I’ve always been gregarious and am accused of constantly talking since the day I first learned to say mama. One of the first lessons drummed into me by my Mama was not to talk to strangers, an exhortation I have persistently ignored. In most cases, the strangers I’ve talked to have turned out to be very interesting people, and I’ve rarely regretted my disobedience in this matter.
One evening a couple of weeks ago as I was leaving the hospital after visiting my mother I had such an encounter. In the main reception area of the hospital is a hologram of various members of hospital staff, each speaking a greeting in a different language. I’d noticed this a few times, and stopped occasionally to try and identify the languages, though with little success. It brought home to me yet again how much my native town has changed since my childhood, with such a vast mix of nationalities living there nowadays.
On this particular occasion, as I was approaching the hologram, a young woman leapt up excitedly in front of the virtual figure and I thought she exclaimed, “It’s me!” So I commented on what a strange experience it must be to stand face-to-face with your virtual self. “Oh no, it isn’t me, it’s Vee!” she corrected me. So I apologised for my error and remarked what a lovely idea it was to have such a greeting in your native tongue as you enter a foreign hospital, feeling scared and worried. I had been particularly impressed by a Jamaican nurse’s presentation, in patois, which ended with the promise to take good care of the patients: “Me carry one, me carry two!” meaning “I will go the extra mile with you”.
My new friend was pleased to hear that and asked if I’d mind putting it in writing. It turned out that some West Indian visitors had been offended by the use of dialect rather than standard English, and thought it was demeaning to them. The nurse in question had been quite hurt by this criticism and my praise might help cheer her up. I’m always happy to cheer people up, so I agreed and found I was talking to the head of hospital PR, whose brainchild the holograms were.
“Would you mind letting me record you saying again what you just said?” she asked, so I agreed to repeat my remarks to her smart phone. Oh dear, not only talking to strangers but being recorded doing so! Our conversation continued, and I explained about my mother’s fall and missing her hundredth birthday because of being in hospital. Mrs PR was very interested and asked if Mom would mind having an article written about her for the hospital newsletter and the local press. I replied that she’d surely be pleased, as she had been looking forward to having her photo in the paper but of course, when the press photographer turned up at her party on the day, she wasn’t there.
Mrs PR took over from that point, interviewed me, visited my mother a couple of times, involved the Chief Nurse of the hospital trust (which may have helped make sure my mother got extra special nursing care, though I think the nursing staff didn’t really need any outside motivation) and produced an article that I was allowed to vet before publication. I have to confess that as soon as anyone gives me some writing to check, my inner English teacher kicks in together with my years of editing and proofreading, so my corrections weren’t all factual. Of course, I had no control over changes made by the newspaper editor, but his were minor errors.
The article with photos duly appeared, and my mother was pleased that she hadn’t been overlooked after all. She was rather bemused by the effusiveness of Mrs PR, who was indeed a stranger to her but talked to her like a dear old friend. No wonder elderly people in hospitals and homes get confused: “Do I know you?” was the question constantly on my mother’s lips as she lost count of the smiling faces around her, all unfamiliar, but who formed a kind of fan club during her hospitalisation.
The day my mother was transferred to the care home, I had a phone call from Mrs PR asking if my mother would like to appear on BBC TV local news. By this time, Mom had made a remarkable recovery so I agreed on her behalf for a reporter and camera person to come to the party on Tuesday. Mrs PR said she wold arrange everything, including a hairdresser and beautician to ensure Mom would look her best.
On Tuesday, it turned out that the beautician wasn’t a hairdresser, but serendipity stepped in yet again, because a woman who was just leaving the home after visiting her aunt overheard the conversation, explained that she was a hairdresser and could fill the gap. So Cinderella was transformed after all.
“What colour nail polish would she like?” the beautician asked me.
“Oh, a neutral colour,” I said, knowing that my mother has never worn much make up apart from powdering her nose and prefers a natural look. The girl looked disappointed, as she had a rainbow range with her, including sparkly polishes.
“You’d better ask her yourself,” I told her, so she did. My mother looked at the rainbow and smilingly suggested: “What about a nice bright red?” “Would you like some sparkle?” “Oh yes, please!” So everyone was happy.
The party was a great success, the wonderful birthday cake was finally cut and eaten (it tasted just as good as it looked), my mother wore her tiara, had a glass of pink champagne and was Queen for an afternoon. The TV item was shown at the end of the evening news, watched by my mother with the assembled staff and residents of the home, and many friends and relatives in their own homes. The family in Switzerland and elsewhere were also very happy to discover that the video clip had been posted on Facebook, so they too could see Great-Granny celebrating at long last (look for the Facebook page of Midlands Today, Elsie Williams, on 31 May 2016).
As for me, I think I shall continue talking to strangers. Can’t change the habits of a lifetime so easily.