Youth Of Today
Tommy is clearly off his face as the five of us spill out of the club. He’s only got his coat on by one arm and the first thing he does is stagger towards a nearby wall and throw up. Melanie is staggering a lot too, but that’s mostly because of her shoes. She falls over, laughing her arse off and takes off both of them.
“Traitors,” she yells as she throws them both across the street.
Alison is helping her up, having already taken a look at Tommy to make sure he’s alive. She’s laughing like the rest of us but been on lemonade for most of the night. She seems to think she’s our designated driver, even though none of us has a car. She’s alright though.
Darren is the last one out. He’s taken a couple of pills and is moving very slowly, staring at his hands. I’ve had some myself and I can feel the buzz coming up from under the cider I’ve been drinking all night. I kind of want to just hug all of them, but instead I’m giggling as it looks like Darren is going to start talking to a nearby lamp post.
Melanie falls over again, probably that last Jaeger-bomb, so Ali is hugging her as she helps her up. Both of them are laughing so hard they start Tommy off again, and he falls over. It looks like we’re going to take a while to get home, but it’s Saturday night so who cares.
After throwing up for the third time, Tommy seems to have sobered up a bit. He barges between Mel and Ali with an arm around both of them and growls “Chips!” We all take up the chorus, like wolves shouting at the moon. “Chips, chips, chips!” and then we fall into laughter again. Tonight is proving to be fucking legend.
The kebab shop we usually get chips from is near my bus stop, and the place is packed. All the clubs let out around now and Camden is buzzing. Loads of people are shouting, but we all squeeze through the queue. One by one we hand over a quid each for a parcel of chips. Darren is a bit flush tonight so he’s having some scampi as well. When I get outside, Mel and Ali are talking to Jason the homeless guy who’s always there on a Saturday night. They really want to pet his dog Boris but they’re sharing their chips with both of them.
Tommy and Alison both live in another direction, so they set off for the other stop once we’ve finished our chips. Tommy makes a big show of walking Alison home, but we know she’ll be the one to make sure he doesn’t go to sleep on the pavement between here and Regents Park again. We all pull in tight for a group hug, and then someone makes a fart noise and we all piss ourselves laughing. It’s mainly the drink and the pills, but Tommy does have awesome timing.
Darren and Mel and me all go north on the N20 bus. We pile in on the top deck and Mel snuggles up to me, which is unexpected. Darren sits in front and starts talking at me. I’m not really listening because I’m really out of it by now, but I think it’s something to do with fish and how important love is. How they relate I couldn’t tell you. Darren is not really that articulate with his metaphors when he is off his face.
I’ve slid my arm casually along the back of the seat, but it’s Mel I’m holding. She’s pulled her hood up and dug herself into a ball by my side to snooze. Her bare feet are cold as she tucks them up my trouser legs to keep warm. I’m feeling this glow, not just because I’m smashed but because Mel is well fit and we’ve just slotted together like lazy jigsaw pieces.
When the bus gets to Highgate, Darren and Mels have to jump off. Darren has barely paused for breath, but neither of us has noticed. Before we disengage, Mel leans up and kisses me on the cheek. She pulls back with a big sleepy grin full of promise, but not for tonight. We just stare at each other for a moment, feeling the buzz that is so much more powerful than any of the shit we’ve taken tonight. Then she’s away, running down the stairs before the bus drives from their stop, dragging Darren behind her.
I’ve got a little way to go before Tufnell Park and so I close my eyes. Behind the warm feeling from the drink, and pills, and Mel I can feel it there. What will I do if I can’t go to college when they want a degree to stack shelves in Tescos? How much of the planet will be left for me now the older generations have burned it? Will there be any help for me when I’m sick if the NHS is sold off?
I push it back and let it drown for tonight. We need the weekend; we need a break from the wreckage we have been left with. All we hear is what a waste of space the Millennials are. The youth of today have everything so easy. Well, I’d swap my smartphone in a second for a future.
