Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Fresh fish and garibaldis

I'd like to take a moment to reassure you about a matter concerning our female senior citizens. You could be forgiven for thinking that proper, classic Old Ladies, like the ones you see on telly, don't exist any more. You might think life among the over-70s these days is all pilates and walking the Great Wall Of China and the Open University.

I have had two encounters in the last week that have reminded me this is not the case.

Encounter no 1: It is last Sunday. I am in a small-ish branch of the Co-op, queuing up to pay at a checkout behind a woman who is a good 40 years my senior. I must describe this lady's appearance, since it aces a checklist of elderly-female physical cliches.

Comfortable, heavily worn shoes, bowing outwards, boatlike, in the middle of the foot? Yes.

Plastic see-through rain bonnet, tied beneath the chin? Bien sur.

Bare, mottled legs, despite the month which, by the way, was February? Ja, naturlich.

Those bare legs heavily bandaged around the calf area, in a way that broke your heart a bit? I have run out of languages now, but yes. Basically, yes.

Shapeless mac-style overcoat, that swelled around the top of the back? Yes again.

As we stood next to each other, from the corner of my eye I could see her performing that series of twitches and tics that precedes a stranger striking up a conversation with you. The subtle opening and closing of the mouth that makes up a false start. The looking at my face, looking down at my groceries and looking up at my face again.

Among the healthy and nutritious items in my basket, which collectively showed me to be a woman taking care of her health and aiming to encompass all the major food groups, but relaxed enough to enjoy the odd treat, were some Digestive biscuits (a pure, naked Digestive is so satisfying, don't you think – that lovely wet mulch they make in your mouth...).

'Ooh, where did you find those?' she said, pointing down at my biscuits.

Despite a lifetime of instruction to respect my elders, the sarcasm impulse was extremely strong here. Yet I fought it, as I felt her true goal was chat initiation rather than biscuit retrieval. The biscuits were not hard to track down. It wasn't that I had pressed down hard on a grapefruit in the fresh produce section, whereby the entire shelving unit had swung round, admitting me to a secret chamber where they keep all the fun food.

I mumbled a reply and waved an arm in the direction of the appropriate aisle.

'Oh,' she said. 'Only I fancied some Garibaldis.'


I mean, honestly? Does anyone EVER genuinely fancy a Garibaldi biscuit? Two slices of barely sweetened cardboard, riddled with currents that cling to your teeth with the tenacity of a cockroach.

I was confused by the logic of the next sentence. It sounded very much like she said she wanted something to do that afternoon while she was listening to 'the play'. I ascertained that this was a play on Radio 4, a new series apparently starting that afternoon. But could she really have been planning to pass the entire half-hour chain-eating Garibaldis? I mean, I've met some elderly people who could really put it away when presented with a free buffet, but still, this seemed unlikely. Perhaps she meant she would eat just a couple, then allow high-quality radio drama to soundtrack the arduous task of removing dried fruit from her molars.

After she'd paid for her shopping, I watched her putting her purse away in a pocket that seemed less than secure, then struggle to divide her bags between her hands, and seize control of a complicated stick-slash-crutch that looked more like hassle than help.

Garibaldis, radio plays, rain bonnets, bandages. I left the Co-op feeling as though I had just been to some sort of Senior Citizen Stereotyping Theme Park. Although, in the interests of bursting bubbles, among her shopping was a jar of marinated olives, which seemed slightly racy to me.

Encounter No 2: It is Thursday evening. I have just finished work and I am in the food hall of John Lewis, Oxford Street. Basically, Waitrose. I am looking at the shelves of pre-packed fresh fish. A women comes to stand next to me. Again, elderly, but smarter this time. A long, camel-coloured trench coat and a tiny daffodil in her buttonhole which may have been saluting cancer care, or the nation of Wales. I am ashamed to say I do not know which. There were no false starts to her stranger chat. It was straight in. A kind of stream-of-consciousness babbling of phrases from the old-lady handbook about money and prices and wartime and bringing fish home from the market – among them, this:

'You had bread and a scrape and a bottle of water, and you were in bed before your father got home or you'd get a thump.'

It's possible, of course, she was rehearsing an Alan Bennett monologue.

'And children never used to be obese,' she said. I had to agree with her. I don't know why I'm surprised about that. I'm nearly 40, that kind of thing's only going to happen more and more from now on.

But as she chattered away, only requiring the most occasional nod or non-committal 'mmm' from me to carry on, I'm sad to say I began to look for an escape, my eyes darting around, then alighting on a display somewhere across the shop, which I simply had to visit for a reason I would think up on my way over there.

Neither of these encounters gave me a thrill of inter-generational bridge-building or elderly-eccentrics I-Spy. They made me think, 'If you reckon things are hard now, they're only going to get harder.'


Rose said...

And it sounds like you have a 'feel free to talk to me, people' face. I too benefit from plenty of random chat - but why me rather than everyone (anyone) else on the bus remains a mystery...

Nice stories btw - I like the fact you're warm about them while also smiling wryly.

Alison Cross said...

*shamefaced* I strike up conversations with strangers. I think it's because I'm Scottish.

You only have to stand still in the street for more than 2 seconds in Glasgow and someone will ask you whether you're lost.

Sure - they might smell of drink and pee, but, yanno, it's the THOUGHT that counts.

There isn't anywhere else for me to go but down, from here on in.....

*starts to knit socks*

Ali x

jaljen said...

My mother has just had a massive stroke and our conversations have become charmingly surreal.
"Onwards and upwards," said I.
Mother gestured expansively with her arms. "Yes, and sideways."

I have numerous such instances of unintended hilarity. Fortunately she joins in and no offence is meant or taken. Such is my lot thirty years hence. Let's get used to it.

JL (aged 55 and a half)

legend in his own lunchtime said...

That will be me in 20 years time. I'm sort of doing an apprenticeship at the moment. I quite like the idea of running people over on my mobility impaired ferrari, while whacking them with a walking stick on the way down. I have many good role models at my local store, bless them.

Pauline said...

There are still plenty of older people defying the stereotypes and abseiling from the roof of their sheltered housing schemes. My father (aged 82) has said he will only get a mobility scooter if he can have a souped-up one made by Kawasaki.

Sadly, the number one mental health issue affecting older people is not dementia but depression, much of it brought about as a result of loneliness. So I am always happy to brighten my shopping trips with a discussion about the price of milk or the bewildering array of olive oils, with any older person I can accost in the aisles...

peteraj said...

I find biscuits (or indeed any other foods) with currents in electrifying