Tinder – Ch 10 – Lewis
By Mark Burrow
Some residents were bad.
Albert, he was the worst by far.
“You’re late,” he’d shout. “My present for you has gone cold.”
He talked about his turds with parental pride. “I’ve baked it especially and it came out steaming hot and tightly packed.”
I let in some air. Sure enough, his turd had detonated in the room. It was caked into the hairs and veins of his arse, his milk bottle white legs, the sheets, his fingernails and the label on a bottle of cordial on his bedside cabinet.
“Next to you, there’s a thing called a commode. Do you know what that is?”
“I’m put off by the name – commode. It sounds French and you know how I feel about those rude bastards. Anyhow, it’s what you’re paid to do so get a wiggle on. Why should I get out of bed when my back’s killing me? That’s right, clean it up.”
“This has to stop.”
“Quit your sulking. If I shat where you told me to it would spoil the fun.”
Albert was unusual in that he revelled in his own filth. The others in the home were resigned to their incontinence. A few were shy at first, but by and large they adjusted pretty quickly. It’s amazing how you grow accustomed to your body’s spillages and secretions.
With Albert, I must’ve wiped his arse more than my own. The rest of the “residents” needed constant attention too. I fed them. Washed them. Dressed them in fresh clothes, bandages. Applied eyedrops, creams and lotions. I read newspapers to them, switched TV channels, moved the aerial in the TV room, helped them with crosswords, picked them up when they tripped in the night and lowered their eyelids after they drifted into the big sleep.
“I see you had loads of visitors today, Albert.”
“How can a man be as old as you and have absolutely no friends?”
“I’ve lived, don’t you fret about that.”
“Do you think it might be your personality that’s to blame?”
He came alive when taunted. “Hey, how many women have you fucked?”
“You’re 21, 22?”
“How many women have you fucked?”
“Bullshit. I reckon you’ve busted your cherry at best and you probably had to pay for the pleasure. By your age I’d fucked close to thirty women and parachuted into Holland during the second world war. I tell you this for nothing, you’ve not lived until you’ve heard a Dutch girl come. It’s like a thousand operas. I liberated Holland alright, with my cock. Them girls shriek louder than artillery shells just before they land and explode. That’s loud, believe you me as it’s like the end of the world when 88s are raining down on your head. I should’ve lived in Holland. Those Dutch know how to live. Whereas you, what are you doing here? I bet the only fanny you see is Vera’s and her cunt’s so old and saggy she trips up over it when she walks – not that she has any legs to walk with.”
He never stopped goading and insulting.
“Wipe that shit,” he’d yell. “Wipe it good and proper. Fit for royalty…I want my arsehole to sparkle so the queen herself would eat out of it.”
Finding a job after school was a drag. Choices were limited to the post office, the gas, the print and the army. Joining up was a non-starter as I didn’t fancy being sent to Northern Ireland. I failed the post office exam, which I didn’t tell anyone about, and I never bothered trying for the gas as the gas board’s aptitude test was meant to be harder than the post’s. I tried the print but the hours were stupid and it was shit money. I’d come home from a 12-hour stint, dead on my feet, and mum would throw a strop because of the mess I’d leave in the bathroom trying to clean off the ink. “You’ve ruined my towels!” she’d shout like I’d committed a crime. “They’re ruined! Ruined!” I quit the print as the pittance I earned was going on towels and the printers were grim and miserable, saying there was no future in the trade because of technology. So I tried asking around the building sites to find work as a labourer. There was always labouring work available, apparently, which was tougher than the print but the pay was decent. I guess the foremen didn’t like my face. Usually Irish, they’d look me up and down and tell me “there’s nothing doing”. That was fine with me. I didn’t particularly want to work on a building site either.
But I had to find a job as mum and dad were hounding me. “You found one yet?” mum would say.
“Barbara’s boy found one.”
“Well, good for him.”
“We can’t keep supporting you. We’re not a charity. You’ve got to start earning your keep.”
I’d go to my room and listen to records, smoking fags but blowing the smoke out of the bedroom window. Barbara was a neighbour – she sunbathed topless in her back garden – and her son Nick had got work in a pub off Nine Elms called The Builders, emptying ashtrays and collecting glasses and playing the fruit machines. I couldn’t say that appealed to me much either although seeing the pub strippers on Wednesday afternoons sounded alright.
