Saturday, 4 July 2015

The Mirror - an Ellice Watkin story

(download as a pdf)

Ellice Watkin lifted the lid on the compact mirror that she had found on her dressing table that morning. Decorated in violet with white polka dots, it was not expensive, but it was metallic and the catch and hinge were strong enough for it not to fall apart. Still attached was a white post-it note with a large ‘X’ in orange, underlined in blue. Brown paper, no name, no message except for the sticker, which presumably represented a kiss. It could have come from one of the helpers, but that was hard to imagine. They had only as much time for the residents as their job required. She had done stints as an orderly, back in the days of council-run homes. But for having Patrick late in life, she might have had the time to train as a nurse.

Although it was only an ‘X’, it looked like a man’s writing. A woman would have used different colours, she decided - anything but the orange - and added something like a smile or a heart.

It could have come from one of the congregation, although she would be surprised, a mirror being an instrument of vanity; also because she had not heard from any of the congregation in the three weeks she had been in St Margaret’s. She had not so far been able to justify asking someone to take time away from their home and family on the Lord’s day just in order to walk her to church, especially when there was a room for ‘Private Prayer and Reflective Meditation’ just along the corridor.

There were churches up the road, not of her communion but not so far removed that she couldn’t worship there. The church she had attended for the past fifty years was not the same denomination as the one into which she had been raised. What did it matter whether you had been immersed wholly in water or just splashed by a vicar when a babe in arms? The actions meant the same thing. The front door of St Margaret’s was not locked to her, and she was not so crippled that she couldn’t limp up the road to church, given the time. Perhaps it was just the company of that congregation that she missed. They didn’t miss her, otherwise they would have visited. She thought again of Patrick, who had stopped going to church as soon as he got too old to be forced to go. His father had been no help at all, saying: “Let the boy have a mind of his own.”

What would Patrick think if he saw her, shut away in this little room with a large plain cross on the wall and fading pictures of himself at school, himself in her arms when he was a baby, and of his late uncle Neville in uniform, in a glass cabinet? There were no pictures of his father. Errol always said that she thought small, and that was why he had to leave her and seek his own way in the world. Had he meant to leave her in the most hurtful way he could? Surely it would have been kinder to say simply that he had got himself another woman - he probably had - than to make out that she had been holding him back. At the same time it had sounded like a son leaving home, more than a husband abandoning his family. Was it any wonder that Patrick would go on to leave the way he did?

The face in the mirror had the deep brown eyes of a wise old woman that she had had since she was a child. Much good they had done her. As a girl she had dreamed of being swept off her feet and taken away to America; instead those deep eyes meant that she got roped in to look after all the neighbourhood’s children, while her friends took all the boys. She was twenty-five before Errol persuaded her to marry him and sail to cold, smoky England.

A single mole sat atop a high cheekbone. With less of a tendency towards bulk, she might have been an attractive young woman. To make her feel better, her mother had always said: “The boys don’t know what they’re missing.” With the disruption caused by the move - and to the relief of her knees - she had lost weight recently, but as a result age lines were scattering across her skin like blast marks. With God’s grace, the end would come before she reached the First Floor.

She could hear them on the First Floor. It was a blessing when she couldn’t. You lip-read, don’t you Ellice, love? a nurse had said, recently. It was true that she was growing deaf, but there was a force of will involved too. As a child, living beside the docks where her father worked, she had learnt to block out all manner of input from the senses: billowing smoke and the metal-on-metal scrape of steam-powered cranes loading containers on chains, squeals of live animals being herded onto ships, obscene shouts in every language coming from the sailors and stevedores. The pitiful cries of those whose minds were dying before their bodies was no different.

There was a flicker of movement in the mirror, and she was suddenly aware that as she was staring at herself, her bedroom door was half-open. She snapped the compact shut. The skin on her lips was starting to crack; on her knuckles too - she hadn’t noticed that before. Her precious Eight Hour cream had gone, but there was some baby oil in the bathroom - no, on the bedside table. She must have put some on last night. There should be lip-balm, somewhere, too. Maybe that was in the bathroom. The air was so dry. 

She remembered why she had been looking in the drawer. It wasn’t for the make-up mirror, it was for headphones. The Daily Service would be on the radio by now. She peered into the drawer again and located the headphones. She took off the hat that she had been wearing ever since she got out of bed, and placed the headphones on her head, losing grip with one thumb and twanging an ear painfully. There was no sound. Then she noticed that she had not yet plugged the phones into the radio.

“Forget my head one day,” she muttered as she reached up on top of the cupboard. Nothing. She turned and looked up, and saw a scrap of tissue paper and a dust dandelion where her radio had been.

She looked furiously around the room and found nothing. Suddenly it was too much. Why in the name of all that is holy was she in this God-forsaken place? And the Lord overthrew the tables! For a second she imagined herself charging into every room on the ground floor, screaming into terrified faces: “Give me back my radio!”

