Academic journal article Michigan Quarterly Review

"In Your Own Kingdom, Sir"

Academic journal article Michigan Quarterly Review

"In Your Own Kingdom, Sir"

Article excerpt

Now he had grown calmer. The tablets, no doubt, but also a speculative withdrawal, as of someone looking inside himself, endlessly shuffling the images in some lantern show of the soul, endlessly talking of "getting back . . ."

They say of the Masai tribesmen that in exile they carry with them the names of their native hills and plains, giving these same names to all new landscapes and thus keeping their past alive. Their cut roots they carry as a medicine for the mind. Not so very different, perhaps, from British ex-pats who called their African homes "Richmond" or "Twickenham" after fondly remembered London suburbs.

But my father was trading in neither Masai medicine nor colonial nostalgia: his own roots seemed blasted, left ragged and trailing at some point fifteen years back. If memory is indeed a sort of landscape, a series of quiet Hiroshimas had taken out acre after acre till nothing was left from approximately the mid-1980s on. Now he stood, in the ruins of time, unsuccessfully weighing this living room, garden, and house (where he had lived throughout the nineties) against others in his memory until finally he was obliged to ask where he was. Again. And again. And again.

Some nights he would stay up packing suitcases-three, four heavy strapped numbers which, wheezing and heaving, he'd negotiate downstairs, often tumbling after them himself. In the thin morning light they would await in the hallway the taxi that would take both them and him back to his "real" home (this on those rare occasions when he remembered-he seldom did-that he could not go there by car, his car keys having been gently taken from him, hidden away for his own safety). His second wife would entreat him to stop all this packing. Until the tablets calmed him the entreaty was met with paranoiac rejection, and it was left to her, my brother, or me to sneak his bags back upstairs. Within twenty-four hours they would appear downstairs again, ready for another departure to wherever it was he thought he was going.

Sometimes he would slip from the house, be found wandering near a previous home (one was only ten minutes' walk away) and be steered back by a kindly suburbanite who had found his real and present address on a piece of paper in his pocket-placed there by my father's wife for just such an eventuality.

Sometimes the police would bring him back as much as five hours later, his clothes sodden with rain, suffering unexplained bruises and minor cuts as if he'd fallen down somewhere.

On occasion I myself would retrieve him after midnight from some drafty police waiting room, where he sat hunched-this little man-irritated that he'd been kept waiting for . . . what, exactly, he could not say. Was I just in the vicinity? There "on business"? Whatever the reason, he was "grateful" I'd stopped by to pick him up. Other times he seemed to make it back alone. He'd been "to a music festival" (this from a man who, to my knowledge, had never attended a concert in his life), he'd just "been out for a walk" (in the wind and the rain, for an entire evening).

Come the next dusk he was too far from both the last and the next tablet; his mind would darken like the day and he was anxious to be off again, fretfully repeating with greater urgency his mantra of "getting home," "getting back."

Again he would kiss goodbye to his second wife, my stepmother, explaining he would "get into trouble" if he didn't leave. Verbal restraint was useless and, understandably, no one wanted to make that restraint physical. Oddly, I don't think he ever took with him any of the suitcases he'd stayed up half the night packing. He simply let himself out of the house and wandered off, his trilby and raincoat insufficient against an exceptionally cold spring.

Thus he wandered through the quiet suburban streets of South London.

The first phase of my father's illness-possibly Alzheimer's disease, though more probably multiple infarct dementia-had announced itself some months before, just as I was preparing to go to Kenya on a visit. …

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