George would hate you to feel sorry for him. "I'm a very lucky person," he says several times, talking about his hobbies, his neighbours, his wonderful grandchildren. But life is not the same since he lost Ada, his wife of 50 years. "Nothing can fill the vacuum when you've been married that long," he says.
Loneliness is a wretched thing. It saps the energy and gnaws at the soul. It afflicts all age groups, but above all older people, isolated by widowhood, disability and a dwindling circle of friends.
Age Concern, one of three charities that will benefit from The Independent's Christmas appeal, runs day-centres, befriending schemes and good neighbour networks to support the estimated one million older people in Britain who suffer from loneliness.
George is 87 and, since his second stroke, confined to the four walls of his terraced house in Garston, Liverpool. His daughter, Linda, a school librarian, pops in a few times a week. Julie, his home help, visits every Friday, and so does Sylvia, a volunteer with Age Concern.
But there are days when he sees no one, and sometimes he feels so bereft of company that he opens the front door and just stands there, watching the world go by. "I get dreadful fits of what I call `the big L'," he says, his blue eyes misting over. "The evenings are the worst. That's when I really want to talk.
"I get desperately lonely and depressed, feel really sorry for myself. It's being married to someone for so long, I suppose, and being so close."
George is clearly delighted to have visitors. Initially perturbed because we are late, he ushers us into "the snug", a cosy, warm room adjoining the kitchen. There is a tray laid for afternoon tea, with shortbread and mince pies, and the kettle is already filled.
He takes a pinch of tobacco from a pouch and rolls it between bony, liver- blotched fingers. The habit is a relic of his seafaring days. He spent 50 years at sea, first with the Merchant Navy, then with the Mersey Dock and Harbour Board, and there were long hours to wile away with cigarettes and convivial conversation. He brims with stories about voyages to faraway lands, about Liverpool's proud maritime past, about the magic of the ocean.
We drink tea and chat, but he is itching to take us next door to the sitting room, to give us a guided tour of his memories and mementoes, to show us the fruits of a creative talent that he discovered when he retired: poetry, essays, models and paintings.
On a writing desk by the window is a scrapbook dedicated to his grandfather, a sailor in whose footsteps he followed; photographs, certificates of discharge and letters are meticulously filed. An oil painting of one of the old Liverpool docks is propped up against the fireplace. There are dozens of watercolours of maritime scenes, painted in his studio at the back of the house.
This is the tragedy of George and many others. Despite physical frailty, he has lost none of his zest for life. He is sociable, talkative, full of ideas, buzzing with interests. What he lacks, it is painfully plain, is a companion. Several times he pauses mid-conversation to inquire anxiously whether he is boring us.
On top of a cabinet, next to his war medals and skipper's cap, is a faded black and white photograph of a young woman with blonde curls, smiling shyly at the camera. "That's Ada. The picture was taken after we got engaged. I carried it with me right through the war."
They met in a cinema queue in Garston. "It was love at first sight. We got married in 1944, while I was home on leave. I had to go back to sea, but she was my girl for life.
"It was a happy marriage, and a very passionate one too. No way could I ever think of being with another woman. I'd better not talk about it too much, or I'll start weeping. She died four years ago last week. I was devastated; I didn't want to go on."
In the bedroom that they shared, Ada's clothes are still in the chest of drawers, lovingly folded. "It's not a shrine; I just don't see the point of throwing away all her beautiful things," he says. He picks up a gold and enamel bracelet from the dressing table. "I brought her this back from Lisbon during the war."
The last of George's seafaring friends died last month. He wishes that Sylvia, the woman from Age Concern, could visit more often, but she has five other people to see. Liverpool social services has funds to pay expenses for a maximum of 75 volunteers to visit and befriend up to 500 housebound residents.
As we leave, George jokes that he would like to be reincarnated as a Muslim, to be able to have three wives. "That way I'd never be lonely," he says. A few minutes later, about to drive off, we look back over our shoulders. George is still standing in the doorway, waving.Reuse content