smile and act normal

‘You wouldn’t think it, but I’m seventy myself.’
Sam’s right, of course. With her metallic white hair cut jaggedly short and swept back in spikes, her sharp shirt, skinny jeans and fluorescent trainers, I’d have put her at fifty, tops.
‘My knees are worn out. Every few weeks I have to have a needle in my eye because of the macular degeneration. Which means I can’t drive. So I have to take the bus over here every day. And you know what buses are like. It takes me the best part of an hour there and back, twice a day. On top of that I’ve been living in the hospital most nights ‘cos my son in law had an accident and my daughter’s not coping. Plus my own life to sort out. Which needs a LOT of sorting out, these days.’
She takes a breath, staring off into the bright fall of afternoon sun through the window. ‘And I’ll tell you something else,’ she says, trailing off. ‘I’ll tell you something…’
Her chin begins to tremble and she has to turn away.
‘Sorry,’ she says, pulling a tissue from her pocket. ‘Sorry about this.’
‘That’s okay. I can see it’s hard.’
‘Hard!’ she says, with a bitter laugh. ‘Childbirth was hard. Divorce was hard. This is bloody impossible!’
She blows her nose and bins the tissue. Gives her head a little shake.
‘There!’ she says. ‘Now. Good. Where were we?’

We talk through the situation. How her mum Avril is ninety-eight, increasingly frail and forgetful, not eating or drinking, falling more often but refusing to accept any of the practical changes that might improve her situation. She went into hospital for a few days after the last fall. Being discharged today and expected home by ambulance any minute. Although there’ve been a lot of false starts and mix-ups as far as THAT goes. Anyway – Sam is the main carer for her mother, with a little private top-up help from a family friend. Sam has Power of Attorney, thank goodness, which is something, a small victory. But so far it hasn’t helped all that much in practice. Avril refuses to talk about residential care, even for respite, whether for her benefit or – more significantly – for Sam. Things have been staggering on like this for a while. It’s not getting any easier.
‘She was always bloody minded,’ says Sam. ‘I suppose it’s how she’s lived to such a ripe old age. It’s probably what’s kept her going all these years. I mean – It’s not like she’s any different now she’s old. In some ways I think she’s actually more of herself than she was. Which sounds odd, but you know what I mean. Do you?’
I nod and say I think I do.
‘Some things have changed, of course. She repeats herself a lot. Over and over. If I hear that story one more time of her in the air raid shelter with the GI and the rabbits I’ll scream. But essentially she’s still Mum. Which is what makes it so hard. Don’t get me wrong. I love my mum and I’d do anything for her.’
Sam laughs again.
‘Like get the bus twice a day! Anyway – enough of my moaning. Let me show you how I’ve organised her laundry…’
‘Okay.’

I follow her into the hallway. She opens an airing cupboard where a water heater is surrounded by shelves of slacks and vests, everything ironed, neatly stacked and lined up, orderly piles of pants and socks, a clutch of enormous bras hanging down from the top shelf like outlandish nests.
‘What d’you think?’ she says.
‘Wow!’ I say. ‘Pretty organised. You do an amazing job.’
‘You know what? I think I do,’ she says, giving the clothes a long, proprietary look, then slowly closing the door.
The buzzer goes. She stiffens.
‘That’ll be mum,’ she says. ‘Smile and act normal.’

a ghost called alf

I’m looking through Judy’s notes, the last time someone listened to her chest. I can’t help laughing.
‘What’s so funny?’ she says.
‘Well – I think the nurse who wrote this must’ve been hungry. She’s written bilateral crepes.’
I show her the little drawing in the notes. The rough sketch of her lungs, a line of little crosses at the bottom of both, an arrow pointing to them.
Judy’s expression doesn’t change.
‘What does that mean?’ she says.
‘It should say creps.’
‘Craps?’
‘Creps. Short for crepitations. I think that’s what it stands for. Anyway, it’s that crackly sound you get sometimes when there’s gunk in the lungs.’
Judy shrugs.
‘I know all about that,’ she says. ‘I’ve had enough of that.’
‘You’re sounding better today, though.’
‘I’m not dead yet, then?’
‘No! Alive and kicking.’
‘I’ll kick you in a minute.’
‘I wouldn’t mind.’
She stares at me.
‘Where are you from?’ she says. ‘Or-stralia?’
‘Australia? No! I was born in London but brought up in the Fens.’
‘Oh,’ she says. ‘That explains it.’
I shut the folder and carry on with the examination.

