Washing Dishes at the Old People's Luncheon Club
The very moment Elsa gets home from the supermarket -- without even stopping to shoo the cat off the kitchen worktop or to put away the sorbet in the freezer -- she darts into the downstairs cloakroom to confront herself in the mirror above the sink. Without even pausing to take off her pashmina or her reliable beige mac, she interrogates her reflection for the point at which her defences had been breached.
When Elsa had unloaded her tub of raspberry sorbet and her packet of matzos and her lean lamb chop onto the conveyor belt, she hadn’t been paying much attention to the conversation between the checkout woman and the shopper with the schmaltzy sympathy card. She’d been too busy congratulating herself on finding so short a queue. But when the other customer had wheeled away her trolley, Elsa found herself obliged to take her place not just in transferring her purchases into the flimsy carrier bags, but in the conversation she’d just vacated as well. Without even a proper good-morning, it was a conversation that whizzed from Herceptin to lumpectomies and the tragedy of like-mother-like-daughter at the age of only forty-three, and the checkout woman seemed determined to drag Elsa with her all the way. She didn’t seem able to slide a barcode past the scanner without subjecting Elsa to yet another detail of her sister-in-law’s bravery in the face of such an agonising demise.
“Yes, terrible,” said Elsa crisply as the checkout woman finally deigned to weigh her small bag of Jersey Royals, “and could I have thirty pounds cashback please?”
Now, alone with her reflection, she wonders what it was that betrayed her to the checkout woman, what had exposed her as one of that breed that is all too familiar with the mechanics of decline. In the mirror on the peach-painted wall, she tries to see herself as others might: the soft grey curls that get eased into position across her receding hairline each Friday by Marty at A Cut Above; the skin too deeply furrowed for any makeup to redeem; the rogue moustache that, like the most cunning weed, manages to camouflage itself against her upper lip whenever she tries to tackle it with a pair of tweezers. Preserving a facade acceptable to the world is a sisyphean task, and she can understand why the checkout woman might have mistaken her for one of the Old People, so close to death themselves they daren’t challenge those who call upon them to bear witness to just one more.
Elsa stares deeper, looking beyond the glass to the ghost of the girl behind. She stares so fiercely into the image of those muddy-brown eyes that they begin to water and her reflection blurs. It’s over, she tells herself in the same brisk manner she used earlier on the checkout woman. Forget about it. She selects a lipstick from the shelf and paints herself a death-defying smile.
Tuesdays, Elsa takes the bus to the community centre where she serves shepherd’s pie and sponge-and-custard at the old people’s luncheon club. She’s hanging up her mac in the lobby when a young man calls out to her. “Elsa! At last! I’ve got a present for you.”
She composes her lips into a tolerant smile and turns round ready to bestow it upon Gavin, the centre manager. He is a slim man of around thirty who, Elsa considers, if he hadn’t succumbed to that unfortunate craze among young men of getting rid of all their hair before nature does it for them, could be rather handsome. “A present? For me?”
Behind him, Elsa notices the other volunteers adopt similar tolerant smiles. Gavin’s offering to the oldest of the team is as much a part of the ritual of the luncheon club as the meat-and-two-veg postwar menu. As is her refusal of it.
With the flourish of a magician, Gavin dangles a pair of marigold gloves before her. “For you.”
Elsa smoothes down the sleeve of her silk shirt-dress, lining up the stripes against the length of her forearm. “What would I want with those?”
Gavin takes one of her liver-spotted hands and measures it against a glove. “To protect this delicate skin from the scalding washing-up water.”
Elsa pulls away. “My skin isn’t going anywhere near that washing-up water. I volunteered to serve lunches, not wash dishes.”
“The crockery isn’t going to wash itself.”
“Then get a dishwasher.”
Gavin raises a hand to his shaven head in mock despair. “You know there’s no way my budget could run to a dishwasher.”
