It’s my mother’s birthday today. She’ll have an even bigger crowd of oddities and stragglers around her bed today than she usually does. Even on a normal day here she’s surrounded by quite the shower. Aul’ ones nearly as decrepit and out of it as herself, the lame, the blind, the deaf; ones pulling canisters behind them, ones with all sorts of tubes snaking out of them, craggy old men who think they’ll never die, aul’ ones who think they’re more on the ball now than they ever were, with their Facebooks and their Twitters. I’ll have to show my face at some stage this morning — make a display of kissing her on the cheek and wishing her many more prosperous years (even though she doesn’t know me from Adam and hasn’t for the best part of two decades) and stay for the festivities (damp squib of a thing, guaranteed). It’ll be harmless: cake, candles and slack smiles. If I don’t pretend my mother’s ninety-eighth birthday is the be-all and end-all they’ll think me a monster, although even if I set her on fire and laughed like a madwoman as she shrieked in the flames I couldn’t be as much of a monster as the yokes who run this place.
We’re just meal tickets to them. Assets. Dwindling assets. Or liabilities. I suppose it depends on the way you look at it. I can’t work out whether they want us to die in here as quickly as possible or linger on like my mother. I often wonder what’s more economical for them: is it the short-stay, croak-in-the-middle-of-night “guest” (we’ve had so many of these I couldn’t begin to list them) or the malingerer? The ideal resident would be somebody in rude enough health not to be constantly having them call in the doctor or changing dressings or being brought to outpatients or “therapy” (whatever that means) — somebody such as myself.
But anybody who winds up here is only here because they can’t live on the outside anymore, so their health can’t be all that rude. Eventually, everybody becomes a risk to this place’s bottom line.
Speaking of which, “rude” is a term one cannot escape in here. Or rather “rudeness”. The nurses are rude, the nurses’ aids are rude, the administrative staff are rude. The cooks, the cleaners, the porters: all rude. My fellow residents (inmates!) are rude. I’m probably rude myself. Most of the staff in here are from abroad. The New Irish. I’ve nothing against them, but they’re not the same as our own. They don’t have the manners. And there’s no warmth. They have no time for you. It’s all business. Ruthless efficiency. And you can never have a chat with them. They haven’t the knack for conversation. A dry aul’ sort of talk comes out of them the odd time they do make the effort. I suppose they just don’t speak English well enough to hold a decent conversation.
I’d love to just go. Leave here. Wander out the big wrought iron gates and leave the high walls of this place for dust. (This place used to be the workhouse, you know.) But I can’t. My walk is gone. I can just about shuffle up and down the corridors, but any bit of a slope or an uneven surface and I’m gone — as unsteady on my feet as a toddler. Not to mention if the ground is wet, or if there’s soggy leaves or a bit of wind. And the last thing I want to do is break my pelvis or femur. I’d be at their mercy then.
I’d love to just, on a whim, decide I wanted to spend the day up town (we’re not that far — I would have walked it in fifteen minutes in the old days) and skip on out of here. Go to one of the boutiques I used to visit and buy a blouse or a skirt. Just for the thrill of it.
Or go to the bookshop. Or get my hair cut. Or go visit my houseen (it’s still mine — nobody’s sold it out from under me yet). Or go to the pictures. Or buy a bottle of gin and some tonic and smuggle it back to my room. Or a box of Carroll’s.
They don’t encourage drinking in here. But it goes on. Some of the men keep whiskey stashed away in their rooms and they have a nip or two every night. Some of the women have bottles of sherry. I was never one for sherry — an aul’ one’s drink if ever there was one. G and T was my tipple. The thing about drinking in here is that you have to get rid of the evidence. The empties have to be disposed of behind the staff’s back. That’s no problem if you’re mobile; you take the empty bottle with you on your next walk, hidden in an umbrella or in a deep raincoat pocket. But for someone like me . . . Who would I get to spirit away my empties? I wouldn’t let myself down by asking any of my visitors to take an empty bottle of Cork Dry with them. They’d get ideas about me.
Not that I get many visitors these days. Interest in you tends to wane once you sign yourself in. When they visit you, it’s like they think they’re visiting someone in one of those hospices; they think they’re visiting someone with a death sentence hanging over them. But let me tell you this: I’ve outlived more than one embarrassed and infrequent visitor. My mother has seen dozens, if not hundreds down!
