Most of us wonder what it’s like to grow old. Are the biggest changes in ourselves, or in the world around us? Does the past grow in importance, or lessen? What about the mistakes we’ve made; the dark secrets we’ve never shared with anyone? Does a moment arrive when the urge to confess becomes overwhelming? Or do we struggle on in lonely silence and self-imposed emotional isolation?
Joanna Cannon writes beautifully about such questions and with the kind of searching insight that makes you wonder if she has a time machine and has visited her future, elderly self to discover the answers.
Those answers are brought to us by what I suspect is Cannon’s alter-ego; 84 year old Florence Claybourne. The book opens – and closes – with ‘Flo’ in crisis: she has fallen in her flat at Cherry Tree Home for the Elderly and is lying on the floor waiting patiently for someone to find her. As the hours pass, Flo finds herself mentally reliving the events of the past month. Something inexplicable has occurred; something so strange that no-one she tells about it believes her – no-one, that is, except her lifelong friend, the eponymous Elsie.
Flo has, in effect, seen a dead man walking. A new arrival at Cherry Tree who calls himself Gabriel Price is, Flo is certain, a man once known as Ronnie Butler. And Ronnie Butler died 60 years ago.
We are told straight away two of the three things we should know about Elsie: that she is Flo’s best friend, and that she always knows what to say to make Flo feel better. We have to wait until the final chapter to learn the third thing, but sharp-witted readers may be able to work out what it is before then.
This is, as Richard writes, a wonderful book about ageing with some beautiful writing. Take this, on silence.
‘There is a special kind of silence when you live alone. It hangs around, waiting for you to find it. You try to cover it up with all sorts of other noises, but it’s always there, at the end of everything else, expecting you.’
There is also the fear involved in getting old. Flo’s mind slides gently between nostalgia and what may be the beginnings of dementia. So when she tells staff at Cherry Tree that the new resident is someone who died in 1955, they look askance at her and put her on a form of probation: she has a month to prove she is not losing her wits. If she fails, Greenbank awaits her. Life at Cherry Tree is fairly normal: Flo has her own flat and independence. But Greenbank is a kind of green room to death: it is for those whose minds are disintegrating. No-one wants to be sent there; no-one wants to spend their final days on what they see as the equivalent of Death Row.
So Flo sets out to prove that she’s right and the new resident is indeed the long-dead Ronnie Butler. But she’s all too well aware how difficult that’s going to be, given her mental state. ‘My mind’s started to wander. It can’t help itself. It very often goes for a walk without me, and before I’ve realised what’s going on, it’s miles away.’
A warm, wise, funny and moving story, this, and one that calmly and gently unfolds in its own good time. Enjoy.