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Authors: Helen Forrester

A Cuppa Tea and an Aspirin

BOOK: A Cuppa Tea and an Aspirin
A Cuppa Tea and An Aspirin
Helen Forrester

For Vivien Green, with much gratitude

When the going gets tough,
the tough make tea



The author would like to thank sincerely her editors, Nick Sayers, Jane Barringer and Jennifer Parr for their support and sound advice while she was writing this book.

The book is a novel, not a history. Though the dreadful slums of Liverpool did exist, the care Home was a figment of the author's imagination, as were the characters who lived or worked in these places; whatever similarity there may be of name, no reference is made or intended to any person living or dead, except for the well-known historical figure of Lee Jones and his wonderful work on behalf of the poor of the city which form a small part of the background of the book.

‘I Look Proper Awful Without Me Gnashers'


‘Angie! You mean you don't know what a court is?' In disapproval, the old woman's lips pursed over toothless gums. She stared in genuine shock at the uniformed nursing aide who was slowly tucking in the sheets at the bottom of her bed. ‘Really, nowadays, you young folk don't know nothing about nothing.'

‘It's true, I really don't know, Martha, unless you mean a magistrates' court?'

‘Tush, I don't mean a court up steps like that,' retorted Martha irritably. ‘I mean a place where you live. Like a house.'

The aide smiled absently, her black face not unkind. She did not answer. Working in a crowded old folk's Home, she was used to being scolded
by the fifty-eight elderly, bedridden women and five equally incapacitated men, for whose daily care she was largely responsible; that is, being scolded by those who could speak. Some of them were the impotent victims of stroke, supposed to be turned every two hours and have their dirty nappies changed; and what a hopeless instruction that was: there simply wasn't time. Its frequent omission accounted for the strong smell of old urine in the room and for the cries of misery from patients because of bedsores.

Opposite Martha's bed, two women suffering from dementia were tethered to their beds. They chattered inconsequentially to themselves most of the day, their minds wandering – and God help me, thought Angie as she shook up Martha's pillow, if they ever get loose: I'd be fired by Matron, sure as fate. Between the door and the dementia patients lay a victim of stroke, able only to grunt when she wanted anything.

In the bed next to Martha lay poor Pat, another bundle of helpless skin and bone. To Angie, the look of impending death was clear on her face, and she had already anxiously reported this to Matron. With a grim smile, Matron had assured the nervous aide that she was overreacting, as a result of her inexperience in nursing: the woman
had seemed normal for her condition, when she had toured the ward two days before.

Angie had made no reply – she needed to keep her job. In her native Jamaica, rent by civil strife and surrounded by hunger and disease, she had seen so much of death. She certainly did not lack experience, she thought angrily.

For ten hours out of the twenty-four, all the patients were largely dependent upon Angie. Two other nursing aides, Dorothy and Freda, also from Jamaica, covered respectively the early morning and evening hours. A retired Irish nurse, Mrs Kelly, also working alone, cared for them from midnight to four in the morning, and there were many ignored complaints from patients at her inability to cope with their needs for bedpans or glasses of water.

The patients were either without family, or they were aged relatives of poverty-stricken local families who could not care for an invalid. Once they arrived in the nursing Home, Matron assumed that they were all uniformly permanently incapacitated. Some, like Martha Connolly, however, had suffered a broken hip or similar and might have hopes of being restored to health, if appropriately treated.

Matron was keen to retain patients like Martha, who, after the first few weeks, needed little care.
Because they could do many things for themselves, they enabled her to keep her staffing costs low.

Uncouth, coarse Martha Connolly, Bed 3, Room 5, daughter of the Liverpool dockside, knew that she was not totally disabled. But she had had to agree with Matron's sharp assessment that, if she tried to walk, she was liable to falls. She must, therefore, remain in bed unless an attendant was in the room to escort her.

Without any visitors, who might have spoken up on her behalf, unable to read or write, she knew herself to be stranded, just a numbered bed, her humanity forgotten.

Since all the aides were grossly overworked, she did not get much exercise. Her chart said that she was sixty, which was no great age. But her thin wispy hair was white, her back was humped and, at times, her mended hip hurt sharply. On the rare occasions when she was allowed out of bed, she had, until recently, used a stick. Her empty days dragged on from meal to meal, with nothing to alleviate their dreadful monotony.

‘Sometimes, I want to scream and scream,' she once told Angie.

Angie smiled. ‘Well, don't,' she advised. ‘Matron might hear you. And she'd make you take a pill to quiet you.'

