My mother is a time traveller. But she is not a Time Lord, orchestrating time, selecting her time and location on the TARDIS interface. The klaxons that are sounding in her head are instead fragmenting time, so she becomes subject to its will, marooned in the mid-1930s, looking through an increasingly opaque window onto the present. I, by contrast, live firmly in the present, over 200 miles from Bristol, where my mother is being cared for. It is nearly 8pm by the time I arrive at my brother's house, and I'm tired and stressed. Why am I doing this? Will she know who I am this time? She forgets that I have been there as soon as I leave, and she's completely forgotten her grandchildren and great-grandchildren now.
On Saturday morning, we drive out into the beautiful rolling hills between Bristol and Bath, and there it is, a house from a different century. It has just enough of its original fittings and fixtures to retain its period charm; how apt, I think, as we walk into the entrance hall, for the time travellers who live there. We can't find her at first- but there she is, wrapped in a huge armchair, looking at a panoramic view through an extended picture-window at the back of the house. She sees me and smiles: 'hello Pam' she says. I am still just in her world.
'It's pretty here' I say, looking out onto the fields. 'Too much sky' she says. 'Would you rather have buses and cars, like home?' I say. 'Yes' she says firmly, naming the address of the house in London where she lived as a child. I never knew that house... but try and hold on, remember what I was told. 'With you on the middle floor', I say 'and Auntie Mabel, Uncle Joe and your cousins on the floor above, and your Nana and Granddad on the floor below'. 'Yes' she says. 'How is Auntie Mabel?' My Great-Aunt Mabel died when I was ten.... 'She's not here anymore' I say. There is a silence. 'Granddad used to walk all you children to school, didn't he?' I say. My mother had a sister, now dead, and three cousins; I remember being told that Granddad's job was to take them to school and back. She laughs 'that Berwick... he was always getting told off.' Her cousin Berwick died nearly twenty years ago. 'Was he?' I say. 'Granddad had a bad leg' she replies 'he couldn't keep up'. This is a new snippet of the past for me.
She closes her eyes and dozes for a moment. I wonder what her thoughts must be like; all these old memories, now fresh and clear, living in a present that is as fragmented as shards of broken glass. I begin to realise that to follow the narrative that she is left with I am going to have to learn how to time travel too, into a past I did not share with her. She opens her eyes again. A brief snapshot of a half-forgotten family story surfaces. 'Do you remember' I say 'that your Nana used to dye her hair in the basement with all the curtains drawn, because she didn't want anyone to know she had grey hair? But you all knew, anyway?' 'Oh yes' she says, smiling: 'black hair'. 'I thought it was red' I say. 'No. Dark' she says firmly. 'But my mum didn't have black hair.' 'No' I say 'she was blonde like me.' 'Yes' she says 'like yours. But she has long hair'. 'But she did have it cut into a bob, didn't she?' I reply 'Your dad didn't like it.'
She looks confused. I have travelled forward too far... so move back; share the narrative. 'But before that', I say, 'she used to plait it at night and put it in a bun in the morning'. I mime plaiting long hair and winding it up into a bun. One of her hands mirrors mine and touches her shoulder- it is the first time she has shown any animation. 'That's right, long blonde hair', she says. She dozes again for a few seconds. 'When will my mum and dad come to take me home?' she asks. I think about this for a moment. I have no conventional religious faith, but as a psychologist I have read enough about near-death experiences to think, on the balance of probabilities, that they are a genuine end-of-life phenomenon; whether they are the closing-down burst of a dying brain or a glimpse of some type of 'mind without brain' existence, I have no firm opinion.
She falls silent for a moment. I wonder if she is dozing, but she's not. She looks thoughtful. 'Who do you think will come and get me?' she says. I look at her, and intuit that somehow she knows that it is not going to be me; that she will travel again, and I am going to be left behind. 'Whoever you want to come' I say. 'And whoever it is, they will look after you, and take you home.' She replies 'they will look after me?' It is phrased like a question. 'Yes' I say 'here and now, and in the future'. She has closed her eyes again, and her face looks peaceful. It is time to go, to get back on the road, to try and get back to Leeds before dark.
On the long journey home, I wonder why we have so many old people whose minds are fragmented in this way. We now know that day-to-day experience has a huge impact upon how human beings' physical brains are constructed, in that actions within the environment create connections between neurons, determining the architecture of the brain, with bursts of development genetically scheduled during infancy and adolescence. Studies of dementia development are correspondingly not only beginning to define the physical changes that occur in the brain as it begins to decay, but also the effect of isolation in terms of increasing the speed of this process.
I remember Jacob Chandler, born in 1763 in Pakenham, Suffolk, my mother's many times great-grandfather. I found him on the 1851 census, aged 88, the same age as my mother is now, living with his daughter Martha and her husband, Robert. I wonder if Martha sat and talked to Jacob the way that I had just spoken with my mother; and travelled back in time with him. As a member of the adult generation that lived through the beginning of the industrial revolution, his memories might have harked back to a more rural past. But Martha did not also have to travel in space to do this; he was part of the fabric of her everyday life, and she of his. I spend a lot of my professional life writing and speaking about the impact upon children of a society that constructs human beings as units of economic capital; on my long drive home, I begin to contemplate the impact on the other end of life.
Douglas Adams archly comments in the Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy that the reason for most of the misery on planet Earth is because human beings are 'largely concerned with the movement of small green pieces of paper, which was odd because on the whole it wasn't the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.' As the dusk begins to fall and I speed up the M1 towards home, I wonder if rich western nations could process this concept more deeply, we would be able to do much better for both young and old in our societies.