I’ve had a thing about old men since I was a little girl. It was serious then. Full on heart melting devotion. So much so that I had a sale of work. I gathered all sorts of bits from the house, set up a stall, and flogged them to passers by. There was an old man’s home close by, you see. Walled, tree lined, private and exotic. I fantasised about getting in there some day. I fantasised about helping the dear old treasures out. Somehow. I was six or seven. The jury is out on what propelled me into this cause.
I counted the coins. Six old pounds and forty seven pence. I stacked the coins in a row. Re-counted. Poured them into an envelope and wrote a note. Please do something with this to help the old men. Then I set off. Alone. The big black gates did not intimidate me. I walked up the large drive-way secure in my calling. I popped the envelope through the letter box and went home. Happy. Oh so very happy.
A week later a letter arrived. Blue envelope. Stamped and addressed to me. The Matron had written to thank me on behalf of the old men. With the money that I dropped in she said she had been able to treat them all to an ice-cream. Then she invited me to come in. To be shown around. To meet some of the men. They would very much like, she said, to meet the girl who’d bought them the ice-cream. There it was. Right in front of me. My dream had come true.
I don’t know what I was expecting really. Mischievous fun-loving twinkly men. Boys in older skins who had no-one at home to mind them. Perhaps a couple of them seemed a little like that. But what struck me was the stark decline. The amount of wheelchairs. The lack of a spark of recognition in some when Matron introduced me as the ice-cream girl, raising her voice to deafened ears, gesticulating to cloudy eyes. I didn’t really know anyone very old or incapacitated. I sat in a wheelchair and imagined what it must be like to be one of them. I left with a slightly broken heart but with firm resolve to raise more money for them. Not for ice-cream, though.
Another brush with old man protective devotion came one day when I was knocked off my bicycle. I was cycling along with the tea-bags I’d just bought in my front basket. A car reversed out of its driveway and wham. Everything went into slow motion. I lay on the road frozen as the car continued to reverse towards me. They haven’t seen me, I thought. This is it. I stared at the reg plate as the car inched on. The lip of the boot was over me and I was staring at the killer wheels when it stopped.
‘I didn’t see you’ the old bespectacled driver said. He was wearing a hat like my grandfather’s.
‘It was only that I saw your bicycle on the road…’
I got to my feet. There was blood. My head and my leg. But that did not concern me. It was the scattered red and white basket that bothered me. The clearly damaged yellow super-de-lux bike. The tea bags. Where are they?
‘Are you alright?’ the old man asked.
‘Oh yes’ I said.
‘Can I help you to get home?’
‘No, no’ I said. ‘Thanks’.
And the old man himself. It bothered me that he was shocked and shaken. The poor old thing. Sure how could he see me, with those great high bushes? He helped me to reassemble the bike. The basket was wrecked, crooked and scratched. The tea-bags had been flung onto the grass verge. My poor mother, I thought, at home waiting for her cup of tea. I put them back into the basket. Then I hobbled, dragging my bike beside me, all the way home. I was nine years old. The doctor was called. There was a lot of hushed talk and whispering in our usually noisy house. Wounds were dressed. Bed rest was ordered. Unless vomit was to follow. Then take her in. My parents sat at my bed and asked me all about him. This driver who had knocked me off my bike and then let me walk home. My mother, especially, was horrified, and tried but failed to temper it. How could he leave you to walk home like that?
He’s old, I told them. Like Grandpa old. He just didn’t see me. It wasn’t his fault. The quiz went on. Could he have been drinking? Did I know the number of his house? They just wanted to have a little visit and a chat about what had happened, they said. They wanted to make sure it wouldn’t happen again. Some other child who may not get up and walk away.
‘It’s the house with the high bushes and this is his number plate’ I said reaming off the numbers and letters from the picture frozen in my head. My mother laughed saying I couldn’t possibly have got the number plate. That I must be confused. Then she peered worryingly into my eyes for signs of concussion.
‘Be nice to him’ I called after them, feeling like a traitor.
‘Yes, we will, just a little chat’. I lay there fretting about the shock the poor old man would get when my parents hammered on his door. He was shocked alright. Not at them calling. He seemed to be expecting that. He invited them in for a whiskey, my mother told me pointedly. Ah god, I thought. How nice of him.
‘He’s in a terrible state and terribly sorry about what happened’ she said. ‘He’s getting the bushes cut down’.
Shame, I thought.
‘Oh and you were right about the number plate’ she said. ‘Except for the M. It was a W.’ Silly me.
