Issue 8

Jackie Kay
Mrs Vadnie Marlene Sevlon

On the way home from a long and final day in Sunnyside Home for the Elderly, Mrs Vadnie Marlene Sevlon was relieved to notice a little breeze. Much better than yesterday when the weather was close, so close she felt the low pressure in the air. As long as there is a little breeze, a person can cope with most things - even if she is in the wrong place. It’s the days when there is no breeze at all when Vadnie is convinced she made a mistake. But it wasn’t like there ever seemed much choice. It wasn’t like she could just take her pick. Only people with money have choice; only rich people can take their pick; everyone else must stumble from pillar to post, from hope to promise, and believe in luck and God, or maybe just God, or maybe just luck, depending on the day and the breeze. Vadnie Marlene Sevlon often said her own name, her whole name, to herself when she was alone. Perhaps because it reminded her of back home, her mother shouting Vadnie Marlene Sevlon come and get your dinner, or maybe because it made her feel less lonely or maybe even just to remind herself of who she was. Time for you to get up Vadnie Marlene Sevlon she would say in the morning; bed for you now, Vadnie Marlene Sevlon she would say at night. And in between the morning and the night sometimes not a single living soul said her name out loud.

Vadnie walked past the College for Boys, past the Brondesbury Park Rail Station and the Islamia Primary School, past Willesden Lane Cemetery where sometimes if she had a little time on her hands she would sit on a bench and contemplate the differences between the living and the dead. She liked to read the gravestones and imagine the lives of the fascinating names she read, and work out the ages, practising her mental arithmetic. Some people find graveyards gloomy, but not Vadnie Marlene; she felt as if she was being kept company by the peaceful dead. There was an atmosphere in Willesden Lane Cemetery that you never found in Kilburn High Street or at work or even at home. Intense contemplation! Vadnie sometimes envisaged her own headstone, though she knew nobody in her family could afford one, and anyway they wouldn’t want her buried in England, and anyway she was too young to be thinking such thoughts. (She was fifty two, hardly a spring chicken, but then not likely to be at death’s door anytime soon, please God. Her father was dead long time back now, but her mother was still around and living in Darling Spring, Jamaica, with three of her sisters who all wanted Vadnie to come back home. ‘South of here is Grateful Hill, South West, Lucky Valley, further south then, Prospect,’ her mother used to say often, ‘I’m hoping our prospects improve soon.’) But even so her mind would wander off, as it often did, to imagining her own death, and she’d envisage her whole name and her dates and the inscription beloved daughter of Gladstone and Hyacinth Sevlon, Rest in Peace, Darling. It wasn’t perhaps what people usually did in their lunch hours, dream up their own headstones, but Vadnie found it quite entertaining and it passed away the time. Should it say passed away or should it say fell asleep, what should the exact wording be? She continued down Salusbury Road, stopped to buy a new plug in the DIY shop and a new packet of fuses, past the artisan bakery, where the bread and cakes looked lovely, like little works of art, the beauty of those breads, some so threaded they looked like fancy hair-dos, or wiring, but cost a small fortune, so she only ever looked in the window; past a fancy florist where they even had birds of paradise, which looked out of place, but cost a small fortune so she only ever went in to the Florists to take a deep sniff; past Queen’s Park Underground Station and right into Kilburn Lane, down Fifth Avenue, which always made Vadnie think of New York, where she might have gone for her contemplation, Central Park, watching people skateboard, rollerblade, jog, meditate, dance and all the things she heard say people do in Central Park from her cousin Eldece who went over there fifteen years ago and sometimes wrote a letter with all her news. Eldece was maybe the lucky one. But the strange thing about life was that you could only live the one of them; you couldn’t live the other one, the one where you went to New York instead of London, and then compare and contrast. You couldn’t compare the life you had with the life you might have had though sometimes Vadnie Marlene Sevlon would have liked to have been able to shout Stop and after the requisite minutes Start, and then catch the other life, live it for a bit, and if it was not as agreeable as the one in her imagination, well then she’d be able to return to the old life and appreciate it better by simply shouting Stop and Start again. As Vadnie turned into her own street, Oliphant Street, she wondered if it was luck or fate or God that made the decisions in your life. Or was it just a moment plucked from the ordinary that made you stick with mistakes already made? For instance, once, years ago, on the telephone, a man who was going to be coming to fix her electric sockets said, ‘is you Miss or Mrs?’ And Vadnie answered Mrs. That was twenty years ago, when she was thirty, and was still thinking that the right man might come along. He never did but Vadnie kept the Mrs anyway. She put Mrs on her bank cards and Mrs on anything she had to sign. Mrs on her direct debits and Mrs on her television license, Mrs on her water bill and Mrs on her gas and electric. It was Mrs Vadnie Sevlon, and she felt she got more respect that way. Strange thing was, after a number of years, she believed it herself. She was no longer surprised at the amount of post that arrived with her whole name on it. The Mrs by then didn’t give her the thrill of the early days; she took it quite for granted. So might she look back on the electric man and call that fate or luck or God? Did God want her to call herself Mrs to keep herself safe from men of disrepute? When people asked her what her husband did, she would tell them he was an electrician. She would picture him vividly, combining features of the electrician with the features of a man she once sat next to on a bus to the Lake District. She made a kind of composite husband out of the two, took the hair from one and gave it to the other so he wasn’t balding, just receding, took two inches of height from one and gave it to her husband, made his skin a rich dark brown. Her husband had lovely neat nails which you might not expect for an electrician. ‘Oh he works long hours; he’s an electrician you see. You have to be very well qualified to be an electrician you know. You have to know your wires, your blue and brown and black and yellow. And you need to know that blue used to be neutral, but black also used to be neutral,’ Vadnie would say, whenever she got a chance, to whoever would