My father managed a bank. He liked to correct me and say it was a building society but to this day I don’t understand the difference. He was a strict believer in ironed shirts (all the same shade of blue) and not swearing in front of women. He caught the 7:43 train from Surbiton and it arrived at Kings Cross St Pancras at 8:10, where he got on the Piccadilly line to Moorgate and his desk at 8:30 on the dot. There was a picture of mum and me as a baby on his desk. It was odd to see mum, who was ten years younger than dad, smiling. She looked full of joy and optimism. I did too. It made you wonder what happened to the three of us as the years went by.
I saw the photograph when I did a week’s work experience at the bank/building society. Initially, I was going to stay for a fortnight but dad cancelled the second week after it became apparent that percentages, long division, basic mental arithmetic or arithmetic of any description for that matter proved to be a challenge for yours truly. During the final two days, I was banished to a box room by myself in the basement with six filing cabinets and a plastic chair stacked with files. It was airless and I had to ask for an electric fan from the office on the first floor, which dad got the hump about for some reason. He had been a grumpy and distant figure to me but his character slotted into place when I saw him in the bank. The smooth running of that organisation was his reason for being. You could see the staff alter when he came into the staff room, false laughing at his corny jokes and behaving as they were supposed to around an authority figure. Their accents improved. They stopped flirting with one another. He was like a headmaster or someone of a higher rank. That job was everything to him and my utter failure to be mildly competent was like a betrayal. “What on earth did you do at school?” he asked as we came home on the 6:08 on the Friday. He couldn’t comprehend how I had single-handedly wrecked their filing system. Apparently my two days filing in that sweatbox created a week and a half of work to put their system right.
“He’s an idiot, Jean,” I heard my father say to mum that evening.
There was genuine worry in his voice. That threw me. He hardly liked spending time with me or he struggled to know how to spend time with me when he did. “Let’s play football in the park,” he’d say with his weedy, drawling Kent accent. That suggestion really got me. If he knew the first thing about me he would have known I hated football with a passion.
Maybe the disappointment in his voice was because he felt responsible for my uniquely woeful appreciation of numbers. It was as if he now had to share my shortcomings as an idiot son was, to his way of thinking, a product of lax parenting.
I’m sure he was angry about what the staff at the bank would say behind his back.
“How could his own son be that thick?”
“He couldn’t have shown much interest in him, could he?”
“If the lad was bad at English, you could understand, but maths? What sort of a neglectful father is he to let his son be such a retard?”
“He is bad at English. Did you see what he did to our filing system?”
Both mum and dad were obsessed by appearance. With mum, it was the house and the garden. Cleanliness in the house was the be all and end all. Failure to wipe the top of the toaster clean after putting in a couple of slices of bread would catapult her over the edge.
“WHAT SORT OF A PLACE DO YOU THINK THIS IS?”
“It’s just toast crumbs.”
“TOAST CRUMBS? TOAST CRUMBS! WE DON’T LIVE IN A DOSS HOUSE, MY BOY. I DON’T WANT TO SPEND MY LIFE GOING FROM ROOM TO ROOM CLEANING UP AFTER YOUR MESS!”
Towels had to be hung correctly. Shoes put in the shoe cupboard. Any soap residue in the soap dish had to be removed. Leaving a scum ring in the sink or bath or splashes of water on the bathroom mirror meant that life pretty much wasn’t worth living for the next few days.
“WHAT DO YOU THINK I AM? AM I SOME KIND OF SKIVVY, IS THAT IT? YOUR FATHER MANAGES TO CLEAN UP AFTER HIMSELF, WHY CAN’T YOU?”
My father worked long hours and perhaps that was because mum was so intense. I can’t say I remember hearing them laugh. Their conversations, when they did talk, were mostly about work, the neighbours, bills, doing something new to the house, buying furniture, or stressing about what one of our relatives had or hadn’t done. There was a constant sense of pressure when they were together, which tended to only be when food was prepared. Mostly, dad was in the spare room with Radio Four on as he made model aeroplanes and battleships, or the radio would be off as he read history books about the English civil war, while mum would be in the lounge watching her programmes, knitting. Often, dad would have to sleep at night on the couch in the lounge, supposedly because he snored too loudly. I’m not sure they ever felt like they’d made it in life. But even if they had all the money and possessions they could wish for, I have this horrible feeling they wouldn’t have known how to enjoy themselves.
