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Dominoes in O.T.

Just an extract from the diary we kept during our visits to Israel. The following describes an afternoon’s duty in the Occupation Therapy Department in a hospital in Israel.

Monday, 18th August . Today is (generically) bingo day. Or not, for today is also Israeli Valentine's Day and Leah's birthday. And the violinist from the symphony orchestra comes to entertain. But the highlight is the game of dominoes. Let me explain...

At the table are five of us. Only four can play. So the fifth - me - acts as umpire, peace keeper and comic relief. Oh, and share out the biscuits. But enough of moi - here are the players:

There's Ze'ev, blind, speaks reasonable English, and is a serious contender in a twosome. The logistics and fast moves of a foursome cuts him down to size, making his performance merely competent. This he accepts philosophically, despite normally being a bad loser - that is, worse than me - when playing only one opponent.

Beside him is Olga. A thickset, beetlebrowed, serious lady with good, heavily accented English. Probably of Russian origin. She plays to win, doggedly and with never a smile. A caring person under the gruff exterior, she fusses over Ze'ev in a motherly way, carefully moving his coffee cup to safety if he makes careless gestures - inevitably knocking it over herself in her haste.

Next, a woman we only know as the Elephant Lady. Let's abbreviate that to E.L. or Elle for short. The original name wasn't as unkind as it might first sound. You see, when she originally appeared, she was one of those patients who sported a nose tube and tracheotomy, one or other of which spluttered and gurgled with every breath; and she would walk with her nose tube gaily slung over one shoulder. The tube was removed some weeks ago, but the tracheotomy lingers on, as do the gurgles. She cannot speak, but has a delightful range of pantomime. But it is her skill at dominoes that leaves everyone astounded. For she not only knows the usual little ploys, like ‘watch what others can't play, and always get rid of any doubles’. But Elle keeps a running total of all the dominoes played and thinks ahead by two or three moves.

So, disconcertingly, she will be bouncing up and down in her seat and semaphoring success when the rest of us are still enjoying the uncertainty of the outcome. More of that in a moment.

Finally, there is D'vorah. D'vorah and Leah are friends; the kind of factory-girl friendship where one is a bit slow and the other is a bit clever. D'vorah is the clever one - compared with Leah - and although she has trouble following the game and is sometimes baffled by being forbidden to put a two on a three, on the whole she is thrilled to bits to be in a real contest for once, and obediently follows my whispered suggestions which, quite by accident, win a couple of games for her.

So far, so good. Serious play, genuine applause for the winner (usually Elle) with, all the time, the crisp, bright melodies of the violinist, plucking at heartstrings in the distance.

Then, disaster.

Elle (a little Orthodox lady of some 65 summers and goodness knows how many winters, with her hair in a net) has been getting progressively more excited and bouncy, playing fanfares on her tracheotomy. Suddenly she sees that, no matter what the rest of the players do, they can only play one end and have many more dominoes than she - whereas, in three rounds she is the predestined winner. At least, to her mathematical mind it is all as clear as crystal. So, with a phlegmatic gurgle of glee, she whacks down her final three dominoes and signals that she is the undisputed victor.

Unfortunately, Olga isn't following the little drama, being somewhat intense in demeanour and probably, like most mortals, regarding always playing the doubles first as the very zenith of gamesmanship. So she promptly interprets Elle's grand slam as simple, albeit unsubtle, cheating. And tells her so. Loudly and at length. In vivid Hebrew.

Whatever Elle lacks in speech she makes up for in catarrhal ploppings and dramatic gesticulations. Coupled with which, she can stand, walk, even jump up and down - whereas Olga is strapped into a wheelchair and merely able to work up an alarming sway.

Ze'ev is - metaphorically and literally - in the dark about all this and demands to know what numbers he is expected to follow. While D'vorah, an inerrant senser of moods, is aware that our table is but a smidgeon away from all-out fisticuffs, and bursts into tears, calling for little-friend-Leah to comfort her.

Meanwhile I am awkwardly aware that this is my table and - officially - I am in charge. All the while the shouts and sobs and antics are in crescendo, the lady violinist is soulfully rendering some sentimental ballad as background music.

With many a rega, sheket and b'vakasha [wait!, hush!, please!] I sternly order a truce while I endeavour to reconstruct the game from the point where Olga lost the plot and demonstrate to her satisfaction that Elle's victory was long ago written in the stars, and the rest of we humble mortals must bow to our destiny.

Olga - bless her - grasps my mix of Hebrew, Kiwi and panto and begins to subside a little, but switches to a lecture on don't be so smart next time, just play it out at normal speed, buster, gradually reducing the volume from a full-on screech to an acceptable loud grizzle. Ze'ev decides that whoever the somebody was who won, it was not he; while D'vorah decides to save her great racking sobs for a more deserving occasion and thoughtfully munches a handful of biscuits.

The violinist finishes her medley on a triumphant high note and we break into prolonged applause. It's just a normal bingo afternoon at the hospital's Occupational Therapy Department.

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