Saw Margaret Beckett on telly, mum tells me. She’s looking very old – she must be. . . She never really got what she deserved did she. Always criticized for how she looked – how she dressed. Not everyone can be glamourous, mum says. You don’t think of people getting old do you, she says. Then I saw her on tv – and she was old. Got all her marbles still. What are you doing with your hair, mum asks me – it’s looking good – all curly at the front – not how you usually have it.
The thing about getting old, mum tells me, is that you’ve got to have some money at the back of you. You need it when you’re older. Of course we didn’t have much money – couldn’t invest in things. Have you heard about Andrew? He won’t be made an admiral. I feel sorry for his daughters – one’s getting married, isn’t she – and now that won’t be on the telly. They shouldn’t be called princesses really. It’s the queen I feel sorry for, mum says, the shame he’s brought on the family – I’m sure there’s some truth in it – that young woman, the prostitutes. It must be difficult for the queen. But you don’t know what the full facts are do you – you never know the truth.
How’s Irene, I ask. She’s got this thing, mum says, I can’t remember the name – she told me – I can’t remember. It’s a life sentence. She’ll have it for the rest of her life. She’s 82 I think – or is she 83? She’s on steroids – they’ve put her on steroids – because she’s got pain all over her body – every part of her. She’s had her shoulder done, but now her knees are going. Can’t walk. She’s dreading not being able to drive – not to be able to get away from Barry. And if she fell over at home – Barry would be useless – he can’t use the phone – wouldn’t be able to ring anyone. And he couldn’t lift her up. She was thinking of moving the bed downstairs, but Barry didn’t want that. Though they haven’t slept together for years – not for years. They always had luxury bedrooms – not like ours used to be. You know, they had matching curtains. She always had everything she wanted.
She was always a ball of fun was Irene, mum tells me. I think, she says, that her problem started with her nerves – when she left Barry – started with her nerves then. You know, the man she saw from the line dancing. That must have been when she was in her 60s. Dad didn’t like her for doing that – the way she treated Barry. But he wasn’t any fun, always depressed.
There’s a couple at the flats – he lost his wife some time ago – I don’t know when, and her husband died five years ago – and she cooks for him sometimes. And people are always asking me – Noreen asks me – do you think it’s possible to have a relationship without sex – between a man and a woman – surely it’s not, that’s what Noreen says. How should I know what they do – of course it’s possible to be just friends – that’s what I say. Do you think it’s possible that they’re having sex – I mean, she’s 82 – and he’s in his 70s?
It’s none of our business what they get up to – they might hold hands or something, I don’t know. But they all want to know. That’s the problem with living with a lot of women – they all want to know what’s going on. That’s why I don’t like it there. And I was talking to Kevin the other day – he got me a special plaster for my heel, you know, where the boot has rubbed it – and he was saying that when you’re with old people it makes you old. That’s why I don’t like it there – they’re all old.
They say you can remember the past more when you’re older, mum says, but I don’t find that. I suppose I just remember the future. I can’t remember much about my mum and dad. My childhood. I was trying last night. In bed. And I couldn’t remember anything. You can remember some things about them surely, I say. Only very general things, she says. I remember I hated school. I regret that now – but I was having the fits.
Jackie rang. She’s a good friend. She talks for an hour, then at the end she says I haven’t asked how you are. But she was ringing to see if I’m alright. She’s a good friend. Loves herself. Likes to talk about herself. You seem to be in the role of listener with quite a few people, I say. Yes, she says, a lot of my friends are like that. How’s Matthew, I say. Oh, she says, he’s the same. His back, I say. His whole body, she says. He’s got rods inside him. His hands and arms are painful. Walks with two sticks like he’s on skis, you know: mum moves her hands back and forth, pulling invisible levers. Worships the ground she walks on, mum says. Does everything for her. Jackie doesn’t know how lucky she is.
