16th December 2021 Growing up, I was a clumsy child, always falling over. To see my knees without grazes was a rare and wonderful sight. If there were a matchstick in the road, I would find it and fall over it, no trouble at all.
Despite weekly dancing classes from age three or so, I was not a graceful kid. The doctor diagnosed ‘weak ankles’ as an explanation for the many times I twisted them and tore the ligaments in both. It ruined my ballet career and my dreams of being the next Margot Fonteyn (Darcy Bussell hadn’t even been born yet!). Dreams fostered by all those ‘Sadler’s Wells’ books I read; ‘Veronica at the Wells’, ‘A Dream of Sadler’s Wells’, ‘Ella at the Wells’ – you get the idea! Lorna Hill has a lot to answer for. I can laugh about it now – a small, fat kid yearning to be a graceful prima ballerina – what was I thinking? It was a world – no, a universe – away from Rene Rawlinson’s School of Dance. Every Saturday, I dragged my younger sister, Mel, to what had been the old YMCA and was then the Furness Health Studio at the top of Greengate Street to attend our classes in tap dancing, soft shoe, and acrobatics. Acrobatics? Yes indeed, I could almost achieve the splits, my cartwheel was a sight to behold, and I was a great support at the bottom of the human pyramids Auntie Rene choreographed.
To be fair to her, Auntie Rene did once give me a ‘ballet’ solo to perform at our end-of-year festive concert at the Public Hall. My mum had gone all out for this performance; she made my dress (thankfully not a tutu!), which was a floaty peach-coloured satin ankle-length empire-line gown with puffed sleeves. I must have looked like Dahl’s Giant Peach looking for James. She even went to the extent of buying me a pair of blocked ballet shoes, but sadly, having never had a real ballet lesson in my life, I had no idea how to dance ‘en pointe’ so I ended up with a pair of satin ballet slippers instead. I sang the theme tune from The Sound of Music and danced the steps Rene had choreographed as gracefully as I could manage, though I rather think I resembled a lumbering elephant much more than an elegant swan. However, it brought tears to the eyes of all in the audience (I hope for the right reasons), much applause, and there was a lot of talk afterwards of auditioning for Junior Showtime, a popular children’s TV talent show at the time. At the following year’s show, Mum made over my dress into a costume for me to play Dorothy, in a short sketch from the Wizard of Oz, which ended with my rendition of ‘Over the Rainbow’, which was very well received. However, I don’t think Judy Garland lost any sleep over it. Obviously, my singing and dancing talents never came to anything. As I grew older (and larger and larger), my Margot Fonteyn dreams disappeared into dust.
I’ve digressed once again. I started by talking about my clumsiness and always falling over as a child. And I’m sad to say, things haven’t changed much since I became an adult. I still manage to find imaginary obstacles over which to trip, sometimes to catastrophic, but always comedic effect for any onlookers who may be around. One such trip happened when I worked at the Ostrich at Colnbrook (see my blog ‘(Some of) The Best Years of Our Lives’ for more details about that). I remember one Sunday we had a small coach party of 25 OAPs booked in for lunch. We opened up the Elizabethan Room (not usually open on a Sunday), so they could all sit in the same room. Since the menu was already chosen and ordered, it ought to be a simple matter to get them all served without having many staff to look after them – namely, it was yours truly alone, but I wasn’t fazed. It would be a doddle: 25 soups, 25 Steak & Kidney Pie with potatoes and peas, and 25 apple crumbles with whipped cream. At least there would be no arguments about who had ordered what. The food came up from the kitchen on an electric dumbwaiter, so it was just a matter of removing the trays from the lift onto the bar, then going around the front of the bar to deliver the meals to the tables.
The wrinklies were having a lovely time, and so was I, as they were great fun and very sociable, and all went exceedingly well – until it came to the dessert. Our large trays would each hold 12 dishes of the pudding, so it came up in the lift on two trays, with a single plate by itself. I took a tray from the lift and placed it on the bar to retrieve it when I went out front. The single dish joined this tray on the bar, and the second tray, I took off and carried out of the bar door through the doorway of the Elizabethan Room. Reader, you have to bear in mind that I must have entered that room thousands of times in the years I had worked there, every single working day of the year. So why, on this occasion, did I forget about the step on the threshold, which I normally skipped over without a thought? I honestly don’t know, but my toe caught on the step, and I tripped, throwing a trayful of apple crumble and whipped cream at the nearest table, to the surprise of the dear oldies awaiting their dessert.
