Last week I had a glimpse of the future when invited to a book launch at a local retirement home. It was yet another blisteringly hot day and I melted into the residents’ lounge ready for a press junket and book signing.
In reality I was invited to support my students as the local press promised to photograph our girls with the some of the Home’s residents. Over the last 12 months these silver surfers have gamely shared their memories with the students, and they in turn, have scribed and edited these stories under the demanding tutelage of a Grade 8 former journalist. This self-appointed Editor ungraciously bucked the call to join the Click and Knit group at the Home and demanded that a more intellectually demanding extra-curricular offer be established – something more fitting to her ‘I’ve been published’ status. The students have been gracious and patient with both the Editor and the subscribers and look delighted to have their exams behind them and to be finally launching this publication on a sunny Saturday afternoon.
I am relieved to see the lounge so populated; the launch date has been changed incessantly over the last few months. I’ve learnt that it’s not easy synching the diaries of post-A Level 18 year olds and octogenarians, for both parties insist on top-trumping each other with ridiculously packed schedules. I wonder how we ever managed to sit the residents down with the students to compile the fruit of these labours into, ‘Our Yesterdays are Your Tomorrows,’ a small A5 booklet retailing for a very reasonable £5 (all profits going to a dementia awareness charity). Thank you for asking.
The lounge quickly becomes a frenzy of walking frames and electric wheelchairs which belie the residents’ ability to swarm quickly at the slightest hint of a glass of warm bubbly, a plate of cakes or, the greatest prize – a paper bowl of strawberries swimming in condensed milk.
Feeling superfluous to the proceedings, I make the mistake of trying to help out with the hostessing. Eva (self-nominated on refreshments) is not amused.
Firstly I offer to distribute drinks, this is a novice error and Eva is quick to point out – in a rather officious manner I think – that it is, ‘one glass of alcoholic or non-alcoholic beverage per person,’ and, not being a trusting soul, she is not willing to be scammed by any resident swooping in for a refill while her back is turned. She insists that anyone wanting a drink comes to her serving counter where she will ceremoniously record their name and room number, regardless of how difficult traversing the lounge might be for them (Sadly Eva is to allow no visiting relative permission to claim a drink for their loved one).
I compound my error by turning my attention to cake, and pick up a platter to start distributing edibles around the lounge – students and Editor are busily book signing by this stage and I can sense the interest of the audience starting to wane as they wait impatiently for a toast and speech. Eva’s leathery hand snatches the cake plate off me and she snarls, ‘Cakes AFTER the toast,’ rolling heavily mascared eyes. Deflated, I fade into the background, crashing into an abandoned Zimmer frame and upsetting someone’s strawberries.
Studying the crash scene, it is at this point that I realise how useful a walking frame can be, for it transpires that the most souped up versions come equipped with both wheels and shelves, and the most professional drivers are clearly adept at ensuring that these shelves are groaning under the weight of edible delights and drinks. Some residents have customised their frames further with hanging glove compartment pockets (some of these even match the attire of the driver and are self-insulating). These owners have been able to arrive at the event with an emergency stash of patisserie in case the catering is disappointing. Greta for example, seeing that the promised tea is only going to comprise a miniature cup cake and some lack-lustre strawberries, produces three small Battenberg cakes from her hanging pocket and – much to the envy of her lounge neighbours – arranges them smugly on the plate she has balanced on her walking frame shelf. She glides back to the book signing and long awaited toast, piloting the equivalent of a 1970’s hostess trolley.
This toast however, will have to wait because the lone photographer clearly has other places to be. He wants to carrol as many wheelchairs as possible into one semicircle -with Editor and students in the centre – brandishing pens to signify a book signing to the readers of his august publication. Having only recently started my wheelchair apprenticeship, and still being unable to locate the brakes on mum’s manual model, I bow to the Centre Manager’s prowess and leave her to donut some state of the art wheels and Zimmer frames into an arc facing the photographer. The proceedings are temporarily halted to prise a glass of fizz out of the Editor’s hand so that she can raise that pen; not trusting her fellow residents, she is sceptical that her full glass will ever be returned to her and the resulting photo sees her scowling over her shoulder in an accusatory fashion as I attempt to hide the glass from the camera.
Post-photo call, as I lift the glass back over the Editor’s shoulder to return it to her, an impatient audience unfortunately take this as a cue that this is the long awaited toast. Glasses are emptied instantaneously in an orchestration of desperate thirst and the official toast never happens. I haven’t the temerity to negotiate around Eva to get the glasses topped up and to try again; I realise I have lost the confidence of the Editor for ever and that our students will not be invited back to edit a sequel publication.
After the event I visit mum (she has discharged herself from hospital and is back at home) and reflect on the bossiness and resourcefulness of the Care Home’s residents. Mum’s own manual wheelchair seems badly in need of pimping and I sense she would enjoy that bustle of walking frame wheelies, even if she found the residents irritating. Sadly she is not enjoying the heat, or the strawberries and when I tell her about the book launch, not letting truth get in the way of a good story, she in unable to hear any humour.
I attempt to wheel mum’s chair to the churchyard so that we can have a little chat with dad and God. We sit on a bench by his memorial stone and find some breeze in the shade. Mum has lost too much weight but I still struggle to push her back up the hill afterwards, my hands slide off the handlebars and I nearly manage to tip her out of the wheelchair as I negotiate a kerb. She finds this funny, although it will mean I keep my L plates and get a ticking off from mum’s carer on our return. She also laughs that I can’t find the brakes (another ticking off later) and that I return with black tyre marks across my white trousers. We stop for an ice cream and start discussing whether we could customise her chair at all. The mum I knew would have wanted a shelf for a coffee percolator – some optics even – and a glove pocket for a packet of Extra Strong Mints, but this mum isn’t really feeling it. She doesn’t intend to be using this chair for long; she’d rather be driving, but none of us dare acknowledge that she has driven for the last time.
Mum is interested in getting out of her wheelchair though, even though she will miss my comedic steering. Perhaps we could pimp a walking frame, or at least her walking stick in an attempt to give those Care Home ‘teenagers’ a run for their money? I know our Come Back Kid has also got a story or two stashed away in her glove compartment so I could scribe those for her; she could work towards her own book launch and see if that gets her back on her feet. We might even pop down to tell dad all about it.