I’m driving Ian and Mabel to Ruthven Church. This is one of four isolated churches we regularly stop at. Tranquil spots all. En route I’ve been taking the opportunity to ask Dad about Mum’s religion. No point in asking Mum herself, she won’t reply to any questions that are remotely abstract these days. She hardly says any words at all now.
Mabel went to church regularly until she was in her mid-twenties, as did most people of her generation. When she and Ian left their home town - so that he could embark on a career in the building industry to financially support his wife and two boys - both of them stopped going to church. But when they retired back to Perthshire in their mid-sixties, Mabel raised the possibility of rejoining the church. Dad doesn’t quite agree with me, but if I remember rightly, Mabel’s motivation was a vague worry about who would bury her, if not a minister, and where she would be buried if she wasn’t a church member. In the end, it was Ian who starting going to church on Sunday, which was enough to satisfy Mabel’s low-key allegiance to Christianity, until he had to stop because his diabetes/insulin regime was leaving him feeling weak in mid-morning. Twice he nearly fainted during the service. On the third occasion he decided God was trying to tell him something: “Stay away.”
OK here we are. Ruthven church was deconsecrated recently. For a while there was a series of musical events held here each summer but I think that’s stopped now that the instigator of the concerts is buried in the churchyard. We park under the chestnut tree that provides shelter from the rain or sun, as required. And we get on with our tea ritual.
Actually, the tea ritual has evolved. Mabel no longer uses her hands, either to feed herself (she tends to crush the cake if she acknowledges its presence at all) or to grip the cup. But she will open her mouth when either cake or cup is raised to her lips. I don’t tend to alternate between solid and liquid as this confuses Mum and she has a tendency to then bite on the plastic rim of the cup. So these days I feed her the cake first.
“We both went to the same church as children,” Ian tells me, looking at Ruthven but talking about West Rattray. Our family had a pew downstairs and Mabel’s had one upstairs, so we didn’t meet. Mabel was the only one of the Davidsons who didn’t sing in the choir.”
I have to concentrate on Mabel’s needs, but I’m half-listening. “Well that makes sense, you were always the singer in our family. Never Mum. Or me.”
I judge the tea to be cool enough for Mabel, and raise the cup to her lips. She sips a minute amount of tea and grimaces.
‘Is it still too hot?” I ask.
No answer. I give it a few seconds, and a cooling blow, and try again. Once more a tiny amount of liquid goes into Mum’s mouth. This time she swallows and coughs. I’ve noticed she coughs a lot when she’s drinking tea. I don’t know what that’s about. I fear that the day will come when the swallowing reflex will disappear.
Ian has gone on talking. I try and tune in. He’s telling me that he prays for Mabel every night. Sometimes he feels faintly ridiculous while doing so, as he’s not really a believer. But he’s decided that he doesn’t want to leave any stone unturned as far as Mabel’s welfare is concerned. There might be a God. And Ian would feel pretty stupid to one day discover that there was indeed a God and that this deity had been waiting in vain to hear Ian’s wishes regarding his loved ones.
Ian prays every night, asking God to do what’s good and right for Mabel. He also prays in the same terms - or similar - for his sisters, Joan and Maureen, and for Mabel’s sister, Alice, all in their eighties.
“You don’t include any men in your prayers, Dad?”
“I prayed for Jimmy when he was alive. But not now that he’s gone. And I don’t feel the need to pray for a man in his mid-fifties.”
The man in his mid-fifties continues to encourage his mother to sip tea. When Mabel has finished her drink - and finish it she does, even though it takes another 10 minutes - I get out of the car and saunter into the graveyard.
‘Beloved,’ is written on many of the gravestones. And I’m sure that’s how it should be. I’m sure that’s how it was as long as there was immediate family still alive who could remember the deceased. When I get to the wall that marks the edge of the graveyard, I become conscious of the wind blowing through the mature trees on the other side of the River Isla. I stand and look down on the river rushing by. Black water, speckled with streams of white bubbles here and there. I too pray that the universe will do what’s good and right with regards to Mabel. Standing in such a setting, where the ground, the water and the air seem to have so much respect for each other, I feel hopeful that it will be so.
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