It’s made of rice. Not many people know that. It’s very useful, says Hilda, because if the Chinese ever run out of food, they can eat the Wall. There’s a lot to be said for edible buildings.
Hilda is eighty five years old, though her estimate of when she was born varies, and frankly, it’s irrelevant. She has the playful, slightly macabre and mischievous imagination of an eight year old.
When I suggest that, given how many Chinese there are, the Great Wall might not last long in a famine, Hilda says they can eat the herbiage growing on top of it. Because, she says, all the bodies buried in the Wall have composted into excellent nutrients. She’s philosophical about human tragedy, real or imagined. She says with some relish that in China, girl babies are thrown in the river and ‘drown along with all the other rubbish’. Then the fish eat them. But ‘fish have to eat, don’t they.”
She reminds me of another old lady I met in a ward once, who asked my brother where she could get blackbirds. When he asked her what for, she said she wanted them to put in a pie, of course. Hilda prefers strawberries, which she puts under the mattress to avoid sharing with the carers and fellow-inmates. Better squashed than gone, she says.
And yet, the book hardly exists that Hilda hasn’t read, from Dostoevsky to Robert Fisk to Germaine Greer. She doesn’t like to socialise in the nursing home – the other women talk only about their health and the staff make her play silly games, involving balls and bingo. Other people’s grandchildren bore her.
Her memories have become a story read long ago and half forgotten. Did she spend twenty years in a Russian gulag? Was she a British prisoner of war? A slave in Byzantium? A spy? She says she was. Who knows. She talks of many admirers, doing the hokey pokey when it was fashionable, flirting with the handsome victims of motorcycle crashes as a nurses’ aide in some hospital, somewhere, singing anti-Russian songs in Finnish, and her mother, a Polish aristocrat’s concubine. It would make a better novel than most, if she could be bothered with the details. “Of course,” she says impatiently when I ask when and where, “of course! Don’t you know that!”. I’m trying to put down anchors in this plot, Hilda is floating free as plankton.
When I get home from visiting the nursing home, I google rice and the Great Wall of China, and guess what, she’s not wrong. Well, not entirely, the bricks were stuck together with rice and sand, a kind of mortar. Hilda’s little joke, not so confused after all. Never underestimate old ladies.