Magazine article The Spectator

Mind Your Language

Magazine article The Spectator

Mind Your Language

Article excerpt

WHAT's your idea of a lousy way to die? Try this for size. You're 83, incontinent, childless, unmarried, you live alone, you have no surviving relatives and it's a week before Christmas. Oh, and you're blind. Then what? You have a heart attack and you pass away, unvisited and unwept for, in the public ward of an inner-city hospital.

After that, it doesn't much matter what happens, does it? Well, that depends on how the authorities - whose record on caring for the dead has been, ahem, open to criticism lately - choose to dispose of your remains. Anna Goldberg, the 83-yearold in question, died in a Westminster hospital just before Christmas. Last week, I witnessed the council's efforts to give her a dignified send-off.

An icy morning in Ladbroke Grove and I'm outside the deceased's flat, waiting for the municipal director of funerals, Mrs van Doren. She turns out to be a plump, jolly, 50-year-old blonde, brimming with jokes and gossip. We get the formalities out of the way. It's Marguerite, not Mrs van Doren. She's a Yorkshire girl who married a Dutchman.

As we enter the sheltered accommodation, I practically fall over a push-buggy containing one of Britain's oldest residents - a hunched figure with a face like a ruptured potato, nodding and grimacing at me with the bulbous and utterly sexless look of the very old. Wisps of tea-bag-brown hair hover about the whitened skull, suggesting that this may once have been female. It's only a guess, though.

`Hello there, dear,' beams Marguerite.

`Yes, lovely,' growls the fur-coated androgyne, as her cheerful Jamaican carer wheels her out for a spin around Little Venice. Marguerite sidles off to have a word with the concierge. She seems to be on `hello there' terms with virtually the entire borough. Understandable, really, since every face is a potential client. I learn later that it's all part of her carpe them philosophy. Chin-up this week; belly-up the next.

We take the lift to the fourth floor, and let ourselves into the dead woman's flat. Fading photos, nylon begonias, Christmas cards from local charities: all the repugnant livery of the human endgame. A box of budgie seed on a collapsible wheelchair; Poirot Investigates on cassette; Vanessa Mae plays Paganini; `In Memoriam' read by Nigel Havens. Dangling from a hospital trolley is a frumpy grey bra, like a spit of chewing-gum. What a thing that is. A grey bra. How could a woman's breasts become so unloved and unwanted, so beyond cherishing, as to be cordoned off from mankind in a garment the colour of barbed-wire? The lino is strewn with lacy tights and spillages of gussety lingerie, like the aftermath of a suicide pact between a family of depressed jellyfish. On the coffee table are five digestive biscuits and a teach-yourself-Braille card. The mattress is a playpen of foam bolsters and churned bedclothes; and every chair is spread with a tactless rubber mat, like a place setting, to catch the last seepings that life relentlessly sucks from the body, the terminal drainages of pee and poo. I shudder inwardly. `Not this,' a voice whispers. `No way. Not me. Not ever.' And another answers, `Why not? Why not you? Welcome to the future, Grandad. Make yourself at home.'

Marguerite sifts the drawers for address books, bank statements, travel documents and so on. I'm glad to get out of the clinging stuffiness of the `living room' and into the jaunty lavender of the kitchen. My task is to search for Snowy, Miss Goldberg's singing budgerigar. The concierge suspects that it may have died. The cage is empty and the fridge seems the likeliest mausoleum. I tease open the magnetic door and peep inside. Aha. A neat yellow box wound with mournful black tape is positioned ceremoniously between the cranberry juice and the Philadelphia cheese. I unwrap the makeshift sarcophagus and prise off the lid. Inside, bound in a shroud of spotless lint, lies a shapeless, motionless, yet strangely poignant something-or-other. …

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