With dad, achieving respectability by climbing the corporate ladder was the number one priority. After my work experience debacle, it became evident I would fail my exams that summer and he assumed I was going to bring boundless shame onto him. That’s definitely why his voice sounded like it did when talking to mum on that Friday evening. I had created a situation whereby his greatest fear had come to pass. The rank and file in his beloved bank had identified a real weakness beyond his nerdy accent and regulation dark blue pin-stripe suit, light blue shirt and red tie, which I overheard them mocking in giggly whispers on a daily basis.
Work was how he defined himself and that was how he judged me too. I had let him down. Shown him up in that bank which was to all intents and purposes his own version of church.
Imagine the other humiliations I was capable of inflicting on such an important bank manager?
“What are you going to do?” he said on that last train ride home. “If you don’t know maths, then you won’t be able to go into banking or insurance. You’ll never get a job with a good pension now or a trade. At the very least, you need a trade.”
I bet it caused him sleepless nights.
When people attack you verbally and say it’s because they care about you, that’s always a lie. They’re only ever angry because they’re thinking of themselves…Putting their interests…Their priorities before your own…That includes parents too…Especially parents.
With little to do once I’d convincingly flunked my exams – I did pass drama and music – and not wanting to hang around the house, I used to go for mammoth walks on my own by the Thames down to Richmond, where you could sit on a hill, smoke fags, watch the deer nibbling at grass and see right across the sprawl of London to the dome of St Paul's, or I’d ride buses randomly. I saw the advert in the jobs section of a discarded South London Press on a No 77 bus: Night Carer Wanted for Retirement Home – No Experience Required. The last part really caught my eye. It welcomed me in. Gave me confidence that anybody could go for the job, even someone like me. You need little boosts like that every once in a while. A feeling like you have a chance…That you might belong…It’s like adrenalin for the soul…There’s nothing quite so decimating in this life as pacing the streets, making calls, sending letters, and essentially lying to prospective employers about why you’re right for a job that you know is going to start killing you after the first ten minutes. The “nos” and rejection letters and no replies are crushing because you go to bed each day knowing you can’t even get a job you don’t want.
“What’s the world coming to?” you ask.
Whereas this retirement home didn’t mention qualifications and the security check would be a doddle as I’d never so much as crossed the road until the green man appeared. The only obstacle I could see was finding two decent references and the interview itself.
“Do you know what you’re getting into?” asked Isabelle, a French woman who ran the “home”. Her soft, pudgy face was plastered with make up and her slightly fat body was soaked in perfume.
“Absolutely,” I said, trying not to look at her chest. She was at that brutal age where a once attractive woman, who once had curves in all the right places and who used to turn heads in the street regardless of whether she was dressed up or in casuals, tries every last trick in the book to revive those fading looks.
“Why do you want to be in a retirement home? You’re in your prime. Young people are full of hope and energy. This is not the place for someone your age.”
“Caring for people has always been something I’ve wanted to do.”
“Care?” she said. Her mood altered and not for the better. “You want to be a nurse, is that it? Then this is not for you. In here it’s about wiping arses and mopping piss, you got it? I know your sort. You let me train you up and then fuck off to be a real nurse with the NHS without so much as a bye your leave.”
I’d shown too much ambition. That can be as disastrous when applying for a job as showing no ambition whatsoever. She was about to show me the door. I realised I had less than a second to tell her the lie she wanted to hear, which is all any employer ever wants – and lovers too for that matter. As she rose from her chair, I said, “No, no, Isabelle, it’s not like that, really. You see, I was a little embarrassed at first but now I know you’ll understand. I’ve always dreamed of cleaning up people’s mess. What higher calling is there than wiping another person’s arsehole clean, changing a shitty nightdress or piss wet pyjamas bottoms? I mean, ever since I can remember, cleaning shit and piss is all I’ve wanted to do.”
“What about vomit? They’re worse than infants with their puking and sick.”
“Blood? They shit and cough blood like there’s no tomorrow.”
