On Tuesday morning I get into the car and drive to Dad’s house. I park, ease my seven-months-pregnant bump out from behind the steering wheel, and stand on the street for a moment in the hot sun, heart thumping.
I climb slowly up the steps to the front door and knock. Again, no answer. One of the sitting room blinds is open and I lean sideways to see as far in as I can. There’s no sign of movement and the dog isn’t barking. I knock again. After another few minutes I decide to try the next door neighbours. Perhaps someone has seen Dad coming or going and can put my mind at rest… but there is no answer from any of the flats to the left or the house on the right. I stand on the street at a loss. I know Bodgana is in there. I ring Dad’s landline, and in the quiet of the weekday morning I hear the phone ring. I decide to go back up the steps and knock one more time, and as I do I see Bodgana standing at the kitchen window. Our eyes meet. I wave.
After a short pause the front door opens. ‘Yes?’
‘Can I see Dad?’
‘He’s not here.’
‘Where is he?’
Bodgana hesitates. ‘He’s being… assessed’.
‘At the memory clinic?’
‘You can come in’.
I sit on the sofa and Bodgana sits at an angle to me on the wicker chair, very upright, calm and composed. ‘Brian is at the hospital,’ she says. ‘He is being assessed. His behaviour has become worse.’
‘When did he go to hospital?’
‘Oh, a couple of days ago. I have been desperately trying to get help for him. I have been asking doctors, I have been asking many questions, but we have been left alone. The tests do not show how bad he is. But the last time that the doctors came to the house to ask him questions, they were very shocked. They asked him what year it was and he said it was 1945, and he was rambling and talking about many things that are not real. So they decided, he must be taken for assessment. They won’t give him any medication, they will simply… observe him. The children and I will be allowed to visit him next week. He is eating well, they say.’
She stops and looks at me, triumphant. I want to get out of the house, as quickly as possible, but she is enjoying herself now, and, gesticulating in her chair, tells me many more things, some of which I already know. ‘He has been hallucinating. The doctors tell me that he has the third most common kind of dementia, it is not Alzheimer’s. There are no drugs to treat him. He has had two CT scans but both of them showed nothing. There is not a tumour or a cancer. Brian has been able to fool the doctors, saying he is writing a book and other things like this, but now they have realised how ill he is.’
She tells me how difficult her life has been, how aggressive Dad is towards the children, how he is completely unmanageable by the evening, how they keep him in a strict routine as this is the only thing that helps. Once more she talks about the involvement of social services last year, justifying her actions by saying that reporting him was a ‘cry for help’ in order to make the doctors see how ill Dad was.
‘I tell you, you are very brave to drive him,’ she says. ‘The doctors say that it is dangerous to be in a car with him because he may grab the steering wheel at any time.’ Her tone suddenly changes and she tilts her head to one side. ‘Listen, we love him.’ She smiles. ‘We want him home.’ I nod blandly as if I believe everything she is saying. ‘Don’t worry about him,’ she continues. ‘To be honest with you it is a relief not to have him here. I feel I have been looking after three children. He is very controlling towards us. We have our life back.’ She crosses one leg over the other and smoothes the fabric of her dress with her hand. ‘You can ring any time.’
‘I’ve been ringing every day,’ I say.
‘We go out a lot,’ she says. ‘It would be nice if you rang, we have been alone.’ She smiles again.
I get up. I never want to sit talking to her like this again.
Back in the car I start googling… hackney services older people, hackney mental health older people… and quickly find a number for the Hackney Community Mental Health Team.
‘I’m ringing about my father, Brian _____. I believe he is in hospital for assessment somewhere in Hackney.’ To my great surprise the woman who answers the phone tells me straightaway that Dad has been admitted to Winterwood Psychiatric Hospital.
‘He’s on Bluebell Ward. Unfortunately the whole team are having an away day today, but I can take your number and someone will call you back tomorrow.’
Keep calm for the baby, keep calm for the baby, I say to myself on the way home, trying to breathe more slowly. Almost as soon as I let myself into the house, my phone rings. A man called Dr Robinson introduces himself and tells me that he is the consultant looking after Dad.
‘Your colleague told me that my father is on Bluebell Ward at Winterwood,’ I say, and there is a slight pause at the end of the line.
‘Yes,’ Dr Robinson says slowly, ‘he was sectioned last week, about ten days ago. Did you not know?’
I tell Dr Robinson that we didn’t know, that we have been going out of our minds with worry about Dad, that we have been trying to speak to Bodgana for days. I’m crying now in a mixture of shock and relief and I want to tell Dr Robinson everything. He interrupts me.
‘I am afraid that this is rather awkward for me… Your stepmother has asked us not to involve you and your siblings. I’m afraid that as she is the nearest relative we are obliged to take account of her wishes. I probably shouldn’t say this, but I’m quite shocked that she didn’t tell you what has happened to your father. I’ve only met her once, but I have to say she appeared to be a rather… unusual, determined woman.’
When I repeat some of the things that Bodgana told me earlier, Dr Robinson seems to relax a little. He tells me that they can see from the scans that Dad has a shrunken frontal temporal lobe and will probably be diagnosed with fronto-temporal dementia, one of the least common variants of the disease. He explains that with this illness, language is affected but that memory can stay intact for longer. Apparently Dad will be allocated a social worker in the next week or so. Because he has been sectioned, there will be a Mental Health Tribunal on Friday to decide what to do with him. It is possible that he will be discharged. But Dr Robinson says he can’t tell me why Dad has been sectioned.
‘Is he very distressed about being there?’ I ask.
‘No, I wouldn’t say he is too distressed… but he is bewildered and he does get agitated at night.’
‘Can we visit him?’
‘I’m afraid that you will need your stepmother’s permission for that. Why not give her a ring?’
I try and explain, again, the difficulties of communicating with Bodgana, and say that she said they weren’t allowed to visit Dad until next week anyway. Dr Robinson, who seems to be in no hurry to end the conversation, tactfully says that he doesn’t know anything about that. Then he offers to ask Dad if he wants to see us.
‘I will make my own judgement about how lucid he is at the time. I will be seeing him next on Thursday.’
That night I lie awake, staring into the dark, unable to stop thinking about Dad, alone and bewildered in hospital, not having seen a familiar face for ten days. It’s almost too much to bear.