The restaurant at our local department store has closed. It is
reopening shortly as a “breakfast bar”. Apparently it is going
upmarket, looking for a more selective clientele. This probably
means there will be no more “pensioner days” – Wednesdays when
over-60s could get a two-course lunch cheap (fish and chips and a
nice pudding with custard). These were always the busiest times,
when the self-service queues were longest and the helpful counter
staff would take food over for older people who couldn’t manage on
But I remember the restaurant best as one of the places I was first
able to go to after coming out of psychiatric hospital. At last I
was able to go out again. Then, for the first time in years, I had
a job and some money – so we could go out for a meal occasionally.
It was like coming to life again. My regular meal became two rolls,
butter and cheese with a mug of coffee and plastic pot of cream.
There was even a piano in the restaurant at that time. Jack used to
play at lunch times. It was always classical music, except when he
played Happy Birthday for someone. As weeks passed, I
began to get to know a group of other regulars. Jack, of course,
who had had his own experience of life-threatening illness and
mental health services. Katy, an older woman who knew the staff and
it was always “Hello” and a chat. Then I met Anne who had learning
difficulties and began to go to classes at a local college, which
she really enjoyed. Then there was Dave. I wasn’t too keen on him
to start with, but as we got chatting he talked about his mental
health difficulties and the problems of being HIV-positive and I
realised here was another kindred spirit.
For someone like me, getting back into the world, this was just the
kind of contact I wanted. A friendly “Hello”, a few words if you
felt like it (or up to it) and an unspoken camaraderie and warmth.
A real sense of no one judging you.
Then after a couple of years of easy acquaintance, Katy died. She
was taken ill in the restaurant. It was all very quick. Blossom, a
cook at the restaurant and I went to pay our respects at the
undertakers. It was a shocking experience when we stood next to the
open coffin. Katy had been embalmed and what we saw bore no
relation to our friend. We found out she was much older than she
had let on – in her nineties. Suddenly Blossom began to sing hymns
over Katy in a strong clear voice and respect returned. This became
one of the most dignified and moving occasions I can remember.
Then, bit by bit, our group broke up and now it is lost in my life.
I have happy and important memories. I feel I owe the others a lot.
We were a happy little band of brothers and sisters. I wonder if
some successors of ours will manage to take over a corner of the
smart new breakfast bar. If so, I hope they’ll save me a
Peter Beresford is a mental health system