Post Dad's death I've been generally OK emotionally. Just one moment of gushing at the end of Grayson Perry's excellent Channel 4 programme called Rites of Passage (highly recommend) It was the one on death rituals, that got to me, unsurprisingly. The pre-death ritual he devised was just such a beautifully poignant and meaningful expression of a life. It made the traditional Western forms and ways to process the death of a loved one, feel empty and sterile. I have, however, been holding a lot of bodily tension this year, as its turned out to be quite an eventful year so far. Its been worse since Dad died, particularly in the last month leading up to leaving work. This physical bubble duly burst on my penultimate day at work. I was cleaning a sink and whilst making a slight torso sideways turn there was a click and my back became touchy and tenderised. So during the last two days at work whilst training my replacement, I was nursing my back, bruised and brooding, through its snappy moods and spasms.
Last month we were at Overstrand Garden Centre on some UPM (urgent purchasing mission), to buy a pot probably. It was their Autumn Market where they have special craft stands and live music. We've generally try to avoid them, as the Summer event last year had an over-amped lounge singer drunkenly slurring his way through songs from the sixties Summer of Love. It was so in your face as to be unpleasant to stay around, so we quickly exited stage left chased by a bear. For this Autumn event, however, they'd booked in an all female Ukulele Band, but not a ukulele band as you'd normally conceive it. It consisted of ten ladies of 'matured middle age' shall we say, with bright golden hair rinses, who strummed lightly and gaily through a much darker music catalogue than there appearance might suggest. Playing tunes with murderous bad-ass subject matter such as The House of The Rising Son and Bad Moon Arising. The conjunction felt so utterly incongruous, we giggled with delight at it all the way home. Only in Norfolk.
When you've worked around people whose mental grasp of reality is unstable or obsessive, you can unconsciously assume they no longer possess the ordinary feelings and desires of a human being. The need for independence and intimacy for example. Both of these hard to get in a mental health care home. I wasn't a member of staff, but I was a male in a largely female environment, and I couldn't fail to notice how some residents looked at me 'through different eyes' shall we say.
Feelings of desire weren't limited just to the female residents though. There was Fred for instance, a very local Norfolk born and bread chap, who I'd estimate is in his seventies. He's always been chatty and friendly, briefly talking about the weather, news or local events. Still fit enough to do regular voluntary work for a local farm. In the Spring, whilst I was still wearing work overalls he pointedly asked ' Will you be wearing shorts in the Summer' as if this might be something to look forward to. By mid way through the Summer I am indeed wearing shorts, and he remarked 'Oh, yu got quite a good taan on your legs, does it go all over?' I said 'No' and thought it best to leave it there. Since then I've regularly caught his eyes giving my legs a sly oggle.
Preliminaries completed and dressed in a black jumper with pink hearts all over it, she'd waddle downstairs for the next stage. Sitting outside in a plastic garden chair she can only just fit in, she looks at herself for hours in a petite round makeup mirror, arranging and rearranging the same hairs of her black fringe, over and over again. All down her puff pastry coloured arms are a series of names etched in blue tattooed capital letters, made up of spidery lines and dots. Starting at the top of her upper arm they go 'Julies loves Stuart' then 'Julie loves Pete' then 'Julie loves Mark' then just above her wrist its 'Julie loves Dad' concluding with a red heart. Sequentially it paints the suggestion of a storyline I'll never know the details of, that has always struck me as quintessentially sad.
My conversations with Julie have always been pleasant, but like with most residents, quite repetitive. We regularly swap our names, for instance. Whenever I'd be cleaning the resident's kitchen windows she'd inevitably sing the Mr Sheen jingle and say ' my Mum used Sparkle, do you remember Sparkle?', whilst her eyes would wander down to my crotch and she'd begin chuntering to herself, a noise similar to those that Muttley from the Wacky Races made.
Madame ASBO, I'd say is a woman in her late thirties. For weeks you'll hardly hear or see anything of her, then suddenly, without warning, she'll be repeatedly setting off the Fire Alarm, chanting loudly, singing out of tune, hoovering her room for hours, or playing rave music at extreme volume, all of these at any time of the day or night. She's recently been joined next door by Dave The Rave who currently competes with her for musical dominance of this rave culture. Both these people never appear to sleep, and neither does anyone else on that landing get much chance of shut eye either.
When I first started cleaning at the home Madame ASBO was the only resident I felt distinctly wary of. How she behaved seemed done knowingly, for the effect on others. Now, I believe she was just testing me, like when she'd burst out of her room and shout expletives at me or bellow' what a fucking looser you are' right in my face, as I was casually hoovering her landing. She once stood talking incomprehensible tosh, head bent to face the reception floor as I'm mopping it, and after throwing lewd words and gestures to the workmen opposite, left. There was frequently a sexual undertow to what she does, though few people, I guess, find a shouting mad person alluring. There isn't a single resident who doesn't immediately vacate the room the moment she enters. Quite lonely and friendless, she has an thirteen year old son whom she occasionally meets up with. I feel for the boy, living with the knowledge of his Mother's mental condition, knowing you can never rely on her for emotional support, or for anything really.
Madame ASBO has, however, gradually warmed to me, and recently took to striking up friendly conversation with me. Trying to play matchmaker between myself and a lady who does night shifts, who I chat with in the mornings. There's a coy coquettish quality to the way Madame ASBO interacts with me. One day whilst I'm cleaning her door I heard her speaking from behind it 'Hello my name is Lucy, and I'm alone behind this door' followed by a slightly sinister girly giggle. Sometimes I've felt as though I've stumbled into some creepily camp Hammer Horror movie set.
For all her less appealing characteristics, I remain fond of Irish Moira, and will miss her. If only because she provided excellent source material to write about in this blog. Over the ten months I've worked in the home I've seen how her mental state has deteriorated as a result of a series of falls she's had and changes to her medication. Living opposite Madame ASBO and Dave The Rave, can't help either. She's often spun a melodramatic tale, such as the midnight police raid because five pounds has gone from her wallet. Mostly she's emotionally manipulative, trying to get me to clean her room because she says it hasn't been done for weeks, or to fetch her a member of staff, because she's not feeling well or at the point of death. I've had to learn to turn a deaf ear to this or I'd never get my job done. In the last few weeks she's become obsessed with cleaning the resident's kitchen. Well, it has to be said, its more the idea of cleaning, what she does is lightly brush the tea counter with paper towels whilst aggressively and repeatedly banging cupboard doors. She's become defensive and proprietorial about this activity, declaring the moment I appear ' It's clean' or trying to convince me that a visibly filthy floor is fine to leave as it is. That polish is good for nothing.
Her mood is changeable, one morning she's quite the sweet old lady, the next she's uttering 'and you can piss off' as soon as she sees you. The more I clean the more uptight she gets - 'just go away, cunt'. then she'll goes outside, sucking insistently on a long dead roll up as if trying to breathe new life into it, trying to calm herself down with a ciggy. Popping back in to see if I've finished yet, and if I haven't crying despairingly 'Oh, for fuck sake' and slamming the door behind her. Once, whilst I was diligently cleaning porcelain in a toilet, she flung 'and you can go fuck yourself' as she tottered by, to which I responded by blowing her a raspberry. Half muffled through a door closing behind her I could hear her shouting 'that's not funny'. The care home Manager said to think of her as like a frog. Baffled at first, it occurred to me later that indeed these are instinctual utterances similar to those of a croaking frog. Instead of 'rib beeb' out will pop a pungent swear word. Expletives turning into abrasive affirmations of presence, rough signs of her affection, or perhaps a mistranslated appeal for love.