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The car glissades off the road bucking and lunging across a frozen buckled verge unexpectedly stalling on a ridge of iron-hard mud only a whisker away from the pole…I can scarcely believe it, I’ve stopped, I’m unharmed, the car’s okay, and, because of the freezing conditions, not even stuck – as far as I know. My gods were with me. I’m shaking so much I can’t get the car into reverse let alone co-ordinate clutch and accelerator. Eventually I manage, and after some manoeuvring, dislodge the car from the ridge and gradually inch backward onto the lethally icy corner. I limp home at a snail’s pace overwhelmed by emotions. I creep into the house trying to avoid being heard or seen, but Ben finds me and engulfs me in a hug – it’s too much, I burst into tears. I mumble about the animals and scrabble around for my overalls.

“No mum, no! You don’t have to go out there it’s dark, it’s cold. Rob will do them. Hey, look at me…it’s not been a normal day, look at you- you’ve had it. The animals will be okay. You’re ill. It’s freezing. Hey mum, don’t.”

I look at him and feel overcome – my son, so concerned, so gentle, so caring and he doesn’t even know about the might have been accident, his love is breaking me up. “Pip, I know it seems stupid, but I want to. I think, just for a moment I need the space, the peace. Please. I’m not being difficult. I promise I’ll stop when Rob gets back. Are you coping with the New Year’s Eve meal? The goose, all the bits? The pudding?”

“Yes, everything’s fine. Not probably as you’d do it, but it’s just fine. Don’t worry. But please, don’t do too much out there. Come in soon, won’t you?” Reluctantly he lets me go.

I stumble out to the animals and, as I know they would, they calm me, ground me. They sense my anguish and even though it’s way past their normal feeding time, they don’t bawl and jostle, they don’t even demand.  Instead they’re quiet, conciliatory; concerned liquid-treacle eyes follow my every movement, dew-dropped noses and rasping tongues tentatively nudging and exploring my hands, arms and hat. Gentle reassurance. I curl up on the straw where Robert finds me. In a couple of hours it’ll be time to welcome in the New Year!

The following few days passed in a haze of phone calls, journeys and doctor-nurse-hospital arrangements on behalf of my mother. Clamouring, pleading, demanding; questioning, challenging, probing. Eventually I was persuaded to take her to the main hospital in Plymouth in case the local cottage hospital could not provide all the treatment needed. Also, I was assured that return transport would be far quicker from there.

Her triage treatment in A&E was excellent and in a couple of hours we found she’d fractured her knee cap. From then on it was a nightmare. Treatment was to be ‘conservative’ – in other words nothing would be done, not even pain relief. Mobilise, I was told, get her moving (with a fractured knee cap? with nothing to help?).  It was obvious they couldn’t wait to pass the problem back to her home, her GP and community services. If you’re old and demented you don’t stand a chance, even if yours is a ‘mechanical’ injury, time and money will not be wasted on you. After a seven hour wait for return transport we arrived back at her home at 9pm – my mother was past all reason – frightened, confused and irrationally furious at everything, including me.

So here we are, frustrated and banging our heads against several brick walls.  Trying hard to find her some form of pain relief that won’t exacerbate her mental condition. Trying to get a response and hurry along the re-enablement team so we know how best to mobilise her without causing her more injury (but referrals, don’t you know, have to be processed through proper channels before a visit is allowed). Trying to encourage her to eat and drink (at the moment she won’t). Trying to explain to her what’s happened (she has no idea of why she hurts). I don’t know how she’s going to cope; her body’s fast becoming a random muddle of irrelevant, awkward bones.  But I know I still see that spark of  fighting spirit flashing in her eyes, and until that dies I will do everything I can.

hartland - new year's day 2009

hartland - new year's day 2009

I arrived at my mother’s home and found her, her body a poor old jumble of bones, crookedly crumpled on the bed.

“Mummy I hear you’ve had a fall?”

“Oh yes darling, I think I must have.”

