I volunteer to phone old ladies. Not randomly, I don’t just dial any old number and ask
‘Are you an old lady? Right, off we go?’
I phone, once a week for an hour, and chat to those in our communities who are isolated at home.
It’s a bit weird at first. I’m a bit weird and they need to get used to me. I tell them if they’d rather a ‘Normal’ call them, they can give the office a shout and they’ll find them one. They laugh, nervous at first but the two I have been assigned, both in their 80s seem happy enough.
‘You always make me laugh,’ they say.
I’m not sure if we’d met face to face from the get go we’d have got on. One’s a bit of a Tory, while I wave the ‘red-flag’ as she calls it. And there’s the occasional Daily Mail level of racism to contend with.
Some weeks, I know I’m the only person they speak to.
‘Not that I’m complaining,’ one always says. ‘We’ll get through.’ Her constant refrain.
It’s an honour to be invited into someone’s life like this. To hear the intimacies of not just their past but their day-to-day worries, those little niggles that wear at us all. A stray button pressed on the tv remote and now nothing works. The light bulb on the stairs needing changing but too high now to reach. I phone the care team and they arrange a visit. Not, I reassure, to do anything other than change the bulb.
You hear such stories, such tales of other lives and other worlds, of times I can only ever imagine.
First visit to the cinema?
Being allowed to run to the front to buy cigarettes for mum from the girl with the tray.
‘What did you see?’ I ask, jaw dropping when she replies
‘Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, it had just come out. I was allowed to wear my new red coat.’
That was 1938.
I get their histories too, their parents’ lives; travelling overseas as a steward in the merchant navy when there was no jobs and no dole during the depression in the 1920’s, playing with a swing band, a job as a valet to the Earl of what-not.
This week she’s telling me about the lace she found while rummaging in a cupboard and thought of me.
‘It belonged to my great Aunt. She was a nurse in the war.’
‘The First World War ?’
‘No,’ she rasps still on the fags, ‘the Boer war. 1902. We evacuated with her in the war. She was old then, very good with chickens.’
I long to visit. To pop in and say hello. But we’re still not allowed, restrictions and all. One went missing, not answering the phone. It took three days to find distant relatives who called the police in the end. She’d been admitted to hospital after a fall. Scared me half to death.
And that’s the thing. Talking to them has become as much a part of my life as it has of theirs. Twice a week for an hour everything stops, and I get the chance to listen to their stories.
I saw a quote, I don’t know where, that said that elders were like jugs full to the brim with life and experiences and knowledge and the rest of us were like empty cups, just waiting to be filled.
And that’s it.
All that life, all that love, and dancing, and work, and grieving, and eating Quality Street. All that life lived, shared, would fill us all up.
I only hope when its my time someone will want to phone me.