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.’

you tell me

Charles, sleeping in a wing-backed chair
kippering by a two-bar heater
trousers sliding south,
hernia through an open shirt
like a burr on an ancient beech
or the head of an imp
in a breast-feeding nightmare
What d’you want? he says
his one good eye suddenly wide
like I tripped a wire somewhere
‘Sorry to wake you, Charles’
Hmmm he says, backing into his beard.
‘I won’t keep you long’
The room – oh! The room!
The room is a cliche of neglect
peeling paper – check
seamy bedclothes – uh-huh
everywhere that slow, sad laying-in of time.
Charles won’t agree to a thing, of course
not a temperature check,
pulse count or blood pressure
so I retreat to a plate
of tea and toast
and inconsequential chat
hoping that one word
will follow another
into something like acceptance
‘What did you do before you retired?’
handing him the mug
What do you mean?
‘You know. What work did you do?’
What work?
‘Before you retired?’
He lowers his face to the mug
and gabbles at the lip
like a goat invoking a curse
then, lowering it unsteadily again
to rest on the pate of his hernia,
he fixes me with that eye,
that furious, shining, ineluctable eye
I’m ninety-five! he shouts
You tell me!


I’m late
or gonna be, at this rate
Well! Okay! Yes!
I’m fully aware, thank you, of how crazy I’m driving
quite ready to snub-blunt the bonnet of this bloody car
on the back hand of the hour I should be off
chucking myself through the tragi-comedy of my so-called working life
to land gizzards-out on the fucked blade of a crescent moon

Vera cures me
ten storeys up
ninety years old
her time easing out
through the loose lattice
of a nice crocheted blanket
‘I used to ride horses’ she says
wheezing oedematous legs
onto the wide back of a Moroccan pouffe
‘Who’d have thought…’

the old bird

‘Really – I’m fine. I don’t know what you’re making such a fuss about.’
Mrs Roberts has a determined, no-nonsense demeanour, fussing with the arms of her jumper to even them out, then sitting straight-backed in the armchair, distributing a brave smile about the room, bright as a lighthouse, to anyone who needed or cared to see. It would be easy to think that here was a ninety year old woman perfectly and admirably in control of her life, if it wasn’t for the livid, green and black bruises extending from her eyes down both swollen cheeks, the stitches on the bridge of her nose, and the bandage on her left hand.
‘You’re not fine, though. Are you, Mum? You’re very far from fine,’ says Steven, her son, sitting in a chair opposite.
‘Rubbish!’ she says. Then turns to me. ‘You see what I have to put up with?’
Steve buries his face in his hands.
‘Are you okay?’ I ask him.
After a moment he emerges again, his eyes shining, his face red. He straightens in the chair, takes a deep breath, and nods.
‘It’s difficult,’ I say. ‘It’s difficult for everyone.’

The situation has many practical angles and complications, of course, but the crux of it is simply the frailties of old age. Mrs Roberts has managed the early years of her ninth decade with impressive self-determination, only needing carers these past six months, when a dip in her mobility meant she struggled to get ready in the morning. It was a carer who found her on the floor just last week – a heavy fall with superficial injuries, thank goodness, but there’s no getting away from the fact that she’s more vulnerable than before. Steve lives in Germany, has done for many years. His brother is in the UK somewhere, but a family rift means Steve is the one left to sort things out.
‘I’ve just got to go back tomorrow,’ he says. ‘Work…life…y’know?’
His mother smiles at him as she gently dabs at her nose with a handkerchief.
‘Don’t you worry about me,’ she sniffs. ‘I’m perfectly capable of looking after myself.’
There’s talk of getting her into a respite bed for a period of recuperation. She doesn’t want to go, but she’s willing to do it if it means Steve can get back to Germany and not worry himself to death.
‘I wouldn’t go for good, though,’ she says. ‘I’m not ready for the funny farm yet.’