I used to smoke, but that’s all gone now. When I came here first, you could smoke in a class of bus shelter they put up at the far end of the car park. Shuffling out there with my Carroll’s was just about within my ability. A couple of years ago they banned smoking from the “campus”, as they grandly call it. To smoke now, you have to go outside the gate.
For a while, I used to drag myself out there, but as well as the trip nearly killing me (there’s steps, and a rough aul’ footpath leading to the gate) you’d catch your death. It’s a breezy, exposed, bare sort of place, with not a tree or even a light pole to stop the wind. And I felt like I was being watched every time I went for a puff — by the staff in here and the people passing by on the road, who looked out at me from their cars like I was some sort of corner boy, or worse, a street walker. And, what’s more, I had to rely on the kindness of strangers to get me my Carroll’s. I found myself begging nurses and cleaners and porters and even priests to buy me cigarettes. I didn’t like being under a compliment to anyone.
The priests are around you like flies on you-know-what, of course. Touting for business. And on the make. They get the scent of that four-letter word: W-I-L-L. I’m not leaving them a penny. There’s plenty of mugs in here who’ve let it be known that a “sizable” portion of their worldly goods are being left to so-an-so priest or such-and-such order. As if it will buy them into heaven. I won’t have much left behind when I finish with this place, but I’m not telling a soul who it’s going to. That’s between me and my solicitor. A lot of old people get queer about their wills — King Leer comes to mind. They have what amounts to beauty contests between their children, lead people on with the promise of this, that and the other being left to them if a son or niece does this, that or the other. They’re running up and down to their solicitors to change the bloody thing every second day. None of that for me. I’ve made my last will and testament and that’s it.
It’s time now for me to put on the warpaint. I never go anywhere without my make-up on — even if it’s only down the corridor to my mother’s room. You might say that isn’t it sad that an aul’ one like me still has notions, but I’ve worn make-up since I was a young woman.
Every day of my life without exception. My own mother is a make-up wearer as well. Most days, one of the nurses’ aids daubs a bit of lipstick, some blush and some eye-shadow on her. I have to say that at her age, with the amount of wrinkles she has and the general slackening of her features brought on by her condition, the make-up does nothing for her. But maybe deep down it cheers her up. I always feel better after a good long, hard stare at myself in my mirror and a good session fixing up my face. I know I’m no oil paining at this stage of my life, but I’m still able to bring out the best in myself with a brush and a pencil.
One thing they do do right in here are the manicures and pedicures. A little Filipino one comes around once a week. It costs extra on top of the daylight robbery you’re charged to stay here, but it’s worth it. I’ve always prided myself on my nails and they’re as well-turned-out these days as they’ve ever been. You get a lift out of silly little things like nails in this place. It’s all you have. I get the young one to do my mother as well. I tell the girl to go mad with her — to try any style or colour or pattern she likes. She has full license to do whatever she pleases. My mother isn’t going to complain, and perhaps the more garish the colour the more stimulation she’ll get out of it. There’s a nurse here who’s always on about stimulation.
You can get your hair done here as well. My mother and I were both given the red-carpet treatment yesterday. In preparation for her birthday. A woman from the town comes in a couple of times a week and sets up in a room alongside the television room. She does men in the morning and women in the afternoon. (I’m glad she’s not into this unisex thing: I never felt comfortable getting my hair done in the presence of men.) She does the works: colour, perms, styling — or she’ll simply set your hair if that’s all you want.
She’s a great memory for each client’s preferences. There’s no need to tell her how you want your hair. But if the mood takes you and you ask her for it she’ll do a completely new style. A couple of the other women have gotten complete makeovers from her and it’s usually turned out well. The woman will do you a cup of tea or coffee while you wait or while you’re under the drier and it almost feels like a real salon.
It won’t be all that bad, the party. Who knows whether my mother enjoys the fuss being made of her? She’ll eat and drink what’s put in front of her (she was never picky, and that’s one thing that hasn’t changed about her) and today there’ll be treats — cakes and buns of all description, little vol-au-vents, cheese, meats, the works. They might even let her drink a glass of sherry. Someone always brings a bottle to these things. Whatever about not knowing where she is or who’s around her, my mother still loves her food. It will surely bring a smile to her face. That and the singing. We had such a sing-song last year. The smile on her face. I even thought at one stage that she was about to join in.