Thanks to the rise of websites like Gumtree and Christian Flatshare, my friends all seem to have stories of ‘interesting’ people they’ve ended up living with. There’s the guy who seemed to survive on a diet of purely pickled produce – eggs, onions, even pickled meat. Or the guy who collected Lego men, named them individually and displayed them, in their hundreds, on every surface of the living room. Or the girl with a penchant for loud, shouty sex at unusual times of the day. I could go on. But frankly, I can top all of these stories hands down.
My flatmate also had odd eating habits (mostly a gross excess of trifle) and hoarded junk like the world was about to end (mostly washed out plastic trifle dishes), but thankfully there was no shouty sex. For 12 gloriously bizarre months I shared a council flat in Chelsea with a 93-year-old lady called Norma.
Now Norma was, and is still, something quite extraordinary.
Norma has lived on an estate at the far end of the fashionable King’s Road since it was erected in the 1960s. Fifty years have seen a phenomenal amount of change. Today, the hippie boutiques of the ’60s like ‘Gandalf’s Garden’ and ‘Sophisticat’ (famously home to Christian, the lion cub) have been replaced with Pizza Express, Cath Kidson and frozen yoghurt bars. The seven looming tower blocks of the World’s End Estate now house families of every colour and creed. And these days “you can even pay for the bus in oysters!”
But constant in all of that change has been the feisty resident at number 15. From her stories, it seems that Norma has always been fighting one battle or other. Whether fleeing (two) violent husbands, surviving cancer in her 50s, or living with a permanently dislocated collar-bone after falling down a hole when the council left a paving stone out of place, Norma has proved she is a fighter. It’s that same determination that sees her now taking the local authority to court because they refuse to put in a stair lift up to the first-floor flats. It’s that same resolve that is genuinely disappointed as she poignantly tells me that her friend who has recently passed away had “just given up”.
Perhaps the only quality that can equal Norma’s willpower is her humour. And the more I think about it, the more I see that the two feed off each other. She once told me with a glint in her eye that when she couldn’t find something in a supermarket, she would knock a load of tin cans off the shelf with her walking stick so that the staff came running to help. When her ankles swelled to the size of tree-trunks, her response was not to complain but to say:“Well I’m not going to get the postman to fancy me looking like this!” Even when I had to call 999 after she had had an internal haemorrhage, she still managed to try and chat up the young, male paramedic from the stretcher. With Norma’s rules, you can see the funny side to any situation if you’re prepared to laugh at yourself.
I came to live with Norma as she needed an overnight carer and someone to help with household chores. I needed somewhere to stay in central London as I was doing an unpaid internship. It seemed a fair deal. But in reality I gained from her so much more than just cheap lodgings. Norma showed me what it really meant to ‘seize the day’ – to drink up every last sip of life with all of your strength. She reminded me that there is great, innocent joy in stopping to listen to the song of a bird or notice that your orchid has sprouted another shoot. She showed me that even in the hardest, most painful sufferings of life, there is always hope, always something to carry on for, and always something to laugh about. In return, this showed me how void of real suffering my life has been so far and challenged me to handle that which would come with such good-humoured resolve. Her remarkable stories of entertaining the Jagger brothers, working for a sultan in the Middle East and befriending the local one-eyed potter (which my fiancé and I would sceptically Google to verify) taught me that we should give older people more credit – when they tell you an amazing story, it probably is true. And finally, she demonstrated that it is entirely possible to live off a diet of toffees and trifle. As she would say: “This five-a-day rubbish is all government propaganda.”
So to Norma, thank you. To older people everywhere, we should listen to you more.