It all began when Catherine came to talk about the Elders Project.
Of course that’s not what Catherine would say. She’d say it began in
a time that is yesterday and tomorrow and eternally present. But
then Catherine’s a storyteller. I’m not a storyteller. I’m just the
guy it happened to.
The Mayfield lounge is like a dentist’s waiting room; green chairs lined up against the walls and that dull, limbo feeling of time having moved elsewhere. On top of the television set in the far corner is a crochet mat and, on the windowsill, some fake flowers in white plastic pots. We arrive after lunch and the residents are already seated. Some are in the green chairs perched on plastic cushions, others have brightly-coloured patchwork blankets tucked around their knees and a walking stick or zimmer frame near by. Some are sunk in wheelchairs.
Their hush seems to fall on us as we enter the room. A disconsolate, decrepit hush. And all of a sudden the ten of us are trying to huddle behind Catherine as though we're embarrassed for being so full of life. Some of the residents peer at us, others ignore us, or maybe they just don't see us. Niker shifts from foot to foot. I concentrate on the floor. The carpet is gold and swirly. If Miss Raynham were here she’d take charge, but Miss Raynham is not here. As we wait - and wait - for Catherine to do something, a wheelchair suddenly shrieks: “I think I'm in the wrong place!”
“Join the club,” says Niker.
“Now, now,” says Matron. “Mavis”
Mavis is a chicken in a dress. At once bony and fleshy, her plucked yellow skin springs with coarse hair. At some stage her neck must have been chopped out and her head stuck straight back on to her shoulders.
“What's going on?” she asks.
“It's The Project,” says Matron, enunciating loudly and clearly as though talking to a foreigner or an imbecile, “with the children.”
“Oh,” says Mavis. “When’s tea?”
“Hello,” says Catherine, finally arriving at the television set, the room’s focal point. Then she adds, in her rather faltering way “I'm Catherine.”
“Two of my family died in this place,” says Mavis.
“No, they didn’t,” says Matron briskly. “Now children, Why don't
you all sit down?”
“Hello,” says a relatively normal and fit-looking man, leaning down towards me. “Who's this then?”
“Robert,” I whisper.
“Oh aye,” he says. “What yer doing here, Robert?”
Catherine begins to explain. Because she’s standing and we're all sitting, she’s just about big enough to command attention. She talks briefly about the project and then suggests We work in pairs.
“Just space yourselves out a bit,” she tells the class, “that's right, into a ring. Now, introduce yourself to whoever you're closest to. That person will be your main partner. Though, of course, we’ll all be sharing ideas later on.”
As chance would have it, I'm still closest to Mr Relatively Normal. Niker, however, is sitting at Mavis's feet.
“I’m Robert,” I repeat quickly to establish my claim.
“So yer said,” he replies. “I’m Albert. Robert and Albert. Bert and Bert. Do they call you Bert?”
“Oh aye,” Albert says.
There's a pause and then he says, “I were a ladies' man. Once.” And he sighs. The sigh is sad and resigned but it's only a moment before he leans down and smiles at me. “Eh up. lad.”
There's something tender in his look, not A tenderness for me of course, just something misty about his past, and in that moment I indulge a few warm thoughts of my own about my grandfather, Grandpa Cutting, who used to call me “lad” and take me boating before he died of a heart attack hanging a garage door. And I'm just thinking maybe Albert will be all right and perhaps the Nobel luck is going to Change when a voice chisels through the room:
“I don't want this one.”
Everyone turns to the speaker. She is tall (even seated), white-haired, ram-rod-backed and her perfectly still right index finger is pointing down at Kate.
“Well,” flusters Liz Finch, the student teacher who, up until this point, might have been a sheet of wallpaper, “perhaps you'd like to swop with Kate Lucy. Lucy?”
Lucy isn’t moving.
“No,” says Rain-Rod. “I don't want a girl. “The index finger lifts, it moves. “I want a boy. In fact,” the finger stops mid-swing, “I want him.” She’s pointing at me.
Now, you know those team games where there are two captains and they each pick someone to be on their side, turn after turn, until there's only one person left? And no matter whether there are ten or twenty players that last person is always the same? The one who is never chosen, whatever the game? Well, that persons me.