“Where do you think you’ve hurt, sweetie? Can you tell me where the soreness is?”

“Oh yes, it’s up along there.” She indicates the ceiling with her index finger.

Dementia is an unkind and horrid thing, for both the sufferer and the carer. Normal things like pain, hunger, thirst become extraordinarily difficult for the sufferer to communicate or pinpoint. Usually I’m lucky enough to be able to interpret my mother’s needs, though when she’s overly anxious, agitated or distressed it becomes much more difficult.

I gently stroke her head. “Mummy, I wonder if you can do something with me. I need to find out where you hurt so I can make it better. I’m going to feel all the bones – little and big – in your body. When I touch one that feels different, do you think you can tell me?”

“Of course I can. Don’t be silly. Why are you asking me that?”

I continue to talk gently to her, telling her exactly what I’m doing. The first thing that knocks me backward is the smell – I’m sure she had a massive UTI (urinary tract infection), which would explain the series of falls. Funny the doctor hasn’t mentioned this. She’s hot to touch, her skin papery dry. She has a fever. I carry on, asking her to grasp my arms as I move her shoulder – no pain here. I gently work through each of her ribs, her shoulder blades, her spine and yes, there is a definite tenderness down her left side. I reach round for the softness of her kidneys…

“Ooh, ooh that’s sore.” This confirms my suspicion of an UTI.

I move along her pelvic girdle, her femur – no pain or soreness at all. And then I see it – it’s glaringly obvious, her left knee – it’s huge, weird, completely out of shape, and hot. Gently I cradle it with both hands and apply pressure…

“Oww, oww, oww . Don’t, don’t do that! Oh owww. Oh no.” She’s deeply distressed and in agony. It’s isn’t her hip, it’s her knee.

I phone the doctor. I explain that I’m desperately worried about her going in an ambulance to Derriford, Plymouth’s main hospital, on New Year’s Eve. She’s too frail and ill. He agrees. I explain about the UTI and the knee and ask if I can pick up antibiotics and painkillers. We also agree that she should be x-rayed in Tavistock, just a few miles down the road, first thing on Friday.

I hurtle into Tavistock to pick up prescriptions, hurtle back. Another problem has arisen, her skin is breaking down and she’s developing pressure sores on her heels and feet. Julie has coped brilliantly creaming and wrapping her feet in sheepskin as well locating a ripple mattress that can be delivered tomorrow; she’d also tested her pad for infection and found her urine contained large quantities of blood…no wonder she was so hot.

At last I leave and dash home – it’s dark, late, I’ve animals to see to, bales to move, hopefully Ben is coping with the cooking and Robert will be back with our French family. I’m exhausted, feverish and developing a hacking cough. I’m worried about what tomorrow will bring and if I’ve made the right decision in keeping my mother away from hospitals for the next twenty-four hours (often in the case of elderly, demented patients it’s NHS policy to treat ‘conservatively’ i.e. do nothing). I’m beginning to doubt my own judgement, it’s clear that everyone else believes it to be her hip. There are a million thoughts spinning around and around in my head.  I’m not concentrating properly and don’t see the ice, black, thick and shiny smooth over the whole lane. I touch the brakes, the wheels lock and I’m powerless, a telegraph pole is racing towards me at an alarming rate. ‘Please. Please, please,’ I pray, ‘if anyone is out there, just don’t let me hit the pole. Ditch, ruts anything, but not the pole, please, not tonight.’ I brace myself for the impact…

rushes in heavy frost - cow moor

rushes in heavy frost - cow moor

It’s 30 December and Berengère’s family are arriving to stay with us over the next five days. This is their first visit and I know they are really looking forward to seeing the farm, the animals, the surrounding countryside; absorbing the quintessential unspoilt ‘Englishness’ of the area. Roland, Berengère’s father, feels that that much of England, especially London, is loosing its distinctiveness and was hoping that he would re-find the special character of the country on this rural visit.

