‘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!’
‘Anchored off Syracuse. Everyone fucker below deck drowned. Boom. Gone. That was a hard business. ‘Course – I was sleeping on top, so at least I had a chance. At least I could make a swim for it.’
Frankie’s eyes are so hooded, and the way the light is in the room, it’s almost as if he doesn’t have eyes at all. That, and his habit of moving his bottom jaw from side to side when he’s not talking, makes him seem like a statue chewing over the hard facts of his life.
‘Them kind of things mattered, where you slept and everything. I’ve always been a good sleeper. I could sleep upside down on a washing line. I used to sleep under the truck, so long as the ground was hard enough. Gave you a measure of protection. Here, they said. Frankie. Take these trucks up the coast for us. We drove from Port Said to Damascus. Had a whale of a time. We used to mix it up, course. Well – we was young, mate. We had nothing to lose. We knew we was basically cattled.’
He narrows his dark eyes at me and grinds his teeth.
‘D’you know what I mean? Cattled? That’s cockney slang, mate. Cattle trucked. Fucked.’
He laughs, settles back in the chair.
‘My missus was the brains of the operation. She was in the Waaf. There weren’t nothing she couldn’t do. Ride a motorbike. Shoot down a plane. Unscramble a secret message. I tell you what, I landed on my feet all right the day I met Junie.’
He grinds his teeth again and shifts his position in the chair.
‘She’s in a home now. I don’t see her all that much. Even when I do she don’t recognise me. That’s the dementia for you, mate. Still – I keep her bed made up. That way I reckon there’s a chance she might come back.’
Fitting a convene over Geoffrey’s penis is like trying to roll a condom on the snout of some retiring and wildly hairy creature. I’ve used the hair guard – essentially a piece of gauze with a hole in the middle – but still, his wiry pubes get tangled in the sticky gel of the convene, and the whole thing’s a tragic mess.
‘I felt that,’ says Geoffrey.
‘You’re doing your best. Thanks for trying.’
I give up on this one, unpack another, and have a re-think.
The simple jobs always turn out to be the worst.
You couldn’t just swing by Geoffrey’s and sort his convene out?
I haven’t much experience, but working for a community health team means being prepared to turn your hand to most things, including ninety-year old penises.
‘One more go,’ I tell him.
The builders next door have their radio on full-blast. Kissin’ in the back row of the movies on a Saturday night with you…
I’d spent ten minutes at the hospital reading through the instructions that come with the convene. It seemed pretty straightforward, and I’d set out with every hope of success. Although, of course, I had it in mind that probably the real world experience of rolling on a convene might not tally exactly with the neatly labelled illustrations in the pamphlet.
Geoffrey lives at the very top of a narrow block of flats. He hasn’t been out for three years, spending all his time sitting in a riser-recliner with a view out over the city, one carer first thing in the morning to make sure he has some food and water, at least. Geoffrey has steadfastly refused any increase in care, and certainly has the mental capacity to make these decisions, even though anyone could see it’s not in his best interests. He’s doubly incontinent now, and really needs more regular pad changes. Still – he doesn’t want to spend the money, and he understands the consequences of his actions. And to be fair, he seems pretty happy. I’ve cleaned him up already, fetched him tea, and according to his very specific instructions, two slices of ham and four chocolate biscuits, all on the same plate.
‘What did you do before you retired?’ I say, as he eats a biscuit and watches me down below, wrestling with the convene, getting as tangled up in the coarse thicket of his pubes as the prince in the brambles round Sleeping Beauty’s castle (and, by the way, I’d like to put it on record, I think I’d have way more chance of success putting a convene on that).
‘Insurance!’ says Geoffrey, reaching for his tea. ‘Everyone needs insurance!’
‘That’s true. It’s an interesting business…’ although to be honest, I can’t think of a single thing to say on the subject.
Geoffrey comes to my rescue.
‘I was in the war,’ he says.
‘What was that like?’
‘Oh. You know,’ he says. ‘People try to shoot you. But what can you do?’