The trouble was, it would just be some thin-as-a-rake, demented woman who had seen the radio and thought it was hers, and had forgotten that going into other people’s rooms was something you weren’t meant to do.

The last person she had sworn at was the health visitor who had put her in this place. She hadn’t sworn to her face. In fact, she hadn’t sworn at all in the sense of words actually coming out of her mouth - but the fury with which she had bitten back the bilious words made Ellice feel as if she might as well have said them. It wasn’t the health visitor, or the GP that had put Ellice in the home, it was the stairs leading up to her flat; it was the weight of her bloated body pressing down onto joints that could no longer take the strain. It was that no one was there for her.

It was a different health visitor that came to the home, one who only knew her name because it was written on the door. She hadn’t had the chance to apologise to the old one, which didn’t upset her too much. It was important to apologise for ones behaviour - that being the puny, earthbound equivalent of atoning for ones sins before the Lord - but it wouldn’t be kind to the health visitor, who hadn’t heard herself being called anything and might even now be thinking that Ellice was grateful that she had found her a decent, stair-free home in which to live.

There was a muffled noise behind the door. Ellice turned and nearly screamed as she was confronted with a full meals trolley inside the room, right in front of her. The orderly made a gesture, pointing to and tapping her ears, and she realised that she still had the headphones on.

“I’ve got your tea, Ellice love.”

She bit back the response that her name was Mrs Watkin love, and held out her hands to accept the covered plate of whatever it was that she must have ordered earlier in the day. The orderly ignored her and placed the plate on her bedside table.

“Or I can take it through to the Reminiscence Room if you’d prefer.”

What is the ‘Reminiscence Room’? Somewhere else that you can barge in on me whenever you like? she thought, but with tears of rage welling up, she managed to smile and say: “No thank you darling, I’ll take my breakfast in here.”

Like the purring of an injured cat, her quiet, measured tone served to calm the feelings that were threatening to explode from inside her. The orderly snorted and shook her head for some reason.

“Excuse me,” she asked, as the orderly backed out of the room ahead of the trolley, “could you see if you can find my radio please? I’m missing the daily service.”

“That’s in the morning, love.”


“It’s half past six. I’ve brought your tea, duck.”

“Oh yes, so it must be. Please, my radio.”

“I’ll get it for you in the morning.”

“Has anyone been in my room?”

“I’m just in charge of getting you fed and watered. Right, well, off I go. Don’t forget your tea eh? It’s your favourite.”

The orderly and trolley clattered out, leaving the door ajar again. For a split-second she caught a glimpse of a face that looked like Patrick’s, and then it was gone. Best not to have those glimpses, she thought. Losing most of a day and then seeing her son appear out of thin air were two good ways to get locked in on the First Floor.

Her ‘favourite’ turned out to be sliced roast chicken with mashed potatoes and gravy. Carrots too. She had to admit it was almost exactly what she wanted to eat, although she would rather have cooked it herself. Having spent a lifetime fighting against her appetite, she felt full after half the meal. Unwilling to face the orderly’s gentle teasing about the half-full plate, she pushed herself to her feet and carried her tray to the kitchen hatch, like a schoolgirl ready to go into the playground.

She had once read a piece in the Mirror about Las Vegas, about the gambling houses having no clocks or windows so that the gamblers would lose track of time as they threw away their money. There were plenty of clocks in St Margaret’s, but none of them told the same time. In red LEDs on the television it was 3.21; by the clock next to the plain cross it was a quarter past eight. It was suddenly dark - straight after handing the meal tray in, which made no sense; she must have fallen asleep in the meantime, for two hours or nine, depending on which clock was right. Light came into the room in narrow strips, unforgiving white through the half-open door and streetlight yellow under the window blind. As if delirious she sensed faces in every shape.

As a young girl she saw ghosts in the pale shadows of the moon and the dock’s distant floodlights, monsters in the pile of clothes on the back of the wicker chair in the corner of the living room that had served as her bedroom. There was no reason now to fear ghosts. If they existed, which she didn’t think they did, then they would probably just be her friends coming to visit. As for monsters, something was going to carry her out of her earthly life within the next couple of years, be it a heart attack, cancer or a stroke. Being devoured by a creature of the night was better than the last two of those, and much better than hanging on for senility.

The faces hadn’t yet resolved themselves into the abstract shapes that they would inevitably be, so Ellice resigned herself to turning on the bedside light. She turned around to reach it, and as she did, there was a movement behind her. She tried to spin back around, but the operation took too long. The bedroom door was open and there was no one there. The mirror had gone from the table, too.

A furious calm overtook her. She checked herself to make sure she was dressed. Nothing said ‘First Floor’ like running through the corridors screaming “Intruder” with a lot of flesh on show. Her slippers were gone, but feet didn’t count as flesh. She hauled herself upright and went in search of the radio thief.

