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Cross Purposes

Rose Malone


‘Ringlet’, said the woman they called “the professor”. Blessing shook her headful of tiny ringlets as she mopped the floor of the ensuite bathroom in the rhythm of her annoyance. 


Crazy, rich, white/What gives you the right …


She emerged into the woman’s bed sitting room, allowing her mop to clatter to the tiled floor behind her. Her irritation morphed into a different rhythm as she vigorously dusted the surfaces, with their various photographs and trinkets. 


Don’t you dare touch my hair.


‘Ringlet’, the woman said again, more urgently. She reached out to grab Blessing’s slender wrist in her bony claw. With her free hand she pointed to something outside the window. Blessing yanked her hand away. This was going too far! She left the room and entered matron Lorraine’s office without knocking. Lorraine was holding her phone to her ear and making flirtatious gestures with her free hand as she spoke. Her voice was half an octave above its natural register, and she produced a tinkling laugh at frequent intervals. She favoured Blessing with a look that would normally have skewered her to the spot. Blessing responded by taking off her lanyard with her ID photo on it and tossing it onto Lorraine’s desk. This had the desired effect and Lorraine abruptly ended the call and motioned to Blessing to sit down. Blessing was her best and longest serving cleaner. She couldn’t afford to lose her. Blessing remained standing, her hands on her hips, and contained her anger sufficiently to accuse the “professor” succinctly of racism and assault. 


Lorraine sighed. Worse than losing Blessing would be losing a case for racial discrimination. They were due an inspection by the Quality Authority. Equality was an important heading. She suggested changing Blessing’s roster so that she no longer had to encounter that woman (or “guest”, as she called her). Blessing narrowed her eyes, somewhat mollified. She suggested a trial period. The new roster might turn out to be more strenuous and more inconvenient in its timing. On the other hand, that might be grounds for a pay rise. Lorraine picked up the lanyard and handed it wordlessly to Blessing, who now knew her own worth. She replaced it around her neck and turned to go. She stopped in the doorway.


‘But I need a break after that. And I’m not going back in to get my mop.’


She reversed out of the room and closed the door quietly. Lorraine picked up the phone. Her voice reverted wearily to its normal pitch.


~


‘Mike, we have to talk about Mam.’


‘Hi to you too, Sarah. I thought she was all settled in Lakeview Manor. It damn well costs enough. I have a lot on at the moment. Debbie has flu. The kids…’


‘Lorraine just rang me …’


‘Who? Oh, the hoity-toity witch with the helmet of gelled hair. I just call her Matron in a sceptical tone she doesn’t like.’


‘Exactly. She says Mam made a racist remark and assaulted one of her staff.’


‘Racist! The woman who spent years protesting and marching against apartheid?’


‘I know. Maybe it was a misunderstanding. Maybe she’s better at theory than practice. Maybe …’


‘But the worst scenario would be that she’s losing her marbles.’


‘You can’t say that kind of thing. Anyway, Mam couldn’t be racist. It’d go against everything she believes in her core. And there’s no sign of cognitive decline. I haven’t seen her yet this week, but I normally see her twice or three times a week. She wants to discuss the world news pages of the Irish Times. And she does the hard Sudoku. And the cryptic crossword that I can’t even attempt.’


‘Since her mini-stroke …’


‘It was only a TIA, the doctor said. It hasn’t affected her mental acuity. Her speech is a bit blurry. Maybe the person misheard. Anyway, she’s offended one of the care workers. An African woman. Made some remark about her hair.’


‘Maybe the woman wanted to be offended. Maybe Mam was paying her some kind of cack-handed compliment. Maybe it’s Lorraine who’s racist. I never took to the woman.’


‘I think I got that message. Anyway, when are you visiting again? Any chance you could pop in tomorrow? The sooner one of us can talk to Lorraine, the better.’


‘Not a chance of me getting there before the weekend. I’m still in work and Debbie …’


‘Ok, ok, I’ll make an excuse to leave work early. Again. I’ll talk to the dreaded Lorraine. Love to Debbie and the kids.’


~


Ringlet, smoky brown, prob. female, eye spots, four or six (?), these useless eyes. On Knapweed.


