The envelope was buried beneath a pile of bills and take-away flyers. It was the kind of handwriting that looked like it could be from a grandparent, but I didn’t recognise it as being my grandma’s. The front of the card did not give anything away either: just a single, colourful flower. And then I opened it.
“Dear Kevin and Danielle, thank you both for the card last Christmas. I had so many from all around the world. I’m trying to reply to anyone who sent their address.” I read the lines again and my memory took me back to exactly one year ago, when I came across a newspaper advertisement by an Irishman called James Gray. The same James Gray who had now surprised me with a card through the letterbox.
The ad had originally run in the Irish Post, a publication for Irish migrants in London. It consisted of just a couple of lines, simply asking for some company at Christmas. James Gray had spent Christmas Day alone for the past decade and, aged 85, decided that enough was enough. He figured that if he was lonely during the holiday season, maybe there would be more people in a similar situation.
Sadly, there are. According to the charity Age UK, over half a million elderly people in Britain spend Christmas Day alone. And loneliness is a reality year-round for many more, as half of those aged 75+ now live alone. Ten percent of over 65s say they are always or often feel lonely – that is more than a million people. Half of all the elderly consider the television their main form of company.
Within two weeks, his south London flat was packed with more Season’s Greetings than he had ever had in his life.
Mr Gray’s initial advertisement had knocked him back. He had only received one reply and the lady who had offered to visit cancelled in the end. But an Irish Post reporter decided to write about the request. Soon after the initial article ran, offers started pouring in. The pensioner received over 1,000 cards and gifts from around is native Ireland and as far as Australia, Chile and the US. Crucially, he found a couple kind enough to travel to a place near him for Christmas dinner.
I had shown the story to my Irish boyfriend and we both regretted being away from London for Christmas. Like every year, we would travel home to visit family and friends, while Mr Gray had none. I sent a card to the newspaper, who were collecting post on Mr Gray’s behalf. I wrote about our backgrounds, roots and our place in London and offered to come visit him in the New Year, if he would like that of course.
When I read about the avalanche of cards that had been sent by Irish school children and even expats in Japan, I never expected Mr Gray to read, let alone reply, to them all. Imagine my surprise when I opened that post card a few weeks ago. I read the lines over and over, trying to imagine what life must have been like for this man who I had only met by correspondence.
“I come from near Cork,” the letter continued. “Came to England [in] 1952. Now I’m disabled and in poor health. No family or relations, have been very unlucky in my life.” Mr Gray was born in a workhouse in the Irish town of Midleton. His heavily pregnant mother had been evicted from their nearby home for “bringing shame on the town”. Little James was left the mercy of the Christian Brothers at one of Ireland’s notorious industrial schools that were shamed in the 2000 Murphy Report for endemic child abuse.
He started working as a young teenager and eventually escaped a life of poverty by boarding a ship to London. “You see, you have to be strong if you are pushed out into the world on a farm when you are 14, with a suit of clothes, a prayer book and a set of rosary beads and about 30 shillings,” he told a reporter.
Life took a turn for the better in London once Mr Gray managed to get work as a butler. A far cry from his rural roots, he catered for the most fancy events, including one which Ronald Reagan attended. He was briefly married, but luck in love was not to last and upon retirement a life of isolation began.
Ever since Christmas last year, Mr Gray has been working his way through the pile of cards on his table, answering a few at a time. Earlier this month, he reached ours and wrote a reply. He signed the card: “Best wishes to your both. James,” followed by his London landline number. He had underlined it, which I took as an invitation to ring him up.
“Oh Danielle, hello!”, he answered, not even sounding surprised. “And your partner is from Kerry, isn’t it?” I was humbled and impressed, realising that out of one thousand cards he had not only remembered our names, but our backgrounds too. He went on to ask if we still lived in the same part of London and was keen to learn more about our lives. When I offered to come visit him some time soon, he said he would prefer us to come in the New Year, “when the weather is not so bad”. I tried to explain that we would be just fine in the car, but he was not quite convinced. “Maybe your partner can ring me first,” he suggested. I guess it must be the Irish accent that he misses the most…