Judy is ninety-eight but looks older. In fact, with her quilted housecoat, netted, silvery hair, enormous slippers, stiffly jointed movements – the way she wobbles along clinging to a kitchen trolley loaded with toast, Tommy Tippee beaker and emergency button – it feels like I’m in a marionette update of the Red Riding Hood story, where the Big Bad Wolf works for a Community Health Team, and lets himself in with the keysafe.

‘Are you going to be much longer?’ she says.
‘No. Almost done.’
She takes a toot of tea from the beaker.
‘Would you like me to freshen that up for you?’
‘No – thank you,’ she says. ‘I shall need the lavatory.’
There’s a pause whilst I add my notes to the folder.
‘What did you do – before you retired?’ I say.
‘Shorthand typist,’ she says.
‘How lovely!’ I say. ‘I like typing. It’s one of the most useful skills I ever learned. That and driving.’
‘I worked in a brewery,’ she says, moving on. ‘That’s where I met Alf.’
‘Did he work in the office, too?’
‘Nah. He was in and out. But we’d throw things at each other and we sort of went on from there.’
‘Sounds brilliant.’
‘It was hard during the war, though. Terrible hard. There were these Ack Ack guns on the roof. You should’ve heard ‘em when they went off. Boom! Boom! Boom! The whole place shook like it was gonna fall in. They were having a pop at all them German bombers comin’ over. It was a terrible business. Terrible.’
‘How long were you married, Judy?’
‘A long time. So long I couldn’t tell ya. But Alf’s been gone for years now and – well – that’s that.’
‘I’m sorry.’
‘What for? It’s not your fault. Is it?’
‘No. I suppose not.’
‘Well then.’

I put the finishing touches to the notes.

‘Why don’t you go upstairs and have a lie-down if you’re tired?’ she says.
I look up from the folder.
‘Sorry, Judy – what?’
‘Not you,’ she says. ‘Him.’
She narrows her eyes and nods at the empty chair behind me. I turn to look.
‘My old man,’ she says, sighing and leaning back again. ‘If I don’t keep talking to him he might go orf’ with someone else.’

making up for lost time

Leslie opens the door, mid-chuckle, like he was waiting there all this time to do just that.
‘Well come in! Come in!’ he laughs. ‘We don’t stand on ceremony here you know!’
I hold the door so he can let go, grabbing him when he almost plunges backwards into an umbrella stand, then holding onto him till he finds his balance again. ‘Thanking you,’ he says. ‘Must take more water with it. Er-hem. This way!’ He walks ahead, rocking from side to side, lifting his legs stiffly from the hip and working his arms, like a robot in an old sci-fi movie.
‘Through here!’ he says, as if there was anywhere else to go in the tiny flat, leading me into a sitting room with two armchairs conspicuously together in front of the television, one of them now being used as a place to put magazines and letters. ‘Sit where you like!’ he says. ‘’scuse the mess.’
Leslie’s doing well for ninety-eight. The only time his bright mood slips is when he mentions his wife, who died a couple of years ago. ‘We were a good team,’ he says. ‘I miss her a lot. It doesn’t seem fair. Still – that’s the way of the world! I’ll see her again soon.’
The doctor referred Leslie in to us for physio and nursing care, nothing too drastic. He’s pretty independent. Goes out most days – or did, before his fall. He has a son who lives a couple of miles away. Visits all the time.
‘My confidence got dented along with my pride’ Leslie says, squeezing his eyes together as he wipes his round glasses on his untucked shirt. ‘Still – I’ll find it again, don’t you worry! You can’t keep old chaps like me down for long!’ He puts his glasses back on and blinks at me happily. There you are! I can see who I’m dealing with now!’

