Mariam stood in the hall for a moment to assume a cheerful smile before she went into the living room. It was hard not to wrinkle her nose at the smell of tobacco, but the smokers among her ladies didn’t like it when they saw her doing it.
Face composed, she strode into the living room.
“Good morning, darling,” she said.
The old woman grunted and waved at the television. Mariam searched her memory for her name.
“He used to call me that,” said the woman.
Mariam glanced round. On the screen, Michael Portillo was sitting on a train, trying to look wise and content but not managing to get past smug.
“I’m sorry?” Asked Mariam.
“Michael. He called me darling. Not when his wife was listening of course. Then he called me Bunny like everyone else.”
“Well Bunny, how are you feeling today?”
The woman guffawed, but her laughter collapsed into a fusillade of coughs.
“No, no, dear. It doesn’t sound right from you. You don’t speak like we used to. Nobody does any more.”
Damn, thought Mariam. What was she going to call the woman?
“Reggie Kray, now, he could call me Bunny whenever he wanted. I used to sit at his table at his club. Those were the days. Till his brother got out of chokey and dragged him down, of course.”
She lit a cigarette.
“You really shouldn’t,” said Mariam. “They’ll do you no good.”
“No they didn’t,” said the woman. “It was the way Michael lit one for me that tipped his wife off. I got a black eye and a torn coat from that, let me tell you.”
“Of course you did.” Mariam checked her watch. She only had forty minutes per visit and she hadn’t started yet. She gathered up a couple of tea cups to wash. “What should I call you then?”
“Maude, I suppose.” She took a long drag, which set her coughing again. “You’ll probably get all huffy if I say Mrs Stephenson.”
“Mrs Stephenson’s fine, if you prefer. What have you had to eat?”
“Caviar? I’m sorry?”
“Caviar. Not since nineteen seventy-one, of course. Haven’t tasted it since. They don’t deliver it from Tesco. But I’ve never tasted anything to match it.”
“I’m sure you haven’t,” said Mariam. “Actually, I meant what have you had to eat today.”
“No caviar, but don’t you worry about me.”
Mariam gave up.
“Has anyone been to visit?”
“Two years ago. Or was it three?”
“He’s Michael’s son as well, of course.”
“Michael…” Mariam glanced at the television. “I see.”
“Not that my husband knew. We knew how to handle these things in my day. None of this twitterbooking and facering you go in for these days.”
Mariam resorted to the solution that never failed.
“I’ll make some tea.”