Is this the end of the world? All my friends are dying, and Fergal Keane's sanctimonious voice drones in the background.by Jeremy Clarke / June 20, 1999 / Leave a comment
I’m not an expert, but having lived in an old people’s home on and off for the past ten years, it seems to me that the first signs of a physically deteriorating brain are short-term memory loss, an impoverished vocabulary, and short-term memory loss.
This short-term memory loss, I think, chiefly accounts for the widely held and absurd belief that old age brings serenity. Pace Dr Jung, there are no spiritual benefits accruing to the elderly that I know of-unless, of course, you believe that pain and rejection are somehow character-forming.
Take Molly, for example. Molly is 87. She was born on the day the Titanic sank. Whenever the subject arises, she always says how grateful she is that her parents didn’t christen her Titania. “Or Titanic,” I add, if I’m within earshot, for she is a large lady. She has been with us for about a year. She is intelligent, outgoing and normally polite; but there are times when her short-term memory lets her down so badly that she has to rationalise her disorientation by accusing the care assistants, very impolitely, of lacing her food with narcotics.
Returning from yet another funeral (Miss Scattergood’s) yesterday, I came across Molly in the front garden. She was sitting on a wooden bench in front of the house, soaking up the sun. Molly likes me. She likes me because she thinks I am being drugged as well. And she likes the shape of my bum, she says.
“Budge up,” I said, plonking myself down beside her.
“Now don’t tell me,” she said, “you’re called…” and we played our usual little parlour game of guessing what my name is. And as usual, she lost. I told her my name, and she said, “Ah, Jeremy! Of course. It was on the tip of my… tip of my…”
“Tongue?” I suggested.
I reported to Molly on Miss Scattergood’s funeral, my third in a month. Aids watchers have calculated that, on average, a Zambian adult of normal sociability is invited to a funeral a week. It may surprise some of you to learn that the statistic is roughly the same for a British writer living in an old people’s home on the south coast. I’ve been to so many funerals lately that I’ve run out of black shoe polish. Not only the funerals of our own ladies, but also those of friends and neighbours in the locality, often much younger, who have died of cancer.
There is a lot of cancer around here at the moment. One minute you’re leaning on the garden fence discussing the prospect of rain with a neighbour; the next minute you’re standing at his graveside with a suit on and a song-sheet in your breast pocket. It’s like living through the Black Death.
If it isn’t cancer, it’s suicide. Recent suicides (in our village of about 150 souls) have included a Jehovah’s Witness found face down in a nearby stream; a lady with Bell’s palsy who hanged herself from a cherry tree; and the mobile greengrocer, found dead at the wheel of his van after drinking Paraquat during his lunch break. The mobile greengrocer left a note blaming his death on us, his customers, for not settling our bills quickly enough.
Molly and I sat for a while in friendly silence, contemplating the view. Actually it’s quite a spectacular view. Passing holidaymakers sometimes stop on the main road to take a photograph of it. Occasionally this leads to a minor accident, and we can watch the acrimonious exchange of names and addresses with equanimity from the comfort of our plastic garden furniture.
The sheep pasture, I noticed, was becoming overrun. The gorse, this year, has flowered like I’ve never seen it flower before. Great yellow hothouse blooms, heavy with that intoxicating scent of coconuts-you can detect it driving past in the car, even with the windows wound up. Maybe it’s because the bees are dying out and the gorse has to try harder to attract the attention of the few which are left. I don’t know.
There are no rabbits grazing the fields this year. Myxomatosis has accounted for some, the rest have been taken by birds of prey which, because they are protected, are more numerous around here than sparrows. And the magpies and crows, which nobody bothers to shoot any more, are proliferating at the expense of songbirds, which they murder with shocking inefficiency. Instead of songbirds and rabbits, however, we’ve got this air pollution with the warmer weather, which makes for some lovely sunsets.
As Molly and I look at the view, a television is turned on in one of the bedrooms behind us, and I hear the monotonous, sanctimonious voice of Fergal Keane reporting from just inside the Macedonian border. No real intelligence from Fergal, as usual, by the sound of it. Just more clich?s, more redundant hyperbole, more moral vanity masquerading as virtue. He must think we’re all as stupid as he is.
An enormous buzzard cruises overhead. So is this how it’s going to be at the end of the world, I wonder? Unusually large flowers. Wonderful sunsets. The earth ruled from the air by raptors and corvids. And Fergal Keane reporting from a refugee camp just inside the border.
“What do you think of this Kosovo business?” I say to Molly.
She looks at me guardedly.
“Kosovo business?” she says.