Mrs Clarke opened the door. It was on the latch, and she peeped cautiously through the small gap.
‘Hello,’ I said. ‘My name’s Jennifer. I’m here from the Sunshine Programme.’
Mrs Clarke’s face brightened immediately on hearing this. She closed the door, unlatched it and then opened it fully.
‘Hello,’ she said. ‘Please come in. So sorry about that, but you can never be too careful.’
‘No, of course,’ I said, as I walked into the house. ‘Would you like me to take my shoes off?’
‘Oh no, no,’ she said, waving her hand dismissively. ‘Don’t worry about any of that nonsense. How can you call this a home if you have to be wiping your feet and worrying about where you sit and all that kind of rubbish? Unless you stepped in something that is, in which case you can take those shoes right off and throw them into the front garden!’
She laughed, and I smiled back at her.
It’s obviously difficult, and unwise, to make judgements about people solely on first impressions. But I thought that I was going to like Mrs Clarke.
Ten minutes later, Mrs Clarke and I were sitting in her living room, both with cups of tea. By this point, she had become Esther.
‘I may be heading for my grave,’ she said, ‘but I don’t need a ‘Mrs Clarke this’ and a ‘Mrs Clarke that’ to remind me of it all the time.’
I had made all the usual polite comments about Esther having a lovely home, but in this case meant them. Her house was lovely. It was also remarkably clean. Much more so than the small flat I lived in. When I asked if she had a cleaner, Esther gave what I was beginning to understand was a typical response.
‘No, I would never go in for any of that. Paying some stranger to route through all my personal belongings, heavens no. Who knows what embarrassing things I’ve got lying around the place!’
I had been volunteering for Sunshine for a few years now. My role was to visit elderly people who were lonely. While I loved my job, I was often saddened by the sheer number of elderly people who were left alone, who spent days or weeks without having anyone to talk to, and the surprisingly drastic deterioration this could cause to physical and mental health. When you think of the challenges of old age, you think of mental and physical decline, the vulnerability to certain illnesses and conditions. As bad as these all are, there is an inevitability about them, and they are unfortunately just part of old age. What I found so upsetting about loneliness was how unnecessary it was. It was scandalous to me that someone’s decline could be slowed by something as simple as having someone to have a cup of tea and a chat with once a week.
One of the saddest aspects of this was people like Esther – someone who was funny, nice, perfectly personable, but who solely through circumstance had ended up on her own.
‘My family, they’ve all gone,’ she said. ‘Can’t say that I blame them. My girl, Sharon, went up to London. Birmingham for Mike. There’s nothing round here for them.’
As for her friends – some had passed away, others had moved.
‘And some I just fell out with. Now, I’m sure if you talked to them, they’d say that I was in the wrong, and if you asked me, I’d say that they were in the wrong. But take it from me, life is short. I should know if anyone does. Life is really short, and it passes by much quicker than you think. You realise at my age how silly all these petty squabbles and fights you get into really are. And that at the end of the day, when all’s said and done and when it comes down to it, what you have to always remember is that I was the one in the right.’
She did have a couple of people she spoke to in the village, but the impression I got was that these were more acquaintances than actual friends. The exception was Anna, who lived next door. I was beginning to learn that Esther was not the kind of person who would come outright and say that she liked someone or admit that they were important to her – this reticence being a manifestation of what was I was beginning to learn was her stubborn personality – but even without her explicitly saying it I could tell that she was very fond of Anna.
‘I don’t get up to town as much as I used to. A five-minute walk, ten at most, is about all I can manage these days. It’s my heart. I’ve always had a bad heart, and now I’ve got the bloody thing in my old age, as if I’ve not got enough to worry about. Still, I suppose at my age, if it wasn’t my heart it’d be something else, wouldn’t it?’
Esther told me that she had enquired with Sunshine, after speaking with the vicar at her local church, which she visited religiously every other Christmas Eve, Easter and whenever she had a major health scare.
Esther didn’t mind living alone, and in fact enjoyed her independence. She liked the fact that she could arrange her own life, and do what she liked when she liked. But the reason she had got in touch with Sunshine was because she had started to feel weighed down by her loneliness.
‘You hear that word – “lonely” – so often,’ she said. ‘But until you actually feel it yourself, you don’t really know what it means. It’s a terrible thing, loneliness. I’d watch hours of television, or tidy, or rearrange things in the house – do about anything, really, just to fill the time. Sometimes I’d turn the clock around so I wouldn’t see how much time had passed. I’d think that I’d managed to get through an hour, an hour and a half, but when I turned it back it’d only have been twenty minutes. There was a time where I’d wash my sheets two or three times a week. By the time I’d taken them off the bed, put them in the washing machine, waited for them to finish, hung them up to dry, ironed and folded them when they were done, I would be pleased because I’d eaten up a good part of the day. But, of course, I couldn’t do that every day. I’d not wish loneliness on anyone, not on my worst enemy. Not even on Mrs Johnson down at the post office. I can tell you dear, if anyone deserves to be lonely then it’s that woman, but I wouldn’t even wish it on her.’