Jack is sitting at the kitchen table, the bright morning sunshine intensifying the yellows and greens of his tracksuit, and the silvery lustre of his magnificent, Edwardian, handlebar moustache.
‘You don’t look ninety-five’ I tell him. ‘If you’d have said seventy-five, maybe’
‘Who do I make the cheque out to?’ he asks, then takes a sip of tea. ‘No – really – that’s most awfully kind of you to say so,’ he adds, carefully sweeping his moustache for drips, once to the left and once to the right.
There’s a helium balloon tied to the corner of his chair.
‘Happy Birthday for the other day!’ I tell him.
‘Thank you,’ says Jack, closing his eyes and nodding. ‘D’you know – the funny thing is – I never really celebrated birthdays. They used to pass me by, quite unnoticed.’
‘That’s a shame’
‘It just never seemed that important to me. Perhaps that’s why I’ve reached this preposterous age. I lost track of how old I was sometime around thirty.’
‘Well – whatever the reason, I’m very impressed. I hope I’m as good when I get to ninety-five. If I ever do.’
‘Oh – you’ll be fine,’ he says, finishing off the tea and wiping his moustache again. ‘Of course, there are no guarantees.’
‘Did you score any good presents?’
‘Do you know I can’t remember!’ he says, then folds his arms and leans back. ‘I tell you one birthday present I do remember, though. The best one I ever had. No doubt you’ll think me quite daft.’
‘What was it?’
‘It was nineteen-forty one. I was eighteen or thereabouts. On a warship somewhere in the Atlantic. Well – one of the chaps got wind of the fact it was my birthday. Why didn’t you tell us he said. We’d have made a fuss. And he hurried off. The next thing I knew, he’d come back with an enormous tin of plums. Greengages, in syrup. He’d been to the kitchen, you see, and made a fuss about it being my birthday and so on, and that’s all they had spare. So we took the plums up on deck, to the sunniest spot we could find. And we sat down and we ate them with our fingers, one after the other. It doesn’t sound like much, but it meant the world to me.’
‘I like plums.’
‘Yes, well, there were rather a lot,’ he says. ‘You’d have been alright.’
‘That reminds me of a story about my Uncle John,’ I tell him. ‘He’d been fighting in Italy when he got captured and thrown in a POW camp.’
‘That’s a shame’ says Jack. ‘Was he a marine?’
‘No. Regular army. Anyway, the story goes he escaped from the camp and fought with the partisans.’
‘Yeah – but the thing is, when I asked Auntie Ollie about it, she said that wasn’t what happened at all. She said he shacked up with a farmer’s daughter and finished the war picking peaches. It’s a shame I don’t get the chance to see her more often. She’s all the way down in Exmouth.’
Jack looks startled.
‘I heard the exact same story!’
‘Yes! My wife comes from Devon. One of those villages where you can’t walk five paces without bumping into a second cousin or what have you. Now, Rachel’s brother – one of her brothers – he disappeared in the war and they all thought the worst. But then he turned up in the Woolpack with nothing more than a grin and a pocket full of peach pits.’
Jack strokes his moustache, then slaps the table.
‘I’ll bet you a pound to a pinch of snuff it was the same farm!’ he says.
Rafa nods a welcome
dabbing at a plate of
crackers & cheese
heavy with the gravity of it all
the illness, the age, the getting by
the day and the distance
sliding past the window
through the bare trees
of the leisure centre
and the lit, late, relentless commuter traffic
‘What you want?’ he says
and gestures for me to sit
Later, after the examination
proving there’s more to me
than a stethoscope, a badge and a yellow folder
I ask him where he’s from
‘Where am I from?’
‘Yes. Where are you from? Originally.’
He shakes his head, takes another bite of cheese
‘No. You want clue?’
‘An island in the Mediterranean.’
He waits for me to speak.
‘My geography is terrible’
‘Former British territory’ he says.
He snorts. He and I both know
God can’t help me now
he finishes the last piece of cheese,
puts the plate to the side
and gently smacks his hands clear
‘Gibraltar?’ I say.
‘Gibraltar is promontory’
He stares at me.
