Swallow Hall was once a very grand place, well outside the town and set in lush formal gardens within the estate wall. Now alas time has caught up with the rambling building as it has the tumble-down town that has itself tumbled to new lows. Still ‘Swallow House’ as it is now, is a home for the ancient and the hopeless but also well-heeled folk. To stay here costs a small fortune so that the complement is made up of the well-to-do and well connected gentry.
I suppose I am one of these. The place wreaks of money, old biddies who look close to the morgue are bedecked with jewels that radiate the decadence of the wearers. The old crones stagger about on Zimmer frames or career around in electrically driven chairs, maintaining their strict social cliques like ducks on a small pond. The accents cut the air with a sharp English knife, everyone is ‘frightfully’ this or ‘frightfully’ that. Some seem content to talk and to listen to gibberish. All part of the business of decay I suppose.
Swallow House has two floors around a sort of quadrangle, the ground floor houses the common rooms, excepting that portion where there are ten bedroom suites for the chronically infirm and those with dementia. Or ‘the Lockup’ as some call it. We seldom see these people, unless one keeps an eye out for the late or early visits of Morgan’s Undertakers who slip in and out like large black beetles at irregular intervals. There are degrees of dementia, I mean some days I can’t remember what day it is, or for that matter where I am. But the confusion I don’t think lasts for long.
The out buildings are in much the same state as me, decrepit and crumbling, except of course for the pristine cottages for the married couples. I can’t help but loath them, they have something I do not, they have relative youth, wives and partners who love them, their own communal lounge and restaurant and even motor cars.
In these gently decaying gardens and amongst the sandstone eaves is where the swallows come to build their nests and swoop about the grounds. I suppose they’ve always come, to rest after their heroically long journeys from Africa. I gather that Swallow farm preceded Swallow Hall and House, so I suppose these little fellows have been coming and going for centuries. Their elegant acrobatics are almost too quick for my old eyes, but they cheer me up in the evenings and I have taken to coming into the garden to watch them before supper. They’ll be darting about when I’m gone, – good for them.
It is morning and I sit on the patio, the sun rises over the trellis, the roses are not yet at their peak. A lady with huge breasts and extravagant cardigan sits a little way away and she seems to stare into space. She mutters to herself. Her hair is silver and despite her enormous bosom she looks frail, gaunt, as if all her weight has migrated to her chest. Should I talk to her? I did make a quiet salutation but she ignored me in her mumbling. I decide not to make another effort – not to do nothing!
“Good morning.” I speak loudly this time. “What a nice morning it is.”
She continues to mumble. I huff. Then I notice she has a prayer book in her hand and I assume she’s at her morning prayer alternatively of course might be that she’s on the wrong end of the dementia scale.. I huff some more, my dalliance with religion has long since passed, and I wander off to the morning room where the staff are just putting out the coffee.
“Good morning Mr. Butts” says the large but pretty carer who hails from Bulgaria or somewhere in the east of Europe.
“Betts,… but good morning.” I reply, she looks confused.
I feel anxious, there are already groups of garrulous ladies gathering and making their way to breakfast. I am a stranger here despite my five months residence. The feeling of not belonging and being on my own in amongst this insufferable crowd of spoiled rich old farts is almost overwhelming. It is as if I’m in a glass box and everyone else is outside chattering inanities and twittering for the sake of the noise they make. The morning room is large with lovely wood panelled walls, pictures of various nobles hang unseen. The carpets are pink and thick so that footsteps are seen and not heard. The only sound is the chirping of the ladies’ morning chorus and the clink of dainty English porcelain.
I hope Geoff comes down soon, he’s company. We don’t have much in common except we like cricket and rugby. Geoff is a bit of a duffer frankly, despite his academic achievements but he’s kind and easy going, which is more than can be said of me.
Here comes Joan the General Manager, tall and attractive a fifty something, unmarried career woman, who is determinedly charming and at the same time authoritative.
“Good morning John,” she smiles radiantly, her makeup perfect, her fragrance delicious. “And what are you up to today? There’s the art class at eleven, you were very good at that when you had a go, they miss you, you know.”
In her perfect way she is so fucking smug! I want to shout that I don’t want to paint and watch all those pathetic old ladies daubing like chimps. But I don’t,
“A bit messy for me Joan, but I’ll think about it, I have a good book on the go just now.”
Satisfied she’s made an effort she glides smoothly on. I find I’m sniffing her perfume as she slips away, the aroma reminds me of Margaret.
