Jeremy Clarke retreats to an old people's home, but finds it far from restfulby / May 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Published in May 1996 issue of Prospect Magazine
Most of the time I live in a residential home for the elderly. Some people might think that at 39 I am a little young to be availing myself of the country’s dwindling health care facilities for the aged, so I hasten to add that I make myself quite useful about the place, principally by helping my fellow residents to stand up again when they fall over. There are nine of us altogether, with a combined age of 789. For physical or psychological reasons, three choose to remain in their rooms; and one leads a hectic social life and is never here; so that leaves just five of us (not counting my mother, who runs the home) who regularly inhabit the large sitting room with its framed sea-charts on the wall and panoramic view of Start Bay.
Although the high-backed chairs are arranged to encourage sociability, we sit facing each other in a contemplative silence, emphasised by the slow ticking of an old clock on the mantlepiece, occasionally broken by flatulent tumults which pass unremarked. Such outbursts vary greatly in pitch and register. Some sound like the deep hoots of supertankers anxiously calling to one another through a still, resonant fog bank; others are like a single mellifluous note of birdsong. Some of them bubble away for an unbelievable length of time, peter out, then recommence and continue as effortlessly and unflaggingly as before. I ought to time them, for if there were any special prizes on offer for that kind of thing, and our ladies were assessed by a panel of judges when they were in mid-season form, they would sweep the board.
Verbal interaction, should any take place, is less articulate. Often it consists of brief, incomprehensible soliloquies. However, there are unexpected moments of bilateral curiosity, aural clarity and mental co-ordination which give rise to sustained exchanges. As conversations go, they might not be very ins- piring examples of that most subtle of all the arts; and you can guarantee that they will revolve around questions of personal identity; but after several days of no conversation at all, they can be as galvanising as if the family labrador had got up stiffly from beside the fire, stretched, and asked for his tea.
One of our most popular residents is Commander “Jim,” 98, a large, lop-sided, limping man and consummate gentleman, who served at the Battle of Jutland. Owing to a touch of aphasia, unfortunately, he now finds it a struggle to make the words coming out of his mouth approximate to the thoughts he is trying to convey. He gets around this by expressing his more complex views on any particular subject with such catch-all phrases as: “Oh, really?” “Filthy beasts!” and “Most extraordinary!”-each rendered with that exquisite pronunciation of English which is dying out with his class and generation.
Of all the residents, it is the commander whom I have to help to his feet the most. He falls down the stairs, he falls up the stairs; he falls into and out of his bath. When he falls out of bed in the night, the thunderous crash can be heard all over the house and has the ladies reaching for their panic buttons. Over Christmas, he tumbled into the fire and took the Christmas tree with him. When the weather is fine, I will be called into the garden hourly to stand him up on the lawn or extricate him from a rose bed.
Although he and Miss Doris Firth, 96, have been with us for over a year, take their meals at the same table, and usually sit beside each other in amiable silence for the rest of the day, she suddenly turned to him one late morning and said in her best Rochdale accent: “Who might you be then?” “Who, me?” “Yes, you, love. Who are you?”
The commander thought for a bit, then said: “Do you know, I don’t know.” “You’re the admiral, aren’t you?” said Gwen Smith MBE, 85, helpfully. The commander heaved himself to his feet and stumbled from the room, popping windily, as though propelled by a small outboard motor. He returned after a few minutes, listing heavily to port, but triumphantly bearing a creased envelope with his name and address on it, which he presented to Doris.
It was only his determination to satisfy a lady’s curiosity that drove the commander up to his bedroom to solve the mystery of his identity. One had the impression that he had not been bothered about the question of who he was for years. He embodies that splendid pre-war gentlemanliness that treats “serious” matters-above all, those relating to self-with Zen-like detachment, or, if pushed, derision; and, contrarily, he affects excitement over completely trivial things-for example, the loss of a biro or the momentary disappearance of the sun behind the only cloud in the sky. This occurred once when we were standing together in the garden admiring the view. “Really!” he said, affronted, pointing one of his sticks at the offending cloud.
Doris took the commander’s envelope. “That’s me,” beamed the commander, indicating the name and address with a thick forefinger. Being virtually sightless, Doris held the envelope upside down and the wrong way round, and buried her face in it. None the wiser, and possibly confused about which of her five senses she was supposed to have employed, she said, “Oo, lovely.”