Down a quiet lane in Rochford, by the muddy bank of a river’s dead-end, nestled in the shadow of an old flour mill and half open to fields of long grass, is an old house.
Like many old houses which became too expensive to run it is now a business. Broomhills Care Home. It is not, as you might think, limited to those who are old. There are younger residents who suffer from Alzheimer’s, and here they are – all tying up their histories in a house which must surely have almost forgotten its own by now.
I found myself at Broomhills last Saturday for a summer fête. My boy’s Nan had just moved in so we went to visit. Matt was understandably nervous of seeing someone he loved in an unfamiliar place, and I was a little nervous too, because I’d never been to a care home and I was afraid of seeing difficult things, and of seeing my boy manfully trying not to be sad.
Let me tell you something. If you ever want to dispel your fear that all care homes are sad places, actually go and visit one. I suppose the bad ones (the ones to be feared, preferably inspected and shut down) don’t have nice events like fêtes. But the nice ones have open doors and open hearts. And jam roly-poly.
It helped I suppose that they had lovely grounds to hold the fête in. Helped too that it was a gloriously sunny day, and that a barbecue was billowing in a corner, manned by a cheery fellow wielding a spatula and a girl gesturing to the mustard and ketchup like a game-show assistant. There were tombolas and cookie stalls and lucky dips and piles of jumble. The garden went from a modest smattering of people oozing familial obligation to a hive of people happy to be there. The care home was fun; who knew?
Nan-Nan, or Isabella Georgina, or Bella for short, is a tiny Welsh lady with huge bright eyes. I felt like I sort of knew her from all the stories I’d heard, but I also felt shy. I didn’t want to fawn over her or be patronisingly polite just because she was old and in a home. I said hello, then mooched about a bit knowing I’d talk to her later. I looked at the stalls. I ate a burger. Then I spilled mustard on my boob and had to go inside to try and clean it off, even though Matt’s mum joked that I was in good company. It was nice of her to say so – but as far as I could see, I was the only one with any stains.) It was as I nosed around that I saw two things that I will never forget.
Further down the corridor where I scrubbed mustard from my ashamed right boob was…a bus stop. A bench with a timetable and a bus-stop sign in a little alcove in the corridor. Apparently some of the residents are so used to getting buses and having routines that they get anxious not being able to carry on as normal, and having a bit of a sit-down in the corridor bus-stop helps. They sit and they wait and the anxiety passes. My heart exploded quietly at the aptness of the metaphor.
Then, as I went back into the garden, I saw a hearse. “Uh oh”, I thought. This was starting to get a bit overwhelming – and not even winning some Dove Satin Bath on the tombola was going to make it better. I looked closer and saw that the hearse was full of balloons. I thought they might be trying to sneak a corpse out without spoiling the party. WHACK SOME BALLOONS IN, BETTE – NO ONE’LL SUSPECT NORRIS IS DEAD TIL TOMORROW. Balloons in a hearse. God. Apparently you had to guess how many there were to win some amazing prize. A free funeral for a loved one of your choice or something, I dunno. I was deeply unsettled. But then I laughed. It seemed like the only thing you could do; laugh at the paraphernalia of death, laugh at all the stuff that scares you.
I ate a cookie, made Matt win me nice smellies on the tombola, and I chatted to Bella. She gave me some sage veterinary advice for my sick dog, and I rubbed some Sanctuary body lotion into her tiny hands while she smiled round at her family. Matt left happy that he’d seen Nan-Nan at a fête, in the sunshine, and we spoke of going back for a visit soon – because we knew it wasn’t a place to be scared of anymore.
To be honest, mustard is more of a threat than death at the moment. That stuff gets everywhere.
(There were 101, by the way. Balloons.)