This story is inspired by a beautiful poem called ‘The Fish’ by Elizabeth Bishop. It is a reminder not to dismiss an often forgotten generation. Helping the elderly is not just a charitable endeavour it will also bring wisdom and comfort to the many lost souls of today’s youth.It is a two-way street.
The light spray of cherry rain on my face was startling and strangely cooling. I had been trying one of the Barefoot Contessa recipes and was at a crucial moment in the stirring process. I was both surprised and slightly irritated when the unfamiliar twang of my out of practice door-bell permeated the more gentle rhythm of my food mixer. Red from exertion, I opened the door cautiously and reminded myself yet again that I really should invest in one of those glass eye things. That was when my face met the cherry aftermath of a gum bubble. The creature that stood before me looked as if she had absorbed the colour out of the grey day and put it all into her jacket. I blinked slowly taking it all in.
‘Mum said she rang you to tell you I’d be over?’ A pair of glossy pouting lips drew back in the pink gum, leaving a small but galvanising stain on the corner of her mouth.
I knew I was out of touch with the younger generation but I was pretty sure that ‘hello’ was still a normal way to greet someone, especially an older person such as myself.
‘Lena, I assume? And yes she called. I thought you’d be over later.’ I wouldn’t have started my recipe if I had known otherwise.
‘I thought I’d get it over with.’ She paused. ‘No offence’.
‘Hmm’ I was a little offended.
‘So what do you need?’
‘Excuse me?’ I had expected a visit from a neighbour’s daughter was all. That’s all I had agreed to and despite what others might think about someone my age I wasn’t THAT forgetful.
‘Hoovering? Dusting? Washing Up? I won’t clean the loo though so don’t even suggest it.’
Oh so this was a ‘help the old lady down the road’ situation. I didn’t need any help and was perfectly capable of cleaning my own bathroom. It really irked me that younger people presumed that you were sitting at home crying for help and would fawn over a visit from anybody at all. The media had caused that I suppose. We were a great project for the ‘do-gooders’ of society’. I had even tried the whole ‘visit from a friend’ debacle a few years ago. This was only to appease the local health nurse who was convinced I was pining for company. I told her that I had never been the most sociable of creatures so I never knew why I was expected to become one as the years drew on!
‘Ah go on love it’ll be lovely.’ She had enthused ‘Some of our members become lifelong friends with their elder person.’ Great.
I had been set up with a visit from a young woman who had evidently had a pang of awareness at her lack of effort in the ‘charity department’. The fact she had even said this to me was testament to her lack of tact. She had visited me once a week for two months and we had both sat in excruciating awkwardness. I felt a bit sorry for her as she tried to talk about my health.
‘So how are you pet?’ She would say, her manicured hand patting my knee.
‘Pet?’ I was twice her age .I had never divulged private information about myself to people I hardly knew and I wasn’t about to start now. I had however tried to make conversation. I’m not an impolite person and could recognise a kind, if unnecessary gesture. I asked her about a man and regretted it immediately when she winced as though I had hit her. She was single and lived with two other women, all young professionals. The possibility of not finding ‘The One’ seemed to be dawning on her and I was, I suppose, the effort by this young woman to save her own future. Perhaps if she saved me she could convince herself that someday she wouldn’t end up all alone. I didn’t want to tell her that one visit a week did not a life of loneliness erase! To my relief, these visits had soon petered out. Maybe she had found a more malleable old dear to mould into her Hollywood view of ageing.
Lena had taken my puzzled face as an invite in and brushed passed me into the living room. She was standing looking around with an air of bemusement. An ‘Oh’ of what I gathered to be disappointment popped out of her mouth and she looked like one of those sex dolls I had seen a documentary about. She was dressed quite provocatively for someone her age. Yikes I sounded like my own mother, God rest her soul.
‘Your house is tidy enough.’
‘Thanks, I think.’ She really was a charmer ‘So you see I don’t really need any help, you can sit here for a while and I’ll go finish my cake’ I paused reluctant to offer the next bit ‘Or… you can help me bake?’
She rolled her eyes ‘So we can bond like they always do on TV?’
I took the ‘they’ to mean her generation and mine.
‘Don’t be so cynical and don’t flatter yourself, I have no need to bond with anyone at my age.’
The goldfish expression of surprise remained on her face. Years of practice coupled with my sagging skin meant that expressions weren’t as easily decipherable, compared to my youth when every jibe would crumble my smooth face. She didn’t seem to care whether she had insulted me or hurt my feelings. Loneliness was at least more gratifying than watching your offspring turn into monsters such as this one. I could hear her well-meaning mother’s voice trying to save her daughter’s soul while simultaneously patting her own back for being so ‘ aware’ and setting a good example
‘Poor Mrs Stone’ she would have said ‘has no one to look out for her so I expect you to call over to her and keep her company and maybe help her with some chores’
‘No buts.’ I remember my own mother using that one. Some things I’m sure hadn’t changed.
I was lost in reverie before I realised that she had plonked herself down in my favourite seat and was plugging something small and white into her ears.
