Game for a laugh
by Ollie Batchelor
I don’t find it easy to make friends. Part of the reason for this is that I’m quite shy, but nearly fifty years of marriage didn’t help either, encouraging me think that the only person I needed was my wife Jessie. That’s why my new friendship with Terry is surprising, even more so because we have such different backgrounds. At seventy-two, I’m twenty years older than him but for some reason we clicked right from the start.
We met at a Psychiatric Day Centre to which I’d been referred by my Doctor. “You’re suffering from depression,” he’d said, when I finally went to see him two years after Jessie’s death. “I’m going to put you on some mild antidepressant medication, but what you really need is to go out and meet new people. Get active again.”
So it was that I ended up at the Holly Avenue Day Centre. I attended a half day induction before beginning full time. “Today’s little taster will help you to settle in more easily when you start here,” said Mr Salmon who led the session for three of us new hopefuls. I wanted it to help, because sitting in that room I felt terrible and nearly hadn’t attended at all. There was a knot in my stomach and my nerves were on a hair trigger. I couldn’t wait for it to end so that I could get away.
As part of our induction Mr Salmon showed us around the large single storey building. That’s when I first saw Terry. He was about six feet tall with a DIY haircut and grey stubble on his chin, the stage of beard growth which always looks scruffy. He gave me a wink as I walked past the table where he was standing, ostensibly working on a collage with a small group of other people, but I sensed that he was more interested in what was going on elsewhere in the centre.
The following week, I started full time. On my first day Terry made a point of introducing himself to me, a welcome gesture as I still felt very nervous. “Nice to meet you. Everyone calls me Ash,” I said in reply. “It comes from my initials,” I added, since most people assumed it was short for Ashley. Terry didn’t seem bothered what I was called or why. “Yeah, I saw you last week when they showed you around. Wanna go on an alternative tour of the centre with me?” He laughed. “I’ll tell you the bits they missed out.”
I was more than happy to go with him and we stuck together from that point on.
I soon learned that Terry was regarded as “a bit of a character” by staff and everyone who attended the centre and in my time there I did find that his McMurphy-like confidence and high-jinks offered a bit of light relief from the intense daily routine. Always game for a laugh, his antics and jokes were probably better for me than any of the pills I was prescribed. His deep well of optimism contrasted sharply with my doubts and gloom about most things. Nothing I said or did could dampen his high spirits or his belief that one way or another everything would work out alright in the end. He’d been diagnosed with a borderline personality disorder, a label he carried with enormous pride, as if it were the finishing touch to an already glowing CV. “They can’t do nowt to sort me out Ash,” he said. “I’m a one-off, me.”
About thirty of us attended the Centre, all day, five days a week. Customers, as the staff called us, were assigned into small teams called pods for some of the activities we did, including hoovering the carpets at the end of the day, washing the dishes or moving furniture around ready for classes. These tasks were always referred to as therapeutic activities on the timetable, though I’m pretty sure that people employed as cleaners or dishwashers would laugh if they heard their work called that. The pods were named after prominent hills in the North-East of England - Cheviot, Roseberry, Penshaw and Simonside. Terry and I were in Cheviot along with Michelle Craggs, a thin, intense looking young woman who went out for a smoke break at every possible opportunity, her side kick Julie Potter who had a large sad face and refused to speak, Willie Flatts, with a shaved head and hippyish clothes who had once been some sort of monk and finally George Bush, who looked about ten years older than me and spent most of the time rolling his own cigarettes, which he said was occupational therapy. We were a motley crew.
Most people stayed at the Centre for about six months but I wasn’t there for that long, choosing to leave shortly after Terry went. His exit, true to nature was a larger than life event. We’d been asked to bring some food for the community lunch, held on the last Friday of every month. The idea was that sharing food and eating together would help us to socialise and somehow overcome our problems. Even the staff participated in the lunch rather than disappearing into their own room at lunchtime, which seemed to add to its importance.
Terry and I were sitting having a drink in a café late one afternoon after we’d finished at the Centre.
“What yer makin’ for the lunchtime thing on Friday?” he said.
“I’ll buy something. I don’t really do much cooking,” I replied, an understatement if ever there was one. At best I’m a microwave cook, heating up things that come in tins or frozen containers.
“I love cooking, me,” he said. “I think it’s cos I like me food.”
He might have a point; food for me had become a matter of re-fuelling, something I did as a necessity. It hadn’t always been like that. When my wife Jessie had cooked something or we’d gone out for a Sunday dinner, I used to enjoy my meals, but after she died, eating became one of the many things I lost interest in.