“Bring it on. The more the better, that’s what I say.”
She was back in her seat, fiddling with a gold bracelet. Softly and with sadness, she said, “But the young move on. They never stay in one place for long. I have made this mistake before.”
“If I get this job, I’m going nowhere, I promise. Look at my grades, I’m virtually a moron. I don’t want to be a nurse but if I tried I wouldn’t be able to pass the aptitude test. I could never ask for more than this.”
My spiel convinced her that I knew my place, so she relented and the job was mine. That was five years ago. I’m at the same grade and on the same wage. At my last review, Isabelle’s only question was whether I had thought about becoming a nurse.
“Why would I want to be a nurse?” I said.
“You tell me.”
“I have everything I want here.”
“And what is that?”
“Shit and piss.”
She inched the cigarette holder from her lips and exhaled. “You have a real talent for wiping arses, I must admit,” she said, scribbling her observations down for my file. “Are you sure none of the other retirement homes have tried to headhunt you? For a boy, you have a fast-growing reputation in the trade. Believe me when I tell you that such talent as yours is rarefied. The likes of you are hard to find.”
“I’m staying put. I’ve learnt so much from you.”
I wasn’t your average arse wiper. Years of living with my mother and her fixation with reminding me to wipe surfaces had given me a real talent in the cleanliness department. Leroy, who frequently worked nights with me, said he’d never seen such a wrist action as mine in the twenty years he had worked as a carer. “You get the lot with one swipe,” he said. “That’s one hundred per cent natural rhythm right there. You were born for this, Lewis. Born for it.”
Leroy said Isabelle had come over to London from Marseille to escape some sort row with her boyfriend, who was a dealer. “From nothing, she’s come here, started the same as me and you, and then made herself top dog of this home. You gotta admire her gumption,” he said.
“She treats the patients like crap.”
“Sure, she’s an evil hell bitch but that’s a separate issue. The lesson here is that a woman with tits that huge is always going to do well in life. Doesn’t matter if she’s dumb, mean, a pig or all three, so long as she has a good bra, she’s gunna make it.”
“Oh come on, don’t tell me you haven’t eyeballed her tits? They’re magnificent. They’re the only reason I haven’t left this hole.”
We all needed our excuse for staying put. Some had family commitments. Others debts to pay. Many realised they were one step away from being unemployable. Most preferred to drink or get stoned and talk about working somewhere hotter, better, where the pay was decent and the hours normal (Australia was talked about like some kind of paradise). Leroy’s excuse for staying was Isabelle’s tits. That’s what sustained him through the nights to the morning when he would go and take his son, who had Sickle Cell, to school and then start his day job as a carpenter. I’m not sure what my reason for staying put was exactly. I saved enough to leave mum and dad’s house and I found a flat of my own in Tooting that was about the same size as that filing room in the bank. I would come home as everybody was going to work in the rush hour, drink a beer, smoke a joint and listen to music and fall asleep during the day. I liked riding the five stops on the tube Northbound to work in the early evening and seeing the suits and weary faces coming Southbound after a long day in the offices of the City. The majority of people worked too hard for too small a reward. There wasn’t a dream left in their arid, mashed up souls.
Isabelle had dreams to spare. She was making a pretty packet from NHS subsidies by sparing every expense for the residents. I’d seen the fake receipts for half decent, healthier food in the accounts office. The only fruit in the entire building were the fake grapes in a bowl in reception. Leroy said she was screwing a guy who ran a cash and carry off Balham high street so she could make her little scam happen. “With tits like that, you don’t need English as your first language. That’s a universal language right there, my friend,” he told me, twisting a mop to drain out the dirty water in a bucket.
Nights suited me fine. In truth, there usually wasn’t that much to do. I’d sit in the office with another carer and play draughts, snap or “round the clock” on the dartboard. Other times, I’d sit and chat with the residents who couldn’t sleep. They weren’t all like Albert either. Vera never felt at ease after messing herself. To cover her shyness, the diabetic would tell me about the war. “We had fun in those days,” she’d say as I wiped the smooth stumps of her legs clean. “You didn’t have much, but you didn’t want much either as you only lived from day to day. You never knew if one of those perisher’s bombs had your name it. I loved going to the dancehall. I could dance and dance in those days, not like the GIs though. Oh could they dance. It took your breath away to see them jive like they did.”