They are most interested in the farm and its produce and are intrigued by my passion for animals, farming and the countryside. Ben and Berengère have always championed our out-of-the-garden and from-the-fields ingredients together with my home cooking, so her parents were, I know, looking forward to some tasty meals to restore their faith in British cuisine, food and farming.  The pressure was on! Normally cooking for ten doesn’t faze me, but I was ill and craving a hole in which to curl up and die.  The thought of being a genial host and chef on top of routine twice-a-day stock care and farm work was beginning to make me feel wobbly.

inspecting the cattle

inspecting the cattle

“It doesn’t matter” said Berengère “Really, not at all. Look, my mother was in bed for the whole week when you came to visit! They’ll understand.” (Martine had injured her back when visited in May and was condemned to her bed by the doctor.)

“I know, I know. But I want it to be special for them. I’ve planned the meals. I’ve kept back the joints. I want them to have the whole experience!” And as always when you’re not 100% everything is blown-up by lip-quivery see-saw emotions.

In my head I’d planned the meals for the days ahead – ribs of our Red Ruby beef, sweet melting legs of Whiteface Dartmoor lamb, slow-roasted aromatic hand of pork and warm hearty white bean and kale casserole.  I would prepare gratins of creamy potatoes and leeks, red cabbage and apple, tiny sprouts stirred into sticky chestnuts and port, steam fresh romanesque shoots and caldo nero kale (jealously saved in the veg garden). I wanted to make puddings of backberries and apples encased in the shortest of crumbly pastry, tiny mincepies with clotted cream, blueberries and currants in a cloud of fluffy meringue, a Christmas pudding (of course) and Christmas cake. I knew what I wanted to do…

It was fine! After a convivial first night where we celebrated the coming together of our families we planned the days ahead. Tomorrow we would take a tour of the animals and the farm, followed by lunch and whilst I stayed at home to prepare the New Year’s Eve meal Robert would take everyone on a hauntingly beautiful walk around Scorhill stone circle on Dartmoor.

lambs in five acres - new year's eve 2008

lambs in five acres - new year's eve 2008

Sitting down to lunch after the walk around the farm on gloriously hard ground (even our mud is beginning to freeze – total bliss!), the phone went…

“Paula, it’s Elaine from Spring House. Your mum’s had a fall. Well, a couple actually, we think…  it’s a bit muddled. But the doctor’s been out. He thinks her hip could be broken. He’s arranged for her to be taken to Derriford to be x-rayed. She very confused and in a lot of pain….”

“What? Oh no! I’ll be there. Don’t let her be taken to Derriford, it’s New Year’s Eve, it’s Plymouth, it’ll be complete mayhem, she’ll be shoved in a corner. Don’t let anyone take her. I’ll phone the doctor. I’m on my way…Oh God, please let her be alright…”

With my heart pounding, I garbled hasty instruction at Ben for the evening meal and with an apologetic good-bye, grabbed my coat and fled.

scorhill stone circle in the setting sun - new year's eve 2008

scorhill stone circle in the setting sun - new year's eve 2008

part three to follow…

I can’t quite believe this. There was an email from Pavla this morning

‘Hi Paula,

look what I had waiting for me this morning……… £820 of damage.  I know I have insurance but it’s not the point………

Fed up, fed up………
xx’

smashed

and today - smashed

Her shop window had been smashed – apparently someone thought it might be quite cool to go around busting windows with his fist (and what did his fist look like…?).

The police have arrested him and he’s admitted to doing it. But as Pavla said, ‘that’s not the point’. It’s the hassle; the damage, the organisation, the repairs, the shop being shut, the energy needed to talk to the police, the insurance company, the glass repair business, the carpenter, the decorator and last but not least the excess and the up-front payment while everything is sorted out (and where’s that coming from at a time like this? Falling in bounty from the sky?). This is not something she needs right now.

Pavla, I know everyone’s thoughts will be with you, gunning for you, and hoping our combined energy will make it all a little easier.  My blood boils at the senseless, thoughtless, inane behaviour of the chap who did it, and I just hope the Courts help him to realise the cost to his victims like you through some meaningful reparations.