I visit the care home twice a week, with Bell. Bell knows to behave, but still gets excited when I slip her lead on and walk in with her. The residents, too, get excited, because Bell’s a sucker for affection, and she gets it in spades every time we visit.
I’m not even sure why I volunteered for the job. Perhaps it was the sudden shock of turning forty, and becoming aware of my own mortality for the first time. Certainly, it affected me in a number of unexpected ways. I stopped smoking, and took up running. I stopped dyeing my hair, giving in to the slowly creeping silver threading through my scalp, which started out as an intriguing glimpse now and again, and then finally became a full feature across my previously-chestnut locks.
And, most of all, I looked at my children, seeing them grow, and felt my age with every milestone. They’d referred to me as an ‘older mother’ when I was pregnant at 35, and I had laughed at the absurdity of it, but somewhere inside I acknowledged that my skin was less elastic, my face more lined, than younger women blooming in pregnancy.
So, it seemed natural to me to find a way of viewing real age from a close vantage point, to expel some of the fear by reassuring myself that ‘old people’ were not aliens, but in fact had simply walked through the years as I was doing, and had walked a little further.
This afternoon, Bell senses we’re going even before we get in to the car, and she makes me smile with her trembling and panting as we approach the home. She stands with barely concealed impatience as I grab my keys and pop her lead on, and pulls me forwards through the swing doors with a burst of energy. I sign in, pausing to hug Martha, one of the residents who waits by the window for our arrival. She clings to me, her frame so slight and birdlike that I feel the uncomfortable ripple of ribs when I hold her.
Bell and I walk through to the day room, and I realise that I, too, have a sense of excitement at the prospect of seeing my new friends. When we go through the door, there’s a collective sigh of pleasure, and the group assembled there turn as one to smile, welcoming us in. I let Bell off the lead, and she trots from one outstretched hand to another, licking and head-nudging her welcomes. I take a seat next to Benjamin, one of the quieter residents, and take his hand, as the group start to talk. He pats my hand with rhythmical absence, nodding to music in his head, reaching down now and again with his stooped shoulders to caress Bell when she comes to him.
Allie, one of the nurses, brings a tray of tea and biscuits, and Marjorie plays ‘mother’, as she always does, serving up cups and saucers with trembling hands and a wide toothless smile. The group vie to be heard, telling me of visits, a new romance between residents, the gossip from the ballroom dancing class, family news and television programmes. Often, someone will lapse into memories and refer to me using family names, past or present, and I’m used to being called by any name which fits at the time. I don’t correct them, thinking perhaps it’s nice for someone to imagine I’m their daughter, mother or wife. They never seem to forget Bell though, from week to week, as if she’s branded her name on each with an imprint of affection.
There’s always the same smell in the room. Musk, the faint tang of urine, face powder and tea. I’ve become accustomed to it now, and it doesn’t make me feel sad anymore. As Benjamin pats my hand, I listen to the chatter and let Bell run amok sharing out affection. She seems to understand that she’s a valued commodity, and distributes herself fairly, going from one person to another with an uncanny sense of time.
Benjamin turns to me suddenly, his usually vacant eyes sharpening as he searches my face, travelling across my features with concentration and alertness. I feel suddenly stripped, as if he can see much further than my skin, and instead is reading the essence of me with his gaze. I look back in return, giving him time to read me, until he reaches out a calloused hand and gently cups my cheek. I half-smile, wondering what he is thinking, and whether he will share it with me.
“You are a good person,” he says, and I blush, wanting to pull away from his gaze, even as my heart swells with the kindness of his words. Naturally, don’t we always shy away from such scrutiny? His hold is gentle, but I feel totally incapable of drawing away from him.
“I knew someone like you, many years ago. Before all of this,” he says, indicating the room, the residents with his free hand. I nod, and still he holds me.
“She was beautiful, like you. She was my companion for forty years, before I lost her. When we first fell in love, she was shy about herself. She never realised how youth made her skin glow, and her face come alive, or how age and experience made her more beautiful as she learned compassion, and grew wiser.”
