Meals on Wheels was not free, though the cost was modest. The recipients were asked to have the money ready, preferably the exact amount. The cost charged by the canteen where it was cooked was subsidised – the WRVS was somewhat unusual in that it was, and I suppose still is, a state-funded voluntary organisation, not a charity and it did not fundraise from the public.
I used to know every back street in Lowestoft by the time I was in my teens. I didn’t know the new housing estates that were built in the ’60s because younger families tended to live there, but the older houses; the Victorian terraces, the council houses and the fishermen’s cottages, I knew them all. My mother became fond of a number of the old people and often used to take them little presents – just a couple of bananas or a pack of sweets, nothing much. At Christmas time, she used to make up a parcel for everyone, usually quite practical things like shaving soap for the men, a bar of chocolate for those who weren’t diabetic, a little food treat, just a few little parcels to open. One old man always used to make her a cup of tea as his house was last on the round. It wasn’t very clean and she drank the tea holding the cup in her left hand, so that her lips touched the side his hadn’t.
There were home helps but they varied a lot in efficiency and by no means everyone had one. Most people did do their best to keep their houses clean and some of them were spotless. Some, unfortunately, were incontinent, especially women. The smell of cats, wee and paraffin stoves would still trigger a memory of a particular house in London Road South and seeing brown paintwork, chenille tablecloths and antimacassars would remind me of many of the houses. I remember Mrs Cockerton, of Edgerton Terrace, who didn’t have electricity laid on and used gas lamps. She had a gas fridge as well as a cooker and seemed perfectly comfortable.
It was just as well that I wasn’t with my mother on the occasion when she walked in the front door (usually, one knocked or rang and went straight in, to save the householder from having to trundle along to answer the door) and found a coffin in the hall, containing the old lady whose lunch she had brought. Another old lady, who lived in dreadful poverty, was taken to hospital. My mother used to take her extra food, bars of soap and so on, because she obviously couldn’t afford even basic living expenses. The local social services asked mummy to pack up her personal possessions because it was not likely the lady would be able to return home. Every drawer and cupboard contained rolled up bank notes and piles of change. She never spent her pension but squirrelled it away and the house contained the best part of £500: many thousands in the equivalent today. Mummy counted it, wrote it all down and told the lady’s daughter when she finally arrived after her mother’s death. “How do I know it’s all there?” demanded the woman.
I’m sure I’ve written before about Bluedith. She lived in a nice house on the seafront, opposite the park called Kensington Gardens. She had a complete fixation on the colour blue and everything in her house was blue, including her budgie in its cage. She wore blue and had blue-tinted spectacles. She seemed perfectly normal and was very charming.
Some of the old people had hardly any visitors and their twice-weekly Meals on Wheels were really important to them, for the social contact as much as the food. There wasn’t really time to linger long, you had to deliver all the meals within a reasonable time and to do the round in the same order each time – it took at least an hour and a half and people had to know about what time to expect you. You’d knock, walk in calling out a cheerful greeting, go to the sitting room or kitchen, ask after the person’s health and listen to their reply (this was important, of course) and say some kind and pleasant words, while dishing out the meal on the plates they had ready. The money was usually lying on the table, you counted it, wrote it in the book and, occasionally stopping to help with a small errand or promising to carry out a service later – posting a letter, for instance, you were out again in a few minutes. At the smellier houses, you took a deep breath before opening the door and tried not to breathe again until you left.