Today was a strange milestone: a first for me, I celebrated a near-solitary birthday, my 90th.
The day started normally enough in my little flat on the 17th floor of a nondescript tower block where I live alone in west London. I got up shivering and shuffled into the cold kitchen. I didn’t put the paraffin heater on to save money; the pleasure of warmth in the dead of winter was reserved for later on. A huge pile of washing up stared back at me from the sink and dirty clothes were lying on the floor beside the washing machine. I ignored this evidence of my virtually extinct domesticity and turned on the ancient transistor radio. For company.
I was jubilant when I found the last clean mug in the cupboard and made myself a coffee. I glanced at my only item of correspondence of yesterday: my quarterly bank statement which helped to underline that I am existing without the means to enjoy a decent lifestyle. Lifestyle, my eye, whatever that concept is. Yet again for the nth occasion in my life I thought, "Bugger this – more economising necessary”.
No birthday cards as my wife, Karen had passed away many years before and I have now outlived all my close friends as my last surviving chum, Nicolai died a few days before Easter and I just about made his funeral despite my arthritis. No other relatives that I know of except for my only offspring, Katarina who has lived in Australia since the early 1980s with that well-connected husband of hers. She stopped visiting Britain when Thatcher got the heave-ho as our Prime Minister and so I haven't seen my daughter in nearly two decades. She phoned me out of the blue I think about two years back on her way to some ‘big shindig at the ambassador’s residence in Canberra’ (as she put it) to say that she’d be sending me ‘eecards’ from now on – whatever that means. I don’t expect a call from her on my birthday anymore – that’s a far-flung memory in keeping with the distance between us.
Anyway I got the old black bakelite phone removed last month. It saddened me as this ancient bit of kit that had seen good service in a variety of houses and flats over the years. Back in 1940 it had been a precious lifeline between my wife and I when we were parted just after marrying during the Blitz with her being transferred absolutely miles away to Aberdeen to work for the RAF in Dyce and me stuck in Kent on a radar station near Kingsdown on the coast. How much love from separated young hearts was poured forth through that familiar receiver. But I am widowed now and when I looked at this object connected with intimate communication I was reminded of my late wife and the happiness we had shared over those telephone wires during the war. What with being apart for many months between simultaneous leaves when you lived day-to-day never knowing if you would survive the hostilities or not we turned phone sex into a fine art and probably made the operators blush. We didn't care as life was precious to us being so much in love. But that was a lifetime ago - and besides now being of a certain pensionable age I could no longer afford the cruel bills that always seemed to contain extra hidden charges and I was tired of receiving an endless stream of calls from mindless people trying to sell me things I didn't need. Or, for a 'larf', some local toe rags got a kick out of phoning at all hours and insulting me because of my age. Old age. All this just confirmed what I have felt for a long time: that I have become an established lonely old git who is to be avoided and has entered into that dubious sector of society classified as being 'surplus to requirements'. This train of thought is complemented by something else that I find upsetting: that my arc of existence on this planet of ours is proving to be like that of a favourite book of mine, 'The Go Between' by L.P. Hartley and where I feel that my past must now be classed as a foreign country where things were done differently there. Even though I strive to keep up and want to get on with everyone around me as I have always loved people - all people, I am at sea with modernity as everything's a blur. No clear divisions anymore.
At the moment, I am writing this availing of the unused portion of an ancient school copybook of Katarina’s from when she was aged nine in Form IVC and I was feeling quite triumphant for a moment this morning as I realised that I still have my faculties intact – despite my being decrepit and outmoded. As I sipped away quite alone in this tatty kitchen of mine, the warm sweetness of the tasteless instant coffee was strangely comforting. I cradled the mug in my hands allowing the feeble heat to spread gradually through me and I did not know whether to be uplifted or dismayed when I heard, ‘Stairway to Heaven’ played on the radio.
It seems as if my life has come full-circle where ‘make do and mend’ which was the mantra when growing up in England in the 1930s during the ‘Depression’ and then throughout the war years of the 1940s will find ready application yet again more than seventy years later in the early part of the twenty-first century during this recession that dares not speak its name. Come to think of it, this relentless economic struggle of mine has etched itself into the entire arc of my life and I’m still grubbing for money in my old age: my childhood, adolescence, when I first got married, those so-called middle years and right now where this post-maturity age is it as nothing else comes after. Well yes there is if you want to be pedantic – death, of course and then if you are of a spiritual nature, the afterlife as some people say. A lazy expression if ever there was one as I have always felt it should be called the ‘next existence’, the ‘next phase’ or possibly and less popular perhaps, ‘nothing’. But who am I to argue against the ‘great and the good’ who decide how we live and die and how we should nurture or torture our souls now or in the hereafter.
