The comfort of strangersWritten by John Macpherson
The phone rang late one evening. I was a bit tired, work, personal life and various ‘stuff’ all getting me down. “Hello?” I said with little enthusiasm.
“Hello” said a woman’s voice, somewhat frail, but definitely confident.
“Hello” I repeated, slightly impatient.
“Who is that?” said the voice gently.
“Who are you looking for?” I asked, slightly less curtly.
“Oh no-one in particular.” came the lilting reply.
This must be some sort of scam I decided, but was intrigued about how it might work so decided to play along.
“Why are you calling me?” I asked
“I just dial the numbers and see who I get!” came the unexpected response, with a lightness of voice, mirth almost.
“What do you mean ‘you just dial the numbers’?” I said
“They give me a phone in here you see, and my family pays the bill, so I just phone people. Like you. I just press a random selection of numbers.”
Now intrigued, and unable to determine how this was going to lead to getting my Visa card number I entered into the spirit of the conversation. “You said “In here” ….umm….where are you exactly, what place are you in?”
“I’m in a home. In Ireland. Nice, but it’s a bit boring, so I phone people to talk to them.” she replied.
“A home? What kind of home?”
“Well…….my family put me in here. They think I have dementia. They thought this was the best place for me. It’s a nice place but not like being at home, in a real family home.”
I thought for a moment then said “Err…..my name is John, what’s yours?”
“Lily” she answered.
“That’s a lovely name Lily.” I said, and added “Do your family visit you in the home?”
“Not very often. They use the phone to talk to me sometimes. That’s why I have a phone.”
I wondered…“What happened to your own house?”
“I think they sold it. I don’t know. They don’t tell me much.”
“Do you tell them about your phone calls?”
A giggle. “No!” then a silence…pensive…..“I just spend their money!”
“Do you know where you’ve called?” I asked.
“No. I just dial the numbers and see where it takes me. Where are you?”
“Scotland. West coast. At home. Looking out a window at mountains and water actually.”
“That’s nice. What do you do there?”
I told her I was a both a photographer and a Social Worker. She asked questions about the people I work with in Social Work, they were thoughtful and intelligent questions, intrigued and concerned.
“How long have you been in the care home?” I inquired.
She thought for a minute….“Oh I don’t know. A long time I think, maybe a year or two.”
“What did you do with your life?” I asked. “I mean, before you went into the home?”
“Oh lots of things, got married, traveled all over the world, saw things, lots of things in all sorts of places! And had children, raised them and watched them go. All those things. Do you have children?”
“No, not yet, maybe one day…………………..”
A short silence.
“……………………Do you phone people often?”
“Yes! It’s great fun. You get to meet so many people and in so many different places. Look I have to go now, the nurse will be in to get me ready for bed, I think I hear her coming, so I’ll have to hang up. You sound like a nice person, thank you for talking to me. Have a nice life. It’s precious.” she sounded wistful.
“I’ll try. I hope you have good phone calls…..and thank you so much for calling me.”
“Goodbye!” she laughed gently, and then hung up.
I sat on alone, in my small apartment, staring off into the distance, but still connected to an anonymous elderly lady somewhere in Ireland, who was now preparing for sleep. A woman whose long and rich life was now so constrained that she sought the company of strangers to stimulate her and lighten her day. But she had also lightened mine. Immeasurably.
And I knew that the next morning I would remember this call. But wondered, would she?
That was 25 years ago. It made an impression on me, and I still remember it clearly. Maybe one day I’ll have forgotten…..but I hope I will still be competent enough to punch a random sequence of digits into a telephone keypad……