptions of time spent with this friend would comfort her. Dad sits facing the large window, squinting slightly in the bright spring light.
‘It’s a funny thing,’ he says, looking outside at the traffic and shoppers, ‘it feels like England, but I know it isn’t. But it doesn’t feel like anywhere else, either.’

Another day I pick him up and bring him to our house for dinner. He is relaxed and chatty and tells us about some of the international coaching work he has done. I drive him home again when he wants to leave, letting him give me accurate directions even though I know the route well, enjoying the feeling of taking care of him and not having to worry about how he gets back. He thanks me again for the meal, saying how much he enjoyed it, and tells me to look after myself. There is something so simple and gentle about him at these times, as if he has shed some layers of adulthood and responsibility.

I watch him climb the steps to his front door through my wing mirror, see him open the door and go in. I wish I knew that he was going to be treated with kindness inside.

The slide

Things change early in the spring. At first it seems as if Dad is having one of his bad patches. One Monday I speak to him and he sounds completely confused. He’d suggested coming over for dinner on Tuesday, but he doesn’t remember that and now he is doubtful that he can make it. I ring him again the following morning to try and confirm and we have the same conversation, almost word for word. He is stressed and flustered and says there is too much happening at home. He doesn’t come over.

On the Friday afternoon I go round to Dad’s house. I’m fed up with looking at the children’s dusty Christmas presents on our kitchen table and waiting for an opportunity to see them, so I ring Dad and turn up twenty minutes later. He is wearing his coat and looking for his hat. I give the children their presents and they begin tearing off the wrapping paper, but Dad stands by the door and says he needs to go home.
‘You are home Dad,’ I say, ‘why don’t you sit down and see what the kids have got?’
‘No, no,’ he says crossly. He looks agitated. ‘I don’t like driving in the dark and I need to get back’. He puts his hat on and picks up his scarf.
‘But I’ve just got here,’ I say, casting round for distractions. ‘Shall we have a cup of tea?’
‘I’m fed up with people arguing with me!’ he says, ‘I told you, I’ve got to get home before it gets dark.’ He addresses Beata, who starts visibly. She looks pale and withdrawn. ‘Tell Bodgana I’ve gone home.’

He goes out and shuts the front door behind him. Bodgana comes upstairs from the kitchen and paces up and down, looking out of the window. ‘I am very stressed,’ she tells me. None of us know what to do. Later she calms down and the children finish opening their presents. She becomes friendly, almost manically so, asking me about my recently announced pregnancy and talking over my replies, relating her own experiences.

I ring Dad when I get home. He’s back home himself and seems to have some awareness of what’s happened. ‘I was driving along and suddenly wondered where I was going. Maybe it’s a relapse of that thing that happened in the summer.’

But his moments of clarity are now much less frequent, and we’re forced to admit that confusion and disorientation are the new daily reality. One day he arrives unannounced at Daniel’s and my house, saying that he doesn’t think the children are his. Annabel calls him at home and he puts her on the phone to Beata’s cello teacher, much to everyone’s bafflement. He is meant to meet up with an old friend, Peter, but Bodgana rings Peter and says Dad is too ill to travel by himself. When we try and talk to Dad about appointments at the hospital or the memory clinic, he complains that two doctors came round to the house but that they were dodgy, trying to sell him medication. ‘I know a high pressure sales job when I see one,’ he says.

In April he calls me and tells me that he had a bad day yesterday. ‘I thought I was going to die.’
‘Why, Dad?’ I ask.
‘I googled this di-mentia thing and read up about it. But I’ve cut back drastically on coffee and sugar and I tell you what, I feel much, much better. Definitely been having too much caffeine.’

We can’t tell from what Dad says if he is being seen by anyone or having any treatment, but it’s impossible to get hold of Bodgana for information. She has no mobile and never seems to answer the landline, and we eventually realise that she has trained Beata to pick up and pretend that she is out. Ellie rings the memory clinic and they tell her that Dad has missed several appointments. Then one day she rings Dad’s home phone and Bodgana picks up. Realising that we have no choice but to be conciliatory to stand any chance of regular communication about Dad, Ellie makes a big effort to seem friendly. Bodgana talks in detail about their daily life. She says that she and the children know that Dad is not going to get any better, but that they have been trying to get him to appointments just in case there is any medication he can take.
‘We are really concerned about all of you,’ says Ellie, ‘and we want to help if we can.’
‘Oh, there has never been any hostility between us,’ replies Bodgana. ‘Sometimes there has been coldness… when Brian and I have an argument and he goes to you to back him up. But there is no hatred. Listen, we are doing everything we can to make him comfortable, we want to make his life easy, we keep him in a routine every day, this helps him. We want him to live with us for as long as he can.’

