Mr Ernest Wakeland is a hundred years old.
‘And nine months.’
Sitting in his favourite chair, something as perfectly fitted to him as his brown corduroy jacket, he has his elbows planted right and left on the armrests, his forearms leaning in, his hands neatly clasped together over the gap, the forefingers of each hand pressed together and then turned back to rest lightly on the point of his chin. He looks like an ancient professor graciously welcoming students into his study. His legs are crossed. The monogrammed slipper on his foot taps out in time to his hundred year old heart. And nine months.
‘Good morning,’ he says. ‘Do have a seat.’
Just across from Mr Wakeland is his younger sister, Mary, ninety-four, poised on the edge of a red velveteen chair, monitoring the situation. Despite her own advanced years, she still has an air of younger sister deference about her.
Jeffrey, Mary’s grandson, busies himself in the background, gathering together the necessaries for Mr Wakeland’s ‘survival bag’ – a notebook, today’s newspaper, mobile phone, wallet, pyjamas, toothbrush.
‘Hairbrush,’ says Mary. ‘Don’t forget the hairbrush, Jeffrey.’
Mr Wakeland separates his hands in a palms-up gesture of forgiveness. ‘I suppose one ought stay on top of these things,’ he says.
The District Nurse has been out to Mr Wakeland this morning. She wasn’t happy with the progress of his chest infection and wants him admitted for further assessment. I read through the notes – an impressive lack of medication, surgery, incident – then help Rae prep the chair ready to go.
Behind his armchair, on a neatly arranged dresser, amongst the family photos and certificates, there’s a signed photo of the queen.
‘Yes – got the telegram in March,’ he says. ‘No-one thought I would.’ But looking at him, I can’t imagine anyone could have doubted it. In fact, Mr Wakeland is so healthy, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that Buckingham Palace has discreetly redrawn its protocols and made arrangements for the two hundredth anniversary.
‘You’ve obviously got the old bone gene,’ I say as I help him into our carry chair.
‘Oh I don’t know,’ he says, settling himself in. ‘Mary and I have done all right, but none of the others made it much past seventy.’
‘My youngest daughter was born in March,’ I say as I tip him back in the chair and wheel him towards the lifts.
‘Oh really? How lovely.’
‘March, two thousand and five.’
‘Well! A little way to go, then.’
Jeffrey hurries after us with the survival bag.
‘It’s odd to think,’ says Mr Wakeland, as the lift doors slide shut, ‘It’s odd to think that three of my birthdays I spent as a prisoner of war in Austria. Working in a talc mine.’
‘Talc. The rock, not the powder. But the rock becomes the powder, of course.’
‘I’ve never thought about talc mines before.’
‘Neither had I, but there you are – or there I was. But these things happen in a time of war, I suppose.’
I’m tempted to say that maybe all that talcum powder is one of the reasons his skin stayed soft and young, but I hold back, because I guess three years forced labour in a mine of any description - but especially a German POW mine - would be anything but life-enhancing.
‘So – talcum powder! What did they want talcum powder for, Mr Wakeland?’
‘Oh I don’t know,’ he sniffs. ‘Keeping all those delicate Wehrmacht bottoms fragrant and dry.’ He nods and smiles, and gathers the blankets of the chair more tightly around him.‘But other than that, pharmaceuticals and the treatment of rubber, I expect.’