“Shocking pink – and it’ll be perfect for the family home” This was how Edith, who occasionally did like to shock, had her small brightly-painted terraced house chosen for a film about a teenage girl and her family living on the South Coast of England. And so it was that the vanguard to the media circus rang her doorbell one day and made her an offer she just couldn’t refuse.
Edith’s son, William, thought she might be confused when his mother told him her house would be featured in a major film. But it turned out to be real enough and the money was good. It was only for a week and when that week came and the media moved in, Edith decamped to William’s, complaining ever so slightly that the Director of Photography had just barged past her as if it was his home and not hers. Well, effectively, for that week, it was. A new front door was installed, all plants at the front were replaced, new curtains were hung inside – only the shocking pink facade remained unchanged.
Something else also changed that week. One night, Edith woke at 2 am, confused and worried – where was she? – what was going on? – was her husband still alive? – William tried to reassure her, explaining the current situation again and again. He rang his sister Mary, who, wiping the sleep from her eyes, spoke calm words. “You’ll be back home soon, Mum.”
The GP at first thought it might be concussion but soon thoughts turned to dementia. Edith did the ‘memory test’ (officially called the ‘Mini Mental State Examination’) “What day of the week is it?” asked the GP. “I’ll be able to answer that once I’ve bought my newspaper” said Edith.
Back home again, Edith, with her teeth gleaming white from the money spent on various dental procedures remembers recent happy times. She talks out loud, as if to a visitor, and recalls a day on the beach:
“All the familiar faces are there – Susan’s brown body is capped by her blond hair bleached by the summer sun. Bill is reading a boring book about the railways. He wears a toupee, you know. The younger women are all topless – I don’t really approve, but that’s the young for you – always showing off, talking about boyfriends and sex, bringing up their children without any routine, breastfeeding on demand.
There is a pungent aroma of suntan lotion. Everyone worries so much now about the sun. Apparently we are all going to die of skin cancer. ‘Oh well, so be it’ I think as I light another cigarette. You have to die of something.
I hear the sound of a familiar voice and Mary my daughter appears; she applies some lotion to my back and it feels good – very soothing. ‘I was up until 4 in the morning, watching the tennis’ I tell her. She tuts and mutters that this is not a sensible thing to do.
The temperature is high. Mary gets ice creams that drip onto the pebbles as we eat them. Lets’ go in after we’ve had these. We sit and chat for a while – Mary mentions my 80th Birthday party plans. ‘Shh... not so loud’ I say – ‘people think I’m only about 72’.
There’s nothing wrong with my memory.” Edith concludes.
Slowly, however, Edith’s confusion increases and one day she ends up in hospital after a fall in her home. She thinks she is at the hairdressers. She is admitted on Friday and by Monday she has had enough. At about 6 am, she gets out of her bed and taking all her clothes from her locker she goes to the nearest loo. She dresses herself, puts on her make-up and off she goes. Escape from MASU (the Medical Assessment Unit) - no mean feat as MASU is hidden deep within the hospital complex. Her first stop is a local newsagent to purchase 40 cigarettes and the Daily Mail! She decides to get a bus to Bognor. Fortunately, a woman at a bus stop, talks to Edith and realises all is not quite right.
Later that year Edith is back in the same hospital after falling and breaking both a knee and a shoulder. Her dementia and confusion are much worse. But something strange and quite advantageous happens, in that she becomes more calm and relaxed. Hence, during her subsequent years in nursing homes, she is generally content and happy.
When it is clear that Edith cannot return home, her children choose a nursing home that is as much like her real home as possible. Her room is laid out exactly as always before with the same ornaments and pictures in their usual places on a mantelpiece. Edith seems to be taken in by this well-intended deception. She talks of her room as ‘home’ and even imagines the toy dog to be her long-lost ‘Aldo’, growling at him playfully and calling him a naughty boy – even missing him when he goes for a wash after being covered in soup or chocolate pudding. “Don’t worry Edith” the ever-patient staff say “he is just being clipped and washed at Pet Pals.”
The physios want Edith to get walking again but the nurses worry that the more mobile she is, the more likely she will be to fall. William and Mary are not sure what’s for the best.
Eventually, Edith has to move to a specialist dementia-care nursing home. It makes sense, administratively speaking, to do this on the last day of the month. And so it is that Edith arrives at Heather Court to be greeted by staff dressed as vampires, witches and black cats – it is Halloween! Edith appears un-concerned but William and Mary, when they finally leave, feel both terrible and upset – other residents seem so un-well and disturbed, with some deeply anxious and crying out for help.
Heather Court, however, turns out to be a good move. One fine sunny day, William and Mary pull up in the car park to see a group of residents sitting on the lawn. A closer look reveals their mother with a barn owl on her outstretched arm. Such activities in the home and also trips out for fish and chips stand out as moments of great joy in Edith’s final months.
Edith’s final days are a mixture of Nat King Cole and tears. There is plenty of time to say goodbye as she slips slowly away. At her funeral, her mourners include neighbours who fondly remember her eccentricity and indeed the week when her house was the centre of attention.
‘What of the film?’ Well, when it is released, Edith’s house is featured on posters and London buses for a week or so. But both the critics and the public are not impressed. And the house? Front door, plants and curtains duly restored, it remained as it always had done for a couple of years until it is sold to pay for Edith’s nursing home fees. The house is bought by a gay couple and, in a nice twist, one of the first things they do is to repaint the outside in a more sombre and refined colour – so it is no longer ‘shocking pink’.