When Ernest came to live with us here in St Margaret’s I thought I should keep an eye on him because there’s only a handful of men residential here. My concern was unnecessary.
The ladies took to Ernest in no time and didn’t he enjoy that eh? Within a couple of months he was the personality of the place. Of course he missed his wife, she was the only friend he ever had, he told me that himself in confidence, but he never mentioned any family or, for that matter, any of his workmates. He must have had some of them. He was a coal miner, a bit rough. Fit though. He walked into town most days and that’s twenty minutes there and twenty minutes back.
We had a couple of serious conversations and from what bit he did say the life went out of his community when the pits were closed down, and perhaps something went out of him at the same time. It seemed he was a sort of resentful recluse for years. Just him and her, his wife, living mostly off the allotments he rented and drinking the home brew he made. Right up until she died they were virtually self sufficient, according to what he said.
I know folks say all sorts of things, especially as they get older, but there was something about Ernest that made you want to believe him.
When he’d been here about six weeks Mrs Blackburn said about him, “He’s a brick this Ernest,” but when I asked her why she didn’t seem to know. “He just is,” she said, laughing.
I did think at first that I might get to know him better, you know get to be a bit close. I’ve lived here since Saint Margaret’s Residential Home opened, one of the very first, but I’ve never made what you’d call friends. Not real friends, it’s difficult when you take on certain responsibilities. I’m not staff, not really, but in my working life I was a supervisor so I am relied on to see to many of the everyday things that matter here. Staff seem to be happy with me taking on that role.
Then he turned up with the squeeze box, you know the concertina. That changed things altogether. I had told him, some time before, I’d done a turn now and then on the banjo when I was a youngster and he asked me to help him get started on this instrument he’d bought from a second hand shop. I advised him to return it and get his money back but he said no.
“I’ve always wanted to play one of these,” he said.
I explained that the banjo was not related in any way at all to his concertina but he insisted and, because he had developed this winning way, I eventually said I’d try to help. Because of my voluntary duties I have access to the office computer and I Googled, as I do with almost everything I need to know about. There it was, a book on Amazon, “How to Play the Concertina.”
He gave me the money for it straight away and then began to practise, with no regard for time or place. I fielded the complaints as best I could but when the petition was presented I did try to reason with our enthusiastic musician. I showed him the two sheets of foolscap, not the signatures of course, but it was useless talking to him. He didn’t seem to understand the offence he was causing.
I was getting complaints from residents and staff as well about the constant noise and I pleaded with Ernest to give it a rest but he explained that there was money to be made. An old man busking near to town had told him that he’d made as much as ten pound in less than an hour some days.
The elderly ladies had developed an icy politeness toward him after he’d acquired the instrument and his popularity had plummeted as swiftly as it had risen. Time and again he would appear, as if out of the blue, and begin to sway and play his few chords right in front of folk. They didn’t like it.
Then another thing. Several people told me that he was spending time in Mrs. Blackburn’s room. I waited for the complaint from her that didn’t come. Mrs. Blackburn had been in this establishment for longer than anybody else. She was deferred to by most residents and some of the more sensible staff. We, me and her, had been on cordial but respectful terms for years and I did quite like her.
I don’t know what made me think of it, the way out of the musical dilemma, but when the idea dawned I was so relieved. One of the governors explained to Eric that we did not have a license for live music and that was it. Each time he saw the triumph on the face of a fellow resident Ernest seethed within. I could see it happening. What I didn’t foresee was the manner of his revenge.
As Saint Margaret’s day approached, various suggestions came from residents as to how we should celebrate. We held a little party each year on our saint’s day and of course, we would have the usual visit from the vicar and he would enjoy with us a glass or two of the excellent sherry he brought. This contribution provided the only alcoholic drink most of the elderly ladies indulged in all year, excepting for Christmas. It was taken as part of a tradition.
The surprising thing was that Ernest took part in the discussions leading up to the day. It really did seem that he had forgiven us for banning his music and it was he who suggested we did charades. The residents, remembering parties past, were very keen on this idea.
“Oh, charades. When I was a little girl..” and then another, clapping her hands, “When we had charades my little girl…”
“If we turn the tables facing toward the door anyone who wanted to dress up could perform in the corner over there,” Ernest said.
“Oh yes. Dressing up, how lovely.” The ladies were getting even more excited.
I don’t know how much the sherry affected the repercussions to his contribution, I suspect not very much. Mind you, the vicar, having seen how quickly a couple of bottles had been emptied the previous year did bring four. That was four litre size.
Charades after dinner had us all laughing at some of the displays. Old people trying to replicate what they had done fifty and more years before can be very funny, especially when under the influence of the Spanish drink.
Ernest slipped out of the room early in the proceedings and then, at a lull, entered holding a guitar in front of his body. He faced us from the corner wearing a black patch covering his right eye.
“Guess, guess who. An American country singer, two names.”
He pointed to his eye patch,
“Second name, an Englishman,” he shouted, “Come on who is it? A navy man, Trafalgar. Admiral… Yeeees Nelson. That’s right and the first name is?”
He waved the guitar above his head and stood there shaking his hips and a not insignificant member which was protruding from his undone fly. He pointed down at it.
“What’s this called then? Come on, you can remember. It’s my…..Willy. Come on yeeees, Willy Nelson,”
I could hear him shouting above the cries from shocked ladies who were seeing something most had not been threatened with for decades and several of those closest fainted as he began to identify the famous country singer.
While the vicar was helping to comfort the distressed I forcibly ushered Ernest from the room and started to explain to him that he would have to find somewhere else to live.
“You’ll be told to leave after this disgusting display,” I told him. “They’ll not tolerate this kind of behaviour in Saint Margaret’s.”
I looked up to see we had been joined by Mrs. Blackburn.
“You don’t need to worry about us,” she said, “We’re going together. We’ve got one of those warden controlled apartments they’ve just built nearer town, Erni’s keen to get busking down there. He can play some country music on that guitar, Willy was always a favourite of his… and I’m getting to quite like it myself.”
NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR:
Not all old people want to ‘fit in’ nor will they.
I was one of four brothers working in the pit in spite of the fact that Dad had been killed at Bestwood pit in 1940 leaving six children. A short piece of writing helped get me out of the pit after nine years working on the coal face. I have been Chair of Malvern Writers' Circle and have two of my books selling on Amazon and various other sites. Married at eighteen and widowed forty years later I came to Malvern and shortly after married a local woman who has made me the luckiest and happiest of men.