They were very good about it, I have to say. Most of them laughed and made jokes about it. One even jumped out of her seat, worried that I’d hurt myself as I landed sprawled on the floor in front of them. I wasn’t hurt, of course, I never was! I apologised profusely and brought handfuls of napkins and tea towels to help clean them up, though not before phoning down to the kitchen to order up another tray of puddings! In the meantime, I distributed the remaining dishes and busied myself pouring complimentary drinks that I hoped would make up for my clumsiness. The old dears weren’t a bit bothered and happily left after their teas and coffees, thanking me and saying what a lovely lunch it had been. One even congratulated me on the floorshow!
It gets a bit more serious falling over when you get older yourself, of course. I’ve had a few falls in recent years that, while resulting in a few grazed knees and holey hosiery, have been more embarrassing than painful. The trouble is, being morbidly obese, as I am, once I’m down, I find it incredibly hard to get up again! Particularly if I fall backwards, when I lay there, waving my arms and legs about, closely resembling one of those giant Galapagos tortoises on its back, unable to roll back upright. But even if I fall forwards, it can be incredibly difficult. This happened one evening when I still lived in Mill Bank. I had parked my car in its usual spot, which then involved walking a good few yards uphill to my kitchen door, which was down a couple of steps, having once been the cellar of the house. I locked up the car, and as I walked into the street, I felt myself falling, over what I have no clue, but I’ve also found it best, and least painful, to let myself fall rather than struggle to avoid it as that can end up really bad with sprains and such. So, I let myself fall, flat on my face behind my car.
No matter how hard I tried, I could not get back on my feet. I could get to my knees, but there was nothing to get hold of to pull myself up. I don’t mind admitting, I cried a bit. It was so humiliating, even though no one was around to witness my humiliation. I simultaneously prayed that someone WOULD come by who could help, and that no one would come by an see my sorry state. I ended up crawling on hands and knees to the steps down to my door, and managed to twist myself around so that I could sit on the top step and then – at last – achieve a vertical stance. My knees were in a bit of a state after crawling across the gravelly road, and yet another pair of tights ruined, but at least I was home, with not much harm done. And I had escaped the embarrassment of anyone seeing me.
These days I use a walking stick at all times as I don’t trust my own balance. But I think I suffered the most embarrassment and humiliation during my most recent fall, which was over three years ago, I’m glad to say.
By that time, I had brought my mother to live with me – regular readers may already know she suffered from Alzheimer’s – but living in the old house I had shared with Glyn was totally impractical, for both me and Mum. She was non too steady on her feet as well, and I used to dread the hours that I was at work and when Mum’s carers were not there – there was a gap of about two or three hours each day that Mum was alone. There were three flights of stairs between the four floors of the house and I was terrified I would come home and find her spreadeagled at the bottom someday. She often got confused because she was not familiar with my home, and she could never remember where she was and that, quite naturally frightened her. At these times she had usually regressed in her mind to being a young child – and she occasionally went looking for her own parents. She ‘escaped’ twice. The first time was on a cold but bright morning. I had gone to work, leaving the house at 6am while she was sleeping. She usually stayed in bed until Wendy, her carer, arrived at 9am and took her some toast and tea in bed, so there usually was not a problem with her being alone in the house. On this particular morning, I was sitting happily at my desk, working away when my direct line phone rang. It was Wendy ringing to say that Mum had gone missing. When Wendy had arrived and gone up to her room, her bed was empty, as was the rest of the house. Naturally, I panicked. I told Wendy to have a look around the area of the house, maybe knock on a few neighbours’ doors and ask if they had seen a small grey-haired old lady wandering about, probably looking a bit lost. In the meantime, I phoned 999 and reported her missing.
