When I was a television producer, the cameraman I worked alongside, swore blind that I attracted life’s eccentrics. He believed I used a silent whistle. We would draw in to park, the cameraman would wind down his window and call out: “Where should we park mate?”. A uniformed, bespectacled attendant would ease himself out of his sentry-box, waddle over to our car, grab for an airguitar and start singing “Only the Lonely”. The super trooper off, he would explain: “I love Roy Orbison, I do. That last bay over on the right.” My cameraman would turn to me and say: “This only ever happens when I’m with you.”
I thought of him the other day. I was sitting with my laptop at a café table in York, having taken refuge from the rain, and attempting to pull together a guest column for The Times when an elderly man called me over to him. He said: “You there! Would you like to buy a picture?” The man was tall and stooped, wearing a dark raincoat and holding a sheaf of paper in his hands. As I walked across to him, he said; “Would you like one of these?” He looked down at the papers clutched in his hand . I said: “Why I’d love one.” He handed me a cheap piece of A4 paper with some ceremony. He had used the side of an orange wax crayon and then a black one in arcs that spread out from the middle of the page. My five-year-old does similar work. He said; “I sell them for charity.” I said: “Do you? Well that’s great. Let me go get some money for you.” I went back to my table and dug out a £20 note. A ridiculously extravagant amount of money for a crayon scrawl. He obviously thought the same. He took the money and said “Here have this one” and handed me another - this one in blue and orange. “And take this.” The last one was a stamp of a dog or a horse in spotted mustard yellow paint.” I said: “Well thank-you. I will treasure them.” He gave me a small, dignified nod and shuffled out of the door, back into the damp Northern day. The maitre d’ came over. He said: “He’s the half-cousin of the late Queen Mother would you believe?.” I looked down at the pictures. In the bottom right hand corner the noble painter had scrawled his name “The Lord …” and an indecipherable address.
He told me this peer of the realm had spent years in a psychiatric hospital and now lives in sheltered accommodation with a warden. He said his pictures hung all over the city. Any money he got for them he immediately handed over to volunteers in one of the charity shops near the cathedral. The café gave him coffee and a place to sit. The plump and pleasant maitre d’ shook his head regretfully. He said: “Some people don’t want him around but he does no harm, and he is always so grateful for anything you do for him, always apologising.” A Countess would take him for lunch the following week.
I have always believed that on one page, there are characters living normal humdrum lives in sensible, grammatically correct sentences. Turn the page - the spelling grows confused, syntax shameful and lines runs off into oblivion, all meaning lost. On a vacation in South Africa, we lay in our hot bedroom in the grounds of a country club. All I could hear was a woman calling a man’s name, over and over. Then calling: “Come back to me. Come back.” Then the name again and again. It went on. I dragged on some clothes and my husband groaned in the darkness as I went out.
I could see a woman at the door of a neighbouring cottage. Overalled staff were edging the deep shadows of the garden, watching her, troubled by her trouble, reluctant to become part of it. It was almost midnight. I said: “What is it? What’s happened? Are you alright?” I walked up the path to her cottage. She was hanging over the bottom half of the stable door to better broadcast her woes. You could see in to the lit-up bedroom; a wheelchair, folded and tipped, against the wall. She had a top on and underwear; elderly white legs bare and shocking. She named the man again. “I want him back. I want him back.” I caught a vague breath of alcohol. “Let’s sort you out,” I said and she tottered away from the door, leaning on the wall to cross to the bed. I picked up her skirt and helped her into it. “Let’s make you decent,” I said. “We’ll find him for you. Where is it you think he has gone?”
At that moment, an elderly bearded man scurried into the room. Her husband. She gripped my arm. Now he was back, she was not at all sure she wanted him. The whites of her eyes were a watery greyish pink, the blue irises cloudy with confusion. “He’s a terrible man. Don’t go. He hits me. He hits me,” she told me urgently. Her husband was not happy with her but I thought: “He looks like he would fall over if he hit anyone.” Staff had fetched him from the bar. I said; “We will make you a cup of tea and then you will feel better. Would you like that? A cup of tea?” I am British. She was Irish. The situation demanded tea.
I said: “I have the children next door asleep, let me go tell my husband where I am and I will get some fresh milk for your tea.” When I came back, she was calmer; her husband had made her the tea. The couple were staying at the club while their house was being renovated; the housekeeper who helped him care for her had stayed behind to supervise the builders. He shook his head, his shoulders bowed. He said: “I thought this would make a nice change for her, a rest.” They had eaten dinner with their daughter; he had put her to bed and gone back to the bar to pay the bill. She was once a consultant in an African hospital but had caught Legionnaire’s Disease from the air conditioning, then scepticaemia. He said doctors were still trying to understand what was happening with her. He boasted sadly: “She was brilliant - a consultant.” I stroked her cheek gently. I said: “I will see you tomorrow? I will look in on you tomorrow.” She swallowed a mouthful of tea. “Yes, that would be nice,” she rested her cup in the saucer and I slipped slowly and entirely from her mind.