“Robert, isn't it?” says Catherine.
And all the times I’ve prayed, I’ve pleaded, I've begged to be chosen and God's ignored me? And now—
“Norbert,” says Niker. “She wants Norbert! “
Niker's jeering does not deter Ram-Rod. She beckons me and I just know I’m going to have to go.
“Norbert,” repeats Albert, meditatively.
Kate is already halfway across the room. I stand up.
“Sorry” I say as we pass like a substituted football players at the
edge of the pitch.
A moment later I'm face to face with Ram-Rod. Close to, she looks surprisingly frail. Her body so thin and bloodless, she must, I think, be sitting upright by force of will alone.
“I'm Robert,” I say, extending a polite hand.
“Edith,” she replies, ignoring the hand. “Edith Sorrel.”
My arm drops uselessly and me with it. I'm back on the floor.
Then, like the cavalry, the tea trolley arrives. It comes with clink and clatter and shout and “Thank God” from Albert. Catherine, obviously taken aback that tea can be so early, suggests we all use the time to get “better acquainted”. We know what this means because Liz Finch briefed us on the bus.
“Remember your Elder may be deaf,” she said. “Just ask short, simple questions. Do you have children? Grandchildren? A husband/wife? What job did you use to do? And speak up.”
“Do you have children? I ask Edith Sorrel.
I pause, leave a gap. This the art of conversation, you know. You say something. They say something. You say something.
Edith says nothing.
“A husband?” I enquire hopefully
Another pause. Longer this time. I watch the trolley coming, So very slowly round towards us.
“Looking forward to tea?”
The trolley passes us. The staff obviously know that Edith does not take tea, she does not take biscuits. The biscuits are those oblong ones which say “Nice” on them and are covered in sugar. I watch them go Weasel 's way.
“Did you have a job?”
Behind me I can hear Kate's Albert. He had a job. He worked “in sawmills” and then “on the building”, he got paid sixpence a day.
“How much is sixpence?” asks Kate.
“Eh?” says Albert.
“Sixpence - how much was it worth?”
“Three loaves of bread, that's what sixpence were.”
“No,” says Edith Sorrel. “I did not have a job. Young women were not encouraged to have jobs.”
And then I think she's not really trying and it’s not fair and anyhow I’m cross about the biscuits, so I say:
“Any special reason why you didn't want a girl?”
“OK. Any special reason for wanting me?”
She stares at me. Under her gaze, I feel quite transparent. As though she's looking straight through me and out the other side.
“I mean me,” I persist, “me rather than any other boy?”
“No,” says Edith Sorrel.
“Oh aye,” says Albert.
Edith Sorrel clasps her hands in her lap. And I have this weird sensation that she’s holding herself, trying to comfort herself.
“It's about a silent prince and the young woman who wants to free him from the curse that has rendered him mute. The Prince’s mother and father, the King and Queen, have promised the riches of their kingdom to anyone who can make the young man speak. But for those who try and fail, the penalty is to be instant death.”
“Is it Neighbours?” asks Mavis.
“You daft brush,” says Albert.
“Well, the young woman knew it would take more than skill or cunning or luck to make the Prince speak, for many had gone before her and as many had lost their lives. So the young woman took herself into the forest where her grandparents lived. And as they sat around the cottage after supper, she told them of her plan.
“’Oh my beloved,’ cried her grandmother, ‘you know not what you ask.’
“’Indeed I do, Grandmother,’ said the girl. 'And that is why I'm here. I have come to listen and to learn. For you and Grandfather have lived long in the forest and understand how it is that night turns into day and winter into spring. And if this were not enough, you have lived long in each other’s heart and so understand the dark and light of love, and if this were not enough you have read many books and told many stories and so know what makes a beginning and what an end. I beg you, Grandparents, share what you can with me, for I am eager to know what you know and to carry your wisdom to the Prince.’”
“Nurse,” cries Mavis. “Shut the curtains!”
“I’ve nearly finished now,” says Catherine, gently. “If you want to sleep. But you see, the grandparents did tell the girl their wisdom. All night long they spoke and she listened. And I was hoping we could do something similar here.”
“What?” says Albert.
“She wants you to tell the children your secrets,” shouts Matron.
