Week 1: Getting to know you, getting to know all about you
Pat and Marie are sisters, they run the show under the supervision of Hazel.
Hazel is a big cheese on the committee, indeed a Bridgnorth big cheese since time immemorial. David remembered her as the wife of Chair of Governors Michael Ridley at Bridgnorth Endowed School. David had been Deputy Head there from 1990 – 97.
Michael had been the Ridley of Ridley’s Seeds, a long-standing supplier to farms around and a Bridgnorth institution. Even its premises perched on the bridge and overlooking the river had historical significance. Michael Ridley had been mayor of the town. Michael Ridley had been struck down with Motor Neurone Disease, about as ghastly a fate as David could imagine. Hazel had been a loyal and devoted spouse, caring for Michael, taking great pains to ease his way through what remained of his life, both in quantity and quality, both diminished brutally.
The last time David had seen his Chair of Governors he was an inanimate object strapped into a mighty wheelchair, every limb propped up in some fashion. From the neck up he was sentient. He was, essentially, a man trapped in what his body had become: a coffin.
David had severed links with the school in 1997, having secured a headship at Evesham High School in Worcestershire. He assumed Michael had died soon after that. He learned that day that Hazel had re-married and was still buzzing round Bridgnorth like a gleaming green bluebottle. She did the ladies nails, manicure, undercoat, topcoat of lacquer and all. In her eighties she still fought valiantly against ageing, pluckily but not wholly successfully. But she was skinny and her hair, make-up, nails, outfits and accoutrements were all up to the minute. But it was clear Hazel was dying, too.
Rachel, Pat’s daughter, had just taken A-levels in Social Psychology, Health and Care-ology and some other ology which had no relationship to the stern study of Science. She was a plain, dumpy girl, lacking in personality and confidence. Her muttered replies led David to infer that she had no plans to go to university but was taking up an apprenticeship in something that could not be heard through her low-key, muffled murmuring.
Emma was slightly older, again dark-haired and plain but far from forthcoming about herself. David let well alone.
David was who he was.
The beneficiaries of this care began with Clive who had been there seventeen years, David thought. At least that’s what Clive appeared to be saying but 90% of what Clive said was incomprehensible. He was a rotund, stout man in his seventies, David guessed, with an odd Humpty-Dumpty head. Bald and domed with a ski-slope nose and a strange tucked under chin, like a boiled egg on which a child had glued stubble and wormy lips and broken teeth. At first encounter David had thought he was staff but a little later would have sworn he was a day-care visitor only to be convinced once more that he was a carer. When Clive took his leave just after one o’clock David was none the wiser.
Alan was the slumped and silent type, monosyllabic in small talk and clearly cut off as a life-style choice. He popped up when someone mentioned that he had been a former Wolves player. He even stood to acknowledge the crowd. That, however, was the sum total of the knowledge the group possessed of Wolves Football Club and its illustrious former player.
Bill was a different kettle of fish entirely. Clear-eyed and clearly in command of himself and touching his toes at the ripe old age of 91 (on 1 April next), Bill was the uber-mensch, the human Triumph of the Will with a remarkable tale to tell. Continuously. On a loop. Every word repeated exactly, in the same cadence and with the same emphasis endlessly, every ten minutes. He was the speaking clock of the group, infallible, reliable and eminently repeatable.
Bill required neither stick nor zimmer frame. Wheelchair sought he none. He wasted no time in fixing David with an unwavering gaze, his grey-green eyes clear and unclouded, no glaucoma, no red rims, no weeping.
“I was in the army, you know.”
“Oh yes? Very Good. My dad was in the RAF.”
“And after I left the army I started a judo club. It went very well. Soon I was starting them all over the place. I had one here, behind cricket club. We used to have to put out the mats for every session and then roll them up after.”
