A decade ago I used to amuse Prospect readers with tales from my parents' residential home for the elderly. All the residents are now dead and I've had a wobbleby Jeremy Clarke / October 22, 2005 / Leave a comment
Ten years ago, when the Prospect editor rang to propose I write a monthly column, I was a mature student. Home was a residential home for the elderly run by my parents. There were nine fee-paying residents who my parents treated like an extended family. I described some of them in my column. A decade later, Sergeant Death has been around feeling collars. Mrs Gibbens, Commander Eliot, Betty, Violet, Miss Busby, Molly, my father’s Uncle Jack, and my father—all nicked.
So much death in one house in just ten years, yet each death different, and more often than not unexpected. Miss Busby, aged 105, hung on for weeks, made a surprise recovery, went from strength to strength, then died. (For six weeks before she died, I slept on a camp bed beside her, to help her on to the commode if she needed to go. One night, woken by her fidgeting, I stood over her, trying to work out if she was asleep or awake. She opened her eyes and said, very uncharacteristically, “Ooh darling! Are you going to make some custard?”) Mrs Lane, here for a fortnight’s respite care, and not particularly unwell, ceremoniously shook hands with everybody before going to bed, saying it had been nice knowing us all, and was stiff as a board by the morning. The only constant—I know because I kept a record—was our residents’ tendency to pass away on the ebb tide.
Some we were sorry to see go; others less so. The moment abusive alcoholic Uncle Jack’s soul left his body, we were punching the air. After the death of Violet, on the other hand—dear, blithe, club-footed Vi, so illiterate she didn’t know, for official purposes, what sex she was—there were wet faces all round.
Shortly after Vi died, I became depressed. Unwelcome effects of my first bag of lethal White Widow skunk had something to do with it, I think. West Ham being relegated. A romantic reverse. Money problems. Finding myself middle-aged. All these hits, added to living at the beck and call of the elderly and the dying and trying to maintain a cheerful interest, caused a systems crash. To reboot myself, I moved to a rented flat in the nearest town. But too late. I walked in, sat down at the kitchen table and stared at a bunch of daffodils in a glazed blue china pot night and day for four days.
Next door was a chap called Geoff. Geoff, about my age, also living on his own, immediately came round to introduce himself and offer the hand of friendship. He walked in through the open door and found me at the kitchen table staring at the daffodils. I was affable enough, but not very forthcoming, I suppose, and he went away.
Undeterred, he came round the next day, to ask if I wanted fish and chips from the van. The front door was still wide open and my suitcases and bags lay where I’d dropped them. I was wearing the same clothes, and seated in the same place, still looking at the daffodils.
There was nothing intrinsically comforting about the daffodils. I saw no significance in them. But adrift in cold, outer space as I was, the habit of staring at something, anything, was the closest I could get to a reference point. I managed a hallo but couldn’t bring myself to look away from them.
Geoff was an incredibly nice Brummie bloke. He was affable, amazingly practical—he used to be a scoutmaster he told me—and I never heard him make a moral judgement about anyone or anything. “You like flowers, then,” he tried. Silence. He persevered. “I love to see daffodils, me. If I had time, I could look at them for hours as well.” Silence. He took a seat opposite mine, rested his chin on his fists and joined me in staring at the daffodils. “Aren’t they lovely things? Cheerful and kind of strange. Sort of alien. They could do with a drop more water, though. That one’s nearly had it, look. Tell you what. I’ve got some lemonade. Cut flowers last for days on lemonade. I’ll pop back and get some.”
Geoff undermined all my preconceptions about scoutmasters. He was thoroughly working class, but not doctrinaire about it, a bit of a hard man, and liked to break the law. The next day, and the next, after he’d finished work, he came and sat down and looked at the daffodils in silence with me. It must have been an unrewarding experience. Even from miles away in outer space I began to wish he wouldn’t put himself to all this trouble just to be neighbourly. When he came round again on the fifth day, with fish and chips, and sat opposite me, and shook his head sadly at the dying daffodils, I felt I ought to put him in the picture. The poor bugger’s innocent geniality was being wasted.
“I’m depressed, Geoff,” I said. It was the first statement I’d ventured in his company. He put his big battered fists on the table, and rested his chin on them, so that he could look past the daffodils and up into my eyes. “I know, mate,” he said. “I know. Get your coat on. We’re going down the doctor’s.”
Today I’m back at home. My mother and I, only survivors, are rattling aimlessly around, with nine en-suite lavatories to choose from, in this big old house overlooking the sea. I sleep in an unfurnished bedroom with spectacular sea views in which most of our residents died. Sometimes at night I lie awake and watch the beam from the lighthouse flicker round the bare walls. But thanks to Geoff (and Prozac), I’m not depressed about it in the slightest.