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For the Life of Names
On my badge I'm Chrissie. When patients need their horny toenails clipping God help them if I acted like Coleridge's Christabel: 'Her slender palms together prest, Heaving sometimes on her breast.' Not for me the life of a romantic heroine.
When I was eight, and Jeremy Slattery materialised, his name stirred my blood. It wasn’t exotic, but it gnawed at my ear - a triumph of oomph and rhythm. And I began to feel a specialness in my own name. I wanted to find Christabel and Jeremy having adventures in stories. School reading impressed on us that Janet and John’s fun consisted of helping Mummy and Daddy. I know my mum despaired of me. I moaned when she asked me to dust or wash-up.
Jeremy was magic. He was all bubbles and cleverness. He invented exciting things to do, even though the Daisy Bank and our back yards constituted the limits of our horizons. No foreign holidays back in the sixties - a caravan at Weston-Super-Mare sometimes for my family, and a camping trip to Devon for his. Otherwise we packed our holidays and weekends with treks to the north pole, sailing around the world and digging for old bones.
Those days are over. Chrissie, I trust, has hands that clean and comfort, and a backbone of steel, not an I wish bone. There are three parts to my life so far: Jeremy Time, (I’d like to shout, 'Jeremy Slattery is mine; you lost the right to the name years ago!'); Jerry Time (much too long); and Carer Time, which is now. I love this job, and it’s restored my love affair with names. So it’s not all bad is it?
Where I work screams posh - a hospice for the rich. They could die accompanied by the band of the Grenadier Guards if they wanted. There are plenty of us carers and nurses to go round and the pay is good. We all need mollycoddling during our final days.
But behind nuts-and-bolts Chrissie is the me Christabel, who can't help but dance a little and peek beneath the covers, so to speak. Our patients’ bodies might be capsizing but I always find something in their names to catch and spin.
To my mind, a good name is like capturing a spark from a flint and getting the wood to flicker and then burn with an unquenchable flame. Like Darrell and Felicity Rivers from Enid Blyton. See? I still remember them.
Sometimes I get a real thrill: a nymph-like figure floating through the air in the palest green muslin shift, her arms ensnaring the stars; hands cupped like tulips; a look of superior sensibility on her face. She is a gazelle. That was the living and breathing image in my head when a patient called Isabella Duncan arrived.
Of course, her dancing days were finished. (To be fair, that was my fancy; she'd actually been a lawyer.) When we were introduced, she was prone, cocooned in blankets, with a face shrunk to its skeleton and its tight skin as translucent as porcelain. But her head proclaimed 'I am Isabella Duncan. And don't you forget it.' Around her bare scalp a blue scarf with scattered gold and silver star motifs was wrapped like a turban. What a statement! What glamour!
Her scarf collection was a silk treasure trove. Isabella let me choose one for her each morning. As soon as I pinned it in place with a brooch, her body stirred, as though it was quickening to dance.
‘Ladies and gentlemen! Isabella and Christabel will perform a pas de deux.’ And I curtsied. Brenda was straightening Isabella’s pillows at the time.
'For goodness sake,’ she said, ‘you and your fancies. The clients think you’re daft in the head.’
Sir Norman Slattery was admitted two weeks ago. Gobsmacked I was. Jeremy was the only other Slattery I'd known. Sir Norman, poor man, he's in the advanced stages of motor neurone disease. His limbs are wasted, and his voice is gone. No, that’s not right. He uses a speech synthesiser. He doesn’t waste words. What he says is careful and fascinating. He’s having difficulty swallowing and breathing. Is he scared? I would be, but he doesn’t let on.
Jeremy Slattery never showed fear. I loved him for that. I read in Sir Norman's notes that he had a career in the Royal Navy. A brave man then, and a brave man now. I love him for that.
Another coincidence: Jeremy Slattery joined the Royal Navy when he was seventeen. I became a secretary and was envious of him. It never occurred to me that I could have joined up. Girls like me didn't do things like that. See, I fell headlong into the jaws of the gender trap.
When he came back to civvy street Jeremy got a job as an electrician. We met up in the High Street, went to the pub for a catch up, and, soon after, we got married. It was fate wasn’t it?. Oh, the things
I imagined we’d do together.
The navy didn’t make my Jeremy a hero. When we met after his stint he liked to be known as Jerry. He said it fitted his image better. Jeremy was a poncy name apparently. I mourned the old Jeremy.
'I bet you grew up in the country in a big house with a pond,' I said as I was giving Sir Norman a wash. I got carried away. 'Or even a lake. You caught tadpoles, and you climbed trees. Jeremy and I built a tree-house once. Well, it was more a couple of boards we'd nicked from his dad's shed, laid between branches of two trees. We were the only children who knew about it, and we sat up there almost all of the summer holidays conspiring how we'd evade a Russian invasion. We sneaked a tin of beans, a packet of Angel Delight, and a saucepan which would have leaked if we'd actually used it, and hid them under a scrap of tarpaulin.'
