Mrs Charlesworth appears to have read the book on Being Old. Her hair is as white and tightly curled as a titanium helmet; she’s wearing a thick cardigan despite sitting in a conservatory that’s as hot as a pizza oven; she has a kitchen trolley by her side with her glasses, a cup and saucer, remote control, puzzle book and pen, bundle of knitting and a dish of toffees. And she can’t resist asking the question.
‘How old d’you think I am?’ she says.
‘I wouldn’t like to say.’
‘Go on! I won’t be offended.’
‘It’s just a bit awkward if I get it wrong.’
‘Why would it be awkward? Honestly – I won’t mind.’
‘Yeah, but it depends by how much I get it wrong.’
‘It wouldn’t bother me in the slightest’ she says, illustrating the comment with a casual sideways swipe of her hand, like she’s chopping the head off something.
‘I’d rather not. I’m just not very good at these things.’
‘Come on! How old?’
It reminds me of a story mum used to tell. She worked as a cleaner and general help in an amusement arcade for a while. One of the guys there was an absolute wreck. What little hair he had left he slicked in strands across his pate, his badly-fitting false teeth were in danger of popping out when he coughed, he had bottle-end glasses, and his skin was as grooved and scarred as a whale that had been attacked by a giant squid. How old d’you think I am? he asked her, thrusting his face into the change cubicle, whilst graciously holding his fag out to the side. She didn’t want to say. He pressed her. She thought he was eighty, so to be safe she knocked off ten years. Seventy? he said, appalled. I’m fifty-eight. (The moral to this story would have to be something like: Do not under any circumstances ask anyone how old they think you are unless you have sworn testmony from someone who knows about these things to say in black and white that yes, you are indeed much younger than you look. And – by the way – not even then).
But Mrs Charlesworth is looking at me so enthusiastically that I feel my natural resistance breaking down.
I perform Mum’s Calculation: She looks ninety, so to be safe I’ll knock off ten years.
‘Eighty,’ I say.
Her smile falters.
‘So how old are you then?’ I say after a while, a little nervously.
‘Eighty,’ she says. ‘But I don’t feel it.’