The comfort of strangers

Communication © John MacPherson

Communication © 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… 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……


Author — John Macpherson

John MacPherson was born and lives in the Scottish Highlands. He trained as a welder in the Glasgow shipyards, before completing an apprenticeship as a carpenter, and then qualified as a Social Worker in Disability Services. Along the way he has cooked on canal barges, trained as an Alpine Ski Leader & worked as an Instructor for Skiers with disabilities, been a canoe instructor, and tutor of night classes in carpentry, stained glass design and manufacture, and archery. He has travelled extensively on various continents, undertaking solo trips by bicycle, or motorcycle. He has had narrow escapes from an ambush by terrorists, been hit by lightning, caught in an erupting volcano, trapped in a mobile home by a tornado, kidnapped by a dog's hairdresser, rammed by a basking shark and was once bitten by a wild otter. He has combined all this with professional photography, which he has practised for over 35 years. He teaches photography and acts as a photography guide & tutor in the UK and abroad. His biggest challenge is keeping his 27 year old Land Rover 110 on the road. He loves telling and hearing stories.

Discussion (6 Comments)

  1. tonemeister says:

    My mother is suffering from Alzheimer’s so I found this story resonated with me. Like the photo btw.

  2. Farhiz says:

    Magical, John, simply magical. But, you could’ve mentioned that it was 25 years ago a bit earlier…. The photo at the top of the post? Just super.

    • Thanks for commenting Farhiz, glad you got a spine-tingle from it.

      Thanks for the observation, interesting! I actually carefully considered that but my rationale was that I wanted to let this story unfold, detailed, and hopefully affecting the reader with the subtleties about the contradiction the woman presented – on the one hand articulate and funny, but in a home for people with dementia, ostensibly in a restricted set of circumstances physically, but seemingly ‘free’ intellectually.

      And that this had had an impression on me, so much so that 25 years later it is still fresh in my mind. Other details of that day are vague, but the details of that conversation are not. And having a mum with alzheimers I am only too aware of who this person could be, and what she represents in her anonymity. I talk to my own mum and she forgets my four year old son’s name (her grandson), but remembers details from 50 years ago like they were only yesterday.

      It was that mining of memory, little jewels of experience shining in the darkness of episodes forgotten. I wanted to say “this is clear and detailed, but it was a long long time ago, will this stick with me as one of those jewels when I am old and confused?”

      If that makes sense!

      Vintage picture! Fuji film, taken 25 years ago too!

      • Farhiz says:

        Nice touch—to pick a photo taken 25 years ago to illustrate a post of a memory 25 years ago. The photo works on two levels—one obvious, communication, and the other of faith.

        Actually I was confused at first whether I remembered correctly about you having a son since I thought you mentioned that fact in some previous posts. And secondly hey, you could always re-dial her if you cared to connect again. After all aren’t we in the digital age of communication? And then it all became clear in the end.

        • Hi Farhiz – yes a small boy. I liked the image – yes its old, but I liked the contrast between the cold surroundings and the warm red box, signifying the ‘warmth’ of communication, but also the solitude & loneliness it suggests. The post behind with the telephone wires going off to everywhere added another detail. And yes faith too, trusting in the good will of whomever you connect with. Sad, but uplifting too.

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