‘Hello, I’m Stella.’
I’m so used to introducing myself. It’s the first thing I do when I meet someone new – put the other person at ease first. I’m the Activities Co-ordinator at The Larches, a care home for elderly people. It’s a sprawling red-brick bungalow set in an untended garden. I used to work five days a week, now I’m only needed for three and, frankly, it’s hard to live off the reduced salary. I’m going to resign – I’ve written the letter already and have it in my bag. I’ve got no job to go to, but I quite fancy training to become a life coach. I’ll be self-employed and, hopefully, better off than I am now.
Aude – Audrey Simpson-Jones – is Care Home Manager at The Larches. She’s the one who decided that my working hours should be cut as part of last year’s Budget Efficiencies. Well, I’ve just about forgiven her for referring to me as ‘that coloured girl’ when I first started working here, but I can’t forgive her attitude towards the residents. Aude thinks as long as they are fed that’s good enough, as if they don’t need any sustenance for their brains. I sometimes wonder why she chose to work in the care profession in the first place.
I hold the Story Ring on the first Wednesday of each month. Me and a small group of the residents get together in the Activities Room to tell stories and reminisce. Today’s session would be the last before I leave The Larches. I’ve decided I won’t mention it to the Storytellers, as I call them, until after the session.
I go to the Activities Room, unload my stuff on to the spare table near the window, and stop momentarily to watch two of the residents walking together in the rear garden. Maurice, tall and thin with a slight stoop, is talking to Lottie. He’s moving his hands as if he’s explaining something but I can tell tiny, bird-like Lottie isn’t listening. She’s gazing up at the branches of the trees as she walks.
The furniture in the Activities Room has already been set up for the Story Ring. The red leather chairs, high-backed and sturdy, are arranged in a semi-circle facing a blank white wall. The other walls are decorated with paintings and drawings created by the residents. I unfurl a poster and tack it to the wall, covering it with a plain sheet of paper. I place pens, pencils and paper on the table at the centre of the room, and then I’m ready.
I can hear the Storytellers making their way down the main corridor to the Activities Room, a mixture of voices complaining, babbling, and laughing. Sally and Aisleen, the Care Assistants, are with them.
‘Story time again!’ Sally says, in a sing-song voice.
‘Yes, story time, thank you nurse,’ a gruff male voice grumbles as the group enter the room. ‘Morning, Stella,’ Edwin says.
‘Morning Edwin!’ And for the benefit of those with slipping memories, ‘Hello everyone, I’m Stella.’
Lottie has come in from the garden. Her thin red lips – Lottie loves her lippy – utter barely-formed words, but I know she’s greeting me.
‘Hiya Lottie, good to see you,’ I say.
Jean waves at me before sitting down in her usual place: the chair closest to the door.
‘Good morning, my dear.’ That’s Euphemia, a proper posh Jamaican lady, always neatly turned out in a pleated skirt and pussy-bow blouse.
Sally and Aisleen help the frailest members of the group, Carole and Antonietta, to their seats. I thank them both as they leave, and close the blinds to protect sensitive eyes from the spring morning sunshine.
I explain to the Storytellers why we are here and what we are about to do. I love the whole ritual of it. Then I peel the blank sheet of paper away from the poster to reveal a picture of a small girl dressed like a 1980s career woman: padded-shoulder suit, designer glasses. She’s sitting at a desk in front of a boxy computer with a ‘phone in one hand, poised to make a call. I thought they might like it.
‘You can see it’s a little girl, can’t you? A right little career madam!’ Jean looks at me quite fiercely, but I carry on talking. ‘It’s funny. One minute we’re kids, the next we’re grown-ups. So the question for this morning’s Story Ring is: what did you want to be when you grew up?’
‘Well I didn’t want to be a girl, that’s for sure!’ Edwin grins.
‘Sorry, Edwin, I couldn’t find a picture of a little boy to match this one. But still, have a think.’
‘I do not like the picture.’ Antonietta’s Italian accent is strong, despite living in Britain for many years. ‘She’s a little girl. Little girls do not work.’
‘But she’s playing, isn’t she?’ says Carole, smiling. ‘Playing at being grown-up.’
