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Of flowers and men

John Steinbeck’s heart-wrenching novella Of Mice and Men (1937) must, in recent years, have become one of the most widely read stories in English. For decades it was a GCSE set text. I taught it to dozens of classes. That means millions of teenagers (and often their families) will have read it. There have also been some pretty impressive film and stage adaptations.

So we all remember how George and Lennie are migrant farm workers in 1930s California. Lennie has what would now carefully be called “learning difficulties”. George, often exasperated but  gruffly loving, is Lennie’s self appointed carer. The relationship is fraternal, complex and based on mutual dependence.

We’ll I’ve thought a lot about Of Mice and Men lately because I often feel I’m living it (without the Californian sunshine, unfortunately). Lennie’s problems – not understanding, willing to please and forever doing things he regrets because he doesn’t want to upset George – are very similar to the dementia which characterises worsening Alzheimer’s.

Lennie, unlike My Loved One, is on the one hand physically very powerful and on the other has a child-like love of stroking soft things. It is this combination which repeatedly leads him into serious trouble whereupon,childishly, he says often to George. “I’ve done a bad thing.”

MLO’s hideously similar new line is “I’ve done something silly” and when he says this my heart, like the fictional George’s, plummets. “OMG, now what?” I think. He’s trying, like a child who knows he’s in the wrong, to be open and honest with this mother figure I’ve reluctantly morphed into. The trouble is, he’s usually so anxious about whatever it is that he can’t explain what he’s done.

Recent “silly things” have included writing a cheque with an extra nought on it so that, for the first time ever, MLO’s cheque bounced. Fortunately it was only made payable to me and it’s all sorted now. His banking habits are stuck in 1962.  But not for much longer: I’m in the process of assuming control of his personal account. Then we shall fast forward to 2018 and it will all be online.

We had a classic “silly thing” instance last week when I was out working. I phoned home between jobs, as is my wont, to check that MLO was OK and to have a chat. It was a warm sunny day and, before leaving the house. I’d installed the umbrella on the patio table and wound it half up – enough to give him a bit of shade if he wanted to sit at the table for a while. He’s never liked strong sunlight and now that he has a large, growing squamous cell carcinoma on his face (due for incision next month) I think it’s sensible to be careful. The reason I hadn’t wound the umbrella any further was because one of my carefully nurtured and rather beautiful hanging baskets was in the way – because we’ve extended the patio and I need to rethink where things go.

Well, I expect you’ve guessed by now what happened. Yes, he tried to put the umbrella up fully and knocked down the hanging basket because he, his brain all twisted up by Ms Alzheimer’s, can no longer work out that if I’ve done something in a particular way then there must have been a good reason for it – best, therefore to leave it alone and not fiddle with it. Or to put that another way he now struggles with cause and effect. And I struggle with trying to imagine how it feels to live inside his confused head.

The conversation on the phone went something like this: Me: “Something silly? What’s happened?” Him: “It’s that pink thing outside” Me (cottoning on) “Do you mean the hanging basket? You didn’t fiddle with the umbrella did you?” Him: “It’s in the middle of the table.” Me: “Did you knock the hanging basket  down?” Him: “I think so” Me: “Is it damaged?” Him (voice beginning to crack) “I’m not sure”.  Me: “Well can’t you hang it up again? Him: “I thought of that but you know that round thing ..?” Me: You mean the hook?” And so on – and on.

In the end I took a deep breath, told myself (for the millionth time) that I have to keep things in proportion and said: “OK. I’ll look at it when I get home. And if you’ve damaged it badly, well It’s only a hanging basket. We’ll buy another one.” By then, the man at the next table in the coffee shop was giving me very sympathetic looks.

In the event, all I had to do was rehang the basket and remove a few trailing bits damaged by the whole thing falling to the ground. It’s a rather worrying indication of how things are and where they’re going that MLO couldn’t work out what was needed.

At the end of Of Mice and Men, George has to shoot Lennie to save him from a much worse fate. I rather hope it doesn’t come to that.

Steinbeck Centre, Salinas, California. I took this photograph in 2013.

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Susan Elkin
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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