“Homo Spiritualis” by Carmel Mc Mahon

It was my first real job in NYC. Personal Assistant to a wealthy woman on the Upper East Side. It took a while for me to train her to call me her assistant rather than her secretary, and it took a while for me to learn that I was not being paid for my opinion. It had been a slow crawl out of the waitressing game, but I landed an assistantship at a New York museum, unaware that positions of this sort, while miserably paid, are usually reserved for ivy educated daughters until they find a husband–not for a broke Irish immigrants with anxiety issues and drink problems.

I liked to imagine I was maintaining a veneer of normalcy, but then I would accidentally wear my shirt inside out, or absentmindedly email something inappropriate to the entire museum, or spend the day hiding behind my monitor, praying for relief from yet another wretched hangover and vowing never to drink again. Or worst of all, I would burst into tears for no reason, other than the fact that my unconscious mind had kicked up some mundane memory from the past, like the time I stood with school friends at dusk, in one of the newer housing estates of Ashbourne in Co. Meath; we were laughing while the dying light played red and gold notes across our faces and hair. Why the laughter? Why the pristine preservation of this isolated fragment? And why now, to feel it viscerally 20 years later? To feel this disconnected part of myself scramble to figure out how it fits into this life. Then to feel, more forcefully, the absolute futility of being. How could I not drink?

So, while my behavior was never the stuff of dismissals, I sensed a talking-to was in the offing. I would never have survived the embarrassment. I knew, that they knew, that my mind had emigrated with a bottle of whiskey and what showed up was the derelict and disheveled body it had once inhabited. I had no choice but to quit.

The new job came in the nic of time. The big house was a balm for my troubled soul. The objects were beautiful. Beauty beyond intellect, beyond argument. My boss, a life-long collector, had a reputation for having a great eye. She flipped through the auction house catalogues stopping at the pieces that fit the esthetic she had cultivated from childhood; from within herself, impervious to outside influence or market tastes. She never attempted to articulate the meaning in an object; she didn’t have to, as my set did, aimlessly flapping about trying to pin our opinions on air. The housekeeper was a kind and gentle Haitian woman whose presence calmed every frenetic object it touched. Then there was Mlle. Georgette Moreau….

New York has an abundance of these women. Keen-eyed and ancient with impeccable style from the overall affect of their manner to the smallest detail of their dress. Georgette’s job was Fashion Advisor to my boss, a position wherein she yay’d and nay’d the offerings of French and Italian couturiers. I was fascinated. She, however, made no effort to hide the fact that she did not like the cut of my jib. And so our relationship began.

Every day I offered to make her cup of tea and every day she refused. There was a certain cup, a level for the water, the length of time a tea bag should steep. A complicated procedure. Certainly too much for a clumsy, distracted, people-pleaser to cope with.

Six months passed when she began to open up to me in the form of a rant. Every day she carried the tale of some dissatisfaction she had encountered on the way to work. It usually began with the bus driver. He drove too fast, he drove too slow, he allowed too many people on the bus, he did not respond when she said hello. A sure sign that the end days were upon us when small civilities were so readily dispensed with. Some man at the bank, a cyclist, a traffic light, a pothole, a tourist, a dog, etc. Then for the rest of the day the events of her life would be filtered through the lens of that dissatisfaction. My stock response was a sympathetic “Hmm, hmm,” for I could certainly relate to the difficulties of existing alongside others when I am always in the right.

Whenever she mentioned war-time France, Georgette had my full attention. These few years had shaped the being who sat before me today half way across this world of time and space. “People did not groom their dogs in France during the war.” She would say. “They did not waste their pennies on such frivolities as bows and booties for their dogs, they did not bend down to pick up their shit! People who have dogs in the city are sick. Selfish, sick people!”

She also started to accept a cup of tea. She directed me in the making of it, as the English Directrice of her primary school had directed her. “The English,” she would say, “know how to make a cup of tea.” Hmm. The Irish, I happen to know, make it better. It is an old argument, each accusing the other of making weak, sugary tea. A direct reflection, no doubt, of a moral flaw in the character. But I make no mention. She accepts a biscuit only if it is made with real sugar and real butter. These she nibbles for an achingly long time, as if to make them last. What memories, I wonder, lurk there beneath the layers of Chanel, Vuitton, Hermès?

She developed a pain in her leg, which her doctor put down to age. It prevented her from taking her daily walk home across Central Park. She began to limp in an exaggerated fashion to match her increasingly cantankerous moods. Some days she would drag her foot behind her and mutter curses in French and stubbornly refuse my insistent offers to help.

Increased absences forced my boss to address the situation. “Perhaps it is time to retire, Gigi?” She tentatively put forth to the 80 year old woman. The following day Georgette entered in a particularly beautiful camel hair coat and a pale pink pashmina. Her cropped silver-grey locks were spiked just enough to betray her punk-rock heart. “I know when I am not wanted!” she yelled, as she threw her keys down. “I quit!” Then she turned around and hobbled out. My heart sank. The Haitian woman could not eat for days, and my boss took to her bed.

