I was on a visit home to my parents, sitting round the big refectory style table in the high ceilinged old kitchen with them on a sunny morning. The house, a gloomy gothic heap of brick and turrets, had been of former grand standing, but bought in an impoverished and run down state for its new purpose, was always having bits of it refurbished, without ever looking finished.
My parents took in what they called 'paying guests', people with various learning and physical disabilities who had funding for supported living. As we talked, a few wandered in and out at will, seemingly without any particular reason, or just to look out of the window, then go out and back in again.
"So how are things?" I asked. "Ah!" said my father, brightening. "I'm branching out!"
My father was always branching out. An eclectic businessman, he had many sales ventures partly on the go at any given time and the house and premises in general were cluttered with collections of stock for and from these various speculations.
"Garden furniture" he announced. " I've bought your mother a summer house. Come and see!"
"Don't say it's for me," my mother called weakly after us. "It's not for me..."
Over the years, this once humorous disclaimer had become more dispirited, a half heartedly automatic response to my father's efforts to deflect criticism by announcing some part of his new investment was a present for my mother.
There were two big outhouses in the former grounds, one full of 'vintage' cars. "Your mother loves that Jag", my father would say fondly of one of them, which had never moved in the several years since its rusted arrival. My mother can't drive.
The doors of the other stood open, spilling out with vast items of cumbersome antique furniture, which had always been a bargain at the auction, and were bound to be highly remunerative, once they came back into fashion as sought after articles.
In front of them now were some weathered and battered wrought iron tables, chairs and benches and a teetering heap of wood and glass, still vaguely octagonal in shape.
" There!" said my father proudly. "What do you think of that? With a bit of restoration, worth a fortune by Spring." (It was November).
I surveyed it: a smell of damp, wood rot and moss floated across from it.
"Lovely," I said diplomatically, as I always did, adding, thinking of my mother, " Will it take much work?"
"Hardly any!" declared my father heartily. "Done in no time."
His confidence in achieving any necessary repairs never failed, despite the evidence of years of not doing it surrounding them.
"Watch out for the broken glass", he said cheerfully, going back inside. "Lost a few windows getting it in."
"Shouldn't you get that cleared up?" I asked, looking at lethal shards scattered about. " What about the paying guests?"
"Oh, they never come out here," he assured me, and indeed no one did really. There wasn't much room for relaxation.
Back inside with our coffee, one of the paying guests was making toast. We all acted as if we hadn't noticed the small figure staring at the wall. A few of the guests were non communicative, others very.
Noises off of muffled shouting indicated that Neil's support worker had arrived and was receiving the usual treatment, as he viewed them as a sort of butler, who should be seen and not heard, whereas they felt they had a more interactive and friendly role. They didn't usually last more than a few months, the generous nature that had brought them into such a job worn down by Neil's domineering mean streak.
Wheeled on his way through to the front door (for the kitchen was in the middle of the ground floor rooms), he paused to ask my father: "Stephen, have you made the usual arrangements for my prostitute on Sunday?"
Neil liked to be outrageous and find ways of shocking my kindly but gently religious parents.
"Now, then, " my father said affably, used to him. "Ladies present, you know. Ladies present."
"Tut, man" said Neil brusquely. "We're all living in the modern world now. Well apart from Isis and all that medieval crap," he added thoughtfully as they wheeled off. " We all have a right to sex you know!" he shouted suddenly, as they departed.
My parents merely smiled. They coped with all their paying guests' differently demanding ways by extending a blanket tolerance to all outbursts and oddities, so that the place was like a Dickensian outpost for eccentrics, rather than one occupied by people with serious needs. It seemed to work, although there was always so much going on that there was little time for them as a couple. They didn't seem to mind though.
"Come and feed the fish", my mother suggested.
I followed her into one of the two big sitting rooms, this one lined with tropical fish aquariums. A former sales sally, these had now become a feature indoors.
"Good for the paying guests," my father had suggested. "Tranquillity and all that. Peace of mind, with fish. Well known."
In confirmation of this, the little woman from the kitchen was now in there watching a tank of goldfish, as she did daily, for hours. She ignored us as we passed before her, scattering flakes on the surface.
It reminded me of the now empty pond at the other end of the neglected garden, once hopefully filled with koi carp, but the local cats had got the better of them.
Another paying guest popped an enthusiastically curly head in to tell us that it was time for him to go out now and get the bus. He knew every number and route and travelled daily on them all round the city as a personal tour of duty.
" I shall be on Manchester First buses today," he told us. " I was on the Stagecoach lines all last week, so I must give the other company a turn. The drivers will be very pleased to see me, you know and will be wondering how I am, since they haven't had a chance to talk to me recently, as I have been on holiday visiting the others."
All the bus drivers were, in his view, his personal friends, to whom he owed the obligation of his company and a regular update on his wellbeing. By his own account, each of them was always delighted to see him, as he would describe later in detailed letters to various chosen correspondents. We said we hoped he would enjoy a nice day out and, satisfied, he nodded a number of times, then went on his way. Throughout the exchange, the little woman continued her solemnly silent but content scrutiny of the goldfish tank, standing right in front of it.
"How's the office?" asked my mother. "Still thrilling?"
I worked at present temping as business support (a kind of gopher post) at a local government office. I considered the question. It was a place of unresolved conflicts overlaid with a buttery middle management glaze, which insisted, like Dr Pangloss, that all was for the best in the best of all possible worlds, as cuts and privatisation proceeded apace.
"It's all right" I shrugged. "We're having some training sessions on achieving the right behaviours next week."
"What's that all about then?" asked my mother.
"Being in denial, mainly, I think," I said. "We'll probably make things as a team building exercise. They like a bit of that."
"Oh," said my mother doubtfully. "Let me know how it goes. I might try a bit of sticking and gluing this week myself with some of the paying guests. I thought perhaps making and selling Christmas cards as a bit of pocket money for them."
My mother, too, was not averse to enterprise, and tried occasional home working projects with the more able residents.
"Why not?" I said. "I'll come down in the evenings and help if you like?"
It would be nice, I thought, glitter and coloured pens, a bit of childhood revisited.
"That would be lovely," replied my mother.
I left shortly afterwards, going out into the back to say goodbye to my father, who was banging away at the summerhouse with a hammer, apparently starting its renovation by smashing it further apart.
"Do you know?" he remarked happily, " I might be able to re-use some of these nails. Are you off, love? See you later, then."
In a way, I thought, I envied them their endless hopefulness and projects (now I didn't have to live with it) and saw it as a vestige of their sixties youth carrying on into a still optimistic future. My own, working in a low paid world of temporary contracts, seemed far more uncertain and definitely less enjoyable.