Fear crept up Martha's back like pins and needles. The warning was justified. She had seen other patients drugged into silence.

One day, boiling with rage at Matron's studied disregard of anything patients said to her, she had furiously brandished her walking stick at her. Matron hastily snatched it from her, and took it away to be safely stowed in her office. Since then, Martha had not had any exercise.

Better for her to be here, Martha had decided gloomily, rather than being left, as she had been found, hungry and with a broken hip, lying in the unheated hallway of an old house by the Herculaneum Dock.

She had been lucky that the rent collector had found her. When there was no answer to his pounding on the door, he had decided that she might be in but hiding from him, in the hope that he would go away: she was already behind with her rent.

He had knelt down to lift the flap of her letter box and peer through it. When he saw her curled up at the bottom of the narrow staircase, he had immediately run to find the policeman on the beat.

With his own key to the house, the rent collector opened the door for the constable, an ambulance was called from the corner telephone box,
and an exhausted, moaning Martha was taken to hospital.

After a spell in hospital, she had been discharged to this old folk's nursing home, she had told Angie, because she had no one to care for her.

As Martha scolded Angie for her ignorance of the infamous Liverpool court system, she became quite animated, and heaved herself painfully into a sitting position, to better lecture her.

‘You see, Angie, I were born in a court and so was me hubby; we lived in one till the war, so I know how dreadful they were.' She paused for a moment, and then said thoughtfully, ‘It's funny, though, I never thought of them as dreadful in them days – they was just normal life.

‘People what had never seen one usually denied they existed – 'cos they didn't want to know. We was a family of eleven living in one room.

‘There's people, even now, as don't believe anybody's starving or living with at least half a dozen other people in one room – 'cos nice people don't want to know.'

From her own experience, Angie knew about people who ignored the misery of others, and she nodded agreement, while Martha paused to instruct her fretfully, ‘Don't tuck me feet in so tight. I get cramp, you know that.'

‘OK,' Angie replied easily, in her strong Jamaican accent.

Martha repeated vehemently, ‘People don't want to know anything as makes them feel uncomfortable, 'cos then they might have to do something about it.' She went on to explain how men like her husband, employed on the docks, had to live within walking distance of them.

‘'Cos, they was casual labour and had to sign on for work twice a day, wet or fine, you see. So houses was built in courts, to cram as many into one acre as they could – and to cram as many people into each house as you could find a piece of floor for them to sleep on. As close to the docks as they could, like, so they could walk to work in a few minutes.

‘All you could see from the main street was an archway, and, if you went through that, you come into a little paved yard. It had eight or ten houses in it.

‘There was two privies at the far end, against the back wall of the next court, and they had to do for all of us.'

She chuckled suddenly, and then added, ‘There was often a proper rush on them, specially in the mornings.

‘For years, there was near thirty people in our
house alone. That were nothing like as bad compared to them that lived there fifty years ago, when I were a little girl.

‘There was a pump in the middle of the court, so as we could get water – and you often had to queue for that, too.'

She sighed at the recollection of carrying water for eleven people into her family's room.

Then, as Angie, astonished at such a lack of lavatories, paused in her tidying of the room, Martha continued, ‘Each house had three storeys and a cellar, two rooms on each floor. And at the top there was an attic.

‘Back rooms had no windows, of course – because their back wall was the back wall for another court's houses behind ours, you see.

‘Because the houses was in two rows facing each other, with the two lavatories across one end, it meant that we was walled in. Only the front rooms had windows – looking onto the court.

‘The main catch about living in our court was that there was a family in every room,' Martha went on, the words dragging out of her, as she realised that Angie was beginning to lose interest.

‘You was never alone, Angie, and it was so cold in winter. The back rooms, as well as not having
windows, didn't have no fireplaces either. So even if you could buy coal it wasn't no good.'

‘It sounds awful,' replied Angie politely. She did not mention that her own current accommodation was not much better. Instead, she sighed wearily, as she took a quick peek behind the curtain which surrounded Pat's bed. The curtain had been drawn round her because the doctor was expected to come later in the week to see her, thank goodness; Matron had, at last, taken notice of the aides' reports on her.

‘It was hell!' went on Martha forcefully. ‘And yet, you know, I was often happy then. The neighbours was wonderful – good, solid friends.'

Angie could not think of a suitable reply to this confession. She did her best, however, to provide an understanding smile. She knew she would miss her tea if the old bird didn't stop talking soon.

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