Stairlift Travels With My Aunt
by Rodney Hedley
We were parked on the Leas, looking out to the sea, the grey English Channel, on this grey English winter’s day. France was just in view.
‘I remember,’ said my aunt, lifting her tartan decorated thermos and pouring a vile brown liquid into the yellowing plastic cup, ‘when the Leas was something. Folkestone was a veritable jewel in the crown.’
She was always talking rubbish about the Edwardian splendour of the town, of the Grand and Metropole hotels, of Henry James, HG Wells, Joseph Conrad too. Of women promenading with parasols. She was too young to remember this golden age and I was too old to argue with her. For the last three years I had been far too tired to argue with her. She was the crabby 85 years old woman and I was the pathetic 55 years old man, officially recognised by Kent County Council, and a host of other voluntary and statutory bodies, as her carer. Not that the host of social workers, nurses, welfare advisers, county councillors, or chiropodists, for that matter, really understood what caring for her was really about.
‘Be grateful, at least you don’t have to bath her,’ said the social services manager, a hefty woman who panted and sweated with ill health. Thank God I didn’t have to bath her.
‘Be grateful, at least she’s got her wits about her,’ said the six foot four hospital consultant peering over his spectacles at me, getting both my - and her - name wrong for the fourth time, and constantly looking at his watch.
‘Be grateful, at least she’s got her own private income, ’ said the swarmy financial adviser, whacking us with his extortionate bill.
‘Folkestone was a fine place,’ she said.
‘Still is,’ I said, ‘and we’ve got a literary festival now.’
‘Ha, when did you ever read a book?’ she said.
‘It so happens I am reading a book,’ I said, ‘a very interesting book too.’
‘No,’ I said, but it was only 60p.
‘Have a drink?’ she said.
Her brown liquid was a concoction of tea and Old Tar rum, £6.99 a litre from our local Costcutter.
‘I can’t. I’m driving,’ I said. ‘and it’s disgusting.’
‘Lovely,’ she said, swallowing the liquid and smacking her lips to re-inforce her enjoyment and the lack of mine.
‘What are you reading?’ she said.
‘It’s a Graham Greene book.’
‘Graham Greene, ‘she looked puzzled. ‘I remember Hughie Green, on the television.’
She took another gulp of her grog and looked out to sea.
The book was Travels with My Aunt. I loved it. It was about a retired boring bank manager in his fifties called Henry Pulling, who is taken up by his ancient aunt Augusta and together they take the Orient Express across Europe and have lots of adventures. Oh how I would love to be led away by a rich decadent aunt and have lots of rich decadent adventures with gangsters, politicians, and women, yes lots of women. Instead here I was, in a car, parked on the Leas, with lots of other retried people, looking out to sea.
‘What time is our appointment?’ she asked.
Our appointment was with MobilityAreUs, or as my aunt, and everyone at Age Concern called it Mobilityarse. We were there to inspect stairlifts. My aunt had no problems in walking, but I suppose it would help in the house. She was paying.
MobilityAreUs was an enormous showroom stuffed full of commodes, electric trikes, walking aids, motorised armchairs, and rippling beds. The commodes had been christened Princess, Duchess and Lady, most inappropriate I thought. The trikes were called Panther, Sherman and Chieftain, I realised they were tank names, and the military theme continued for all the walking sticks and handy reachers were mounted rifle-like as in an armoury. And then there were the stairlifts.
Our personal consultant was Mr William Harvey. He wore a double breasted grey suit, and a red carnation was upon his lapel. His dress sense belonged to the 1950s, but perhaps that was a marketing wheeze, for most of the old lady customers would have been young girls then. Or perhaps he was off to a wedding later? I subsequently discovered that he had led a campaign, via the Daily Telegraph, for the re-instatement of caning in schools as part of the National Curriculum. He was that type of guy.
The florescent lights reflected on his bryl-creamed hair. He smiled as he led us to the first of the exhibition models, The Robust. I say first, the Robust was the cheapest model. The Deluxe was twice its price and their Tusker was dearer still, especially built as it was, for very heavy people, with a huge seat. Staircases had to be re-inforced with concrete, bunker-like, for their installation.
We stood at the bottom of the stairs where the Robust rested.