*

When I’m done and writing up my notes, Leslie hands me a paperback he’s been reading – a history of the spitfire.
‘Any good?’ I say, flipping it over to read the blurb.
‘It’s alright,’ he says. ‘My son got it for me. I was a bit disappointed, to be honest with you. It doesn’t mention my lot at all.’
‘Oh yeah? Who was that?’
‘The One Five Two. Black Panthers. So called ‘cos we had a panther on the side, jumping over the roundel. I was one of the technicians, loading ‘em up, fixing ‘em when they went wrong – well, trying to, at least. Out in Burma.’
‘That must’ve been tough.’
‘We got through it. I remember one of the new pilots, South African he was. Tall, handsome chap. Big dimple in his chin, like Superman. He says to me one day, he says Sorry to trouble you old chap, but would you be able to do anything with this blasted watch? And he handed it over, and it was this big ol’ German thing, big as my head. Beautiful it was, a real precision piece. Lord only knows how he got it. Or how he lifted his arm when it was on. Anyway, he says to me he says The blasted thing’s losing time but it’s my lucky watch and I don’t want to fly without it. So I looked it over, but honestly I didn’t have the foggiest. I mean – half the time with dodgy instruments you just chucked ‘em out and replaced ‘em. Why they ever made me a technician in the first place is a mystery. So anyway, I give it back to him and I said Sorry squire! I think you’ll have to get it fixed in Berlin next time you’re over. So he took it back, and they flew out on a mission that night, and he never came back. And I think about that watch sometimes. I think if I’d have took it from him to fix, I’d probably still have it now. Not so lucky after all, was it?’
‘That’s quite a story.’
‘Don’t get me started,’ he laughs. ‘Change the record, that’s what Vera used to say.’
He seems to dip a little.
I tell him about Mr Burton, the guy who ran the corner sweet shop we used to go to on our way back from school.
‘He was this huge guy, big shining face, hardly any teeth, in a shopcoat with all the buttons straining and scuff marks down the front where he wiped the sugar off his hands. And used to stand at the counter with all these sweet jars behind him, rows and rows of them, breathing hard whilst we made our choice. Sherbet lemons, gobstoppers, aniseed balls, flying saucers – you name it. And whenever he weighed the sweets out from the jars, he’d pop one in his mouth. It was like: A quarter for you and one for me. A quarter for you and one for me. It was only years later I found out he was on the Burma railway. Just skin and bone when he got liberated.’
‘He was lucky to get out of that one,’ says Leslie. ‘Poor chap. It was a hard business, that’s for sure. He was probably just making up for lost time. Anyway – how’m I looking? A-one? Or a ticket home?’
And he gives his knees a vigorous rub, like he’s priming an engine or something, winding himself up, ready for action.

walking home

There are two single beds side by side in the middle of the room, the nearest one occupied, the furthest one empty with the bedclothes rucked up. Ted’s wife Rita is in the nearest, lying on her back with her arms by her sides on the top of the covers, perfectly aligned with the legs beneath, as graven and still as the alabaster figure of a woman in a tomb – albeit one that was irritated her partner had got up after a thousand years and gone to sit in the Windsor chair by the window.

‘She’s on that many pills,’ whispers Joan, their daughter, standing in the bedroom doorway and looking in on the tomb with her arms folded. ‘If I took what she took you could tie a string round my leg, take me outside and fly me.’

Ted is staring out at the communal gardens below. There’s an empty perspex bird-feeder suckered to the window just the other side of him.
‘Do you want me to put some seed in the feeder?’ says Joan. ‘It’ll give you something to look at.’
‘I’m alright’ he says, batting his hand. ‘They’re alright, too, I ‘spect. They’re birds.’
‘Suit yourself.’

It’s hard to know what to do about Rita. Degenerative illness means she suffers from chronic pain. Even if there was a total body replacement available, at ninety one she’d never survive the op. Joan had given me the heads-up downstairs in the kitchen. ‘‘She’s become her illness,’ she said. ‘She doesn’t talk about anything else – except when she’s being snippy about my cooking. I thought coming to live with us would help, but it’s been a nightmare.’
‘Do you want to speak to a social worker about it?’
‘A social worker?’ she’d said, frowning and leaning back. ‘Why? What could they do?’
‘Well – if things are too stressful here, they could talk about alternatives.’
‘What d’you mean, alternatives?’ she says over her shoulder as she filled the kettle at the sink. ‘D’you mean put her in a home?’
‘Some kind of residential care, yes. Somewhere set up for someone with complex needs. You never know – she might like it.’
‘And what about Dad? What would he do?’
‘Maybe he could go, too.’
‘Put Dad in a home?’ says Joan, slamming the full kettle onto its stand and jabbing the switch. ‘You might as well shoot him.’

