I was in the supermarket on Saturday and watched an exchange between an old lady and the girl on the checkout.
The girl on the checkout was a bit stressed. I would be too. It can’t be much fun having to sit there for hours whilst your bum goes numb and you have to watch other people going about their daily business and probably off to do more interesting things than you. Just having to say, “Do want help with your packing?” in a way that communicates that no aid would be forthcoming if the customer was ever daft enough to say, ‘Yes’, must bring its own mental burden.
She could have been nicer to the old lady, though. I subscribe to the opinion that advanced age should entitle the OAP to a bit of respect. Not ‘Prostrate myself whilst you lecture me about rationing’ respect. Just, ‘You’ve been around a lot longer than me and I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt’ respect.
The old lady was short 2 quid on her bill of 65 quid. She was distressed at not having enough money, distressed at the fact that the girl on the checkout was saying repeatedly, ‘You’ll have to put something back,’ and distressed that she was holding up the queue.
I had a quick check in my pocket, then leant over and stuck two pound coins in the cashier’s hand, smiled at the embarrassed but grateful old lady and allowed us all to get on with our day with minimal fuss.
I’m an old people lover. Not in a way that might require counselling or corrective training, I find them fascinating. I always have done. My own grandparents were all dead before I really got to know them and I was always a little bit envious of my mates who would pop in to their grans on the way home. I’d sometimes tag along and would really enjoy those visits, not just for the biscuits and endless tea, but because they had interesting things to say. It was an absorbing experience to try and square the sparrow-like, little ladies with their tales of putting out fires and saving lives during World War 2 or driving through Europe in the 1950s.
I even quite enjoyed the suspicion that a lot of what was being related might have been embellished a bit or could have even been out and out bullshit. So what? They were great, colourful stories and there was – probably – a kernel of truth in there somewhere.
A lot of the things about getting old must be shite. I’m only in my mid 40s but lament the fact that my bones and joints creak a lot more when I play 5 a-side. If I imagine another 30 years of reduced mobility and failing eyesight, I can see why some of them come across as curmudgeonly and that embroidering your past a bit might be an enjoyable way to pass the years.
Of course, the inexorable march of time isn’t all bad. Old people get to do things that we can’t. They can wear trousers up to their armpits and say what they like. My wife’s grampa, who died a few years ago, was a classic example. He used to love coming out with outrageous statements, always suggesting that shotguns or other firearms presented ready solutions to most modern problems like peaceful protest or traffic jams. Some in the family used to take what he said at face value and upbraid him in shocked tones. He always made me laugh, though, as I could see that he was doing it for effect. Basically, he was saying,
“I’m 85, I can’t drive anymore, I can’t drink the whiskey I love any more and I’m pretty much immobile. One of the pleasures I still have in my life, is the look on your bloody face when I suggest that the Newbury bypass protesters should all be blown out of trees with shotguns.”
I was in another supermarket a few years ago, getting my lunch, when I spotted a very old chap, who looked bewildered. He was standing in the entrance with two full shopping bags and something in his body language made me ask him if he was alright.
He replied in a sad and resigned voice, “I can’t remember where I live.”
The people in Sainsburys didn’t consider this their problem when I took him to Customer Services, he’d already spent his money so they weren’t interested. Eventually, after playing twenty questions, we worked it out between the two of us that he lived round the corner in sheltered flats. I walked him back to my car and gave him a lift there. In the five minutes that it took us to get there, I had a conversation with this confused old man, who looked like he weighed six stone, wet through.
It turned out that during the Second World War, he’d flown a Sunderland Bomber, helping to counteract the German U-boat threat and helping to rescue sailors from torpedoed ships. He’d flown with distinction throughout the war and along with his mates, had been responsible for saving hundreds of lives.
He might have just been blagging me, to save himself the taxi fare and fair play to him if he had, but I suspect that people like him are getting fewer and further between so we should be nice to them while we still can.