some photo

Ollie isn’t as bad as advertised. In fact, she’s positively sprightly.
‘In here!’ she shouts when I knock on the door. We all pile in.
Far from being stuck in bed, she’s shuffling into view with her zimmer, brightly dressed in a red, roll-neck sweater, tartan trousers and smart leather shoes.
‘C’m’ere and give us a kiss!’ she says, and she cups my face in her hands when she plants one.
‘How are things?’ I say, holding her at arms’ length. It’s lovely to see you.’
‘Ooh,’ she says, and her face falls into a hooded, whispery look, as if her condition is just too much for words and she’s trying to communicate the full horror of it through her eyes.
I’ve always been struck by how much she looks like Dad. All his siblings do (or did). You’d have thought they were septuplets. The one time I saw them all together – at the eldest brother’s funeral – they could all have been the same person, give or take a few pounds, a smattering of liver spots, a wig. It’s a block-headed, graven-mouthed look, cynical, playfully disapproving. Thank God they had a sense of humour (bracing as it was), because the other thing they shared was an almost spiritual capacity for grudges, a glitteringly persistent, mineral thing that they all mined throughout their lives, to a greater or lesser extent.  For example, when John and Ollie sold their corner shop to go and live down to Devon near Bert and Elsie, there was a disagreement over shared petrol costs to some function or other. Bert and Elsie sold the house and moved on. Without telling them.
That kind of thing.
‘We brought you some cake.’
‘Ooh – I can’t have that.’ Her eyes drop down below. ‘I’ll just have a small cup of tea, though. ‘Ere – sit yourself down and tell me everything. How’s the family? Have you still got all the animals?’
‘Yep. We’re all good. We’ve just got a cat and a dog now.’
‘What about the cows?’
‘All them farm animals. Given them up, have you? Must be a lot of work.’
I can only think she means my eldest brother, who retreated down to Cornwall years ago and pulled up the drawbridge. No-one’s entirely sure what he does down there. He’s got some land. He might have a goat or two.
The girls carry on politely arranging the tea things whilst the sun superheats the conservatory.
‘Well! It’s lovely to see you!’ says Ollie. ‘What do you think about all these pills then, Doctor?’ she says, pushing a blister pack of medication my way. I’m guessing she’s thinking of Pete again, who is actually a doctor. I don’t put her right, but look over what she’s taking.
‘Not bad for ninety-five,’ I say, flipping it shut again and handing it back.
‘I don’t know,’ she says. ‘Why do they want me on all this bloomin’ stuff? It’s the dreadful pain I worry about, and none of it helps.’
She’s got a box of stronger pain meds on the side, but she doesn’t bother with them.
‘They don’t know what they’re on about,’ she says, and her cup shakes as she puts it to her lips. ‘Ah! That’s better! How long does it take to be a doctor?’
‘I’m not sure. About seven years, is it?’
‘And what if you want to be a surgeon?’
I shrug.
‘A few more years specialising. Probably ten, all told.’
‘Ten years!’ she says. ‘All that time. You never fancied it, then?’
‘No. I was too wrapped up in the cows.’
She laughs and digs me in the side.
‘That’s a good one!’ she says. ‘You and your animals!’
We have some more tea. I share out the cake.
‘Do you remember when you and John used to come down and visit us?,’ I say. ‘In that big old Zephyr Zodiac? You in your fur coat. Rusty the collie? We loved it when you turned up. With a big bag of sweets from the shop.’
‘Yu’us!’ she says. ‘I remember. All you kids in a line with your hands out.’ But then her face falls and she goes all whispery again.
‘I can’t believe they’re all gone, y’know. Every last one. What on earth happened? I can’t work it out.’
Truth was, apart from Dad dying of cancer, they all died of extreme old age, as far as I can make out. But of course I don’t tell her that. It wouldn’t help, and anyway I don’t think she means it in that way. I think she means she used to be surrounded by people, and now she’s on her own.
‘I know,’ I say. ‘It must be very hard.’
I decide to take the opportunity to ask Ollie about an old family story.
After John and Ollie got engaged (after a first date, by the sound of it), John went off to fight in Europe. Ollie heard nothing for months, until she got a telegram saying John was missing in Italy, presumed dead. Ollie came to terms with it, met a GI, they got engaged – and then John showed up again. Turns out he’d been in a POW camp, with just a tiny, crumpled photo of Ollie to keep his hope alive. Escaped from the camp and fought with the partisans. Finally made it home. The GI was so distraught, he stood on Westminster Bridge and threatened to throw himself in the Thames. The rest was history, though – family history, the most unreliable type, it would seem.
‘GI?’ says Ollie. ‘What GI? What’re talking about? I got the telegram all right but I knew he weren’t dead.’
‘No. He was writing letters to Bert all that time. He never wrote to me, though. Why d’you think he never wrote to me?’
‘I don’t know,’ I say, helplessly. ‘I can’t think.’
‘I know why,’ she says. ‘He took up with an Italian girl. I think they got married.’
‘But – wasn’t he in a prisoner of war camp?’
‘He was. And he escaped, and that’s when he hurt his back. They caught him and put him back in prison. But then he did it again, and this time he stayed out. He went to this Italian farmer who had five girls. Five! Well – you can imagine John, can’t you? Standing at the foot of the ladder. Can you just fetch me down them peaches? And the girl going up the ladder. With no knickers on. He had the pick of the bunch. And I think he married one. But Bert wouldn’t let me see any of the letters, so I never did know.’
‘Blimey! Then what happened?’
‘Then he shows up. No boots, just a couple of quid in his pocket. And we started from there.’
She leans forward and rests her hand on my arm.
‘Forty-seven years we were married,’ she says, darkly.
‘I think it was longer than that, Ollie…’
‘Forty-seven. And we never spoke another word about it.’
We have some more tea.
‘’Ere. Let me show you my painting,’ says Ollie, reaching behind her and pulling out an A3 sketchbook. ‘Wha’ d’you think?’
It’s impressive that at ninety-five she’s taking up a new hobby. Landscapes. Seascapes. Views of the garden. They’re not too bad.
‘Wow!’ I say. ‘When’s your exhibition?’
Exhibition!’ she says, digging me in the ribs again. ‘Look. Wha’d’you think of him?’
She flips the pages and shows me a portrait of a collie dog.
And the thing that strikes me most is his expression – blockish head, hooded eyes, disappointed, downward cut of the mouth.
‘He’s lovely!’ I tell her.
And side by side, we stare at him a little longer.
‘Whose dog is that, then?’ I ask her.
‘Oh – I don’t know,’ she sighs, flipping it shut. ‘It’s just some photograph.’

2 thoughts on “some photo

  1. Yep. She’d make a good Ollie.
    Although I think I’d have to go into the lab (during a lightning storm, natch) and make an unholy genetic splice between Kenneth Connor & Barbara Windsor to REALLY get close…


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