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Alice Isn't Happy

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Alice Isn't Happy back

Spencer Woodcock & Denny Derbyshire


Page 45 Review by Stephen

Nor would you be.

Approaching ninety-five, Alice lives a largely sedentary life in sheltered accommodation run by Eileen. Apparently they're called managers now, not wardens. And it's ever so sheltered. They don't get out much.

Every so often Spencer pops by. My guess is that Spencer is in his mid-thirties at this point. He's since moved to the Outer Hebrides by mistake. All it takes is one wrong turn at the traffic lights.

"Do you want your windows washed?"
"Oh, I suppose."

Spencer is working for a support scheme for older people in NW5. I'm not sure if it's exclusively for socialists, but Alice is very much a member - once of the Communist Party until the Soviet Invasion of Hungary in 1956. She wasn't happy then, either.

"What she really wanted was someone to hold forth to about Blair and Brown... and how they were betraying the Labour movement and the working classes.
"I knew that, of course, and it was fine by me. Half our members didn't give a monkeys if their windows got washed or their grass got cut. What they wanted was a little prison visit.
"A break in the routine."

It's May 2002, and if Alice isn't very mobile now, she'll be flat on her back and ever so frail by February 2003. The decline is swift and steep.

Did I mention that this is autobiographical?

Back in December 2001 she was nimble enough to make a dash for it from the sprawling Bluewater shopping centre during a group outing. It was the peak Christmas shopping period so the centre was swarming and locating a little old lady in a blue bobble hat wasn't going to be easy.

"Another check. Security had not seen her. Alice was just gone. That vast pit of capitalist consumption has swallowed her old socialist soul whole."

Or she'd done a total runner. There are so many lovely lines like that.

"By the time we arrived the other bunch had been engulfed. A few flecks of people plankton in a Bluewater sea."

Each era comes with its own colour. I was going to type "season" because this covers little more than a year, but they do seem like eras: varying stages of health and mobility. By the time of the trip to the Chilterns in September 2002 Alice is confined to a wheelchair - for the outing, at least - so is a great deal more manageable, if as difficult as ever. But I don't think "stoical" is the right word to describe Spencer: I think it's "committed". It takes a great deal of effort to wring the right information out of the hospital on his several visits, just to locate her in what seems like Bedlam. Or, as Woodcock calls it, the "Hieronymus Ward".

I'll leave it to Denny Derbyshire to provide the giggles there - it's a fantastic, fantastical tableaux - but they won't last long, for her tour de force is a full page devoted to Alice's ancient hand, each knuckle gnarled like a knotted tree branch, its bony back veined like a mountain range seen from the sky. The shading is subtle, the tips of her fingers just-so.

It's an arresting moment, standing out from the rest of the art which is deeply unglamorous and appropriately bleak, except in its recollections of Soviet Russia and Alice's gypsy lineage, and the view of the Chiltern Hills which prompt them.

There aren't enough graphic novels about old age: A THOUSAND COLOURED CASTLES, CEREBUS: THE LAST DAY... The title CAN'T WE TALK ABOUT SOMETHING MORE PLEASANT INSTEAD? sums the subject up, really.

"How are you doing, Alice?"
"Oh. Not too bad."

Bedridden, drained, with a drip sticking into her skin: "Not too bad."

"Her voice is weak and slightly tremulous.
"The venom is drained out of it.
"As if all the piss and vinegar has been sucked out through those tubes.
"She has to take a little rest before managing another sentence."

It's the most surprising sentence in the book.

"Thanks for coming to see me."