Over the years thanks to my local public library, I have read widely and continued doing so during my former working life as a tree surgeon. After a relatively happy working life among trees I was let go three weeks before my 70th birthday so in a way I can look on my entire retirement so far as borrowed time. How have I got through it? But as a positive I have greatly enjoyed such easy access to books and fortunately my eyes (with the help of my oft-misplaced spectacles) can just about handle those little squiggles on the page as my daughter would say when learning to read all those aeons in the past.
I came to understand that my job provided a much-needed outlet to the open air and I got a real kick out of the daily experience the miracle of nature served as my escape from the confines of living in an urban sprawl. But still something niggled for far too long. I have felt as if I owned a prized possession that was never properly made use of and was continually restricted by forces way beyond my control: my imagination. Instead, this creative aspect to my existence which can effortlessly soar over boundaries of geography, language, ability, gender and social position has been hemmed in by the tyranny of possessing inadequate cash – the damning full-frontal evidence that is contained on the pages of a bank statement – the latest chapter of my self-induced monetary despair sitting only a few feet away from me on the table there. I realise that my failing was to hold back this imagination of mine from vaulting over these very-real financial hurdles. So, in a way, reading books then became my substitute creative life as I felt unable to write anything longer than a letter let alone a short story or even a volume or two.
They say that you should embrace old age without regrets but that’s complete bo**ocks as far as I’m concerned as I’ve many. I won’t bore you with a spreadsheet of a ho-hum life up to now but I do lament that I permitted a lack of money to act as an insuperable mountain to stop me delving further into a world of wonder and exploration. It’s almost too late now but I should have railed against this cruelty of a kind of deprivation and been more courageous in striking out for something new. When I think on how lack of money put the kibosh on my life's grand schemes I could weep.
Later on, accompanied by the estuary tones of a woman narrating the 1 o'clock BBC news and after feasting on a luncheon of a few sardines enrobed in olive oil, an apple and some good old-fashioned tea, I take a nap; it helps to pass the interminable hours. On waking to a metallic grey threatening sky, I summon up the courage to venture out on this special day and realise that I have not spoken to anyone yet on my birthday. It’s well into the afternoon on this bitter October day. As I put on my coat and scarf, I wonder if anyone else even cares about this highlight of mine.
Even though I needed a few things and something decent to read I had another agenda for braving the outside world. I had set out in the hope of acquiring a small gift on this special day of mine: to have a half-decent friendly conversation with another human being. This was to be my present to myself but my trip was in vain. Defeated, I plodded back home from my outing to the local library and supermarket where I got the vibe it was frowned on to exceed perfunctory verbal exchanges with silence the preferred option. I so wanted to talk to someone, anyone about my birthday but the veiled woman at the checkout barely acknowledged my presence never once making eye contact and the young librarian with a cropped haircut and a tattoo on his neck didn't attempt to disguise his impatience with me when I took a while to find my library card. My well-thought out tactics to encourage warm verbal spontaneity between two people were defeated and I trudged back laden with a few groceries plus the local rag and two books. I was so disappointed and noted it was getting dark with spots of rain falling. Luckily I made it into the whiffy foyer of my block before the heavens opened, a renamed tower in memory of some overblown Latin American politico recently-deceased revered by our out-to-lunch local bigwigs on the Council who seem more in tune with their brothers' difficulties in far-flung lands than problems on our own doorstep. I detest taking the lift as it is always dirty and smelly but I’ve no choice as I can no longer traipse up all the stairs to the umpteenth floor. My dodgy right hip and left knee have restricted my freedom of movement of late. I hate to admit it but I can feel my body slowing down and over the past year I have become aware of my physical deterioration. I'm also a little frightened as I've no experience of being 90 before and I am coming to the realisation that my rebellious streak at resisting the usefulness of a walking stick or Zimmer frame is probably misplaced. I have however yielded in another area as it were by permitting a hearing aid for my left ear to overcome deafness.
The lift reaches my floor uncertainly and I mind the wretched gap beneath my feet exiting gratefully. I hobble out as I'm getting jaded now. Further down the dreary corridor I bump into a neighbour living across the hallway from myself, Mr Winston Jackson. I instinctively rejoice at the prospect of coming into contact with another human being I am on nodding terms with but then I groan inwardly for very good reason. Just for my private benefit, I call this man, ‘Alright’ Jackson as that word – ‘alright’ – appears to be the only item in his vocabulary admittedly uttered with a faint Jamaican burr in a variety of forms to denote different styles of response when I try talking to him. When I informed Mr Jackson that it was my 90th birthday, he grunted a non-committal "Alright" as the eyes of this middle-aged man narrowed registering fleeting irritation with the information I had imparted. No smile or good wishes were offered.