‘Much destruction in the war,’ he says. ‘British colony.’
‘Guernica?’ I say, thinking of a distressed horse
‘Guernica?’ he says. ‘Guernica is town in north of Spain.’
He mutters something, takes a sip of his tea
carefully places it back on the table
on top of the plate.
‘Although much destruction in Guernica, too, of course’ he says
staring at the cup, the plate, the papers, the mess pertaining
‘Give up,’ I say.
‘Malta,’ he says, turning his eyes back on me
‘Malta!’ I say. ‘Of course!’
‘You know, the British, they gave us medal after the bombing.’
holds one fleshy hand out, palm up.
‘The only problem was, where to put it.’
‘I’ve never been what you might call quiet,’ says Elsa, tugging the bedclothes up around her neck. ‘That’s one thing you could never accuse me of. I suppose you’re either a talker or you’re not. You never have to worry about awkward silences with me. It’s just the way I’m built. Like being left-handed. Or having a head for heights…’
I’m waiting with Elsa for the ambulance to come. I’d been sent round for an initial assessment, ECG and bloods. But it was clear as soon as I walked in the bedroom that Elsa was acutely unwell. A closer examination led me to suspect she was suffering a serious internal bleed, so I called 999.
‘They’ll be here soon,’ I told her, putting the phone down. ‘Try not to worry. Meanwhile, I’ll get a few things together…’
It’s been a while, now. Three-quarters of an hour.
When I go next door to phone ambulance control for an update, I’m told that they’re doing their best, an ambulance will be dispatched just as soon as one is available – only, people are having heart attacks, strokes…. surely I can understand? I know it’s difficult, I tell him, but the fact remains, we need to get Elsa to hospital as soon as possible. She’s compensating reasonably well at the moment, but I don’t think that’ll last much longer. We’re doing our best, they say. Of course, I say. I appreciate your help.
When I hang up I carefully document the delay.
‘Not long now,’ I tell Elsa, going back into the bedroom.
Before what, I wonder. She looks so fragile, lying on the bed like this, the sockets of her eyes ghosting through the pallid stretch of her face.
‘I’m glad you’re here,’ she says. ‘I wouldn’t want to do this on my own.’
‘I’m glad I’m here, too,’ I tell her, sitting beside her to do another set of obs. ‘So – go on. You were telling me about Stars in Battledress…’
She’d always been mad on the stage, she says. Singing, dancing, doing sketches. And that was what they wanted. A friend of hers put her up to it. She said I was just the kind of girl they were looking for. It was such a shame what happened to her.
‘Why? What happened?’
‘It was a famous murder case. She was on a cruise ship coming back from a show in South Africa and she was murdered by one of the ship stewards. He tried to make out she’d agreed to have sex with him, but then died of a fit or something, and he panicked and shoved her body out of the porthole. They never did find her body. He was convicted, of course. I think he only escaped hanging because of some loophole or other. Died in prison, years later. Funny how these things work out. Poor Gay. She was such a kind girl, a lovely girl. But these things happen, I suppose. On a ship or anywhere else. You’ve just got to be careful and lucky and hope for the best.’
Elsa tells me about the shows she was in. About one in particular.
‘As well as performing, everyone had a job to do. Mine was to put together these wooden steps for the big dance number in the second half. I was just tightening up the screws when someone dropped a curtain pole straight on my head. Knocked me clean out! When I came to there was only a minute to go before I was on. I had no idea who I was or where I was, but the lights came up, they pointed me in the right direction, and I walked out into the light. Anyway, the words seemed to come from somewhere, so it worked out in the end.’
‘When that show was over I moved into the intelligence corps. I remember – we were all lined up in the corridor, six girls in front, about thirty men behind. You can imagine what that was like. I was the last girl to be called forward. When I heard my name I thought – right! I’ll show these men a thing or two! – so I marched as smartly as I could up to the desk, swinging my arms and hips. But you see, what I didn’t realise was there was this rug just in front of the desk, and the floor was highly polished. As soon as my feet touched the rug it flew out from under me and I slid the rest of the way on my aris, disappearing up to my shoulders in the footwell. The Major he stood up and peered over the edge of the desk.
