‘How very kind of you to come.’  Molly beamed at me, her face creased into a page of tighly packed script, from which words  and phrases seemed to escape  to join the grey whorls and coils that formed a nimbus around her head.  I told her it was nice to see her and  the sentences at the corners of her eyes and the paragraph across her forehead, etched themselves more deeply into her skin as, putting her face just inches from mine, she replied with theatrical emphasis,  ‘And NICE to SEE YOU TOO!’.  

‘I’ve only come in for a few days rest’,  Betty announced quietly, her countenance vacant with worry.  ‘I came from Dore.’  Then after a pause she added,   ‘And where do you live?’   

‘Bakewell’, I said.

‘Oh Derbyshire.  Nice there’.

Mrs Tang stared,  her eyes red rimmed and her mouth  just a shrunken hole towards the bottom of a face in which the skin seemed pulled too tight.  She held out her hand.  I took it and held it from a few seconds as with a sigh, she withdrew it.  Harry, sporting a depression the size of a h’penny where  they trephined his skull,  completed another lap,  ‘Can you tell me?  Are they going to call me up? They’re still fighting over there, you know.’       

And Doris, her once so delicately curled hair pulled back off her face and held by a clip, glared at the women, who sat hunched in their emaciated bodies, picking at their skirts.  ‘Look at those sexy old ladies, they’re pulling their skirts right up above their knees  again.  It’s disgusting.  Tell them to stop.’  Then she swivelled her searchlights and  announced with disdain, ‘Old saggy arse is off again,’ as Gilbert, his trousers hanging loose, hands straining on his frame, limped to the toilet.  Finally she focussed through the mist at me;  ‘Colston!  I haven’t seen you for years.’

‘And where do you live?’  Betty asked pleasantly.

‘I live near Bakewell.’  

‘Oh Derbyshire!  Nice there.’

They sat around the room, dressed in an odd assortment of might-have-beens and cast me downs,  each with a coloured paper hat on their head.  Some rocked backward and forwards.  A few were asleep.  Most just stared.   Marjorie, her face a tragic mask, reached out to anybody who passed, and kept up a constant cry of ‘Nobody loves me’.  It was true.  Few relatives had bothered.  Those that were there looked round in panic, trapped, desperately seeking rescue but having to endure the tragic chaos of second childhood, the hopeless stench of stale urine and cold gravy.          

Bright plastic musical instruments, tambourines, castanets, drums, bits of a xylophone, lay abandoned next to the oranges and sweets, the arrangements of plastic holly and poinsettia.  A large Christmas tree had been erected in the corner,  its dark green plastic bottle brushes hung with angels and stars and flashing desolation.  The bus stop in the hallway was decorated with imitation holly and fake snow.   More plastic holly was wedged above framed photographs of Vera Lynn, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Flanagan and Allen,  Winston Churchill, the Queen’s Coronation and the posters advertising Guinness, Fry’s Five Boys, Ah Bisto and Ovaltine.   There was a large card pinned to the notice board. ‘Merry Christmas to all our residents from the staff at Silverdales’.   A big bunch of imitation mistletoe was suspended from a hook on the ceiling, but nobody kissed.  There were no paper chains or loops of folded crepe paper.   ‘Health and Safety Regulations!, the carer declared with an upward tilt of her head.  Then she announced, ‘Shall we play some carols?’  There was a little response.  Most just continued to stare, rock, pick at their noses and shout out.  Only George repeated ‘Carols’, with any enthusiasm,  mimicking  the carer’s jolly tones.

‘Oh so you’d like that, George.’  And with that, she turned the music up loud and Crosby’s honeyed voice thickened  with mock sincerity, entuned a familiar commercial sequence, ‘Jingle Bells, White Christmas,  Winter Wonderland’ – all the old favourites.   Some banged, rattled or tinkled an accompaniment.   Others just beat time with their hands on the arms of their chairs.  Most just sat and stared.  A few joined in with an occasional phrase and word.    And then the chords started up for Silent Night and Deborah lifted her head, took a deep breath  and sang, her voice high and clear, a note of hope that swelled and filled the room, perfectly pitched above the desolation and chaos.    The rattling, banging, shouting all ceased;   even Harry halted his patrol and listened.  John leant forward and stroked Beryl’s face with the back of his hand.  I looked across at Marjorie, her worried frown had softened and at the corner of one eye a tear glistened , filled and slowly ran down her cheek.