mae and the mirror

Ralph the Jack Russell trots round and round the room like a robotic dog gone haywire, his furry brown ears bouncing up and down.
‘Once he’s got his harness on, that’s it’ says Gina, Mae’s granddaughter. ‘We’ll just go for a quick one round the block. See you in a minute.’
Mae settles back in the sofa.
‘What a to-do!’ she says.

It all started three days ago when Mae fell in the kitchen.
‘My knees just gave out,’ she says. ‘I landed on my derriere. Got a real shocker of a bruise there, but nothing broken, the doctor reckons.’
‘So you didn’t go to hospital for an x-ray?’
‘They all wanted to cart me off but really – what’s the point? If I’d broken one of my sitting bones they’re hardly likely to put it all in a cast down there, are they?’
‘You’ve got a point.’
‘So I thought I’d brazen it out at home. Where it’s warm and I’m surrounded by all my things.’

Mae is ninety-six but looks twenty years younger.
‘What’s your secret?’ I ask her.
‘I made it a rule a long time ago. Only look in the mirror long enough to straighten your hat.’
‘I love it!’
‘Everything else might be packing up, but so long as I’m forty-eight up here,’ she says, tapping the side of her head, ‘I’ll be alright.’

I carry on with the assessment. Really, all things considered, Mae is doing remarkably well. Her family lives nearby, which helps, of course. A domestic comes in to clean the house once a week. Healthwise, she takes an aspirin a day, and that’s it.

‘I like the name Mae,’ I tell her. ‘You don’t see it that often. Where’s it from? Is it Welsh?’
‘There’s a story behind it,’ she says. My father was in the marines. He became good pals with a French colonel whose wife was Japanese. They had a daughter called Mai, which I think means brightness in Japanese. So when I was born they named me after her, although they changed the i to an e, because they thought there might be some confusion in the registry office.’
‘It suits you.’
‘Do you think? I’ve often thought what an odd business it is, naming people. I suppose you can grow into a name. Although sometimes you don’t. Everyone knew my husband as Stanley, but his real name was Jim.’
‘Same as me!’
‘Yes, but you look like a Jim. He was more of a Stanley. Although quite what the difference is, I couldn’t say.’

The back door opens and a second later Ralph trots back in, doing a lap of honour round the sitting room in his scarlet harness. Gina follows behind, bringing with her a swirl of freezing air.
‘How are you getting on?’ she says, tugging off her gloves and throwing them onto the radiator.
Ralph jumps up onto my lap and starts licking my face.
‘Ralph! No!’ shouts Gina, coming to haul him off.
‘It’s okay,’ I tell her. ‘I needed a wash.’

out out

When I was little we used to play a game called Jack Straws. You had a box of plastic tools – ladders, shovels, brooms, rakes and so on – you dumped them in a pile in the middle of the table, and then you took it in turns to try to hook as many away as you could. If the rest of the pile moved, you were out, and you passed the hook on.

Talking to Paula is a lot like playing Jack Straws, but instead of tools it’s walking sticks, letters, appointment cards, blister packs, items of food and then – the biggest category by far – people, dozens of them, in all shapes and sizes, some of them old, some of them young, some of them in uniform. And it’s difficult to resist the idea that the box got emptied on the table about the time her partner Eric died.

I’d been given the background story by someone else. Twenty years ago Paula and Eric had left their respective partners and children to start a new life together in a different part of the country. Paula had always been an anxious person, something that deteriorated in later years to the point where Eric had been acting as her carer. His recent, unexpected death cut Paula adrift, and everyone around her was struggling to cope. She’d been calling the ambulance a great deal. The police, too. Carers had been arranged but quickly dismissed, accused of laziness, rudeness, or the latest, making faces and going through her things. Everyone was trying to help. No-one was getting anywhere.

I’ve been sitting on the sofa struggling to think of a new angle to come at all this. It doesn’t help my situation that Paula’s friend Nigel is so aggressive. No doubt he’s stressed, too, but I don’t get the impression he’s normally easy. He has that way some men have of walking slightly back on his heels, arms out to the side, like it’s an effort to accommodate so much masculinity in such a short frame.
Right at the beginning of the meeting I’d checked Paula was okay with him being there.
‘Nige? He’s taking me shopping,’ she said. ‘Of course I want him here.’
‘That’s fine. I just needed to make sure.’
‘What’s up?’ said Nige, wobbling back into the room.
‘He says he wants you to go.’
‘Does he?’ he said, poking his glasses back into position with a finger as hard as a nail gun. ‘Why’s that, then?’
‘Don’t worry, Nigel,’ I said to him. ‘It’s fine. It’s just standard procedure when I’m talking to a patient about private stuff.’
‘Private stuff, yeah?’ he said, then thrust a doctor’s letter out for me to read. ‘Well go on, then. What are you going to do about this private stuff?’

*

It’s the end of the meeting. Physically Paula seems fine. The only positive contribution I can think of to make is a referral to social services, although I’m pretty sure they’ll already be well aware of the situation.
‘I just want to go back up north,’ she says. ‘Can’t you find me nowhere?’
‘How d’you mean?’
‘A house or a flat. Back up near my daughter.’
‘Well – that’s a little beyond what we normally do. But there’s nothing to stop you or your daughter looking for properties yourself.’
‘How?’
‘I don’t know. Online. There are loads of good websites.’
‘I haven’t got a computer.’
‘Your daughter, then.’
‘She doesn’t want me near her.’
‘She doesn’t?’
‘No!’
‘I’m sorry to hear that.’
‘So what are you saying, then? You’re not going to help me?’
‘I’ll see what I can do.’
‘But I can’t go on living here, can I? I can’t cook. I can’t look after myself. I can’t go out.’
‘I thought you said you were going shopping with Nigel?’
‘No,’ she says, taking out a cigarette, her hands trembling. ‘I mean out out.’