Yesterday, on my way home from work, I met a girl on the train. She was gorgeous, funny, full of life, with a nest of thick black hair hidden beneath a neat red beret and matching red coat.
Her name was Louise…she was 92. I was smitten.
After a long day in the office, I settled myself on the 20:18 from London Waterloo, laden with bags full of Christmas presents for Teddy from his Godparents, when in she walked. Pulling a small wheelie suitcase behind her, she sat directly opposite me, with a sigh of relief.
“Phew” she said. “Not half busy today…especially when you’re as old as I am!”
It turns out she was visiting her sister to drop off her Christmas presents (hence the suitcase…lucky girl). “She’s 96! Not ‘all there’ anymore though, bless her. Repeats all the same tales over and over again, as if you’re hearing them for the first time. But at least she’s still with us.”
Over the next 45 minutes (which flew by in a flash) Louise and I nattered away like two old pals (a million miles away from the usual ‘head down, earphones in, don’t make eye contact’ commuter etiquette that I’m used to). It turns out, she’s seen rather a lot over the past nine decades.
She grew up with her mum and dad, older sister and three younger brothers in London. She had another sister too – the youngest of them all – but tragically she died when she was just four years old, after running out into the road and getting hit by a bus. “We were so young at the time so didn’t really understand the enormity of it all. Though it must have been terrible for my mother. But life goes on…there’s a lot of people worse off than us, so you can’t complain.”
When the war broke out in the late 1930s and the German bombers began their air raids on London, Louise (13) and her younger brothers were evacuated to the countryside, like so many other children of the time.
They were packed onto a train towards Exeter, dropped off at a little village hall, before being lined up around the edge of the room. Throughout the day, local parents came and went, picking a child or two out of the crowd to take home with them, “like choosing pick-n-mix at the cinema. There was no rhyme or reason to it…they just picked out whoever took their fancy.”
As a result, Louise and her brothers were separated, with two of the boys going off with one family, and her and one brother with another. Luckily, as you hear so many horror stories about this era, they were looked after by lovely families who treated them “like one of their own.”
As soon as she was 16, Louise went straight to work to support the war effort, working in the telephone exchange (where she stayed until she retired at 65). “All the girls there smoked like chimneys, all day and night…I only tried a puff once but it wasn’t for me!”
After the war, she got married, continued working at the telephone exchange, but never had any children of her own. “We were saving up for a house you see, so couldn’t afford to start a family too.” Her first house cost £3,000 (“a lot of money in those days!”) and she was happy.
Her husband was a Chelsea fan, so there was always football on the television in the house. He took her to Stamford Bridge once, standing pitch-side in the crowd, “as the men around us ranted and raved at the players.”
Although her husband passed away some years ago, she still puts the footie on the TV sometimes, as it reminds her of when she still had a man in the house. Nowadays though, she mainly just watches “the Dancing” (Strictly). She was pleased that Joe won but thought Alexandra Burke deserved it most. “I think the public voted for the one remaining man in the competition as they didn’t want all the girls to squabble if one got picked over the other!”
Somehow, the conversation even turned to Brexit. But, a woman after my own heart, it turns out she voted ‘Remain’ and was shocked that so many people had voted the other way. “I don’t think people really understood what they were voting for. It’s going to be a big shock to people when we do leave, and really sad for all the young, who will probably find it much harder to travel around Europe and see the world now.”
All too soon, we reached her stop.
“Well this is me. It’s nice to talk to someone, isn’t it…makes the time go faster.”
“It really does. Happy Christmas.”
It’s a shocking statistic, but around 1.4 million older people find their days repetitive and admit Christmas passes them by…unnoticed, alone and uncelebrated.
So, if you’ve been touched by my story of last night’s chance encounter with the lovely Louise and fancy doing something to support the elderly this Christmas, why not spark up a conversation with an older person in your neighbourhood or invite them round for tea this festive season?
Alternatively you can make a donation to Age UK, the UK’s largest charity working with older people, who provide companionship, advice and support for the millions who have no one to turn to. Click the link here to donate now.