Sixteen and broken
First job sixteen
A care home full of love
Tough love for a child to learn
Asked to go look after a woman
Glass of water in hand
The door locks behind me
And I realise what I hear
Don’t know how I know this
Primal knowledge of a death rattle
I hold your hand,tell you to relax
Your wasted form claw like hands
Grab on for reassurance
That I’m not sure I’m able to give
I don’t cry though I’m scared
I don’t run but I want to
I can’t leave you alone
You asked me not to and you know
Know it’s your time and you need
A hand,some warmth.
Until your grip slackens
Your words go,jaw gaping
No movement from your chest
You have left the room
But I always remember seeing your face
I was indoctrinated into the death
On that first day and I cried
For a woman
I’d never known
Probably for my loss of childhood
But it made me see in a cruel way
How much the sick,dying,elderly
Need a carer who cares
Who shares themselves
Taking nothing while losing
A tiny piece of themselves
Every single day.
The daily challenge
I looked forward to seeing you
your honesty, bravery and talent
You’d been an artist yet now
It’s different because you’re stuck
With folk who are cared for
Just like you but you remember
Every last second of life.
While they think they live
In some glorious yesteryear
And nobody will contradict them
You’re awkward when you do
But you know all that’s gone
See what you’re in for saying
I’m going in my sleep I can’t do that
And when I find you gone.
You’d never have known it
Never said it possible
But my aged, funny, wise friend
I am bereft at losing your presence
You’re not a number
Carers care, carers love
We miss those we lose
And we know you need care
Mary Druce (1944-2018)
(from Gray Lightfoot)
I first met Mary Druce just before we performed together for the 2015 Penzance Litfest in a show called Poetry Tapas (poetry for people who think they don’t like poetry). Mary and I were one of four poets, the other two being Katrina Quinn and Colin Stringer.
Mary, originally from Bristol, had travelled furthest to be here that day – twenty miles from Mullion, Cornwall where she was active in writing and performing plays with the local theatre group. Her acting prowess came to the fore when performing her very funny poetry imbibed with a sense of the ridiculous which never failed to make audiences laugh.
However her wonderful poem I Painted Your Nails Today, Betty lovingly invokes the bittersweet relationship of a person caring for somebody with dementia.
I PAINTED YOUR NAILS TODAY, BETTY
I painted your nails today, Betty;
The colour you like, with the sparkly bits.
And you gave me that beautiful smile,
Innocent, childlike, trusting – no Betty, your nails aren’t dry yet!
But still you hugged me.
In this pretty box of souls, the harvest of lives well spent
Now rests chintz-cushioned from this troubled world.
And the hours hang like faded apple blossom
Waiting for the wind to lift and scatter them
into the sea and beyond.
And I know that when I see you tomorrow you will have forgotten
That yesterday I painted your nails.
Betty I’m here again. How pretty your nails look.
I painted them yesterday. Do you remember?
You giggle. No, of course you don’t
And so we both giggle, and I remind her
That she’s not the only one who forgets things…
(God, I have lists all over the place!)
There are scrapbooks in your room; graduation pictures
Of handsome grandsons – all family history;
Loving children; happy snaps of Christmas;
Jolly dogs and tumbling babies.
There has been so much joy in your life, Betty,
Yet today you do not even remember
That yesterday I painted your nails.
I’ve seen the yellowed newspaper cutting, Betty,
Sliding around unglued in its silver frame.
It keeps falling over and gets covered by other things.
It says you were awarded a medal by the Queen
For work you did with orphaned children
In Penang. Another life, a world away.
You don’t remember any of it, do you, Betty?
You may not be able to talk to me but
You can sing like an angel, and know all the words.
Your sweetness shines through the silence.
And so I got out my polish, with all the glittery stuff
And once again I was humbled by the simple joy it gave you, Betty,
When I painted your nails.
Escape to the Folies-Bergere
The residents in the block are free to come and go though they pine for romance and bodies that work, and oh, how some of them like to complain – of skateboarders on the streets, the screaming seagulls, the high price of tea.
Each resident has a story. Sad and happy, and a few that don’t make sense at all.
Mrs. Upton’s husband dropped dead at the age of 45 from a ruptured artery. He worked as a signalman on the railway. She tells me this every day. Her story is not a complaint but a constant puzzle. Miss Hopkins likes to moan – the room is too hot, too chilly, the lounge chairs have been moved, someone has put a plant on top of the piano, her feet hurt so, and she was important once, and goodness what’s that seagull doing, walking across the carpet? Why can’t Miss Hopkins be more like Dora, bent in half like a broken reed but always smiling – Dora who bakes sponges, helps out at the Salvation Army and has her hair done every week.
