You think you have a fair idea of how someone is living their life and then something happens which proves just how far off the mark you are.
Aunty M is my late mum's youngest sibling, the last remaining one this side of the Atlantic (my 96 year old uncle is still going strong in Minnesota). She never married, lived with my gran and then later shared a house with one of her sisters who'd been widowed.
She's been on her own for more than thirty years, a fiercely independent woman with exacting standards yet generous to a fault and always prepared to lend a helping hand to family and friends.
This is the aunt who was the supremely talented seamstress, who taught me to knit and sew at a young age, who bought the best Christmas and birthday presents, who introduced the family to Avon and Tupperware and Marks and Spencer's biscuits.
I've maintained a very close relationship with her, despite sometimes being the recipient of a withering look or feeling the sharp side of her tongue every now and again (Aunty has never been one to hold back), have visited regularly and included her in our family celebrations. My two are probably the nearest thing to grandchildren she'll have and they're extremely fond of her.
In recent years, she's become less mobile due to a longstanding spinal condition but life was made a little easier with the installation of a stair lift, rearranging the bathroom as a wet room, buying an adjustable electric bed and having a warden at the end of an emergency button.
I've been aware she's been doing less of late (the occasional visits by taxi to the local supermarket have ceased, likewise attendance at the monthly luncheon club at her church) and that her house has become increasingly cluttered with a layer of dust covering everything.
But she's always appeared happy enough, always insistent she's managing very well, thank you very much, and has downright refused all offers of help with household tasks (though I did manage to run round the living room with a duster one time when she was upstairs).
We've had a few hiccups over the last year or so, like the time she insisted the phone wasn't working when it turned out she'd been disconnected for non payment of accounts. And then there was the alert from her housing provider that she'd accrued hundreds of £s of rent arrears (whilst she'd been assuring me that she was making regular payments at the post office).
Last Saturday, I made my usual weekly visit with a variety of ready meals for the freezer (she now relies on these), accompanied by a weekending at home Girlie and with the Boy in tow to fix the television cabinet.
Ah yes, the television cabinet. The Boy quickly assessed that we'd need to empty its drawer before the front could be reattached with the superglue we'd finally remembered to buy. It turned out to be stuffed full of old bills and bank statements and all sorts of other papers from about 2004. But as we proceeded to empty it, it became abundantly clear that the drawer was also home to something else (that should probably be plural), something of the small rodent variety.
We discovered Aunty's vacuum cleaner was useless so the Girlie and Boy shot off to Argos (via B&Q for rodent removal aids) to buy a fully functioning replacement. And then the cleaning (and dawning) began.
Moving furniture and close inspection gave an indication of the scale of the problem (unsurprisingly not confined to just the living room) which I've spent the whole of last week trying to resolve through hours and hours of brushing, vacuuming, washing, scrubbing, laundering, disinfecting, sorting, removing, discarding, decluttering, binning.
Every cupboard (which I've never had reason to probe previously) was full of old newspapers, magazines and Christmas cards. There were stacks of out of date packets and boxes of medication (and have you tried taking a carrier bag full of expired morphine not dispensed in your name to the pharmacy for safe disposal? At one point I thought I was going to be handed over to the police), half eaten bags of sweets scattered all over the place (she buys them from the Ringtons delivery man because 'He's so nice and I don't like their tea') and little heaps everywhere of used stamps torn from envelopes. I came across three carrier bags full of brand new greetings cards (yet in the run up to birthdays Aunty always asks me to buy a card for her to send). The spare bedroom was piled to the rafters with Christmas gift bags containing the still wrapped presents she'd received over the years (some of which are now sitting in the charity shop ).
Yep, you name it, I've done it.
I'll spare you the details but the very worst bit was definitely the kitchen, particularly inside the cupboard under the kitchen sink. So much evidence of mouse activity. At one point I had to go in the garden to stop myself from chucking up. Or crying. Maybe both.
The house is now unquestionably much tidier, cleaner and hopefully less of a health risk. But, as Walt Disney once remarked, 'It all started with a mouse' and I acknowledge we may still need to call in the rodent expulsion experts. Time and a watching brief will tell.
As for Aunty M, it's all been happening around her and I doubt she really understands why I've been doing what I've been doing. What is crystal clear, though, is the fact that she isn't managing (and whether that's simply down to ageing or something else, I'm not sure).
Spending considerable amounts of time with her, rather than simply popping in with groceries or for a chat, has revealed that she's spending her days in her night clothes (and not always particularly clean ones), continuously watching television, munching on bag after bag of crisps (which it seems the ice cream van driver delivers to her door in large quantities at an exorbitant price, like some sort of dealer feeding her snack addiction). The kitchen bin contained 16 empty packets, consumed between Saturday night and Monday morning. Unbelievable.
I've finally persuaded her to accept help in the form of a cleaner, coming in once a week to begin with but then possibly more frequently. Tackling the self care issue is more difficult and I'm still pondering the best way to approach that one.
Back at home, the sweepings in the garden were less nausea inducing and a tad prettier,
there was a treat of a bowl of juicy cherries and a new magazine
and there are new additions (all three for a bargainous 99p) on the bookshelf, thanks to that charity shop drop off.
In other news, along with others from much further afield, the mister is heading south tomorrow and the town has its collective fingers crossed for a successful Bank Holiday Monday.
Up the Boro!
Or something like that.