North Yorkshire is no setting for Calamity Jane. There are no Techni-color skies over Black Hills, no Deadwood stages comin’ on over the hill, and no cheery show tunes breaking out at a moment’s notice. To Sally Granger however, the Yorkshire surroundings in which she lived seemed to have all of these things. Calam’ was everywhere.
‘Make mine a Sarsaparilla’, Sally could often be heard to cockily command at a lunchtime in Westlands. Anyone who worked with her knew that Sarsaparilla actually meant Diet Coke whenever she requested it, leaning against the Westlands lunch-room’s wall with a concentrated expression lifted from Doris Day’s 1953 portrayal of the western character.
Westlands of course was not a saloon in a wild frontier town. Rather, it was Sally’s home for nine years in total, and was well established as one of England’s largest care homes for adults with learning disabilities. Sally had moved to the facility at the age of forty seven, having lived with her mother for her whole life, up to that point. She’d soon become a popular resident at Westlands, as patients and carers alike had quickly warmed to her 1950’s Hollywood musical inflected ways. After a while traits like her Sarsaparilla orders, and various other bastardised sections of the film’s script, ceased to register much with those who spent a great deal of time working with Sally. They did however still manage to retain their ability to lift spirits on a grey or rainy day at Westlands, of which there was no shortage.
‘I’ll be hornswoggled!’, was a favourite oft-quoted line, which Sally managed to find use for on a daily basis, usually several times a day in fact. This was one of the more versatile sound-bytes from her Calamity Jane repertoire and it was used to express anything from surprise to distaste, or even amusement. The combination of the word Hornswoggled’s clumsy articulation in Sally’s Yorkshire accent, and its seeming lack of any relevant meaning in the context ensured that it was typically greeted with at least a faint smile by those heard it.
Prior to Westlands, Sally had spent her forty seven years living with her mother just a few miles away. Her home-town was an exhausted mill town, with residents numbering in the low thousands. In conversation with others at Westlands Sally gave little real detail of her years with her mother, though it was widely accepted that both her upbringing and adulthood must have been spent almost entirely within the confines of the village.
Seemingly mother Granger had been of the then typical view that her daughter’s learning disabilities would limit her chances of any real independence in life, rendering Sally an eternal child. It seemed to most that Sally’s parentally-supervised childhood lifestyle had simply extended long into her adulthood; daily events like her tea-time, T.V. time, brushing-teeth time and bedtime having been dictated by mother right up to Sally’s forty seventh year. An upbringing like this was not uncommon in the files of Westlands residents, nor was it the worst pre-Westlands lifestyle that its carers had heard of – by some significant margin.
When she did speak of her life before Westlands, Sally spoke fondly enough of her mother, though many of the anecdotal accounts of her past were skewed by references from her much cherished Calamity Jane. For example, she would make reference the cause of her mother’s death as her having been ‘sick with tick fever’. This of course bore no truth at all; it was well known at Westlands that Sally’s mother had been taken ill upon collapsing with a sudden cardiac arrest, passing away hours later in Raughdale Hospital. Sally had phoned the ambulance. This was something that all the carers were aware of, and while many might have read it as a traumatic ordeal for Sally, anyone who heard her shrug it off as ‘tick fever’ would soon recognize that it didn’t seem to effect her spirit with any real severity.
Naturally Sally had moved in to Westlands with her own VHS-tape copy of Calamity Jane. It was rarely actually watched during her time at the home though, and she seemed just as happy watching the daily sitcoms and documentaries with her fellow residents. It was clear that Sally had seen the film many many times in her years with her mother and often the carers would joke that there was no need for her to watch her film again, given that ‘she had the soundtrack and full bloody script stored in her head’.
A sturdy, round-faced woman with greying black hair, Sally could scarcely have had less in common with the blonde haired Doris Day, but this was certainly never mentioned to her at Westlands. It wasn’t something that she seemed to have any illusions about either. She never referred to herself as ‘Calamity’, though others sometimes did, and she didn’t draw exclusively from the dialogue and songs of just the film’s titular character either. Early on in Sally’s Westlands years this was cause for some debate amongst the carers: Does she think she is Calamity Jane? Does she think she’s in Deadwood? Does she believe that she’s actually in some musical wild-west reality? These questions were probably over-thinking the subject a little, as Westlands carers with time on a break or in the pub after a shift sometimes tended to, and it was eventually agreed upon that Sally simply really loved the film – to a point of near obsession.
On day trips to town Sally would usually provide the entertainment for the duration of the minibus ride with her singing:
‘Oh the Deadwood stage is a comin’ on over the hill. With the curtains flappin’ and the driver slappin’ the rains! Beautiful sky…. A Wonderful day!…’
The minibus’ passengers and often it’s driver too would join in Sally’s pitch-perfect rendition, with a football-terrace shout at ‘Whip crack away! Whip Crack away! Whip crack awa-ay!’.
The film’s songs could be infectious too and new Westlands employees would very quickly become au fait with their lyrics, finding themselves humming the tunes on their way home, or on a day off. During this period ‘The Deadwood Stage’ became a sort of unofficial anthem for Westlands carers and residents alike.
Graham was Sally’s favourite carer at Westlands, and though he would have been far too professional to admit it, she was almost certainly one of his favourite residents. He’d been one of the older and more experienced carers when Sally came to the home, and in the years that passed he’d become a supervisor of new and junior care staff.
