Saved by a coffin

Old people

Before I began studying at Highgate School (in North London) in 1965, joining the Combined Cadet Force (‘CCF’) was compulsory. The CCF was military training for teenagers, who were dressed in full military uniforms. The school was well-equipped for CCF training, having an assault course, a shooting range, a fully-equipped armory, and several members of staff who had been, or still were, high ranking military officials. 

Fortunately for me, joining the CCF became voluntary just after I joined the school. The CCF trained on Tuesday afternoons. Those, incuding me, who had opted out of the CCF, had to do something worthy instead of military training.

For a while I was enrolled in ‘Digweed’, a squad of pupils who helped with gardening in the school’s numerous properties. I was assigned to the garden of one of the boarding houses. I could not tell a wanted plant from a weed, and was therefore quite useless. We used to be given cups of tea halfway through the afternoon. It was tea with milk, which I detested in those days. So, my only useful contribution to Digweed was watering plants with the contents of my tea cup.

After a spell of Digweed, I was asked to visit a home for elderly people every Tuesday afternoon. My task was to chat with them. People who know me now will not believe how shy I was when I became a visitor to the home, but I was. The elderly folk living at the home used to sit in high backed chairs arranged around the walls of a large room. I was supposed to talk with them. I tried, but almost all of them were too far gone to respond. These Tuesday afternoon visits were dreary and depressing, as well as being pointless.

There was one old lady, who was very chatty and friendly. However, she was not present every time that I visited. She told me that whenever she could, she would run away from the home, but would always be found and brought back.

One Tuesday, I rang the doorbell of the home. One of the staff opened the front door, but prevented me from entering. Behind her, I saw a coffin resting on a trolley in the hallway. “Best you don’t come in today,” the staff member whispered to me. I know it sounds wrong, but I was really pleased that the coffin had spared me yet another afternoon of misery with those poor distressed gentlefolk.

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