“No I won’t indeed. They'd be shocked.”
“Not secrets,” says Catherine. “wisdoms. Things you’ve learnt over
“Well, that a start,” says Catherine.
“That’s what,” says Weasel emphatically.
“Wesley…” says Liz Finch.
“I’m just repeating the wisdom,” says Weasel. “Learning from Dulcie here. That right, Dulcie?”
“Cheeky little blighter,” says Dulcie.
“Anything you’d share with me,” I say to Edith Sorrel, “if I was going to be beheaded tomorrow?”
I put my finger to my throat and make the sound of ripping flesh. “That’s me gone then.”
“What?” For the first time she seems caught off-guard.
“Dead,” I repeat. “I’m dead. Just twelve years old and dead. D.E.A.D. Dead. Finished. Kaput. Head on the carpet.”
“Stop it,” says Edith Sorrel. “Stop it at once.”
“Can't stop it. Sorry, without The Wisdom, I’m a goner. Didn't Catherine say? Just one or two old forest truths and I’ll he OK. You can save me. You do want to save me, don't you?”
She gives me that stare. “Of course I'd give my life to save you. You know that.”
“Oh. Right. Great. Well, you’ve got to tell me something important then.”
“I don't know! You're supposed to be telling me. Whatever the most important thing in your life is. Was. Whatever.”
“Top Floor Flat. Chance House, twenty-six St Albans.”
“You can go there. Walk. It's not far.”
Geography has never exactly been my strong point but I'd say St Albans has to be two and a half hours' drive from here. So maybe Niker's right about the vegetable shop after all.
“Sure,” I say “I’ll go right after school.”
“You’re such a good boy,” she says and then she reaches up towards my head and gives me this little dry, tender lap. “Beautiful,” she murmurs, hand in my hair, “beautifitl”
I pull away. “It's horrid,” I say, “my hair.” And I tell her how they used to call me “Chickie”.
“I don’t see Chickie,” she says and then: “Pass me my bag.”
Jammed down the side of the seat is one of those triangular witches' bags, faded black leather with a large gold clasp. I extract it and hand it to her as instructed. From the musty interior she draws out a mirror in a suede case.
“Now,” she wipes the surface with the back of her liver-spotted hand. “What do you see?”
She holds the mirror up to her own face. And this is what I see: A spooky old bat with snow-white hair, weird black eyebrows and about a million wrinkles.
“Come on,” she urges, “come on.”
“I just see a lady.”
“No, you don’t.”
“Well an old… erm, an elderly lady then.”
“Liar,” she says. “Tell me what you see.”
But I can't.
So she says, “You see an old hag. A wrinkled old hag. Yes?”
“So do I.” She puts away the mirror. “It always surprises me. You see, I expect to see the girl I was at twenty. With skin and hair like yours. And yet whenever I look — there's the old hag.” She laughs quietly.
“So you'll go to Chance House for me?”
I'm not sure where the “so” comes from in this. There doesn't seem any “so” about it. But I nod like the sad guy I am.
“Good. Thank you.”
“Everything OK?” asks Catherine, coming by.
“Oh yeah. Great.”
“Good.” She moves on but not before Albert bursts into song:
“Run rabbit, run rabbit, run run run.”
“Stop it,” says Edith Sorrel. “Stop that at once!”
“Don't be afraid of the farmers gun!” squawks up Mavis.
“Right on,” says Niker.
“He'll get by…” continues Albert in a gravelly lilt, “without a rabbit pie…”
“Stop the singing,” says Edith. “Don't sing. I asked you to stop.”
“Ole misery guts.” mutters Albert.
“Run,” Niker encourages the Chicken, “run rabbit…”
Edith draws herself to her feet. She is tall. She reaches for her stick. For one insane moment I think she intends to hit someone. But of course she only means to walk away.
“Run,” sings Albert jovially to her stiff, retreating back, “rabbit, run, run, run.”
I follow Edith into the corridor. Each stride looks painful.
“Can I help?”
“No,” she says “No. Go away. Leave me alone.”
“Don't mind her,” says Matron. “She doesn't mean anything by it.”
But, as Edith shuts the door of her room, I have this horrible feeling that she does mean something it. All of it.