WITHIN THE SPACE OF THREE DAYS two young people offered me their seats on the Tyne Wear Metro. How, I asked myself, could the nation’s eyesight have have so rapidly deteriorated?. ‘You should have gone to Specsavers’, I almost quipped, but resisted.
I refused both offers, politely but firmly, feeling a need to respond by dropping to the carriage floor and knocking out a quick twenty press-ups, a feat which would have naturally drawn ripples of appreciative applause from my fellow travellers.
Actually, the only bit of the above which is true is the offering of the seats. And my decision to decline.
Instead, I stood throughout the entire journey, even when the train half-emptied. I stood as straight and as rigid as a Buckingham Palace sentry. Boy! I thought, that’ll show them! Naturally they were not remotely interested.
I later realised these seat offer moments are the kind of simple but epiphany experiences that insist on whispering truth into your ear. After I got a senior railcard, I would show it to the ticket inspectors expectating them to reel backwards in disbelief, wide-eyed with incredulity. They would then splutter ‘Some mistake surely! This card cannot possibly have been issued to your goodself. You of the youthful good looks and sprightly manner!”
This never happened. On each occasion the inspector has given me a cursory glance and handed back the pass without reaction. I was simply a senior citizen in possession of a senior rail card.
We all know that shop window moment, the fleetingly caught glimpse of some old geezer glanced through a window’s reflection and the awful realisation that the same old geezer is yourself. Human beings, as some poet said, cannot take too much reality. This is maybe why young authors bask in having their photos on the back of the book. Septuagenarian scribblers are less keen.
I was in the company of a contemporary recently when for the first time I got a whiff of that slightly fusty and sickly smell of old age. It is a smell I remember each time I entered the care home which was the final domicile of my parents. It is the smell of the fetid and the decayed, it is the smell of a past without a future, of energy sucked dry, of a shrinking of the individual’s physical and mental universe.
On those occasions, upon leaving the care home I would gulp down great lungsful of fresh air, eager to expel every vestige of that awful sweet sickly fragrance. Could it possibly be, I asked myself on this more recent experience, that this same odour could soon attach itself to me? Does this condition possibly apply even as I am writing these words? Pondering this awful thought, I rushed off to have three showers and change every article of clothing twice over.
So here’s Mortimer’s tip of the week. If you are getting old (and the condition applies from the moment of birth) don’t talk about your ailments, your health, your illness. It’s what old people do all the time and it’s boring.
Never mind you’ve just had a hip operation, a heart by-pass, or new medication. Observe old people on a bus and (if they’re still awake) listen in; the chances are they’ll be earnestly locked into a conversation about their most recent hospital visit, their doctor’s new prescription or the timetable for the knee replacement. Nothing can make them older even quicker.
Instead, let them talk about the changing colour of the trees, the shape of clouds, the dog crossing the street, the displays in the passing shop windows, the philosophy of Wittgenstein, their liking for cold custard, their sexual fantasies (why not?), their favourite Rolling Stones track – anything but their ailments.
“Something has gone out of them” was the simple but hauntingly telling line about the old by the poet Philip Larkin.
Less fatalistic and more defiant is the well-known Dylan Thomas advice, “Rage, rage, against the dying of the light.” Thomas would probably have declined the offer of a seat on the Metro too. An irascible bugger, he was. But alive.