“Oh, I know that can be a real pain. I was in the Bridgnorth Players for a while and we had to –“
But then the chap in charge said we could have sole use of the hut because there were so many judo clubs so we didn’t have to keep rolling up the mats every time.”
“That must have been a big improvement, a lot better –“
“My father was in the army as well, you know.”
“Right, yes, mine was in the RAF, he –“
“My father was in the army. He had to be evacuated from Dunkirk.”
David chose not to mention the recent epic film on the subject which he had walked out of after five minutes because the opening storm of machine-gun fire, richocheting bullets and the ear-splitting boom of grenades had been so loud he left before his ears started bleeding. The noise had even drowned out the people munching pop-corn around him.
“Wow! What an incredible experience! Did he –“
“And then they sent him out to Singapore but he was taken by the Japanese and was stuck in a P.O.W. camp.”
“Blimey! From the frying pan into the fire! Was he tortur – “
All the Jap guards spoke really good English, he told me, so you couldn’t whisper anything to your mates, the Japs could hear everything.”
“So was your father imprisoned till the end – “
“Him and three mates were walking by the beach one day and they saw the wreck of a tramp steamer in the bay. The guards weren’t looking so they swam out to the wreck. When they got there and climbed aboard the guards started shooting at them so they had to take cover but they found the life-boat and managed to release it and climb on board. They had four oars so they started rowing out to sea with the Japs still firing at them.”
“Gosh, that must have been really – “
“Eight days and nights they were rowing. All around Sumatra and the cape of India.”
“Astonishing! Eight days and nights at sea. What did they live on?”
“Coconuts. They drank the coconut milk and ate the coconut flesh. They made it all the way to Bombay where they found British forces and they were taken back home.”
“What an incredible life your father had! Escaping Dunkirk in a hail of bullets and then escaping Japanese gun-fire in Singapore, escaping as a POW and rowing a tiny life-boat all the way to Bombay. Did the four of them stay friends, did they get to- “
“My father was a boxer before the war. He went round all the open air boxing matches and boxed for a bet. It was the only way he could make money, you see, for my mother and me.”
“Was it bare-knuckle fighting?” David asked warily. He didn’t know what he was getting into here.
“No, boxing gloves. You see my mother had me very young. So when my father was in the P.O.W. camp we had no idea. We had a telegram saying he was Missing in Action, Presumed Dead. We had no idea. We were like brother and sister my mum and me, her being so young when she had me.”
David was deep in thought. He hoped Bill appreciated him reflecting on the story he’d heard. He also did not want to delve one millimetre further into Bill’s family history. Bill broke the silence.
“I was in the army, you know. So was my father, in the war. He was at Dunkirk you know . . . “
At that moment divine intervention saved David. Pat strode into the day-room brandishing a glass of scotch and one of Baileys. Bill took his scotch with alacrity, David made a hasty retreat and Marion started guzzling her Baileys.
When it was safe to go back, David slipped discreetly into the room while Bill was preoccupied with his whisky.
The ladies who lunched were a motley crew but not wholly disagreeable. He liked Jean the most. She was a bird-like creature in her eighties and in a wheelchair, terribly wasted, he thought. But she was a game old bird, stick-thin and wearing silver denim leggings and sprightly shoes (although she couldn’t walk an inch) and a green sweater enlivened by a colourful scarf and waistcoat. She had competently dyed brown hair in an easy bob and bright green eyes, the only living things in her withered face.
Chatting with her he discovered she had no oesophagus.
“And I’ve another lump coming here,” she stroked her neck. She was matter of fact about it. Her fatalism was faint but unmistakeable. He did not pursue what range of ailments had devastated her body so.
“You seem to talk very well without an oesophagus.” (Always look on the bright side.)
“Oh, you don’t need an oesophagus to talk. But I can’t swallow anything solid. I wretch and am sick. It’s awful.”
