Photo By OSTFlorida (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
I wrote the attached story 'Sweet Pea Lodge' for Wordplay and it was published in an anthology a while ago ('Talk of the Towns').
This story is completely true, except for the name of the 'Home' and the venue. I used to attend weekly as a community worker over a period of around a year in the 1990s. 'Kitty' and 'Annie' were the ladies' real names. Sadly, they are no longer with us. Both were real characters, especially Kitty!
Having joined a ‘Help the Community’ scheme initiated by the local Branford Council, I had changed my usual visiting day to the present one to help celebrate resident Kitty’s birthday, and upon arrival at the ‘House,’ could hear raised voices and singing coming from the lounge….“Father had a donkey; stuck it in the yard. One summer’s day it was snowing effing hard…” sang Kitty in full throttle, before ‘Matron’ (as I privately nicknamed her) - in fact the head carer - intervened. Her name is Veronica, but I always think and refer to her as Matron as she has a ‘no-nonsense-take-no-prisoners’ persona which masks a kind heart. “Really, Kitty!” she said, tutting, “Control yourself…”
Kitty, aged 90 years old on that very day: a tiny, jolly lady with an earthy sense of humour which even Alzheimer’s – somehow or other - hadn’t completely destroyed, had no intention of controlling herself….
I gave her a birthday card and said two of the most over-worked words ever, while giving her a hug. She may have been 90, but Kitty had magically retained or refashioned ‘a little girl’ mentality, and swished the skirt of her favourite cotton dress like a ten-year-old. The effects of her illness were still evident, but her lively personality shone through.
“Is this for me?” she asked, tearing open the envelope. The card was a funny one intended to make her laugh. She duly obliged. “Yes,” I answered, “What does it feel like to be ninety, Kit?”
“I’m not!” she refuted hotly, ‘I’m seventy!’ Well, whatever age she thought she was, she had worn well and had one of those soft pink and white complexions which now and then endure the ravages of time
“By the way, I like your hair do!” I said to placate her. She didn’t answer, but patted her newly permed grey curls with a satisfied smirk.
“Tea and cake in the dining room soon, Kitty!” announced Matron. Another voice belonging to a friend piped up: “Goobedly dando!” she said and grinned. A newish visitor to these ladies, I hadn’t met Margaret before that day. Matron had just introduced us. “Bludog verly…” she replied. I had to stop the tears from spilling as she was such a sweet person, quite oblivious of her dysfunctional state. That could be me in the future, I thought…
Before I continue, I must tell you where this worthy ‘establishment’ is sited… Starting with its name, ‘Sweet Pea Lodge’ is, on consideration, an unfortunate epithet for the sprawling, not unattractive, brick built building, as it houses a motley collection of mature folk of both sexes (mostly female), some of whom are – how can I put it? - well, slightly (and sometimes more so) incontinent. Someone once wrote on a London wall ‘Harwich for the continent and Frinton for the incontinent,’ but I mustn’t labour the point… I am not being indelicate by pointing this out, as it is a fact of life for some of us unluckier souls.
Cans of lavender spray, and bowls of carefully placed pot pourri are not uncommon sights in Sweet Pea Lodge. (The latter placed higher up in case they are eaten by the residents!)
This particular ‘Home for the Elderly & Infirm,’ is situated on the outskirts of Branford in Essex and squats on one corner of an average-sized park, generously planted with various trees and plants, providing a ‘child friendly’ area with swings, slides and so on. (The park, that is!)
The building is well thought-out, with airy, private rooms containing a sink unit: bathrooms being separate. Both lounge and dining room have been carefully ‘colour co-ordinated’ and are bright and cheerful. Outside, there is a large patio area with tables and chairs, where the residents are encouraged to take the air, weather permitting. Architects periodically receive a lot of sometimes deserved flak, but whoever designed this place earned a thumbs up.
Branford has a fascinating history for, in the distant past, at least two Kings, with their Queens and retinue regularly visited nearby Havering-atte-Bower, situated a few miles east of the town, during the summer months to escape the steaming London streets, which literally stank to high heaven
Havering-atte-Bower and the surrounding countryside – still lush in parts – and now dotted with attractive, often detached houses and bungalows, was relished for its cleaner air; and trips to the perfumery (vital in those days among the rich); the milliners; glove and parasol-makers; dress.- making and leather-goods shops in Branford - all treats for the royal entourage.
The shopping centre then consisted of two rows of stores facing each other over a cobbled square
Now, of course, hundreds of years later, Branford presents a somewhat different face to the new visitor. Glass and steel edifices pronounce the ‘new religion” (according to some): shopping! Public houses - some of which have out-witted time - stand cheek to cheek with more modern large and small stores, most of which seem to do a fair trade, despite the sad economic situation which prevails today; although ‘Charity’ shops are growing apace. But I digress…Back to Sweet Pea Lodge.
“Come along Kitty! We have lit your candles. You have to blow them out.” (nine to represent the decades) said Matron
En masse, our group shuffled into the dining-room. Kitty clapped her hands and dutifully blew on the candles: several times... The cake was then cut and tea poured. All very civilized until Maud Canter: a contrarily quiet and moody lady who wielded a walking stick one had to keep clear of… let out a very loud fart which convulsed Kitty (having a lavatorial sense of humour) into enthusiastic guffaws.
Matron tried pretending that everything was quite normal, but Kitty said “Phew – that was a corker!” to Maud, who, fortunately, was hard of hearing as well as windy. I passed around the cups of tea and made as sensible conversation as could be understood.
With mouths busy, all became quiet in the pleasantly furnished and decorated dining room until Annie, a whey-faced lady who wore a continual frown – Kitty’s best friend - let out a cry.
“Oh dear,” she said, “I nearly forgot Albert’s dinner….” And she disappeared into her room nearby, reappearing a few moments later, wringing her hands (a constant action). “Someone’s stolen the gas stove!” and she started to weep until comforted by Sally, one of the carers. Poor Albert (who choked on a fishbone in 1990) was soon forgotten.
“Shall we go for a walk, Kit?” asked Annie, brightening. And so, off they set, strolling about twenty paces down the corridor, before returning and repeating the process about four times, until they tired
Kitty re-opened the card I gave her – having tucked it back into the envelope – and exclaimed in great excitement. “Oh, someone’s sent me a birthday card!” I was standing nearest to her. “Yes, I did,” I said quietly. That innocuous card was opened, tucked away; walks taken and then the envelope re-opened and the card re-admired no less than four times during my time there.
Read Part 2 here.