My dad makes sketty for our tea. And I help because I'm seven years old and there's nothing going on in this house where I don't have a nose.
Tonight, my dad is in charge as my mom does the job she doesn't like to mention. Like most fathers in the 1970s, my father's childcare regime is a rudimentary affair. As long as we have eaten something, we are allowed to "play" until it is dark. Sometimes later.
Sketty is the more complex of his two-recipe artillery. Its other standard is baked beans on fried bread. Sometimes – and this is the best possible twist – we get a bag of salt & # 39; n & # 39; shake chips and 50 pence to buy us all off-license chocolate. My little brother Dave likes a Curly Wurly and my dad always likes a Cadburys Fruit & Nut bar. I will never see Cadbury's purple without thinking of my father. Cadburys purple is love. Cadbury's purple is he and me slowly sneaking back out of the NAAFI store before he leaves the armed forces. I held a finger on his large hand, examined the puddles, and dawdled; we both laugh together. I'm carrying a bag of Cadbury & # 39; s buttons with a nursery rhyme by Little Jack Horner on the side. Cadburys Purple consists of two identical milk Easter eggs from Gran. One for me, one for Dave, who sits on the top shelf of the living room dresser.
In the kitchen we find one of our stained pans and Dad puts it on the most reliable electric ring and adds a dash of Spry Crisp & # 39; n Dry. We add onions and papa smooths them in the warming oil with a wooden fish slice, while gently softening them. He took the spatula in my hand.
"Mind what you do." You don't want a wannabe ritburn, ”he says.
"I'm not learning how to burn," I say, my accent already mottled with its Merseyside tones.
My father was born on Scotland Road in Liverpool. He is known to all of his old ex-army and in his civilian role in the RAF as "Scouse". I'm seven years old and dad is there in a way how I pronounce my words. In the way I laugh and the way I've started to make other people laugh. Liverpool genes are like a rogue pair of red knickers in the washing machine with your whites. They leave a trace.
w we add a pound of raw ground beef to the pan. It smells like something terrible at first, but when it browns and hits the onion it becomes a little less gross. It's time for its glamorous transformation into Bolognese. But I won't know this word for a few years. I'll just keep calling it Sketty.
Me, Dave, and Dad eat the sketty from bowls on our laps and use old copies of the Evening News to keep our knees from getting hot. We'll watch the end of the Nationwide newscast or play your cards right. Papa's Sketty is always delicious. Comforting, sweet and wonderfully cumbersome because dad cooked the pasta for at least 30 minutes too long.
At some point, my mother will return from her job cleaning the betting shop with a tattered copy of the sun with all the racing jigs and results on the back. I grab it and read the sexy problem page and puzzle over the stunnas' important stats. By the way, my mother vigorously denied that I was allowed to stay up after 10 p.m. at the age of seven to read the Sun problem page.
Grace, around three years old, with her parents and younger brother Dave in their garden in Aldershot. Photo: Courtesy Grace Dent
Inevitably, something dirty will happen on TV: a pair of tits, a swear word, something that will remind Mam that we are behind the watershed and she will look up from her sewing and say, "This kid should be in bed!"
My dad will put his arm around me and say, "Oh, give her another five minutes here … she's my only little girl."
My mother will roll her eyes: "You are as fat as bloody thieves, you two."
He'll say, "Oh, she's my only little girl."
And at this point I have no reason not to believe him.
Christmas Eve 1988
My father peels Brussels sprouts. Jona Lewie's Stop The Cavalry plays his favorite Christmas song wirelessly in the kitchen.
"Poppa-Poppa-Pom-Pom", my father hums. "Poppa-Poppa-Pom!"
"Poppa-Pom-Pom-Poppa-Pom!" I sing back and rock next to him. I'm 15.
"I wish I was home for Chrrrrrrrristmasssss!" we sing together
Years later, this tune will get me straight to the point when it pops up again every vember and hovers over the airwaves in Westfield Stratford City's Costa Coffee or in nightly Ubers as I drive through Trafalgar Square. A festive whiplash that pulled you into a perfect memory that you had no idea then was perfect.
Dad found Christmas challenging. The forced conviviality. All these people come over and break into his house. His tension drove my mother crazy. Words like introverted, social anxiety, or even Asperger's weren't part of our vocabulary in the north during all of my formative years. If you were in emotional pain and acted strangely, you were more likely to be told that you were "acting like a knob" and "shaking yourself".
But when 1988 came to an end, my father seemed particularly difficult. This could have something to do with a gruff phone call I heard from his father in Liverpool. It was one of those phone chats I accidentally ran into while lying silently on the upstairs landing.
Something a little "responsibility". Doing something about the right thing. Something about sin.
