Northwords Now

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In the blink of an eye

by Mairi Sutherland

The before mum and the after mum. That’s what Kirsty and I call it. Thursday 13th April at 11.15 p.m. I was the one who found her. Sprawled at the foot of the stairs. Her mug of cocoa smashed beside her. I had missed the last bus home. The ambulance man said I had done the right thing. I had checked her tongue. Laid her in the recovery position.  Had rung 999. The left side of her face had slid down, like it had melted.

I’m on autopilot at work, swishing through the corridors in plastic apron and see-through snap on, snap off gloves. Hair scraped off my face, make-up free, nose stud popped into my purse. I rap on doors, stick my head round and put on my upbeat voice.

‘Hello, it’s me, Helen. Shower time.’

We work in pairs, stripping them down, hosing off the urine, the faeces. Patting skin so thin it looks like tracing paper, rubbing in barrier cream, padding them up, selecting their clothes. I chat to them. Tell them about the weather. What I watched on telly. What I ate for my tea. Look at their photo albums. Stare at them as they were. In naval uniform. In wedding dresses. In their gardens on deckchairs. At family parties. A red dot on the door. Do not resuscitate. Blind George feeds me garibaldi biscuits and asks me to water his cactus on the windowsill. He enquires about my mum, my dad, my sister, my live-in lover. I tell him my mum looks like a film star, that my sister is studying music in Vienna, that my dad owns a racehorse, that my live-in lover has just proposed. He says he likes my voice. Says it has just the right amount of cheek in it. I demand to know what it is like to be blind.

‘I miss working out what folk are thinking by their expressions, their body language.’ He asks if I’m okay. That my voice isn’t its normal cheery self. I slot in his audio book tape, a Scandinavian crime one, read him the blurb on the back, brush crumbs off his jumper.


 ‘I’m fine George. Busy. I’m going wedding dress shopping on Saturday with my mum and sister.’

 ‘Good. I want to hear all about it on Monday. You hear?’ I lean over him, breathe in tobacco and coffee, cup the headphones over his ears. Hover at the door, grip the handle. I want to shout out, to tell him the truth. I don’t know how to stop the lies.

I’m on Carer Autopilot Mode. I like that I can follow the routines of waking, washing dressing, breakfasting the clients. That’s what we have to call them. Not folk or people but clients as if they are going to buy double glazing from us or take out life assurance.   I have nicknames for them all. Not anything I say to their faces but wee things about them, which makes them them. Like Johnny Cash Bill, Velvet Hat Dora and Smooth Skin Maureen. I keep notes about them, prompts about their lives, where they worked, where they lived, their families, pets, hobbies. I like to know what makes them tick. Kirsty thinks I’m mad working with all the old fogies. I glare at her, ask her to cook the tea, that it’s her turn.  We are back to being teenagers at home, bickering.

Kirsty and I shared a bedroom. We laid on our beds, listened to Abba, sang with our hairbrush microphones. She showed me how to draw on eyeliner, how to eye up boys at the bus stop, how to make my bust seem bigger. Kirsty this. Kirsty that. Mum told me once that Kirsty isn’t God you know. I laughed.


It's time for my break. I like to sit in the smokers’ shed, even though I don’t smoke.  Stella calls me an honorary smoker. I listen to the buzz of conversation, not joining in. Stella says I need a life.

I had a life. All mapped out. I was going off to university. I was studying English with Creative Writing at Glasgow. I had a boyfriend. I was going to travel. It’s funny how it can all change. Vamoosh. All gone in the blink of an eye.  I still make stuff up. Still get to be a creative writer. Yay.  I tell the clients all I want to be.  It’s easy with those with dementia. They’ve forgotten a few seconds later. I can give a different version each time. It’s Blind George I need to be careful with. He’s sharp. Maybe his hearing is more acute because of his loss of sight. I don’t know where the wedding story came from. I’ll need to add in some breakup. That it’s all off. That I’m heartbroken.

Stella hands me an envelope. I open it. ‘Hey, thanks Stell.’

She blows rings of smoke, eyes me out a too long fringe. ‘I want you to come. Ramie’s going. It’s my 21st, so you can’t say no. We can go shopping later, if you like? I want us all to be glamorous.’    

I blush.  ‘Maybe.’ I mutter.

‘Hel, it wasn’t your fault. I keep telling you. You need to start believing.’

I look at my watch. ‘I’ve got to go.’

‘Ramie was asking after you.’