~


‘Hummm …’, said the woman. Fiona, the volunteer student, looked at her in some alarm. She was gaining credits for her course by spending one interminable afternoon a week walking with incredibly old and slow people around the grounds of the care home. This was so boring she wanted to stick pins in her own eyes, but at least it wasn’t quite as bad as having to stay inside with them and play some kind of stupid game or try to make out their mumblings. This one wasn’t actually all that bad – she seemed to still have some idea of what was going on and she didn’t mind if Fiona spent time texting her boyfriend. Fiona sometimes even managed a few drags on a sneaky ciggie behind the potting shed. Fiona could have sworn that the woman smiled at her with the good side of her face and was about to ask her for a drag when that witch with the gelled helmet of hair appeared, as if by magic, around the corner with her fake smile. 


‘Enjoy your walk!’ the witch trilled and passed them by at a brisk clip. The old woman muttered something under her breath that had sounded suspiciously like “Fuck that”.  


They’d just reached that nice seat in the shelter of the high wall when Fiona heard her phone buzz in her pocket. She settled the woman on the seat and was smiling at Aaron’s picture on her screen, when the woman let out what Fiona mentally called an “eldritch screech” (a term she had recently discovered), and then started with that terrifying humming sound. She was pointing at the face of the stone wall. All Fiona could see were those horrible plants with the cat’s piss smell that grew in the crevices and along the top of the wall. Fiona ineffectually patted her arm and muttered ‘It’s ok, it’ll all be ok’, over and over. 


‘He’s gone’, the woman said, quite clearly, in a tone of deep sadness. Fiona felt sorry for her and a bit alarmed. Was it the ghost of an old lover who had suddenly appeared on top of the wall? She had to write a report every week for her course supervisor. Maybe she could add a bit of imagination (or creative interpretation) when she wrote this one?


~


HumHawkMt, on valerian. Fingers … Scrawl!!!


~


Lorraine waylaid Sarah as soon as she pushed through the glass doors with a ‘Could you step into my office for a moment, please?’


Sarah would rather have gone into her mother’s room first. Her mother had waved to her from the window as she walked through the carpark and she worried that the older woman would fret at the delay. She felt her heart sink at the prospect of problems or issues. Lakeview Manor had a separate, specialised unit for patients with dementia. There was, of course, an extra cost and a waiting list for admission to it. 


She returned Lorraine’s corporate smile and followed her to the office. 


‘I need to alert you to the possibility of some deterioration in Catherine’s condition.’


The good thing about Lorraine was that she didn’t beat about the bush. She had no time for meaningless small talk. Sarah felt ongoing irritation, however, at Lorraine’s continued use of this version of her mother’s given name. No one called her Catherine. Her friends called her Kate, or sometimes, Kitty. She preferred to be addressed by strangers as “Dr. Tallon”, as befitted her status as a retired lecturer in Environmental Science. Sarah and Michael addressed their mother as “Ma”, as a sort of family joke. Between themselves they called her “Mam”. Sarah sometimes called her “Mother”, when she was cross with her, which was deliberately provoking. Lorraine opened a buff-coloured manila folder and took out some hand-written notes. 


‘These are reports from some of our team members and volunteers’, she said. She picked up a pair of reading glasses, which gave her a severe look, and pushed some papers across the desk to Sarah. The first was a report from Blessing, detailing the alleged racist incident. It was clearly written and gave a simple account of Dr. Tallon’s remarks about Blessing’s hair, followed by her seizing of Blessing’s wrist, which was violent enough to leave a bruise. Blessing had attached a printout of a photo of the bruise. 


‘Of course, we take this kind of thing very seriously’, Lorraine said. ‘My care team are all valuable members of staff, and I can’t tolerate any disrespect towards them.’


Sarah combed her hair back from her face with her fingers. She forced herself to look at Lorraine. 


‘Of course, we must take it seriously’, she said. ‘It’s just so unlike Mam. Could I meet Blessing? Apologise to her in person?’


Lorraine pursed her lips.


‘She’s not on shift at the moment. Anyway, it might not be the best idea. It might be an admission of liability. It mightn’t do anyone any good.’


‘Liability! How could Mam be liable for anything?’


Lorraine sucked in her cheeks and looked like she was tasting a lemon.


‘Not Catherine, of course. But we have a duty of care…’  Her voice tailed off.


Sarah felt a tide of tears rising. She’d had to give up on her mother’s care, because she could no longer do her job and give Mam the care she needed and deserved. She reckoned that was enough guilt to deal with.


Lorraine had moved on to the next report. This was written in a childish hand with little circles over the i’s and hand-drawn emojis scattered apparently randomly. 


‘This report was written by one of our student volunteers, Fiona. She’s generally conscientious and reliable. Your mother seems to like her, as far as we can tell. Last Thursday, she took Catherine for a walk around the grounds and Catherine frightened her by screeching and pointing, apparently at some supernatural phenomenon.’