One of the carers who visits people in the flats – Carrie – isn’t able to work, mum tells me: she’s had a bunion removed. Hasn’t been able to walk for two weeks. Must be difficult for her as she’s a workaholic, mum says. I was talking to one of her assistants, mum says, one of the women who work for her: she isn’t an agency exactly, I don’t know what the arrangement is. They don’t wear tabards. I think they should wear tabards, if they’re visiting peoples’ homes.
She doesn’t drive – the assistant. She said she had to get up at five to get to the places she has to visit. She walks or goes by bus, Carrie normally drives her, but now she can’t – the bunion. Get’s up at five. Working all day, and doesn’t get back home till ten some nights. And when she gets home she finds the house is a mess, the kids haven’t done anything, and they expect her to cook for them. She says she’s exhausted. I don’t know how she does it, mum says. And she can’t make much money – how much do they get paid? I don’t know, I say. And she must be spending a lot on bus fairs. She can’t make very much at all. That’s life, isn’t it.
She never stops talking, Deirdre. And what she tells you, she tells you again a few minutes later, mum tells me. Didn’t I have a good birthday party, she says, wasn’t everyone so nice, she says – over and over. And she’s so nosey. I tell her – you’re too nosey I say. We’ll be sitting in the lounge and she’ll see a car arrive in the car park, and she’ll say who’s that lady. And I say I can’t turn my neck Deirdre because of the arthritis. I don’t know who it is. And she says I’ll have to ask Miriam. She’s got to know. I see her every Monday, and I get her ready for the tea and cakes on Friday. Sounds like you’re in the role of carer then, I say. Yes, I am, mum says. On the Monday it’s always so warm in her flat and she’s so repetitive that I start to fall asleep. Are you falling asleep she says. I tell her, mum says, that I’m a bit tired.
It’s a funny time of life, the one I’m going through, mum says. There are quite a few funny periods in life, I say, how is this one funny. As you get older it gets more funny, she says. How, I say. You realise there isn’t long to go, she says, and thinking about that is depressing. I mean, she says, I’ve been very lucky, and I’m still healthy – touch wood. But you think about it. That it’ll soon be over. I think, she says, that it might be an advantage – not having all your marbles. It might be, she says, that they don’t think about it as much. That might be a consolation. They might not be tormented by questions, she says. Are you tormented by questions, I say. Well you know, she says, you think about stupid things you’ve said or done – why did I say that – you have regrets, things you wish you’d done. I try not to get depressed, she says – I think about the family, and how lucky I am: things could be worse. The problem is that people are living too long, she says. I heard this man on the radio – he was 90, and he was saying he didn’t see much reason to celebrate being 90: you’re less healthy, less able to think, less everything really.
The man with the bad knee at the gym tells me things will gradually get worse – that’s getting older. He’s 70. Somehow the topic of inequality crops up – briefly. He tells me that if all the wealth was spread out equally tomorrow, within a year, he says, all the blokes who’d made fortunes before would be out in front again. Just a theory, he says.
I wish you’d seen the hoover, mum says to me. It was completely white. I didn’t know what it was at first, I don’t think I’ve ever seen moths before. They must like it in the airing cupboard because it’s warm. They breed. Eggs. I sprayed them, she says. They’ve eaten some of the carpet. Imagine the things that must be under there – they’ve been down for over twenty years, since the place was built. Deirdre’s got them too. She’s got her husband’s old clothes – she couldn’t part with them. They like one of his woolly cardigans. I couldn’t keep dad’s things, she says, I couldn’t bear having them around. Some of the things you bought him for Christmas that he never wore – slippers – they went straight to the charity shop, she says. It was just before Christmas.
