Having always been a disaster in any form of paid employment, an overdraft following the author's first year at university forces her to take the bull by the horns...
I’d never been to Birmingham before and getting off the train at the dimly-lit subterranean station was not an auspicious start to summer. On the other hand, I was met by the irrepressibly jolly Reverend Boswell who stood out in the crowd, a veritable Anglican beacon: tall, with sparkling blue eyes, in half-mast trousers and sporting huge, grey mutton chops the like of which I’d only ever seen before on paintings of nineteenth century mill owners.
I was to be one of two carers for his wife, Jo and would receive my training from the outgoing carer, Vicky. Jo had just had an operation to help her with swallowing and we’d be driving over to the hospital first, where the Reverend said I could ‘get to know her a bit’, while he met with the doctors.
We followed a rabbit warren of narrow corridors floored in the compressed stone tiles of the 1800s and finally came to a four-bed ward in which Jo was the sole occupant. She was propped up in bed and braced by two metal gates. She gave a big smile when she saw her husband who explained how Jo communicated: ‘no’ was a look to the side and ‘yes’ was a direct look. If Jo wanted to say something else, she would look at the pencil and paper and you would go through the alphabet until she would give you the yes look on the correct letter, thus building up the sentence on the paper. Reverend Boswell then left us, saying he’d be back within an hour.
As I sat in the chair next to the bed and looked at Jo, unable to hold up her head and unable to keep her tongue in her mouth, it dawned on me that I’d committed to a huge undertaking for which I was totally unprepared and I wondered whether I was up to the task. A girl at college had cerebral palsy and was reasonably mobile with fairly clear speech but Jo was nothing like this. I babbled on about writers I liked because she’d also done a literature degree in her youth. Probably too often, I asked her if I could give her a drink. Pointedly, she suddenly looked at the pencil and paper and we went through the alphabet many times until I had transcribed the sentence, I’m afraid I’ve had an accident. I knew what she meant but didn’t know what on earth I should do. After a minute of dithering, I asked her if I should press the buzzer for the nurse to which she gave the ‘yes’ eyes.
Two nurses in plastic aprons hauled Jo out of the bed, stripped her and hosed her down in a shower in the corner of the room. ‘She stands well, doesn’t she?’ one said to the other as if Jo couldn’t hear. In truth, Jo was wheelchair-bound and could barely stand, her knees locked in a bent position and her leg muscles wasted.
Reverend Boswell returned and, with Jo installed in her wheelchair, we drove over to the vicarage where I was going to live for the next three months. I eagerly looked out of the window, waiting for the quaint church to appear, conjuring up the scene in my head...the characterful slanted old gravestones among yew trees and the adjacent vicarage worthy of an illustration on a jigsaw puzzle. The labyrinth of red brick streets seemed endless though, and then we were parking at the end of a cul-de-sac in front of a box-like modern dwelling, ‘Here we are!’ Reverend Boswell announced. I was crestfallen but tried not to show it. Reverend Boswell was the chaplain at the university, not a church, and this was his allotted accommodation.
For the next week, I shadowed the outgoing carer, Vicky, who familiarized me with the morning routine, which began at 8 am when Jo would be lifted from her bed and placed onto the toilet, then washed and dressed before being returned to her bed in a sitting position. Lifting properly, from the knees, back straight, was a new skill that I soon mastered and would never forget. A breakfast of porridge and warm tea was then served, but I would have to hold her spoon as she could not, despite, in her youth, having been able to turn the pages of a book. Following this, it would be The Guardian Quick Crossword, which wasn’t quick because Jo had to spell out every answer. If I knew the answer to a clue, I wasn’t to tell her, unless she had no idea, which was rare. After that, Jo would listen to a story on a tape. She usually picked the tapes, recorded by a friend of hers, of which she had plenty. These recordings were of the complete works of Dickens, and were delivered, lamentably, in the friend’s soporific monotone. While the tape was on, the carer was to do some housework and make preparations for lunch. The carers lived upstairs where there were three bedrooms and a bathroom.