As I was giving details to the police officer on the other end of the line, my mobile rang and showed Wendy’s ID. Excusing myself from the conversation, I took Wendy’s call. “It’s okay, she’s back!” I thanked the police officer and said their services wouldn’t be required after all, then phoned Wendy back. It seemed that Mum had walked down our lane to the bottom of the village, about half a mile or so, and a man in a white van had stopped and asked if she was all right, as she was looking a bit lost. She told him, apparently, that she was looking for the bus stop so she could get home to Barrow in Furness, so he guessed something was amiss. He’d got her into his van, and was going to take her to the nearest police station, but then had seen Wendy looking around near my house and stopped and asked her if she knew the lady he’d picked up. I don’t care what people say about ‘White Van Man’ – that particular one was a knight in shining armour as far as I was concerned. Unfortunately he didn’t leave his name or number so I was unable to call and thank him personally – so if you should happen to be reading this blog by some small miracle – Sir, you have my undying gratitude.
The next time she went wandering was on one afternoon. Again, she picked a nice day for it – it was a very cold, but dry autumn afternoon. It had become habit that Wendy’s shift with Mum ended at about 2:45 pm when she had to go and pick up her grandson from school. Before leaving, she would give Mum a drink and a snack, and leave her sitting up on her bed watching a film on a continual loop (her Alzheimer’s was such that she could never remember having watched it the previous times). Usually, by the time I got home at 5pm she would be asleep, having her ‘Nana Nap’ as we called it. I didn’t disturb her at this time, but spent a blissful hour alone after my own long work day, before she usually woke up at about 6pm. Then we would have our evening meal and spend the rest of the evening watching TV together until about 9pm when we went to bed. (Early, I know, but I did have to get up at 5am each morning!)
On this fine afternoon, I got home to a quiet house, as usual. I could hear the TV on upstairs, so sat alone in the living room, reading the post that had arrived that day. Then a knock came to the door; it was my neighbour from next-door-but-one. He asked if my mother was with me. Misunderstanding him, I confirmed that yes, she was now living with me and had been for a few weeks now.
“No,” he said, “I mean is your mother here, with you? Right now?”
“I think so,” I replied, “she’s usually napping at this time, so I haven’t actually looked in on her. Why do you ask?”
It turned out that his girlfriend worked at Mill Bank School, just up the road, and at home time when all the mothers had come to collect their offspring, an elderly lady had been standing there looking confused. When someone asked if she was waiting for somebody, again she replied that she was waiting for the bus to Barrow. The kind person had taken her into the school and the police had been called. Deborah, my neighbour, thought perhaps that it was my mother as she’d heard I had brought her to live with me. I phoned the police to confirm the story and a very nice police officer brought her back home. At first she was a little upset, but she had been excited to ride in a police car. After about ten minutes she had forgotten the whole thing, thank goodness.
After these two incidents I slipped lots of little notes with Mum’s name and address and my phone number on them into all the pockets of her coats and cardigans, in her purse and her handbags. We also started double-locking the doors on the house and hiding the keys so that she couldn’t go wandering again. I worried about that, having to imprison her, and fretted about house fires, but it was better than worrying about her getting lost and being unable to find her – and winter was coming on fast – she could easily die of exposure as she never remembered to put on her outdoor clothes.
But, I’m getting side-tracked again – this was supposed to be about my last fall! I could write a whole book on my mother’s exploits through Alzheimer’s, but as the saying goes, that’s another story.
Alzheimer’s was the reason for my fall, though not directly. As the disease progressed, Mum lost all track of time. She would get up and dressed and go looking for her breakfast at 10 o’clock at night, and want to go to bed half way through the day. It made no difference if it was dark outside or brilliant daylight, her body clock was vanished.
By this time, I had been made redundant from my job, after thirteen years, but every cloud has a silver lining and at least it meant Mum was no longer alone – ever. Unfortunately, it also meant that I was never alone either, but we all have our cross to bear, as they say. We had moved to the flat where I now live – much more practical, on the ground floor, no stairs to climb and only one door to enter or leave, which was covered by a curtain so that she couldn’t tell it was a door. Mum had lost a lot of her balance, and was quite prone to falling, especially when she got out of bed; she always forgot that she had to use a Zimmer frame to support her as she walked, so had to be supervised most of the time. It got to the point where I couldn’t sleep at all at night because I would be lying awake waiting for the ‘bump’ that announced she had fallen again. I tried to get help for this, but Calderdale Council were not all that helpful. We already had the full ‘care package’ that mum would qualify for; they couldn’t sanction more than the 28 hours of care per week that we already had. I tried to point out to them that, yes, thank you, 28 hours helped, but split over a 7-day week, that still left the other 20 hours each day for me to care for her alone.
