sixty years on

‘How long have you lived here?’
‘Ooh – I don’t know. I should think about sixty years or more’ says Thomas. ‘We moved when we had Lily, and I’d got that new job. D’you remember, Lucy?’
‘Of course I remember!’ says Lucy, rearranging a napkin on her lap. ‘I was here, wasn’t I?’
‘Sixty years,’ says Thomas, absorbing Lucy’s tetchiness with a wistful shake of his head and then a sudden, gaping smile, the kind you might see on a ventriloquist’s dummy. ‘Long enough!’ he says.

It’s a beautiful old cottage – or used to be. Could be again, with a little work. Emptying out all the clutter, ripping out what remains of the fixtures and fittings, stripping back the plaster to the bricks, taking up the floor, rewiring, new doors and windows. New roof, come to that. Redecorating throughout. Cutting back the garden, and so on. An album of Before and After photographs. These things take a little imagination, but totally worth it if you can see beyond the mess. Clink, clink. Cheers!

Thomas and Lucy wouldn’t feature in any of the quotes, of course, even if the builders were game, and had a few geriatricians, cosmetic surgeons and orthopaedic consultants on the team. Because it goes without saying that the same passage of years that wreaked such damage on the house hasn’t spared the occupants, and whilst ancient buildings can be straightened out with hard work and a certain amount of cash, the same can’t be said of the people who live in them.

‘Push that button – no! That one!’ says Thomas, leaning out to interfere with Lucy’s attempts to operate the riser-function of her chair.
‘Let me do it! Let me do it…!’ says Lucy, wresting it away from him and getting in a muddle. The back of the seat goes down and the footrests shoot out. ‘Blast!’ she says, and promptly turns the whole thing off.

They have carers three times a day – once to get them up and dressed, once to give them lunch and prepare some cling-filmed sandwiches for tea, and once to put them to bed. Although I have to say it’s looking pretty much as if the ‘bed’ aspect has gone by the board. They’re sleeping in their chairs full-time now, and only getting up to stagger precariously through the jumble of everything to a commode.

At first it seems like a pretty sad kind of existence, and I can’t help feeling sorry for them. Wouldn’t it be better if they sold up and moved into a nursing home? Somewhere with staff on hand to keep an eye on them? To wash, dress and feed them, and keep them warm (not that this place is cold – they have a free-standing oil-filled radiator in the middle of the room, on full). I’m sure they could sit next to each other somewhere, either in their own room or in the lounge? Because no-one could say they were remotely safe in this place. A small stack of ambulance sheets is a testament to the increasing number of falls they’re having.

But they don’t strike me as unhappy. The bickering isn’t unpleasant or aggressive; more the sniping of two caged creatures, fussing over the minutiae of their shrunken existence. I wonder how well they’d fare if they were removed from this place, even taking into account the trip hazards and the damp and the dodgy electrics. I wouldn’t be surprised if they faded away the moment they were helped to a couple of comfortable chairs, in a wide and well-lit room, with a television, and a trolley doing the rounds at half-past ten, and three.

‘Give it here… look! You’ve turned the damned thing off!’
Thomas tries to snatch the remote, but it’s like watching a tortoise make a swipe for another tortoise’s lettuce leaf.
‘Ha!’ says Lucy. Then after glaring at him triumphantly, she slowly presses it up to her nose to figure it out.

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