“I started to cook when I was in care,” Terry went on. “There was one wifey who took a shine to me and let me help her when she was doing the meals at weekends. Then when I was in the Army, I worked in the kitchens for a bit and later on learned about foraging when we were out on exercises. For the lunch on Friday I’m gonna make meat pies. They’ll be lush.” He thought for a moment. “Tell you what, I could give you a few cookery lessons, teach you a few basics and some tricks I learned along the way. You up for it?”
“I’m not sure, to be honest, Terry,” I said. “I get by okay.”
“Try one of me pies at the community lunch and you’ll be thinkin’ differently,” he said. “The offer’s there.”
Our conversation moved on to what Terry had been watching on TV recently. I let him talk. He was never dull and it stopped me thinking about myself. After about half an hour, Terry looked at the clock on the wall and started to make a move.
“Right,” he said, “I’ve got to be away. People to see, places to go, things to do, like gettin’ the stuff together for me meat pies, for starters.”
I didn’t think much more about it, until the day itself, Friday of that week. I brought some Greggs pasties and a tube of Pringles which I surreptitiously deposited on the dining room table amidst a host of home-made food already there - quiches, sandwiches, scones, a tasty looking corned beef flan, some salads and cakes. There was no sign of Terry or his pies, but I saw him at the painting class that morning, though we didn’t get a chance to talk as he was working on a different table.
At the end of the morning session, Terry came passed me with a determined look on his face. “Can’t stop to talk now, Ash,” he said. “Got to go and heat me pies up.” With that he disappeared into the kitchen.
I hung about on the fringes, happy to help if called upon but certainly not wanting to compete with the people who thought they knew best how to set things up, nor with those who were desperate for approval from the staff and were trying to look busy. Finally, Miss Rayner announced that we could start the food, at which point Terry made a theatrical entrance, carrying a large plate of pies.
“These are me special meat pies,” he announced to us all. “It’s a secret recipe, but they’re definitely not suitable for veggies. Sorry to any of you who is like, cos you’re missin’ out on a right treat.”
Terry put the pies down on the same side of the table as I was standing, which was convenient for me because they proved to be very popular. Within a few minutes the whole lot had been taken. They smelled good and when I broke mine open, there was plenty of filling, with masses of thick gravy which oozed out slowly. The meat was tender and succulent with a deep rich flavour, the gravy unctuous and the pastry buttery and crisp. It was everything I could want in a pie and I was only sorry that there were none left for me to have seconds. I felt ashamed of my contribution to the meal in the light of these beautiful things. It was clear that I was not the only one who had liked the pies either, everyone seemed to be talking about them.
At the end of community lunch, just as we were starting to clear things away, Mrs Adams the Centre Manager banged on the table with a spoon to get our attention. “Thank you to everyone who brought something to the lunch today,” she said. “It’s always nice for us to eat together. I don’t normally single out anyone’s contribution to community lunch because it’s about co-operation not competition, but today I’d like to make an exception to that rule. Terry’s pies were quite outstanding. I think we all enjoyed them, didn’t we?”
There were murmurs and comments of agreement, which at the Day Centre was about the closest thing you’d get to a standing ovation.
“Can we persuade you to tell us your secret recipe, Terry?” she said.
“The pastry’s no secret,” said Terry. “I got it at Iceland.”
“Well the filling was delicious too. What was it? You can tell us that.”
“They were game pies, Miss,” said Terry somewhat reluctantly. I was intrigued because this description sounded much better than meat pies, which conjures up images of off-cuts and unmentionable bits. But game pies, that was something else. I already knew Terry well enough to suspect he’d have a good reason for calling them what he did. Mrs Adams didn’t seem bothered though.
“Well, thank you for making them,” she said, before moving on to other announcements.
I was still busy thinking about Terry’s game pies. I had my suspicions. As far as I knew, there were no Butchers in Wallsend specialising in game and even in Newcastle’s Grainger Market I’d only seen that sort of stuff hanging up at Christmas. He must have poached it.
“Nice pies, Terry,” I said shortly afterwards. “Really tasty. You can definitely teach me the recipe. Even better than my wife Jessie used to make, which is saying something.”
“Cheers mate,” he said. “I knew you’d like ‘em.”
“There’s only one thing,” I said. “What was in them? Whatever it was you can’t have got it in Wallsend.”
“I didn’t. I’ve got me sources elsewhere.”
“You never pinched it did you? I know you’ve done all that survival training with the Army.”
“Nah, man. Course I didn’t nick it. What do you think I am?”
