Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Sunday, 9 August 2015


The Visit

Sympathy and Apathy
sat side by side in
the old folks' home,
neither knowing what
they were doing there.
Not really.

(for Elizabeth Gray (91))

4 September 1983

Elizabeth Gray was the oldest member of our congregation. She’d be born in the 19th century. The Wright brothers hadn’t even begun their experiments in flight. I had always been stunned by her longevity as a child. She was a small woman, wizened and carnaptious. There’s a good Scottish word for you. Or crabbit—there’s another one. You did not disrespect her. I remember where she lived quite clearly because we had to park the car and take a footbridge across a… I’m guessing here but I’m pretty sure it was a railway line although perhaps a disused one. Now I’m older I realise you could easily get to her front door by car and Dad simply chose to park where he did but it added to the woman’s mystique. Her house suited her. My parents had gradually got rid of all the utility furniture but not Mrs Gray. Or was it Miss Gray? You know I think it might have been Miss. She’d been a concert pianist Old Womanwhen young. I never heard her play though. Can’t even remember if she owned a piano. The old guy who used to appear at our door from time to time selling soap, his wife had also been a concert pianist. She I did hear play. She took one of my wee tunes—I fancied myself as more of a composer and less of a poet in my early teens—improvised around it and made me feel utterly incompetent although I’m sure that wasn’t her intention. But I digress.

Elizabeth was suffering from dementia. She had lost her short-term memory and needed to be put into an old folks’ home. I only visited her once—the two Roberts took me—and it was to have a huge impression on me. I didn’t recognise her for starters. She had crumpled up ever further. We use the expression “sucking the life out of” but, seriously, this woman looked as if something had literally sucked the life out of her. We were there for about an hour. She thought I was my dad which was fine; she liked my dad. When they brought her to us she was clinging to her handbag, an old-fashioned clutch handbag probably dating back to the fifties. My mum used to have one. Even empty it was solid. The old woman kept opening up her handbag and raking through it looking for her house keys. The staff had her keys but she kept forgetting. All she knew was she needed to go home. She was quite upset that she couldn’t, didn’t know where she was or why and only wanted to go home where she’d be safe. Were we here to take her home? So the two Roberts would calm her down, explain where she was and why and she’d nod and understood and then a matter of seconds later she would begin taking though her handbag again. Our entire visit consisted of repeating the same five minutes over and over again. It was tragic. You could see her memories vanish before your very eyes. She didn’t last long. A few weeks. I’m sure I went to her funeral but I can’t remember anything about that.


Gwil W said...

Well observed. Concise.


Jonathan Chant said...

Yes, well observed. A neat little memoir: very enjoyable.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thank you, Gwilliam, Jonathan. I have to say this one has stood the test of time better than some others and I really can’t think of anything that could improve the piece and yet… And yet the simple fact is that Sympathy and Apathy were not alone that day. Anger was there too. And Confusion. And Sadness. And Impotence. And others. Some stayed a while. Most popped there heads up to see what was what and then vanished again. I was there. I remember. I wonder how I would feel about the poem if my total knowledge of care homes came from watching a couple of seasons of Ricky Gervais’s comedy Derek. This is a record of the one and only time I have ever visited an elderly person in care. I hardly said a word. I just sat there and let the poet loose.

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