I missed the old woman telling the same stories over and over, like some soothing steadiness in my fraying life. Not the words themselves, because I had long ceased listening, but the surety of the cadence, of knowing how each episode would play out: The way her brother would berate her for dipping her bread in her soup. Just because they were poor, did not mean they had to act like peasants. The apple tree in her mother’s garden from which jams and jellies were made. That there was no obesity then, for the people ate what they needed and walked because they had to.

I took to visiting her the odd evening. She lived with a fat, furry cat in a rent controlled apartment on the Upper West Side. The kind of place that New Yorkers die for. Someone told me that people allude to real estate at least once day in the city because it is such a limited resource. My own one room being only slightly larger than the bathroom in my parent’s house. Georgette loves having me over. She dresses for the occasion, and I take care on those days to wear something I think she will approve of. Usually one of my many Givenchy inspired vintage dresses, which she will briefly admire then give me in-depth instructions on how to deal with the tiny rip or stain in the fabric. I bring cheese and bread. The table is always laid for tea with mis-matched cups and saucers. There is always a bowl of cherries and a plate of chocolates. The teapot, she always tells me, is from a flea market upstate.

She begins to speak of her first years in the U.S. Of the time she worked for a young English woman in Florida who had married a wealthy old man for his money. When they divorced, the woman moved to New York. She bought a tiny studio on Central Park South, and she drank herself to death in it. Of the time she worked as a cook for Woody Allen, a sweet and simple man, who invited her to use his apartment before she found one of her own. More stories! I demanded, drunk on Earl Grey and Petit Écolier. I felt something in those days with that old woman that I had not felt before in my life. It was this: That sitting in her apartment with her prattling on, and the cat, and the tea, and the evening sun, that I was, in those moments, exactly where I was meant to be.

As the months continued their steady march on, I became aware of the descent of her mind and her movement. She had begun to answer the door in her dressing gown. Once she told me about her previous cat, Melou, who had passed away. Georgette had taken her ashes into Central Park and scattered them over Strawberry Fields. I asked her when it was that Melou had died; she turned around to face a framed painting of a black and white cat. “Melou,” she asked it, “When did you die?” Then she turned back to me and replied, “She says 15 years ago.” Whenever I left after that, she held onto me when I hugged her goodbye, and I had the feeling that I was holding a little child. I gently rubbed her hollow, papery back and promised to return soon.

One afternoon I called to make a tea date. The phone rang and rang. A few days later I called again, and again, no answer. I went to her building and the doorman told me that Georgette had fallen, and that she had been found where she lay, babbling and incoherent in a pool of her own urine. She was taken to the hospital, and then on to a nursing home on the Upper East Side.

The lobby of the nursing home is set up with seating arrangements for guests. Though there are none. The receptionist barely acknowledges my presence and omits telling me that the elevator is out of service, so I sit on an oilcloth covered sofa for 20 minutes watching the light travel up and down but never stopping on the ground floor. There is a lonely feeling here. Not any more lonely than the loneliness that is always present everywhere, but here there is less of an effort to disguise it. Finally, I take the stairs. Good to keep the body moving, I think, to comfort myself.

I find Georgette slowly making her way in a walker down the peach/pink corridor. She is barely recognizable. Her hair and nails are long and unkempt. The stained green nightdress does not belong to her, and a pair of mis-matched socks bunch around her ankles. She is wisp of thing now, but her eyes are clear and bright and sparkle with a new light. We putz on together very slowly, and she introduces me to her new Polish friend. A pretty, young blond aide. “I gant geep up wit dis one speeding about,” the blond says. We small-talk awhile, and we laugh at ourselves in an easy way, we three European women, we three rebels who left kith and kin to end up here together on this day in April, in this year of Our Lord, Twenty Eleven!

Georgette and I walk on. “I have been here so long,” she tells me, “that I have no memory of my life outside this place.” It has only been a week, I think to myself, but perhaps it is just as well. “My mind is lucid for what is in front of my face and my memories of Burgundy,” she says, “but everything else is gone.”

When visiting hours are over, she walks me to the door. “It’s not so bad,” she says. “I just take it a day at a time, and today is a very good day, because you are here….” I held her for a long time, for what I knew would be the last time, and I felt the healing begin within me, of a very deep wound, that I didn’t even know was there.


Biographical Details:

Carmel Mc Mahon grew up in Ashbourne in Co. Meath. She attended NYU and CCNY where she was awarded the Mack Graduate Prize for writing. She has published short stories in LeSofa: La Revue, The Australian-Irish Heritage Journal and Promethean. Her short story Homo Spiritualis was a winner in the August 2011 Lonely Voice Competition at The Irish Writer’s Center. A later incarnation went on to appear in New Irish Writing in the Irish Independent, February 2012. Carmel lives in New York City and and is working on a collection of short stories.


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