I was in a shop recently when the old man childhood devotion came flooding back to me. An old man hovered with his trolley at the bread section. I whipped past him grabbing croissants and flying on to pick up the rest of my bits. At the end I realised I needed bundies too and I went back to the breads. He was still there. Carefully selecting the packages with the yellow stickers. The date is up on them and they are reduced to a steal. Ah god. I’m queueing already when he arrives with his trolley behind me. All he has is the bread. Three little wheaten loaves. I offer for him to go ahead of me. Not that he seems to be in a hurry. He accepts. He glances into my trolley.
‘Plenty in there anyway’ he says,
‘Ah sure, lots of hungry kids’ I say.
‘I remember it well’ he says. Ahead of us a grumpy lady is arguing with the checkout assistant. She is trying to buy the Valentine’s meal for two special deal. Only she doesn’t want the chocolates that come with it. And she has chosen two sides instead of a starter and a side. Because she doesn’t like the look of the starters. Her meal deal won’t scan. Her face is screwed up into an unpleasant ball of dissatisfaction. I wonder about the poor person she’s inflicting her Valentine’s wishes on. Still, as she battles on it gives me a chance to chat with the lovely old man.
‘I had five kids myself’ he says, twinkling. ‘All gone now, all different corners of the world’.
‘Oh dear’ I say, uselessly, wanting to help him, somehow. He looks wistfully into my trolley of plenty and I look dolefully into the careful trolley for one.
‘What can I say?’ he asks, shaking his head.
‘Do you have grandchildren?’ I ask to try to add a bit of cheer.
‘Oh yes, yes’ he says.
‘Still, what can I tell you?’ he says again. ‘All gone’.
It’s as I’m writing this piece that my phone goes.
‘Dad walked off to the shops and hasn’t come back’ I’m told. My own Dad. Now an old man himself. Re-trace his steps, I say, frantically. Blood is found. The police are called. I phone the hospitals.
‘What’s his date of birth?’ My mind freezes. I think he’s there. He must be there if she’s asking that. It floods back to me. His lovely date of birth.
’30th of the 4th, 1934′.
‘Yes, he’s here’.
‘Is he ok?’ I warble down the line.
‘Yes’ the receptionist says to my fast hot tears.
I hear him before I see him. Giving over past medical difficulties. I whip the curtain open.
‘Ah’ he says, smiling at me.
‘How did you know I was here?’
It was Saturday. The day before Valentine’s Day. He had walked to the shops with his stick for The Guardian and some cheese crackers. He was trying to get back in time for the match. France and Ireland. He was nearly home when it happened. He fell, hitting his head off a wall and his arm off the ground. He lay there, he says, perfectly calmly, until someone came along. That someone happened to be a doctor and she told him she was pretty sure something would be broken. She phoned an ambulance. She waited with him until it came. Angel. He had no phone with him and didn’t know our numbers without it. There was no-one for her to call. He’s propped up with his badly fractured arm in a brace. His fingers get stitched. His head gets scanned. Beside him lies his green mesh bag with the newspaper, a pen, crackers, reading glasses and a fiver in it. His bloodied tweed jacket is folded beside it. His stick hangs from a table. We start into the crossword as we wait for the others to arrive.
Ten days later, after acute medical care in a major hospital, I find myself wheeling my Dad into the lunch room of a convalescent place. For all the world it looks like a retirement home. He’ll think we’ve sold him a pup.
‘I’m not terribly hungry’ he says meekly from the chair. He’s only just arrived and doesn’t even know where his bed is yet.
‘Make room for the new boy’, a carer shouts out with a broad smile. He is sandwiched between two other men in wheelchairs. His head bows down in mute shyness. I want to run with him. To whip the brakes off the wheelchair and scraper. It cannot have come to this. The room is deafeningly silent as I chop up his fish. Then a twinkly eyed man sitting across from him pipes up.
‘What happened to your Dad?’
‘Oh, he just fell’ I say, dismissively. As if a mistake has been made. He shouldn’t be here at all.
‘So did I’ the twinkle says.
‘So did I’ another one says, laughing. Younger than my father. Crisp fresh shirt. A healthy bright glow. Encouraging. Maybe this will be alright.
‘I was putting water in the tractor’ the twinkle says.
‘Fell off down onto concrete. Broke the hip’, he chuckles. Dad’s head comes up out of his neck. He’s ready to join in with his fallen comrades. Good on you, twinkle. You’re just what I was hoping to meet as a little girl.
(Addendum: Apologies for the hiatus. This piece was written prior to the unfathomable loss of my father-in-law. Sorely missed by all. A man whose enthusiasm, creativity, fun, strength and love precluded him from ever seeming old to me.)