ON BOXING DAY morning, I went (as I usually do on Boxing Day) to visit my Nan, Florence, who lives in a residential home for the elderly on Canvey Island. And as usual, the friendly matron there invited me to stay to their Boxing Day roast lunch.

Over Christmas, it is customary for staff and residents to take their meals together at one long table in the residents' main sitting room. This democratic gesture is slightly marred, however, by the staff's habit of congregating at one end of the table and gabbling away about their sex lives, while the dozen or so residents are propped up at the other end like a load of stiffs. But one can't blame the staff too much for preferring their own company, I suppose. Most of the residents - Nan included - are too deaf, confused, dispirited, or simply too weary, to initiate or contribute to a conversation about sex or anything else. Some are even too tired to hold their heads up.

Being neither staff nor inmate, I am usually offered a seat half-way down the table, where, with equal ease, I can talk smut with the care assistants on the one hand, or patronise the old folk with banalities on the other. But this year, when told to be seated at the table, I came over all noble and committed myself to a seat right in the midst of the old folk.

In the absence of a starting gun, the matron shouted: "Thank God for food" and banged the table with the back of her dessert spoon - and we got to work with the roast pork, apple sauce and red cabbage. Before tucking in, I broke the ice with the lady on my left, a Mrs Swift, by offering her the other end of my cracker. She grasped it with both hands, gritted her dentures and with surprising strength pulled the end off. I unfolded the paper crown and perched it on her snow-white perm. The motto was a most unfestive one. It said: "In heaven all the interesting people are missing - Nietzsche". After I'd read it out, Nan observed that, "They're all missing in here as well, son."

Emboldened by my cracker, Mrs Swift leaned against me and whispered in my ear. "What am I doing here?" she said.

"You live here," I replied. She drew back from me in utter astonishment. "No!" she said. Then with a furtive gesture that took in the crowded table, the festive candles, the coloured napkins, and the opened bottles of wine, she whispered, "Someone's birthday?"

Leaving Mrs Swift to ruminate on her new surroundings, I turned to the man on my right, Commander Jim Elliot. At 102, Jim was easily the oldest person in the room. A big man still, Jim served with distinction in the Battle of Jutland in 1916 - though he has no recollection of it. He has, however, retained his pre-war naval officer's oriental courtesy, and some of the care assistants publicly testify that he has also retained his sex drive. I struck up a conversation with the Commander by asking him what did he think were the most notable changes to have occurred in his lifetime.

He took my question very seriously and thought long and hard about it. He was chewing a mouthful of pork. I watched his jaw working laterally as well as vertically, and his temple pulsating. Then after about a minute he said: "What was the question again?"

Eventually he told me that in his opinion things had become quite a lot smaller than they used to be. Also, he'd noticed that instead of being rung just once or twice a week, the church bells were now being rung continuously both day and night. He found this, he admitted, "a bit of a bore". He had no idea whether `the good old days" really were better because he couldn't remember them.

And when I congratulated him on his health and vitality, he stated frankly that he wanted to die. He'd done everything he wanted to, he said. All his friends were long dead. And now his mind was going.

"What is the point of going on?" he said, suddenly quite focused, and fixing me in the eye.

There was a raucous peal of laughter from the other end of the table. For a moment I thought they were all laughing at the Commander's startling confession. But they weren't. We didn't even exist.

After lunch we had a game of charades.