Grace came to England from Jamaica in 1962, when she was a capable, enterprising young woman in her thirties. She settled in the Moss Side district of Manchester and never left the country again, scarcely even set foot outside Manchester again, and died recently in hospital at the age of eighty-something.
I first met her about a year before she died, when she was ill, virtually housebound and stubborn as a mule. The Council had embarked upon an extensive renovation project involving several streets of terraced houses and was busy relocating the (mostly grateful) tenants to better and brighter homes. Not so Grace, however, who point-blank refused to consider moving from the dilapidated mid-terrace that had been her home for the past fifty years. She liked where she lived and she wasn’t about to move out of her home, she explained tetchily to the series of increasingly exasperated – and increasingly senior- Council employees who trooped in through her front door to try to change her mind.
I had my suspicions during my first couple of visits that Grace was in fact living only in one room of her home, the back room, with occasional shuffles from there into the kitchen which ran directly off it. I do not know at what point she had given up trying to climb the steep Victorian stairs but, when she eventually trusted me enough to send me on an errand to her bedroom, the upper floor of the house had a strange, unlived-in air. The bed’s pink candlewick cover was entirely undisturbed; the bottles and pots covered in a thick layer of dust on the dressing table.
Where was she sleeping, I asked her? At first she maintained that she was sleeping in her bedroom but later, defiantly, confirmed that she was sleeping in her armchair because of her COPD. What about the toilet, I asked her? Wordlessly, she jutted her chin in the direction of a bucket half-concealed in the corner of the room. Washing herself, it turned out, was a precarious, infrequent event standing at the kitchen sink.
I tried to talk to Grace about accepting some help, explaining that the housing officer and others were very concerned about her, and that the GP was frustrated when she rang with emergencies. It took several visits even to be able to mention ‘social workers’ without a sucking of teeth and a vehement shaking of the head. I told her that I needed to alert social services to her vulnerability, as I was concerned about her safety, at which point she asked me to leave, subsequently refusing to answer the social worker’s knock at the door.
A couple of weeks later, she rang and asked me, stiffly, if I would kindly rearrange the appointment. I called round to meet with her before the social worker arrived, and she asked me to help her tie her headscarf and put in her earrings. She was donning her armour, I realised. And I felt like I had been taken into a circle of trust, a club of which I was perhaps the only current member.
Over the next few months, I got to know Grace a little better and she told me about her life in England. About how she had come over from Jamaica with her brother and had always been ‘one of the boys’. About the fine life she had had, when they all looked after her and she looked after them. About how she had never been interested in marriage or children, telling me that you can get on with men just fine, if you operate on their level, but you must never trust them an inch – experience (darkly hinted at but never disclosed) had taught her that. About how, when her brother died ten years ago, she had lost her last link to her family, having never kept in touch with the extended members back in Jamaica. One by one, her friends had passed away or moved away until, finally, she was the last one left in the street from the old days. Her friend’s son now kept the shop she had always patronised and, if she rang him up on the telephone, he would (for a cut) go and draw her pension for her at the Post Office and then drop off parcels of ackee, rice and chicken.
The ‘package of care’ which she reluctantly accepted from the social worker was endlessly problematic in its operation. Grace did not fit the mould: she did not want cheery carers turning up in pairs to wash, dress and feed her in fifteen minutes flat – she wanted a discrete lady to sit outside the bathroom whilst she took a bath by herself, just to be on hand in case she ran into difficulties. She did not want microwaved frozen shepherd’s pie and sponge pudding plonked in front of her – she wanted saltfish, rice and peas, freshly cooked. Grace did not want to be carted off to day care, to sing along with other pensioners, or play bingo. All her friends had gone, she said and she did not want new friends. Several times, the care agency complained to the social worker that they were running out of carers who could work with Grace, as she continually refused their interventions, but the endless parade of interchangeable young women only served to enrage her further.
And all the while, the Council’s renovation works went on around her. Grace was by now quite the only person left living on her street. There was scaffolding all along the outside walls of the terrace and the resolution had been taken to carry on with the outside work only whilst Grace was still a thorn in their sides. The house vibrated and dust rained down around her – COPD or no COPD – as the workmen pressed on. I expect they thought she’d give in eventually; I think she knew she didn’t have long left and she wasn’t about to give them the satisfaction of making things easier for them.
One day when I turned up to see her, birthday cards – about fifteen of them – were strung up on a piece of wool around the walls of the back room. I congratulated her and commented on how lovely it was to see she had such a lot of cards. She looked me straight in the eye and nodded, looked at the cards, looked slowly back at me and admitted that she put them up herself every year. It dawned on me that these were the same birthday cards that she had kept and displayed year after year: on closer examination, five were from her brother and the most recent card was from about 8 years ago. I recall feeling close to tears as I looked back at her, but her defiance (almost) repelled sympathy.
Grace died about three weeks later. She was found, collapsed, by one of the carers on the floor of her back room and taken to the local hospital. She never regained consciousness and died a day later, alone.
I wish I had known she was in hospital. I would have gone to sit with her and hold her proud hand.