“Then you’ll just have to do the dishes yourself.” Elsa walks away from him towards the kitchen.
Gavin follows. “Okay, forget the washing-up. I’ve got another present for you.” He steps in front of her, blocking her entrance to the kitchen, and rolls up his shirt sleeve.
Elsa tugs at the cuff of her own sleeve. “Haven’t we both got work to do?”
“It’ll only take a second.” Gavin thrusts out his arm. “You’ll like this one, I promise.”
Elsa braces herself to look. The young man’s skin is a tangle of graffiti. “You just don’t know when to stop, do you?”
“It’s an edelweiss.” Gavin indicates his new tattoo, lodged between a busty mermaid and a Celtic cross. “Isn’t that lovely?”
“Not quite my style.” Scowling, Elsa pushes past him into the kitchen. “And parading your artwork isn’t going to get those lunches done.”
Gavin laughs. “You must’ve been quite formidable when you were in management.”
Elsa goes to the basin to wash her hands. “I rather hoped I was formidable right now.”
Gavin winks at a blonde woman standing at the worktop, steadily amassing a pile of potato peelings. “What do you think, Chloe? Is our Elsa formidable?”
Chloe raises her eyebrows. She calls across to Elsa, “What’s he been goading you about this time?”
Elsa massages soap from the dispenser onto her hands, they way they were all taught by Health and Safety. Lessons in hand washing, as if they were children. “Just another of his silly presents.”
“I’ve got a present for you,” says Chloe.
Elsa dries her hands on a paper towel. “Really?”
“It’s just a card William’s made.”
“How sweet of him.”
“Do you want to go and get it? It’s my denim jacket. By the door.”
In the lobby, Elsa rips open the envelope. From a collage of paper and wool, and what might be twigs of dry spaghetti, she makes out an old woman with grey curls and a boy with yellow hair. Hand in hand in front of a blunted brown cone. A wigwam? A mountain? A semicircle of crimson tissue paper flutters to the floor. Elsa smiles as she opens the card to read the message scrawled in painstakingly joined-up writing: Thanks for helping me with my project. A volcano.
She returns to the kitchen and takes her place beside Chloe and the banks of vegetables. “Tell him it’s lovely.”
“Well, thanks for your help. His teacher was really impressed.”
Elsa recalls how the boy’s face shone as he turned through the pages of photos of her and Arthur among the ruins of Pompeii. How his eyes widened when she told him about the people turned into statues by the torrent of lava. “It was a pleasure.”
Chloe chops a potato into chunks and throws them into a saucepan. “Actually, he was wondering if you’d help him with his next project.”
Elsa thinks of the bookcase in her quiet sitting-room, the bottom shelf crammed with holiday photo albums arranged in chronological order. “I’d be delighted.”
“Elsa!” Gavin calls across from the other side of the kitchen. “Would you mind giving us a hand over here? We need your gentle touch for the pastry.”
She puts down her potato peeler. “Better go and see what he’s up to. Don’t want him making a mess of the dessert. I’ll see you later, Chloe. You won’t leave without telling me about William’s project, will you?”
“So how are we today, Ernest?”
Elsa cringes when she hears any of the volunteers use that patronising sing-song voice on the Old People. Most of them slip into it at some point, even Chloe. As a counterbalance, Elsa tries to chat to them about grown-up things, like the work they used to do, or travel. Unfortunately, very few of those who come to the luncheon club have had a proper career and there’s not much to say about fifty years underground in the dark, except Thank God it’s over. And all their travels, whether to Blackpool, Benidorm or Bermuda, have been in search of sun rather than culture, so she grits her teeth and asks them about their grandchildren instead. She composes tomorrow’s shopping-list in her head while they prattle on about little Joshua and Emily. They rarely bother to ask her if she has a little Joshua or Emily of her own.