“See, English boys can’t dance and the girls were the same. But the Americans, they danced like you’d never seen. And the money they had, they spent it like it was going out of fashion. That got on the wick on a lot of our boys – understandable, I suppose.”
“Did you date any GIs?”
“No, not me. I was married to Joe and he was the one for me. My friend Doris did though. You could say she was a free-spirited sort of a girl…Boy mad…She liked their uniforms and the drinks they could buy and the sound of the places the yanks came from like New York and Wisconsin and San Francisco and Pennsylvania. Those names made you feel free back in those days. Doris, she didn’t have a care in the world. We used to walk along the seafront at Broadstairs and there was a shop that sold kaleidoscopes. We used to stand and play with them, watching the colours change.”
“It used to drive the shop owner potty. ‘Are you gunna stand there all day or buy one?’ he’d holler. A right miserable bugger he was. So we’d have to leave and we went to a seafood stall where the bloke had a thing for Doris. He’d give us a pot of mussels for nothing and me and her would share it between us, walking along the seafront.”
“Sounds nice. Okay, all done.”
For the most part, they complained. I don’t blame them as they had every reason to. I’d be the same if I had finished my days surrounded by lunatics smack bang in the middle of high rises on a council estate, cared for by amateurs who couldn’t find work anywhere else, forced to eat food that was never cooked properly and past its sell by date. All the while Isabelle would strut about in her latest outfit, reeking of perfumes and talking about where to go on holiday.
There were complaints of every sort.
Harold had to share a room with Edgar, a Sikh. “I can’t live with their sort,” Harold yelled. “What’s this country coming to when I have to wake up next to a brown face every morning?”
Edgar didn’t just sit there and take it. “And you think I want to share a room with your stupid white face? The only colour you have is your red alcoholic’s nose.”
That’s all they did. Throw insults and complain about the food and not getting cigarettes and the care they received.
Robert, who had TB, used to work on the docks and had pickled his liver stealing bottles of neat rum from the ships sailing over from the West Indies. He was certain Isabelle was putting arsenic in the porridge. “It’s murder,” he said. “Slow, calculated murder.”
“It’s not poison,” Albert would chip in to wind everybody up. “That’s Edgar’s eczema getting in the food.”
“Oh, that’s disgusting!”
“Shut him up!”
“Why do we have to put up with him?”
Against the rules, I’d bring in chocolate and biscuits now and then and occasionally a Jamaica cake. Their faces lit up like they’d won the pools.
Visiting days were sad. Robert would sit by the doorway of the TV room but he wouldn’t be watching the TV or reading. His gaze was fixed sideways at the reception area. “Is Kay here yet?” he’d ask.
“I haven’t seen here.”
“Has she called?”
“We would’ve told you if she had.”
His daughter had driven him to the home and said what he wanted to hear about visiting regularly. As each weekend passed, you could see the loneliness eat away at him that bit more.
“Have you seen her?” he said to me one Sunday afternoon.
“She isn’t coming,” said Albert.
“You’re torturing yourself for no reason. Accept that she’s ditched you here. She couldn’t give a monkey’s about you.”
“Don’t say that.”
“The only time she’ll be around you again is when you’re six foot under and then it’ll be to find out if you had any savings or valuables – if she hasn’t taken them already.”
“DON’T TALK LIKE THAT OR SO HELP ME.”
Robert forced himself out of his wheelchair. I stepped in and told Albert to cool it and ushered Robert into the chair.
“I’m only telling the truth.”
Robert’s voice faltered. “You think I don’t know, Albert? Do you think I’m stupid? Just because it’s true doesn’t mean you have to say it for Christ’s sake. I just wanna see the grandchildren as much as anything. It hurts…It bloody well hurts.”
“You’ll worry yourself to death if you carry on like this,” said Albert, unrepentant. He was a stubborn man and predictably he refused outright to leave as the fire tore into the retirement home. I had Vera on Edgar’s lap in a wheelchair. Leroy was yelling at me through the heavy smoke, standing in the reception area. The air was getting thinner fast.
‘Albert, get in your wheelchair.’