They told me I should rely on the CareCall emergency line I had signed Mum up for. This meant there was an alarm unit with a button which, when pressed, would call a 24-hour emergency line who would send help if required. I wore the alarm on my wrist, since whenever Mum wore it, she would press the button, or take it off and hide it somewhere. The advice I was given was that if Mum should have a fall during the night, I should simply press the alarm button, then go back to bed, and the responder would then deal with Mum when he/she arrived. What kind of person could go back to bed and leave their 80-odd-year-old Mother on the floor until help arrived? Certainly not me! We tried this one night (no of course I didn’t go back to bed, I made Mum as comfortable as possible and sat with her for the 3 hours it took for someone to come. When I complained at the delay, he said he was the only person on call in the whole of Calderdale, and he had come as soon as he could.
In the end, I took to sleeping in the armchair next to Mum’s bed. It wasn’t ideal, but at least I wasn’t imagining the sound of a fall every few minutes. I got used to sleeping semi-upright. Then one morning, at about 8am, we were both sound asleep when the doorbell rang. Now, when I say doorbell, I actually mean a loud buzzer that is very harsh and intrusive at the best of times, let alone when it jerks you awake! I almost jumped out of my skin and rushed to get up to answer the door, neglecting to find my walking stick first. Half asleep, I went dizzy, and suddenly felt myself falling. I ended up lying full length on the floor, right across the threshold of my mother’s bedroom.
I was helpless. As I’d fallen, I had bumped one knee hard and it was painful. I tried to get up, but I couldn’t. I managed to reach a stool, just outside the doorway in the hall, but I couldn’t even drag myself onto that. By this time, Mum had woken up and was a bit upset, asking if I was all right and could she do anything to help. I made a few jokes to make her laugh and told her not to worry, because Vicky, the carer for that day, was due soon, and she would be able to help me. So, there I lay, prone, with my top half in the hall, and my lower extremities in the bedroom, praying for 9am to come around when Vicky would arrive. 9am came – no Vicky. 9.30, still no Vicky.
I realised that I had left my mobile phone on the table in the living room. Only about 10 yards away but it might as well have been a million miles. There was a landline on the hall table which I might be able to drag towards me and reach, but it didn’t have Vicky’s number programmed into the contacts, nor anyone else’s that I could think of.
Mum decided she wanted to use the bathroom. At least I was there to remind her to use her Zimmer so she wouldn’t fall over, but it took quite a bit of tense navigation to get both her and the Zimmer past me and through the doorway. We finally managed it, and off she went happily. When she came back, I directed her into the living room and told her to wait on the sofa until we got sorted, which she did quite amenably. Thank God today wasn’t one of her stubborn days, when she refused to do anything asked of her! I even managed to get her to bring my mobile over to me: “Mum, you see my phone on the table? Can you bring it here?”
“What phone? I can’t see a phone.”
“Yes, there is. That little black square thing, next to the fruit bowl? Yes, that’s it! Can you bring it for me please?”
“Well I don’t know why you can’t just get up and fetch it yourself! But I suppose so.”
I opened the phone to find two missed calls from Vicky and rang her back. “Vicky, where are you?”
“Oh, I’m glad you called me back, I was beginning to worry,” she said, “I was just ringing to let you know I’m running late. I had a puncture on the way, but it’s fixed now so I’ll be there as soon as. Is everything all right?”
“Not exactly,” I explained what had happened. She promised to get here as quickly as she could.
In the meantime, I realised that it wouldn’t do any good having Vicky here anyway. She was a small, thin woman who looked like a strong gust of wind would blow her away, about 7 stone if that. No way would she be able to support me enough to get up – I weighed more than 3 times what she did!
Time to call in the heavy mob – literally! I rang 111 for the NHS helpline. I explained the situation, that I was helpless, and alone with my elderly mother, could they do anything to help? After asking the usual questions – was I bleeding, chest pains, bones broken. No to all, just unable to get up. The kind lady said, “I’m sorry, we won’t be able to send an ambulance as we do need to keep those for real emergencies, but leave it with me – I’ll make a couple of calls and call you right back. Don’t go away!” As if I could!