I can't say the news that my dad has two other daughters came as a complete shock. Even if the way I found out was pretty shocking.
This morning, Saturday, around six o'clock, my father went to my bedroom when I was half asleep. He leaned into bed, kissed my head and said, "All right, honey, I don't know if Mam told you what's going on, but I have to visit my other girls."
He got into his van and drove down the M6 to Liverpool to make up with his other children. The ones he left behind in the 60s.
I sat up in bed and rubbed the sleep from my eyes. I definitely didn't cry. I sat in bed for a couple of hours and watched The Chart Show on ITV. Outwardly, young people in the 80s were very undramatic. We weren't prepared to go on a regular diet on American TV to get decent soundbites about our emotions.
And as I said, this news was shocking, but not entirely a shock. I had found a black and white photo years ago while browsing through my father's bedside drawer. It was when I was trying to win the How Many Things In a Matchbox game for my brownies meeting on Thursday night. Rummaging through cupboards and drawers for tiny items – a nut, a bolt, a grain of rice – took a whole week. Papa spurred me on until the matchbox was full. And on the way I found a photo. Two girls standing at a country gate on a hiking trail. In one day. Just like the days my family went on.
I still loved my dad and the excuses I made for him were getting more watertight by the minute
I'd puzzled over the two girls' faces for about a minute, then put the photo back. Then I pretended I hadn't seen it. Children are slippery, pragmatic things. We are very concerned about self-preservation.
I thought of the clues that had brought me here. Papa's daughters had been there in a thousand uncomfortable silences when I asked about the past. They were there in bitten lips and half overheard murmurs of adults. They faced my Catholic grandparents, who opposed divorce and treated us children like an unpleasant smell.
They were there in my father's embrace when he sometimes seemed seized with emotion out of nowhere and pulled my tiny face against his rough soldier stubble and said, “Oh, come here, honey, you're my only little girl. "What I realized now actually meant," The only little girl I have left. "
As I sat on the edge of the bed, I felt a little sorry for my father. I already apologized. When I talked about my father's life in the years to come, people would respond with their own family skeletons and then bring me their own excuses too. You would tell me about double lives or moms who disappeared overnight. And of grandfathers who went to fight wars and forgot to go home. In the "good old days" people would, could and simply disappeared. It is less painful for us if we hold on to the idea that our elders did these things for reasons that went along with the era: shame, or religion or poverty. We don't want to believe that it was due to sheer selfishness. Or that people in the "good old days" were sometimes just absolute assholes.
Grace, eight years old, with her father and Dave at Brownie Camp outside Carlisle. Photo: Courtesy Grace Dent
I still loved my dad and the excuses I made for him were getting more watertight by the minute. Leaving an ex-wife and two children behind – I bet he didn't want these things at all. She probably caught him. Yes, the more I thought about it, the more sure my father had been tricked.
Something vaguely bothered me about Dad. It was a very subtle thing, but I looked into it for weeks after I got to university.
"This is Grace," shouts my father across the parking lot in a strange American accent. "You will see a lot of her."
A group of confused Finnish PhD students turn and stare at me. I'm an anonymous newbie, you have no reason to know. I will never see these students again. Or one of the other strangers my father insists on introducing me on my first day at university who is now faking a somewhat German accent. The interactions don't make sense. There is an exuberance and lack of reasoning in his actions that is just a little skewed.
It's impossible to pinpoint exactly when all this stuff started with Dad. It's one of the biggest kickers for families like ours when we try to remember. But maybe it was decades before it got really bad. Or was it later when he became obsessed with peeling onions before stacking them in a neat wall in the refrigerator to save space? Their brown, wafer-thin skins "take up too much space".
But aren't fathers weird anyway? That is their job. Being weird, embarrassing you, and driving you to places. And my dad loved driving, even though he was mysteriously caged in the 90s for getting behind the wheel. Sometimes, my mother said, it was completely lost in the simplest of journeys.
"My only little girl who goes to university," he said, picking up a box.
Oh yes, his only little girl – he never stopped doing that either.
"Do you think something is wrong with Dad?" I said to Mam on the phone a few weeks after I left.
"What do you mean?" She said.
"Oh, just some of the things he does," I said. "It's like he has dementia."
"Oh, Grace, he doesn't have dementia," she sighed. "He's just a moron."
Carlisle, August 2016
“Grace, are you there? Are you there grace "
"Yes, I'm here, Dad. Are you okay?"
It's 3 a.m.
"Yeah, I'm fine, presh," he begins. "I just think. I need to get a ladder."
"Why?" I say and sit up.
