That afternoon, after getting herself scrubbed and dressed, Mabel walked with her goodly neighbour to the local bus station, where they took route 501 to the Royal Hospital. Before seeking out Z Block, they stopped at the shop to pick up a bunch of flowers, a local newspaper, and some of Gran’s favourite chocolate bars.
Barely three steps on to Z2 ward and a frantic old lady approached Mabel. Her long, bright grey hair, which was neatly trimmed at the fringe and gathered into a butterfly clip at the back, bestowed an air of respectability (there-and-then she became known as Lady Grey), though this was undone by inside-out trousers with pockets all-a-dangle.
‘My darling child…there you are! I thought I’d lost you forever. Thank goodness you found your way home.’
Noticeably less anxious, the lady knelt down and hugged Mabel for some moments. She then took hold of both the girl’s hands and looked searchingly into her eyes.
‘Tell me, what have you been doing at school?‘, she enthused.
‘I’ve not been today. It’s Saturday’, though Mabel chose not to challenge the lady’s notions of maternity.
Lady Grey looked about her confusedly, as if trying to find a lost day, though in truth she’d lost too many to catalogue.
The ward was full of strange sights and stranger sounds, and a more sheltered child might’ve been driven to a fearful exit. Mabel’s attention was tugged sideways by an old man with odd, home-and-away eyes.
‘Somebody help me, please‘, he implored, slapping palms on the table set before his wheelchair.
Staff continued whatever they were doing in spite of his pleas, which suggested more false alarm than emergency.
His cries became louder and more aggressive, until a fleeting clarity brought his true condition into focus. Eyes flitted about the ward, before landing in horror upon the wheelchair in which he’d long been left. Pained acceptance gave way to an equally fleeting remorse, as he became the gracious gentleman he once was.
‘I’m sorry. Forgive me…‘, he groaned weakly.
Mist descended and the poor man became lost to himself once more, reverting to agitated demands for something from somebody.
The girl’s attention shifted back to Lady Grey, whose contrastingly dark eyebrows were still etching a perplexed V into her face.
‘We’d better check you’ve done your homework, hadn’t we?’.
Mabel accommodated with a nod of her head. A woman in a white uniform approached the lady and took her softly by the arm.
‘Come on, Rebecca. Stand up and we’ll sort these trousers out.’
Mabel learned from Aunty Doh that the foot soldiers dressed in white used to be called Auxiliaries, and they did the hands-on stuff that kept both hospital and patients running. The ones in blue uniforms were proper grown-up nurses with medical knowledge.
‘But I like these trousers very much,’ contested Rebecca.
‘Yes. I like them very much too. But you’ve got them on inside out.’
‘Well… I think they’re comfortable the way they are’, she improvised.
‘That may be. But don’t you want to look your best for our friends?‘
‘Friends? Well, yes. I suppose I do’.
‘Come on. We’ll put them on the right way and see how they feel. If they’re uncomfortable, we’ll change back again. How’s that?’
Thus swayed, Rebecca was led off to get changed. The lady in white winked and shone a parting smile, which did much to thaw Mabel’s discomfort.
The child understood that despite healthy looks, Lady Grey had an illness in her mind, which Mabel paralleled to her mum’s, because Gran often said, ‘your mother’s demons are in ‘er head’.
The girl turned eyes upon her shaken neighbour, whose face was sickly-pale and neither of Doh’s hands could contain the nervousness of the other.
On their bus journey, Doreen confided a deep rooted fear of hospitals, and sanitised air angled her towards a faint—it even took a quarter of a bottle of whiskey to get her through the doors to see her late husband.
Mabel elbowed the nervy neighbour.
‘Don’t be running for the whiskey bottle,‘ she teased. ‘Or at least let’s find Gran first,’ and Mabel stepped further into the shiny beige floor.
The ward was perhaps 30 yards in length and outer corridors ran squarely around the beds, with a comfy common room-cum-diner at the core. There were whiffs of disinfectant and pee and poo and one of the men flopped over to Aunt Doreen in slippers big enough for a pantomime donkey.
‘My Dora. I knew you’d come’, he proclaimed, ‘you’re twenty minutes late and the Priest has another wedding booked for half past’, and he eyed the wrist where ticker had once tocked.
He suddenly lunged, wrapped arms around Doh’s neck and started to kiss.
‘Geroff me, you sloppy old mutt. I’m not your Dora. Oi! No! Pig off!‘ growled Doreen, who was less accommodating than her companion.
She pulled her head out of kissing range but struggled to break free of fond tentacles. Another White Coat came to Aunty Doreen’s rescue.
‘Jack, love. That’s not your Dora.’
‘Of course it is. She’s late!’
‘Come on, now. Let’s go promenading. Me and thee can go for a walk along the prom. Here…‘, she offered a hand in return for his.
‘I don’t want to walk too far ’cause my insides keep falling out!‘ proclaimed Kissing Jack.
‘Do they heck!,‘ laughed the woman, ‘your insides are where they’re supposed to be… I think’, and pretended to check the floor for stray body parts.
Another distraction. Another wink. And Mabel’s neighbour was free of Jack’s stray embrace. Her face was now red enough to stop traffic, but Kissing Jack had at least taken Doreen’s mind off her fears.
Mabel scanned the common room and spotted Gran seated in the corner on a two-seater sofa. The youngster skipped eagerly over and squashed up to Gran with a kissing hug.
She placed the flowers in her lap and took hold of the old lady’s hand.
‘Hello’, replied the old lady vaguely.
The response was laboured: The welcome pale. Grandma turned eyes to Mabel’s face, but who or what she saw, it was not the love of her life and the flesh of her own blood.
‘Gran…It’s me. Your Little Angel Mabe-riel,‘ stated Mabel.
Plainly, the old lady did not know her. The child’s joy thus punctured by anonymity, her gaze spiralled towards the floor.
The nurse in charge had noted Mabel the minute she arrived, though cornered by the despairing family of another patient, she couldn’t break away to meet her. But the child’s response to her grandma’s condition was all she needed to excuse herself abruptly.
‘You must be Mabel. The policeman said you’d be coming. And we now know that this is your Grandma’, and nurse sat on the arm of the sofa.
Mabel was reluctant to raise up dewy eyes.
‘Hey. Don’t get upset. The police probably told you that your Grandmother had an accident yesterday, at a supermarket in Bulton and she’s taken a bump on the head.‘
‘But why doesn’t she know me?’
‘The knock has caused some memory loss. Your Gran hasn’t been able to tell anyone her name yet, or where she lives. Obviously we’re trying to find out why, and see what we can do to help. But try not to get distressed… because we’re all on your Granny’s side.‘
‘Can I take her home?‘ asked Mabel.
‘For the time being she’s going to stay here with us, so we can keep eyes on her. You know, do some tests. When we have the results we’ll be better placed to treat her. It’s not that we don’t want her to go home, but in her current condition this is the best place for her. You understand that, don’t you? ‘
Mabel regained some composure and nodded. If it meant Gran would be better sooner, then it was good. The girl didn’t give a thought to being home alone, and nurse just assumed Mabel had a family to go home to.
But Aunty Doh knew differently and it was left to her to ask the obvious question.