Oh lordy, lordy, lord, I’m suffering from Man Back. Man Back you question?  Let me explain a little better.

The man in my life has been throwing himself, body and disheartened soul, into violent, frantic polytunnel site preparation work. This on a long, dry, light-filled summer’s day would be a pleasant enough job: you know the sort of thing; working up a bit of a sweat, mildly but not unpleasantly aching muscles resulting in huge satisfaction at work accomplished. As it is work has taken place during dank, semi-dark days of relentless rain, in a mud morass, a glooping energy-sapping quagmire. Hundreds of tonnes of stone, chippings and an insy-winsy hired mini tracked dumper truck were being sucked avariciously downwards into the bowels of the earth.  Distraught, as once again the little dumper slurped to a sinking halt in the quicksand of dirty yellow-grey clay, Olly and him of the wide shoulders and snake hips decided to dig out and stone with frenzied revenge a 50 metre or so of trackway so the work could continue. It did, perfectly, with no more mechanical breakdowns save that of the man’s back.

Sympathy was poured out and hot baths with soothing oils were run. Fevered brows were stroked and tender muscles administered too. Words of praise at works accomplished were sung.

The night was long and difficult. It was full of tossings, turnings, groanings and moanings. Sleep was not a big feature. Being rolled out of bed and asked very loudly if I was being disturbed was. The following morning the pain had become terminal and walking, standing, sitting or lying was no longer an option.

I collected together tinctures for the body, remedies for the psychic and unguents of macerated comfrey, hypericum and arnica infused with essential oils for the back. In case these alternative options were unsuccessful I stocked up with conventional pain killers and ibubofrin rubs.

Another night of restless agitation followed. The man and the back were not responding. Life had taken a downturn. Hopelessness and depression had set in.  There was only one thing for it now a back amputation or emergency osteopathic treatment. The latter was chosen and in full ambulance mode I transported the not so patient patient to the osteopath. Within seconds the problem was diagnosed as acute lumbar muscle something-or-other and with appropriate massage and manipulation the said muscle was undone and unstrung and living was on the cards again!

We are progressing – slowly. Of course anything like washing up, picking-up clothes, bringing in wood, emptying the compost bucket, fetching a glass of water and…and…and is completely out of the question. So now you understand; Man Back is (now I’ve experienced it) very similar to Man Flu.

man back!

man back!

I was falling gently into a misty drifting twilight world between sleep and wakefulness. Robert was already asleep; soft, warm-slow breaths on the back of my neck. A noise startled, pulling me away from that place. I desperately wanted to resist it.
“Errh…phone” I mumbled into the pillow “phone”

“Whassat? Whaa?” slurred Robert

We’d got back late for a Thursday evening. We’d been over to see some friends after supper; it must have been around twelve by the time we got into bed.

“Phone!” I stagger unsteadily out of bed, bumping into the chest and slipping on the rug.
“Light on?” murmured Robert from the depths of the duvet “Didn’t hear. Sure?”

We once tried to have a phone in our bedroom, but because of thick cob walls and a dodgy connection that was ungetatable we gave up. Sometimes we hear the phone at night and I guess sometimes we don’t. Often it’s a misdialled number or a hoax.

I drunkenly stumbled the stairs to the study, fumbled for the light, but missed the call. It had gone onto answerphone. No message. I dialled 1471 but my brain hadn’t hooked up yet and the numbers meant nothing. Shaking my head and slapping my face to reawaken the blood supply I was about to redial when the phone went again.
“Hello?”
“Mum?”
“Oll – what’s happened?”

None of those things that are meant to happen happened. My heart didn’t stop. My stomach didn’t plummet. I didn’t feel sick. I didn’t turn to ice.
“I’ve crashed.”
“Are you okay?”

Those words – so futile – are you okay? Are you broken? Are you bleeding to death? Has your head, your body or any of your limbs been scrunched, torn, flung across the countryside? Is anyone else hurt, maimed, dead? Are you going to live? You are my child. I bleed when you do. Every one of your hurts hurts me…more. I love you.

