Village of the Damned

Creepy, scary, unnerving kids often feature in horror films.  It’s very effective.  You don’t expect your bundle of joy to turn into Damien from The Omen.  Nor would you want to see a dripping wet, undead girl, unexpectedly climbing out of the TV set, whilst you’re enjoying a nice cup of tea in your favourite armchair.  Neither would you want to come across those Midwich cuckoos on your daily walk; those blond, glassy eyed, telepathic kids, every one of them intent on turning your town into the village of the damned.

Horror is all about the shock of the unexpected.  But where scary kids are concerned; they got it wrong there, really wrong.

The other day I walked a group of very un-scary, tiny school kids to a small nursing home.  The kids were going to sing a selection of old fashioned songs to the old folks.  I’d been in residential homes with the kids before, but not a nursing home and it turned out there was a marked difference.

The kids were given a pep talk before setting off to visit the oldies.  Something along the lines of: “Remember children, old people are just like you and me.  They feel happy and sad, just like you do.  They may look wrinkled and crinkled up and very, very old, but inside they’re exactly the same as everybody else, so don’t be scared of them.  And remember, you are going to make their day, just by being you!  Just the sight of your beautiful young faces will lift their hearts when you walk into the room.  That’s something worth doing isn’t it?   And when we’ve finished singing go over to them and say Hi!  They’re very lonely and will really appreciate it. And don’t forget to smile!”

‘Hurray!’  cried the innocent little tykes.

This rallying speech gave the impression that old people are, in fact, not at all like the rest of us; considering the emphasis on: ‘they’re just like you and me’, which is the kind of advice you feel impelled to give when talking about refugees, or immigrants, or insects…….Amazon tells me that someone has written a book called ‘Insects are just like you and me, except some of them have wings.’    The tone it was given in, however, did work and most of us set off, gay and carefree (I am never carefree, nor am I gay.)

Our trek to this home was a short one, given the tiny age of the kids, and soon we were huddled in a cramped doorway which led to a long hallway, ending in the old folks’ lounge.  The first sign that a peculiarly prosaic kind of horror was on the cards was when a care assistant appeared to the right, leading an impossibly thin, hunched and tiny old lady by the hands, out of a small kitchen.  The old lady’s eyes were round and red-rimmed.  Most of her teeth were missing and she kept shouting out “Bree!”,  over and over again.  I kept thinking of Gollum and ‘Precious.’

A couple of little kids at my side whispered: “I’m scared.”   So am I, I inwardly murmured.

The old people were seated in chairs pushed against the walls of the lounge and the kids sat in the middle of the lounge floor, after taking off coats and bags and leaving them in a boiling hot conservatory attached to the lounge.  I stayed in the area between lounge and conservatory and behind me, in the conservatory, sat two old ladies, open mouthed; fast asleep in chairs and basking in the intense heat.  Both were toothless.  The toothless hag from Disney’s Snow White kept coming to mind.

The decidedly non-scary children sang their first song to the accompaniment of “Bree!”  continually shouted out from a corner of the room.  The tiny old lady from the kitchen had been manoeuvred into a chair but she couldn’t settle.  It was clear she was suffering from agitation and up and down she got, whilst the carer talked to her all the while, gently pushing her back down into the chair.  The kids carried on heroically, whilst another lady started making an eerie, wailing sound – two notes, up and down.  The kind of noise you’d hear upon waking up with a start during a sleepover at Dracula’s castle.  Suddenly she lashed out at the woman next to her, demanding that she stop asking her so many questions (the woman was asleep) and became very distressed that there was a bunch of people (the kids) barring her path out of the lounge.  How was she going to get out in time to meet her sister and make her escape, she asked the thin air, with all those strangers on the floor?.  Her sister was coming to take her home.  ‘I want my sister,’ she cried, over and over.  The kids kept on singing:

“I’m a spring chicken, yellow and small…………”

The lady delivered another thwack to the unfortunate woman beside her and a care assistant appeared, as if by magic, to placate her, holding her hands and urging her to listen to the lovely children.

We were all definitely very far down the rabbit hole.

