leila’s recipe for old age

It’s a broad, bright morning, a little colder than of late but still unseasonably warm, so I don’t understand why Leila’s house should be so dark and cold. It’s in a good position, set back from the road up a steep incline; there aren’t many trees around; it has generous windows front and back. But stepping over the threshold is like stepping into a mausoleum: musty, shadowed and quiet.
‘Have a seat’ says Leila, soundlessly pulling one away from the dining room table. There’s a bowl in the centre of the table piled with glossy ceramic fruit, and it strikes me that all the living things in the room – the large vase of orchids in the fireplace, the cat sleeping in its basket, are all fake. Leila seems a little fake, too, as perfectly made-up and buttoned-up as a lifesize doll. There’s a large painting over the mantelpiece – a fishing scene in a sunny Mediterranean harbour – and somehow it makes the place seem colder.
‘I don’t feel it,’ she says. ‘I’m a December baby.’
I tell her why she’s been referred to the community health team, and she takes the news with a polite but detached interest, like someone being told of a development somewhere that doesn’t particularly involve or interest them overmuch.
‘It’s so kind of you to visit,’ she says. ‘Can I get you anything…?’
‘I was just going to ask if I could get you something! Some tea or toast?’
‘Oh, no!’ she says. ‘I’ve had my breakfast.’
‘What did you have?’
‘Some porridge and a cup of black tea.’
‘Sounds healthy.’
‘Oh – I’ve always eaten well.’
And it’s true, she doesn’t seem malnourished. In fact – environment aside – she seems in pretty good health. The only medication she’s prescribed is for memory loss, but of course, she often forgets to take it, which is one of the reasons Leila’s been referred to us.
Her short term memory is severely compromised. Her conversation is on a loop, on this occasion revolving around two things: how active her mother was into old age, and what happened when she got together with her sister, Dolly.
‘I just think I’ve been rather lucky as far as health goes,’ she says, for the sixth or seventh time already. ‘But you see my mother lived till a fine old age, and I get my old bones from her.’
‘That’s lovely.’
Leila giggles and brushes her skirt a couple of times.
‘Yes! You should have seen it when she got together with Auntie Dolly. They used to play whist, you see, and honestly! They were like a couple of naughty schoolgirls!’
I steer the conversation back to the plan for the next few days, the carers who’ll be coming in, the appointment at the memory clinic and so on. She listens to all of this very seriously, nods to show she understands, then brushes her skirt again.
‘Yes! Well! I just think I’ve been rather lucky as far as health goes,’ she says.
‘I think you must have looked after yourself, too, though, Leila.’
‘Yes. I think I have. And do you know what my secret is?’
‘No. What?’
‘I believe in onions.’
It’s such a shock to hear her say something different that it makes me laugh.
‘You can laugh, but it’s true!’ she says.
‘In what way, onions?’
‘Well,’ says Leila, brushing her skirt again. ‘They bring out the flavour of meat.’

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