jarring

Muriel had a fall recently. She hurt her neck, so they put her in a support, a fat, white fabric affair that pushes her chin up and makes a presentation of her face, a modern riff on the Elizabethan ruff. Muriel doesn’t look too happy about it. In fact, her expression is intensely mournful. You could draw her face pretty quickly as a series of downward curves: two for the eyes, two smaller ones for the nostrils, one big one for the mouth.

‘I’ve popped in to see how you are, Muriel. And the physio asked me to give you this zimmer frame.’
‘Oh yes?’ she says, leaning forwards but not actually opening her eyes. ‘Why would I want that, then? I’ve got my stick.’
‘Your stick’s great, but this is safer,’ I say, slapping it twice, like some kind of dodgy market trader. ‘They say you’ve had a few falls lately, Muriel, so hopefully this’ll help.’
‘Everyone’s been so kind,’ she says, turning away and heading back to the sofa. ‘I don’t know. I just don’t know.’

The referral had come from the ambulance, but we’ve had plenty of follow-up calls, especially from the neighbours. They’ve seen her wandering outside the house at all hours, distressed, confused. At least now there are several people on the case – the GP, social services, mental health and other nurses. A night sitter has been booked to keep an eye on things tonight, but a decision will have to be made soon as Muriel isn’t safe to be home alone.

I help her settle back on the sofa. I offer to make her a cup of coffee and find some biscuits.
‘You don’t mind if I watch my quiz?’ she says.
‘Of course not.’
‘I like my quizzes.’
‘I bet.’

The TV is playing one of those afternoon shows where the set is so emphatically neon it makes you feel hysterical. I wouldn’t be able to answer with my own name, let alone who played James Bond in Dr No. The quizzes always have to have a gimmick. This one seems to be about lists. The contestants answer questions on a subject, and either go through and win some money, or not. Warwick Davis presides over the whole thing with a smile as bright as his shirt.
‘Let’s play Lists!’ says Warwick.
I escape into the kitchen.

It’s so orderly in there I wonder whether this confusion is more an acute thing, or whether Muriel already has help of some kind. Everything’s exactly where you’d expect it to be. Utensils hanging in height order from a rack. Chopping boards neatly aligned. There’s even coffee in a jar marked ‘Coffee’. When I fetch the milk out of the fridge, the souvenir magnets are all lined up in alphabetical order. There’s a big ceramic bear on the counter. When I twist its head off I find it’s filled with mini cookies. I grab out a handful, arrange them in a circle on a saucer, and take it all through on a tray decorated with kittens.

On the telly lights are flashing and klaxons sounding, so I’m guessing someone is going home empty-handed.
‘There you go, Muriel!’ I say, putting the coffee and biscuits on the table beside her. ‘I’ll just write up my notes in the folder then I’ll leave you in peace.’
‘Righto,’ she says, tossing down the cookies one after the other, crumbs already sticking to the powdered hairs on her chin.

The yellow nursing folder is in the middle of a circular dining table on the far side of the room. There are no chairs round the table, except for a green plastic garden chair with a wooden box on it. The box has a brass plate – commemorating the ashes of her husband Frank who died just a couple of years ago. It’s strange to see the box there. It’s such a formal, substantial thing, like a miniature coffin. I wonder whether Muriel’s taken it down from somewhere to clean it, or whether she moves it about and talks to it. I try to imagine how I’d feel, having it around the place, like I’d been interrupted on the way to the cemetery. Something like the cookie jar would be friendlier and less – well – jarring.

‘Let’s play Lists!’ says Warwick.

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