Travel Talk

I mentioned, in a previous article, that I live in the London Borough of Bromley. It is a very decent sort of place in which to live, as far as I am concerned – and I’ve had close on 60 years to come to that decision.

My particular patch of the borough is not as pleasant as it used to be, but as the years pass I have come to realise that nowhere is. When I first came here, the cluster of shops at the end of my road included three greengrocers, two fishmongers, two bakers, a couple of general stores, and an ironmonger who also sold timber and other DIY odds and ends (though DIY as we now know it had not then been invented). All that, plus a post office, a bank, and a florist were more than enough to keep everyone happy.

With the passing of time, the bank and the post office have gone, as have the fishmongers and the bakers. Today ‘the village’ – as it has always been known – consists mainly of estate agents and hairdressers.  

Despite this, it still retains some of its old atmosphere, and the local railway station (also at the end of the road) whisks me to London and beyond much more frequently and faster and in greater comfort than it ever did.

The only drawback for me nowadays – and I admit it exists solely in my imagination – is that, located very close to where I live, is the South of England Residential Home for the Terminally Bewildered.  

I have no idea where this imposing pile is situated (I see it, architecturally, as a cross between Downton Abbey and a Victorian workhouse), but it must be nearby, as I frequently encounter its residents when they are allowed out on day release to mingle with the community.

Unfortunately they drive their cars very slowly and with the utmost caution (the more so since the concept of ‘shared space’ has been introduced to a couple of small but vital roads near the local Sainsbury’s). I’m sure this is commendable, but it can be frustrating when one is in a bit of a hurry. And they also tend to use the aforementioned supermarket, to my intense annoyance.

It is not just that they stop without warning in the centre of the aisles, crouched over their trolleys, trying to read their shopping lists, or settling down for a long conversation with a newly-met acquaintance. Nor, even, that they place those trolleys right in front of whatever item other people (i.e. me) are trying to reach.   

No, my bête noir is the elderly lady (I’m not being sexist because it is always an elderly lady) who waits in front of me in the checkout queue, exuding an air of sweet gentleness which conjures up lavender-scented images of afternoon tea in front of a log fire with a couple of cats for company, and a murder at the Vicarage to be solved before bedtime.

Lulled into a false sense of well being, I watch as her shopping is swept and swiped by the checkout girl, who also helps put it into her ‘bag for life’. 

(Incidentally, I think the cost of a ‘bag for life’ should be on a sliding scale – reducing as one gets older and what is left of one’s life becomes shorter. But I digress. Back to the checkout queue.)

Then comes the moment I have been dreading. First, the little old lady realises that she is required to pay for her purchases. Clearly, this has never happened to her before, because this development takes her completely by surprise.   

She undoes her handbag and delves inside. After a few moments she locates her purse, extracts it, and rummages within. “How much is it?” she asks. Anyone reasonably close to the till could tell her that its display reads £17.38. 

“£17.38”, says the checkout girl, in the voice of someone who is having a really bad day, and is late for her tea break.   

The little old lady produces a £20 note and is in the process of handing it over when she says the words which strike terror into the hearts of all behind her in the queue. “Oh, wait a moment. I think I might have the right money.”

The £20 note vanishes into the purse as other notes and coins are produced. A £10 note and a fiver. Then a 50 pence piece. Then we all wait as more rummaging takes place.

And, as we wait, we (well, certainly I) are saying to ourselves: “For heaven’s sake get a move on, you silly old bat. You haven’t got the exact money. You never have the exact money. You can only muster £16.25 and, in your heart of hearts, you knew that all along. Just as we did. 

So stop faffing about and give the girl that £20 note, so she can get rid of you, and then us, and then she can have her well-earned tea break and we can all get on with our lives.”

But none of this is said aloud and we all stand there with that thin smile on our faces that is meant to convey sympathetic understanding.  

The most violent reaction might be a slightly raised eyebrow if one comes into eye contact with the checkout girl. But this rarely happens as she keeps her head and her eyes down because if she doesn’t she will scream so loudly it will melt the fillings in the teeth of anyone within a ten yard radius.  

Eventually the fact that she does not have ‘the right money’ is accepted by the little old lady. The £20 note is produced again – after a lot more rummaging, because it is now not where it is supposed to be inside the purse. 

She takes her change, puts it carefully into the purse. She shuts her purse and puts it into her handbag. Then she shuts her handbag, puts her shopping bag into her pull along trolley and toddles towards the exit.

I know I shall be behind her when we drive out of the car park. I know she will have trouble with her ticket and the Portuguese girl in the hi-vis. jacket, who supervises the barrier, will have to come and sort it out.  

But she will, eventually, drive off slowly in the middle of the road which, thank goodness, is a one-way street. And she will join all those other folk from the Residence who seem to be multiplying in my neck of the woods.  

For all I know, they may be multiplying in your neck of the woods, too, those ‘Silvers’ who’ve given up on the real world and retreated into a world of their own.

And before you descend on me like a ton of vengeful bricks, I must stress that I am not aiming my words at anyone – male or female – who has genuine physical or mental problems that make life difficult for them and their families. My heart goes out to them, as it does to those of my friends and neighbours (mercifully few) who do bear such terrible burdens.

No, I’m annoyed at those of the silver generation who use age as an excuse not to bother any more. Who have given up showing consideration to others, for example, or taking pride in their appearance.   Who won’t make any effort to come to terms with today’s technology, grumbling that things were different (and therefore better) ‘in my day’.

These poor folk have forgotten that life is for living, no matter how long you have been living it. And life is for enjoying and celebrating. Age is no excuse for giving up. 

“Oh, I’m too old to bother with that sort of thing.” “You can’t expect me to do that at my age.” “I’m too set in my ways to change now.”

If you find yourself thinking or saying things like that, then get a grip, snap out of it and start to enjoy life once more.

Alternatively, you could check yourself into my imaginary Home for the Terminally Bewildered.

But just remember to keep well away from me next time you’re in the supermarket.

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John Carter

Long-time presenter of TV’s ‘Wish You Were Here’ and BBC holiday programmes

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