Miriam told me something, mum says. She said not to repeat it. You’d better not tell me then, I say. It’s to do with that chiropodist – you remember me telling you about him, she says to me. I don’t, I don’t say. We heard he’d had a car accident and that was why he wasn’t coming any more. Well Miriam says he contacted her to say that he’d just felt ill one morning, really ill. Like a stroke or something I suppose, she says. He was admitted to hospital. Now he’s not coming any more – he’s not doing it any more. I don’t know whether he’s retirement age, I’m not a very good judge of ages, she says. He always looked well turned out in his white coat he used to wear. It’s a shame. That’s life. It’s hard work, dealing with peoples’ feet, the cutting, the bending over. He used to visit quite a few of the people in the flats. When you get older it’s hard to cut your own toe nails – the bending down. It’s not really that though, she says, it’s the scissors. The scissors they make these days. They’re not strong enough, she says, not for cutting 80 year old nails – they’re hard.
Me blood pressure’s a bit high, mum tells me. The nurse said she’d let the doctor know. I told her about the nose bleed – I was right to do that wasn’t I?
The nose bleed was a few days ago. I don’t get them often, mum told me, I can’t remember the last time I had one – must be …
Blood everywhere, she had told me, over the bathroom floor – six in the morning: it was freezing cold. Must’ve gone on for twenty minutes. Me heads not felt right since. Fuzzy.
I thought I might be having a stroke, mum says. I don’t think nose-bleeds are a sign of that, I say. I thought it might be a stroke, she says, then things would get a lot worse. I’ve been very lucky – healthy – over the years. Her tone says I’ve had a good run, but now it’s coming to an end – inevitably. But there’s a lot of people worse off than me, she says, you just have to look around (I glance at the other customers in the coffee shop: young mothers with toddlers mainly).
Muriel has given up organising things – like the Friday afternoon tea and cakes, mum tells me: she’s retired. Deirdre said they’d given her £25 and some flowers – and they gave her husband a bottle of wine. Deirdre’s daughter couldn’t believe it – thought it was too much. But I don’t think it’s enough, mum says, not for all that organising – for twenty years.
Sharon is taking over, along with Anna, the woman with the dog. I can’t warm to her, mum says, she’s a bit bossy – wants things her own way: she used to be a teacher. They’ve organised a fish and chips night. Eight people have signed up for it. Are you going, I ask mum. Oh no, she says, I can’t eat at that time – seven – it’s too late for me. They should have thought about that. But good luck to them, she says, I hope it goes well.
She is a bit dictatorial is Anna, mum says. We were talking about the Friday afternoons. I don’t know what they’re going to do with them – I think Anna was surprised to see how much Muriel did, keeping records, the money. I’m not boring you am I, mum says to me. Oh no, I say. Someone said what about the people who don’t come down, or can’t get out – can’t buy cakes? I’m not buying cakes for them, Anna says. They have carers don’t they – if they want to be part of it they can get their carers to buy the cakes for them – when it’s they’re turn. I piped up with what about biscuits instead of cakes, mum says. I’m not buying them for them – that’s what she said. But carers aren’t paid to buy cakes are they, mum says to me.
I had a phone call from Helen, mum tells me, and she says she gets quite a few nose-bleeders. My heads still a bit funny. I mean I’m better since moving to Birmingham, physically – not lifting your dad. My backs better. I’ve always had headaches. I can still taste blood in my mouth, she tells me. But I think I’m alright. I’m very lucky – things could be a lot worse. And the nurse said if I look like you when I’m your age I’ll be very happy. That’s what she said. I was very pleased about that, mum says.
Life is funny, mum says. There a plenty of things you can’t do anything about, so it’s no use worrying over them. At times I think I could kill myself – the things I haven’t done. Sometimes I think I wasted my life. But I had you. We wouldn’t have met, with a different life. And you’ve got the kids. The one thing we regretted was not sending you to Repton. You had the brains. You’re wasted I think. But we didn’t have the money.
I might have ended up meeting Jeremy Clarkson, I say – he went there. Luckily I missed out on that. I hate Jeremy Clarkson, I say. Mum nods. We didn’t have the money. We’ve not done too bad – given our difficult starts in life. We’ve not done too bad have we. It’s all about connections, and which bed you’re born in, isn’t it, she says.