Supernatural phenomenon! Mam’s a lifelong rationalist. She’s a scientist, for fuck’s sake!’


Sarah stopped and shook her head. She muttered an apology. All the solid ground had disappeared from under her feet. Her mother, the political activist, rational scientist seemed to have been replaced by this changeling who attacked persons of colour and saw ghosts on the care home wall. 


‘May I read the report?’ she said, as much to give herself time as to dispute Lorraine’s interpretation. Lorraine passed her the two pages, torn from a copybook. Sarah put on her own reading glasses, which did not, she felt, add anything to her gravitas. She found herself smiling at the words “eldritch screech”, but the report of her mother’s bizarre humming filled her with concern. She could no longer easily dismiss Lorraine’s concerns. 


‘There’s also this’, Lorraine said, handing Sarah some photo-copied pages from a notebook, under the heading “Field Notes”. The early pages mentioned wildflowers and garden plants that Kate had observed from her window or on her walks. The notes were dated and written in meticulous, small characters, using scientific names and frequent abbreviations. From time to time, she had added diagrams. After her TIA, the writing deteriorated and there were no more diagrams. There appeared to be some references to her own frustration – These old eyes, these fingers.


Sarah saw the uncontrolled scrawl and her heart melted with sympathy for her mother. At one point, Kate had actually scrawled the word “Scrawl”. This didn’t however explain the bizarre behaviour. 


‘I’m going to see my mother now’, she said and stood up from her chair. Lorraine started to protest that they had not reached any conclusion. Sarah gathered all her strength to assert herself and said ‘I’m here to see my mother. I’ll talk to you later. If you’re still here and if I have anything to add.’ She pushed in her chair and left the room.


~


‘Sarah’.


‘Hi Ma’.


Kate held out both hands to her daughter and gave a shout of delight that reminded Sarah of the excited crow of a baby. She pulled her chair close to her mother’s, and took her hand in both of hers. The hand was cool, the skin soft and wrinkled. A newspaper lay on her table, opened at the Sudoku page. Kate had started the puzzle, but it appeared that she had been unable to keep the numbers within their appropriate squares and had drawn a large X through the grid. 

‘Was it an extra-hard one today?’ Sarah asked. Kate shook her head and gave a frustrated moan. 


‘Can’t do it anymore’, she managed to say. ‘Squares too small. Fingers’. She demonstrated the stiffness of her fingers by holding out her hands. The fingers of her left hand remained curled into a claw. Sarah hadn’t the heart to challenge her interpretation. 


‘News’, Kate said, and Sarah felt a craven relief that they could watch the TV six o’clock news together. Kate made disapproving noises at the political news and shed tears over the death of a young child in a traffic accident. Sarah felt close to tears herself and wondered why she felt it necessary to control or hide her emotions. Kate’s response seemed like the honest and appropriate one. When an item about migrants crossing the Mediterranean came on, Sarah wondered if she dared broach the subject of Kate’s attack on Blessing. Kate’s tears again spilled over, and Sarah thought it would feel like bullying to accuse her of anything. The visit was jagged and unsatisfactory. The conversation with Lorraine had left Sarah unsettled and had introduced a new perspective on her mother. Kate now seemed to be some stranger and all her actions were open to reinterpretation. The unquestioned certainties were undermined, and her mother had, overnight, become a more complex and unknowable person. Sarah saw her mother’s field notebook on the table and, without asking, picked it up. The deterioration visible in the sample pages that Lorraine had shown her was even more noticeable here. The early pages were beautifully organised, dated and referenced to the botanical literature. Plants were her speciality, but references to insects and birds were also included. She had kept a careful catalogue of blooming and leafing times for wildflowers and garden plants around the care home and seemed to have engaged in correspondence with climate scientists in the Botanic Gardens in Dublin and others in various countries. All this had ended abruptly after Kate’s stroke or TIA. The writing lost its precision and there were no more diagrams. Sarah couldn’t find any more references to published work, or evidence of correspondence. It appeared that Kate’s world had shrunk, but she still, somehow, stubbornly carried on. What alarmed Sarah was that the deterioration seemed to have continued and even worsened. She felt instinctively that the clue to Kate’s recent behaviour could be found in these notes.


‘Mam’, she said. ‘You’ve been doing a great job here. Would you mind if I took away your notebook to read? It’s very interesting.’


Kate frowned and her face flushed with anger. 


‘Mine’, she said. ‘Important.’

