David Lovibond

Growing old gracelessly

David Lovibond discovers, post-50, that no amount of multi-vitamins or gym visits will put off the onset of 'sordid infirmity'

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My parents died quickly and hygienically, without any sort of precursory illness. I have no siblings, aunts, uncles or cousins whose descent into sordid infirmity might have obliged me to visit them. I have a small platoon of children, it is true, but they all live with their mothers and have saved me from childhood mewlings and pubescent messiness. As a teenager and famed walker of hills, I piled humiliations on the heads of less robust friends, but at night I would steal across the fields in search of a private latrine pit. In my last summer before university I spent months hefting cast-iron dustbins full of wet ash for Liverpool Corporation, before heading off to Switzerland and attacking the Bernese Oberland like a hardened stormtrooper. Yet at night in my Grindelwald pensione I suffered agonies of discomfort and embarrassment at the prospect of using the shared 'facilities'.

Throughout adult life it simply never occurred to me that I could get ill, or that anyone else would either. My various partners knew not to admit to the least ailment: childbirth happened without me, and I was not expected to attend until all the unpleasantness had been tidied away. The years passed and no concessions to maturity were asked of me. I would never become old and, if I grew discontented ...well, then I could run away and renew my contract with Dorian Gray. And that, in celebration of my 50th birthday, is what I did.

For the first time in 30 years I was living alone, free of a female support system. I could reshape my body, reinvent myself as someone younger, and none the wiser. No one would want me to care for them, or wear hurt expressions after my suspicious absences, or expect their friends to be able to use the loo, or ask me how I was. I would take my strength from strangers and live for ever.

It might just have been a fortnight before panic set in. I would return from my revels in the early hours and wander round my ruthlessly clean, utterly silent house, reluctant to go to bed. I woke at dawn and had time to contemplate: if I had died in the night, how long would it be before my mummified body was found? The women I was seeing barely knew the town I lived in, I had left my friends behind, my children might phone a few times, but the rent was paid up and it would be months until the bailiffs broke the door down. Perhaps the smell would bring the neighbours round?

Isolation, deliberately sought in the interests of sexual greed and squeamishness, had very rapidly introduced me to my own mortality. I had ignored that obscure pain in my heart for too long, and I was sure a doctor would be interested in a knobbly lump I'd found. Once begun, the list of my dilapidations expanded alarmingly. My eyes are full of motes, I wheeze; my teeth like Byron's are loosening; I cannot swallow food unless I chew it for half an hour; and there is a high-pitched squealing in my left ear that all but drowns the noise of my laptop. I munch handfuls of multi-vitamins and cod-liver-oil pills, but still my knees creak and fail under me as I pound out the miles on the running machine. And, now I think of it, I'm not at all sure the gym is doing me any good. There's the strain on my obviously crocked heart, the weights make my bones ache, and the place must be full of germs from all that sweating and spluttering. Naturally, I've taken my emerging complaints to the GP, but he seems reluctant to commit the level of resources necessary to investigate them thoroughly. The fool airily dismissed the growth on my arthritic big toe as a bunion, and I was obliged to spend hours waiting among elderly fellow-sufferers for a chiropodist's opinion to prove him wrong.

Now that I am more or less officially in decline, I seem unable to avoid the company of the chronically sick. Whenever I call in at my local and sit by the fire (to keep the chill off), without fail I will be joined by a pilgarlicky phlegm factory who spends his time hawking up great quantities of sputum and casting his fruity tissues on to the coals, where they hiss and bubble. I visit Safeway and gangs of barmy old ladies buzz me with their Zimmer frames, cackling as if in recognition of one of their own. Even some of the women I date seem encouraged to confide intimate details of their gynaecological procedures, in the belief, I suppose, that our shared interests are more likely to be medical than romantic. Regarding women, these months on my own have shown how much more I need them than they can possibly have use for me. In the long watches of the night, I have glimpsed the future: like my grandfather, dead 50 years since, I am a poor, withered relic sunk into the bolsters of my day bed. A youngish woman is leaning over me with a sort of teapot, holding its spout to my peeling lips. She is kindly and attentive, and does not mind the smell.

It will clearly not do, then, to end up with anyone my own age. I might have to look after them, even tend to their repulsive physical needs. I see I'll have to compromise a bit on the bed-hopping, and surrender to the love and unequivocal devotion of a woman young and fit enough to see me out. I do worry, though, whether, in my newly fragile state, I'm quite the catch I was. It's true that I never had any money, property or prospects, but I didn't mind talking about 'feelings', and at least I've always behaved like an 18-year-old. But the other week I spent an evening with a thirtysomething on my arm (or maybe I was on her arm; it had been a tiring day), and I laid the whole number on her – plenty of guff about red wine and firesides, woodland walks, Paris in the springtime, the importance of vests – when at a particularly sensitive moment she turned to me and said, 'You have old man's ears.' I decided there was no future in our relationship. I want someone who can see past the physical to the man beneath. I'm not going to waste the best years of my life on some flibbertigibbet with no appreciation of interesting medical conditions.