‘Ah look, one of the ladies is moved by the singing,’ a school helper nudged me.  ‘Look, she’s crying.’   I didn’t like to point out that the lady had been crying before the kids started singing and had never let up, or that the man next to her was not tapping on a tray in time to the music, but had been obsessively tapping and swaying since we’d entered the room.

As the singing came to an end, I turned to check for my coat and noticed that one of the ladies behind me had woken up.  She was looking directly at me and her very, very blue eyes locked onto mine.  Her lips were moving so I went over.  We had been instructed to talk to the old folks, I remembered; to engage with them as this would probably make their day.

The blue eyed lady bore a remarkable resemblance to Robin Williams; not in the guise of Mrs Doubtfire, but the actual Robin Williams.  It was unnerving, and then I noticed the faraway stare.  Her voice was barely audible, so I leaned over, moving closer to her face, “‘Might as well be there as here,” she whispered confidentially, as though she and I were old friends and had been talking for hours.  It took a few seconds to realise that this was a one-way conversation.   Like the blond kids from Midwich, her blue eyes were hypnotic and I felt compelled to listen as her train of thought ran along lines I couldn’t understand.  I nodded to indicate I was listening and then straightened up to go, when the other lady suddenly woke up and beckoned me over.  She grabbed my arm, exactly like the thing under your bed would grab your arm, if you were foolish enough to leave your arm hanging over the side of the bed that is.  I leaned down.

“I’ve only just come in here.  I don’t belong here,” she wheezed.  “My children are back in W…….  They shouldn’t be there alone.  I need to get back to W……….  (Where is W………, I found myself wondering, as the hairs slowly rose on the back of my neck.)  I need to get out of here.  My mother will help me.  Do you know my mother?  Can you get a message to my mother so she can get me out of here.”   Alarmingly, it took a few seconds for my addled brain to work out that her mother couldn’t possibly be in the land of the living and that I’d require the services of a Medium to make any kind of contact with her.  I gave the old lady what I hoped was an understanding smile and moved away.  As I turned, she asked if I could perhaps get both of them out of there, as though she was asking me the time of day.

A couple of minutes later they were both asleep.

I had not been in direct contact with senile dementia before; the kind of dementia exclusively associated with great age and not the other more cruel forms.  It came as quite a shock.  The residents’ constant refrain was that their presence in this home was some kind of gigantic, cosmic mistake.  That some unseen entity had damned them to the eternal hell of a nursing home.  They were completely unaware of their advanced age.  This was instead a place filled with young mothers, hidden deep inside frail, ancient bodies; who had kids, husbands and extended family they had to get back to.  Family that needed them.  Every person who glanced their way was seen as the means to make a quick escape.

Researching the common ‘I want to go home’ thread, running through senile dementia, I discovered that even dementia patients still cared for in the family home repeat the same plea.  This is because most of them want to go back to their childhood home, complete with mum and dad – a home that no longer exists.

I was informed that some nursing homes have installed fake bus stops in the grounds, so they can take the homesick residents  on a nice trip to catch the bus home.  This seems to appease them for a while.  Fake shops, fake pubs and nurseries full of dolls, as living child stand-ins, are used to give the semblance of a past life, and of a village filled with a sense of purpose.

In fact, welcome to the fake Village of the Damned.

“Isn’t it sad?”,  the compos mentis adults agreed as we walked back (the kids singing at the tops of their voices, oblivious to the old and full of the joys of a wet but warm spring.)

Yes, it’s sad, but not in the way a children’s cancer ward is sad, or in the way millions of people dying before their time is sad.   It’s not sad that these people have lived to a great age.  It’s not sad that there are people out there willing to care for them 24 hours a day and, contrary to media headlines, are mostly caring in a good and patient way, on a shocking salary of roughly £12,000 a year.  It’s not sad that a group of excited young kiddiwinks paid them a visit and did actually make a couple of residents’ day.

And besides, where else are they meant to go?  When family members no longer want (or are unable to provide) the full responsibility of care.

The next time Hollywood tries to convince you that hell is where the kids are – go visit a nursing home.

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