oh mother dear

Marla is standing supporting herself against the wall, her arms straight out in front of her, the fingers of each hand spread like claws. All she’s wearing is a small white vest and a pair of scrappy pink knickers, bunched up at the groin like a Band-Aid round the apex of a wishbone.
‘Are you all right, Marla?’
I put my bag down and go straight over.
‘What? Yes, yes. Perfectly fine. Why wouldn’t I be?’
‘I don’t know. You look a little stuck.’
‘I’m not stuck. I’m feeding les petits cochons d’inde.’
For the first time I notice a plate of chopped carrot and lettuce in a Tupperware box on the floor just under the table. She must have been en-route to the guinea pigs in the sitting room when she felt herself going and had to grab on to the wall.
‘Do you speak French?’ she says.
‘Schoolboy,’ I say. ‘Un peu, malheuresement.’
‘Ah – the English! Absolutely appalling at languages.’
‘Let me get a chair for you,’ I say, picking one up, bringing it over and setting it ready behind her. ‘Une chaise. Just in case.’
She tuts, but her legs are about to give way and she collapses into it.
‘That’s better!’ she says. ‘Now then. What do you want?’
‘I’m Jim, from the Rapid Response Team at the hospital.’
‘Ah! Lucky Jim! How I envy him…’
‘I’ve just come round to see how you are, to make sure you’re okay. How are you feeling? Any pain?’
Take my hand, oh mother dear, in truth I feel a little queer… or something like that. Do you like the Victorians? We added queer of course. Although it didn’t mean what it does today.’
‘Shall I feed the guinea pigs for you?’
‘That would be marvellous, thank you. Would you mind giving Rupert a little extra? He’s bigger and does more.’
After I’ve emptied the box I come back into the kitchen to make Marla some black tea and to check her blood pressure. It’s been low all week – probably due to low weight than any infection.
‘Do you know my favourite quote from Shakespeare?’ she says, taking a tiny sip of tea and then composing herself again. ‘Aroint thee witch the rump-fed runyon cries!’
‘I love that play. It has such great language. And it’s short.’
‘Terribly unlucky to quote from it, of course,’ she says, tapping the SATS probe on her finger. ‘Is this doing anything?’ she says. ‘Still alive, am I?’
‘Pretty good. Everything’s fine apart from your blood pressure.’
‘Ah, well, you see. My father was ninety-three when he died. I take after him. Cursed with longevity. Not like my mother. She had terrible health problems, poor woman. Arthritis and so on. Stuck in bed for the last few years. I was working in a West end show at that time, in the chorus, and I really had no time to look after her. So I hired Mrs Tubbs to pop in now and again. An old family friend. Although my mother couldn’t stand her. One day I was tucking mummy in and she said to me Could you be a sweetie and bring me up that little black handled knife from the kitchen? And I said Well whatever for? And she said I’m going to stick it in Mrs Tubbs’ back. Maybe THAT will stop her coming round all the time. I said Don’t you think that would make rather a mess? And d’you know what she said? Don’t be silly, darling, I’ll give her a handkerchief…guineapig

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