by Michael Bloor
(first published in the Potato Soup Journal, 15/5/22)
Working at Larchwood House suited Ben very well. Ben had trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. But four years after graduating from RADA, the only acting job he’d been offered was in a Christmas panto at the Wirksworth Empire: he played an Indian Chief who would appear at various junctures in the play, raise his right arm and say ‘How.’ A markedly wooden performance was required and duly delivered.
Larchwood House is a residential care home run by a charity along the lines that residents with different disabilities can assist in each other’s care, on the mutual aid principle. As a member of staff, Ben now found himself performing multiple roles in every single shift: to Joy (disturbed adolescent) he was The Favourite Uncle; to Tony (learning disabled music-lover) he was The D-J; to Arthur (Down’s Syndrome) he was The Father Figure; etc., etc. Though his audiences were small, their reactions gave him a good deal of job satisfaction. However, he gave his very greatest performance, improvised and unscripted, on the night shift the Thursday before Christmas.
The staff member on the night shift was not required to remain wakeful: Larchwood House was supposed to function as closely as possible to the routine of a normal home. After doing a round of the house about ten o’clock, Ben would lock-up, retire to the tiny staff flat and take a book to bed with him. That evening, he found Arthur, as usual, in Annie’s room. Annie, a very elderly, aristocratic Irish lady with wandered wits but a kindly disposition, was already in bed, with Arthur (small enough to be mistaken for a child) squatting on the carpet beside her. He told Arthur it was time for him to get ready for bed, and not to forget to brush his teeth. And then he lingered for a minute or two chatting to Old Annie (The Interested Grandson Role). The House Warden had recently mentioned that, as a young woman, Annie had know W.B. Yeats. But that night she was too sleepy to tell Ben much about the poet: only that he was ‘a very silly man.’
The rest of the residents were still downstairs in the TV room. Ben stuck his head round the door, shouted ‘Bedtime,’ ignored the chorus of dissent, and crossed the hall to the front door. He opened it and stood outside for a moment or two, star-gazing. Like everyone else he knew, he could only recognise Orion, and regretted it. He backed into the hall, locked the front door, crossed over to the kitchen, noted what a good job Joy and Derek (epileptic with OCD) had made of cleaning up after cooking the evening meal, and checked that the back door was still locked. He then crossed back to the TV room and turned the TV off (more dissent). He told Joy to put out her cigarette (smoking was allowed downstairs, on the principle that overt smoking was less of a fire risk than covert smoking), and held the door open while everyone filed out. Last out was Tony who wanted to tell Ben all about the latest developments on ‘I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here.’ This took a while and was the probable reason why Ben forgot to turn off the Christmas Tree Fairy Lights, over by the window.
Twenty minutes later, Ben settled into bed with Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘Tender is the Night.’ Then the fire alarm went off. Ben jumped out of bed, pulled on his jeans, congratulated himself on remembering to grab the house keys, and shot out the staff flat and downstairs into the hall, which was already quite smoky. He unlocked the front door and he and the residents tumbled out onto the front lawn. It was only then that he noticed that he wasn’t wearing shoes. He started to take a roll call and noticed that Old Annie was missing. He rushed back into the house and found Annie wandering in her nightie at the top of the stairs. He guided her, both coughing, down the stairs and out the door.
As they exited the house, the lights failed. Ben could see the flames licking the window of the TV room: ‘Shit – the Fairy Lights.’ At that moment, Joy threw her arms round him sobbing that it was all her fault (she thought that the cause was her inadequately extinguished cigarette). ‘No, it’s not your fault, Joy: it’s the Christmas Tree lights. Have you got your phone? Good, call the Fire Service. Where’s Arthur? WHERE’S ARTHUR?’
Ben headed back to the house, turned round, ran across the lawn to the tool shed, grabbed a torch, and ran back to the house again. The hall was now full of thick smoke, he groped his way upstairs, and checked Arthur’s bedroom. Empty.
He stood there in the smoke for a couple of seconds, resolute but utterly non-plussed.
Then, a sudden inspiration struck him, he groped his way along the landing to the upstairs toilet, opened the door and shone the torch inside. Arthur was sitting on the toilet seat, legs in the air, toothbrush in his mouth. It was time for Ben’s final role of the evening: he performed The Fireman’s Lift.