Eileen Hicks, of Felixstowe, is staging a fashion show with a difference
- Credit: Su Anderson
Eileen Hicks knows how dementia can ‘steal’ the person you married. When she realised she could help fight the disease, she vowed to act
She’s lovely, she is,” says Phil Hicks as his wife goes to fetch a photograph of their wedding. “I was 19!” Eileen laughs, handing me the frame. March 28, 1959, it was when they were hitched. “If you got married before the first of April, you got all the tax back from the year! You were so hard up, that was important.”
They’d lived next-door to each other in Leytonstone – “I’ve known him since I was five and he was nine” – and it took off after they became pen-pals.
Eileen was a teenager back in England and Phil was serving in the army, in Hong Kong, with The Essex Regiment. She and her pals, short of blokes because of post-war national service, decided to find pen-pals. “I said ‘I’m going to write to Philip Hicks, ’cos I like him!’
“I liked him from about 13, 14, when you start getting interested. Girls were different then. Young girls now look like they’re 18. I still wore my grey pleated skirt and my socks until I left school!”
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(It’s not very PC this, so we’ll whisper it, but Eileen’s initial letters were met with silence. Then she included a photograph of herself on holiday, in her swimsuit… and got a reply! So the costume picture swung it? “The swimsuit did it! When he was getting the letters, he was only remembering that girl in the grey pleated skirt and the socks!”)
Married life began in rented accommodation – in a not particularly salubrious part of east London. No three-piece suite. A two-bar electric fire. But they had each other and they had love.
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They’ve still got it. That’s clear. And it’s vital in helping them deal with Phil’s dementia, diagnosed a couple of years ago or so.
The challenges involve more than the stereotypical memory loss. Sometimes, Eileen admits, “It’s as if I’m married to someone else, to be honest. You’ve really got to go through it to know it.
“I met a lady on the beach yesterday [during the photoshoot for this article]. I said ‘This is for dementia’, and mentioned it. She held my hand and said ‘I know.’”
“Everybody was the same in terms of being hard up. You just saved up,” remembers Eileen of life as a young couple in the late 1950s. “There was none of this going to the bank and getting loans. Everybody was the same, so it was no big deal.”
After a while they moved out Romford way and then – about 40 years ago, when their son was 18 months old – came to Suffolk: a county Eileen describes as a land of opportunity. (“I’ve got four children who founded businesses on their own.”)
It was the expansion of insurance giant Willis Faber & Dumas, and Phil getting a job with the broker, that allowed the move to happen. (In the early 1970s it put up its iconic Norman Foster-designed black-glass building in Ipswich.)
Later, Phil co-owned a snooker club down on the Ipswich waterfront. It did well; very well – until, Eileen says, the BBC’s popular Pot Black programme was ditched in 1986.
“That’s how fickle people are. At the moment we’ve [the UK] done well in cycling. My son-in-law’s got a bike shop; making a fortune! Everyone wants the high-standard type of bike. Same with snooker. They took Pot Black off the telly – this was the time of Steve Davis, Jimmy White – people stopped coming in.”
They called it a day when Phil was 60 and the lease was up for renewal, selling their house in Ipswich, and even their car, to tidy up all the finances and clear the decks.
Eileen had her own entrepreneurial zeal. A member of Felixstowe Amateur Dramatic and Operatic Society, she was bemused how local groups often trekked to Southend to hire costumes. Turned out the nearest places were in Essex or Norfolk. So, a gap in the market. She went for it.
“This is the gospel truth. With £6 in my purse – it was the ‘beginning’ of charity shops – I bought a pair of curtains for a fiver or whatever. I made my first costume. I made a plan. Every day, as if I was going to work, I would make a costume, until I had 100.”
Eileen put an advert in a sweetshop window. This was about 1990 and her home-based enterprise attracted so much interest that, often, “the house was full. Bedrooms, bathroom – always someone changing!”
Pretty soon, Phil said they needed to look for a shop with living accommodation above. They found one in Gainsborough Road, Felixstowe, and ran Chuckles for a decade or so before selling up.