There’s faeces to clean up in the corridor. Some poor soul with loose bowels.   I head for the locked cupboard, peer at the chemicals.  There is a stench of off-vegetables and wet jackets drying on radiators. I find a large white bottle with a Danger sticker on it. Causes Severe Eye and Skin irritation or burns. If swallowed, do not induce vomiting. If conscious, give two glasses of water or milk.  I wonder what would happen if I glug it down. Who would find me?  I douse it into my bucket. My eyes smart. That time when mum took me and Kirsty to the swimming baths in Portobello. They’d put too much chlorine in, our eyes went pink-pink and we had to pull t-shirts over our faces. Mum urged us to stop being ‘drama queens.’ We perched on the wall outside, nibbling on our shivery bites, with nippy eyes which made us blink, whispered about Colin McFarlane, the boy we both fancied. Kirsty said he was after her. Not me.

I find the mop, swirl round the bleachy pools. Up and down. Up and down. Up and down.  The swishing of the mop, sloshing the water. It’s the rhythms of this job I like. How you can be lost in a mundane task, blotting everything out. There are some visitors clutching flowers and carrying plastic bags crammed with boxes of chocolates, packets of biscuits, wet wipes, bottles of juice, magazines, bags of Warburton toffees. Essentials to surviving being in a Home.  I pause mid mopping, to let them past. I have a set smile I put on for them. I gauge how they are today. I call it my Mood Barometer. I can tell if they need to cry, to vent, to talk, to shout, to be silent. Sometimes I tell them about mum. The Before Mum. How she liked to blast up her music, dance around whilst she dusted and hoovered, died her hair purple and wore gypsy skirts in summer.  I bring in ground coffee and make a cafetiere for them, rather than the powdered stuff from Costco bought in bulk. Chef tells me he has £4.65 per person per day for their food allowance. £4.65 when they are paying a thousand a week. Mum would call it daylight robbery.

Mum has live-in nurses, from an agency. They sleep in our spare room. Mum’s room is in the old dining room with the faded wallpaper. It had to be adapted. Doors widened; ramps put in. A specialised bed. All the paraphernalia. Hoists.  Boxes of incontinence pads, tubs of barrier creams, plastic aprons and gloves. Dad looked into grants. Kirsty and I call it guilt money. He’s shacked up with some thirty-four-year-old. Said mum wasn’t the person he married.

Maybe she’ll get better. I’ll waken up one morning and she’ll be in the kitchen, bustling around, opening and closing cupboards, eating a piece of toast and making a list for the day.  Joni Mitchell will be on full volume and she will grab my hands, twirl me around, tell me I am gorgeous. I have a bottle of her perfume. Je Reviens. Ha. Funny. I will return.  I unscrew the stopper, take in deep breaths of her. I carry it with me, in my handbag, dab it on my wrists, my neck.

I’d read an article about a woman waking up from a coma after twenty-eight years. She croaked her son’s name. Omar. He had been arguing with a nurse over a change in her symptoms. Language dormant. Words to be relearned. A speech therapist holding laminate cards with pictures of a hen, a boy, a factory. Her mouth drooling spit. 

I told Kirsty. She had sighed, told me to get real, that had my job not taught me anything, that there was no getting better? She had taken compassionate leave from university, to handle things. I pictured mum wrapped in bubble wrap, with a sign marked Fragile. Kirsty sat beside mum’s bed; her thin lips pressed together. That bristly way she gets as if to say ‘You. You, keep away. You’ve done enough damage. Keep well away.’

I’ve gone over it a million times. If I’d not spoken to Stella on my way out. If I’d not swapped my shift with Pauline. If I’d walked a bit quicker and caught my bus. All the decisions we make on a daily basis, with no thought. It’s only when things go wrong, that we have to pay attention.

I pause with the mop, blink away the chemical sting. Stella steps out from the lift. She carries a box of Christmas decorations. She chats with Blind George. I smile, wave. She nods.

I squeeze out the mop, lift up my bucket, swish past in my crinkly apron. Stella who has been with me day in, day out. Who has let me sleep in her bed. Who has got drunk with me. Who has mopped up my sick. Washed me. Let me bawl. Whom I have snotted over. Who tells me, every day that I am not to blame. 

‘I was thinking.’ I call over. ‘About looking gorgeous. With it being late night shopping.’ 

She stops, turns to me, yells. ‘You’re on.’

Blind George adds. ‘For wedding dresses?’

I laugh. ‘No George. I need to tell you something. I need to tell you lots. I’ll make us some coffee. Nice stuff.’

I wander to the cleaners’ cupboard, put away my mop and bucket. Lock the door. I’ll choose something for mum too. A shawl she can wear in bed, with sequins and jewels handstitched in peacock blue.  Something to make her mum again.

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