At "The Hollyhocks" old people's home, the inhabitants are "waiting for the scythe". But while they are waiting...Lady Celia is running a blackmailing business, Mr Cross keeps a tally of fellow residents' deaths on the back of his wardrobe, and then there is the rabid old Scots nationalist, and Mrs Green, a woman with a mysterious past. Hardly surprising in this environment that Mrs Bellamy decides she can't take any more and slits her throat. When Matron hushes it up, Lady Celia sees an opportunity to expand her blackmailing operation. Meanwhile two new incomers disturb the life of the home further; Mrs Feinberg, a sprightly Jewish woman of whom the other residents are immediately suspicious, and the elegant Mr Rufus.
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This is without a doubt among the best books I've read this summer, and indeed, all year. I've been meaning to read Bernice Rubens's books for several years now, ever since a reviewer on a book site I frequent brought her to my attention. Until then, I wasn't really aware of her work. I'd heard of the movie Madame Sousatzka, based on her novel, because Shirley MacLaine had played the lead role, but had it not been for this reviewer, Rubens might have gone on being completely unknown to me for decades longer, which would have been a sad loss. As it is, I've slowly been accumulating some of her books, and was delighted to discover Isis Publishing had recently put out audiobook versions of a number of her novels, all read by very good narrators.
The Waiting Game of the title takes place at Hollyhocks, a distinguished home for the aged close to Dover, where only the gentry need apply for admission. Matron, who keeps things well in hand, has always seen to that, and she has always been able to sift the scent of class from the other less pleasant effluvia of aging. Lady Celia is queen among the patrons, being the only one of the residents holding a title, and all the other residents defer to her in all matters. Of course nobody has any idea she makes a comfortable living with a thriving blackmailing concern which she runs with the help of a partner and Mr Venables, aka The Ferret. Yet, though they all show her respect, most of the residents dislike Lady Celia because their instinct tells them she will outlast them all. Jeremy Cross has more reason than most to hate her as he's made outliving everyone his one and only obsession. He keeps a constantly updated list of those who have passed away before their time and has every intention of outliving all the other residents at Hollyhocks, especially Lady Celia.
Each resident in the house has his or her secrets and when newcomer Mrs Thackeray arrives, she and Mrs Green become friendly and embark on seemingly harmless fantasy-ridden retellings of the past. After all, Mrs Thackeray had endured a miserable and sexually abusive marriage which isn't fit to talk about, while Mrs Green, well.. she perhaps has more reasons than most to wish to reinvent herself. Of course, for the most part, only the reader is privy to everybody's secrets, though in the end a very big surprise is revealed to everyone. I admit I saw it coming, but this didn't take away from my pleasure one bit.
I'm not sure why it is I enjoy reading about elderly people so much (and here I should specify when I say 'elderly', I do mean old and frail enough to need to be in retirement homes!)—it probably has to do with the fact that having lived so long, and lived through many generations, they've inevitably accumulated life experiences, have fully blossomed into the unique individuals those experiences have forged them into, and invariably have stories to tell, and in the hands of skilled writers, these characters can yield pure magic. Two of my all-time favourite novels feature men and women who are in the winters of their lives: Memento Mori by Muriel Spark and All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West. Both gems which I intend to revisit often and heartily recommend.
I can see lots more Rubens in my future, and this was a great place to start. Narrator Anna Bentinck does this novel full justice. Much recommended.