WAKE UP TIME
Peter Mortimer’s short story sees a salesman receive a shocking revelation when he visits his elderly mother in a care home. Illustration by Burcin Pervin.
Malcolm looked at his watch. 2:33pm. He had one hour before his sales appointment, just time enough visit his mother’s care home for 25 minutes. His mood dropped as he walked towards the main entrance.
He hated this place, the overheated lounge with the circle of easy chairs spread round the perimeter, the television set blaring loudly and watched by no one. He hated the residents, shrunken husks mumbling or dribbling, their flakey hands trembling and shaking. All of them, just waiting to die. The thought of their impassive acceptance irritated him.
He hated these weekly visits, but he did his duty. Part of being a son. He mistrusted the carers, who he saw as lazy, inexperienced scivers, nipping out into the yard for a crafty fag at every opportunity. Only the week previous, he’d arrived just after lunch to find his mother’s cardigan stained with gravy. What kind of care was that?
His mother, Rene, now in her eighties, suffered from Alzheimer’s. The two of them could no longer have a proper conversation. This both annoyed Malcolm and came as a relief. Annoyed, because he had little time for anyone spouting nonsense, relief because it meant he no longer needed to discuss his life with her, nor meet with her disapproval.
She would chunter on, sometimes mistaking him for her husband Donald – dead these last three years – asking him if he had any shirts for the wash. She would believe she was in the Irish farmhouse of her youth, pointing to the chickens she claimed were running in and out of the kitchen door, enquiring if anyone had checked the barn for eggs. She would hold a conversation about Bisto or lard or deliveries from the bread man with her erstwhile neighbour Marge Poulson, never seen since she moved to Dorset 12 years previously. She would point at and converse with people on television, often admonishing them for their behaviour, or for wearing the wrong hat.
The policy in the care home was to go along with such delusions, to agree with whatever was said by the residents. This way, it was claimed, the residents were spared distress. Malcolm considered such philosophy to be patronising rubbish. ‘I tell my mother the truth, even if it hurts’, he commented to the chief carer, ‘and I would appreciate it if you would do the same.’ As he turned away following this remark, the chief carer stuck her middle finger up in the air.
When his mother indulged these same delusions, Malcolm would inform her, with all the patience he could muster, that her husband was dead, she was not in the farmhouse of her childhood, Marge Poulson has not been seen for more than a decade, and the people on television could neither hear her, talk back to her, nor change their headgear at her bidding. His mother would stare at him. Sometimes she would be silent, other times she would enquire, ‘Where is Sheba?’, referring to her one-time Jack Russell.
‘Sheba was run over and killed by a number 38 bus five years ago,’ Malcolm would reply, ‘how many times have I told you that?’
Again a silence. And then perhaps, ‘Are you my father?’
‘Pull yourself together, mother,’ Malcolm would say.
Other times she grew agitated with short shallow breathing, repeating many times over, ‘Not here, not here, not here, not here.’ At such times Malcolm would call for a cup of tea to calm his mother down.
Every few moments during his visits, Malcolm would glance at the clock on the wall. Time seemed to stand still in this place, as if the inertia and lifelessness of the care home dragged time itself into some motionless state. He could not bear to stay on these weekly visits for more than 30 minutes. Today it would be 25 minutes. Each time he emerged from The Laurels, each time he left behind the nauseous half-suffocating stilled air of the care home, he breathed deeply the cool clean air outside, as if he was re-energising himself and reconnecting with the real world.
As he approached the care home this day, he checked his watch once more. It would take him 30 minutes to drive to meet his next client: a large retailer. He was confident of landing a mixed order for at least £2,000. Careful planning had allowed him to squeeze these visits to his mother into work hours, so as not to eat into his social calendar.
He rang the front entrance bell and was let in by a young carer he had not seen before. She murmured something and pushed the visitors’ book towards him to sign. She then led him into the lounge and disappeared. He felt conspicuous in this room of shabbily dressed old people. His own charcoal grey suit was neatly tailored, his white shirt clean and pressed, his black shoes well shined. He took a pride in his appearance, not only because he had to compete with the younger salesmen at his company, but because such smartness impressed the clients. After all, who would want to place an order for novelty corkscrews with a dishevelled tramp?
His mother was not sitting in her normal chair. Malcolm looked round in irritation. Where was she? He had rung the care home to announce his visit. Everything should have been arranged. And she always sat in that same chair. All day. Every day. There was nowhere else for her to go once she was out of bed. Sometimes, when he was out and about on business or pleasure, he gave his mother a quick thought. No matter where he might be, no matter what he might be doing, he knew his mother would be sitting in that chair. He tried not to think of this fact too often.
He went out to the ante-room where three carers were sat smoking. ‘Where is my mother?’ Malcolm asked. Two of the carers looked blank, but the third, elder one said; ‘They’re just getting her ready.’
‘We had to give her a bath.’
Malcolm wrinkled his nose in disgust. His mother had probably soiled herself. It had happened once before while he’d been visiting, and he’d almost retched from the putrid smell.
‘Will she be long? I have an appointment soon.’
‘We’ll have her down just as quick as we can,’ said the woman. ‘We’re a bit short staffed.’
Malcolm turned and walked back into the lounge. They didn’t look short-staffed. He gazed around the room. Ten residents were seated in a wide circle, chairs pushed against the walls. Each resident stared into the room’s empty centre. There seemed to be no way that one resident could communicate with another. On the loudly blaring television, which no one was watching, a fat woman in a studio was pointing at a scruffy looking man, and shouting that he was a deceitful pig, and that Tracey was a slut. The audience clapped and cheered. Malcolm stood next to his mother’s chair, and felt a feeble grasp of his hand.