Whilst I’m with Rita, taking her blood pressure and temperature and so on, Ted divides his attention between us and two dogs that have run into the garden to play tug-of-war.
‘I met her when I was back on leave,’ he says, as if the dogs brought it all to mind. ‘I went to the picturehouse, and there she was, having her hair pulled by these kids sitting behind her.’
‘My friend hadn’t showed up so I went in alone,’ says Rita, her eyes still shut, her eyelids flickering like the film she saw has started playing the other side. ‘I didn’t know what else to do.’
If Ted hears, he makes no sign.
‘So what I did was,’ he says, shifting forwards in the chair, ‘I snuck up behind them, like this… and I reached out… and I banged all their heads together, like this! Then when she ran outside I followed her. And I said to her, I said I’ll walk you home…’
‘I didn’t want him to,’ says Rita. ‘I said I was perfectly capable of walking home by myself, thank you very much.’
‘When we got there, I didn’t try to kiss her or nothing. I just shook her hand, all gentlemanly like, and I said I hoped she had a nice time and everything, and maybe could I see her again. Two years later the war was over. I come back from Italy. We got married. And that was seventy-four years ago.’
He chuckles, settles back in the chair, and stares out of the window again.
The dogs have gone inside.
‘I didn’t want him to walk me home,’ says Rita. ‘I said to him. I said, I’m perfectly capable of walking home by myself, thank you very much.’

making it back

The Telegraph is too big for Martha. It’s like watching a duvet blown into a small tree.

‘I don’t know why I read it,’ she says, finally giving up, bundling it into an approximate mess and dumping it on the sofa next to her. ‘It’s not like I understand what they’re on about.’
‘You’re not alone in that, Martha.’
‘Wha’ d’ya say?’
‘I say I’m with you on that!’
‘Good!’ she says, but I know she hasn’t heard. I’d love to talk to her about politics and what she thinks of the world, but Martha’s so deaf now you have to put your lips to her ear and shout. And even then the best you’ll get is a smile and a chuckle and a knowing kind of ye-es. Any important questions or requests you have to write on a pad. Maybe there’s some telepathic component to all this, though, because after all the smiles and nods and eyebrows and complicated mimes, I always come away thinking I’ve had the liveliest conversation.

Martha’s been on our books for a while now. Initially we were called in by the doctor to keep an eye on her after a recent chest infection. But then she knocked her leg somehow – probably going downstairs to fetch The Telegraph – and it morphed into wound care. I’ll be sorry when she’s finally discharged, though. She’s such good company. A hundred years old now, she segues naturally from story to story without any prompting, like Time is a screen she can see through when the light falls in a certain way.

‘We were married seventy years,’ she says as I kneel on the floor dressing her leg. ‘Seventy years! Mind you – I didn’t see him the first three. I almost didn’t see him at all. He was in the RAF. A navigator. In a Blenheim bomber. Terrible planes. Dreadful. I think the Germans liked them, though. For target practice. How poor Tommy got through it all I don’t know. One night they were hit very bad – very bad – and they almost ditched in the Bay of Biscay. But the pilot kept ‘em going and they made it back somehow. Skipping over the waves like a stone, Tommy said. Skipping over the waves like a stone.’

breaking down under questioning

If you hadn’t guessed from the wall-mounted displays of cap badges, ribbons and medals, the fading photographs of men on parade, smoking in hospital beds or raising tin cups sitting on the sides of a tank, from the shelves filled with books on the Second World War to the cabinets ornamented with polished anti-tank shells, riding crops and the like – well, then, you’d probably still guess Mr Bradford was an old soldier by the way he sat in the chair, hands draped over his walking stick, feet planted shoulder width, back straight, his two bruised eyes glittering.

‘Tell me again who you are, please, and what you have come to do,’ he says.

