Friday, December 10, 2004

A Silver Dawn story-2

He arrived on a wet November afternoon. I was sitting in the day room, trying to ignore the mindless Australian soap opera that so many of the residents followed with a will missing from the rest of their lives. I remember sitting in the lumpy old armchair I favour for its view out the window and watching him getting out of the taxi.

From a distance he looked impossibly old. His posture was stooped in a manner I had learned to associate with chronic osteoarthritis. His body must have been very thin, as his clothes looked several sizes too large, as if he had lost a lot of weight and not had the money to buy a new wardrobe. I remember wondering if he had cancer.

Despite his apparent frailty he brought his bags into the hotel himself. All he had was a large, cheap-looking suitcase and an odd little bag that looked a bit like a misshapen and oversized Gladstone bag. I would later find out from one of the other residents, who had seen one before, that it was designed to carry bowling ball, as used in ten-pin bowling.

I pictured Mr. Rae more as the lawn bowls sort.

He was placed in the room next to mine - number 23. Mrs. Wilson, the room's previous occupant, had succumbed to a fatal bowel blockage a little over a week previously. It had taken most of the intervening period for the hotel's cleaner to make the room habitable again.

I met Mr. Rae properly at dinner. The only spare seats in the dining room were the three others at my table. In my last years with Harold I must have forgotten how to be sociable, our animosity being my only real human contact.

He sat down without asking permission. When I glanced up from my soup he flushed suddenly and said: "Sorry. Do you mind?" His voice was quiet and unsure. I shook my head and went back to my meal. It had taken me a moment to recognise him as the same man I has seen coming into the hotel that afternoon. Up close he did not look quite as ancient as he had at a distance. His face, while quite haggard, was not lined as much as I would have expected from a man of his age.

The waitress, a young girl with the most alarming acne I can remember seeing, brought Mr. Rae a plate of soup. He looked down at it with confusion. "Don't they ask us what we want?" he whispered.

I tried to smile. "If you want choice, there are a number of reasonably good restaurants within a short walk of the hotel. If you want economy, then you take what you are given."

He tasted the soup and grimaced. "Mulligatawny?" he asked.

"Supposedly. I think they just heat up their leftover ox-tail and add some curry powder."

He took another spoonful, slurping loudly. One learns to tolerate such ill manners when one is surrounded by old people. "Oh well," he said, "I suppose I have to keep my strength up."

Between our waitress taking our bowls away and coming back with a main course he introduced himself. "James Rae," he said, extending a hand awkwardly across the table.

I shook the offered hand gently, for fear of breaking something in that fragile frame of his. "Well, Mr. Rae, welcome to the Atlantic. I'm Dorothy Smith. My family call me Dotty, but I'd rather you didn't. I've never really liked it."

He laughed politely, but it turned to coughing. He doubled up, his coughing getting wetter and louder. It passed none too quickly and when he straightened up he was red faced with exertion and embarrassment. "I'm sorry," he said. "I'm not quite as healthy as I once was."

There was a long, awkward silence. I struggled to remember how people made small talk. "Are you a widower?" I asked. Not the most delicate icebreaker, but I thought it might help to establish some common ground between us.

His reaction, however, was not what I expected. A look of unbearable pain passed across his face. "Not exactly," he said.

I waited for some elaboration. When it was apparent that none was forthcoming I ventured: "Not exactly? What an odd answer. Surely one is either or widower or not." I immediately regretted the way my question sounded. My manners were definitely not what they once had been.

He looked even more uncomfortable. "My wife is very ill. She has not been able to move or talk to me for some time."

"I'm so sorry. My husband died after a stroke. Is your wife in a local hospital? It's just that I..." I was rescued from the situation by the waitress bringing our main courses. The plates held a meagre portion of thinly sliced beef, mashed potatoes and boiled cabbage. The gravy was thin and had a colour that brought comparisons to my mind I would sooner have left outside it.

"It's a knife meal tonight, at least," I said after the first mouthful.

Mr. Rae looked at me, puzzled. "Knife meal?"

"There was a three week period not long ago during which I never once had to use a knife during a meal here. Some I could have eaten with a straw. They do things with minced beef that make it little more than baby food. Since then I've divided the meals up into knife and knifeless. This, happily, is a knife meal. It almost makes it worth having false teeth.""

And for the first time I saw Mr. Rae smile. He had a lovely smile.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

A Silver Dawn story

So many people come to Hastings to die: it's something of a tradition. We don't necessarily think of it in those terms at the time, but that's what we do. It's like the story of the elephants' graveyard, but with the elephants replaced by aged, lonely and distressed gentlefolk; white elephants, I suppose.

When my husband, Harold, passed on I put myself through the normal grieving process, surrounded by comforting friends and family. It was all very civilised, but I couldn't abide it. The problem was that I was a fraud. My husband and I had weathered almost fifty years of marriage, but had hated each other quietly for most of the latter half of it. Neither of us ever tried to understand or explain why. We found it easier to stay together, for financial reasons and to preserve appearances. Oh yes, and the old stand-by: for the sake of the children. Love and companionship no longer mattered. I would like to think our children never knew.

Our eldest son, Michael, offered to take me in, worried that a woman of my age was somehow incapable of living on her own. I discovered a vein of independence in myself that must have lain dormant since the days of the war and my youth and declined, announcing that I would be moving to Hastings. I suppose if I were to be truly honest I would have to say the real reason was that I could no longer take all the kind words and sympathy: the strain of the hypocrisy would, I fear, have robbed me of my few remaining years.

I had not taken into account Harold's pension being reduced after his death; when combined with my state pension it allowed me to survive, barely, by living in what only charity would forbid describing as a flop-house. The Atlantic Hotel was once a grand old Victorian building, gutted in the 1950s and divided up into low-rent rooms little larger that gaol cells. It is filled with old men and women, many with stories not too dissimilar to mine. Its corridors have a smell of urine and death that no disinfectant will ever shift.

It was there that I met Mr. Rae.