True to her word, she called me back, “Hello, it’s me again. Has anything changed? No? Okay, what I’ve done is to call the Fire department. They’re going to send someone to help you. Is anyone there who can let them in to your flat? Anyone else in the building who can let them in?” I told her about the keysafe outside the front door, put there for this precise situation. She promised to pass the combination to the keysafe on, and assured me they’d be here as soon as possible. I thanked her for her help and just then, Vicky arrived. She too realised that she wouldn’t be able to help me, but I told her not to worry, just to keep Mum occupied and give her breakfast etc.
It wasn’t too long before a big red fire truck arrived on the car park. Vicky saw it through the window and went out to let the fire crew in. The fire crew? Yes, both of them! I laid on the floor and watched as at least eight tall, fit firefighters came in to the flat one by one, saying hello as they went past me into the living room. Finally, whoever was in charge came to kneel next to me and asked how I was doing. Again he asked the usual – blood, pain, broken bones? No, no and no. He asked how I came to be in such a position, so I explained how it had happened.
I had imagined a couple of burly blokes would have just picked me up off the floor, but apparently that’s not allowed in case it causes any further injuries. “So,” said Firefighter 1, “how do you think we should get you out of this mess Elizabeth? Any ideas?
“None,” I sighed.
“Oh dear. We’d better put our heads together and see what we come up with then. Are you feeling all right?”
“I’m fine, physically, anyway. Just embarrassed and wishing that I had a few more clothes on!” I was wearing just a strappy short slip for a night dress, and I could see that my boobs were very much on view at the front, and was almost certain that the slip wasn’t entirely covering my backside. Moments later, I felt, very gently, my slip being pulled further down my thighs. Not a word was said.
Well, eventually they decided that they would slide a slip mat underneath me as far as it would go, and then I might be able to roll onto it further when they pulled it (and me) through the hall and into the living room. Then, I was able to completely roll over onto my back, and a couple of the firemen raised the slip mat, with me on it, into a sitting position whilst someone else pushed a stool under me. And that was that!
While all this was going on, my mother, always a flirt, was chatting up the other guys who were standing around in case of – what, I don’t know. They were all very sweet, and kind, and considerate, and not one of them laughed at me – not inside the flat anyway. What they thought on the way back to their base I dread to think and I’m so glad I never got to see the report about the incident!
I can laugh about it now, but at the time, it was deeply humiliating and has been one of the issues that has caused my agoraphobia and anxiety problems. I’m terrified of going out alone, in case I fall over and can’t get up – imagine the situation I’ve just described happening in the street? It would be on Facebook and YouTube within minutes and, knowing my luck, would go viral within a few short hours. I really would not like to be famous for that reason! It’s an irrational thing; logically I know it’s highly unlikely that I might fall over while I’m out, especially if I am accompanied, as I usually am. My head tells me I’m being foolish, but my emotions? I go hot and clammy at the same time, my heart beats fit to burst and I start to panic. My mouth goes dry and I can’t breathe. There have been several times when I’ve been due to be somewhere, but backed out at the last minute because I can’t go outside my own front door. And yes, I do know that this happened INSIDE my front door, but I can’t help but think how much worse it would be outside!
If I’m totally honest I will admit that the lockdowns since the Covid-19 Pandemic started have been a godsend to me. I haven’t had to find an excuse for being a hermit and not going out. In the last 18 months, apart from two occasions, the only times I’ve left my flat have been to attend unavoidable hospital appointments. I also have Macular Degeneration in my eyes which require the use of scanning and photographic equipment and injections for treatment, and have no choice or I will end up blind. But everything and anything else I need, I try to have it done at home, even my eyesight and hearing tests! Thank God for the technology that allowed these miracles.
Well, that’s enough for this week. Maybe you have some amusing tales to tell about your own misadventures – I’d love to hear them, so please post them in the comments below!
See you next week, when hopefully I’ll have a Christmas Surprise for you all!
I can’t imagine anyone would leave you without help if you ever fell outside in a public place. The world is full of caring, concerned people and I’m sure someone would be there to help in an instant! I know I would!
Thank you Simon! I’m sure people would help, of course, but that doesn’t remove the humiliation of being in that position! Lol! Thanks for reading