Monday, September 15, 2008


On Sunday I bumped into an elderly neighbour I had not seen in a while. I was on the way back into the decrepit foyer of the building I live in after purchasing a pack of cigarettes and a twin-roll of toilet tissue. I waved over and she started crossing a small rectangle of dog fouled grass to speak to me. I hurried onto her side of the path before she misplaced her footing and trod in shit.

I knew what was on her mind. Rosa had spoken with her a couple of hours earlier and had passed along the news.

Betty has lived in these flats longer than most. She is a tough old bird.

She is not easily intimidated. By wandering packs of youths high on crack, or the barrel-chested terriers they travel with. She lived in the tenements long before they demolished them in shame to erect the tall concrete pillars which have stood in their place since the mid-seventies. Our building is the last man standing after a more recent civil bout of conscience baiting. They want to pull them down again to rebuild on a smaller scale. Tenements. Much like those earlier ones. The writing is on the wall.

"How are you doing ?" I asked her. "I haven't seen you in quite a while."

"I'm just out after an operation," she said. "Bowel cancer. They got it all. Cut it right out."

Rosa had told me all this previously, of course. I didn't want it to appear that we'd been gossiping. She had told me too that the district nurse had only seen her twice to check on the wound. A different sort of cut altogether.

"That's good," I said. "You're looking pretty well, all things considered."

She looked ashen. Not white, but grey and pinched. As one would expect.

When I first moved into these flats about ten years ago, there were photographs of young girls smiling on the walls opposite the lifts. The old tenements. Secured to the walls with masonry bolts through the thick plexiglass protecting them. These were Betty's personal photographs. They took them down after vandals smashed the frames and tried to deface them. Stupid spotty faced youths in Burberry baseball caps and leisure suits.

"Oh, aye," she said. "The nurse is pleased with the way everything's healing. Nice and clean, so it is."

"That's good. Have you got somebody to help you get the shopping in, and that ?"

"Oh, aye. My daughter's just on her way up to see me. She'll make sure I'm alright."

She must have been down there waiting for two or three hours now. At least it was not raining.

"It's good to get a bit of fresh air. It's good to get out and about."

"Yes," I said. Not knowing what else to say.

"Take it easy. Don't overdo things." I said.

"No, no. No chance of that. My daughter'll be here soon, anyhow."

She grimaced and pulled her coat tight about her and started off haltingly. There were torn plastic bags on the branches of the few trees remaining. Those shreds of plastic will still be there well into October.

"Goodbye, son."

NORMA WATERSON: RIVER MAN (NICK DRAKE) from "The Very Thought Of You" CD (Hannibal) 1999 (UK)

TILL BRÖNNER: RIVER MAN (NICK DRAKE) from "Oceana" CD (Verve) 2006 (US)



Mick said...

Another great post. Like one of your previous posts says I don't always get around to posting comments and sometimes don't feel I have anything constructive to add but ib, in blogging terms you're on fire recently. Sadly, the Bettys or this world are literally a dying breed.

ib said...

Hey, Mick. Thanks. Your words are much appreciated.

I felt if I didn't try to put it into a post quickly, it would just slip by. I really hope Betty makes it. She genuinely is a game old bird, so she has as good a chance as any. What ticked me off is that she didn't seem to be getting the proper care and attention she deserves, but maybe I'm just being presumptuous.

Anyway, these flats are definitely coming down in the near future, and when they do I just hope she's around to get rehoused in much better conditions. You're right, of course, that the Betty's of the world are a dying breed. It's a bit like the Alex Harvey song. "Next".

WZJN said...

Geez, what a picture you've painted. I'm down wondering if her daughter did indeed make it.

To be old, steadily unhealthy by degrees and keeping your psyche persuaded after two hours that "my daughter - she'll be here soon" would be more than I could bear.

Mr. Beer N. Hockey said...

Just the sort of writing I enjoy very much. People who keep on keeping on no matter what make great neighbours.

ib said...


see, that's the thing. Inadvertently, I may have painted an even bleaker picture than is real. Maybe her daughter was just on her way and she'd just been out earlier taking "some air". Maybe she'd been back indoors and had a cup of tea in the intervening period, and I'd just bumped into her on the way back out. Like weathermen on a old clock.

I'd like to think so.

ib said...

Beer, that's the trouble; when they go they go. There's not enough left.

She is tough as nails, though.