H. comes into the shop where I work every couple of months, or so. She doesn't buy much and that's okay. What she does do is converse quite a bit. I listen and respond, as needed. H. is 83 and lives alone over by the park. She's also still recovering from a debilitating stroke that rendered her mostly without speech and forced her to walk with either a cane, or walker with wheels, when she's out shopping. Although I understand pretty much all of what H. says, sometimes she's at a loss for words, literally. The word won't be in her head, so another one, less suitable, will pop out, or she'll spend some time searching around for the correct thing to say before she can move on. Her walker also doubles as a chair. H. will wheel in, usually a bit out of breath, and then sit down. The shop is so narrow that all spaces not taking up product displays are aisles. So, she has a seat in one of the aisles and folk just need to go another way, or squeeze around her to get to the end of the shop.
It had been about three weeks since I last saw H. in the shop. Today, as I was walking home from the market, I saw H. huffing and puffing her way up a small incline, walker laden heavily with shopping bags. I stopped and asked if I could help her carry anything and she wound up insisting that I let her carry my shopping on the arms of her walker. I later helped her carry her belongings up through two sets of front doors and a flight of stairs. Mind you, her bags could have been weighted with bricks. She had done a huge shop.
She invited me in for a chat. We sat in comfy chairs in her cramped one-room flat. She offered me raspberry sorbet, and, even though I declined wanting any, wound up holding an icy-cold pint in one hand with a silver spoon in the other for the first twenty minutes of my stay. Eventually, I put it back in the freezer along with a tub of ice-cream H. had bought that day.
Born in 1929 to parents who weren't 'cuddly', H. remembers her mother refusing physical affection as it would have 'disheveled' her clothes. Her father was a military man and H. remembers that she was never, ever allowed to refer to him as 'daddy'. She and her siblings had to call their father 'sir'. H. had been raised by a nanny to whom she felt close. A cook prepared the family meals. 'My mother never wanted us,' H. told me. In a few short years, she and her two siblings had been shipped off to what H. referred to as 'home school'. I had naively assumed that the siblings had remained together. She told me that they had been sent to three different institutions. The 'home school', she said, was neither 'home', nor 'school.' Her parents left for India shortly thereafter. When the war broke out some years later, her parents sent for them. "You're home now." That's what her mother had said to her. She thought, is this what home feels like? H. had her doubts.
Years later, when H. had a husband and four children of her own, her mother would insist on staying with her for a couple of weeks at a time during the year. H. and her husband had little money and took in lodgers to make ends meet. With her mother in the house, H. had one more mouth to feed. As her mother had never changed a nappy and couldn't cook, she was little help around the house. However, that didn't prevent H's mother from telling her how to run her household. That stopped the one time H. sent her mum upstairs with one of the babies and a nappy with the request that she change the baby. H. said that her mum was upstairs for ages, not a sound could be heard. Eventually, H. went to check on her and found that the baby had indeed been changed, but, instead of nappy pins, the cloth had been fastened around the baby's pelvis with two large knots, one on each hip. 'She hadn't known about nappy pins, you see', said H. After that, H's mum never told her what to do in her own home again.
We sat in her high-ceiling front room overlooking neighbours' gardens. Blue skies were overhead; it was a lovely view. 'Oh, that's not the park, you know. If you want a view of the park,' she told me, 'then you'll have to go to the other side of the house'. I went to the kitchen, looked out the window and saw the barriers and fencing erected to contain this year's Olympic equestrian events. As I sat and, mostly, listened to her talk, I became aware of not one, but three dolls' houses set about the room. One was a large-scale affair that I mistakenly thought was a replica of H's own building. It was actually an 18th century re-production of a stately home from Bath. The insides of which were filled with amazing rooms. The butlers' quarters, the 'bachelors' room', the laundry room, the nursery, etc. Viewing the wee bachelors' room intrigued me most. I hadn't known that there was such a thing as a room for young, single men in which to play billiards, drink spirits, and smoke tobacco. I guess the 'spinsters' didn't really have a room of their own, and, if they did, it certainly wouldn't have contained a billiard table. Bummer.