There’s nothing in her observations to suggest a reason for the increased falls. She says she feels well in herself.
‘It’ll be interesting to see what the bloods show,’ I say, preparing my kit to take a sample.
Steve asks me how long it might take to get a respite bed.
‘There’s a bit of a wait,’ I tell him. ‘There just aren’t that many available, what with all the cuts. The few they have they triage pretty thoroughly.’
‘It’s just – what’ll happen when I go back? She’s really not safe. Even with the carers upped to four times a day.’
‘If you funded a place independently you could get one more quickly, but of course that’s only if you have the money. Like a lot of things, I suppose. Without getting too political…’
He thinks about that, both hands flat over his mouth, so that I can hear his breath moving over his fingers.
To distract Mrs Roberts I nod at the mirror just behind her. There’s an old, velvet parrot on a perch hanging down in the middle. One of its eyes has gone, and the whole thing leans precariously to one side. It has a tuft of faded yellow fur in the middle of its head, like a comedy wig. I get the feeling if I unhooked it from the mirror and gave it a gentle shake, much of the colour would come back.
‘I like your parrot,’ I say. ‘And that’s not something I thought I’d be saying today.’
‘Percy? He’s a love, isn’t he? Steven gave that to me when he was a little boy. He saved up his pocket money and he bought it at the school fair. Didn’t you darling?’
Steve nods, reaches over and strokes her knee.
‘Looking a bit tatty now, though’ he says.
‘Oh I don’t know,’ she says. ‘There’s life in the old bird yet.’

the miserable moo

Vera is as formidable as an oak tree. An ancient, wonderfully craggy version, a boundary oak, maybe, with a disposition of knots and old storm wounds that give her a ferocious but at the same time peculiarly forbearing and kindly expression.
‘How did I get like this?’ she says, approximating a walk by rocking from side to side in her vast, rose-pink slippers, pulling the chord of her dressing gown so tight I’m worried her curlers will fly off. ‘Dear oh dear. Sad, innit?’
She stops and gives me a baleful look.
‘Don’t get old’ she says.
‘What’s the alternative?’
‘What’s the alternative? Switzerland.’
She shakes her head and carries on into the living room.
‘Make yourself at home,’ she says, waving dismissively at the sofa, then slowly lowering herself into a well-worn armchair. ‘Mind you, I’ve lived here sixty year and I still ‘ain’t managed it.’
‘I don’t know. Seems like a nice place.’
‘You make the best, d’oncha?’ she says, putting her feet up with an expressive range of ooh-ooh-ooh’s and aah’s.
‘All right?’ I ask her. ‘Do you need a hand?’
‘I need more than a hand,’ she says. ‘What else’ve you got?’
Before I manage to do anything, the phone rings. Vera mutters a great deal as she picks up the phone from the side table, holding it to the end of her nose to scrutinise the number, then making a great fuss of holding it at arm’s length to press the ok button, frowning at the same time, as if she was being asked to do something outrageous, then cautiously and slowly putting the phone to her ear. I can hear the voice on the other end shouting as the phone travels through the air – a man’s voice, saying Nan, Nan, It’s John. Nan?
‘21364’ she says, in a strangely formal voice. But that only lasts as long as it takes to establish it’s John on the other end, and she immediately slumps back into normal Vera again. I prepare the paperwork and get my obs kit out, whilst Vera sighs and tuts and does her best to reassure John she’s all right, and no, she’s all right as far as shopping goes, she’s got enough to last her till Christmas, and yes, she’ll let him know how the appointment goes, and no, she doesn’t want anyone to worry, she hasn’t lived till ninety without learning a thing or two. There’s a moment towards the end of the conversation when John’s seems to be telling her something about himself.
‘Oh? …. What’s that, then? …. You what?…. I thought that was cows…?’
She looks at me, raising her eyebrows and shaking her head, then refocuses her attention on what John has to say.
‘Righto,  then, John. You get better soon, love. And love to the kids. All right? All right? Bye bye, John. Bye bye.’
She thumbs the phone off with the same pantomime of attention as the answering of it, then drops it back with the TV guide on the side table.
‘That was John,’ she says.
‘Yes. He’s always ringing me up to ask how I am and then telling me he’s got it worse.’
‘Why? What’s the matter with him?’
‘Foot and mouth, he says. I thought that was something cows got.’
‘He probably means hand foot and mouth. It’s a viral thing…’
‘Oh. I see,’ she says, but I can tell she doesn’t. ‘That’s all right, then.’
She pats her curlers and rearranges her dressing gown whilst she gets her thoughts in order.
‘Only John!’ she says at last. ‘He’s a bloody postman! Although saying that, maybe they give him a new round that takes in a farm somewhere.’
‘Maybe,’ I say.
She sighs and shakes her head.
‘Hark at me!’ she says. ‘I’ve turned into a right old miserable moo!’