Monday, January 3, 2011

76. Elaine and Somerset Oaks

This section is not particularly amusing, but no story about me would be complete without a chunk about Elaine. Just to explain the set up here: I live in a lovely retirement village, where everyone is over the age of fifty five but still active, at least they had to be when they first moved in. There is no frail care centre, but we have a club house, a dining room, a bowling green, a croquet lawn and a pristine swimming pool. There are one hundred and forty eight units here, set in lovely gardens, ranging from double storey townhouses to one room flats. A river runs alongside the property which, alas, had to be fenced and barbed wired to keep out the naughty people. From time to time, ugly, grey river crabs make their way into my flat, are captured and gently returned to the river. Guinea Foul, Egyptian Geese, doves, other birds and squirrels abound as do moles. It is amazing what damage a tiny creature such as a mole can do to the lawns. Snakes lurk in the wooded areas, so I am told but, fortunately for my blood pressure, I have never seen one. We have residents who are keen gardeners and keep the area round their units filled with flowers and shrubs and the non gardeners, like myself, who barely manage to maintain a couple of hanging baskets.
Ten minutes walk away two super markets compete for our custom, while at least eight pharmacists do a roaring trade in Warfarin and blood pressure pills, this area being the Mecca of the W.R.D. (Wealthy, Retired and Decrepit). Somerset West snuggles beneath the Hottentots-Holland Range of mountains, which change colour from prehistoric grey to breathtakingly brilliant orange according to the light. In winter snow can be seen up there, but in summer, too often, fires rage. Ask Google to show you “Somerset Oaks, Somerset West, South Africa” and you will find us.

About 190 people live here, the number varies from day to day depending on whether or not the club house flag is at half mast. It is not often at half mast because we are a hardy lot, being over ninety is not uncommon and there are plenty of over eighty year olds, like myself. Living in this retirement complex does not make one feel old, it just makes one determined to outlive one’s neighbour. My neighbour is a ninety three year old wartime submarine commander, who does his own laundry and walks to the shops every day. He is immaculate in his dress and manners and his house is much tidier than mine, so I have a lot to live up to. Needless to say, the women outnumber the men at least ten to one. Why is it that men on their own tend to lock themselves away, while widows embrace each other and seem to enjoy life?

Here at the Oaks we love parties, any excuse to put up a notice stating the occasion followed by the magic words, “Wine and cool drink will be provided. Please bring a plate of eats.” And eats are brought like you have never seen!

The complex is run by a Committee of Trustees elected by residents at the Annual General Punch Up. Their job is to ensure that everything is run according to the rules set out in the Sectional Titles Act and House Rules, while at the same time, trying to keep everyone entertained and happy. Not an easy task. These rules are made for the comfort and security of everyone living in the complex. If you are not familiar with this Act do not worry about it, but the unpaid work carried out by the Trustees is arduous and, for the most part, thankless. You know the old saying, you can please some of the people some of the time blah, blah and more blah. I only mention this because the act states that every unit must be kept reasonably clean and must not form a health or safety hazard to others. If the Trustees have good enough reason to think that a unit does not conform to these rules the Chairman has the right, after giving the owner forty eight hours notice, to inspect the premises. To my knowledge this has never been done at Somerset Oaks although there have been some units that were decidedly suspect.

I was Club Trustee at the time, when someone asked me “Have you ever spoken to that little old lady who walks almost bent in half?” I replied in the negative. “Well, she has a wonderful sense of humour! When I asked her if I could carry her shopping bags for her she said ‘Thank you very much, but they aren’t really that heavy, my back is naturally curved this way’”. To be my friend, the number one requirement is a sense of humour. People who cannot laugh at the world and, even more importantly, at themselves had better stay out of my space for, as sure as God made stand-up comedians, I will offend them before too long. The name of this little old lady was Elaine and she was to dominate my life for the next six years.

Elaine was eighty two when we became acquainted. She was a heavy smoker and I sometimes sat outside the clubhouse with her after lunch, so that she could smoke while we chatted. What I did not know during those early days was that she was a compulsive hoarder who lived in total chaos. Then one of the residents said to me, “I see you are friendly with Elaine. Do you think you could get her to do something about her flat?” “In what way?” I asked. “Well, the outside is a disgrace, the Body Corporate should not allow her to keep such a mess there, and the inside is awful”.

That afternoon I walked over to Elaine’s block, climbed the stairs and there, alongside her front door, was a stack of cardboard boxes, and a rusty broken plastic weave garden chair. Three long thin benches of varying heights were stacked behind each other, covered with flower pots containing plants is varying stages of death and decay. The two metal plant stands by the front door housed straggly geraniums, their stalks desperately reaching out for water. I took a deep breath and knocked on the door which was opened a crack and then, on recognising me, Elaine opened it wide and I was invited in. It was an invitation I would have done well to refuse. “Come in, come in and sit down”. Elaine transferred a pile of books from the bed to the floor and I sat down, or rather tried to but the mattress was so old and bent that I kept slipping on to the floor alongside the books. She apologised for the mess and said she was ashamed for me to see it like that, as if due warning and ten minutes with a feather duster could have put it all right.

The flat comprised an entrance hall leading to a large room with a little balcony, a small kitchen and a bathroom. Elaine had lived and chain smoked in this room for over twenty years and it had never been redecorated. Everything was stained dark brown and there was a large bulge in the ceiling, evidence of a leak in the roof which had been repaired but not repainted. A small strip of carpet leading from the front door to the bed was clear, but that was all. The bed was covered with books and papers, and the three broken chairs were invisible under masses of clothes. One wall was filled from floor to ceiling with bookshelves and books. There were suitcases, cardboard boxes, projection screens, photographic slides, a radiogram, a chest of drawers and a huge office desk, also covered with books and papers. The curtain linings hung in shreds. In the kitchen there was barely room to stand in front of the sink because the floor was littered with empty cereal boxes and shopping bags and the soles of my shoes stuck to the plastic tiles. Later I found a large tin which had once contained pie apples, the apple pieces had dried out and become stones which rattled when the tin was shaken.

By the front door stood a stack of The Times Literary Supplements going back fifteen years and a piece of rolled up carpet which housed six umbrellas and a walking stick. On a piece of string extended across the bath hung plastic, inflated coat hangers which would be just right for drying woollens on and, when deflated, packed flat in the bottom of a suitcase for travelling. The little balcony contained two rusty, folding garden chairs with rotted canvas seats, a wooden table that had discarded its green paint, and another stack of Times Literary Supplements. In the grey plant troughs the geraniums had long ago given up the fight for life and been smothered by wild grass. On the table, stood a box of snail bait intended to kill the snails that had already died of starvation. The view from the balcony was magnificent.

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