“Let me help you” said Connie, moving a table out of Alfred’s way. Alfred paused, drawing breath softly whilst deciding whether or not to thank her. His way clear, Alfred wheeled himself over to the writing desk, gracing her with a meagre nod, a grimace of a smile.
“You’re very good with them” said Mark, observing from Connie’s shoulder.
“It’s nothing, really” smiled Connie. Her fingers pushed a strand of hair behind her ear and she blushed, finding distract in Alfred’s quest for a pen and paper. “I’m the care assistant for all twelve residents during the day” her gaze never left Alfred, hovering on the threshold of a half step.
“How did you end up here?” asked Mark, looking around with feigned interest. The other residents of the geriatric home sat, dozed, watched television through rheumy eyes, or talked.
“I didn’t do as well in my exams as I would have liked” Connie answered, glancing from Mark to the Whist game in the corner.
“But you are trained, I take it?” asked Mark.
“Of course” Connie gave a nervous laugh. “Geriatric nursing, sanitation- everything I would need”. Mark watched her survey the room on the way to the kitchen. Once inside the white washed walls she breathed a little easier, busy in the preparation of two mugs and the act of hostess.
“Tea, milky, no sugar” answered Mark, watching her body language. She was more confident now, fingers moving with purpose. Connie’s shoulders relaxed, her hands no longer entwined, prepared two mugs of tea almost mechanically. She saw his gaze and blushed again.
“Have you never watched a girl make tea before?” she asked.
“You’re quite remarkable” he said with a smile.
“I’m only making tea, Mark” again the dismissive answer as a flush spread across her cheeks.
“In there, you’re like a cat on a tin roof” he observed. “In here you’re a different person”. Her smile faltered and the wall came back up; she wanted to look at him but dared not. Whether Connie was more afraid of what judgement she might see in his eyes, or what revelation he might see in hers, he could not tell.
“I think you’re reading too much into this” she answered. Mark nodded, folded his arms and leaned against the door frame. She hated that about him- the unconscious defensive gesture that let her know she had scored a point close to home.
“Maybe I am, and for that, I apologise” he was at it again- the defensive gesture designed to smooth over the ruffles of a disagreement on the horizon.
Connie thought back to the time she had spent getting to know him. Mark’s Grandmother had been admitted to the nursing home after a stroke, and he played the dutiful grandson to give his parents time. Both Connie and Mark were of a similar age, which made Connie interested; where else was she going to find a suitable boyfriend after her college years? Too much time had passed studying a course that did not come easily, and her social life became neglected in the process.
“There’s no need to apologise” she said, hands fluttering for something to do as the kettle began to boil. “We’re all different. That’s the beauty of life. Everyone has to be treated equally and with respect”. She gave a nod, a self satisfied expression that raised his eyebrow at her statement.
“Which book did you dig that answer from?” he asked. Her hands moved before her mind formed the answer, a gesture of-what? He could not be sure.
“Does it matter?” she answered. He was doing it again, infuriating her with an easy-going manner that hinted at so many things. “The qualification was essential for this line of work. Everyone in the centre has something. Some have Alzheimer’s, some suffered strokes…” she looked up and their eyes met again.
“…and what does your training teach you?” he asked.
“Oh, lots of things. Especially about the elderly and the disabled”
“What would be your definition of ‘disabled’, then? I know the classical description, but I’m interested to know your view”. He smiled warmly. Was he testing her? Was he really visiting his Grandmother or something more? Each time Connie thought she knew him, each time she believed she could lead the conversation, he threw in a question that pulled the rug from under her feet.
“Disability is more than just a mental affliction or a physical hindrance” she began. “Disability is more a state of mind. People who are classically disabled often refuse to recognise their disability. They rail against the brutal truth that they can’t do things the way they used to”.
“That’s a bit deep” he said, taking her by surprise. Wasn’t that what he wanted? Again caught on the back foot, she fought for the words. Her hands fluttered again, shoulders began to hunch, and her breathing shortened.