I saw on the newspaper headlines that Meghan has fallen out with Camilla – I don’t know what that’s about, do you?
Margaret and Lynne go to this church place on Monday, mum tells me, for some dinner. They say I should go. Lynne said they had lamb this Monday, and it was mmm … Margaret is in her 90s, and they’re both a bit miserable – so I won’t go. It’s at a church you say, I say. Mmm the food is excellent, mum says. They’re both so old, she says, I don’t want to.
It’s the fish and chip night tonight. I can’t eat fish and chips at that time, mum says. I won’t sit there with them while they’re eating fish and chips – it would drive me barmy. I’m not sure about the two of them that are running it. I’m staying aloof, mum says. I’ll help anyone, but …
I wonder what those flats are like, mum says, as we pass a block of flats on School Road. A lot of flats are in a state, she says, run down – I’m just going on what I see on tv. My one regret is that I don’t have a downstairs flat.
But I feel safe there. You should see Margaret’s flat – oooh, it’s … she had a designer in. The only thing I don’t like is she’s got one of them showers … the water it … the water runs into the floor: I don’t like that.
Margaret is very tight. She takes some Tupperware with her on the Monday. She’s got money though. Lives in the past. She refused to pay a taxi driver when he took her to the QE – thought he was charging her too much. She lives in the past.
There’s a clot up there, mum tells me, I can feel it when I put the cream up. The worst thing, she says, is that I can taste the blood still in the back of my mouth. I’ve brought a cloth with me just in case. I might be being silly, but I can’t help it – I’m sensitive, she says. You’re different – you’re not sensitive. You’re not hard – you’re average, she tells me.
It’s because of the way I came into the world, she says. Your dad never wanted to talk about it. These days you’d get counselling probably – probably that’s what I should have had, but they didn’t have it in those days. You expect too much from people – that’s what your dad says – you expect them to give back to you in the way you give to them, and they don’t. He was right about that – but I can’t change the way I am can I, she says. I was always made to feel that I should be grateful, to have a home – that’s what I was told. That I should thank god every day. I never wanted you to feel like I felt, she says to me, of course I couldn’t talk about it with your dad. He just said Andrew’s ours, and he didn’t want to say any more about it. But I’m not like that, mum says, he didn’t understand how I felt. I can talk to you about it, she says to me, because we’ve got it in common – I feel we’ve got a bond. I feel I was meant to have you, she says: there isn’t a moment goes by when I don’t think I had you.
Colin turning up made it worse. It’s better not to know anything at all, she says – like you. But I knew I had that family there – his four daughters who I’m an auntie to, but they didn’t know I existed. And when we went to his wedding, and the sisters wouldn’t have anything to do with me. Only the carer – my mother’s carer – came up to me, and told me I was just like my mother. They were both midwives, my mother and yours. My mother must have gone through a lot when she was carrying me – that’s probably why I am the way I am. Better not to have known anything, mum says – I never wanted you to feel the way I felt: you don’t do you?
I’m sorry to talk about it, she says, I feel ashamed. There isn’t any need to feel that way, I say, it’s good to talk about it. Get it off your chest, she says. It’s funny, she says. It’s funny, I say, that it’s something that stays with you – seems impossible to get over, I say: that’s why it’s good to talk about it. I feel ashamed though, she says.
Do you remember Madge, she says, you probably don’t. She was a friend – lived round the corner. She was adopted too. We were friends. She rang me up to ask if I knew anything about her family. I don’t know why she thought I knew anything – I didn’t. Then later she told me that she’d found her birth mother. Went to visit her. And when she opened the door she just told her to go away – didn’t want anything to do with her. It’s the stigma, mum says – there was a lot of shame about it in those days – being born out of wedlock. I never wanted you to feel anything like that – people saying things to you about it.
… The Sound of Music. And what about takeaways – will people be able to get them, mum asks.