It’s difficult to talk about your own volunteering work without engaging in the worst sort of clichés. With that in mind, I’ll get two things out of the way. The first is that I loved doing what I did, and it gave me a sense of fulfilment, and of giving back. The second is that I began enjoying the time I spent with Esther so much that it no longer felt like charity. After the few weeks it took to settle in and get used to it, those Friday afternoons really did feel like I was spending the evening with a friend.
Because of Esther’s heart and consequent inability to get down to the shops, one of the things I did was help her with her weekly online shop. This would be supplemented by Anna during the week, if Esther had forgotten something or wanted something fresh for dinner on a given night.
The first time I did this I asked her if she wanted me to set the delivery time so that it came when I was there, and could help with the unpacking.
She shook her head, and said:
‘The day I can’t take in a couple of bags into my own kitchen is the day you might as well put me in a coffin. Besides, you’ll be depriving me of the opportunity to meet the handsome young delivery men. All that lifting and carrying they do all day, keeps them in very good shape.’
I very quickly adapted to Esther’s sense of humour. It varied between the kind of sharp, acidic remarks that only elderly people can get away with, to the bawdy innuendoes particular to British people of a certain age, who grew up with things like the Carry On films.
She also got a great deal of fun from winding me up. On my second ever visit to her house, she had asked me to go and get her cat.
‘Oh, I didn’t know you had a cat,’ I said, having not seen one the first time I had been round.
‘Yes, Mittens. She always runs upstairs and hides when someone new comes in. She’s very shy, poor thing. But if you’re going to be here regularly, she’ll just have to get over it and get used to you. Can’t have her hiding every time you come over.’
I love cats, and was unable to have any of my own due to my tenancy agreement, so couldn’t wait to meet Mittens. I went upstairs, and spent what must have been ten minutes looking for her before finally realising she was nowhere to be found. Then, indulging in the stereotypical thoughts you can sometimes have about the elderly, I began to wonder about senility, dementia. Had there been a Mittens, but she passed away years ago? Was there ever a Mittens? Was Mittens in fact from some TV show that Esther liked and had assimilated into her own life? I came down the stairs. My expression was grave and I was ready to speak consolingly to Esther. The moment she saw me, she burst out laughing.
After explaining that she had been lying, she spent the next five minutes interspersing her laughter with little comments such as ‘you were up there for ten minutes!’; ‘you were looking everywhere!’ I had to go and get her a glass of water after her final comment brought her to tears: ‘you must have thought that I was some crazy old biddy who left out bowls of food and water that never got touched!’
One day, I was sitting with Esther in the living room, when I asked her about the pictures on her mantlepiece. There were various photos of her children – Mike and Sharon – and of her grandchildren. Another was of her in her twenties with a friend on a beach.
‘Don’t we look stunning?’ she asked me.
Then, we came to the last picture. It was of her with a man. I saw her face darken, and stopped myself from asking about it, but she said:
‘That was my husband, Dominic. He passed away.’
‘I’m very sorry,’ I said.
‘I’m not,’ she responded. ‘Glad to get rid of the bastard.’ This was not something I had seen before from Esther. There were many things that she hated or that annoyed her, but whenever she spoke about them there was always an element of humour or bite to her anger. Even when she spoke about Mrs Johnson at the post office, it was clear that there was at least a part of her that was enjoying it. But I had never seen the kind of complete, unadulterated bitterness that she was displaying now.
‘He was a cold, horrible man,’ she said. ‘Thirty years we were married. Thirty years! Sometimes even I hear that number and can’t believe it. Thirty years of a cold, loveless marriage. I have had run-ins with plenty of people in my time, dear. There are many people who don’t like me, and who I don’t like. But I don’t think I have every truly hated someone as much as I hated him.’ The whole time she was speaking, she was staring at the picture of Dominic. She was engrossed, and I don’t think it is too much of an exaggeration to say that had I left the room she wouldn’t have noticed.
‘Do you remember what I said to you the other day about loneliness? How it’s the worst thing? Well, everything I said is true. It is a horrible, wretched thing. I can’t think of anything worse than it. But if I had the choice between spending the rest of my life alone and spending even one evening with that man, I would happily take the decision to be alone.’