listen, even strangers, knowledgeably quoting the most recent electrician who stood explaining his job to her for some time on the last visit to Oliphant Street. Vadnie didn’t quite know what it was that made boiler men and electricity men and plumbing men always like to explain to her the exact ins and outs of what they were doing in a supremely technical way, but when an electrician came around, Vadnie listened intently. (In fact, she had found herself sometimes putting in extra plugs she didn’t exactly need and could ill afford, just to be sure she was up to date.) She had to have her husband keep up with the changing times and colour codes, she couldn’t have him caught short, her husband, dear Preston, Preston Sherwin Audley Sevlon; she felt such a tenderness for him. Preston: a quiet man, a man of few words, but kind deeds, whose parents were also from Jamaica but had come to England once and worked in Preston before returning to Montego Bay - well this was the story Vadnie first of all made up and later believed. When she got home from work, Preston would say ‘put your feet up Mrs Sevlon and I’ll make you a cup of tea.’ He never raised his voice or his hand to her. He was the kind of man that is a father to daughters rather than sons, a gentle kind man, intense and protective. And of course their daughters, Ladyblossom, Marsha and Grace, were all daddy’s girls. If you’d had a son, Preston would say, he would have been a mummy’s boy. What would we have called a son, she heard herself asking Preston? A name after an English place, he’d say, like me, chuckling, enjoying himself, Carlisle or Kendal or Lancaster. I couldn’t call a little boy Lancaster, she’d find herself saying out loud in the kitchen - then startle herself with his absence. Was it luck that got her the job as a Care Home Orderly at Sunnyside Home for the Elderly? Or was she being deliberately led down the wrong path? It was only two days a week but it seemed like a beginning in the beginning. And she well remembered the first day all that time ago, why, it must be fifteen years at least, walking down the driveway and glimpsing the garden with the bench, the table with the green umbrella, thinking the place was really something quite, quite special. The grounds were grand and made her feel she was definitely in England. They were a people that knew how to make a garden, the English! And during the first few weeks Vadnie would eat her Coronation chicken sandwich in the palatial garden with the blossom on the trees and the green grass under her feet and feel almost content; at least, the worry about money and the future would lift and she would be in the unusual position of just being able to sit and eat her sandwich and watch the birds flit about in the trees. She always kept her eye out for a barbudawarbler even though she didn’t think they ever came to this country. But if birds of paradise could be in the florist then barbudawarblers could be in the garden. It would have lifted her heart to see a bird from back home in the garden of Sunnyside Home for the Elderly. She didn’t much like the two women who ran Sunnyside, and they didn’t get any better over time. For a start they had no sense of humour which was quite a problem. Vadnie had never realised how big a problem this could be until she first ran into the two sad Sunnyside women. All the good conversation has to have a little light-ness! Well, the first thing Vadnie said to the Matron was, ‘The garden is quite something. What lovely borders! You do all the weeding yourself?’ (Of course she was joking, and was going to go on to mention the beautiful garden design, but the Matron - she didn’t get it.) She replied seriously, snooty-like, ‘No, no. We have a gardener.’ Just like that. And Vadnie nodded, undaunted, and said, ‘Handsome man is he, this gardener? About my age do you think?’ Matron stared and said, ‘He’s Irish,’ as if that might be something that would put Vadnie off. ‘And he’s in his seventies.’ That would be the clincher then. So after that Vadnie never joked with Matron which meant there was no basis for conversation; there was only a way of receiving instructions. And the head Nurse was even worse. She had something nasty about her, that woman, and no mistake. She was always picking fault. She’d say to Vadnie, ‘Did you say you had washed the kitchen floor?’ when the floor was gleaming, gleaming, so shiny Vadnie could see her face in it, which was the test her mother had given her when she was a little girl. She would say have you polished so bright you can see your reflection? Whenever Vadnie did see her reflection in some domestic surface, it never looked like her, and she’d have to pause for a minute and say is that me, is that really me? Sometimes she loomed in things. She appeared all out of proportion. Still it is not an absolute necessity to get on with the people you work for, especially not when they are your boss. When you do get on with them, they can let you down even more. Vadnie remembered the woman she cleaned for in St Elizabeth in Jamaica saying, ‘Very sorry Vads but you’re no longer needed. You did such an excellent job and have been like family to us, but...’ And what was the real reason? The details of the thing had gone, butthe hurt was still there. That was the interesting thing about hurt. All the vocabulary can go, all the words said and heard, and yet the pain persists in your heart, slow and heavy. The worst hurts were wordless, or at least they became wordless. A lot of the old people in Sunnyside Home for the Elderly didn’t speak, or if they did speak they didn’t make that much sense. They seemed in their own world, a lost world, a vanquished world. They didn’t have many places like this back home. The family took the elderly in and that was that. Imagine the planning: building these big houses to incarcerate all the old mummies and daddies, imagine the spreadsheets and architectural blueprints, to hide away all the old grandparents. Imagine inventing these places for them. Even if Sunnyside did have a nice garden, it was still a kind of hell. All of the grandmas and grandpas lined up to look out of the window! They were never allowed out to take a little stroll. Once Vadnie asked Matron if she could take a stroll with one of the women, Margaret, and Matron said, we are not insured to allow them to walk about in the garden. Would you pay if she fell over? Would you pay all the damages? Something like that. Vadnie said, Yes, it’ll be fine, she won’t fall over, she is quite steady on her feet. But Matron shook her head and said, so you think I’m paying you to go strolling around the garden? You must think I was born yesterday. Vadnie stopped to consider this seriously for a moment, the idea that the Matron could be born yesterday and then grow in such a short space of time into such a nasty old woman. Not possible! Nastiness needs time to build up.

