It’s off to work we go. Three mornings a week I drop the children off at school and nursery breakfast clubs, my mind turning towards the work day ahead. I enjoy my job, and am lucky to have found something which keeps me interested, but despite this I harbour thoughts of giving up the career that I have worked so hard for. After a day of fairly incessant mental effort and the sprint to collect the children on time, the extra push required to feed, bath and bed the exhausted smalls leaves me ready for little more than an evening on the sofa. If I wasn’t at work I would be capable of so much more, I sometimes think. My children would be immaculately presented to school, and sun hats and wellies would never be forgotten; I would sashay around my sparklingly clean home, wearing an ironed apron while I made healthy, nutritious and delicious meals for the family; I would watch supportively as my son perfects his fingerprinting and my daughter practices guitar. I would devour books, listen to live music, hold intelligent conversations with interesting people. Something like that, anyway.
Attitudes to work vary so enormously: a fit and healthy eighteen year old once requested from me a medical certificate for an indefinite absence from work, whereas Bapuji…well, Bapuji is a different beast altogether. He rises before dawn each day of the week bar one, and follows a morning routine that has remained unchanged for most of his 98 years. In the newly emerging light of day he performs his breathing and stretching exercises on the terrace, readying himself for another day. By seven o’clock Bapuji is dressed in one of his light, short-sleeved suits; memories of my early childhood paint him in a pale blue one, a khaki one and one which is taupe, with neat lapels, buttoned up, no shirt. They are his uniform, part of his self-identity as much as the garb of any soldier. In fact, I can barely picture Bapuji wearing anything else, so infrequently has he given himself time away from work. Arriving at the toy shop, he opens the padlocked metal grille with the flaking paint which bars the entrance. He sets up his position by the door, an upright figure perching on a stool, waiting for the store-room boy to arrive. In the past his mind would be full of plans: launching new toys recently imported from Hong Kong, arrangements for a stall at the local fair and trade with shops across the land. The shop is quiet now, and he has little to plan. Still, Bapuji insists that he must work. The toy shop is his life’s work, more hours and effort poured into it than anything else. A symbiosis exists, Bapuji attending to the toy shop and the shop, in turn, breathing life into him.
I am certain, too, that the daily routine and the regular mental activity necessitated by being at work has kept Bapuji alert and mentally able. When he fractured his hip last year and the orthopaedic surgeons mooted the idea of keeping Bapuji in bed, in traction, for three months we feared that he would die- not from complications of his fracture but from boredom, if such a thing were possible. A unanimous decision was made, and Bapuji had surgery on his hip. Of course, he insisted on returning to work as soon as he possibly could afterwards. During the past few years Indira has taken on the burden of administration, so that Bapuji can be front of house, the proprietor and salesman. Yet Bapuji is starting to forget. It has crept slowly, this loss of memory, and not predictably; sometimes he will remember things in great detail, and at other times he appears vague or slightly confused. At times he is cantankerous- Victor Meldrew personified- and perfectly amiable at others. Bapuji’s deafness makes it harder to settle on the diagnosis: perhaps it is not that he has forgotten but that he does not hear in the first instance. Certainly, speaking with him on the telephone is challenging and could easily lead to misinterpretation. Could the symptoms be those of depression alone and not dementia? Possibly, but it is far more likely that he has a little of both. Bapuji is 98, after all, so it is not unreasonable that he should have dementia, but I have seen how the disease treats people; having reached this ripe old age, I cannot bear to think of Bapuji losing himself, the person that he is and was. Bapuji and the toy shop have work to do: they must delay the decline.