Empty corridors indicated that it was the middle of the night, not merely mid-evening, and shuffling feet turning a corner at the end of the corridor told her she was not imagining all this. She wanted to shout “Come back!” but dared not in case the nurses appeared and bundled her back to bed. She continued on her lumbering path, and hoped that her quarry was as slow as herself. Turning into an apparently identical corridor, she saw the person - the man, a black man in a ragged dressing gown - a few steps ahead. He wasn’t carrying the ballast that she was, but he was hunchbacked almost to a right angle, and clearly found it hard to move. If only he would stop, she thought. She was going to catch up with him in a moment; there was no need for this painful, slow-motion chase. One of the rooms on this corridor, or the next, would be his. But he didn’t even turn around. For a moment she wondered if she was mistaken, if she was merely pursuing some poor, crippled, innocent man around the endless corridors of an old folks’ home. Then he opened a door and turned to face her. She went suddenly cold.

Errol said: “Come in.”

She was too exhausted to yell at him or hit him, or turn on her heels and stamp back to her room in fury. The withering effects of forty years had made his face look as if the air had been sucked out of it - so much so that his skin hardly sagged on his cheekbones. The shape of his face was more visible to her than it had ever been. The shape of his face was Patrick’s.

After the first flush of loneliness caused by his leaving, she had never wanted Errol back. There wasn’t enough to him. She had missed having a husband, but God forgive her, anyone who was not physically repellent could have played Errol’s part in the marriage. That which makes a person real and individual, a person’s earthly mind and ethereal spirit, was mostly lacking in this mediocre man. She had been as much to blame. She knew, even if she had never admitted it, that she had married him because she was lonely, because she had wanted children, and because she hadn’t wanted to spend the rest of her life living in a two-room concrete dwelling with an outside toilet, right next to the docks on a windblown island where a life of ceaseless pain and struggle was normal.

And here he was giving her a glimpse of how Patrick would look in thirty years. Patrick had never had Errol’s face.

“Did Patrick come to you?” she asked. She didn’t want to tell him that Patrick had left her - it was none of his business - but if he had found and gone to stay with Errol for some reason...

“No. Where is he?”

“I don’t know. If you don’t know, then we have nothing to say to each other.”


Silence. He probably wanted her to speak so that he could interrupt her. That was how he used to communicate.

“What, Errol Watkin?”

He smiled at the sound of his own name. “No, you speak. You chased me here.”

“I chased you out of my room, bway.”

The smile disappeared satisfyingly.

“When did Patrick go missing?”

“A lot of years. I thought you might have been him. I wish you were him.”

“What happened?”

“That’s between us, not you. You were gone. Why were you in my room?”

“You’re my w...”

“You dare!”

“I wrote you a note. I wanted to get you a present to say... Hello. But I don’t get out, so I... borrowed...”

“You stole someone’s mirror and gave it to me.”

“I didn’t know what to do.”

“Then you stole it back.”


“And I have to live in this place with you.”

“I’ll do what you want, Ellice. I’ll be a stranger, or I’ll be your friend. Or your husband.”

“What happened to the women?”

“I don’t know. There weren’t any while I was at home, I promise.”

“Don’t lie to me. Where did you go? You were supposed to be thinking big.”

“I didn’t get as far as I wanted.”

“And now you’re stuck in a granny farm like me. Well don’t let me hold you back again. Goodbye.”

Back in her room, there wasn’t a note, which wasn’t a surprise. The next morning, or the next daylight when she was awake, Ellice found Errol in his room.

“How long have you got to live?” she asked.

“Six months, four months ago, but I don’t feel worse since then, so maybe six months still. More likely two. You?”

“Until I drop. No time limit. I’ve got a bargain for you, a proposal.”

“Oh?” He gave a look that indicated he needed to say something flippant, but the look she was giving him didn’t allow it.

“Yes, I mean a proposal. Do you still want me, for six months, or two?”

“You mean it? Yes.”

“Find Patrick. I’ll tell you everything I know. You find him, I’m yours.”

With that, Ellice Watkin returned to her room, where she found someone else’s radio sitting on her bedside table. If one of the clocks was right, it was time for the morning service. If not, there would be orchestral music somewhere on the dial - if only radios still had dials.

She cried a little, for the first time in a long time. Errol wasn’t going to find Patrick - he hadn’t had the brains or the application to do a job properly even before his spine had got itself bent up like a shepherd’s crook. Patrick couldn’t find her himself, now that she was stuck in St Margaret’s - no matter how many notes had been left with the neighbours. In a long and decently-led life, this was the first time she could remember having no hope.

She would take Errol back anyway. He looked very lost. It wouldn’t be one-way traffic. He was stupid and shallow, but warm; a paddling pool next to the ocean. If they could persuade the nurses that they weren’t both senile, they could be a beacon of hope for the other residents, a little love story that wasn’t real but looked very sweet.