She didn’t speak for about half a minute. The whole time, she was staring at the picture of Dominic, her face set in an expression of hatred.
‘I gave my whole life to him,’ she said eventually, almost to herself, before standing up and leaving the room. I didn’t say anything, or try to stop her.
She came back in after five minutes with a tray of tea and biscuits, looking as if nothing had happened. With her usual smile and loud voice, she began discoursing on the new tea bags that I had suggested to her during one of the online shops.
‘You were right about these,’ she said. ‘They may be cheaper, but they’re just as good. It’s true what they say, isn’t it? All that brand stuff is just there to rip you off.’
Months passed, and I kept on visiting Esther. I often found myself spending longer with her than the usual two hours I had volunteered for.
I got weekly updates about Mrs Johnson and what she had done to annoy Esther this week. She also told me about what was happening with her neighbours, to the point where I knew more about them than I did my own. How she knew this much about what was going on without leaving her house I had no idea.
We spoke about me as well. A frequent occurrence was Esther’s badgering me about not having a boyfriend. She genuinely didn’t seem to believe that I was happy on my own. I was busy at work, had my Friday afternoons with Esther, and then on the weekends I just liked to relax. I might see a friend occasionally, or go to the cinema, but for the most part I wanted my free time to myself. This might have sounded boring to some people, but I liked my life, and certainly didn’t mind being single.
‘I’ll tell you something,’ Esther said to me, ‘if I was as young and as pretty as you, I wouldn’t be spending my Friday afternoons talking to some old lady.’
At one point, she even offered to set me up. There was a guy called Paul who worked at the bakery. I had seen him a couple of times when I had been there to get Esther a cake or treat to go with her tea.
‘I know that he’s shy, but that’s only because he knows a beautiful girl when he sees one. He really is very nice, and once you get over his awkwardness, I’m sure that you’d like him. Besides, you have to think about what he can do with those hands of his, considering all that bread he’s kneading and rolling every day.’
As I saw more of Esther’s house, I realised just how many pictures of her husband there were. She also kept a lot of his possessions, including old books and vinyl records. Given what Esther had said about him, I found this strange. After she had asked me a particularly gruelling question about my own personal life, I decided to risk asking her about this.
‘It’s to remind me,’ she said. ‘The first thing is that I can’t erase him. Terrible man though he was, he was still my husband for thirty years. I can’t pretend he didn’t exist. I don’t ever want to forget what he was like. What that marriage was like. The worst thing I can imagine is me sitting in this chair one night and thinking about how much I miss him, or saying to myself, ‘oh, he wasn’t really that bad after all’, or watching something on television and thinking ‘Dominic used to love this’. When I wake up each morning, I don’t want to turn to the empty side of the bed and think, ‘I do wish Dominic was here, lying next to me.’ You do that sometimes. You look back on things in your life, from your comfortable position in the present, and think to yourself that they weren’t so bad. It’s almost like you become a different person. There’s your present self and your past self, and because your present self doesn’t have to live with whatever it was that you suffered, it thinks that it might not have been so bad or might have been manageable. I can let that go with other things, but I can’t with Dominic. I can never allow myself to think that about him.’
I felt bad after this. She had gotten upset again, and it was clear how hard talking about Dominic was for her. I resolved not to bring him up again and quickly changed the subject.
Esther’s daughter, Sharon, came to visit for the weekend. Knowing that she would be coming down on Friday, I had asked Esther if she wanted me to rearrange my day for that week but she said no.
‘Of course not. I’m happy to have you here. Besides, I consider you – ‘ she stopped herself. I was sure that she was going to say something along the lines of ‘a part of my family’ – not out of any arrogance or self-flattery on my part, but because I knew that she hated sentimentality and it was only something like that that could have made her look as embarrassed as she did. ‘It’d be nice to have you here’, was what she settled on in the end.
Sharon brought her two children with her. I could tell how much Esther enjoyed having them over. It was obvious she adored them and they her. Knowing what Esther was like, I had always wondered if there might have been some sort of fight or argument in the past that discouraged Sharon from visiting, but this wasn’t the case. It turned out it really was merely down to distance. This was something I encountered a lot as well – families who genuinely did want to spend time with their elderly relatives, but who were hindered by such mundane things as having moved away or being too busy at work.
At one point, Sharon got me alone in the hall and thanked me for what I was doing with her mother.
‘Oh, no, it’s no problem,’ I said. ‘I really enjoy spending time with her.’
‘I know she can be a bit much at times,’ Sharon said, ‘and it can take a lot of getting used to. If I wasn’t her daughter, I think it would have taken me awhile to adjust to that kind of personality. But she is a kind-hearted person, even if she does have a temper sometimes. And I’m not using this an excuse because of how long ago it happened, but I do think what happened with my dad has a lot to do with it.’
