A Jazz combo was jammin’ in the lounge when I finally tracked her down. The singer had on a fine-knit Italian sweater over a blue cotton shirt and silky grey trousers with a shadow check. Toothbrush moustache almost touching the mike, he crooned, Once in a While to the accompaniment of an electric piano player who was peering at his score through tiny reading glasses, cigarette burning, dangling from his mouth: a guitarist, strumming short rhythmic patterns on a beaten up f-hole Hoffner; a drummer – the only one not wearing spectacles brushing on a hi-hat and snare; and saxophonist, the number finishing breaking into Someone to Watch Over Me on his tenor.
We were sitting in a makeshift conservatory described by the nurses as the Coffee Lounge and occasionally between numbers, you could hear the sound of an espresso machine hissing steam. The residents were nearly all women who must have outnumbered the men by almost 10 to 1 and that included the all male band. Outside in the grounds a patch of allotments screamed for attention, the weather was about to change. I’d never been here before.
It was obvious the musicians were enjoying themselves; though probably not much younger than the residents, the music provided healthy exercise for their minds and bodies. I found myself tapping my hands and feet involuntarily. It didn’t matter about the mistakes, this was live music, they were giving it everything they’d got and it was really excellent. The residents – I’m tempted to call them inmates – hardly noticed, hardly moved, never applauded. My aunt grumbled incessantly. I’d finally got around to come and see her, this woman who’d read Dickens and Dostoevsky to me before I could even talk, taught me to sip Russian tea through a sugar cube as I listened to Journey into Space on the light programme in the days when state-of-the-art technology was a ‘wireless’ named Marconi. The guilt had been building up and was now hovering just below overwhelming on the Richter scale. A couple of middle-aged women – I don’t know if they were volunteers or if they worked there – danced between the seated residents, mouthing the lyrics in an exaggerated fashion and trying patronisingly to get their captive audience involved but without success. Nobody twitched a Zimmer. It’s no wonder my late grandmother of 95 and almost sound mind had a not so irrational fear of the place. ‘It’s full of old people,’ she used to say; and it was. There was an underlying odour of damp clothes and mildewed books like a charity shop sweetened with talc. I had to squeeze passed a lady sitting in a wheelchair who looked so very old and frail, I was frightened to move her the required centimetre or two for fear of making her dizzy or God forbid bringing on a heart attack.
The band came out of the bridge, the singer took a break and the sax player went into a furious solo blowing a few surprisingly cool Coltranesque chords peppered with a generous sprinkling of Stardust. The singer came back for the final chorus and then dived straight into, Maybe I’m Right. The Coffee Lounge conservatory was pleasantly furnished with top quality Rattan bath chairs and matching coffee tables with crystal tops. A walnut piano stood beside the panoramic window and there was a Mediterranean style bar in the opposite corner from where the staff served frothy coffee and biscuits to the grateful residents. A well stocked aquarium in the section near the far wall closest to the entrance richly added to the relaxing ambience. The fish moved around and stared. The residents stared but didn’t move.
The last time I’d seen Cissie she’d been in hospital with a weight problem. Virtually a recluse, she’d neglected herself so much she’d rarely bothered to eat for the last few years. Since she’d been transferred here for residential care, she’d deteriorated considerably. Always a loner, this skinny 90 year old spinster was still sitting on her own, still preferring her own company. Her face was scabby with the sleep still in her eyes obviously unwashed that morning, maybe many mornings. She sat in undernourished contrast between a white-haired elderly gentleman to her right in smart blue blazer and well creased trousers all nicely shaved and gleaming: and a hoary biddy in a wheelchair, heavily powdered with eye-shadow to match her blue rinsed and profusely lacquered hair, white diamonds flashing from every gnarled finger. Cissie turned to speak and the smell coming from her almost knocked me out of my chair. Her teeth looked as if they were covered in maple syrup, and a small oblong of dried skin clung from the side of her bottom lip like a flake of crust from a French baguette. Her hair, the dye long faded, sat in wild cotton-wool bunches on top of her small head. A sad Harpo Marx. Poor Cissie.
‘ I’m sorry I haven’t been to see you for so long. I’ve had a lot of problems. My wife. . . . . . .’
The band went into As Time Goes By and one of the dancing queens began to mime the words with the distorted lip movements of a deranged Al Jolson impersonator.
‘ I can’t hear you. ‘
I nodded and waited for the music to stop before attempting further conversation, but the band played on. The saxophonist took another solo and between the end of As Time Goes By and the beginning of Where or When I managed to hear her ask me, ‘ When did you come out of the hospital? ‘
‘ No, no, ‘ I said shaking my head, ‘ I haven’t been in hospital ‘ but it was no use trying to talk above the music, we were sitting right on top of it.
During the brief pauses when the musicians passed sheet music to each other or exchanged instruments she complained about the noise as if the entertainment was some kind of punishment she had to endure for being old and alone. I told her that I thought they were very good and she grimaced and shook her head sitting there hating every moment. The band started winding up, putting away their instruments, there were no encores: and then one of the older residents, a member of the sparsely represented male species took over on an electric keyboard. He switched on the rhythm accompaniment and gave us all his rendition of Stevie Wonder’s, I Just Called to Say, I Love You in an unwittingly brilliant imitation of the then currently popular Marguerita Pracatan.
Cissie had been a keen gardener and had once grown a full sized Lemon tree from a pip so I told her about the allotments and suggested that she found out more about them as soon as the weather started to improve. She just protested her lack of interest and I apologised for having to leave and kissed her on the cheek. I stood up and felt her pulling feebly on the sleeve of my coat to attract my attention and as I leaned closer, I heard her say, ‘ Can you leave me your name and address before you go? ‘
Suddenly it all became clear why there were so many more old women than men.
I know that this is the best that any community has to offer, and maybe I’m right or maybe I’m wrong but once in a while, as time goes by, no matter where or when I should ever need someone to watch over me. . . . . . . like most men, I think I’d sooner die than suffer the riffs and melodies of this old age misfortune. No encores.