The Oldie

Home Front Alice Pitman


Within half an hour of my arrival at the Aged P’s care home room last week, I learnt a lot from her.

First, she told me the actor William Holden had bled to death after a fall in 1981 (‘No one found him for four days’). The late press tycoon Robert Maxwell once thrashed my father at chess (‘Daddy could never resist alcohol’). And Thomas Tallis’s wife was called Joan.

The 94-year-old Aged P was in fine form for a rainy Tuesday morning. The more dismal the weather, the brighter she is. Never a sun-worshipper, she has a wrinklefre­e complexion that’s the envy of daughters and carers alike. ‘Everyone remarks on it,’ she says, lightly touching her cheek.

Visiting her room at the unacceptab­ly named Hub is like entering a time machine. You never know what decade of her life you’ll be transporte­d back to: 1920/30s Bradford, the war years, 1950s

Kensington when she was newly married… It is a cosy feeling, like curling up on the sofa to a much-loved old black-and-white film. Many anecdotes are familiar, but she has a way of lobbing in a never-heardbefor­e nugget to keep them interestin­g.

There’s the occasional revelation she’s kept up her sleeve for decades. I still can’t get over her meeting Eleanor Roosevelt: ‘Very plain; sturdy handshake.’ Or that the police once questioned my father,

during the manhunt for police murderer Harry Roberts in 1966: ‘Someone saw him in the street and thought he looked like him… I knew just what they meant.’

An internet search for Harry Roberts revealed the mugshot of a ghastlyloo­king thug with eyes too close together. I felt indignant on my late father’s behalf.

The Jeffrey Epstein scandal put a metaphoric­al spring in the Aged P’s step. I’m grateful to Prince Andrew for keeping her entertaine­d (‘Unable to sweat because of the Falklands!’; ‘Woking Pizza Express!’). She’s intrigued by the alleged madam of the whole sordid enterprise, Ghislaine Maxwell. The Aged P met her when she was three years old – the same day her father thrashed mine at the aforementi­oned chess match. Robert Maxwell had taken my mother on a pre-lunch tour of Headington Hall, his pile in Oxford. This included Ghislaine’s nursery which he had specially wired so that piped Mozart and Beethoven might give her an appreciati­on of classical music. ‘But all she wants to hear is the Beatles,’ he grumbled.

We often squabble during visits. Ever since the Aged P confessed she rather enjoyed our spats, I’ve wondered whether she devises them for her own amusement.

She recently decided I’d always detested The Windmills of Your Mind. ‘And I’ve never understood why. It’s a lovely tune!’ ‘What are you talking about? I love it!’ ‘That’s not what I remember.’ Last week we bickered over her 30-yearold suede boots, which I’d thrown out.

‘You told me to throw them out because you never wore them any more!’ ‘I loved those boots…’ Then there was Beefgate. She wouldn’t budge from her belief that her roast lunch during one of my visits was pork. ‘It’s not pork – it’s beef!’ ‘Where’s the Yorkshire pudding, then?’ She poked around the plate with a fork. ‘There isn’t any – but it’s definitely beef.’ ‘It’s pork…’ Nurse Precious fetched the chef to settle the dispute. ‘It is beef loin! I cooked it!’

‘It’s like no beef I’ve ever tasted,’ said the Aged P peevishly.

Later, we reminisced about the day in 1972 when my brother and I, aged 11 and 7, caught two buses to pay a surprise visit to our paternal grandmothe­r. Instead of the cheery, Shirley-hughes-granny-style welcome we’d anticipate­d, she recoiled with horror. She invited us reluctantl­y in and, after we’d watched her grumpily eat her lunch, she sent us packing.

‘Appalling behaviour,’ said the Aged P. ‘Didn’t she stab you with her fork when you reached to take some meat off her plate?’ ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Now that time it was pork.’ We looked at each other and laughed.

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