Friday, 11 February 2011

Jamming with the oldies

Let's roll
I spent a month working at an old folks' day centre in south London in about 2004. I drove the ambulance and did the meals-on-wheels round. 

I was doing some freelance writing and sent this story on spec to the sadly defunct but great Jack magazine. They didn't fancy it at the time - I think I punted it out to a few places to no avail.

On re-reading it I think the last bit comes across as a little bit nasty but presumably I meant it at the time. Anyway here it is: 

What do old people do all day? What can possibly fill the chasm between breakfast and Fifteen to One? They can’t all sit indoors waiting for next door’s kids to boot the ball into their yard. Well, a lot of them go to day centres.  

So grab a sarsaparilla and set a spell as our skilled operative says “Ello love!” to a world
of boiled bacon, seniors’ singles nights and psychotic pooches to bring you five days with Britain’s golden oldies.

“Yeah, I had a very relaxing weekend, as it goes. I cleaned my dogs. I’ve got about 300 now – porcelain ones they are – models, like.” Bert, one of the centre’s volunteers, is chatting away as the scenery slides by. He’s escorting today – basically helping the old dears (women really do outlive their men – especially round here) in to the ambulance.

Even by the centre's alternate universe standards, Bert’s a bit odd. With his shaving brush goatee, facial piercings, beads and leathery skin he looks like Mr Potato Head’s demented half-brother.

“There’s a three-legged greyhound lives there,” he points towards Rockstone old people’s home as we drive past. “A little cracker he is, a trier – and you have to admire that.” We drive to the next pick up. Bert is now in full flow: “I was out this morning – walking my dog – three o’clock it was…”

“Three…” I interrupt, despite myself, “…am?”

“Yeah. Got to. He’s nuts. And when I say my dog’s nuts – I mean nuts. It’s a pit bull/mastiff cross – he’ll attack anything. Even with the muzzle on he goes for other dogs.” Bert reflects on this for a moment: “And black people.”


“Yeah, black people. He hates ‘em. Can smell ‘em – smells their arrogance, I think. Now, Asians he’s fine with. Had one stay with us once – no bother. I can’t explain it. I got a £200 fine once when he attacked a six-foot African. Had to get him muzzled, neutered,the lot.”

We drive back in silence.

Overheard in the ambulance: “She had her breast off on Thursday. Marvellous woman.”

My first go at Meals on Wheels. I’m carrying the food while Pam drives and shows me the round. A couple of drops in and things are going fine. We stop at the next one. I get out to get the food. Pam seems troubled. Something’s on her mind but she can’t quite work out what. I get the food and walk towards the front door. 

Then she twigs: “He’s incontinent!”

Too late – I press the bell. The door opens. At first, nothing. Then it hits me - the stench is incredible – my eyeballs start to peel. He’s covered in it – it’s in his clothes, his hair, everywhere. 

Breathing through my ears I place the food on his tray – disaster – he has to pay. He fishes in his pocket and brings out a sodden five-pound note. This is a logistical nightmare. I hold the change-bag at him and nod into the bag. He’s talking but I can’t hear – I nod at the bag again. He doesn’t understand and puts the fiver in my not-offered hand. 

Time stands still.

I’ve held my breath so long my brain is changing shape, I’m rummaging for change and all the while the sodden fiver is nuzzling against my hand – spreading its vileness on to me – I will never be clean again. Therapy is founded on less.

I give him his change and walk slowly back to the car. I have a nagging fear that this is just the kind of
thing that’ll rear up and haunt me mid-coitus or, worse still, mid-masturbation.

We drive off with me muttering “that’s just not right,” while dangling my hand out the window.

Back at the centre, Frances - one of the helpers - sits down. She’s friendly, in her sixties and not shy.
There was a singles night at the club last night (all old people go to “the club”).  She leans over and, in
a conspiratorial whisper, says: “I had a right result. I’m not after anything serious though. You should come down,” she looks straight at me. “We get a right mix down there.”


“Well, think about it – we’re going on Thursday.”