“And one day, she looked through some photographs of herself from our wedding, and she cried.”
Benjamin withdraws his hand, and looks away for a moment, reminiscing. I waited, wanting to hear more from this quiet, genteel man who so rarely spoke.
“She cried because she realised, all those years later, just how beautiful she had been. And she remembered all of those times she had covered herself up, or stayed in the shadows, because she never knew her true value. So she cried for ignoring that young, beautiful woman.”
“It never seemed to matter how much I cherished her, or how I told her again and again that she was perfect. She was so self-conscious she couldn’t see it, until she looked back.”
I nodded, thinking about his beautiful wife and how insecure she must have been, and I recognised her in myself. Benjamin smiled, looking towards me again.
“Here’s the funny thing. Even when she realised that she had been beautiful in youth, she didn’t realise that she was more beautiful in age. She acknowledged the past, but still couldn’t see the present. The mirror presented blemishes, wrinkles and frailty to her, but to me her face was kind, with character and personality etched on it. Does that make sense?”
I nodded again, considering his words. Bell came to us and pushed her nose in to Benjamin’s hand, and he started his rhythmic patting again.
“My wife was beautiful always. As she changed, and grew older, I saw it all; the lines and flaws, and especially the way illness altered her face, but I thought she grew more beautiful, the older she got. I would think that if she were here with me now, she’d take my breath away with her radiance. I don’t suppose I would even be able to look at her; I’d have to just stay beside her and absorb her light.”
Benjamin watched me for a moment, and as I gazed back, his watery brown eyes lost their focus and I knew he had slipped back in time and I’d lost him to the past. I took his hand and squeezed it, and he looked about the room as if he didn’t recognise it, and patted my hand again.
The group were growing tired, now. A few residents were dozing, silver heads bowed and lips slack. Bell finally stopped going from one person to another and laid out in a sunbeam, tongue lolling. I reached out for Benjamin and held him close for a minute, breathing in his spiced, old-fashioned scent. Allie walked in again, to clear away the teacups, and I clicked my fingers to get Bell’s attention so I could put her lead on and take my leave. I walked from one resident to another, hugging the ones still awake, and saying my goodbyes.
I popped in to the bathroom, leaving Bell sitting outside the door.
Washing my hands, I glanced up and saw my reflection. I studied it for a moment. Yes, my hair was beginning to grey. My eyes were lined, and I had pronounced creases and newly-developed hollows and marks, but I was still me. Me, but with an etching of experience. I wondered if I would have the courage to embrace the years ahead, understanding that they would mark me, and recognise the beauty in those marks. I smiled, suddenly, feeling a rush of gratitude for my family; my life. The fact that Bell and I could walk away from here, and we hopefully had many years ahead, to carry on aging.
I stepped out in to the sunshine, looking up and taking deep cleansing breaths. As I took Bell to the car and prepared to leave, I glanced back to wave, and saw Benjamin standing at the window. I smiled at him, and he raised his hand, and blew a gentlemanly kiss. I imagined myself catching it, holding it tight like a reminder of who I could be, who I had been, and who I was, and smiled to myself as I made my way home.
Loping along in packs
Long legs eating up the asphalt.
I see flocks of them
Swooping across the road on two wheels
Heedless of oncoming traffic.
I scowl and want to shout Take more care!
Life is more precious than they realise.
I see them
Huddling on a freezing corner
Dragging on a cigarette
Hurling insults and obscenities at each other.
I see them
Prowling their territory
Preening and edging around the other sex.
I warm to these signs of frailty
The first fumbling steps in the courtship dance.
I see them
Moving aside for our buggy
Glancing at my son
as he gabbles an incomprehensible greeting.
Do they see his otherness
A simple mistake in tangles of DNA that has diverted his future
Waste products building up in this body I love so much
Grinding his brain to a halt?
I wish I could see further
See him strutting with the other lads
Being teased by a girl.
I wish I could see a woman like me
watching him with disapproval and tutting
Muttering under her breath, ‘Youth of today…!’