His shifts were often a master-class in managing Sally’s Calamity Jane outbursts for the good of the wider Westlands community. He could tell her to lower her voice if her singing was distressing others (the return-trip minibus sing-along could often be less welcome than the outward journey’s). He had a particular knack for playing along with Sally’s old-western dialogue in a way that didn’t patronise her or make her become self conscious, as had often been the case when others had attempted it.
‘Sally, y’big Galloot, keep it down – every rooster in town can hear yer!’
Graham really made this work to his advantage, which was also probably instrumental in maintaining Sally’s popularity at Westlands too, especially on the early mornings when singing and pretend gun-fighting really would have started to grate upon the home’s population. One Easter the pair performed the musical’s comical duet ‘I Could Do Without you’ for the other residents, after Graham was entrusted to borrow Sally’s precious VHS-tape for two weeks, in order to learn the song’s lyrics and choreography.
It typically fell to Graham to speak to Sally on any occasion that she’d caused a problem in Westlands, though these were actually quite rare. The time for example, on a visit to town, when she referred to a pair of boisterous Asian teenagers as dadgum Injuns within their earshot; Graham was the one to speak to the two young men in the immediate aftermath to explain the situation. They’d been quick to voice their indignation at the comment, but Graham was able to tactfully explain Sally’s learning disabilities to them as well as his own position within the group.
There were countless incidents like this on trips to town over the years in which Graham would step into the fray, any time one of the various Westlands residents managed to offend or attract a negative response from the locals. This was perhaps the main reason that he had Sally’s total respect. He showed no fear in situations like this, confident in the knowledge that he was on the side of good, with a self-assured northern-accent paired with his former rugby player’s build (complete with cauliflower ears) to back it up. Graham’s overall presence played no small part in ensuring that the two Injun teenagers accepted Sally’s childishly delivered apology that day in town.
Sally’s care needs were in fact considerably less than those of many of her fellow residents. Perhaps the most notable contrast was with a severely autistic young man named Tom. He’d required an increasing amount of Graham’s care as the years passed. Graham was also Tom’s favourite carer, which could sometimes lead to Sally’s vying for his attention.
Often she would tag along for walks that Graham took with Tom. This usually didn’t cause a problem, though Sally’s breaking into song or loudly delivered line of wild-west dialogue had a tendency to startle Tom, who could easily be caught off guard. On these occasions Tom could become irritable, or even violent, which usually meant he’d require Graham’s full, undivided attention for the rest of the day. Tom’s unpredictability in this way, combined with his young man’s physical strength, was one of the reason’s that the burly Graham was deemed the best equipped carer to work with him.
There were days that Sally wouldn’t spend any time with Graham at all if he was working with Tom, and over time she did appear to resent Tom a little for this. She could easily get her own back on Tom later for taking up all of her favourite carer’s time, and she was well aware of the ways to wind the young man up. She knew, for example, that switching off the television during an episode of one of his ritually watched television shows would instantly distress him, causing an immediate eruption of red-faced shrieking and moaning.
On one stand-out occasion, a year or two before she died, Sally blew in Tom’s face during one of his non-interruptible T.V. sessions. This happened just a few hours after Graham’s shift had finished, on what had been one of Tom’s particularly demanding days. Tom’s instinctive response to Sally’s invasion of his space was to swing a half-clenched right fist at her with considerable force, knocking her to the ground with a girlish whimper. She promptly rose to her feet and growled with all the conviction of Wild Bill,
‘The next man that laughs is going to get his head ventilated!’
She’d addressed this to the room, though it contained only a handful of Westlanders, none of whom had actually shown any signs of laughing at all.
‘I’ll be hornswoggled, Sally. You know Tom can be tricky sometimes, he’s hit me like that before, you have to leave him to it sometimes, you know that. Anyway, he can’t say it himself, but I know he’s sorry for hitting you, he didn’t mean it. Yer big galloot.’
Sally had been glad to receive Graham’s council the following morning, and after this incident she did seem to show a greater level of understanding for Tom’s need to take up Graham’s time; though it wasn’t always that easy,
‘We’re all just here lookin’ for our pot of gold, I guess Tom ain’t no different.’,
Sally had replied to a slightly bemused Graham. He later tried to decipher whether she’d drawn some genuine wisdom from her favourite script in this instance, or whether this was simply another randomly selected line shoe-horned into context. Years later he would find himself watching the film in its entirety, noting down all of the scraps of dialogue that Sally used.
Westlands was a lot quieter in the weeks after Sally’s passing. Her absence was noticeable at every daily and weekly event in the care home that followed it, starting with the missing presence of a confidently spoken middle-aged cowgirl at each mealtime. There was a noticeable absence of singing on the silent minibus trips to town, and upon the subsequent return to Westlands having just blown in from the windy city.
Sally had fallen suddenly in Westlands’ living room, clutching her chest and dropping her sarsaparilla on the home’s blue carpet, as though shot from a distance by an invisible arrow. Everyone agreed that it was somehow better that it happened on one of Graham’s shifts, if it had to happen at all. Graham missed her as much as the rest of Westlands did, though he never spoke about it much after she was gone.
‘I’ll be hornswoggled’ he’d said to her quietly as she died on the care home carpet.