The door swung shut behind me taking with it the fresh smell of autumn. My nose instantly filled with musty heat from old radiators and the stench of piss. Stifling a cough, I approached the reception desk where a large lady sat tapping at a keyboard. Aware of my entrance she looked up over her glasses, her fat cheeks lifted into a smile.
“Hi, My name’s Jason Baker - new volunteer."
She held out her plump hand across the desk.
“I'm Sandra. Take a seat, while I prepare your paperwork."
I sat on the sorry looking sofa and glanced at the selection of out of date magazines, their covers stiff from years of neglected coffee stains. Despite a large amount of wall space, there were only three pictures hanging. Large black and white photographs showing the building during different times. One showed the completion of the craftsman style house in 1903; fifteen or so men and women gathered outside on the front porch, some waving tools in the air. A girl of about ten years old was at the forefront, waving.
The second, twenty years later, showed a group of children beside a small tree, showing the camera their dirty hands. The last photograph showed the building again from the same angle, old people in wheelchairs and uniformed staff in the forefront this time. The opening of the seniors home in the late fifties.
“Sorry to keep you waiting” Sandra said, “Just read through and sign, then we’ll get you started."
I skim read the text and signed. As I handed it back to her another member of staff appeared from the corridor.
“OK, Jason this is Stephan, he’ll be showing you around today. Here’s your id, you’re all set."
Stephan shook my hand with a lot of force for a small man, even at 5’ 8” I was a head above him.
“Welcome to the nut house. Apologies for the smell it’s not always like this.”
“Well that’s good to know.”
“It normally stinks of shit.” He said, pushing open the door with a laugh. “So what made you want to volunteer with the oldies?”
“I'm doing my thesis on memory and memory loss, part of which I’ll cover the ageing process. Seemed like a good place to get some examples.”
“Well you’re in the right place, some of these guys don’t know their ass from their elbow but they remember what they ate for lunch on their first day at school. OK, lets see who’s out in the day room.”
As we walked towards the back of the house the sound of voices drifted through the open door.
“What the hell are you trying to do to me?”
“I'm just trying to do your hair, it’s your party today remember.”
“Don’t you try and put no crappy ribbon on me.”
“Come on Eliza it’s a special birthday, lots of people are coming.”
“They can all go to Hell! I don’t want no party.”
“Well you’re getting one, like it or not.”
The staff member smiled as she passed us, “Good luck with her!”
The day room was bright with doors that opened out to the back porch. Even with just a t-shirt on I was hot. In one of the chairs an old man was asleep, hands joined and resting in his lap. The chair opposite had three yellow balloons tied to the back with ‘100 today’ printed on them. The chair's occupant sat staring out of the window, a frail old lady with a pink blanket covering her knees. There was no one else in the room, surely this wasn't the owner of the potty mouth?
“Eliza, this is Jason.” Stephan said.
“What the hell does he want?” She looked up at me suspiciously through pale blue, watery eyes.
“Hello Eliza, I'm gonna be spending some time here with you and the other guys.”
“OK Jason, I’ll leave you here so you can get acquainted.” Stephan said, raising his eyebrows as he left.
“Asshole, place is full of ‘em!” Eliza blasted, followed by a string of harsh obscenities.
“Where did you learn to talk like that?”
“Gangsters; east coasts worst in their day. Taught me poker too, want a game?” Catching the mischievous grin that flashed across her face, I declined the offer. This lady might be old but I’d bet she could still pull aces from her sleeve without me noticing.
“No thanks, I'm not good with card games.” Something in her stare was making me uncomfortable. “So, you’re 100 today then huh?”
“So they tell me.”
“How long have you lived here?”
“In this town; most of my life. In this place - too frikin' long.” She yelled, throwing her voice over her shoulder. “My father built it ya know.”
“Yeah, he’s in the picture hanging in the lobby,” she said proudly, “so am I; the little girl at the front, that’s me.”
“Wow, that’s pretty cool.” If it wasn't for the way Eliza was staring at me then, I wouldn't have thought any more about it. But she held her gaze on me with those pale eyes of hers, until it dawned on me. “But, wasn't that picture taken in like, 1903 or 4 or something?”
“But you look about ten years old?”
“Close, I was nine.”
“But that would make you...” I frowned as my mental arithmetic gave me an impossible answer.
“What would that make me?” She asked, challenging me for an answer.
“Um, a lot more than one hundred.”
“I never told them it was my birthday, they got no records on me so they made it up. They’re only giving me a party to make themselves feel better. Stupid Assholes!”
I looked at her, hoping to see a smirk, or a raise of the eyebrows; something to indicate she was joking. But there were no clues in those watery blue eyes, just the secrets of her past etched into the lines on her face.