By Alice Austin
We made it through a number of babysitters. Perhaps 10 or more as we grew up. There were a couple of young girls from France or Norway who would come and go. There was ‘Boo’ – a 20-something raver who smoked like a chimney. (Once after bed I crept downstairs and caught her about to walk out the door. She’d run out of fags, she said. We walked to the shop together leaving my 6-year-old brother asleep in the house. 2 months later I snitched to my mum. That was the end of Boo.)
There was an old woman who used to take her false teeth out and circulate them around her mouth. Every now and then I’d get a flash of solid pink gum. It disturbed me, but not as much as the gigantic wart on the side of her nose. She disliked my brother and made no attempt to hide it. She didn’t stick around long either.
Then there was Olive. When she came to us she must have been in her early 70s. I was 7, Max was 9. Olive was a sturdy woman. She wore blouses, quilts down to her shin and thick white tights. She’d tie her grey hair into a low ponytail and it would rest on her back, the stray hairs clinging statically to her wool cardies.
She smelt musty. She lived twenty minutes away but she walked quickly so the journey usually only took her fifteen. As soon as I met her I knew I’d be able to get my own way. She’d look after us during the summer holidays while mum was at work. Our activities included but were not limited to: Car boot sales, knitting, going to the playground, playing cards (under condition that I won every game), Monopoly (she wasn’t allowed to buy the purples), walking around the graveyard near my house and making apple crumble.
I became a fierce show-off when Olive was around. I enjoyed being able to throw my weight around for once; I didn’t get my own way very often with my giant brother around (he’d wind me up and then hold my head at arms length as I wind-milled wildly, too small to land a punch on him.)
Olive would tell the same stories over and over again, mostly about her deceased husband, Bob. One story sticks in my head – it was the day after their wedding. They were in their flat in Wandsworth, the very same one she lived in now. He’d been saying that her chutney wasn’t any good. He kept going on about it until he finally got on her nerves and she snapped. She stormed out the kitchen and went to sit in the living room. 5 minutes later he came in and said “Do you want a cup of tea?”
“Oh yes please that would be lovely.”
After he’d gone to make it she remembered she was supposed to be angry with him. As she told me for the umpteenth time she would laugh and call him a silly sod. A lot of her stories about Bob seemed to be about him being a nuisance and her forgiving him. She spoke of him with deep affection. (When I was 9 my mum said “I don’t think Bob ever existed.” The thought that Olive could have made up such a vivid character scared me and warped my perception of Olive; it still does.)
But Olive loved us. Later, when I was in my first year of secondary school and no longer needed a babysitter, I went to see her on my way home. The flat was dark and musty and I was surprised to find a framed picture of me and Max on her mantelpiece. She must have asked our mum for it; or perhaps taken it without permission. There was nothing sinister about that but it did indicate loneliness bordering on the profound.
One of the last memories I have of our time together was a fantastic prank we played on my mum. During one of our graveyard walks I spotted a leaf with a stalk that looked just like a mouse tail. We’d had problems with mice and I knew my mum was terrified of them. When we got back we stuck the leaf through the fire grate. Our mum came home, saw the mouse tail and shrieked. I remember thinking I had never laughed so hard before.
After we stopped needing Olive her routine and purpose slowly unraveled, I suppose. A year or so after my visit my mum and brother saw her ambling along the pavement near her flat.
“Where are you going Olive? We’ll give you a lift.”
“I’m following the yellow lines.” she said. “If I follow the yellow lines I’ll get to Marks and Spencer’s.”
My mum says her eyes looked glazed and her hair was wild; there wasn’t a Marks and Spencer’s for miles around.
That year, on my way home from school, a For Sale sign appeared outside her flat. I peeked in. Except for the dark green carpet and the bare oak mantelpiece, Olive and Bob’s flat was empty.
Christmas is a difficult time for people like Olive. Donate to The Campaign to End Loneliness here.