The budget III

One Saturday afternoon in early March, Annabel bumps into Dad at the HSBC cashpoint on Stoke Newington High Street. It’s obvious that he is having trouble using the machine, unsure if any money has come out of it. Annabel suggests that they go inside the bank and request a mini statement. He gratefully agrees.

The statement shows that there is about £150 in Dad’s current account. There are several recent payments to online retailers such as John Lewis, which puzzle Dad. Annabel asks if they have bought things for the house or the children recently, but Dad cannot recall anything. Annabel wonders if Bodgana has been using Dad’s debit card. Despite Dad’s problems with confusion, his day to day memory is reasonably reliable.

Shortly after this encounter Dad receives confirmation from his bank that he has around £8000 left in his savings and decides to transfer all of it into his current account. A period of calm ensues. For a number of weeks there are no frazzled phone calls about arguments. Dad and Bodgana appear to be getting on rather well. Dad turns up for dinner in new clothes bought for him by Bodgana; the family acquires a flat screen TV.

For Annabel, Ellie, Josh and me, it’s as if an egg timer has been turned over. We speculate about how long the money will last and when the loan requests will start in earnest. There is something like relief mixed in with the anticipation. A stale old situation will finally have to change, even if it’s for the worse.

The D word

It’s hard to remember exactly when Dad first mentions divorce, but it isn’t long after Bodgana moves in with him that his complaints about her begin.

Bodgana tells Dad that she gave up her job in the financial sector just before she met him, blaming ‘burn out’, and seems to have no interest in finding further employment. After all, Dad provides a large four bedroom house with a big garden in Stoke Newington and pays for everything else. But for Bodgana, the house is shabby and the area suburban and embarrassing; she would prefer to live somewhere fashionable like Notting Hill or Kensington. She buys designer baby clothes from Harrods for Beata and fills up the fridge with the best of Waitrose, which is often thrown away. Initially Dad sets up a shared bank account but when this is consistently emptied, Dad cancels Bodgana’s card, closes the account and begins to give her a daily cash allowance. A decade-long argument begins, with Bodgana insisting that they need at least £40 a day for food and Dad haggling with her about how much they can get by on, seeking advice from Ellie to back him up. Bodgana begins to trick money from Dad, saying she needs it for food or some essential for the children, then spending what he gives her on theatre tickets or expensive make up and going back to him for more.

Inside the house, according to Dad, Bodgana is untidy. Washing up accumulates, arguments about the housework proliferate. Pets are bought, vets bills start to come in, animal droppings mingle on the carpet with dust, mud from the garden and plastic children’s toys. When they disagree about money, Bodgana retaliates by refusing to speak to Dad for days or even weeks on end. Dad calls this the ‘Siberian frost’. Sometimes during these periods they go separately to school to collect the children, not knowing if the other one is planning to turn up. Beata and Olly go to bed late and watch 18 certificate horror films with Bodgana, who stays up most of the night and sleeps in late. When Dad protests that children need a good amount of sleep and a regular routine, his opinions are dismissed – apparently the fact that he has already brought up four children is of no bearing. When my siblings and I go round to the house we start to notice desperate little print-outs pinned to the wall by Dad, including one headed ‘A Good Wife,’ which lists the attributes Dad would like to see in Bodgana, such as being a team player, being careful with money, contributing to the family purse and being supportive of her husband. Dad complains that he can never get any work done because he is constantly required to drive Bodgana and the children to various shops and activities. For several years Dad takes the children to school and picks them up every day, because Bodgana claims that Dad doesn’t give her enough money to buy clothes and she is ashamed to be seen at the school gates. Their arguments increase over the years and become angrier and more vicious, taking place more and more often in front of the children.

When Dad talks to Ellie, Annabel, Josh and me on the phone, at lunch at his favourite café or at our places for dinner, he talks endlessly about all of these problems and more. Eventually divorce is suggested and discussed. Despite Dad’s fear of Bodgana walking away with half of what he has spent a lifetime accumulating, sometimes he seems close to accepting that divorce would be the best option. At one point he even has a consultation with a renowned divorce lawyer, who tells Dad that he has plenty of evidence for requesting the divorce on the grounds of unreasonable behaviour. The solicitor is horrified by Dad’s list of complaints, especially the loan Bodgana takes out by faking Dad’s signature, and suggests to Dad in the strongest possible terms that he gets out of the situation as soon as he can.

But always, always, the conversation comes round to the children. ‘They’re cute little things,’ sighs Dad, ‘I like having them around, you know? If she took them back to Warsaw I suppose I’d never see them again.’ The look on Dad’s face tells us that all of these discussions, all of our suggestions, all of our insistence that he needs to really put his foot down with Bodgana, are futile. He cannot risk this. And so Dad is well and truly trapped, and Bodgana, we think, understands her power very well.