She reached out for the notebook and Sarah relinquished it, feeling that she had been clumsy and had lost an opportunity. She tried to apologise but Kate suddenly shouted ‘Ghost!’, pointing at something in the darkening garden outside the window. Sarah’s heart sank. This was the confirmation of Lorraine’s theory about hallucinations. All Kate’s rationalism, her scientific training must have been swept away by the progress of dementia. Kate continued to gesture and Sarah followed her pointing finger, but could see nothing. She tried to soothe Kate’s agitation, but her mother shook off her stroking hand with an exasperated “Humph”. 


‘I’m not a child’, she muttered, and crumpled into quietness as though deflated. She seemed smaller and her quietness took on the subdued colour of sadness. Sarah felt herself close to tears as she kissed her mother’s forehead and said her goodbyes. Kate barely responded. Sarah closed the door quietly and went in search of Lorraine. The matron was not in her office and was reported to be dealing with an emergency in the specialised dementia unit. Sarah’s brain raced ahead to the possibility that a place for Kate in that unit might be about to become available, then chided herself for her callousness and lack of sympathy for the ill person and her family. 


~


‘Mike. I’ve just come home from visiting Mam.’


‘Hang on a sec. World War 3 in the playroom.’


His voice faded and then could be heard threatening, a low gravel under shrill cries of “it’s not fair!” and “he started it.” More voices, then his footsteps returning.


‘Debbie has taken over the UN intervention. How was Mam?’


‘I’m really worried, Mike. I had a meeting with Lorraine. She thinks Mam is having hallucinations.’ 


‘What!? Is this a way of screwing more money out of us? We can barely afford what we’re paying now. The kids are getting really expensive, and the car has started making a funny noise.’


‘Listen Mike. Spare me the poor mouth. I didn’t believe her either. But it happened when I was there.’


‘You can’t be serious.’


‘I can assure you it’s the last thing I’d joke about. She started pointing out the window and shouting “ghost”. It gave me the creeps. There was nothing there.’


‘So Dad hasn’t come back visiting. Thank Christ for that.’


‘Shut up, Mike, this is serious. Apparently, it wasn’t the first time. A volunteer student took her for a walk the other day and Mum started pointing at something on the wall and making a humming noise.’


‘Maybe the young one was being over-dramatic.’


‘Yeah, that’s what I thought. She uses terms like “eldritch screech” and draws emojis all over the place. But then it happened tonight when I was there.’


‘Maybe there was a reflection on the window. There’s a lot of trees and shrubs around that place. It’s windy tonight. Maybe her sight isn’t great. All those years of squinting down microscopes.’


‘I’ve thought of all the maybes. I want to believe it’s something simple and rational. But it’s Mam we’re talking about. She’d never go for a supernatural explanation as a first thought. Not until she’d ruled out every other possible one. No, I think we’re looking at something more serious.’


‘Like what?’


‘I’ve been looking on the internet, and I can hear you rolling your eyes. But bear with me. Have you heard of Lewy Body dementia?’


‘What? Ah Sis, gimme a break. You’re too sensible to start finding obscure diseases on the internet.’


‘I don’t think it’s all that obscure. But it’s hard to diagnose. It seems to have all the problems of Alzheimer’s, but with added complications. Patients have hallucinations and they can be violent.’


‘Well, that can’t be it. Mam was never violent. She couldn’t be.’


‘You’re forgetting the incident with what’s her name? Blessing.’


‘We don’t know that that was actually violent. Maybe she was just over-excited. Or thought that whatever was troubling her was extra urgent.’


‘We should check it out though. I think it might involve brain scans. I’ll try and talk to the doctor.’


‘I’ve just googled it on my phone. Oh, Jaysis. Oh, God.’


~


The female ringlet butterfly (Aphantopus hyperanthus) spread her smoky brown wings and unrolled her proboscis into the knapweed flowers that had grown up on the care home lawn since they had transformed it to a wildflower meadow. Her six eyespots seemed to look straight into Dr. Tallon’s eyes.


The Hummingbird Hawkmoth (Macroglossum stellatarum) hovered over the flowers of red valerian. His underwings vibrated in an orange blur. He shouldn’t have been there. He’d been blown off course and was the only one of his species in Ireland. He could find no mate and would die. No one but Dr. Tallon saw him, and his visit was unrecorded, except by Fiona.


The ghost moth (Hepialus humili) spread his silver wings at dusk. A small group of his companions joined him to form a lek, a group of males displaying to attract females. They hovered horizontally and occasionally rose and dipped. Their collective hovering gathered and intensified the fading light.

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