There is a long silence. I'm in bed in her apartment in Carlisle. Mam's health has been going downhill for months. She assures me it's nothing – first a cold that won't go away, or maybe a chest infection, then almost certainly, a doctor tells her, bronchitis. It's certainly not cancer, nothing to worry about, and don't worry about papa, papa is fine too. Her doctor gave her more and more antibiotics until after three months she could not walk or even get up and was admitted to the hospital. Dave called me when I was about to go on stage to talk about a Channel 4 show at the Edinburgh Television Festival before going to a fancy TV network party with my literary agent. Life had changed gears in recent years; I had written books, presented television and radio shows, and written columns in newspapers. It had become difficult to go anywhere without strangers narrowing their eyes and feeling like they'd seen me before. But within a short phone call everything shifted again.
Grace, 11 years old, at Alton Towers with her father and Dave. Photo: Courtesy Grace Dent
I had descended on Carlisle, all sharp elbows with notepad and pen, looking for answers and promises. Mam's biggest worry was my father. He couldn't be left alone.
"I told the nurses that he had dementia," she said. "They took him to the office until someone could come." It was the first time the word came out of her mouth. I nodded because I knew it too. The fear, the hoarding, the confusion, the lovable eccentricities that grew more frightening and surreal every month.
Papa knocks on the bedroom door again.
"What's the matter, dad?" I say and try to sound very calm.
"I have to go to the attic," says Dad, sticking his nose through the door. Papa's enormous nose. "It's a Roman nose," he used to tell me. "It's a novel all over my face, Gracie girl!"
Dad wears a white vest and pajama pants, much more unshaven than he would normally allow himself to be.
"I have to go up there," he says. He points to the ceiling. "And, you know, get behind the box and, well … you know … you know?"
"OK, well, let's not go upstairs now. It will be dark up there now. Why don't we do it first thing in the morning?"
He thinks a little, then nods.
"OK, presh, yeah, OK when it's light. We'll do it then."
He goes back to bed. This is an apartment. You don't have an attic.
I am lying in bed and have a small, utterly futile cry. Papa goes back to his bed, but he doesn't turn off his bedside lamp: he lies there and waits for daylight so that we can start our work.
Carlisle, October 2016
Me, Mam, and Dad are having toast in their Carlisle apartment and checking out Homes Under The Hammer.
Mam is 80, but she firmly believes that cancer will not stop her wherever it has appeared, even if the pills and injections make her sick and tired.
At 3 a.m., Dad stands by my bed in his flat cap and jacket and asks when we're going to Asda. He will in no sense understand that Mam is sick. He has the news every day. His reactions range from crying to irritable anger to saying we are trying to outsmart him.
I'm trying to explain that Mam needs rest, that the treatment she needs to contain the spread in her bones is brutal, that she is now the patient. But he goes around most of the night so she can't sleep and I can't sleep and Dave can't sleep.
Papa cut his clothes into thin strips with scissors. “What else does he have, some nunchucks?” Says my brother
If I can get a diagnosis, maybe we can get the right help. But I fear that if we let other people in on our secret, it will be the end of us as a family. We may even have to let him go and live somewhere else. I can't think of that.
I want to say so much to Dad, but I can't bring myself to do it. Dementia is really cumbersome. t just painful and scary. Embarrassing. I don't like being alone with dad. If I'm never alone with Dad, it's not my responsibility to say, "Look Dad, do you think you have dementia?"
But sometimes I can see terror in his eyes. Sometimes, while Dad is talking these days, his brain catches up in the middle of a nonsensical sentence. And it is then that he understands the utter ridiculousness of what he is saying, and pure shame passes over his face. I find this shame so painful that it hurts my heart and stays with me all the time when I'm back in London. I can't eat the dinners to check out.
Which one is worse? The times when he is aware that his brain is decaying and therefore panicking, or when he is blissfully clueless, utterly compassionate and also quite scary?
Sometimes I have the courage to ask him a padded question. “Do you feel like you're forgetting things, Dad? When you got up to work the other morning … did you forget you were retired? “But then he'll deny it or pretend he doesn't hear it. Or he'll just tell me no.
It's 1am and in a few hours I'm supposed to be going to London to film MasterChef and then coming back via Leeds to check out a restaurant. Moving back north was part of my plan to keep Dad at home. I would multitask. I would keep my diary closely. If I rent a big house, we can all live together. And that works for a while, but I'm not a nurse; I learn all about dementia from google.
Papa is curled up in a little ball on one side of his bed. I think he's breathing. I try my best but I fail
Papa is breathing. He hasn't got up in four days. I can't get him to drink water. I have some bread with jam and a small square of chocolate, but I can't persuade him to eat. t even milk fruit & nut. Is this what dying looks like? Or is he just tired? Or depressed? Me and Dave haven't been able to wash it for weeks. He screams and screams when we mention it.