Here comes Geoff, he’s a lot younger than me, seventy eight, though I like to think that I’m livelier, that is except for my gammy leg. Geoff is tall and like most of us, what hair he has is silver white, he wears glasses which make him look myopic, although he can read a scoreboard at cricket better than me. He always wears a grin, it’s part of his weaker mind perhaps. There, I’m being unkind again. Geoff, always wears odd socks, he does this deliberately so he can start conversations which inevitably start, “Oh dear I seem to have odd socks on..” He does this everywhere, at the races, the cricket in the pub, it annoys me more than I can say, but he’s the only close pal I’ve got so I go along with it and pretend what a surprise it is, even if it’s the third time that particular day.
We sit in the same place we always do and we spend a huge amount of our time avoiding those inmates we can’t bear. This is quite a long list starting with two other men. One is a miserable man who complains about his health all day and the other a retired Bishop whose family is very well-to-do. The ex-Bishop was only a minor or auxiliary bishop but he carries a prayer book with him always and is a pompous self-appointed chaplain. He is, in my not too humble opinion a boring wind-bag who has never seen life to any extent except the country parishes which his family underwrote. He insists on being called ‘Bishop Steven’ which annoys me further. I annoy him by calling him Mister Boyd, which as far as I am concerned is his proper name. .
The other gent is Dan, I can’t recall his full name, he complains nonstop about being eighty or whatever age he is. He speaks as if every breath is his last, a sort of pathetic whisper. He is clearly close to the dementia lockup and often asks me about rugby games of forty or fifty years ago.
“Did you see Dickie Jeeps? What a win on Saturday, was it in Cardiff?” He whispers, smiling, and then in a trice asks “pass the sugar will you Harry.”
I can’t help but shout at him hoping he’ll speak up but he never does. And who the hell is Harry? Who cares? Without being unkind I think he’s longing to ‘kick the bucket’ and that each day is a tremendous trial for him. His pallor is like parchment and he is very bent so that he’s always looking at the floor. Boring old bugger, except these dashes into the past all of which seem completely random. He takes us all by surprise, boring then startling and that’s a fact.
Much to my chagrin the Bishop and Dan both sit at our table. I mumble good morning. Dan takes an age to settle into his dining chair. We all wait, then The Bishop says grace, whilst I noisily rattle my cereal bowl and tea cup.
“No need for all this Mr. Boyd.” I say it quietly, and the Bishop chooses not to hear me.
Dan shuffles interminably and shakes his breakfast dishes with such a tremor that he sounds like misplaced and out of tune percussionist.
Geoff is much nicer than me, he bows his head during grace, and helps Dan to pour the weak tea which is our breakfast lot each day. He and Boyd have a conversation about the weather and the cricket, though in my view Boyd knows bugger all about the game.
Geoff and me are due to have a day out starting at around ten, we’ve booked a taxi to Taunton to watch Somerset play Gloucester, anything to get out of this place with its constant hen house babble. The other men are all around the eighty mark, Peter is an ex-soldier and a very decent sort, the others I hardly know and they always stick together so we are as it were two groups, two cliques with poor Dan wavering between life and death and anyone who will talk to him other than the dreaded Boyd.
Let me say that of the ladies there one or two who would come under the description of attractive. I have not yet felt able to make any advances as I feel I would be being unfaithful to my departed wives Margaret and Johanna. Nevertheless there is sneaking and inescapable desire to make contact with these targets of delight. I am at odds with myself. I am, I know, cutting off my nose to spite my face. Still I find it impossible to cross the line, maybe I’m afraid of rejection, or the defences of the gaggles of women whose closed ranks look formidable.
That is not to say that I have not been approached by several of the ladies, however, I have to say that the attention that I received was not from the quarters I think desirable. Indeed, my response I fancy may well have created an impression that I am distant and cold. I am not. I am lonely and I grieve and it is very hard.
I spend an unreal amount of time dreaming of my past, I remember the fire……..A small boy’s winter in 1937
I remember the fire, burning brightly in the grate, I tugged on my wellies with excited haste, as I watched through the window the snowflakes fall, huge and white, softly deadening the din and brightening the light. Mother’s there, she’s casting spells on mouth-watering tastes and delicious smells.
I’m outside, the snow whiter than I ever saw, my fingers cold, numb, the burning frosts gnaw. Snowballs whiz by, snowmen take shape, and the cold and wetness make me, shake. The snow melts icily into my socks, and makes icicles in my blonde and curly locks. I don’t want to go home; but the cold dictates. Reluctant, shivering I retreat in haste.