“There are the usual…definitions. Most of our clients are in wheelchairs, for example. Their legs don’t work anymore. Take Albert for example. He writes each day to an old friend, a war veteran I think. Albert still thinks he can march twenty miles a day with a full pack, and now he can’t accept his legs just don’t work as well. He’s classically disabled in the physical sense, but his refusal to accept his condition and deal with it makes him mentally disabled too. He depends on me to be here, and he can’t accept it”.
Mark’s eyes narrowed- that was not the reaction she expected. Had she said something that upset him?
“He depends on you, or you depend on him to need you?” he asked. Before she could answer, a clatter came from the main room. Once more the apologetic, nervous smile flittered across her face.
“Excuse me” she said, and he let her pass.
Within the room, his Grandmother still slumbered in her chair, Albert still wrote, and half the inmates ignored the tray that lay on the floor alongside the Whist game.
“Sorry, love” said Gilbert as Connie came over to kneel alongside the tray and began to pick up the mugs and mop the spillage from the carpet.
“It’s alright, Gilbert. Who had the accident?”
“It was me, love” said Sandra, sat opposite. “My arm slipped. You know how it is. You spend your life goosing young men, and your arm gets so used to brushing things it does it of its own accord!”
“I’m sure that’s not the case!” answered Connie. Mark watched her serious face despite the shared joke of the pensioners. Albert looked up from his letter and shook his head, sadly.
“You are good to us, love!” said Sandra as Connie finished and returned to the kitchen.
“I try to be, Sandra. Would you like me to make you a fresh one?” asked Connie. She returned to stand alongside Mark. “They rely on me for so much, you see. Without me, they’d be lost”.
“Are you sure?” he asked, watching the developments around the room. Albert was on his second piece of paper, Gilbert had cleaned the cards from spilt coffee, and Sandra had draped a tea towel on the damp patch of carpet beside them.
“Of course I’m sure” she answered, moving past to keep busy. “What kind of question is that?”
“Someone wise than me once said, ‘walk a mile in someone’s shoes’. It’s a fair point. How can you understand someone until you’ve lived their life?”
“When did you become an expert on the elderly?” she retorted. Part of her was annoyed, the rest of her merely confused. Accusing her of depending on her patients? Surely he could see it was the other way round!
“I don’t claim to be. Maybe the best way I can explain it is….come with me” he said, gesturing for her to follow. With increasing annoyance she allowed herself to be led towards Albert at the writing desk. Albert looked up, eyes shrewd with wit.
“Albert, is it? I’m Mark. Can I ask you something?”
“…Sure, lad. Ask away” Albert put down his pen and turned to face them.
“Are you disabled?” asked Mark. Connie was too shocked at the directness and was about to apologise for him when Albert’s answer cut through her preamble.
“Of course I’m not! My legs don’t work is all” replied Albert, without affront.
“Is someone disabled if they can’t recognise their dependence on something, or someone who used to be able to do something and now they can’t? Connie says it’s a state of mind. I was wondering, what do you think of that?”
Albert started to smile. “I think she’s right. Disability can be a state of mind, if you put it that way”.
“Mark, I think we should leave this subject alone…” Connie interjected.
“But tell me this- how can I be disabled if I keep trying to do things for myself?” Albert continued. “Maybe I am dependant on help, but it doesn’t change who I am”
“I don’t think that makes you disabled” Mark smiled.
“Of course he’s disabled!” said Connie. “How could he not be?”
Albert and Mark looked at her, shrewdly.
“I’m not sure you’re seeing what they can do, Connie” said Mark, his voice gentle. “They accepted their condition and moved on”.
“Are you saying they don’t need me?” she asked, confused. “I help them! I give their lives purpose!”
“Are you sure they don’t give your life purpose? They need you physically” said Mark, “just not emotionally. If you can’t accept their mindset, it makes me wonder who can’t ‘accept’, and move on?”
Connie was speechless. Albert just smiled, and patted his wheelchair.
“I think you might need this more than me, love”.