Vicky had itchy feet. She was ready to finish her job, return to her home village and re-establish herself in the world of courtship. I answered the phone to her father who told me he wanted to set a time when he should collect her. She asked me ‘Is it a fella?’ to which I replied ambiguously, ‘Erm, yes’. She darted over to the phone, only to have her hopes dashed by the voice of her dad.
The other carer, Orla Killen from Enniskillen, was a lot of raucous Northern Irish fun, who once went so far as to moon out of her bedroom window at wolf-whistling builders. I’d do a three and a half day shift, then have three and a half days off. As I now had a regular, if very small, income I went into Birmingham centre, where I invariably visited the city art gallery with its collection of Pre-Raphaelites, which reminded me of my misadventure with Martin. I wished things had gone differently, but was relieved we hadn’t communicated since the Southampton debacle. Apart from free access to the rehearsals of the symphony orchestra, the rest of Birmingham city centre was, at that time, decayed and miserable. The Bull Ring, a crumbling concrete shopping centre adorned with a two metre high fibreglass bull, was where I first witnessed adolescents giving themselves brain damage sniffing glue and luminous paint. I remember the face of a boy, fifteen at the most, sitting and opening up a tin of bright green paint like a child opening a Christmas present. He inhaled deeply, getting some of it on the end of his nose. I stopped and stared, in shock. Equally astonishing to me was that everyone else just walked around him indifferently, as if it were normal. Someone told me to move away or he might hurt me when the stuff took effect. Another time that unveiled more of the dark side of city life was when I was in the rougher part of the city centre waiting for a bus and I was asked by a smiling man in a flashy car if I was ‘selling’. I was confused for a moment but then realised what he meant and immediately shook my head and backed away.
One day when I was doing the crossword with Jo, her husband came in with some sweet-smelling Lily of the Valley for her and placed it in a vase on the windowsill. When he left, she spelled out to me, ‘I am lucky to have him’. Aware of his deep fondness for her, I replied that he was also lucky to have her, at which her eyes filled with tears.
The sad time arrived for Orla to leave. Her replacement, Nicola, was a tall, robust seventeen-year-old from Plymouth with piano key teeth who’d signed on to stay with Jo for a whole year. This was a rare occurrence as most carers were either students on their summer holidays or youngsters wanting to pack a range of experiences into their gap year so the average stay was three months. Reverend Boswell was greatly pleased because it was difficult for Jo to have a constant round of new carers. Like me when I was her age, Nicola, was without any qualifications, and would be going to the local college part time to get passes in English and Maths so she could eventually train to become an auxiliary nurse. The only problem was, she could hardly read. Jo swiftly became enamoured of Nicola and her broad Devonshire banter. Nicola would crack jokes that I didn’t understand, but had Jo in stitches. For Nicola, lifting Jo was no problem but she struggled with the crossword, which began to sound cryptic when she tried to read the clues aloud.
Faster than I’d anticipated, the time approached for my departure from the vicarage and Hannah, my replacement, duly arrived for her week of working with me as her trainer. Hannah was having a year off before taking up her place at Oxford and had signed up to do the usual three months. She was a diminutive girl and trying to teach her how to lift Jo was nerve-racking. Hannah wasn’t looking forward to living with Nicola and treated her with a condescending bewilderment that, fortunately, Nicola was unable to register. When Nicola came home from college with her first set text, The Diary of a Nobody, Hannah cruelly remarked, ‘Well, that’s a good one for you, isn’t it?’.
It was quite an accomplishment for me to have completed three whole months of a physically and psychologically demanding job and I felt a buzz of confidence when my train pulled out of Birmingham New Street. I had done so well that the same organisation even offered me another challenging job for next summer in a women’s semi-open detention centre, which I accepted immediately. I later heard that Hannah had lasted all of three weeks with Jo.
In a former life, Auriel Roe was a teacher of art, drama and literature in secondary school. Now she is a full time writer and artist. Her debut novel A Blindefellows Chronicle was #1 in the humour genre in Amazon US, UK and Canada. It is now available in Spanish and Italian translation as well as being an audiobook. Her memoir focusing mainly on adolescence and her grandmothers, A Young Lady's Miscellany is currently being prepared for publication. Beta readers have started reviewing it on Goodreads. You can see pictures of characters from the memoir facebook page here