He then proceeded to stand there with the hint of an amiable expression playing about his face but not bothering to further our conversation. I then attempted to inject some daft humour into our lopsided dialogue by telling Mr Jackson that I was going to raise some additional income by selling my soul on the interweb but it backfired badly and he responded with a scowl and a strongly disapproving "Alright". I then remembered that my fellow resident is a member of the West London Baptist Congregation. Mr Jackson then usually signals that his patience with me is at an end by muttering something inaudible as he edges away from me looking relieved when he makes his getaway. The door to his identikit flat slams resolutely shut. I linger for a moment and strain my ear for conversation, any conversation. I adjust my hearing aid to its highest setting and I hear raised voices: Winston and his wife must be arguing as usual.
In almost twenty years of living on the Mozart Estate in west London this is the norm of social interaction with the community and my neighbours. The supreme irony of living in this part of London is anything but sublime as the supposed connection with a celebrated Austrian composer might have one believe. For me, exchanging a few consecutive sentences has become a victory for free speech. I peep out the windows at the end of one corridor and I can see it’s almost dark now as I turn to enter my deserted flat. Once inside, I put the lights on and cart the heater into my tiny lounge setting it on low to take the sting out of the chill around me but I keep my coat and scarf on. I fetch the radio which is still on only turning it off when going to bed. As I begin to read my paper I hear some presenter reporting dramatically on a stabbing yet again in our esteemed capital city. Unusually this broadcasting voice is almost posh with crisp, clear diction - the way I recall the airwaves sounded in the past. I have always been fascinated by this slavish addiction of ours to news and how a regular fix is required. But really at my stage in life I couldn’t give a toss anymore about the immediate reporting of such lurid details which in my opinion is another way of announcing the petty failures of all our pitiable lives on a nationwide basis. But this background sound whether musical or a voice talking has become a reliable companion nevertheless. It helps keep the abyss of loneliness at bay.
On an inside page buried among the type of nonsense I have waded through in numerous newspapers over many decades, I come across an article that catches my attention. It’s about a new group of people coming together and calling themselves the ‘MEWS’ – the ‘Mozart Estate Writers Society’. Something in the acronym appeals, I’m not sure why – maybe it’s the play on the word mews – something small and unpretentious – a bit like my life really – that I can identify with. Easily. The MEWS organisers announce they will be based at St. Saviour’s School which fortunately is nearby within 10 minutes hobbling distance for me. They want to meet every fortnight to review each other’s literary offerings and are looking for budding authors gathering for their first confab on the 30th of this month - less than a week away. I am grateful that they have resorted to publicising their activities using the old-fashioned medium of this newspaper because if they had availed of the interwebnet-thing this blurb would have passed me by completely. Another aspect to age that I’ve gotten used to since being retired: discrimination and exclusion thanks to the cold contemporaneity of our lives today as it does it in spades as far as I’m concerned. The chimes of Big Ben on the radio herald the passing of another hour and I make a mental note that I must stop these internal rants of mine. After all, I’m preaching to a converted audience of one. Nothing will change. Or, will it?
I pause and look up my eyes catching a few family photographs on the mantelpiece including one of Karen and Katarina as a toddler taken in Regents Park in London in the 1950s. But that is my past life now and suddenly a germ of an idea takes hold of me. Could I begin to consider myself as a writer?
I consult my newspaper again and the Mozart Estate Writers blurb comes across as welcoming. I dare to wonder if a publisher might be interested in my handwritten tale spread over nine old school copybooks gathering dust on this small table in the corner of my tiny sitting room. I change the channel on the radio to something classical and fortunately my ear picks up the opening bars of ‘The Lark Ascending’ by Vaughan-Williams. I sit back on my frayed utility sofa of 1950s vintage and the heater burbles away as it reluctantly releases its warmth. I loosen my coat and take off my scarf. Gradually, I can detect this tiny thread of hope begin to flow through me and I decide to take my manuscript along to the new writers group to seek some feedback. You just never know. Perhaps I can even make new friends. Hey, I could call them my new mew friends! But then wise-cracking humour was never my forté. But I can feel something vaguely familiar stirring inside me and it reminds me of my youth: excitement about the future.
No longer will the dread of a meagre bank balance hold me back as I won’t have many other opportunities. I’m well beyond that biblical three score and ten so I’ve overdrawn badly here about to enter into a third decade of extra life. Oh, and my story – let me give you a taster: thanks to a handful of old family papers along with some faded photographs and supported by a little research I did at the local library into my ancestral history last year, I came across details of my (paternal) great grandfather who decided to go to Russia in the 19th century and after a series of adventures serving in the Tsar’s army rising through the ranks to become a general, mastered the local lingo and amassed a fortune, apparently acquired a large family, got caught up in the Revolution of 1917 and then for some reason ended up playing a piano in Hollywood. But you’ll have to come to the forthcoming writers meetings to find out more. MEWS here I come!