This is a piece that I have been meaning to write for a little while. I worked in a nursing home for three years from the age of 13. It was my first job and I could easily fill a book writing about my time working there – the people I met, the conversations I had, the things that I saw and all that I learned – but for now, here is a blogpost. Names have been changed, including the name of the nursing home itself.
Within days of my thirteenth birthday, which was the minimum age for entering the workplace back then, I had telephoned the local nursing home to enquire about working in the kitchen. My sister had worked at the nursing home before me and I had – with great envy – seen her go out to work on a Saturday and earn her own money.
I started work at the nursing home a couple of weeks after my birthday. I packed my school bag with black tights, one of my sister’s old work uniforms, and my school shoes, and set out on my bike to cycle the three miles into the village to Blackwood House*.
I turned off the main road through the village and cycled up the drive towards the imposing mansion. In the three years that I worked at Blackwood, I regularly dreamed of what the building had been like in its heyday. It was a glorious red-brick mansion with diamond-paned windows, ivy creeping up the brickwork, and a front door so vast that it wouldn’t have looked out of place in a castle.
I had seen the building often enough when my parents had dropped off or collected my sister from work, but as I cycled over the little hump-backed bridge that spanned the brook and passed by the willow and yew trees that lined the bottom of the driveway, screening the property from the road, the house took my breath away. I felt like I had travelled back in time; in reality I had been taken on as a kitchen assistant and waitress, but in my mind, it was a century before and I was working as a maid in a mansion of the gentry.
I parked my bicycle behind the kitchen and went off in search of somewhere to get changed. I wasn’t particularly tall and the uniform, a white dress in heavy fabric with short sleeves and silver press fasteners down the front, fell almost to my ankles – it would be just below my knees when I handed in my notice three years later.
The work was easy; the shift was 2:00 pm until 7:00 pm and I and another kitchen assistant prepared the supper trays for the residents. Lunch was served in the dining room, but the residents took supper in their own rooms. Each resident was presented with a range of menu options during the course of the morning and chose a starter, main course and dessert. Starters included things like soup, fruit juice, melon balls or grapefruit segments (the latter from a vast, five litre tin); the main course was always either a sandwich or something hot, like bubble and squeak or sausages and mashed potato; and dessert was usually something that had been mixed from a packet, like angel delight, blancmange, or crème caramel. The kitchen assistants laid out the supper trays on a trolley, prepared the sandwiches (within a couple of weeks I no longer had to check my list to know who had white bread and who preferred brown. To this day, I can still remember dietary requirements and preferences, even though most of the residents that I served have now passed on), poured and cling-filmed glasses of fruit juice, and helped the chef make the desserts.
The second kitchen assistant was a girl that I knew from school. She was in a completely different friendship group to me (she was popular, I was not) and we had never really spoken before. Nevertheless, we soon discovered that we got along incredibly well and we established one of the best friendships and easily one of the best working relationships that I have ever had. We settled into a routine of moving seamlessly around the kitchen to get the work done; we also got on very well with the chef – a young man in his early twenties.
After we had all been working together for a few months the other girl and I had reached a level of proficiency where our work was completed well in advance of the supper trays needing to be distributed. Often, we filled this time with cleaning – removing all the crockery from the vast, white wooden painted dresser that lined one of the kitchen walls (alas! Now a victim of Health and Safety and Food Hygiene regulations – a characterless, stainless steel shelving unit now stands in its place), or cleaning the enormous walk-in fridge or the larder. We worked hard, but we had a lot of fun too.
The best part of the job was the residents. I loved getting to know the residents; some of them were warm and friendly and wanted to make friends with me, and some of them were bitter or aloof, but each of them intrigued and fascinated me.