‘Of course,’ I said. ‘I completely get that. And I think your mother is great – she wouldn’t be the same without her fiery personality!’
We both laughed.
‘And I’ll tell you this,’ said Sharon, speaking quietly. ‘She’d kill me if she knew I’d told you, but I just wanted you to know how fond of you she is and how much she cares about you. She says that your visits are the highlight of her week.’
‘Oh, thank you,’ I said. Although I knew that Esther liked me, I was taken aback, and more than a little moved, to hear this. ‘That’s really sweet. They’re the highlight of my week too.’
‘But remember,’ she said, miming a zip going across her lips.
Twenty minutes later, I was off for the day, saying goodbye to everyone. It was a lovely feeling to leave Esther knowing that she was surrounded by her family. As I was going home, I thought to myself again about how sad it was. I understood why people didn’t live with their parents, and why it would be a burden to have them live with them. After all, I didn’t do it myself, and if tomorrow I was to lose my job or be kicked out of my flat, the last thing I’d want to do is move back in with my mum and dad. But still, I felt bad. To be old, and to have all the infirmities and worries that that brings with it, and then to also have this loneliness, and this sense of having your family ripped away from you: it really was a cruel thing.
Still, at least Esther had visits from her family, no matter how infrequent they may have been. Some people didn’t even have that. When I saw her the next week, she spent the majority of our time together talking about their visit, and I could see how much she had enjoyed it. For weeks afterwards, she would continue bringing it up, telling me something else that had happened.
It took me a few moments to accept that the phone was ringing in real life and that I did have to answer it. Annoyance was quickly replaced by worry as I saw the time and realised I didn’t recognise the number – a landline. Who called from a landline, and who did so at this time? I didn’t want to answer it, but knew that if I didn’t, I would spend the rest of the day wondering who it was.
‘Hello?’ I said cautiously.
It was Anna. She apologised for ringing so early, and for taking my number – which she had gotten out of Esther’s address book.
‘I’m very sorry to have to tell you this,’ she said, ‘but Esther has passed away.’
I jerked up in bed, as if waking from a nightmare, and asked her to repeat what she had said. Her voice was understanding and patient as she confirmed that I had heard correctly. Esther had died.
‘It was her heart,’ she said. ‘I don’t think any of us realised just how bad her heart condition was. Well, I imagine that’s probably not too much of a surprise. You know how she never liked to complain.’
I did. I imagined that Esther could have spent every day of her life in agony and none of us would have ever known about it. I hoped that wasn’t the case, and I also hoped that she had been able to pass away peacefully in her sleep.
We spoke a little longer, and then I said that I would be down later that morning to visit.
I took one final look at the house, where a number of the local residents had congregated. Both Esther’s son and daughter were planning on coming down later, but I would be gone by then. Seeing the house for the last time, I felt an onrush of sadness. I knew that I was going to be upset, and had tried to prepare myself for it, but there was only so much preparation that I could do for the moment when I was faced with the house; when I thought about every Friday afternoon I had walked up that drive; whenever I got to the door and had to knock loudly because Esther had one of her gameshows on full volume and then her shouting out ‘all right, all right, I heard you, don’t get your knickers in a twist,’ on my third or fourth time of knocking.
Seeing how overwhelmed I was, Anna took me to hers for a cup of tea.
After ten or so minutes of sharing recollections of Esther, I felt a little better. Of course, I was sad, and of course I would be sad for some time. But Esther was the kind of person you couldn’t discuss for too long without smiling. And I knew Esther well enough to know that she would not have approved of me grieving too much. (Or, as I imagine she might have put it, ‘going around moping’.)
Anna and I shared these happier memories, before going on to talk about her heart condition, and how much it slowed her down in her later years.
‘Of course,’ Anna said. ‘I’m sure there were times where Esther might have liked to get out a bit more, but for the most part I think she was fine with it. She was never a big fan of the outdoors in any case, and I don’t think she minded being inside.’
‘I didn’t realise how bad her heart was,’ I said. ‘She told me about her condition, and I knew that it caused her problems, but I never knew it was as bad as all that.’
‘It’s possible it got worse suddenly,’ said Anna, ‘or that Esther didn’t realise how bad it was. Although, as I said this morning, it may have been that she just kept it all to herself. She would never have told us what she was going through.’
‘No,’ I agreed, ‘she wouldn’t.’
But then again, she had reached out to me, to Sunshine. It had not really occurred to me before now, but it must have been difficult for someone like her to ask for that kind of help. Even if it was just with the vicar, conceding any kind of vulnerability couldn’t have been easy for her. I said this to Anna, and about how bad I felt that she had felt so isolated.
