Frank’s nest

Sixty years ago, when Frank was a young man, he worked in the shipyards, on the cranes. At least, I think he did. He’s got such a strong Geordie accent, and speaks in such a slurred and rumbling kind of way, it’s impossible to be sure. There’s a half empty bottle of whiskey tucked discreetly on the floor behind his legs, too, and I’m sure that’s not helping things.
The kitchen is oppressively hot. I’m wearing full PPE. My apron feels so tight I feel like a big, blue sausage beginning to squeal under the grill.
‘Ah’ was fitter in them days,’ he sighs, staring out of the kitchen window. His little flat is on the uppermost floor of a converted house, with plane trees so close to the front it’s as if we’re sitting in the cab of a crane high over the street. ‘I didn’t gi’a shit about nuttin’!’ he says, swatting the air with his good hand. ‘Ah was scamperin’ about like one of them squirrels there. Ah used ta stand wi’ ma legs on the girders, swingin’ ma’ hammer, snakin’ out the wire…it was like ah’ was buildin’ a big nest for meseln’ in the sky.’
‘Wow,’ I say, wiping the sweat from my forehead with my arm. ‘That sounds amazing!’
He stares at me for a second, like he’s trying to get me in focus.
‘D’you mind if ah’ smoke a tab?’ he says, reaching for his tin.
‘Could you wait a bit, Frank? I’m almost done.’
‘Oh. Okay.’
He pushes the tin back, and sighs again.
‘I can open the window if you want?’
‘If yer don’ mind.’
It feels good to let the air in. Frank closes his swollen eyes and turns his face in the direction of the breeze. He had a fall in the kitchen a couple of days ago. Got taken to hospital and kept in for observation. To look at him you’d think he’d pitched head first out of the window. Livid purple bruises distort his eyes and face, there’s a steri-stripped laceration to his forehead, a bandage on his hand.
‘Ah’m sick of it,’ he says, opening his eyes and turning to look at me again. ‘Sick of it! Ah jes’ don’t want to go on, to tell ya the truth.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that, Frank. It’s understandable, though. You’ve got a lot on your plate. Do you want to speak to one of our mental health nurses about how you feel?’
‘Nah – what’s the point?’ he says. ‘Ah’ll jes’ carry on as I am, thanks very much. Tess’ll be in later wi’ ma things.’
I imagine her labouring and cursing up the six steep flights to Frank’s flat, shopping bags filled with microwave meals, fags and whiskey.
On the wall behind him is a calendar with a picture of a Matchless motorbike, one of the small, single cylinder machines, drop handlebars, bucket seat, cafe racer style.
‘Nice bike’ I say, nodding at the calendar, then wiping my forehead on my arm.
‘Ay’ he says, turning stiffly in the chair.
‘Did you ride?’
‘Whey aye! Ah tell ya, man – I was that fast – I’d be there a’fore I left.’

ken, cowboys & aliens

Ken has got one of his pipes on the go. In any other house it would stink the place up as comprehensively as a termite fumigation, but Ken is sitting in his usual seat by the open patio window, so most of it billows out harmlessly. As soon as he spots me striding across the lawn, he taps it out, and follows my progress towards him with a baleful air.

Ken has always reminded me of someone and it’s only now I realise who. At the very end of the closing credits of the first Star Trek series, after the stills of multi-coloured planetary landscapes, Kirk in some catacombs, or a ship coming in to dock – there was always a closing shot of a gaunt and quite terrifying figure in a robe, staring straight at you, as a Desilu production appeared on its forehead and the music thrilled to a conclusion.

That’s Ken.

To be fair, he’s friendlier than Balok, who, I only just learned, was actually a fearsome puppet used by cuddlier beings to test the friendliness of anyone coming to call. So whilst Balok’s slack-jawed, unblinking expression was designed to be scary, with Ken it’s more a symptom of his general bewilderment, and of the hours he spends sitting in his chair by the window smoking his pipe, watching old films on the TV.
‘How are you, Ken?’ I ask, struggling in through the window, past the drinks cabinet shaped like a globe, and a kitchen trolley stacked high with necessaries.
‘Terrible,’ he says.
‘I’m sorry to hear that. What’s the worst thing, would you say?’
‘The worst thing?’
‘Yes. You know – are you in pain? D’you feel sick, dizzy…?’
‘No,’ he says. ‘It’s just my bloomin’ memory.’
‘In what way?’
‘I can’t remember nothing. Not a thing.’
Carefully he places his smouldering pipe on the tray beside him, and folds his hands in his lap. ‘I’m old,’ he says. ‘I’m just one of them ones that goes on too long’
‘Well – let’s see what’s what,’ I say, putting my bag down and reaching for his folder. ‘Shall I make you a cup of tea?’
‘No. I’m all right.’
‘Okay. So – I understand you had a fall this morning.’
‘Did I?’
‘Apparently. The ambulance came and picked you up. That’s why I’m here now. To see you’re okay.’
‘I don’t remember. If you say so.’
I scan through the notes and then put them aside.

There’s a western playing on the TV. No shoot-outs. Just some guys talking round a campfire, tipping their hats back, toeing the dirt, looking regretful.
‘Glenn Ford!’ says Ken, pointing at the set. ‘And there! That dodgy looking one, sneaking round the horses. Ernest Borgnine!’
He turns his sad eyes on me. ‘You see,’ he says. ‘The longer ago it was, the more chance I’ve got of remembering it.’
He reaches for his pipe, looks at me, then slowly puts it back again.
‘So I’d like you to explain to me if you can,’ he says. ‘Where’s the sense in that?’

mum’s calculation

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.’