Mum rubs me down, at first she’s scolding, and then I’m warmed, with her arms round me folding. Then big sister’s home, she’s bravely boasting she stayed outside while I was in,- toasting, Soon all scrubbed and warm, we sit down together. The pie gives up its glories, all in good measure. The magic outside once more starts to entice, full tummies help us forget the bitter cold ice.
Dad’s come home early, back from his toil. He smells of work and tobacco and oil, his smile supports his fine grey moustache. And despite the weather he’s inclined to laugh, his day’s been without the fun we enjoyed, his lorry’s in snow, quite unemployed.
All filled with the comfort of the steaming hot food. Dad, decides to stop work and stay home with the brood. So he gently ignores our mother’s cry, and helps with socks and boots not quite dry, so that we kids can build and make it our own, the biggest snowman in the whole of the town. Dad and two kids from Mum’s scolding embrace into the enchanted garden they race, where the deep white snow lies so blindingly clean and frames the black coal shed in its brilliant gleam.
How different this palace of decrepitude is, still seventy seven years is a long time.
At eighty four, I have few things to look forward to. Going to the cricket today is perhaps one of them, Geoff is an amiable companion and I know I’m lucky to have him as a friend. Although I thinks he’s a bit on the slow side his background belies this. He was indeed a Professor of Physics if you please, I discovered this quite by accident when I noticed all these journals piled high in his rooms. All completely incomprehensible to me about particle physics – whatever that is. Then, when a visitor came, a bright faced chap about thirty, he greeted Geoff with great deference and addressed him as Professor Watkins you could have knocked me over with a feather. I think perhaps my knowledge of the subject limits his desire to say anything with enthusiasm. Geoff has been a lifelong bachelor, and he has never mentioned his family except a few mumbles about his father who I gather was also an academic.
Since I discovered that Geoff was a very distinguished scientist, that discovery has done little to bring us closer together. I just wish he’d lighten up a bit.
We men have rooms adjacent to each other, the suites are all the same, lounge TV etc,, small kitchen area, nice big bedroom with bathroom en-suite. We are allowed some personal effects, I have lots of pictures, grainy ones of my Dad before he went off to the war, me looking smart with my platoon, Margaret and the wedding group, I looked so nervous. There are picture too of Johanna and David at his christening, his wedding. The pictures then stop, the happy tale of John Betts, no more Johanna, an empty wall.
I have my writing desk, where I sometimes lock away contraband scotch amongst my poetry books. I am addicted to the poets of the Great War.
I also have a music centre, that’s not what David called it. I am encouraged to listen to my music through ear phones so not to disturb the other guests. I suspect they are mostly deafer than me so who cares?
I spend much of my life dodging the dreaded Boyd, and to a lesser extent the cripple Dan as he staggers about staring at his feet. He seems always to be calculating when the next disaster is to befall him. Dan has a family, their name is legion, and they are many as it says in the good book. They visit frequently creating a disturbance as fourth generation offspring fawn and make an unnecessary din. I have a feeling they are gathering like vultures before the feast, another unqualified and malevolent thought.
The regulations here are quite strict, alcohol is rationed and every time I want to go out, I have to sign a book of what time I leave, where I am going and what time I expect to be back. It’s just like my boarding school in my distant youth. Yes, I went away to school which was brutal. My dad wasn’t rich by any means and I only got into that hell hole because I won a scholarship for folk who otherwise could not afford the fees.
I still remember the heart break of home sickness, the anger and the beatings, the useless teachers and the freezing dormitories. I hated the place, the only thing that could be said for it was that when I joined the army it made it all seem very easy. I would have stayed in the army if I hadn’t broken my ankle very badly, so I was released as a young subaltern with a limp and not much idea of what I wanted to do. Sixty odd years has passed since those heady days. I feel almost that I have come whole circle.
Once a week Ms. McCann, Joan, the sexy manager,; ‘pops in’ as she puts it, for a chat. I know what she’s up to, she’s reporting to my son on my health, temper and behaviour. She smiles and shimmies about pretending to be looking after my welfare, but I know she’s checking up on the drinks cabinet, my medicine cabinet and any other bloody part of my existence that she can prod and pull around. She’s like that ghastly matron at school. Except of course she’s much better looking.
Other monthly meetings include my solicitor, who helps with my son’s arrangements about power of attorney, old Freddie doesn’t come, he sends some whipper-snapper, Freddie, is getting on himself.
The Doctor or nurse comes at least once a month, and I have to be on parade for check-ups. Bloody waste of time I think. I know when I’m not up to speed I don’t need these busy bodies to tell me. All goes on the Bill of course, none of this free NHS here.