One of the most memorable episodes in Alan Bennett’s series of dramatic monologues Talking Heads features an elderly lady who has taken a tumble in her home while doing a little illicit dusting. Though she needs help she is afraid this will mean she is carted off to a residential home because she is deemed no longer able to look after herself.
I was reminded of this tale when reading Joanna Cannon’s novel Three Things About Elsie. It’s set in a home for elderly people, one of whom is now lying on the floor of her room, waiting for someone to find her. As Florence Claybourne waits, she thinks back over the previous month and the events triggered by the arrival of a new resident, a man she is convinced is someone she knew decades earlier but whom she believed was dead.
No-one in the home believes her however. Florence presents a bit of a problem for the staff at the Cherry Tree home. She hasn’t really fitted in with their thinking on how elderly people should behave. She doesn’t care for the TV programmes in the communal residents’ lounge and doesn’t enjoy the organised bingo games. Now it seems she is prone to shouting out loud and disturbing the little welcome speech Miss Ambrose, the home’s manager, likes to give new residents. Miss Ambrose’s patience is tested with Florence begins making claims that this new resident is an imposter who sneaks into her room and moves her things about. Miss Ambrose warns her she is ‘on probation’; she has one month in which to prove she isn’t losing her mind otherwise she will find herself in Greenbank home (a much less desirable residence than Cherry Tree).
Just as she has done throughout her life, Florence turns to her childhood friend Elsie for moral support and wisdom. They’ve been through a lot together. Elsie always knows what to do and what to say in any situation. “I can’t imagine I how I would have coped without her all these years,” admits Florence. Now she needs her friend more than ever because she knows her mind is wandering. “It can’t help itself. It very often goes for a walk without me, and before I’ve realised what’s going on, it’s miles away,” she acknowledges.
Is Florence mistaken? Is the new resident really Gabriel Price as he claims to be or is he Ronnie Butler, a nasty piece of work from Florence’s past (and possibly a murderer). This isn’t the only mystery in the novel. We learn two things about Elsie fairly early on: The first thing is that “she’s my best friend”; the second that “she always knows what to say to make me feel better”. But the third? Florence can’t quite remember that fact. It’s not until we get to the end of the novel that readers discover the missing piece of the jigsaw (though I suspect many, like myself, will have already guessed the answer).
Cannon divides the narration between Florence, Miss Ambrose the administrator and the young handyman “Handy Simon”. Miss Ambrose’s characterisation is a little predictable. She’s a busy manager who frets about budgets, bustles about organising the residents and gently ‘bossing’ them about. Simon is a loner who makes up for her lack of compassion by developing a natural ability to understand what makes old people tick.
It’s Florence who is the real star of this show. She may be 84 years old but she’s not about to be treated like a child. She’s a witty and sharp woman who has the measure of Miss Ambrose. When one of the residents speculates if the administrator has been up to some fraudulent activity, Florence responds: “Miss Ambrose doesn’t look the type, does she? … She buys all her clothes from Marks & Spencer.”
She’s a bit prickly but she is also vulnerable. Though she is fearful this fall will see her sent off to Greenbank, she really wants to be found. She imagines little scenarios of how she will be discovered and how her rescuers will treat her.
One of them [the ambulance team] will sit with me, as we move along the streets under the spin of a blue light. The light will turn across his face as we travel, and he will smile at me from time to time, and his hand will somehow find mine in the darkness.
Cannon cleverly prevents this novel becoming twee and light by interjecting darker tones when dealing with the nursing home. The residents at Cherry Tree live under a constant threat they will be ousted from the home and despatched to Greenbank, from which it’s but a short step to death. No more seaside outings, entertainers, healthy hearts exercise sessions or bingo. At Greenbank:
… each room was a small piece of torment. Eyes were glazed with vacancy. Mouths gaped. Limbs rested on angry, twisted sheets, although perhaps worse were the ones who lay silent in perfectly made beds, the ones who had run out of arguing.
It’s a disturbing image. One that is vastly different to all those soft focused, airbrushed pictures seen in marketing literature for such establishments. But as Florence says, there is so much pretence involved with these homes. Cherry Trees home doesn’t even have any cherry trees she points out.
It’s the kind of name you give to these places though. Woodlands, Oak Court, Pine Lodge. They’re often named after trees, for some reason. It’s the same with mental health units. Forests full of forgotten people, waiting to be found again. … It feels like you can call a thing whatever you want to, in an attempt to turn it into something else.
Joanna Cannon’s previous career as an NHS psychiatrist is evidently at work here. She captures so well the forced jollity of residential homes for elderly people where the idea seems to be that because you’re old, your intellectual faculties must be significantly depleted. I’m a long way off Florence’s age but I hope when I get there I’ll have her same spark and feisty spirit. And I hope I’ll also have a friend like Elsie.