We haven’t had any snow have we, she says.
In the queue at M&S mum chats with the woman in front of us (later, as we walk through the car park, she says I’m sorry, it must be difficult for you, with me gobbling – that’s the way I am). Did you see that nurse on the tv, mum says, oh yes, the woman says, awful. It makes me ashamed, mum says, that people are like that – the panic buying. There was nothing at the Co-op, says the woman. I went in for biscuits. There was nothing there, she says. Empty shelves.
I’d volunteer if a could, mum tells the shop assistant at the till – but I can’t, I’m too old: I’m over 75.
The thing that really worries me, mum says to me, is that people will turn to drink, with all this time at home. If it gets depressing you turn to drink don’t you.
Sarah rang, mum tells me, you know, the one your dad drove to the hospital – she liked your dad. Just wanted to see if I was alright. Worried about me. And how is she, I ask. Oh, alright, mum says. She’s put weight back on. She’s lost two stone, and now she’s put it back on again. Comfort eating. And she’s got rheumatoid arthritis in her feet. Can’t walk. She’s in a wheelchair. Husband has to push her around.
Hazel is not a very nice person. I haven’t heard of Hazel, I say to mum. I was talking to Hazel earlier, mum says, and I found that she’s not a very nice person. She was saying that she was in the washing room, and someone else was in there, and this woman said to Hazel is it your slot to use the machines, and Hazel said I’m not telling you if it’s my slot or not, it’s none of your business. But you shouldn’t be using the machines if it’s not your slot, mum says.
She agrees with me about Anna though – thinks she’s a bit bossy, wants things her own way. She thinks it’s all going to end in tears. Well, the tea and cakes has finished now – they’re only allowing three people in the lounge at any one time, and as long as they’re sitting far apart.
Noreen and Gwen had a go at each other though, on the last one. Perhaps it’s a good thing that they’re in for a period of isolation then, I say. And Muriel upset Martin, mum says, told him off about something in front of the others. He was fuming afterwards – said she’d always been awful, since she first arrived in the place twenty years ago – telling people what to do. Sticking her five ha’porth in from the start.
You know, mum says, what with everything that’s happening, it’s depressing – you really do think your time has come. I really do think it’s the end, she says.
Someone passed me on the street, and said are you ok. And I said, yes I am, mum says. And in the Co-op, there’s this young lad who looks after me, and I said you haven’t got any paracetamols have you. And he said just a minute. And he went away. Then he came back, and he said, we’ve just had a delivery, and so I got two boxes.
Do you know, mum asks, how much it costs for a packet of Strepsils in Boots? No, I don’t, I say. Five pounds, mum says. It’s hard to believe, she says, it shouldn’t be allowed.
But it’s the things people say around here, mum says. I was talking to the window cleaner, she says – we’ve had all the windows cleaned. Big man. Covered in tattoos from head to foot. But he goes to church – a good Christian. And he was saying, all this what’s going on – it’s not god, it’s people that have brought it about. And this woman was talking. You know, mum says, how it says the world is going to end in flame. Well she was saying that this is it.
I’ve got one thing to say to you, mum says to me – don’t drink too much.
Chris rang, mum tells me – you remember, he was at dad’s funeral. Wanted to see if I was alright.
I’ve had a few phone calls – people concerned about me. He’s had a knee replacement, and now he can’t walk. It hasn’t worked.
He says there are a couple of people not far from them who are in their 90s – so they’re vulnerable. But anyway, he says, they’ve had their time. I don’t think he should say that, do you?
Not a soul about. Not a soul, mum says.
No one, not a soul.
I haven’t seen anyone, she says.
That’s typical of Sunday though, I say, at the flats. Sunday, she says – always the worst day to be on your own. Always the worst day.
