There was orange peel all along the mantelpiece. Not so much ‘S’-shaped orange peel, more ‘C’ shape as if Auntie hadn’t the strength to peel a whole orange in one strip. Her hands were arthritic and she was in her eighties at that time, though still fairly tough and resourceful, making her own envelopes and birthday cards and chopping her own firewood. But the orange peel was something else. When we questioned her she said it was for the fire. I guess it was some kind of fuel. Besides the orange peel, there were two or three candles on the mantelpiece. Auntie didn’t like to waste electricity. In fact, auntie didn’t like to waste anything.
Her nephews would visit her two or three times a year and would usually find old food in the refrigerator, food long past its sell by date. Auntie used to treat her nephews to dinner and tea but that was before she began to get dementia.
People in the village began to know something was up. Auntie would be out at night, seemingly lost. Then there was the story from one of the choir members – auntie had accused one of the singers of taking her hot water bottle. And then the final straw, Auntie’s neighbour, living in an adjoining cottage, had made formal complaint that the way Auntie lived was a potential fire hazard. Well that was probably true, with lit candles upon a narrow mantelpiece decked with orange peel. I expect it looked quite pretty in the evening with the fire roaring below – not so pretty were the whole house to be ablaze, a glutinous concoction of candle-wax and orange peel.
In the end, auntie’s tenure of the cottage came to a premature but timely end: she fell down the stairs and broke her leg in four places. Her cries were heard by her neighbour in the adjoining cottage. Aunty, despite her Oxfordshire background, had cultivated a refined and cut-glass accent working as a nanny for the upper classes as well as being matron at a boys prep school. Once when she visited her nephews in London, she had stopped the youngest child from bawling by a shrill direction, “Stop crying immediately.” Neither of the two boys then knew what “immediately” meant but the tone of voice suggested a positive response!
Aunty must have been tough. She survived several more years after the fall, though never returning to her cottage. First she had a long stay in hospital recovering from the broken leg and was later moved to a residential nursing home costing an arm and a leg, paid to a large extent from her savings and from the renting out of the cottage where she had lived. Once in the home auntie would entertain the nurses and care staff by singing hymns as if she was still in her choir robes. Her nephews, when visiting, would take a small piano keyboard in. The younger of the two nephews was a gifted pianist and would play an assortment of tunes and hymns for auntie. Auntie would twirl her fingers and nod her head. Neither nephew knew whether she was listening or not. There was no way of telling. But if an old favourite hymn were to be included in the medley, she would lead the singing in a full penetrative voice. If the words were forgotten she would substitute la la la la or dah dee dah etc and if the note were too high in pitch, she would switch to an octave below.
The last time her nephews visited the Home, auntie was in splendid mood. There was a cuddly toy by the bed, a monkey. The pianist nephew set up the keyboard and held the monkey to his lap as if the monkey himself were to play. A pre-recorded tune was set for playing and once begun the monkey was seen to be playing, his paws being positioned by the musician behind. All the nurses burst out laughing whilst the second nephew was filming this on his camera. It was both funny and sad for auntie’s only reaction was to twiddle her fingers and nod her head. They say that music and laughter span the world but auntie was worlds apart. Auntie died not long after, refusing to eat or drink anything. The nursing staff allowed her the dignity to retire peacefully.
As for the film, it exists on YouTube but has not yet been released to the public domain. In a way it is a private family moment, but in another light it is a snapshot of the world.