It was an old lady. She was staring up at him, her lips moving slightly, her eyes moist and wide.
His hand was slightly tugged, and he heard, in the faintest whisper, the words, ‘Can you?’
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘Can you? Sir.’
He snatched his hand away in irritation. Who on earth was she? And what was she babbling about? Standing like this, he felt exposed, a target. Not that any of them were looking at him. Or at anything. He found the TV remote and turned down the volume, before sitting down in his mother’s chair where, for the moment, he could be safely anonymous.
As he sat down, Malcolm felt more at ease. It had been a frantic few days attempting to reach the monthly sales targets. He knew those young bucks in the company would be looking out for any slip-up, knew they were keen to step into his shoes and take over some of his territory. Well, not yet. He still had the gift of the gab, he could still charm the buyers into ordering his kind of novelty rubbish against the novelty rubbish offered by other firms. Let those young bucks wait.
His next appointment was with one of his best customers. Come 4pm he confidently expected his monthly targets would be met. If he got his monthly bonus, he could relax, and take Barbara out to that new Greek place. He had not introduced Barbara to his mother. It was too complicated.
Strangely enough, he was relaxing now. A tiredness came over him as he sank into his mother’s chair, and he felt his eyelids flutter. He had never sat in this chair. Normally he carried in a wooden chair from the next-door dining room, and perched on the edge for the duration of his visit. Sometimes he would stand and stride about for a few moments as if to break up the tedium of his visit. Or not knowing what to say to his mother, he would walk over and stare through the bay window at the outside garden, with its lawn, its trees and various shrubs, a garden few of the residents ever seemed to frequent. Beyond this, on the skyline, he could see the town hall clock.
He shook himself awake, but again the weariness crept up on him. The sensation was not unpleasant, as if he were sinking into something warm and soothing. Well, why not? The staff would wake him in a few minutes when they wheeled in his mother, he would chat to her in the normal inconsequential manner, and leave at 3:10pm, well in time for his appointment.
Meanwhile, this chair was affording him the rare luxury of a short daytime nap, an almost guilty sense of drifting away. Small sounds came into his ears, the soft rumble of traffic from the main road, the distant chimes of an ice-cream van, the sound of a car horn, again distant. How strange his body should seem to fit so well into this, his mother’s chair, to mould itself into a position of total relaxation.
Someone was lightly tugging his sleeve. He opened his eyes to see a carer he did not recognise. Yet another new staff member. For a second he panicked that he had slept too long and may have missed his appointment. But he knew he had only closed his eyes for an instant.
‘Time for your tea, Malcolm.’ The carer, aged about 30, was holding in her hand a plastic mug with a lid and small aperture for drinking. She was addressing him by his first name, an informality he had neither invited nor welcomed in this place. And she was speaking more loudly than seemed natural.
‘Tea Malcolm, nice and sweet the way you like it.’ There was a monotone sound to the carer’s voice, not friendly, not hostile, simply neutral.
He looked around. The lounge was somehow different. He could not put his finger on it immediately, but then realised the circle of people was not the same circle of people as when he had drifted off a few minutes previously.
‘Come on Malcolm, it will do you good.’ The carer was pushing the plastic tea mug into his hand, and closing his fingers around it.
Where was his mother? Surely they should have cleaned her up by now?
‘Where is my mother?’ he asked, and the smallness of his voice surprised him.
‘She’ll be here soon Malcolm,’ said the carer, ‘Drink your tea meantime.’
‘Tea?’ He had never been offered tea here before. And why was it in the kind of spill-proof cup they gave old people?
‘What is the time?’ he asked and the carer replied, ‘Four o’clock, tea time.’
‘Four o’clock?’ said Malcolm, ‘But my appointment. I have an important customer to see!’
‘That’s right Malcolm. Now drink your tea.’
He tried to push himself up from the chair, but found it impossible. His arms had little strength, and a pain shot through his legs.
‘Do you want the toilet Malcolm? Say if you want the toilet.’
‘No, no. Where is my mother? I have to go. Important sales meeting.’
‘That’s right Malcolm.’
He looked down at his clothing. Gone was his sharp charcoal grey suit. He was wearing a pair of shapeless elasticated tracksuit bottoms, a tired looking checked shirt on top of which was an old cardigan, with a gravy stain down one side.
‘But you don’t understand. I have to go. Have to go. Mother?’
The carer turned away, and shouted into the next room.
‘It’s Malcolm matron, he’s getting distressed again.’
The matron came in, a solid looking woman aged about fifty, with a brisk no-nonsense air. She knelt down by Malcolm and took his hand. He had never seen her before.
‘Everything’s alright Malcolm, nothing to worry about, you’ve just got a bit overexcited again.’
The matron looked up at the other carer, and said, ‘Talking about his mother again?’
‘Yes, and that bloody sales meeting of his.’
‘Drink your tea, Malcolm,’ said the matron. ‘There’s a good boy.’
‘But you don’t understand, I –’ Malcolm waved an arm in the air. The arm was thin, the flesh old and wrinkled. Veins stood out on the back of his hand. He looked around him. None of the residents were paying any attention. The television set was blaring. But it was not like the set he knew. This set, much larger, was inset halfway up the lounge wall, and the pictures were all in three dimension.
He looked out of the bay window. The garden had gone and the view was of a long brick wall a short distance away. He could just make out a garish orange sign, and the last letters of the word ‘Hypermarket’.
Malcolm let out an anguished cry. The cry was weak, and none of the other residents showed any reaction.
The Matron looked at him critically.
‘Double dose, as from today,’ she said to the carer, turned on her heel, and left the room.
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