Recently, my 85 year old mother had to be admitted to a high-care nursing home. Never to do anything by halves, she’d fallen and cracked 3 ribs and 3 vertebrae. For 10 weeks she has to wear a brace to support her back (medieval torture, she describes it) and consequently needs a high-care convalescence period.
The first day we arrived at the retirement village was bracing. An iced wind whipped off the mountain snow. The facility was warm, well designed, a series of wards housed in wings with flowery courtyards between them. It was airy and light. But as we made our way through the wards, the reality of where we were began to seep in. This wasn’t The Golden Girls.
Many, well, most of the residents, were prone in chairs, some looking like dentist chairs for a contorted extraction, arranged in front of wide screen TVs playing The Bold and The Beautiful. As I looked around, I realised, for most of them, there was no one home. Largely, these people were barely cognisant.
On my second visit, I took Miss Mia with me. Immediately on seeing her, a woman with a tight-curl, bleached-blonde hair-do pulled some dog treats from her bag and offered her one. She’d met my mother and must have been expecting Miss Mia. She pointed to a man on the other side of the room.
– “Do you know who that is?”
I looked at the man, slumped in one of those dentist-like contraptions and strapped in, unaware of the world. His lower eyelids had turned out, leaving the conjunctiva exposed and red raw and weepy.
– “No,” I said.
– “That’s your old headmaster.”
– Could he be? Whilst I’d never really liked him, I do remember his English Lit classes thirty years ago, forever challenging and animated. He would shriek at us, trying to wring out a response from 16 year-old boys. As we discussed E. M. Forster, Where Angles Fear to Tread, by some obscure route he digressed into an evisceration of the emerging conservation movement, yelling it was obscene the way people drove enormous 4 wheel drives (SUVs) into the wilderness, ploughing down all in their path whilst proclaiming they were enjoying the outdoors and its conservation. I’d often wondered what he would make of Earth Half-Hour when people plunge themselves into senseless darkness and leave the air-con churning. I kid you not.
This man, and his depth of analysis, had been one of the reasons I’d fallen in love with words. Now, here he was, lying in a conserved heap, no words left at all. Fair is foul, and foul is fair.
An animated woman came in to the sitting room. Elsa introduced herself. She came each day to feed her husband. She had a slight accent, although grammatically perfect, and I asked where she was from.
– “Germany. From the south. We came after the war.”
– “I’ve only been to the north,” I said.
– “It was bombed terribly.”
– “Yes, Keil is all new.”
– “The planes – I can still hear them. They would sound different when they came, straining because of their load of bombs. When they left, they sounded light.”
What an observation! But much more than that, it was the most perfect piece of information. I’m working on a new novel, set in Hungary during WWII. There’s a scene where the bombers fly over Budapest for the first time and someone needed to make a comment which eluded to the fact they were enemy planes, loaded with bombs. Elsa gave me the observation I needed: by the sound of the engines, someone who has been bombed before can tell everyone in the shelter that they are loaded planes.
Inspiration comes when and where you least expect it. When I was writing CONSUMPTION: A Novel, ideas came from everywhere. Writers – Keep your ears open always!
No recognition, neither shadow or light, fluttered over my old headmaster’s face.