Bert’s been missing most of the day, but turns up as we start taking people home. He’s very quiet and, to nick a line from Only Fools and Horses, I don’t know what’s wrong with him but he stinks of booze. He’s staring at Frances.

She walks past. “I wanna stick my tongue…” Bert slurs – he’s unsure, but committed to making a tit of himself. He leans forward – his eyes loll unattractively: “Nah, I’m not gonna get involved,” he breathes in. “Come here… You’re just so…eatable.” 

There’s a flurry of activity and he’s led away by one of the carers. “This is serious ruin, serious ruin,”
is the last we hear of him for the day. 

Back on the ambulance, Mary is last to be dropped. She has a zimmer frame and has to use the tail-lift to get out. The tail-lift moves slowly. She’s booked in to get her hip sorted soon: “I’m waiting to have it replaced. It takes a while,” she says. She may have said more but it’s hard to concentrate when someone’s nappy is showing.

Overheard on the ambulance: 
“Are there any men going on this trip (to Anglesey)?”

-Long pause, with the sound of boiled sweets being opened –
“Well, there’s them two 90-year-olds.”

I’m out with John today. He’s driving and I’m chucking them on the bus. We head down to Sydenham High Street, a car wriggles past us: “That’s a left turn lane!” John shouts. “I tell you – 90 per cent of them that do that are black. They just can’t wait can they?”

I study my sleeve.

Another car pulls the same trick, we pull alongside. “Here we go. Let’s see what colour it is. There you
are!” he shouts triumphantly.” The rest of the trip is spent with John seething at everything the other side of the windscreen and me wondering if he’s the sort of bloke who’d happily die as long as he could take total strangers with him. I buckle my seatbelt.

Back at base Frances makes a cup of tea. Her glasses peek out from a maelstrom of hair – she was out last night. There’s a problem.

“I can’t have this,” she points at the milk. “Where’s the soya stuff? I’m not supposed to eat dairy. You
know - eggs, butter, milk, ice cream – all that.” 

She looks at me: “It’s ‘cos of my clitoral.”


“My clitoral – sorry, clist’rel. It was eight-point-summink. It’s down to four point four now.”

The singles night goes, mercifully, unmentioned.

She drinks the tea anyway. 

I’m let out on my own for meals on wheels. Not being a local, the route is a bit of a puzzler so Allan, a lad who goes to the nearby drop-in centre, is navigating. Allan has slight learning disabilities. The first drop is just round the corner. We buzz the man’s flat and he lets us in.

“Up here, mate.” We plod up the stairs and prod the door open. There, in the kitchen, is Mr Johnson. In his skids. 

There’s a gasp from somewhere.

“Sorry mate,” he explains. “It’s more comfortable in the heat.” Nonetheless it’s an image that just won’t
quit. The rest of the round goes badly. The sudden heat wave – accompanied, as ever, by fat women appropriating the dress of their thinner pals - has left the area buckling under the strain of mid-90s temperatures.

The food – in a ‘hot box’ in the back of the van – is actually getting hotter. It also becomes clear that,
while Allan’s knowledge of the area is indeed vast, he can’t tell the difference between left and right – or rather, he can’t express the difference. Either way, it’s bad.

The other problem is he can’t count very well. So each drop repeats a pattern: I remain in the van, from where I watch Allan drop the food off, come back to get the change purse (which he’s forgotten), walk back to the punter, stand in the doorway looking puzzled, look over at me sitting in the van, grin at me, grin at the punter, then run back to the van saying: “He’s got to pay £3.20 and he’s given me a tenner,” – huge, vast pause at this point, moon shots are done quicker – “so he wants…” 

When we get back to the centre I tell Pam, who’s in charge of meals-on-wheels, that Allan, while being a nice lad, is in fact useless. He has no use. At least not when there’s money to be collected.

Pam says: “We have to use people with learning difficulties – that’s how it is.” But my patience reserves are empty: “Yes, but where does learning difficulties stop and stupid begin?’ I ask.

Where indeed? Not a good day.

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