I'm checking for pressure ulcers. Rickets. Malnutrition. I take a deep breath and check out funeral directors just in case. I also look into Alzheimer's nursing homes. Outreach groups. The pictures always show smiling people holding chinchillas from a local petting zoo. I'm pretty sure my dad would rather be dead than group activities. I feel like I am betraying him by even thinking about humiliating him in this way.
Grace, 21 years old, with her father in his garden in Currock. Photo: Courtesy Grace Dent
But in the background of these pictures of dementia groups there are always people around me and my brother's age. Relationship. Supervisor. I want to reach out my hand and say, look, we're here too. Please help us. But I'm too scared.
I check dad's breath with my hand in front of his face, then lie down in bed and wonder if he can hold out the night. At 6 a.m. he is still breathing. Dave tells me to go to the bloody station and go to London – he can handle it. "Put on makeup," he says. "You'll feel more like it when you get through Preston." I make my way to MasterChef to have panna cotta in front of TV cameras, and hope Dad can hold out until I get back.
I can't tell you about the weeks before my father stopped living with us. Some of the things he did. It wasn't him. It was a different person. And I will always have the feeling that I have let him down. I couldn't get him to drink or eat no matter what I cooked. I knew from my observation that he would die sooner than he should.
The fact is, however, that it took a bit of my heart out to leave him in his little room in the nursing home while he cried and promised him that I would definitely come back, which will never grow back.
I thought we'd talk less about Dad if he was in a safer place with educated people, but instead we talk more. Me, Dave, and Mam are doing a continuous, ever-moving post-mortem about how we got to this point. Papa's place at the dining table is empty. He doesn't wander the corridors at night. But this strange new silence only gives us more time to think.
"He's going to need all new clothes," says Dave on the phone.
Papa cut his clothes into narrow strips – all of them; all of his pants, all of his pants.
"What the hell …? What did the nurses say?"
"They say we have to take his scissors away," he says.
"How the hell did he get scissors?" I scream as I drive down Regent Street to BBC Radio 4. We both can't help but laugh. It's horrible, but darkly hysterical. It feels good to hear each other laugh again.
"I know – what else does he have, a bunch of nunchucks?" my brother says.
"I'm sorry, we had to confiscate his Shuriken throwing stars," I say.
"We apologize, but your father is no longer allowed to use his flamethrower," says Dave.
It feels great to laugh. Even when the world is on fire.
"But why is he tearing his clothes?" I sigh.
"I don't know, maybe he's going to a costume party as Robinson Crusoe," says my brother. We both laugh again.
Dementia isn't supposed to be fun, but sometimes it just is.
Christmas Day 2018
I'm in the kitchen, drinking cava, and placing chipolata sausages wrapped in bacon on a sheet pan. I wear felt antlers that clink when I move. Mam is having one of her good days; she feels strong.
Our entire house smells like turkey fat. Paul O’Grady is on Radio 2 chatting between Christmas classics. As the Poppa-Poppa-Poms from Jona Lewie's Stop The Cavalry begin, I feel my eyes fill up. I take a deep breath and distract myself with a box of Paxo.
Dave's car pulls into the driveway in front of the kitchen window. He gets out and winks at me, then walks to the passenger seat and leans forward with his strong bodybuilding arms. Then he carefully walks up the driveway with a very small bundle of coats.
Dave is enormous; The body in the coats is small and fragile, but I can see his face laughing. Mam appears next to me at the window and laughs.
"He has it!" She screams.
We all shout: "Hello!"
Dave carefully carries Dad around the house and drops him into the lounge in a large chair next to the TV. He sits there blinking and tries to orientate himself. It's just a skull with a bit of hair and a very thin body. I crouch on his chair and say, “Hello. Hello. It's grace. It's grace, dad. Hello."
He says, “Oh! Throw. Throw. Throw. "
He stutters on his teeth and then stops as if that makes perfect sense.
I say yes!"
I know from intonation that if Dad had any of the words left, he would be joking.
I say how are you? "
He says, “Do you train here? Train?"
I say, "Yes, train."
I sit down. We sit in silence and stare at each other.
I say, “I love you, Dad. I love you."
I hold his small, bony hand. He starts to cry.
I say, "It's okay, Dad. Come on. Don't scream. Best dad. Best dad."
He says, "Sometimes I feel like – am – I am – ppphhh."
I say, "Shall we have some chocolate?" I'll take the Dairy Milk Fruit & Nut bar that we got him for Christmas. His eyes shine.
• • This is an edited excerpt from Hungry released on October 29th by HarperCollins for £ 16.99. To order a copy for £ 14.78 go to guardianbookshop.com.
Grace Dent will speak to Felicity Cloake at a live streamed Guardian Live event on October 29th. Book tickets here.