I looked right into Sir Norman's eyes. I swear I saw a Slattery laughing in them.
Je-rem-y-slat-ter-y-je-rem-y-slat-ter-y-je-rem-y-slat-tery. I bent my knees to push forward on ‘Jeremy’ and flew back to the starting point on ‘Slattery’, repeating the drill over and over. The swings were at the top of the Daisy Bank, which was on the opposite side of the steep lane by my end of terrace house. I hadn't recalled this swinging routine in years. Now I can't shake it off. I spend the rest of the day performing my duties to that waltz rhythm.
It disconcerts a patient. I slow the rhythm down so that the poor dear isn't lathered to death. Even so: 'You're scrubbing my skin off,' Mrs Jane Smith says. Now, there's a disappointment. Jane is a name bestowed by parents who have serious conviction issues. 'She won't blame us later for calling her something exotic; you can't shorten it, and nobody's going to look embarrassed when we tell them her name.'
Not be able to shorten it! What a travesty. Just take 'Christabel'. Chrissie, Chris, Bel, Bella, are just a few names I've been called. Jeremy called me Crystal Bell, and when we were teenagers it became Christabellissima.
Jeremy and I hung about together through our teens. We shared everything, We went to Boots every Saturday to find a new miracle cure for our acne. Our adventures changed as we got older. We loved going to the cinema, and after we saw The Spy Who Loved Me Jeremy decided he wanted to become a marine biologist. ‘Brilliant,’ I said. But school was the soggy lettuce between slices of adventure, and neither of us could boast of success.
Anyway, I was freshening up Jane Smith. Her choice of husband didn't help in the name department either. I'm sorry to say that 'Smith' has always been 'Sniffy' to me, ever since infants where there was a Smith girl who was very stinky. I’m a bit nicer now.
So I must make Mrs Jane Smith feel special. After her lilting wash she's as clean as sifted corn, and fragrantly misted in Secret Garden Eau de Parfum, The family of a recently deceased lady left it behind. I couldn't afford it myself. I've commandeered the most colourful plaid blanket for her, and I wheel her outside to the spring garden, with its hundreds of daffodils that can't help but spread their sunshine around like creamy butter. Jane Smith shows her delight by squeezing my hand.
Jeremy and I had our own secret garden. Nobody else ever noticed it. We pretended we were discoverers and scientists, and went round with magnifying glasses searching for insects and wild flowers.
There were loads of flowers on the Daisy Bank and by the stream on the hill below. I've still got a scrapbook where we pressed and printed their names. Lords and Ladies, Cuckooflower, Meadow Sweet. Mysterious whispering names. Their faded colours and the sellotape are still there. Because we were proper scientific researchers we looked up the flowers' Latin names at the library.
Jeremy and I went to the Daisy Bank most days to roll down the grassy hill. When we got to the bottom we had to shout out the English and Latin name of a flower. 'Rosebay Willowherb: Epibolium angustifolium!' Like that.
In the winter after school we'd stay in Jeremy's house to thumb through an old book of adventure stories. I wondered what adventures Sir Norman had when he was in the Royal Navy.
'Did you fight in a war, Sir Norman?' I asked him?
'I was a Navy Pilot during the Falklands War.'
'I can imagine you in your uniform. Very smart you'd have been. Were you decorated?'
'Wow! How exciting!' I said. He conjured a smile which made me melt. I carried on giving him a shave.
'I'd love to hear about your adventures when you're feeling up to it. There you are. I'll comb your hair,' (whose springy curls I fancied were the defiant testament of the real Sir Norman), 'then you can see how good you look today.' I showed him his reflection in a hand mirror and he smiled again.
'When Brenda comes, we'll hoist you up and settle you in your chair. I suppose you went to lots of places. I've always wanted to go to Africa, but first I'm saving up to go to America. To Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon, the desert and the Big Sur, for starters. Big and dramatic is what I want. Next year I hope.' Actually I didn't know exactly when I'd be able to go, but very soon, I've promised myself. I try to put away a few pounds each week.
'I loved walking,’ Sir Norman said. I walked the length of the Nile twenty years ago.’
'That must have been a proper adventure.'
'I wrote a book.'
'How wonderful. I'd love to read it.' I kept chatting away.
I imagined photos of Sir Norman looking hot and brown, his curls wild and knotty. He's trekking along the banks of the Nile, with bare-legged children skipping alongside him. And there's one where he's staring into the distance, a rucksack on his back.
In our adventure book there was a picture of a man with a huge moustache cutting his way with a machete through the jungle, and a man in army uniform riding an elephant, and a man grappling with a bear. When we were older Jeremy and I read the stories as well, and we vowed that when we were grown-ups we'd go on adventures like that.
'What fantastic memories you must have.' We were still waiting for Brenda, so I prattled on.