My aunt sniffed it. Gingerly, she touched the vinyl seat. ‘Red?’ she queried.
‘Oh, we have a range of colours to complement most home decors,’ said Mr Harvey.
‘My hall, and landing is William Morris, Pattern book IV, Floral, 1888.’
The lying bitch I thought.
‘Sort of greenish,’ I added.
‘Would Madam wish to try it?’
Mr Harvey guided her to the seat.
‘Designed for pure pleasure and safety, ‘he oozed. ‘Switch on, all you do is take hold of the handle and it glides you up, or down. Remove your hold, and it will arrest immediately.’
I smiled, and Mr Harvey smiled, as my aunt ascended, halted, and then descended the stairs. At ground level she said:
‘On trains, ‘ she said pointing ‘these are called deadman’s handles.’
Mr Harvey smiled.
‘How many people die on these things each year?’ she barked, ‘Thora Hurd had one, and she died.’
‘But not whilst on a stairlift Madam,’ the smile replied.
‘Very few people die instantly, aunt,’ I said.
‘Your father did,’ she said,’ but of course he was too stingy to buy an extension ladder.’ I thought the reference to my father’s tragic accident, although accurate, was rather unkind.
‘Before the war,’ she said, ‘your great grandmother had an accident with a stairlift.’
‘Surely not an electric one?’ I said.
‘They were invented in 1953,’ said Mr Harvey.
‘In Gravesend,’ said my aunt. ‘most appropriate given their lethal intent.’
Later I learned this was absolutely true and stair lifts were first patented by a Kentish man, Mr Paine, in 1953.
‘It wasn’t an electric one. When I was a girl in India, your great grandmother had a team of porters carry her up the staircase, and in our house, Poona House, that was a staircase. Our lift was more a Sudan chair. Leather seats and teak. Not red vinyl.’
‘But she didn’t die on a staircase,’ I said.
‘No, but one of the porters did. Heart attack poor man. Well your great grandmother was 20 stone. They were a porter short that day and it was devilishly hot. Luckily she only had a bruise on her coccyx. It was a lovely staircase,’ she sighed. ‘Pity we left India. By the way my friend Doris read in Hello magazine that Joan Collin’s has four stair lifts. Did she buy them here?’
Before Mr Harvey could answer, I replied: ‘I think that was facelifts?’
‘Can this thing carry twenty four stone?’ she asked.
‘Easily Madam,’ the smile hadn’t altered, ‘but above 25 stone we would recommend The Tusker.’
‘So this model could take two people?’
Before he could answer she continued.
‘How many sitting positions?’
‘The two Madam, back to the ascent as you are now, or at a right angle’ ‘he explained gesturing.
‘In the Karma Sutra, the Arthbutnot edition which I had as a girl, they list 68 sitting positions for the recumbent female. I have completed 59 of these. I thought I could complete the entire canon before I ascended to the great couch in the sky. I had hoped this vehicle would offer me the required propulsion to assist my venture.’
I was speechless, but Mr Harvey still smiled.
She pulled the handle ascended a few steps, stopped and beckoned Mr Harvey to stand at the bottom facing her. She descended, obscenely, with her legs wide open. I looked away, but Mr Harvey was cucumber cool and stayed erect. Caning had obviously done him a lot of good.
‘This won’t do,‘she said. ‘Not with this deadman’s thingy, there is no room for manoeuvre; your right hand is always on the knob, as it were. Do you have a hands free model?’
Mr Harvey replied: ’Well Madam, I don’t think we do as standard. The French have a model, and so, I do believe the Turks. We –‘
‘The French,’ she repeated, ‘the Turks. By the way how much is this machine?’
‘With fitting, maintenance and VAT I would budget £9,000.’
‘For that price I think my nephew and I will travel to Paris, then on to Istanbul by the Orient Express. We shall explore the stairlifts of Europe. Indeed as the young people say: Pimp My Ride.’
Next day in France, before we joined the train, we took a look across the channel to Folkestone, the sun was shining and the sea was blue.
‘Have you brought your Graham Greene novel with you?’ asked my aunt.
‘No,’ I said, opening the bottle of champagne. ‘I really don’t think I’ll need it.’
© Rodney Hedley