‘Yes, that is all,’ Euphemia agrees. ‘I like the picture.’
I say, ‘Imagine that’s you in the picture, being a kid, playing. What would you be?’
‘If I was in the picture I’d be looking after children. Me and Thomas, my brother, were sent away to Dorset during the war.’
‘Why, Carole?’ Antonietta asks. ‘Your parents did not want you?’
‘Oh no, nothing like that. We were evacuees, you see. Some children had a dreadful time, but I loved it. Aunt Myrtle and Uncle David were so kind, not strict like our own Mum and Dad. I wanted to be a nursery nurse.’
I ask Carole whether she ended up working with children.
‘No, Sula. I worked at Jones Brothers. Remember the big department store that used to be on the Holloway Road? I worked in the hats and gloves department for years, until it closed.’
Euphemia looks genuinely interested. ‘Did you enjoy your work, Carole?’
‘I didn’t mind it. It brought in extra money so that was good. What about you, Euphelia? It must have been quite different in Jamaica.’
Euphemia ignores Carole’s mispronunciation of her name. ‘No, not very different. I came here when I was young, nineteen years of age, in 1962. I trained to become a nurse.’
‘So in that picture, you’d be wearing a saucy nurse’s outfit?’
Oh God, trust Edwin.
‘No!’ Euphemia says irritably. ‘I would be wearing a white wig, and be dressed in the gown of the law.’
I am so impressed. ‘You wanted to be a barrister? That’s great.’
‘Yes, except that in those days the law profession wasn’t open to the likes of us.’ Euphemia looks at me steadily as she says this.
‘Alright, Euph. Enough about you, what about me?’ Edwin pauses, winks, and looks at the others to see if they’re amused by his quip. ‘If I was in that picture I’d be a little boy surrounded by lions and tigers.’
‘They would eat you,’ Antonietta pointed out.
‘No, they’d be behind bars, like the wild beasts they are. Bit like me really.’
‘What do you mean, Edwin?’ I ask, although I can already guess.
‘I’d be a zoo keeper, of course!’ Then Edwin looks downcast. ‘But I ended up sweeping the streets, and when I lost that job I became a virtual down-and-out.’
‘Really?’ Carole looks appalled.
‘Yes. I’ve had a tragic life.’ Edwin turns to Carole, and at the other women, hoping for more sympathy. Then he looks at me. I raise my eyebrows. I’m sure he’s telling…stories.
‘But you persevered with life, and survived,’ Euphemia says. ‘That is admirable.’
‘Ha! Not really, girls. I’m having you on. Not lions and tigers. I worked with the penguins at London Zoo, Rockhoppers, mainly. Loved ’em. Best job in the world.’ Edwin succeeds in amusing himself.
Euphemia looks at him with disapproval. ‘Oh,’ is all she says.
Suddenly Lottie stands up, murmuring as she walks slowly towards the door. She opens it and leaves the room. I have to follow her.
‘Please excuse me while I check that Lottie is okay.’ I follow her down the corridor, but Aisleen reaches her first.
‘It’s okay, Stel, I’ll look after her,’ she calls. ‘Alright, Lottie?’ Aisleen gently takes Lottie’s arm and begins to talk quietly to her.
I return to the Activities Room feeling concerned and wondering whether Lottie is upset, but as I enter the room Jean is saying,
‘You’re not half as funny as you think you are.’ She turns to me. ‘Stella, Edwin is a disruptive influence.’
‘Least I’m not bolshie like you.’
Edwin and Jean always come to the Story Ring. They seem to want to be in the same room together, gently bickering.
‘Now, Edwin, let’s be respectful to one another. This is a chance to share and have some fun.’
‘I am having fun.’
‘Okay, well have fun kindly.’
There is a knock on the door, and Sally comes in wheeling a trolley of tea and biscuits. When I started at The Larches, cakes and pastries were served at tea time. Now, there are only biscuits. Austerity elevenses, I suppose.
I’m so relieved when Aisleen re-appears with Lottie. She settles Lottie back into her seat and offers her some tea. Lottie refuses. She points towards the pens and paper left on the table, and I fetch them for her. She murmurs thanks, and begins to draw. I watch her hand move with seemingly choreographed grace across the page. It’s then I remember that Lottie was an artist, quite a successful one.
