white camellias

There’s an ancient, framed tapestry above the fireplace: white camellias in bloom. I’m sure Mae’s grandmother was a babe in arms when the last thread was tied and the tapestry hung on display; now, Mae is ninety-three, bowed with scoliosis, and the camellias have faded almost to nothing behind the glass.
Beneath the tapestry are two black and white photographs: Mae as a young woman – three-quarter profile, looking stage left with a Margaret Lockwood wistfulness; and opposite, a young airman, leaning in, laughing, a pipe in his hand.
‘Mae used to be an actress,’ says Leonora, the carer.
‘Wow!’
Mae grunts.
‘What was your favourite role?’ I ask her, bunching up her dressing gown to make room for the blood pressure cuff.
‘I was glad when anything came my way,’ she says. ‘Look – are you sure this is absolutely necessary?’
‘I won’t do it if you really don’t want me to, Mae, but the doctor said to keep an eye on you. Especially after all these falls you’ve been having.’
‘Oh, very well…’
The Velcro of the cuff gets snagged on the fluff of her dressing gown, which doesn’t improve her mood.
‘So you were an actress? How wonderful!’ I say, pressing on. ‘What did you prefer? Tragedy? Comedy? Musicals?’
‘It’s all the same.’
‘I suppose so.’
‘Do you?’
‘Well I don’t really know.’
‘Don’t you? Hmm.’
Her observations are quite good, considering her age and health. There are several trip hazards in the flat, but Mae doesn’t want any alterations that might make it safer for her to get about. When she’s eventually persuaded to try a zimmer frame, she ignores my instructions on how to use it, swinging it about instead, wilfully demonstrating how it will get caught in various cables and table legs, insisting on carrying-on with her old kitchen trolley. (As soon as Leonora saw the frame in the hallway she told me there was no way on earth Mae would use it. She raises her eyebrows when I look at her, but doesn’t say anything.)
I help Mae back into her chair and start writing out my notes.
Leonora goes into the kitchen to get started on lunch.
‘Were you born here?’ I ask Mae.
‘No.’
‘London? Further north?’
‘Moscow.’
Moscow? How come?’
‘My father was in the diplomatic service.’
‘How interesting!’
She shakes her head, and starts fussing with the sleeves of her dressing gown.
‘And how old were you when you came back to England?’
‘I was three years old.’
‘I’d love to go to Russia,’ I tell her, leaning forwards on the folder a moment. ‘It’s such an interesting place.’
‘It isn’t!’ she says. ‘It’s monstrous! I’d never go back.’
I want to ask her more about it. She surely can’t have any direct memories of Russia if she was just three when they left; her reaction must be more to do with something that happened to the family. Given her age, I wouldn’t mind betting it was the Revolution. But now Leonora is coming into the lounge with Mae’s lunch, and there isn’t time to ask anything else.camellias
‘I’ll be off then,’ I say, closing the folder and gathering my stuff together.
Mae is already tearing in to a quiche.
‘It’s been lovely to meet you, Mae.’
She dismisses me with a wave of her fork. A glob of quiche flies off and lands on the carpet.
Leonora goes to fetch some kitchen towel.
I thank her for her help, and see myself out.

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