You know what, she says, I saw this thing on telly – a keep fit thing – and it was showing that you can keep fit by lifting cans of lager. And it was saying that this is a good time to tidy your house up – a lot of people, when they’re working, they get home and they’re too tired to do it. Too tired to do any house work. But now …
I’ve been so lucky, she says. So many phone calls. People calling to see how I am. Helen rang. She’s been self-isolating. She says that Irene’s car has been on the drive for weeks. Doesn’t go out any more. Irene rang a week ago actually. She’s finding it difficult. She’s talking to Barry. He isn’t entirely with it, but at least they’re talking.
I put the cans of lager on the counter. How’s it goin, says Kav. Ok, I say, nothing serious – how about you? He sighs. I’m worn out, he says, tired out. I don’t know how much longer I can go on like this, he says. The bloody staff, he says – they won’t come in. This bloody stupid government, he says – they think they can stay at home and get paid 80%. They ring me up … I can’t come in, I’ve got a cough. Kav mimes a shop assistant coughing weakly into a phone. They think they can stay at home and still get paid.
I’m not paying them, he says – he scans the cans of lager: he’s wearing rubber gloves. Same at the other bloody place (Kav has two jobs): I spoke with my co-manager, I said I bet this bastard has some time off – and sure enough, he comes into the office, and he’s coughing – oh I don’t feel right, I don’t feel good, I better go home, he says.
When I came to this country, Kav says, I said to my dad – I’m not going on the dole – ok, I’ve been on it twice – but twice in over twenty years. Some people sit around all day, and they don’t contribute anything to the country, he says: this country is going to the dogs.
They don’t contribute. Not you, he says, putting the lager into a bag (I don’t need the bag, I say, but he insists). That bloody college, he says, they fucked you over. But you worked. I tried my best, I say. You worked, he says, you made your contribution. Not like those bastards.
I’ve had a lot of phone calls. mum tells me as we walk around Moseley. I’m very lucky, she says, that people care. I had a call from Alice, she says. I don’t think I’ve heard of Alice, I say. She does the keep fit across the road, mum tells me, Tuesday afternoons – she’s 50 odd I think. She was worried about me – wanted to see if I was alright. She said all we can do is pray. She’s religious.
These trees are so old, mum says. It’s good for trees round here, I say. Jean said she used to live on this road – Beesley. Expensive, I say, Billesley. She didn’t approve of you seeing Deirdre on Monday, I say. No, mum says. She saw me in the corridor – she said did you see Deirdre on Monday – I said yes. She rolled her eyes and tutted. Well if it’s alright with you and Deirdre’s daughter – there wasn’t any physical contact, and we sat far apart. I wonder what these houses are like inside, mum says, I’d love to see inside. Maybe when this is over, I say, you could take up burglary. I bet they don’t have downstairs toilets, she says.
You know, she says, that this situation is going to lead to a lot of comfort eating. Comfort eating and drinking.
I leave the staffroom with the new member of staff. I say new, but he’s quite old, older than me, with thinning white hair. He’s wearing a Hawaiian shirt. As we walk through the corridors I’m struck by the way the college is very much like a shopping centre – rooms that look just like shop-fronts, crowds of people. I ask the new member of staff how he’s finding the college, and I’m aware that I’d like him to confirm my own point of view. I also feel some pleasure in having a kind of seniority here – of experience of the place at least. It’s ok, he tells me – it’s going quite well so far I think, he says. Slightly put out at this I say – you don’t feel that although things seem to be going smoothly on the surface, there’s a sense of something quite horrible lying in wait. He says yes, I do feel that now you mention it. I am enormously gratified that he recognizes the truth of my perception – I must talk to him again. But for now he’s due to teach a lesson. Psychology, I ask. Oh no, he says, I thought I said, it’s …. I don’t catch what he says because of the noise of the crowd. He gets into the lift – turning towards me he says, my name’s Happy by the way. Happy? I say. The lift doors are closing. Oh, I’m Andy, anyway, I say. Though the doors have now closed I can hear him say anyway, rather quizzically.