Once tea was poured and pleasantries were over, talking began. I was round at Martha’s and on that particular morning our discussion naturally turned to the previous night’s final of Strictly Come Dancing and to its winner, the drummer Harry Judd. ‘Strictly’ is not everyone’s favourite programme but Martha and I are devotees and in Martha’s case it is spellbinding as it transports her, as she says, to another place.
Notes were exchanged – how graceful his waltz, how dynamic his Charleston – and there then followed some confessions: “I always wanted Harry to win”. “He was my favourite too”. “Weren’t we lucky”. At this she lent forward in her chair, beamed with mischievous pleasure, raised her right hand and we high-fived. Nothing special in that except that on her next birthday Martha will be 100.
Although her vision is failing, she watches ‘Strictly’ religiously and has done so for years. And each time she is keen to know more about those taking part. Luckily I had googled Harry before I left home, so when her questions came, as inevitably they did, answers were at hand – he lives as married, his girlfriend is a classical violinist. On hearing this, Martha was happy.
Although Strictly is spellbinding, she confided that the pleasure it gave her was nothing compared to how she was carried away when, a few days earlier, she had heard the duet of Siegmund and Sieglinde. Martha knows Wagner well, not only because as a young women in the late 1920s she had been a student of opera, but also because earlier still in the early 20s she had heard her father singing Siegmund’s part to serenade her mother. For all sorts of reasons the duet simply took Martha out of herself.
Martha’s mind remains sharp, offering wisdoms and insights, giving keen commentaries on current affairs and entertaining us with wonderful anecdotes. Her story of how she, a young Jewish woman, watched Hitler hectoring the crowds in a packed town square in her native Germany, is chilling. Eighty years on, Martha is housebound and lives alone – time passes very slowly. And as she often says almost whimsically, “A hundred years is a long time”. In reality, it is the diversions that help make her days more bearable.
Visits from family and friends help her enormously, although I rather suspect she sometimes finds some of us (me anyway) a little demanding. More diverting, because of its capacity to ‘transport’ her, is music on the TV and occasionally the radio and it is this that truly allows her to forget herself. All sorts of music will do, but it is opera, and more especially her beloved Wagner, that provides the most reliable escape. And the transient heaven can last for hours as she is carried away, leaving all thoughts of mundane difficulties behind.
Of course, transportation is not unique to Martha. On some days I will escape by watching football on TV or laughing to some comedy radio programme. The difference between us is that, by comparison, my need to be carried away is small. Importantly, according to Martha, it is being transported out of oneself that offers those in her position one of the greatest pleasures, and such transportation depends very much on events in the here and now.