Sunday was Mollie’s 87th birthday. We turned up at the dementia dining room en masse (if six people can be called a masse) to celebrate, bearing a cake, chocolates and a gift. Penny and I, having decided to give Mollie a book, had contemplated a coffee-table extravaganza filled with sumptuous photos of Australian landscapes, and a number of similarly attractive art books. In the end, though, hang the absence of expense, we opted for two little books, one full of cute puppy photoes and the other with even cuter kittens.
When we arrived at the nursing home, Mollie was more deeply withdrawn into herself than I’ve ever seen her, so deeply that it took her quite a while to recognise, or at least acknowledge, that she had any connection at all to any of us. Even the kittens left her blank and listless, and the chocolates might as well have been chunks of gravel. Penny’s persistent, loving cheerfulness finally stirred the embers of relationship, and once there was a glow, it was the kittens that provoked a smile. By the time we left, things felt not so different from what passes for normal at this stage.
In that context, it was initially hard to appreciate the woman who persistently attempted to join our lilttle gathering.
Our gate-crasher is new to the dementia wing – none of us had seen her before – and is not ready by a long shot to lapse into slack-jawed impassivity. We first became aware of her when she came up behind Alex and started playing with his shoulder-length hair, a little like an expensive hairdresser feeling the weight of a customer’s hair while deciding what wonder to work on it. As her fingers moved, she murmured softly, sweetly and incomprehensibly in his ear. Alex gave a reasonably convincing impersonation of a young man about to die of embarrassment. We’re used to residents approaching us and talking in broken sentences (‘I’m sorry to interr but they’ll be coming soon to when umbrella the ice cream,’ another woman had said to us, earlier, and then wandered off). But Alex’s admirer wasn’t talking English-based dementia-speak. After a couple of minutes, I became convinced it was Russian, or at least Russian-based. I asked her, ‘Russki?’ In English, she said, ‘I speak Russian, Belorusian, Japanese.’
Tiring of Alex for the moment she walked around the table and picked up Mollie’s two new books. Mollie had recovered her spirits enough by then to look alarmed. Penny tried to take the books back, but our visitor held on tight and moved out of her reach. ‘Do something!’ she said to me.
So I engaged the book thief in conversation. I had five words in Russian: dosvidenya, spasibo, Kristos viskriest, and da and niet. Perhaps it was a da that had tipped me off to the Russian in the first place. It wasn’t much, but enough to turn our unwanted guest’s attention to me. Soon I’d remembered pravda, nichevor and borge moi. (Bear in mind that these are all words picked up from my first quasi mother-in-law and from Russian movies, so I expect the spelling is off.) I told her my name. She said, in English, ‘I am Olga,’ then smiled and added, ‘Olga from the Volga.’ She spoke at length, cheerily, every now and then pausing for me to give an opinion. It didn’t seem to phase her when I indicated at every pause that I had no idea what she’d just said. She scowled and shook her fist at Penny’s back. ‘Niet,’ I said, stroking the threatened back, ‘she’s my sweetheart.’ That provoked what was probably a Russian harrumph, but a little later she put the books back on the table in front of Penny and went back to Alex’s hair.
Around about then, I went for help. I explained our difficulty at the nursing station and returned to the dining room with two determined women in uniform in tow. One of them put her arm gently around Olga’s waist and led her away. Olga and I squeezed each other’s hands as she left. I said ‘Dosvedenya,’ hoping it meant ‘See you later.’
And a little later, like a coda, another new resident came drifting past speaking loudly in what sounded like German.