Her bed was next to the upstairs window at the front of the house. She used to sit up in her white nightgown and old-fashioned cap and look out. She always seemed to be there. I don’t know how she ate or washed or went to the toilet. I never actually looked after her. I only went to visit her. Her name was Margaret. For some reason, every-one called her “Migs”.
I never found out exactly when she was born, but she claimed to remember hearing about the armistice at the end of World War One when she was a girl. I think she must have been at least a hundred. If so, she was the best-preserved old person I have ever met. She had nothing wrong with her memory, or her hearing or eyesight. She was just incredibly wrinkled, and thin. She looked as if you could lift her up with one hand, and her cheeks were hollow, as if a normal person had been fixed up to a vacuum-cleaner and had a load of stuff sucked out of them.
She lived in a house on the edge of a cliff on the east coast of Yorkshire. She had always lived there. I think her father bought the house when it was new. She used to tell me very long stories about her parents. They used to go out every Friday and Saturday night, and leave her in the company of a woman called ‘Mrs Strong’, who used to tell her that ‘the bogeyman was coming to get her’. Migs never paid any attention to this, even when she was little. She simply asked Mrs Strong what the bogeyman was going to do when he ‘got’ her, but to this question Mrs Strong was unable to provide a satisfactory answer.
She was a lifelong vegetarian. Her father had been an inspector of slaughterhouses, and insisted on taking his daughter with him to his work at every opportunity. The sight of animals being slaughtered and butchered made her sick, and so she gave up eating meat.
She voted in every election for which she was qualified, including those for the trade union representative at the factory where she worked. She kept telling me, ‘If you don’t speak up for yourself, you can’t complain if people do things that you don’t like’.
I first got to know her because of the erosion. I work for a firm of surveyors, and we do a lot of work for the council, and for most of the local estate agents. I had to take my tape measure to assess the rate at which the cliff at the bottom of Migs’s garden was breaking off. It had been a rate of about ten feet per year, but it had started increasing.
‘Migs, you are going to have to move, I am afraid,’ I told her. I did not bother to tell her that, as well, she would not be able to sell her house: she would be penniless as well as homeless.
‘I’m not moving,’ was all she said. She didn’t shout, or say it insistently or passionately. She just said it, in the same manner as she might have refused the offer of a cup of tea. It was just a fact.
But the erosion was also a fact. I explained it to her three hundred times. She sat through each explanation and I could tell that she understood perfectly what I was saying. But she would not move.
I couldn’t sleep. I started to get free-floating anxiety (so my GP said). He gave me three kinds of pills, none of which seemed to help. I started to forget things and I couldn’t concentrate when I was driving the car. Every day the sea encroached more and more on Migs’s house, and every day she did nothing. I wanted to pick her up and shake her. I wanted her to explain to me why she simply could not get in touch with the council and get re-housed, even if only to somewhere really grotty as a stop-gap.
I even considered drawing out all my savings and buying her a place myself.
The last time I saw her was just after the back of the house, where the kitchen was, had already collapsed. It was a very windy day, and the sea was lashing the cliff. You could see spray flying up above the edge, and you could sometimes even taste a bit of salt on your lip. She was sitting in her accustomed place, looking at the world go by. She waved to me, and smiled. And then she, and all that remained of the house, leaned over backwards and crashed into the North Sea.