Jeremy Clarke Jeremy Clarke

Sleeping with Freda

As the care crisis worsens, Jeremy Clarke recalls the strange final years of a spinster who lived in a residential home run by his parents

Miss Busby’s room – room five – had a westerly facing seaview. Latterly, if it was shaping up to be a particularly beautiful one, and there was nothing on telly, I’d go and sit with her and watch the sunset. We’d sit side by side in a pair of her comfortable high-backed antique chairs and watch the sun going down in flames over the sea. We didn’t say a lot. We’d just sit there in appreciative, companionable silence. It was very therapeutic.

Sometimes I’d turn my head and see the redness of the sun reflected on her face. She had rather a long, hooked nose and her eyes were small and a bit too close together. And whenever she had her hair done it fluffed up, ludicrously, like candy-floss. But it was a fascinating face, one that had looked out on three very different centuries. I’d sit there in the failing light and scrutinise the face of a living Victorian.

Freda was born in 1898, the year after the Diamond Jubilee, which, says Jan Morris, marked the apogee of the British empire. Freda’s earliest memory was of celebrating the relief of Ladysmith in 1900 with her parents. She could remember banging a toy drum and chanting, ‘Hurrah! Hurrah! Ladysmith’s been relieved!’ She could remember it, she claimed, as clearly as if it were yesterday.

In 1915, when she was 17, two young privates were billeted at the family home. Freda fell for one, her elder sister, Olive, for the other. When the soldiers sailed for France six weeks later, the infatuations continued by post. I’ve seen some of the letters Freda received from her soldier, Frank. Frank puts on a brave, even cheerful face about every aspect of the battle of the Somme, except the shelling. The shelling makes him nervous. His last letter is written from a trench in a wood where, he tells her, the shelling is ‘very hot’.

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