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In An Old Man’s Lap

Colleen Kelley relaxes in the visitors’ lounge of the Barnet Convalescent Home in London. The facility is immaculate, even if the history of the neighbourhood around it is rather sordid. She writes Tuesday, 1 December 1959 in her diary as her granddaughter Jacqueline scurries among the residents, making a nuisance of herself. Old age is a strange thing to the little girl, the spotted hands, the papery, wrinkled skin, the stale breath and shallow breathing, the eyes blued by cataracts. Although they’ve come to see Colleen’s grandfather Patrick, Jacqueline climbs onto the lap of anyone able to bear her weight and tolerate her presence. Most of the old dears seem charmed by her, or maybe they’re just lonely. In all the time she’s been coming here, Colleen has only seen a handful of other relatives.

Are they as intrigued by J’s youth as she is by their age? Colleen writes. Do they resent her for it?

Tuesdays are music day at the Home. A sincere but ungifted pianist plunks the keys. He’s chosen songs from the twenties, but even those are too new, as some of these people were old even then. The gay nineties would be more appropriate. The residents who aren’t being pestered by Jacqueline either deal cards and argue decades-old politics or tap their toes and sing any lyrics that come to mind, regardless what the pianist is playing.

“Grandmum, look!” Jacqueline says. She’s pried a hearing aid from Mrs. Stephen’s ear. The old lady is oblivious to Jacqueline’s antics. She is oblivious to everything, and has been for years.

“Put it back,” Colleen says. Jacqueline pouts but pops the device into the woman’s ear.

Patrick sits in his wheelchair next to Colleen, wrapped in a blanket. He is no more alert than Mrs. Stephen. How old is he? she writes. Born 1863. So: 96. Victoria was nearer the beginning than the end then, two years on in her grieving widowhood. Oh, Granddad, do you even know we’re here?

It doesn’t matter. She gets something from their visits, whether or not he does. She smiles warmly at him and realizes how little she knows about his youth. He’s senile now, but how would he judge his life if he could judge his life? He stares at the overhead light and mumbles to whatever ghosts of memory remain. All your years, all your experiences, everything you’ve ever done or wanted to do, was or wanted to be, has been reduced to empty stares and mumbles. If you’d known it would come to this, would you have allowed yourself to grow so old?

The pianist is attempting a ragtime version of Noel Coward’s I’ll See You Again, but can’t quite master the syncopation.

Jacqueline has invited herself into the lap of an old man named Kaminski. He bends his lips into a grin and pats her hand. “What’s your name?” he says. Mr. Kaminski has no teeth, and his cheeks sink into the hollow of their absence. A growth the size of a grape protrudes from the left side of his jaw. He’s bald, and scabs pock the top of his head, former pimples, probably, that have been picked at until they bled and then picked at again so often they never heal.

“Jacqueline,” the girl answers as she examines the strange defect on his jaw. “What’s this?”

“The missus clipped me a good one,” Mr. Kaminski says with a laugh. He looks at Colleen and winks. “Aiming for me ear, she was. How’d she miss this big flapper, eh?”

Colleen studies the old man, so like Granddad Patrick. He seems like an innocuous fellow. She imagines scenarios for his life. In some he is good, in others an outlaw. But is a person ever just one thing? We humans are so uncharitable in our opinions of others. If this man has led an honourable life but for one bad act, we will forever remember him for the one bad act. And it doesn’t work the other way — a villain may perform a noble deed but he is not redeemed by it. Can there be redemption for anyone when all we see is the evil? Pity.

Colleen closes her diary. The Barnet Convalescent Home is located in the same borough of London where Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum has stood since the 1850s. According to some theorists, seventy-one years ago the infamous Whitechapel fiend was bound over to the asylum, which is a tidy explanation for why his killings stopped. The murders were horrific, ghastly beyond words. Witnesses who saw the Ripper in 1888 described a man of about twenty-five years. Had he lived, he would be 96 now, same as Granddad Patrick. The experts always speak of the monster in past tense, but what if he isn’t dead? What if he’s been confined to institutions from that year to this, leading a blameless life — a life, perhaps, of reflection, repentance, and regret? Indeed, what if he’s redirected his energy to help his fellow inmates, improving their lot, doing good?

Colleen eyes the male residents. She laughs nervously. What a silly thought. Of course the Ripper is dead…

Jacqueline has curled up in Mr. Kaminski’s lap, asleep, her head resting against his chest. Humming along with the piano, the old man strokes her hair and smiles.


Dave Hoing lives in Waterloo, Iowa. He works at a university library by day, collects antiquarian books by night, and fits in freelance writing when he can.

In 2010, he and co-author Roger Hileman published a historical novel called Hammon Falls. It’s set primarily in Iowa between 1910-1940, with spatial stopovers in Paris, Dublin, Chicago, and Buffalo, plus occasional temporal side trips into present day.


 

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