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Jigs & Reels
Faith and Hope Go Shopping
Four years ago, my grandmother went into an old people's home in Barnsley. Before her death I went there often, and a lot of stories came out of those visits. This is one of them.
It's Monday, so it must be rice pudding again. It's not so much the fact that they're careful of our teeth, here at the Meadowbank Home, rather a general lack of imagination. As I told Claire the other day, there are lots of things you can eat without having to chew. Oysters. Foie gras. Avocado vinaigrette. Strawberries and cream. Crème brûlée with vanilla and nutmeg. Why then this succession of bland puddings and gummy meats? Claire the sulky blonde, always chewing a wad of gum looked at me as if I were mad. Fancy food, they claim, upsets the stomach. God forbid our remaining taste buds should be overstimulated. I saw Hope grinning round the last mouthful of ocean pie, and I knew she'd heard me. Hope may be blind, but she's no slouch.
Faith and Hope. With names like that we might be sisters. Kelly that's the one with the exaggerated lip liner thinks we're quaint. Chris sometimes sings to us when he's cleaning out the rooms. Faith, Hope and Char-i-tee! He's the best of them, I suppose. Cheery and irreverent, he's always in trouble for talking to us. He wears tight T-shirts and an earring. I tell him that the last thing we want is charity, and that makes him laugh. Hinge and Brackett, he calls us. Butch and Sundance.
I'm not saying it's a bad place here. It's just so ordinary not thecomfortable ordinariness of home, with its familiar grime and clutter, but that of waiting rooms and hospitals, a pastel-detergent place with a smell of air freshener and distant bedpans. We don't get many visits, as a rule. I'm one of the lucky ones; my son Tom calls every fortnight with my magazines and a bunch of chrysanths the last ones were yellow and any news he thinks won't upset me. But he isn't much of a conversationalist. Are you keeping well, then, Mam? and a comment or two about the garden is about all he can manage, but he means well. As for Hope, she's been here five years even longer than me and she hasn't had a visitor yet. Last Christmas I gave her a box of my chocolates and told her they were from her daughter in California. She gave me one of her sardonic little smiles.
"If that's from Priscilla, sweetheart," she said primly, "then you're Ginger Rogers."
I laughed at that. I've been in a wheelchair for twenty years, and the last time I did any dancing was just before men stopped wearing hats.
We manage, though. Hope pushes me around in my chair, and I direct her. Not that there's much directing to do in here; she can get around just by using the ramps. But the nurses like to see us using our resources. It fits in with their Waste not, want not ethic. And of course, I read to her. Hope loves stories. In fact, she's the one who started me reading in the first place. We've had Wuthering Heights, and Pride and Prejudice, and Doctor Zhivago. There aren't many books here, but the library van comes round every four weeks, and we send Lucy out to get us something nice. Lucy's a college student on Work Experience, so she knows what to choose. Hope was furious when she wouldn't let us have Lolita, though. Lucy thought it wouldn't suit us.
"One of the greatest writers of the twentieth century, and you thought he wouldn't suit us!" Hope used to be a professor at Cambridge, and still has that imperious twang in her voice sometimes. But I could tell Lucy wasn't really listening. They get that look even the brighter ones that nurserynurse smile which says, I know better. I know better because you're old. It's the rice pudding all over again, Hope tells me. Rice pudding for the soul.
If Hope taught me to appreciate literature, it was I who introduced her to magazines. They've been my passion for years, fashion glossies and society pages, restaurant reviews and film releases. I started her out on book reviews, slyly taking her off guard with an article here or a fashion page there. We found I had quite a talent for description, and now we wade deliciously together through the pages of bright ephemera, moaning over Cartier diamonds and Chanel lipsticks and lush, impossible clothes. It's strange, really. When I was young those things really didn't interest me. I think Hope was more elegant that I was after all there were college balls and academy parties and summer picnics on the Backs. Of course now we're both the same. Nursing-home chic. Things tend to be communal here some people forget what belongs to them, so there's a lot of pilfering. I carry my nicest things with me, in the rack under my wheelchair. I have my money and what's left of my jewelry hidden in the seat cushion.
I'm not supposed to have money here. There's nothing to spend it on, and we're not allowed out unaccompanied. There's a combination lock on the door, and some people try to slip out with visitors as they leave. Mrs. McAllister ninety-two, spry and mad as a hatter keeps escaping. She thinks she's going home.
It must have been the shoes that began it. Slick, patent, candy-apple red with heels that went on forever, I found them in one of my magazines and cut out the picture. Sometimes I brought it out and looked at it in private, feeling dizzy and a little foolish, I don't know why ...Jigs & Reels
Stories. Copyright © by Joanne Harris. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.