‘Are you alright down there?’ he said.
‘Yes Sir!’ I said, and saluted, flat on my back, and everyone laughed. But it didn’t do me any harm, apart from a few bruises. They took me on.’
The flat door buzzes. I’m relieved to hear it’s the ambulance.
Two paramedics walk in.
‘Alright?’ says one I vaguely recognise. ‘Wait a minute… didn’t you use to work for us?’
‘To be honest with you, I can’t believe I’ve reached the age I have. I had four brothers and sisters, and now I’m the only one left. My sister Judith was the first to go. She was only eleven. I was fourteen. And now here I am, ninety-one! Me and Judith, we used to love going to the pictures on a Saturday. The matinee performance. This one Saturday, my mum stopped me as we were headed out the door. You’re not going out till you’ve sewed that button on your cardie like I asked you to she said. And I was furious about it but I did what I was told. I sewed the biggest button on there I could find, quick as I could, then I took Judith’s hand and we ran off down the street to the cinema on the corner. We were about half way through the main feature when there was an almighty crash and a flash and the whole place came down around us. Because we were late getting there we’d had to sit at the back, not like all the other kids sitting at the front. They were all killed outright. But we made it outside, and Judith, she was badly hurt, worse than me. We both got taken by someone to the hospital, and Judith died a little while later – not that I knew about that straight away, because I was having bits and pieces taken out of me. When I came round in bed a day or so later, the doctor showed me a chunk of metal and d’you know what he said? He said This would’ve finished you off if that button hadn’t taken some of the force out of it. So it just goes to show. I learned later on what happened. A German bomber had ditched its load early trying to get away from some Spitfires that were chasing it. He wasn’t targetting the cinema or anything. It was just one of them things. Didn’t do him no good, though. They caught up with him over the Channel, and that was that. The film? I’ll never forget what that was. A comedy, a silly little thing, only just out. The Ghost Comes Home.’
‘The doctor, he was here yesterday, he said Squeeze my hands. Hard as you can. I said to him, I said You sure you want me to do that, squire? He said Do your worst. So I grabbed a hold and give him a squeeze, and the next thing you know he was pulling ‘em away shouting All right, mate! All right! You’ve made your point!’
Mr Wilson laughs, a desiccated kind of rattle, and shakes his head.
‘I was a stone mason all my life. I could squeeze the juice’ve a pebble.’
I think the doctor was being kind, though. Whilst it’s true Mr Wilson’s wrists are still impressively thick, the rest of his body has been sadly depleted by age and illness, and he pays for his enthusiastic outbursts with a degree of gasping that the oxygen through his nasal cannulae struggles to correct.
I’ve arrived at the same time as Mr Wilson’s morning carers. It’s lovely to see how they chivy him along, making a game of it all, distracting him from the frustrations and indignities of his situation. I’ve no doubt Mr Wilson has been a positive kind of person all his life, though, used to making the best of things. He cusses and carries on in the wheelchair, tetchily snapping the oxygen cable when it gets in his way, kicking his slippers off when they snag in the footrests. The carers obviously love him.
When he’s settled in the wheelchair and recovered his strength, and the carers have given him a peck on the cheek, signed the book and left, he folds his great hands on his middle and shakes his head.
‘I can’t go to Catania,’ he says. ‘I don’t suppose I’ll ever see it again.’
I get the story in short bursts. He fought in Italy during the war. Met his wife there. Settled back in the UK, but every year they went back to Catania to see her family. But his wife died last year, and his illness had progressed, and he was faced with the fact that he’d never see Catania again.
‘I wanted to say goodbye proper, like,’ he said. ‘I wanted to say Addio. Now look at me.’
He picks up the green plastic tube and holds it in front of him, like he was showing me something else, the thing that was tethering him to this world, the line that he’d play out if he could, all the way to the eastern shores of Sicily, and Catania, and his wife, and the adventures and the life they’d had together, so he could relax his grip, and let go the end, and disappear himself, off into the sun.