He grins that daft, gummy smile as he doesn’t have his teeth in. ‘Hardly. I’m not gunna miss watching that evil bitch’s goldmine burn to the ground.’
He made a sign for “crazy” with a finger at his temple.
‘Albert, they’ll take you to a better home. Please, come on.’
‘You’ll miss my shit, is that it? No one shits like me, I’m not wrong, am I? I’ve shitting down to an art form, eh?’
The smoke was thick and black and violent, unlike anything I’d known before. I felt my legs and arms seizing up from fear. I had to go now. Albert was vanishing in the smoke and the flames were louder, crackling. Both Vera and Edgar were coughing.
‘REMEMBER MY TURDS,’ were his last words.
Ambulances and firefighters were by the entrance. Leroy was bawling at a fireman, asking why they hadn’t gone inside to rescue the residents. I refused oxygen and stood by Vera as she was loaded on a stretcher into an ambulance. Isabelle arrived in her Merc. I thought she would go nuts at losing her money-making operation in the fire. But she kept her poise and calm. She slotted a menthol cigarette into that trademark holder and sparked up in silence, acting ultra French.
Every resident was evacuated apart from Albert. I sat on the curb with Leroy, who asked me for a fag. We lit up and watched the shape of the building bend and melt in the fierce heat. The rest of the estate was alight like a giant bonfire too.
‘Is she going to ask us if they’re safe?’ says Leroy.
‘Is she going to ask if we’re alright?’
‘Fuck this. Fuck this hard, Lewis. These people get zero visitors. Nobody cares where they get moved to. And when they do die, nobody wants to pay for a funeral so they get a paupers grave, nameless.’
Isabelle talked to a fireman. ‘I thought she’d be upset.’
‘Nah, she’s made her money. Probably glad it’s burnt so there’s no evidence about how she’s fiddled the books. Maybe she started the fire,’ says Leroy, exhaling. ‘At least the old dudes will perhaps get somewhere better to stay. That was no home, just a place crammed with people afraid of dying.’
‘I think I need a change of environment.’
‘Sure, you’re too young for this. It’s depressing. If you judge a country by how it treats its old, then we’re each of us as fucked in the head as that cocksucking bitch Isabelle. Fuck it, I don’t care how big her tits are, I’m gunna tell her what I think.’
He went over to her and I briefly thought he was about to hit her. She smoked her cigarette, keeping the same, impassive expression as he let off steam. When he was finished, she patted his cheek and said, ‘You poor baby. You’re upset. This is very upsetting for me too.’
A policeman had to hold Leroy back.
I headed for Clapham high road. The fumes had dried out the night. Sparks drifted in the air like miniature flares. The estate’s tenants watched the blocks of flats crumble and turn to charcoal, the constantly shifting, iridescent patchwork of orange light reflected on their open mouthed faces. Babies wailed from hunger and dogs barked and howled. Camera crews and reporters weaved between the crowds with microphones and bulky cameras, their TV vans parked at awkward angles on the curbside.
Suddenly, I realised Albert was dead…Cremated in that concrete furnace…It’s natural for you to assume there can’t be worse things than dying – then you see first hand what a trap the body can be for the waking mind. You have to accept that another one of your assumptions about life was woefully mistaken. You take stock and understand that what's right isn’t necessarily what's for the best.
My bank balance didn’t match Isabelle’s, but I had some cash saved purely because I worked nights and didn’t socialise. Maybe I would give those exams another go.
The sun’s rising when I reach my flat and the birds are singing like it’s their first day on earth. I fill a glass with water twice and drink thirstily. The fumes from the fire have stuck to my skin and clothes. I grab an ice cold beer from the fridge and take a towel and shampoo down the hallway to the shared bathroom. There’s period blood on the toilet seat and I have to squash an earwig in the bath before running the taps.
As much as it pains me to admit it to myself, Isabelle was spot on about the young having the option to move on. The old inevitably move on too, but that was different. I had to at least attempt to find something else to do with myself. Although I wasn’t sure exactly what my dream was, I knew I still had it in me, unlike those well-dressed strangers who passed in the opposite direction as I went to and from work each day…Dreams mattered…Besides, with my reputation as a skilled, elite arse wiper, I always had that to fall back on if things didn’t go to plan.
Even dad was right about something.
We all need a trade of some description.