‘I just sometimes thought,’ I added, ‘that it would have been nice if she could have found someone after Dominic. Even if it was just a companion, someone to live with.’
‘Well,’ said Anna, ‘something like that is hard to get over. Even after a long time, it’s hard to just move on.’
‘I know,’ I said. ‘I just wish she could have. Don’t get me wrong. I know that after what happened it would’ve been hard to trust someone else. It just would have been good if she could have tried at least.’
‘Trust someone else?’ Anna said, sounding confused.
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘After how badly Dominic treated her, how horrible he was to her.’
After I said that, Anna smiled.
‘My dear,’ said Anna, putting her hand over mine. ‘Esther loved Dominic. They loved each other. In my whole life, I don’t think I have ever seen two people more devoted to each other than those two. Some people round here were even jealous of it. I don’t know if Esther ever told you about Mrs Johnson at the Post Office, but they had a long running feud. No one knows how it originated, but my personal theory is that Mrs Johnson was jealous. It’s the sort of thing that can make you jealous, seeing someone else be so happy when you’re alone.
‘After Dominic died, she was an entirely different person. She became miserable and bitter. Some people would say that when they would see her in the shops, or around town, that she looked like a living ghost. It probably wasn’t the nicest thing to say, dear, and I can’t pretend that I didn’t indulge in it myself, but I do think that it was accurate. It was like his death had killed her too.
‘She eventually improved, as the years went on, and was able to live something of a normal life, as you have to do. But she was never quite the same again, and I don’t doubt for a minute that she missed Dominic every day. There were a number of men in this town who liked her and would have happily married her. As you know, for all her hostility she really was a good person at heart, and got on with people if they didn’t annoy her too much. I believe that someone even did propose to her once – although don’t hold me to that. But to Esther, I imagine no one would have compared to Dominic, and so being with someone else or being with no one would have been effectively the same thing.’
Seeing the obvious confusion in my expression, Anna stopped. I told her everything that Esther had told me, about how much she hated Dominic. But as I was saying it, it started to sound wrong somehow. I told her about the pictures of Dominic; all of his books and vinyl records. When Esther had told me about it, and whenever I thought about it, it made sense. Now, it didn’t sound right. Why would somebody keep their house as a tomb to someone they despised? At the time I had attributed it to Esther’s unique personality, or the strange idiosyncrasies that people had, but saying it out loud and to someone else made me realise how nonsensical it was.
‘She lied?’ I said.
Anna responded with a sad smile, not saying anything.
‘But why would she do that?’ I asked. ‘Why would she lie?’
As a young person, you can sometimes be guilty of patronising the elderly, intentionally or otherwise. You think that they are incapable of doing certain things, or understanding others. It’s in your actions, your attitude, and sometimes even in the voice you use – loud, pronounced and cautious as if you’re addressing a child. But this can work the opposite way, too. Older people can sometimes assume that due to your young age and minimal life experience you are lacking in understanding. I don’t think it is ever meant to be nasty, but like a lot of well-intentioned things it is irritating. And it is often accompanied with what I would call a sad, knowing smile. As if somebody felt sorry for me for not having the wisdom they did. Anna had that same exact look now.
She took my hand in hers, and said:
‘I don’t know if Esther believes what she told you herself. It’s possible that she did believe it. I’ve never ceased to be amazed by how people can lie to themselves to the point where they believe their own lie, especially when that lie is comforting. She may well have been able to convince herself that she hated Dominic. But when it comes to why, well, that’s obvious isn’t it? How would you like to live your life? Would you like to do it thinking that the person you loved more than anyone else in the world is dead, and you will never see them again?
‘Or, would you rather think that this person was terrible? He was a monster, he made your life miserable, and every second you spent with him you were willing him dead. Then, when he did die, it was the best thing that had ever happened to you. You’re alone now, but you’re so much better being alone. You can maybe mourn the years you spent with him, wasted with him, but that’s the only thing you have to mourn, and you can now get on with your life. Wouldn’t you prefer that life?’
I thought about this for a long time without saying anything. Anna could tell that I was thinking and so didn’t speak. As I thought, I remembered something Esther had said once. She had said that if she had the choice between spending the rest of her life alone, or having to spend just one night with Dominic, she would have chosen the former.
I realised now that when she had said this, she had really been talking about the exact opposite. And I believed her. I genuinely thought that she would truly have been satisfied with spending her whole life alone if it meant she got just one more night with Dominic.
‘Yes,’ I said to Anna, ‘I would prefer that.’
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