“If you must know, it was road-kill, which can be a bit hitty-missy. Relyin’ on it is a bit like the shops used to be in Russia. You just never know what yer gonna find on the day.”
“Road-kill?” I said, taken aback.
“Aye, it’s good food gannin’ to waste. Sometimes the meat can be a bit mangled up but I was lucky with this lot – hardly a scratch on any of it.”
“Where did you get it? Obviously not from round here.”
“Yer right there. It was from the countryside, but there’s no way I can tell yer where.”
“What sort of meat was it?”
“Pheasant, rabbit and a bit of hedgehog,” he said with a little laugh.
“Hedgehog?” said Michelle who had been eavesdropping on our conversation. “Miss! Miss! Terry says his pies were made from hedgehog.”
It was as if a bomb had hit the room. Some people started yelling, others began to wail, some pretended to be sick, one was sick. The vegetarians were laughing, but Mrs Adams was furious.
“Terry, come to my office, right now,” she said, her liberal politeness vanishing like the morning mist.
“It’s not true folks,” Terry protested as he followed her across the room. “I was only havin’ a laugh with Ash. Course it’s not hedgehog. Hedgehog meat’s far too dry to use in a pie.”
This pronouncement only fanned the flames he’d already so successfully lit.
“What was in it then?” asked Barry the punk rocker.
“Pheasant and rabbit,” said Terry. “Canny good stuff.”
“You’re a bastard, Terry,” said Julie breaking her silence for the very first time.
“For the last time, it wasn’t hedgehog. Honest. I’ve never even tried hedgehog,” said Terry seemingly unaware of the therapeutic breakthrough with Julie he’d just helped to achieve.
“I’ve got a pet rabbit,” Julie continued. “You made me eat one of Mr Fluffy’s relatives.”
“And he scraped it off the road,” said Michelle, not to be denied her news scoop, even if the hedgehog part of the story now appeared to be untrue.
“Urgh”, “Yuk,” and other sounds of distaste were heard from the previously satisfied diners, as Terry disappeared into Mrs Adams’s office.
He was gone for about ten minutes during which time things in the room calmed down, plates were cleared away and the washing up finished. No real harm had been done.
When Terry emerged from his meeting with Mrs Adams, she shepherded him away from the rest of us but he said something to her, to which she nodded her assent. He came across to speak to me.
“Ash mate, the Boss thinks it would be best for everyone if I left,” he said.
“For the rest of the day?”
“Nah, permanent like. She says I’m not makin’ any therapeutic progress and I’m hinderin’ others, so I should probably go.”
“She can’t do that,” I said. “It was only a bit of fun – a private joke between us. You made all that effort to cook something special and now they’re chucking you out. She was singing your praises ten minutes ago. That’s not fair.”
My voice was raised and Mrs Adams began to come across. Terry saw it and broke off. “I’ll see yer around Ash. We can meet up for a cuppa. Mind how you go.”
With that, he was escorted from the building, never to return. I didn’t go in the following Monday either and sent them a letter to say it wasn’t really helping me and I wouldn’t be going back.
It was Thursday afternoon of the following week before I next saw Terry when we met at a local café. I started to apologise for my part in his discharge from the centre but he cut me short.
“Ash man, it’s not your fault. It’s nobody’s fault. Not mine, not Michelle’s not even Mrs Adams and the Day Centre. They were fightin’ a losin’ battle. It’s me diagnosis that’s to blame. I’m untreatable. That’s all there is to it.”
True to form, the expulsion wasn’t going to knock Terry back.
He had a carrier bag with some shopping in it and before I could say anything further, he handed it to me.
“There ya go Ash,” he said. “Welcome to Terry’s school of cookin’. Here’s yer ingredients for lesson one.”
I looked inside the bag. There was a block of frozen pastry, a scruffy looking toy rabbit with a label round it’s neck saying Mr Fluffy, a scrubbing brush with eyes painted on it to make it look like a hedgehog and a large, very dead pheasant, still with its plumage and tail feathers. I was speechless.
“That’s top-quality pheasant, Ash. Fresh off the road this mornin’. The stuff I use is often battered, but never bettered,” he said with a laugh. “You ready for the cookery lesson?”
Since I’d stopped going to the Day Centre, I’d been reflecting on my life. Maybe the doctor was right and I hadn’t needed therapy so much as a friend to spend time with and have a bit of a laugh. How strange though that it was an odd ball like Terry who had the key to let me out my prison. It felt scary to leave its safety and security but the cell door was open and this was my chance to walk out.
“Aye, I’m right up for it,” I said. “Bring on the meat pies.”