'Jeremy and I were always damming a stream at the bottom of another steep hill below the Daisy Bank. Goodness knows how many armies we rebuffed. He had a set of old encyclopaedias at his house. We read all about the Aswan Dam and the Nile and promised each other that one day we'd go there.' Sir Norman became distressed, so I stopped the chitchat, and rang for a nurse. He came quickly and fixed up the breathing mask. After Sir Norman had relaxed we got him into his chair, where he could breath more easily.
I promised myself I'd read that book. I'm always down at the library. Perhaps they can unearth it.
I didn’t tell Sir Norman about how boring my life with Jerry became. How, while he was sailing, his spirit was washed overboard.
We hadn't been married long when he became a slave to work, the telly, and the pub, just like all the blokes. I talked about going travelling. He said that people like us went to the Costa del Sol and I'd be more content if I stopped day-dreaming. The world wasn't that great anyway. The weather was too hot, or freezing cold. I thought what a miserable git he’d become.
For years my visions lurked in the shadowy alleyways of my mind. Sometimes dreams took me to fantastic places. Afterwards I’d find myself crawling through those dark alleyways again. Really and truly down in the dumps I was.
The last straw came when I had a dream where I was crawling underneath a carpet trying to escape the darkness and the weight. I could smell the mustiness of decades, and feel the heaviness of a snowdrift crushing my lungs. The most terrifying thing was waking up. I had to fight my way out of the duvet, which had manœuvred right over my head.
So I packed up and rented a bedsit. Jerry didn't try to stop me.
'It's for the best,' he said. And he turned back to his telly programme. East Enders I think it was.
It was ages until I sorted myself out. In the end I tried throttling the panic attacks by funnelling all my energy into setting and achieving goals. I wrote them down and pretended I’d go to jail if I didn’t achieve them. It worked. I had my hair cut and coloured; I lost two stone; I read two books a week; I changed my job; I started to take regular exercise. This happened when I saw a notice about a rambling club called The Wayfarers. I couldn't resist. I still haven’t worked out whether it was the club name or this job that rekindled my flirtation with names.
The club promised a way to escape from my cage. Once a week, when shifts allow, I join a group of people for a walk over the hills and commons of the Cotswolds. How could you not wonder at Minchinhampton and Wotton-under-Edge? What are Minchins - fairies? Wottons - gods? And where’s the Edge they’re hiding under?
Today I bumped into Jerry at the farmers’ market. We said simultaneously,
‘Let’s have a coffee.’ He looked different: slimmer, new hairstyle and animated, as though life was good.
‘What are you up to?’ he asked.
‘Working in a hospice, walking, reading.’
‘That must be hard. Working with the dying I mean.’
‘They’re alive Jerry. They have stories and laughter. Like we had once. I looked him straight in the eyes.
‘Of course. Sorry. I bet you’re brilliant. I wish you’d still been sparky when the navy let me go. I might have coped better.’ I frowned. What was he talking about?
‘You’d become so downhearted,’ I said.
‘Everything had lost its colour. I’d lost mine. They took the piss out of my name. And lots of stuff, though I learnt to fit in. What really knocked me senseless was what I witnessed in the Falklands. I watched the Argentinian Skyhawks dropping bombs on the Sir Galahad. Later, we pulled men who’d managed to escape the on-board fires, from the sea. There were horrific burns. Sights that buggered our minds.’
‘You never told me.’ I was stunned.
‘I couldn’t talk about it. All I could do were ordinary things. Otherwise I’d have fallen apart. I’d had my fill of adventure. I hunted for the right words. All I said was,
‘I’m so sorry Jerry. How could I not have realised? I was hoping you’d revive the magic, like when we were kids.’
‘But you were the one with the ideas. You were the wizard. I loved playing with you.’ Well, that came crashing over me like a giant breaker. I had to steady myself. I breathed in, catching the rich smell of roasted coffee beans.
I straightened the cloth, fiddled. A woman walked in and leant over to kiss Jerry lightly.
‘Hi. You found me. This is Christabel. And this is Jean. Jean Jones. We’re engaged. I know my jaw dropped because I had to snap it shut to say,
‘Congratulations.’ A blurt, but better than gawping.
‘Thanks. Jean designs, makes and restores stained glass windows.’ I swear Jerry winked at me. The gawp this time was really embarrassing.
When I leave, the streets are lunch-hour busy and I’m flustered. I’ve got it all wrong, haven’t I? Every person round me is nameless. Maybe that miserable and drab man is a poet. Maybe that striding glamorous woman is a plumber. Maybe Janet (of reading book fame) grew up to be a wildlife photographer and unfaithful to three husbands, and brother John became a nursery nurse and scared of clouds and hamsters.
Christabel Emily DuFresne, you’re at it again aren’t you?
Bridgett Kendall, retired music and rookie writer, has had several short stories short-listed (Fish Publishing twice, the Doolin Prize), and she has also been short-listed by Fish Publishing for short memoir. She runs a gîte in rural Burgundy with her husband.