“Are you okay?”
“I think so. Yes, I think so.”

He had also, unusually for a Thursday, been over to see some friends too. He’d decided to come home via a different route. They’ve been resurfacing all the small back roads and as he rounded a bend he hit a thick layer of new gravel and went into a skid; the wheels locked, he careered up a short elevated track to a field entrance, which flipped the car over bouncing it on a salt/gravel box, throwing it onto its roof and rolling it over again down the hill. It came to rest on the driver’s side in the middle of the road. He managed to crawl out of the passenger door.
Seeing it there, bottom side up across the road, a broken, skewed crushed metal box spewing forth glass, fuel and radiator fluid started the icy fingers of shock moving through my body. How he came out of it unscathed I don’t know. That no one else was involved – another miracle.

We managed to turn the car upright and tow it with the truck to a safe place near by. The next day in the light we would deal with it. Now back home, sweet tea and bed.

Robert and I felt peculiar yesterday – strange, disorientated and off-kilter. Olly, who I thought might be battered and bruised once the initial shock wore off was, still, miraculously, completely unscathed.

not olly’s car

rushes-and-water-droplets-hannaborough-moor-28-oct-07-reduced.jpg

Yesterday a heavy metal shearing stand fell, with some force, onto my head and shoulder. Taken completely by surprise I couldn’t answer the urgent questions as to whether I was okay. I had no idea.

I’d been waiting for Simon, my shearer, to come and dock the ewes prior to lambing. Yesterday morning he called to say he would be over mid-day. We finished getting the lambing shed ready during the morning. The shed originally housed cattle; since building the cow palace it’s become a useful covered area to store the tractor, stock trailer and other pieces of farm machinery. The problem we face each year is finding a home for the various bits of machinery whilst the sheep are in situ. Once we have squeezed turners and toppers, tractors and trailers into impossibly small vacant places we put up pens, plumb in water-troughs, install hay racks, straw down, and, hey-presto, we have a lambing shed conveniently near the house, yards and nursery fields.

All had gone smoothly. The ewes had been gently and expertly docked. Robert, Simon and I were chewing-the-cud over various topics whilst clearing up. We’d noticed an udder that was particularly full and another ewe that appeared to have an overly fat tail. Chatting and moving through the sheep, not wholly focused on what was happening behind me, there was a sudden shout from Simon… a rather strange noise followed – metal connecting with my head and shoulder. I had no idea what happened. I have recollection of eyes and mouths worriedly speaking to me. I remember easing myself to a bale and thinking what the hell are they going on about? I felt none of the anger or immediate pain one usually does when you’ve banged your head, elbow or toe. Just mystified and, well, dazed. I remember saying I had to go in and get a jab for a ewe and sort of wandered off.

So here I am. I might be mightily changed, for all I know. I’m waiting for star-spangled clarity, inspirational thoughts and the sudden ability to be a truly remarkable solver of the world’s problems. Unfortunately none of these things have manifested themselves as yet. The head seems to be in one piece, albeit with a rather large soggy bloody protuberance on the back and there’s also a bruised swelling on my shoulder and neck. But having calved two cows today I guess I’m still just the ordinary old Paula – though do let me know if you see a change!

Locks Park Farm

Thanks for visiting my blog. All entries are presented in chronological order.

I have a small organic farm on the Culm grasslands near Hatherleigh in Devon, with sheep and beef cattle. I've been farming in the county for more than 30 years. I've set up this blog to share views on farming and the countryside - please do give your thoughts.

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The Campaign to Protect Rural England has helped set up this blog. We want farming to thrive in England, and believe that it is essential that people understand farming and farmers better in order for that to happen. Paula's views expressed here are her own and we won't necessarily share all of them, but we're happy to have helped give her a voice.

Find our more about CPRE and our views on food and farming at our website, www.cpre.org.uk