‘Oh, Lottie, that’s great.’ I sit down next to her. Head bowed, her grey bobbed hair swaying with each movement, Lottie carries on drawing and doesn’t look up.
When the clatter of cups and saucers slowly subsides. I’m about to resume the session when Antonietta asks loudly,
‘Are we starting again? I want to tell.’
The Storytellers say yes. They are ready.
Antonietta, so elegant even in her plain jumper, slacks and slippers, declares, ‘I would not be that girl. I wanted to get married and have a family. I am from Calabria in Southern Italy. I came to live in England with my husband in the ‘50s. Many Italians moved to Bedford for jobs in the brickworks, rebuilding after the war. I wanted children, but no children came. I needed something to do and I can cook so I opened a café, the first Italian café in Bedford. I became famous!’ She laughs. ‘Then I had a son, just one son. He runs the café now.’ Antonietta stops speaking, looking satisfied with herself.
I know the answer to this question, but I ask anyway. ‘What did you call the café, Antonietta?’
‘Antonietta’s Café, of course!’
The Storytellers laugh.
‘Antonietta, that is so interesting. My story is the opposite.’ Jean pauses, gathering her thoughts. ‘I always wanted to be a teacher, like my Father. I didn’t want to be stuck at home like my mother. I couldn’t understand why she put up with it.’
‘She was looking after you, no?’
‘Yes, but I just didn’t want to be like her.’
Jean seems agitated, so I try to calm her by referring back to the poster. ‘Did you play pretend-teacher when you were little, Jean?’
‘I did. But as I got older I became very serious about it. I passed my exams, and went to teacher training college. I qualified in 1970, I think, maybe 1960.’ Jean begins to look confused.
‘I bet you were a great teacher,’ I smile. Sometimes I have a feeling that Jean thinks I’m too shallow, a bit frivolous.
‘I like to think so. Anyway, my point is that when I got married I had to give up my career. I stopped teaching and had two children. By the time they were teenagers it was too late for me to re-enter the profession.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that.’ I sense the regret in Jean’s voice, and it saddens me. ‘Well, you could say that you sort of had it all. A career and a family life!’ I say this a little too brightly.
Jean’s face reddens. ‘Had it all? That cliché! You have no idea what it was like for my generation of women. We didn’t have choices. Can you imagine that, Stella? Giving up your career because everyone thinks you should? You don’t know how lucky you are.’
I don’t know what to say. There’s no avoiding the fact that I deserved Jean’s outburst. I’d hoped that the Storytellers would remember what it’s like to be children, not dwell on unfulfilled ambitions. Perhaps I shouldn’t have chosen this subject. Lottie has stopped drawing and is listening, alert. Antonietta is watching, looking from Jean to me, sensing the tension. Euphemia rescues me.
‘Jean, I understand. Stella understands too, don’t you Stella? We all do.’
I nod gratefully. ‘I’m sorry, Jean.’
Jean doesn’t reply. She fidgets and looks out of the window.
There is silence. Edwin is looking at Jean with something like concern, and Carole has a worried smile on her face. I stand up, trying to reassert myself.
‘We’re nearly at the end of this month’s Story Ring. Do you have anything else to share?’
‘Nah. Thanks, Stella.’ Edwin beams a smile at me, and I really appreciate it.
‘Well, it’s great to see how our lives can become stories. Thanks everyone.’ That’s the best I can manage.
We end with a song, a Frank Sinatra number from my Story Ring compilation tape: You Make Me Feel So Young. It’s good to sway to. While we hold hands and sing, I decide there’s no way I’m telling the residents that I’m leaving. And Jean is right, I do have choices. I can respond to Aude’s vote of no confidence by leaving and becoming a life coach, trying to believe my own motivational platitudes and charging extortionate fees. Or I can stay for now, take more care in future, be the anti-Aude.
By the end of the song, I’ve made my decision. And just as we stop singing, the door opens and Maurice pops his head round the door.
‘I’m here for the stories. May I take a seat?’