Throughout the summer of 2012, Chrissie Giles spent time at the day hospice at Princess Alice Hospice, Esher, running a creative writing group. In a series of posts accompanying our exhibition Death: A self-portrait, she reflects on her experiences there and showcases some of the writing produced by group members.
One of the nurses sat in with the group, revealing in our ‘one thing about me that might surprise people’ opener that she trained to be a baker. The first writing exercise and Freddie*, an ex-cabbie with a keen, dry sense of humour, began: “I’m on a roll to become a baker”.
We were writing letters and Margaret was thinking about how to start hers. “Well,” I asked, “How do you address your son?” “I don’t,” she replied, without missing a beat, “He dresses himself”.
Audrey, as ever, was bursting with things to say – she was so keen that she’d already done the subsequent stages of the letter-writing exercise without any prompting. She wrote a letter to her own “dear lonely heart” and read it out with flashing eyes, the words rolling in her rich accent from pinky-purple painted lips.
She’s a compelling storyteller, often regaling us with stories of her upbringing in South America. In one session, she clasped her book to her chest, proclaiming, “I get it all out into here. I have written my life’s story!” In another, she told us that she’d once lost a job for talking too much.
Freddie, the cockney ex-cabbie, wanted to write a letter to his mum, who – he said – held everyone together during the war. You didn’t have friends then, he explained, because you kept running away from one bomb, then another.
Talking about the best presents we’d ever got or given, he began a story: “All cabbies love a bit of bent gear.” He described giving his wife a top-of-the-range food mixer that she rejected because of her suspicions about where it came from. Apparently, she’s still using it today.
An ambulance siren went off in the distance. Margaret said, “Oh, I don’t like that sound, go away.” She tells us how she was waiting outside the hospital for her taxi the other day. Being a self-confessed chatterbox, she got talking to the man next to her. Just then, a hearse pulled up in front of them. “Is that mine or yours?” she asked.