leila’s recipe for old age

It’s a broad, bright morning, a little colder than of late but still unseasonably warm, so I don’t understand why Leila’s house should be so dark and cold. It’s in a good position, set back from the road up a steep incline; there aren’t many trees around; it has generous windows front and back. But stepping over the threshold is like stepping into a mausoleum: musty, shadowed and quiet.
‘Have a seat’ says Leila, soundlessly pulling one away from the dining room table. There’s a bowl in the centre of the table piled with glossy ceramic fruit, and it strikes me that all the living things in the room – the large vase of orchids in the fireplace, the cat sleeping in its basket, are all fake. Leila seems a little fake, too, as perfectly made-up and buttoned-up as a lifesize doll. There’s a large painting over the mantelpiece – a fishing scene in a sunny Mediterranean harbour – and somehow it makes the place seem colder.
‘I don’t feel it,’ she says. ‘I’m a December baby.’
I tell her why she’s been referred to the community health team, and she takes the news with a polite but detached interest, like someone being told of a development somewhere that doesn’t particularly involve or interest them overmuch.
‘It’s so kind of you to visit,’ she says. ‘Can I get you anything…?’
‘I was just going to ask if I could get you something! Some tea or toast?’
‘Oh, no!’ she says. ‘I’ve had my breakfast.’
‘What did you have?’
‘Some porridge and a cup of black tea.’
‘Sounds healthy.’
‘Oh – I’ve always eaten well.’
And it’s true, she doesn’t seem malnourished. In fact – environment aside – she seems in pretty good health. The only medication she’s prescribed is for memory loss, but of course, she often forgets to take it, which is one of the reasons Leila’s been referred to us.
Her short term memory is severely compromised. Her conversation is on a loop, on this occasion revolving around two things: how active her mother was into old age, and what happened when she got together with her sister, Dolly.
‘I just think I’ve been rather lucky as far as health goes,’ she says, for the sixth or seventh time already. ‘But you see my mother lived till a fine old age, and I get my old bones from her.’
‘That’s lovely.’
Leila giggles and brushes her skirt a couple of times.
‘Yes! You should have seen it when she got together with Auntie Dolly. They used to play whist, you see, and honestly! They were like a couple of naughty schoolgirls!’
I steer the conversation back to the plan for the next few days, the carers who’ll be coming in, the appointment at the memory clinic and so on. She listens to all of this very seriously, nods to show she understands, then brushes her skirt again.
‘Yes! Well! I just think I’ve been rather lucky as far as health goes,’ she says.
‘I think you must have looked after yourself, too, though, Leila.’
‘Yes. I think I have. And do you know what my secret is?’
‘No. What?’
‘I believe in onions.’
It’s such a shock to hear her say something different that it makes me laugh.
‘You can laugh, but it’s true!’ she says.
‘In what way, onions?’
‘Well,’ says Leila, brushing her skirt again. ‘They bring out the flavour of meat.’

jane & the cat

it’s changed so much round here
well – everyone’s died
I’m the last woman standing
at night the street’s parked up
I picture them all
all them people
lying in their beds, in mid-air
during the day you don’t see no-one
no cars, nothing
I talk to the gardener once a week
he’s got a little dog
the yappy kind
we had a dog once,
a jack russell
called jane
she hated fireworks
I used to put cotton wool in her ears
wrap a scarf round her head
we had a cat, too, years ago
I don’t think he had a name
we just called him The Cat
his house got bombed out
so he come into ours
he was a funny little thing
filthy, not what you might call affectionate
he loved the rain
he’d go right out in it
and stay out
then sneak back in
and jump on your lap
give you a heart attack
like someone attacking you with a mop
I miss all our pets, though
when they was gone we didn’t get no more
not when we started playing table tennis
well – it wouldn’t be fair to them, would it?

la force de l’age

Christopher’s wing-back armchair is floodlit by the low sun – so much so, that every wispy strand of his white beard and short-cropped hair stands out around his head like the flux lines around a graven, magnetic rock. The whole effect is intensified by the way Christopher restlessly bobs up and down as he talks, as if all the things he’s ever read and written and thought about are violently buffeting the chair, and only the wings on the side of it are stopping him from being pitched out onto the carpet.

To his right is a tall bookcase crammed with old books, famous writers of philosophy, history, economics and so on, and then a selection devoted to T.S. Eliot; to his left is a plastic garden chair with his meds, a magnifying glass and a packet of extra strong mints.

Christopher’s been speaking without interruption now for five minutes straight – or possibly fifteen, it’s hard to keep track. The level of detail is overwhelming, from the slave colonies of Martinique to the Nanking massacre, via Stalingrad, Putin, the Mau Mau in Kenya and the perceived indiscretions of certain members of the cabinet – everything merging into a great flood of ideas, whose focus seems to be (as far as I can tell), the deep and pernicious roots of the establishment. What makes things even more difficult is that he often slips into French, his second language, quoting from writers and social movements I’ve never heard of, in particular, Aimé Césaire. But eventually his monologue slows enough for me to ask him whether after all he’s read he considers himself to be an optimist or a pessimist.

‘Oh, optimist, most definitely optimist. How could you be anything else? It’s merely a question of perspective. As a species we’ve only just begun!’ he says, grasping the arms of the chair, rocking from side to side. ‘You see, infinity is a jolly long time! You only need ask yourself – what will life be like in a million years time? A billion! Quadzillion? Especially with all the developments in robotics and artificial intelligence. I’m absolutely convinced humans will eventually live for ten thousand, FORTY thousand years! And they’ll be fluent in every language. Geniuses, all!’

He pauses for breath, and relaxes back in the chair.

‘Although I’m not sure I’d want to live much past forty thousand,’ he says. ‘I’d probably have had quite enough by then. But you see, that being the case, I could get together with all my friends and have a Socrates party, and we could all take poison!’

It’s tricky saying goodbye to Christopher, like disentangling myself from a giant, conversational octopus. I think I must have shaken his hands a dozen times but only made it halfway to the door. I’ve tried every gambit I can think of, from subtle changes of position to explicit statements of fact, but nothing stops him from talking. Eventually I’m forced to say goodbye and open the door whilst he’s still in full flow – except, as soon as there’s a sudden rush of cool air from outside, he does stop, and nods his head affirmatively a couple of times.

‘Ah! La force de l’age!’ he says. ‘A bientôt!’