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Low Life

It’s good to talk

11 February 2009

12:00 AM

11 February 2009

12:00 AM

It’s good to talk

Last week, when the snow lay thickly on the ground, in a rare burst of altruism I picked up the telephone and dialled the number of a frail, elderly and vulnerable member of our community, to ask her if there was anything I could get for her from the village stores. The phone rang and rang and rang. Just as I was about to give up I heard the receiver being fumbled into position and a quavering, phlegm-coated voice say hello.

‘How are you?’ I said. ‘Do you need anything from the shop?’

I ought to have known that getting answers to these simple questions was no easy matter. I was perhaps the first person she’d spoken to for days. Far greater than her need for bread or milk was her need to talk. She asked after my boy, whom she’d watched grow up. Had I seen him lately? I told her we didn’t see much of each other nowadays, now that he was taken up with his girlfriend and her children. ‘Well, he’s a fool,’ she said crisply, ‘putting all his eggs in one basket like that. And you can tell him that from me when you see him next.’

‘How are you for milk?’ I said.

‘Have you heard about Frank?’ she said. Frank is the gallant old gentleman who’d replied to her ad in the ‘lonely hearts’ column of the local paper. Until about six months ago he used to visit her regularly. He would come on the bus from his home 30 miles away, stay for a few days, and then catch the bus home again. The news about Frank was that he had fallen over at home and broken his leg. He was on the floor for nearly two days. If his home help hadn’t come in and found him, he might have died from hypothermia. The ordeal affected him badly, she said, because shortly after that he’d ‘lost his mind’ and had to go into a nursing home.

She sounded pleased about this. They are both in their nineties and I think she saw their relationship as a contest in which whoever ailed and died first lost. There were bonds of affection, yes. Frank was deeply fond of her and called her ‘dear’. But she was at bottom contemptuous of him because he was a man, and the note of triumph in her voice was distinct.

‘What about milk. Do you need any milk?’ I said.

But now she’d started, she wanted to talk about Frank. She remembered his last visit, when she and Frank were at the breakfast table. Frank had an accident in his trousers and wouldn’t acknowledge it, even though it was quite obvious. ‘He just sat there as if nothing had happened,’ she said. ‘“Well? What are you going to do about it?’’ I said. “Are you going to go upstairs and see to yourself or are you going to just sit there?” And do you know what he said? He said, “Oh, why don’t you leave me alone?” And he sat there without moving or speaking until 12 o’clock. I said, “If you’re going to be like that, Frank, I think it’s better that you don’t come again.” And that was the last time I saw him. Eight years he’s been coming to stay, and we got on quite well I thought, and then it ended stupidly like that.’

‘Or how about a nice loaf of bread?’ I said. ‘If the delivery man has managed to get through.’

She ignored this and started telling me the latest news of Quenby, her granddaughter in Florida. Quenby has now divorced the gynaecologist and married a Toyota dealer and she’s spending all his money instead. ‘She’s got Cyrus eating out of the palm of her hand and she’s going through his money like water,’ she said, proudly. I’ve seen this Quenby when she’s been over here visiting her grandma. Fit or what? And actually I enjoy hearing about how yet another wealthy, self-made, once proud man has come to grief on the dangerous shoals of Quenby. But I hadn’t time for any of this. If I’m going to be the good Samaritan, like him I want to waste as little time over it as possible.

‘Diamonds, sapphires, fast cars,’ she was saying dreamily. ‘What about a loaf?’ I persisted. ‘Well, I could always do with some bread, I suppose,’ she conceded, as though she was doing me a favour. ‘But I don’t want any of that half white and half brown nonsense that they have up there. I’d like a soft white. Medium sliced.’

So I put my boots on and went up to the village stores, but the bread shelf was bare, apart from two loaves of ‘half and half’, and my little burst of altruism came to nothing, like the snow, which by the middle of the afternoon had melted completely away.

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