And so it was. At lunch-time when the rest tucked into a perfectly acceptable cottage pie with mash, peas, broccoli and gravy, she made do with a silver platter with three recesses in which pureed vegetables puddled with a slug of some brown goo added. The meat in the two veg, he presumed.
Jean merely toyed with her food. She had two spoons, used only one and barely made a dent in the muddy brown and green goo. He didn’t blame her. The others went on to an enticing coconut sponge with raspberry topping and custard but nothing for Jean. She lingered over her cup of tea and then signalled she was finished. Clive wheeled her back to the day-room.
When he’d finished serving and clearing up David joined her. In their conversation a deux he learned:
- She and her husband had owned Walton Farm, just outside Much Wenlock.
- They had had one child, Stephen, who had ‘learning needs’ as they say nowadays. He had to go to ‘special schools’ and blessed he was to have that opportunity, David thought. Inclusion policies had condemned untold thousands of kids to the maelstrom of a comprehensive school, wholly unsuited to their circumstances and needs.
- Stephen had brought his mother there and chatted brightly with David. He knew David had taught at the school in Much Wenlock. He knew David had been in the Wenlock Players. He knew a lot about David without ever having met him or been taught by him.
- After Stephen, Jean found that she could not bear another child. So be it.
- She and her husband fostered a number of unwanted children, neglected by mother and family and left to make do on the streets of Wolverhampton or Birmingham or Coventry.
- None of these children, Jean said, had ever seen a blade of grass or a field or a farm. They had never seen cows or sheep or goats, never seen milk drawn from a beast’s udders.
- And Jean and her husband cared for them, nourished and nurtured them, taught them and disciplined them, gave them self-respect and dignity and a love of Nature.
“But then my husband died and there was no-one to run the farm so we had to sell it and move here. But Stephen’s a good boy, he takes care of me.” She was dry-eyed throughout. David blinked back a brimming tear.
He really liked her. What had begun as an act of conscience, of duty, of cold charity had become much more human: affinity, sympathy, appreciation. He made her laugh and the sly smile on her face gave him pleasure too.
The other ladies were a duty of care, a different thing entirely.
Betty1 (One-Eye): pretty self-evident. A tiny sparrow of a thing, timid, tremulous, a cap of fine white hair over a wizened skull. One side of her face was a little collapsed and the left eye was a lost cause, milky grey, slack, unseeing.
Joan: Seemingly normal, no outward signs of dementia or any other alarming condition. She tried to be the ‘glam’ one with a vaguely modern hair-do, make-up old fashioned eye-shadow. She reminded him of Fanny Cradock but he didn’t mention it. She did join in one conversation to declare that her grandson was a PhD and some other kin had some impressive talent but David couldn’t recall what it was.
Annette: The most plausible of them all. Well turned-out, erect of posture, sitting gracefully, moving to the dining room when summoned, commendably wordless. Only at the end of the day did Pat alert him that under no circumstances should Annette be allowed to troop behind the others and get back on the mini-bus. She was not brought in the bus. A relative deposited her and collected her. But Annette had no idea where she lived, all gone, every day a puzzle.
Marion: The stout party, a trencher-woman with a taste for Baileys. She was a large lady, billowing out of her elasticated black trews and capacious blouse. She had a stick and a souped-up zimmer frame to get around – with help. That was Clive’s job, wheeling her in and out of the rooms, trying not to run anyone down.
Betty 2: Not a bit like Betty 1. Well-preserved, well-turned out, smart hair, matching blue twin set and not a word to say about anything. She would have made a good ‘Granny Robot’
At the end an early finish: 13-35. David was able to bid his adieus, declare how much he’d enjoyed it and was keenly looking forward to next Monday and ‘The Owls’. Yes, live owls in the day room! What fun!
To his surprise Pam and Marie and Joan and Jean seemed sorry to see him go, thanked him and wished him well. Pam even insisted that he bring his guitar and mandolin every time, in case an impromptu singalong was required.
He left with a spring in his step and the air of Val Doonican.