‘Excuse me young lady.’ Her eyes remained closed and her face was bobbing to the rhythm of whatever was pulsing through the white wires. I wasn’t so decrepit that I didn’t realise that this was the new way to listen to music. I had my own cassette player for God’s sake which I listened to even now. My God- daughter had bought me lovely set of Jane Austen Novels on Tape years ago now. I say lovely because I have grown to like those old fashioned period stories but they were never really my thing before. The assumption that everyone over sixty must rave over ‘Pride and Prejudice’ amused me. I don’t assume that all teenagers these days listen to satanic rock or engage in depraved sexual acts although looking at Lena and hearing the thud-thud vibration of her earphones might change this. Anyway the tapes still managed to work although I have to say my hearing wasn’t so wonderful and I couldn’t manage to find a cassette player in town which I could listen to without taking out my hearing aid. An extremely polite young man had informed that people no longer listened to cassettes and that they had been replaced first with CD’s which of course I had heard of but now it seems that you could buy music on the computer which of course I didn’t try to pretend to understand. I can’t keep up of course and don’t try to. This must be what this lady was listening to however as the device in her hand was no larger than a pack of cigarettes and much much thinner.
I tapped her on the shoulder which did not result in anything but a slow opening of her eyes which gazed up at me with what I can only say was insolence personified.
‘You are sitting in my chair’ my tone was angrier than I had hoped.
‘Aren’t they all your chairs?’ She scoffed at her perceived witticism. ‘Anyway I thought you were going to bake.’
She was right and I wasn’t sure what point I was trying to make but I felt I had to.
‘Yes but this is the one I sit in.’
She lay back an instant then jumped up suddenly stretching out her arms and yawning widely revealing the stained interior of her mouth left no doubt by the foul smelling confection she had been chomping on minutes ago.
‘I suppose I better be going then.’
‘Well I didn’t think you were going to move in.’
Her eyes rolled and then something caught her eye and she ran over to my DVD collection.
‘Wow you have a great collection, I love Tarrantino too!’ She giggled ‘I didn’t think you’d be into his films, no offence.’
I wasn’t offended this time. The truth was that I had been given the Tarrantino collection by accident one Christmas by my niece. I had chuckled quite a bit while imagining the nice set of fuzzy slippers or other ‘old lady’ gift her boyfriend had received. Trying to save her blushes, I had acted completely delighted over the phone and she hadn’t had the heart to tell me about her mistake. And so it was that on a lonesome Christmas evening I sat down with a glass of wine and met my ultimate heroine ‘B*#@@*~~’. It had become my hobby since then to wander over to the local DVD store and pick up a new title, something I would never have looked at before. This was a way of expanding my now ever narrowing horizons. Either- way, Lena seemed impressed and I, despite myself, felt a little proud.
‘She kicks ass doesn’t she?’ Lena was referring to the DVD. ‘You have some great ones here, some even I haven’t seen … yet.’ She grinned and her face was transformed into something akin to pretty although she had the most unusual features which included a pierced snubbed nose.
‘Oh ‘I was getting the hint ‘Do you want to watch one?
‘Well I have to stay a little while so mum will believe that I helped you out.’
‘Aren’t you the scheming little thing? Would you not rather hang out with people your own age?’ I was teasing but her face clouded over and I wished I could take it back. I seemed to have a knack of hurting young girls’ feelings. I hadn’t realised they were so sensitive. It had been a while since my skin had been so thin.
‘If you don’t want to, it’s fine. You’re not the first person not to want to hang out with me’. She wasn’t looking at me but at the back of a DVD case, ‘My own mother even wants me out of her way’.
‘I’m sure that’s not the case, she just wanted to make sure I wasn’t lonely’.
‘Hmmm, maybe, whatever.’
‘You’re more than welcome to stay and pick one out to watch, you can start it there and I’ll go finish this cake’.
I finished stirring in the dry ingredients and popped them all into the red baking dish I had bought after being inspired by a film on pie-making. My bland kitchen air was making room for its warmer spiced replacement as I made my way back into the living room.
She had picked the ‘Time Travellers Wife’, one of my favourites. I had read the book in one day, one of the advantages of living alone. The film had made me weep like a baby and seemed to be having the same effect on Lena. I sat down in my seat which she had since vacated and let myself be drawn in.
‘He’s so lucky to be able to do that’ she whispered this without taking her eyes off the screen.
‘What? Time-travel? ’ I contemplated this ‘I suppose… sometimes’. I imagined travelling backwards and meeting my younger self. What would I tell her? Would I warn her about who she would become? A spinster living on her own? Perhaps not. I was after all, content with this life. I wouldn’t like so many of my friends have wanted to settle for someone instead of no-one. Now most of them had buried their other halves and were only now getting used to being on their own where I had had years of practice. Old age could be a very dangerous place if you let it get that way.
‘No not Time-travel.’ She looked over at me her face was covered in tears ‘lucky to find someone who understands him even though he’s different’. To not feel like it’s just him against the world’.
All of a sudden just as one of my favourite poets had put it ‘Everything was rainbow, rainbow, and rainbow.’
‘Would you like some cake?’
‘Yes.’ Her eyes met mine. ‘Please’.