Three o’clock on a winter’s afternoon. A lounge with easy chairs. Light music. Irene and Enid dancing, steps hushed on the pink carpet. Mr. Franklin collecting the empty cups. His face red. Hands trembling.
The room smells of biscuits and moth-balls. No one looking out at the distant sea.
‘Someone’s escaped.’ Bonnie presses a bony hand into mine.
‘Dora. She had a hole in her ticket but she has no idea where to get off the bus, dear.’
‘Has she taken the bus?’
Bonnie sips her tea. ‘What’s happened to the biscuits? Have they all been eaten?’
A seagull flies past the window. It casts a greedy eye in our direction.
‘Scum.’ Miss Hopkins says. ‘Flying rats.’
Bonnie taps me on the shoulder. ‘Dora always keeps a ten pound note in her glasses case so that if she forgets her purse, she always has money.’
Someone has turned up the music but only Irene is dancing, her eyes half-closed; her petticoat slipping down from underneath her tweed skirt.
I fetch more biscuits.
Bonnie grabs a pink wafer. Crumbs fall on her lap and tumble onto the carpet. ‘Irene has such beautiful dresses.’
‘She’s wearing a skirt.’
‘I can see. My eyes are not that bad. Irene is saving her dresses because once you’ve crossed a line, you can never come back.’ Bonnie seizes two chocolate digestives.
‘Back from where?’
‘The red line, dear.’
The manager asks me to help clear the tables. We’re one member of staff short. We’re always one person short. A waltz is playing but Irene is no longer dancing. No one is dancing now.
When I return, Bonnie says, ‘She’ll have gone to Paris.’
Dora will be lucky if she makes it as far as the seafront. The wind has blown up and spots of rain are splattering the windows.
Bonnie peers at the empty plate. ‘Where are the biscuits?’
‘You must have eaten them.’
Bonnie frowns. ‘Not me. I’m watching my weight. Edward hates it when I put on weight.’
Edward died twenty years ago.
I pick up the plate and walk to the office and here is Dora – her neat grey hair encased in a plastic rain-hat.
‘I’ve mislaid my key.’ She rummages in her green leather handbag.
‘I hear you escaped.’ I take the master key from its metal box.
Dora rests on her stick. ‘Who said that?’
‘Goodness, I only have to nip out for milk and she thinks I’ve run away.’
‘She said you’d gone to Paris.’
‘Paris?’ Dora raises her eyebrows and looks at me as if I were crazy.
Each morning I call up the residents one by one. To check they’ve not died in the night. Or disappeared in some other way.
When Dora doesn’t answer my call, I walk up the stairs, knock twice on her door and wait.
The flat is empty, the interior doors closed. A clock ticks, my feet pad quiet on the thick carpet. Rainwater slides down the window. There’s a framed print of A Bar at the Folies-Bergere hanging on the living room wall. ‘Miss Roberts,’ I call. ‘Dora!’
One plate and a knife on the kitchen counter. In the bathroom a bar of pink soap. A pale blue flannel. On the bedroom dresser a photo in a silver frame. An elegant young woman standing in front of the Eiffel Tower. I pick it up. This is a younger Dora, younger than I am myself now.
I almost fall out of my skin. Because here is the Dora who’s eighty-nine. ‘You didn’t answer your call,’ I say. I set the photograph back on the dressing table. ‘You look happy there.’
‘I’d escaped to Paris. I was having the most wonderful time.’ A small sigh. Like a whisper. ‘How about a nice cup of tea?’
We sit in her living room with the ticking clock and the print of the Folies-Bergere. ‘Such an interesting picture,’ I say.
Dora stares at her ring-less fingers. ‘I was going to be married in Paris. I got as far as the church but he never turned up. I was jilted at the altar. Can you imagine?’
‘What a bastard.’
She giggles like a schoolgirl. ‘Yes, what a bastard.’
‘Why did he?’
‘He never said.’ She glances at the Manet print. ‘I heard he married another woman and became a serial adulterer. He wasn’t who I thought he was, after all.’
‘You never married then?’
‘You escaped.’ I stare at the barmaid in the Folies- Bergere. The clock ticks on. ‘She looks sad.’
‘Oh, I’m not sad,’ Dora says. ‘What an exciting life I’ve led. I’ve never been troubled by anything.’ She taps my hand with a gnarled finger. ‘Not like some I know. This place collects them.’
We laugh together and sip the milky tea and outside, a leaf falls quiet to the pavement below.
have you collected seeds
of many years, packed,
have you died, and left
the table unprepared.
i have them now in boxes,
a gift, from those who love.
they will bring me work, joy,
an independent air, profound words,
from those who care.
Bios and Links
was born in the East End of Newcastle. She is an avid reader and has written poetry since she could rhyme! She also writes fiction and is currently writing a psychological thriller with a paranormal twist. She is now living on the mystical Isle of Skye.