Thursday, August 21, 2008

Picture This

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.

30 comments:

Flutterby said...

What can I say, there is a lump in my throat and tears are threatening to fall. You are so kind. I would have put the pillow over my head and pretended I didn't hear anything.

Fat, frumpy and fifty... said...

a very poignant pearl of a post...

eezypeazy said...

I was in Wilkinson's in Gateshead on Sunday. The old man in front of me at the checkout didn't have enough cash for his few purchases; he put back three tins of beans and two packets of crisps. What was it that stopped me dipping into my wallet and "lending" him a couple of quid?

It's the small actions that all add up to make a big difference in the world....

aims said...

I use to wonder where these people came from - until I arrived in that place myself. For nine months.

I can tell you it's a terrible place to be - and becoming homeless and needing caring for is such an easy step to take.

I didn't. I fought and fought.

Some didn't.

what happened ?how did i get HERE? said...

Compassion costs nothing but its rewards are endless. Kindness is such a rare commodity these days, particularly when the person needing it is a bit odd or distressed or a bit scary. My mother taught us compassion and kindness to strangers...a stream of odd balls came through our front door, one who left us with fleas and another small indian man in a turban (a magical sight in '60s Dublin)who sat on our stairs drinking tea and eating doughnuts. ...never mind the families of tinkers that she kept in quarter pound packets of Lyons tea and sugar...

Kaycie said...

ah, wifey, you were someone's angel for a few moments

Good for you.

Jaywalker said...

Oh my god! I know Lord rubbish pictures. Coming from York I suppose that isn't entirely astonishing, but he is rather sweet and hilarious and his drawings are fabulously bad. He really is gentry you know..

This made be a bit weepy though. In a good way.

DogLover said...

"What can I say, there is a lump in my throat and tears are threatening to fall. You are so kind. I would have put the pillow over my head and pretended I didn't hear anything".

Thanks, flutterby, for saying exactly what I was trying to put into words.

Swearing Mother said...

I'm glad you're the sort of person who gets "stuck in" rather than just passing by on the other side, so to speak.

I do it too, sometimes it all works out and sometimes it doesn't. Usually everyone tells me to "leave it" but I rarely take any notice and sometimes things backfire on me.

Who's right? Who's wrong? You made a fleeting difference to that woman and probably made her husband feel like there are still caring people in this world.

Job done.

Expatmum said...

Having a close friend who works in "housing" for the government in London, the stories she tells me are unbelievable. Most of the people you see huddled somewhere were once "someone". I always try to behave as if they were someone I knew, or at least someone someone else knew - because they are.

sunshine said...

I am so happy you are back with us again. At present, I am deep into our US election process, passionately supporting Obama. Between the unfortunate ups and downs of the campaign, and the very distressing world uncertainty, it is so easy to get lost.

I truly believe that the only way to keep ourselves grounded in such times, is to nurture our one-on-one relationships. And your encounter with this couple is definitely a relationship. Everybody gained, nobody lost -- unless you count hubby curled up bereft and lonely in his bed----
(oh, all right -- he probably never noticed you'd gone--MEN seem to have absolutely no trouble sleeping through anything!)

HER ON THE HILL said...

Two great stories. Any sort of mental illness (including depression) is the loneliest place a human can be. And not exactly easy for your nearest and dearest either...

Pig in the Kitchen said...

you see if you believe in Karma, you're doing allright Wifey. Lovely post.
Pigx

AliBlahBlah said...

I think people that eccentrics are attracted to often spot a sweetness in character, a willingness to trust, basically a good soul. That would explain why I don't get approached that much!!!

Great post.

Sarah said...

I've just spent all day reading your book (and not cleaning the house) - my boyfriend kept coming in to check on me as when I wasn't crying or laughing out loud I was making a strange sort of inbetween gurgling noise (indicates inner contentment).
My brother (works in a bookshop) bought me the book as soon as it came out as we're getting married next year (me and my boyfriend, not my brother) and keen to make a similar move from London asap. I'd love to move to Northumberland (my parents live in Alnwick) but reckon we'll end up in an equally beautiful part of Wales.
Anyway, loved your book so much, thank you for sharing your pain, humour and optimism! x

Ever hopeful of good things said...

You have to have been in a fragile place to be able to see someone who needs help, however small. I am grateful for having been in a fragile place or I would never see the private suffering however small that someone else is experiencing and I may then not help. You have to remember that if someone has a problem, however small, it is huge to them and insurmountable. You helped these two people at a moment they desperately needed support.
It would have made a huge difference to them.

Ever hopeful of good things said...

You have to have been in a fragile place to be able to see someone who needs help, however small. I am grateful for having been in a fragile place or I would never see the private suffering however small that someone else is experiencing and I may then not help. You have to remember that if someone has a problem, however small, it is huge to them and insurmountable. You helped these two people at a moment they desperately needed support.
It would have made a huge difference to them.

A Confused Take That Fan said...

More people like you are needed in this world.

mutleythedog said...

Mad people are everywhere aint they?

word verification is f r a i l spooky

Kitschen Pink said...

oh you are SUCH a sweetie! I used to try. I really did. But I got into such awful pickles. So now I pass by. I turn my face. I wish I were more brave. Lovely post. If ever I'm in a puddle I hope there's someone like you around to fish me out! t.x

Minx said...

I used to believe that I had a twat magnet attached to me - now I know its there for a reason and I should take notice. Glad you do too.

rosiero said...

I read today that even Lady Thatcher is losing her mind and has to be reminded constantly that her husband Denis is dead. Such a shame and waste in someone who was once known for their sharp mind.

occasional northerner said...

We "bought" a picture from him too last year.

http://reluctantmemsahib.wordpress.com said...

I hope when my mind begins to fray at the edges there is some kindness there to help stitch it a little. I hope that somebody like you helps me to collect my dippy hems. Thank you for reminding us why that's important.

Savvy Blanc said...

Amongst all the paranoia, knives and discrimination such acts of utter kindness still exist. Hurrah for restoring my faith in humanity and encouraging me to extend more compassion in my fragile surrounds of Buenos Aires ..

ItsFairComment said...

Thank goodness that you have stopped pretending to be a full time mother (struggling etc) and have reverted in print back to being a journalist (you always have been). I know that you have difficulties with the urge to remain (sometimes) in diva mode and seek the spotlight of sympathy. Good deeds are done quietly and often. Be grateful for your wealth and comforts, A good story is welcome. But that's all it is.

Valleys Mam said...

I learned something from a close friend, she will often give Big Issue Sellers or souls that she feels need some positiveness,by giving them some money or a small gift.
She doesnt look for thanks or pats on the back, she is not well off and is not eccentric, she is a caring lovely woman.
Your heart is the same

sirbarrett said...

It's funny how quickly situations can dissolve.

Primrose said...

Such a beautiful post. I want to lie on the floor and cry but I must get dinner. So much expressed in such a small space. Thank you.

Victoria said...

Beautifully written, very poignant.

Scribble.