Unsentimental journey

E Jane Dickson enjoys a pitiless portrait of old age; The Waiting Game by Bernice Rubens, Little, Brown, pounds 15.99,

If Bernice Rubens ever goes to the US, she could find herself picketed by Betty Friedan and her commandos of the Third Age. In an era when senior citizens are exhorted to cast off their Zimmer frames and take up bungy-jumping, Rubens's new novel presents a vision of old age that owes nothing to political correctness.

"The Hollyhocks" is a home for the aged on England's south coast. For the retired gentlefolk who live there, it is a kind of pre-purgatory, a place of small comfort where everyone is waiting to die. It is the house rule that this pencilled appointment with the reaper should under no circumstances be acknowledged. Residents who flout regulations are severely dealt with. When the mild-mannered Mrs Hughes becomes incontinent her peers round on her with the ferocity of "pack baboons": "She knew that they were complaining, not because of her unkempt appearance or her rancid smell. It was because she was a constant reminder to them all that wetting one's knickers and going to bed with one's shoes on was an essential rule of the waiting game they were all playing. She herself, wet and dishevelled, embodied the check before the final mate."

It is rare for a novelist to dwell on the reality of old age. The aged in fiction, and arguably in life, are generally relegated to comedy cameos or else to their characters in flashback. In dealing with the circumscribed here and now of her characters' lives, Rubens shows clear- eyed compassion. Unconstrained by authorial overview, The Hollyhocks' residents re-invent themselves as they see fit. The players' true natures are only gradually revealed and the effect of this slow denouement is all the more shocking.

Beneath the refined ritual, passions and perversion are stirring. The residents' secret lives include clandestine addictions, chat lines, cherry brandy, an upper-class blackmail business, sexual sadism and apocalyptic Nazi war crimes.

Rubens is grimly determined that her readers should see beyond the shawls and slippers. When little Miss Bellamy starts shrieking obscenities to the baby Jesus on the Christmas tree, her libidinous ravings are dismissed by matron as "a little turn"; "`Is that what they called it?' Miss Bellamy laughed. `Well it was a turn in its way but a very big turn. I turned into my true self.'"

Rubens has a sharp ear for the gentle soundings of the middle classes and a killer instinct for scenting hypocrisy. A strange nephew with great expectations turns up at his aunt's funeral with "a solemn face as separate as a handkerchief". Merciless in her judgement of individuals, Rubens shows strong sympathy for the general plight of her characters. The Hollyhocks' residents, however affluent, are the castaways of society, marooned on their comfortably appointed island and left to die.

A well-meaning Christmas gift of fancy writing paper becomes a poignant symbol of their condition. "There were those who were in awe of the sheer expense of the gift, and for the moment that awe procured any action. But there were those who bypassed the awe, unimpressed by the cost, and found the gift faintly offensive. For what purpose could it be used? To whom could they write `how are you' or `thank you for your visit' or `how kind of you to remember my birthday' or `many thanks for your invitation'. To whom could they write anything at all? The wounds of loneliness and isolation were painful enough without Mrs Feinberg's sprinkling of a pinch of salt."

On the whole, Rubens is a better storyteller than she is a stylist. The central image of the waiting game is laboured to a point where it becomes irritating, with the reader actively willing the players to die and be done with it. But it is the unmistakable odour of despair that hangs in the nostrils long after this honest and humane book is set aside.

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