Mr Bradford has been referred to us by the hospital. The story was that he’d gone to catch another elderly resident as she fell backwards in the garden, putting himself between her and some plant pots, the geriatric equivalent of taking a bullet. He was lucky not to break anything (‘…but then I always was quite lucky in that regard,’ he says). What the episode has highlighted, though, is Mr Bradford’s growing frailty. He’s been struggling to cope at home, too proud to ask for help, gradually drifting in terms of personal hygiene, nutrition and so on. The good news is there are lots of practical things we can do to help, and Mr Bradford is happy to accept.

‘You’ll appreciate this story, being a military man,’ I say to him, taking a pause and resting on my laptop.
‘Go on,’ he says. There’s a sudden chill in the room, as if he’d turned the angle-poise light into my face and slowly lit a cigarette.
‘Where I grew up, in Wisbech. Cambridgeshire. The Fens…’
‘I know where it is,’ he says.
‘Well…the guy who ran the local electrical repair shop – this very unassuming man, little round spectacles, bald head – used to fix the Hoovers and radios and whatnot…’
‘Ye-es,’ says Mr Bradford.
‘Well…his name was Mr Cox.’
‘Mr Cox?’
‘Yes. Anyway, all these years we just knew him as Mr Cox, the guy who fixed your radio and where you could buy those little pifco torches, you know? The red square ones with the big slidey white switches…’
‘Tell me about Mr Cox,’ says Mr Bradford.
‘Well…turns out he was a war hero.’
‘A war hero?’
‘Yes. Have you heard of the Bruneval Raid? When a team of commandos went over to France to dismantle a radar station?’
‘I know what the Bruneval Raid is.’
‘Well…Mr Cox was the technician who went with them. To dismantle it. Even though it was packed full of Germans. I mean – it was quite a daring thing.’
‘Yes. The Bruneval Raid,’ says Mr Bradford, picking an invisible piece of lint from his threadbare trousers, dropping it off to the side, and then slowly directing his attention back to me. ‘The only operation successfully led by a parachute battalion, I believe.’

a proper west ender

‘What’s the verdict, doc? Still alive? You can tick that box, then. But I can tell you what the problem is, without none of your fancy nonsense. I’m ninety-four! Yes! That’s what the problem is. Ninety-four and fucked, ‘scuse my French. We’re all living too long, y’see? Weren’t too long ago I’d have popped off by now. But we’re all hanging around in limbo and no fucker knows what to do with us and I don’t see no end to it – d’you? I don’t mind, though. I’ve had my life. I was in Germany, just after the war. You talk about hard times now, but you should ‘a seen it back then, mate. Terrible. All them kids, scratching around the ruins for someink’ to eat. We did that, and worse. Bodies everywhere. I’d never seen nuffin’ like it. People talk about war like it’s something grand, something to be proud of. I weren’t proud. Far from it. I still have the dreams. But then again, y’see, I was just a kid myself, twenty years old and no sign of a razor. We lived day to day, though. We went dancing and tried to forget about all the bad stuff. It’s just the way it was and that was that. There weren’t nothing you could do about it. When I made it back home for good I followed the family trade. In the theatre. I weren’t a hoofer like me ol’ man. Nah! I liked all the backstage stuff, the lighting mainly. Dad was the real thing, though, a proper West Ender. He had this nice little thing going with Gertrude Lawrence. You’ve heard of her, I suppose? They did pretty well, but then she nicked off to America and and he ended up stage doorman at the Winter Gardens. Still, she never forgot him. When she come back he was the first one she’d look up. She’d be outside knocking on the door in her pearls and furs and mum’d be shouting up the stairs Oi Billy, your fancy bird’s back! I loved it in the theatre, though. I was at home there. It was in me blood. I remember one day, I was sitting out front watching them sort out the flats, and Alec Guinness was sitting next to me with his feet up. And he says to me Jack. Look at me. I’ve got no legs to speak of. I’m starting to lose my hair. I’ve been working myself ‘alf to death and still I ‘int got ten shillings to me name. What are my chances, d’you think? But I set him straight pretty quick. That was an easy one. I mean – c’mon! Alec Guinness!