Just off the Plaza Galdos stands The John Bull. Mine host is a Spaniard, Eugenio, who wears a kilt and has a set of bagpipes, and who, when we first arrived in Tenerife after the banks had closed, offered to lend us enough money to tide us over the weekend. It is one of our favourite places. Quite often we meet Maeve sitting at an outside table with a large gin and orange and usually surrounded by shopping bags. Big, buxom and always busy, with hands like a bricklayer, she really does look as though she's scrubbed a few doorsteps in her time. She is one of our cleaning club except that she doesn't do it for visitors but for residents; not residents like us but those older people too frail to handle bed-making, shopping and cleaning. I should not have been surprised, for these hidden groups of frail elderly exist in all societies, and Maeve performs the service of Home Help. It was our home helps that were our first line of defence against hidden need. Society strides ahead leaving the elderly and spent in the rear until the home help grabs your sleeve and says "Just a minute..." Our local Spanish doctor Dr Carlos Bermuda and his two practice nurses know them of course - so does Maeve Catchpole. Maeve charges a small fee for her services, in English money about £3 per hour A measly sum.

"Well, the poor old things haven't got much money," Maeve says.

It's as well not to get Maeve started on the subject of old expatriates. The Swedes do it better. They have a good service and a good church and take good care of their people. Also the Swedish church have Hi-Fi musical concerts on Saturday evenings which are a joy to us.

"It's just that they are left like ornaments on a mantelpiece. You just don't see them anymore."

"Well yes. I can see that. Do we know any welfare cases?"

Well, she's started, so we let her go on - there's Dick and Jess; Maeve does their shopping as Dick gets confused with Spanish money when he's had a cognac or two, and Jess gets so upset when the purse isn't right, so Maeve does it. And there's Harold who used to be a magistrate; his wife Claudia can get about OK but the hill back to El Paso is too much for her, so Harold goes out to wait for her, and he gets cross because she won't listen to him. "You know, they come back hand in hand and it's so nice to see because they really do care about each other." Maeve reckons there must be a few hundred ancient British ornaments scattered about this island. "And what about Johnnie Cartright. You never see him because he's nursing Connie in hospital. They moved her from the Green Hospital to a state hospital in Santa Cruz, so he has to live there to wash and feed her. Families do that in Spain, not like our NHS. I go in to keep the place tidy for him. The Cartwrights never applied for residencies or medical cover and they've been out here for over twenty years. And there's that empty apartment in the Bahia, fully furnished. Those two died within a month of each other and we don't know of any relatives." Maeve's been here a long time, so have Dick and Jess, so have Harold and Claudia. So have the Cartwrights - but we know nothing of the Cartwrights or their difficulties; do they have relatives, someone to care? And that empty apartment in the Bahia; there's something terribly sad about a fully furnished apartment standing empty of its owners, full of stuff they've handled and no-one left to handle it, or even to claim it. But right. We don't know any welfare cases; something to feel guilty about.

Maeve says we should be careful about Ted and Fred - and Bernard come to that. They mix with some funny people - obviously Maeve has heard about Basi's problem - "you know, people hiding from the law! And there's Dot Trotter. I think Mr Trotter is inside, a guest of Her Majesty's government."

Funny people is another subject as well not to get Maeve started on. Harold and Claudia's two daughters are funny people: "They only come out here when they want something from the estate, or school fees. It's never a holiday, always business, and it does upset Claudia so, poor love! You know, they really really do love each other, those two. Always waiting on each other. It'll be just too awful when one of them dies. I mean, what will the other one do, for heaven's sake? I begged them to go home. But you know how it is, nobody wants them. And their daughters are too mean to place them in sheltered housing. As for Dick's daughter! Well! ... I mean! But Ted and Fred and Bernard. We ought to be careful. A lot of goings on in Southend. It all comes up by river, you know!"

So far as we are concerned, Bernard is quite respectable. There's another Brit couple she warns us about who were declared bankrupt and fled the country seven years ago. Don't buy anything from them! she warns. Now we're back to Dorothy Trotter - "she's very friendly with those two hit men you know," - but here we get a pregnant silence. Goings on - possibly.

"Poor Dolly! And what about Big Joyce? Hasn't laid a finger... And Bill Redman - "now he's a slippery character"! Really, Maeve! Are these facts or just your gossip? But aren't we glad about other peoples' goings on!" says Lizzie over supper. "Gives us something to talk about."

Two days later Lizzie met Maeve at the egg shelf. The urgency of her step meant something serious was about to be imparted. She had seen the mob inside the Banco de Bilbao, the minders surrounding cases of money, the cashiers counting it out. It's all this time-share stuff, she said. Never seen so much money. There were also mob people on the door watching outside. The bank was full. Then they left, got into cars and drove off - and the bank was empty!... "So what do you think of that? And not just that - these time-share people meet in groups in Muriel's Black and White and the boss really lays it on thick. He threatens them. Get punters up to the office - just get them. I don't know how Muriel stands for it - except that they buy drinks."

"But I didn't forget the eggs, sweet prince. Cheese omelette for lunch with best Welsh cheddar."

We have a great liking for Maeve; a mine of information, even the irrelevant is interesting. We often wondered how she coped with the death of her husband - Ronald, was it? With what pain did love's old sweet song fade away? Our retired music teacher drowned herself; is Maeve drowning herself in work?

"I shall be old myself one day and I'm in the same boat, Alan duck, with no one to go back to. So who'll take care of me?"

"There'll be another you around. Somebody else will step in."

"Heck as like! You two won't be here."

"We don't know that, Maeve."

She knows my reply is intended to conceal, "Oh yes I do. You have children who love you. They'll pull you back."

It really is not difficult to visualise Maeve as a young girl, full of new life, looking at boys, giggling with her friends, upset by childish cruelties, looking at fashion shoes. I really can regard those brown eyes full of juvenile wonder, those big capable hands mixing flour, standing on a stool at her mother's side, for the traditional role is how I visualise Maeve; she is a comforting person, any other picture of her is somehow inappropriate and comfortless. I see her having her hair done, capturing glances and finding strange joy when boys stop talking and eyes are on the back of her head, knowing she must not stop or turn, almost shaking with excitement. Is the joy she is getting now of equal depth to those times long gone? No. Can't be. Pleasure, yes! Pleasure resides not in joy alone but in many things fitted to instruct and employ. So is this is as good as it gets, Maeve, duck? What are you getting out of your community service? Is there nothing else you can reach out for? I query this inwardly and want to write it up. It won't be Island Gazette stuff, but it might fit somewhere else. She has no children. If there are relatives we hear nothing about them.

Houseminding is her thing, a bit like gardening, in the sense that it never stays done. Some of our more restless visitors are serious gardeners, always phoning home to know what the weather is like, do their lawns need watering for tip scorching, are there pests on their dahlias, sweet peas that need spraying, earwigs to be dealt with? Not so with houseminders; they don't queue up to use the phone to find if their carpets are still clean, the loos flushed, the curtains drawn, the beds made. I often wonder what things occupy her mind, does she yearn for something better while going through the motions of housework?

Glenys Harding is going into market gardening. A successful trader, she found The City rather less than better.

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