The year after graduating from university is a bloody horrible one for most people. I had made no plans other than thinking I would move in with my boyfriend at the time, but instead we broke up. My parents moved from East Sussex to the other side of Kent where I knew no one. I had my first argument with my Mum as she told me I was ‘coasting’ and I just didn’t know what to do.
I took on a local part-time job as a domestic in a care home up the road. The idea being I would have time to be creative, but the truth is I should have worked full time to clear debts and make some real plans. Cleaning up pensioner poo and doing laundry wasn’t the most glamourous job I’ve ever had, but I’m glad I worked there, as I met someone who I think about every day.
Upstairs a room belonged to Gwendoline. She was 80 years old at the time and confined to a wheelchair. She had long wavy white hair which she told me she had only ever cut herself, and ginormous glasses that looked like the bottom of jam jars which made it look like she had cartoon eyes.
Before I was given a proper uniform, I was made to wear a big white coat as overalls that made me look like a mad scientist. Gwendoline took one look at me and laughed and said I looked like a ghost, and so Ghost became my nickname from that day on.
I had other rooms to clean, so I could never spend too long loitering and chatting in Gwendoline’s room. The door was behind her, and since she was wheelchair bound I would always knock and announce “It’s Ghost!” and she would make that familiar elderly whoop sound and squeal “Ghost!” and we’d begin our chat for the day. She loved to paint in watercolours, but with only a small window in front of her, and a tiny TV she didn’t have a lot of inspiration. She used to paint from bird and nature books borrowed from Jim who had a bedroom down the corridor (Jim had football posters all over his room, stolen ornaments from other residents, urine stains on the carpet from his catheter which he would always yank out and he’d always wear a woolly beany hat too loosely on his head so it looked like a daft sock). Gwendoline would also paint from pictures from the Radio Times.
One day she was painting a picture of Terry Wogan which we both laughed about (the paintings she did from the Radio Times were my favourite), and she gave me a painting of some Orangutans and one of a Gold crest (“Everyone thinks the wren is the smallest bird, but it isn’t!”).
She had one of those little wooden corner shelves screwed to the wall, and on that stood a porcelain doll dressed as a nun, complete with mini rosary beads. She’d ask me to carefully dust it occasionally. She was very sensitive about what things you could and couldn’t touch. There was a dressing table behind her and you would have to tell her you were cleaning it and she’d ask what items you were touching, in some ways it was as if she was doing a mental inventory of what items were still there. Next to her was a sink, and she used old large washed-out hand cream tubs as containers for little trinkets.
I wasn’t a nurse, so my only duties were to clean the resident’s bedrooms. One time Gwendoline had a scratch on her ankle that she couldn’t reach, and she was trying to reach it with a long metal nail file. She asked if I could scratch it for her, so I got on my hands and knees and was scratching at her dry skin on her ankle for her and we both cried laughing as we must have looked so ridiculous.
Above the telly was a small black and white framed photo of her on her wedding day. She was only 18, and she still had the same long wavy hair and long thin smile. They never had children, it was just the two of them, and they had remained married all those years. She would be upset some days thinking about her husband, and through her tears I could only piece together parts of the story. I think they had been separated through illness and different care homes and sometimes she would get angry that she couldn’t return to her house and wanted to know where all of her things were, and she would whack the table in front of her. It was difficult on those days as you feel useless and you can’t explain to her that her home probably isn’t her home anymore and her things had probably all been taken away. If I remember correctly, she told me she once taught at the university but I forget which subject. She told me of how when she was very young she would cycle all the way to school, then cycle home to cook lunch and then cycle back again.
I once found Gwendoline had wheeled herself to her doorway and was screaming and shouting for assistance. I managed to calm her down until I could get a nurse. I don’t think anyone liked dealing with her much, but it was easy for me, I wasn’t there 24/7 so of course I got a very different picture of each of the residents. Sometimes she would be angry that they had made her toast with jam for breakfast but she didn’t like butter with it too and how the jam and butter would mix together, so she would refuse to eat it.
Sometimes I would be cleaning in the downstairs hallway and I’d see Gwendoline being assisted downstairs on the stair lift. I would always chuckle to myself as it was a sorry sight as she never wanted to socialise with the others, and she looked like a sad child slowly moving down the side of the staircase, but on other days when she was more chipper she would shout “Ghost!” when she spotted me and then laugh which was funny in itself as it was like an owl “hooot! Ha ha ha heee hee hee hooo hooo hoo!”. I would sometimes walk past the communal room with them all sitting in a circle looking bored, and Gwendoline would catch my eye and her face would light up and I’d wave. There was a duck pond down the road opposite a pub which she mentioned once or twice and I wish I could have taken her down there. She probably would have complained the whole way, but it would have been nice to have some time together. We could have escaped like a wheelchair riding Thelma and Louise!
I had booked two weeks off to go up to Leeds to look for a flat. This was my panic-plan. I had no job to go to, but since I had two friends from university still in Leeds I thought I would move back for a while. Before this, I got chicken pox, which meant two weeks off work, plus the two weeks I had booked, so it was a whole month away from the care home. I panicked that Gwendoline wouldn’t remember me as her memory wasn’t up to scratch at the best of times. Through mixed messages, the care home thought I had left so were surprised to see me on the doorstep when I returned in my bottle green overalls.
I was anxious to knock on Gwendoline’s door, I walked in and said “It’s Ghost…do you remember?” and after a few seconds her face softened and she remembered and she was sorry I had chicken pox. I had to explain that I would be leaving and she held my hand and we both cried. It’s funny thinking of it now as it was like a cheesy scene from a rom-com – she looked at me and said “You’re beautiful” and I said “You are” and we laughed through tears, hers magnified by her massive glasses.
It was horrible backing out of her bedroom that day and closing the door for the last time as I knew I wouldn’t see her again, and I began to think morbid things like when would she die and what would happen. When I moved to Leeds I bought her some paint brushes, cheap paints and a watercolour pad and posted them to her. I never heard anything back but I never expected to. I even wondered if they would be given to her. She was always talking of wanting to be given donations towards her paintings as she had no money, and I’d think to myself “cheeky sod!” but also felt sad as she didn’t have the freedom to nip to the shops and buy things like that, and what does happen to your money when you’re that age anyway?
This was 10 years ago now, and over the years I have periodically searched her name online to see if an obituary or any information would pop up. This week it did, and if the information is about her, she passed away 3 years ago.
I’ve never been desperate to have children and my boyfriend really doesn’t want to. Being in Club 30 now, I do think about it a lot, and I selfishly worry about being alone and not surrounded by family when I’m older. But perhaps it’ll be OK. Maybe I’ll have my own Ghost and I can tell them about Gwendoline, and I can give them daft things I’ve made referenced from magazines and they can listen to me complain about my dinner being prepared all wrong and I can get them to scrape my feet.