Low life

Whisky and striptease: stories from an old people’s home

24 January 2020

10:00 PM

24 January 2020

10:00 PM

For the last four years of her long life, this upstairs room and this magnificent sea view belonged to Mrs Lock. Mrs Lock never fully understood why she was living here and I’m not certain she knew who she was either. She had thick, strong legs and was prone to delightful auditory hallucinations, including pealing church bells, heavenly choirs and gentle rain. ‘Is it raining?’ she would ask with incredulity on clear days. After a long, hard-working life, Mrs Lock could never accept that she no longer had responsibilities. ‘Any duties?’ she’d enquire anxiously a dozen times a day. Evenings, I might glimpse her through her open door in her nighty, praying on her knees like a child. The room is unoccupied now, the furniture gone. I stood in here yesterday to watch the sunset and remembered her.

And this room next door, facing sea and farmland, was where Miss Freda Busby spent the last five of her 104 years. During the Great War two soldiers were billeted at her family home in High Wycombe. She fell in love with one, her sister Olive the other. Both soldiers wrote regularly, both were killed. Olive and Freda never married. They lived together, a pair of cultured spinsters whose only love interest was a crush on the Australian cricketer Sir Donald ‘the Don’ Bradman. Freda was a physically small person with big hair and a masculine face. For the last six months of her life I used to sleep with her. If she wanted to get up in the night to sit on the commode I would help her with her balance and her knickers. She enjoyed a good sunset as much as anyone I’ve known, though she wasn’t exhibitionist about it, watching rather with silent reverence. On Christmas Day I would haul her over my shoulder and carry her downstairs in time for the Queen’s speech. It was always a great event in the residents’ year as I bore her in.

And this room along here — my goodness — was the Commander’s. Commander Jim Eliot was an officer and a gentleman, the first I had met, I think, and he had taken part in the battle of Jutland. I used to take him up a cup of tea in the morning and his mug of cocoa in the evening and stay for a ritual chat, for which he was always terribly, though inarticulately grateful. One morning I brought news with his morning tea. ‘Commander,’ I said. ‘We’re at war. We’re at war with Argentina.’ The Commander, a big man, even in his nineties, rubbed his hands together over his crotch and gave a high-pitched giggle, like a schoolgirl. ‘What a nuisance!’ he said. The Commander definitely didn’t know who he was or where, but he couldn’t be anything other than humorously cheerful about it. Clouds were a continual source of wonder and astonishment to him. ‘Most extraordinary,’ he’d say, pointing his walking stick at a passing unremarkable cloud. He was a gallant old gentleman and a big hit with our ladies. He stumbled headfirst into the fire one Christmas, to no real ill effect. And once I found him seated in Gwen Clarke MBE’s room, watching her do an old-fashioned command-performance striptease. I never come in here now unless passing through to the walled garden at the back.

And this downstairs west-facing room is where my mother sat for the last two years before she died. My books were in here on eight long shelves covering a wall. She called this room the ‘snug’. She certainly deserved a rest after running the house singlehandedly as a residential home for 20 years. And before that, this room was where my Uncle Jack spent his last few years. He was a great man for the whisky bottle, was my Uncle Jack, though he wouldn’t be allowed it until the afternoon. Quite often, of an evening, scarlet in the face, he’d come stumbling out in a rage to hurl abuse at whoever he could find. ‘You all think me a damned fool, don’t you?’ he’d say. ‘Well, let me tell you: I’m not!’ Then he would say very humbly, because he didn’t know where he was either: ‘Where do I go now?’ ‘Back in your room, Uncle.’ ‘And where the hell is that?’

And before Uncle Jack it was old Mrs Rye’s room. Mrs Rye had everything wrong with her imaginable and was held together with metal pins, but she made light of it and always gave thoughtful Christmas presents. They were a different breed, that generation. The bookshelves are bare now, and the room is strewn with filled and half-filled packing boxes, and the framed photos my mother kept are all gone, though her glasses and National Trust address book are still on the little table beside her chair.

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