This morning my creative writing class ventured into the depths of unknown territory… the Patcher’s Lodge Retirement home. The idea was that over lovely cups of tea and bikkies we would be joined by some of the residents and hear their stories, which we would then use as inspiration for some creative pieces we could later perform for them.
However, upon arriving at the lodge, it would seem that almost none of the residents been told to come and join us, so our lecturer obtained permission for us to go and knock on a couple of doors, and see if anyone was interested.
Leaving my voice recorder and belongings in the lounge, thinking I’d be returning in no time I took the elevator to the first floor and, feeling a little uneasy, I knocked on door number 5… no answer… I started to head back to the lifts but figured I should give number 6 a go while I was there.
Oh, he’d said “come in”… I wasn’t sure whether I should enter or not but he knew someone was there, it would have been rude to walk away.
Opening the door and stepping into the flat my first impression was… Beige…
The door into the living area was open and I could see an elderly man, whom I soon learnt was named Rob, propped in a recliner couch facing the telly. I headed in and noticed he wore a yellow t-shirt on which a few crumbs had fallen from his breakfast toast. He was almost bald with a few whisps of hair sprouting from his head and had huge, black-rimmed square glasses propped on his nose.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to be rude and shout at you, but I can’t get to the door”
My gaze travelled to his legs, mostly hidden under a red checkered blanket, but I could tell they were small and withered, and at any rate hadn’t been used in a long time.
He wouldn’t be coming back down to the lounge with me then. But I was there, and had interrupted him, I thought I may as well find out if he had any stories he wanted to tell me.
“That’s okay, I’m a creative writing student from the University of Brighton, we’re here this morning to speak with some of you, hear any stories you’d like to share with us and then use it as a starting point for some work. I wondered if you’d be interesting in having a chat with me?”
“Oh yes, I don’t mind you staying for a moment at all!” The man’s face had brightened and he gestured to an empty arm-chair.
I took a seat.
Without needing much prompting, he launched into his story.
“One of the most memorable stories I have is that I was once in a Musical” he started.
“I used to be in musicals as well!” I responded quickly, glad for this initial common ground. He chuckled to himself and continued to talk.
Living in East London and donning boots with his jeans rolled up and a clean shaven head, Rob passed as your typical skinhead of the 60’s, however, Rob had always had an affiliation with the Salvation Army. Members of the Church had devised a musical to raise money, and Rob was happy to be involved.
The story was about members of the church and a group of up-to-no-good skinheads who they managed to get on to the straight and narrow, the leader of this group being an ugly blighter named Freddie the Dip. When the roles were being selected each person in turn shook their heads at the mention of Freddie and said, “No, I don’t think that one’s for me”, until Rob’s mate piped up:
“Rob here’ll do Freddie, it’s a perfect fit, and with the mug that Rob’s got, he won’t need no make-up or nothing!”
Rob was laughing at the memory and I couldn’t help but laugh too. Here was an old man, bed bound, who had a fantastic sense of humour, especially if he was at the brunt end of the joke. In fact, later in the conversation he said it himself,
“When you’re home bound and immobile, or crippled by an illness, laughing doesn’t take it away, but it makes it easier.”
I could see the joy that Rob was getting from telling me these stories, and I was under the impression there were a few more where that one came from, so I decided to stay a little longer and see what else he had to say.
I learnt that he had travelled to the Middle East, Norway and all over the continent in his life, I learnt funny anecdotes about groups of skinheads he was involved with when he was younger, together we laughed over the clothes he used to wear, the mischief they got up to, and how he and his mates compare with young boys today. I learnt that in 1977 he’d left East London and moved to Hove with Kathleen, his late wife, who died after only 7 years of their marriage and I learnt that without Kathleen, and with no other family, Rob had focused his energy on his friends, the Salvation Army and helping others. He’d even worked as a carer for the elderly and those with Dementia, before he starting needing help himself.
He told me many stories of his involvement with the Salvation Army, emphasising how accepting they are as a Chuch, and how they reached out to others in ways beyond liturgy and preaching, not being a fan of that “nonsense” but rather of connecting with others, and helping those in need.
“It’s not about the religion” he told me. “It’s the people that matter.”
In Brighton Rob had become a member of the Salvation Army Congress, for which one of his mates, Paul, would take the mickey out of him.
“Why’d you go along to those things?” Paul would ask him.
“Why don’t you come along one day and find out?” Rob’d reply.
Paul did exactly that. Expecting some of the Church members to be a bit funny about Paul’s appearance, Rob was surprised at the amount of fuss over his friend. Paul was fussed over so much, that even if Rob wasn’t headed to the Church one day, Paul started to go without him.
“Do you know the song Hundreds and Thousands?” Rob asked me. I shook my head. “It’s a children’s song from the Church, but it’s a lovely little tune.”
He explained that the songs verses talked about all the thousands of flowers and birds and children in the world, ending with the phrase “God loves them as much as he loves me”. A twinkle in his eye I could tell that this sweet story was headed somewhere interesting, so I help my tongue and let him continue.
Rob had created his own verse to this song in a pub once, when challenged by a mate to explain how the song was relevant to him and the others sitting around.
“Alright then, come up here and I’ll show you how it’s relevant to you” Rob replied, before breaking into a newly created verse which has since been sung by skinheads in roughened East London pubs, and in the Church alike, it was probably my favourite of the stories Rob told me today, the verse goes something like this.
“There are hundreds of skinheads, thousands, millions,
and yet their names are written God’s memory,
there are hundreds and thousands and millions of skinheads,
but God loves them as much as he loves me”.
On finishing the verse, Rob started to tear up. Apologising profusely, he wiped his eye. I stood up from the chair, grabbed his hand and asked if he was okay, letting him know that I would have to be on my way in a minute, but asked if there was anything I could do for him first. He apologised again and asked if I could make him a cup of tea before I left.
While the kettle boiled I heard him call to me from his chair.
“Can you come again?” he asked me. “Your friends would be welcome too, girls or fellas I don’t mind, but please come again.”
My heart ached. What saddened me the most was that this old man was all alone, he had been house-bound for 2 years, and had no one left. No family, no friends.
He had such wonderful stories, and had done some wonderful things in his life. He had donned the steel capped boots and roughed it out in East London in the 60s, he’d travelled to the middle east 3 times, been to Norway and all over the continent, had performed as Freddie the Dip in East London, married a beautiful woman and moved to Brighton, he had worked as a carer for the elderly and those suffering from Dementia, done amazing work with the Salvation Army and was now sitting in his flat, unable to move, reminiscing and laughing with a girl he had just met about the good old days. He didn’t feel sorry for himself, he just wanted some company, and a bit of a laugh.
“I’ll come again.” I promised, and I will. As an old man told me today, it’s people that matter.
Images attributed to: Vinoth Chandar and Paul Townsend