Elsa had told Arthur she couldn’t bear to bring a child into this world and, bless him, he’d not tried to argue her out of it. Fifty years on she doesn’t regret her decision. Only sometimes, when her conversational repertoire is relegated to the past tense, does she wonder. When the dessert plates have been cleared away, and the Old People are relaxing over their coffees, Elsa seeks out Chloe to ask about William’s next project.
“It’s on the Holocaust.”
Elsa stumbles back and almost knocks into table five. “Isn’t he a bit young to be going into that?”
“Do you think so?”
“It would give him nightmares. It was all so …” Elsa fumbles for the appropriate word. Fails to find it. “… so barbaric.”
“Children are all barbarians at heart. Just remember how he couldn’t get enough of your stories about Pompeii …” The younger woman meets Elsa’s gaze and blushes. “God, what do I sound like? As if it was one big adventure story. But maybe that’s the point. Maybe that’s how the Holocaust could be for children if they weren’t taught about it. Properly. At an early age. Obviously you don’t want to lay it on too thick. They may be barbarians but you don’t want them waking up in the night screaming…” She smiles. She looks at Elsa and her smile fades.
“I’ve no photos to show him. Arthur and I never went on any of those concentration camp tours.”
“We thought you could share your memories. What it was like when the war was over and people found out what had been going on in the camps.”
“I don’t remember. I was just a child.”
“But that’s so much the better, don’t you see? You could give a child’s eye view. That would really bring it alive for William.”
The roaring in her ears is like a raging volcano. Elsa leans against the wall, fearful she could faint. And then she recovers the voice she used that morning with the checkout woman. “I was just a child.”
“Okay … I’ll tell William you’re not interested …”
Elsa pushes past Chloe into the kitchen. She goes to the hand wash basin and splashes water on her cheeks. Across the room at the huge stainless-steel double sink, three of the volunteers are preparing to dispatch a pile of dirty dishes. They turn and stare at Elsa as if she has gatecrashed a private party. A rough party with loud music and cheap booze and overflowing ashtrays. “Thought you were too prim and proper to help out with the washing-up,” says one. Her tone is completely devoid of the warmth that accompanies Gavin’s teasing.
Elsa grips the edge of the basin with both hands. You can do it, she tells herself. All it would take would be to roll up her sleeves and plunge her hands into that hot soapy water.
And then what? And then they would see, wouldn’t they? They would see beyond the grey hair and wrinkles, beyond the checkout woman’s catharsis and Gavin’s badgering and Chloe’s disappointment, beyond all that to the ghost of the girl underneath. She would roll up the sleeves of her classic shirt-dress and they would realise they’d never asked themselves why she always wore long sleeves, never even noticed she did. With that one gesture it would all fall into place. They’d understand.
They’d understand it’s not only cosseted young men who shave off their hair and get themselves tattooed. That some tattoos, unlike Gavin’s edelweiss, were never meant for decoration. That some deaths don’t wait till the end of life’s journey, but haunt the very start.
Who decrees which traumas are to be chewed over at the supermarket checkout, and which borne alone? All it would take would be for Elsa to roll up her sleeve and they would reach out to the girl who didn’t need to wait till the war was over to learn what was going on in the camps.
A young man’s hand on her shoulder. “Hey, Elsa, are you okay?”
Elsa fingers the button on the cuff of her dress. She hears the coarse laughter of the women at the sinks. She thinks of William asking his mother whether that lady from the old people’s luncheon club is going to help with his project. Imagines a group of small boys in matching sweatshirts visiting a museum. Going back to class to make a collage of stick-thin people dressed in striped pyjamas. She sighs.
“You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“I’m a little preoccupied, that’s all.”
“You’re very pale. Come and sit down.”
Elsa examines her reflection in the tarnished mirror-tile above the wash basin. She watches until the ghost leaves her cheeks and the colour returns. She smoothes down her sleeves. “Don’t fuss, young man. I’m not one of your Old People just yet.”
© Anne Goodwin
First published at LauraHird.com