Blackwood House was a private nursing home with several places funded by the local authority, and the nursing home was located in an up-market village in a very prosperous area (the sort of place that rich Londoners escape to at weekends) this meant that the residents represented an interesting cross-section of society; there were some who were extraordinarily wealthy and others who were incredibly poor. I served them all, chatting to those who wanted to talk and being quiet and reserved towards the residents who looked upon me as a servant.
Through the work, I got to know some incredible people. There was one lady in particular called Eileen, who had lived in the village all her life and had recently turned ninety. She told me stories of the village as it had been in her youth and described the house that she had grown up in – I was amazed to recognise the cottage she described as being part of my cycling route when I made my way to work. Eileen had never had children and her husband had died about twenty years before so she was very lonely and adored the company of the staff. She told me that she looked upon the younger staff members, including me, as adopted grandchildren. When I bought my first computer, a second-hand laptop, Eileen was astonished to learn that it had cost me one hundred and fifty pounds.
“But my whole salary was £42 a year when I started work!” she said, in hushed tones. I bought my computer in to show her and I demonstrated how my phone could communicate with the laptop; I took her photograph and used Bluetooth to transfer it between devices. Eileen was astonished to see her photograph on the computer screen. I was devastated when she died and that photograph and a card she gave me when I was Confirmed are all that I have left of her.
Death was always going to be a part of working at the nursing home. I think it’s unheard of now for young teenagers to work in nursing homes and I think this is a good thing. I was fifteen when I walked into somebody’s room to collect a supper tray and I found the nurses clearing up after laying out his body after he had died. The man’s face was like marble and the bed sheets were drawn right up to his chin; he could have been asleep except for the slightly rigid look to his body, and the single white rose on his chest. Another time, a resident turned 100 and died in her bed on her birthday as her family held a party in her honour downstairs in the ballroom. The lady had been at death’s door for a week or so and the day before she died I had changed her water jug whilst the nurses felt for her pulse because they thought that she had died.
It wasn’t just the death of the residents which was such a great sadness to be exposed to at a young age, it was also seeing the decline of the residents in ‘the wing’. The Wing was a secure part of the building which housed the residents with dementia. The kitchen served the food to the residents of The Wing, so on each shift I had cause to go over there, entering the four-digit code on the keypad to gain entry and closing the door firmly behind me when I was in. Some of the residents sat in chairs all day with their mouths hanging open and their eyes vacant. Some doddered around, pacing the sitting room and the hallways at a snail’s pace. Some shouted abuse, other shouted words which weren’t words to anyone but them because they had lost their language faculty. Occasionally, a new resident would arrive who seemed completely compos mentus; I saw them and wondered what on earth they were doing there and how they could stand staying in that place, but over the coming weeks the answer presented itself as they deteriorated to become just like the others.
The saving grace of The Wing was the wonderful matron who ran the ship. She was kind and sparkly and one of the warmest and most loving people that I have ever met. This woman worked solely in The Wing and cared for each of the residents as if they were her own parents, treating them all with the humility, compassion and dignity that they deserved. I remember once when she was absent and two bored care assistants sat with one of the residents and asked her what noises different animals made, to while away their boredom by making a lady bark, oink and moo because her dementia had caused her to be childlike in her trust of others and she no longer had enough of a grasp on reality to know that she was being humiliated. I was disgusted.
Over time, I changed shifts, working a 5 pm until 7 pm shift after school once or twice a week, and working 9 am until 7 pm on a Saturday. There were laws in place about how many hours could be worked by those under the age of sixteen, but nobody at Blackwood House seemed to care and I enjoyed the work and enjoyed having my own money.
I handed in my notice when I was sixteen and about to start college as I needed the extra time to study. I missed the residents when I left, but most of the ones that I had been fondest of had long-since died. I am still in contact with the other kitchen assistant that I got to know so well.
Working at Blackwood was an enrichening experience. It was simultaneously emotionally rewarding and draining. I maintain that people under the age of sixteen should not be allowed to work in such an environment, but I’m very grateful for my experience of working there.
*Not actually called that #anonymous