That background in fancy-dress and costume hire is now proving handy, with Eileen staging a catwalk-style fund-raising event for dementia and Alzheimer’s research. There’ll be fashion, music and memories from the 1930s, ’40s, ’50s and ’60s.
It’s a big, local, Felixstowe effort. FADOS is lending costumes free of charge, as is the modern incarnation of Chuckles (based in High Road West). Town centre business Pierrot Stationers has produced some lovely tickets, gratis.
The event has certainly captured the imagination. Word of mouth created momentum even before posters went up about a week ago. On Monday, Eileen had already sold £1,200 of tickets. “So I’m about halfway there already! The room can seat 250. I’m quite relaxed now!”
To top it all, she says Barclays bank will match the amount raised, pound for pound, up to £1,000.
It was a piece in the paper that spurred Eileen into action – early suggestions that the drug solanezumab might be able to slow the pace of brain decline for patients with early-stage Alzheimer’s.
If she could stop other people suffering in future, she was going to help.
“The country is in a state; the NHS is in a state – the money’s got to go to children, the young ones – so I thought ‘What can I do?’
“I was never a whizz-kid at school, but what I can do is costumes. What about not quite a fashion show but something different: costumes through the ages?”
As well as putting money into dementia and Alzheimer’s research, society needs to talk much more about the effect the conditions have on both sufferers and their carers, she says.
The symptoms run much further than forgetfulness. “Believe me, if it was only that... It’s a lot more.”
Eileen knows what it’s like. The sufferer waking in the night, insisting he or she has to be somewhere else. Wandering about in the small hours. Getting fixated on a particular thought. Forgetting their children’s names. Thinking his or her spouse is younger than is the case.
It’s not easy for those responsible for daily care.
The event should last more than 90 minutes, and include a raffle.
There will be six “fantastic” singers, says Eileen, and a range of songs to evoke the atmosphere of each era – including the toe-tapping sound of The Andrews Sisters.
The 1960s finale – think mini-skirts, high boots and colourful hippie clobber – will end with a powerful number: Rhythm of Life, from the musical Sweet Charity.
Volunteers are acting as models, including friends from the drama group and Eileen and Phil’s three daughters. “They’re all daddy’s girls,” she laughs.
Phil should be there, too – in the audience. He used to act with FADOS. Bill Sikes in Oliver! was one, says his wife, and dustman Alfred Doolittle in My Fair Lady, “Cockney, and the deep tones he’s got”.
(In reality, it’s Eileen who’s the genuine Cockney. Phil, from Leytonstone, was born a little too far from Bow Bells to qualify!)
Phil, right, with his wife, dressed as a GI for our pictures; and he still enjoys being taken for a frame or two of snooker. He plays a good game.
Eileen has become very aware of the realities of dementia. She’d like to see more help for carers. There’s a financial cost. (She spends £100 a week on a carer to take her husband for a game of snooker, and there’s a day centre visit.) And, of course, there’s an emotional price.
She talks to others in the same boat. “It is about the carer. He lives in his little world; he forgets things, but he’s all right in his world.” She adds: “He’s only as ‘good’ as I am. I’ve been ‘terrible’ – because I didn’t understand it all [early on]. You learn it all...”
The condition becomes the carer’s problem, effectively. “Suddenly, that person isn’t the person you married. So: depression, low, crying all the time. But this” – organising the through-the-ages fashion, music and memories catwalk show – “has brought me out of my depression.
“So what I’m going to do next year, I don’t know!” she laughs. “You’ve just got to think of something else now, haven’t you!”
Go and support it
Eileen’s catwalk show of fashion, music and memories from the 1930s through to the 1960s is in aid of dementia and Alzheimer’s research.
It’s on Friday, October 16, at 7.30pm.
Venue: The Orwell Hotel, Hamilton Road, Felixstowe
From J&C Webb’s shop in Orwell Road, Felixstowe, or by phoning 01394 277341