Today the morning had started with Vadnie saying to herself time to get up Vadnie Marlene Sevlon. Preston was up and out and had not brought her the usual cup of hot tea. The girls had already grown up and left home. Grace was the first in the family at university. Sometimes, she’d find herself doing a big shop and telling people the family was coming home, that’s why her trolley was suddenly loaded. Today nobody was there and nobody was coming home and she felt suddenly tired. Odd times at the Sunnyside Home for the Elderly, she’d found herself having to take a ten pound note or two to help her get by because they didn’t pay her enough and because the old people were not going anywhere anyway and none of them would miss it and because she was the only one in the place who was kind so deserved it and because she tried to do good things with it, often buying them little treats, and sometimes even buying them clothes. But today the day didn’t feel right from the word go. When she arrived in Sunnyside, Margaret, her favourite of the old people and the most with-it and the one who took the most interest in Preston and the girls, implored her to buy her a cherry red cardigan. She was in some distress. ‘Would you manage to buy me a red cardigan,’ she asked, her voice shrill, anxious. ‘I’ll try my best,’ Vadnie found herself saying. ‘Tell me your size.' And Margaret looked happy, happy as she’d ever seen her. She was sure that the Matron and the other one didn’t treat them well; Vadnie thought they might even be abusive but she never saw anything with her own eyes. Recently though, she had made heavy hints about the authorities, and she had sat at home glued to a documentary about a whistleblower. (She had never heard the term before.) ‘I might blow the whistle,’ Vadnie had thought to herself. ‘Tell me,’ Vadnie said to Margaret quietly, ‘Won’t you tell me if they ever lay a finger on you?’ Maybe one of them overheard; Vadnie didn’t know how it had all started. But at the end of the day that had started strangely, Vadnie found herself dismissed. After twenty years: dismissed. And the thing that distressed her most was that she wouldn’t be able to return with Margaret’s cherry red cardigan. She wouldn’t be able to tell Margaret how Preston was, how Ladyblossom, Grace and Marsha were doing. They might as well all be dead.

On the way home Vadnie felt the breeze on her face and the strange feeling turning into Oliphant Street that violence was in the air. She walked slowly, heavily. She had a tight feeling across her chest. She was sweating. She stopped in the DIY shop and bought a new plug and a new packet of fuses. ‘My husband used to be an electrician,’ she had told the woman, ‘Yet could I get him to fix a plug?’ The woman in the shop laughed. ‘Mine is a carpenter - ditto!’ She paused. ‘You said ‘used to’ the woman said. Vadnie nodded slowly, ‘Yes, he passed away a few weeks ago. He’s buried up the road there in Willesden Cemetery.’ ‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ the woman said. Mrs Vadnie Marlene Sevlon dabbed at the sudden tears falling down her face. ‘He was a good man, a terribly good man,’ she said. ‘Oh dear,’ the woman said. ‘You must miss him.’