too many tarzans

It helps they have a picture of Tarzan on the wall.
‘Is that Ron Ely?’
Brenda glances towards the door, but I point to the dresser, the side of it, and a rather tatty colour photo stuck there with tape. Brenda gets up stiffly and shuffles over to look.
‘Oh – him? No. That’s erm… that’s Lex Barker.’
‘Oh! I thought it was Ron Ely. The TV Tarzan.’
‘No. It looks a bit like Ron Ely. But it’s not. It’s Lex Barker.’
‘I’ve never heard of Lex Barker.’
‘You’ve never heard of Lex Barker?’
Brenda leans forwards and shouts in the direction of her sister.
‘Jean? Did you hear that? Jean?’

Jean has fallen asleep in the chair – although she’s so slumped forward powered-off might be a better description. Her chin is resting on her cardigan, and she’s breathing in slow, regular breaths that puff out her toothless cheeks and escape with a soft, soughing kind of noise through her lips.
‘What?’ she says, straightening alarmingly, paddling her arms and legs. ‘I must’ve dropped off.’
‘Never mind,’ says Jean, and painfully turns, and sits back down again.

Even though I’ve never heard of Lex Barker, he strikes me as a way in. Brenda and Jean have been struggling to get by the last few years, completely off the radar of health and social services. A paramedic has alerted us to their plight, and I’ve been sent in to see how things are and what could be done to help. So far Brenda has been pretty tight-lipped, offering nothing, answering my questions with a guarded yes or no, the smallest shake of her head. I wonder what’s happened in the past to make her so suspicious.

‘God! However many Tarzans were there? I mean – you’ve got Johnny Weissmuller…’
‘He wasn’t the first,’ says Brenda. ‘There was one just after the war. Elmo Lincoln.’
Brenda shrugged.
‘I never saw it. And another one after that. It’s always been popular, Tarzan. For some reason.’
‘Johnny Weissmuller’ I say, struggling to think of something to say that’ll keep the momentum going. ‘Wasn’t he an Olympic swimmer or something?’
‘He was. He came over in thirty-eight, to open the lido in Saltdean.’ She turns a loose wedding band round and round on her finger. ‘Although how they persuaded him away from California I’ll never know.’
‘I remember Ron Ely’ I say, looking at Lex Barker’s picture again. ‘I remember they had stock footage of crocodiles thrashing around in the water and elephants rampaging, and they tried to crowbar them in every episode.’
‘Telly’s come a long way,’ says Brenda. ‘They were poorer times back then. No-one had the money for real crocodiles.’
‘Gordon Scott!’ says Jean, unexpectedly ‘He was my favourite!’
‘Gordon Scott? You’ve changed your tune!’ shouts Brenda. ‘I thought it was Lex Barker! We’ll have to get another picture!’
Jean doesn’t reply. Eventually Brenda relaxes back in the chair and picks some lint off her skirt.
‘I don’t know,’ she says after a while. ‘Too many Tarzans, that’s the problem.’

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