At ten past seven, my phone buzzes. Mum. The hospital. I nod along, pretending my heart isn’t fluttering with dread. ‘Keep me posted,’ I mutter; Mum sighs down the line.
It’s Friday just after dawn, and Rose is at a sleepover. She texts me that she’s coming over. It’s unsettling how comfortable we’ve both settled into this routine, knowing better than to rush directly to the hospital as soon as I get The Call. Instead we just … continue our days as normal. Still, plenty of time to kill. No visitors allowed in until nine.
At ten to eight, my phone buzzes again. I’m not supposed to carry it on me, but nobody bothers making waves. I finish punching in the couple’s breakfast order at my till. The elderly woman totters past supported by her hobbling husband, cane tapping the floor. It’s a tender, fragile intimacy that makes my chest ache.
Eventually the couple shuffle toward a window booth and I catch Bob’s eye, mime smoking a fag. He shrugs, more of surrender than permission. I push through the back door into the yard; dawn sunlight splashes gold across the asphalt puddles and sodden cardboard litter. I lean against the wall and call Rose back.
‘Can you come pick me up?’ she asks.
I sigh. ‘I can drive you back here, but I gotta finish my shift.’ I’m hardly a ripple in the water here. They don’t need me, but I need the money. Beats slumming at home like a deadbeat, anyway.
‘Okay,’ she agrees.
‘I’ll be over in ten.’ I hang up and knead my temples, wishing I had two minutes to spare for that blessed fag.
During my interview, I’d bluntly told the HR manager that a fixed rota was crucial; I’d have an abnormal number of personal emergencies arise. No sudden shift changes. They hired me anyway, probably from desperation, probably underestimating my family drama. Now I feel guilty at the jolt of irritation whenever my phone rings. A terminally ill parent get you a free pass on many things but still, holding down a steady job is tough. But a dump like this? I’m here at Wendy’s most mornings, and they can’t afford to lose me. Works both ways, since I can’t afford unemployment.
I tap on the window so the pimply kid guarding the drive-thru booth will buzz me back in, and beeline towards Bob. ‘I gotta fetch my girlfriend,’ I tell him. ‘Family crisis.’
Asking’s probably better, but let’s be real; the guy’s running the morning shift at a backwater burger joint, so how much power’s he really got in anything? He raises his eyebrows.
‘I’ll be right back,’ I insist.
I wait in the driveway, engine burbling. I rest my elbow on the dashboard, rub my forehead and daydream of all the things I should be doing right now. College. Job interviews. Shaping my future. Mum had told me – begged me – not to sacrifice my own life for Dad’s; far easier said than done. There’s so much to do, caring for him.
Besides, despite everything … he’s still my dad.
Rose emerges and drops into the passenger seat with a huff; I wrinkle my nose. ‘What’s that smell?’
‘Baked some cupcakes.’
‘How?’ I ask, shifting into reverse. Even if we’ll never eat them, I understand why. Rose made cupcakes just like I’m hauling her scrawny ass back to Wendy’s with me. Delaying tactics. Prolonging the inevitable.
She crosses her arms and slouches scowling beside me, but I don’t apologise for asking. No way in hell could I hope to make cakes now, not with everything else fucking my life up.
We’ve done this so often I’ve lost count. The niggling worry following every call manifests differently between us. For Rose, it’s anxiety. For Mum, resigned annoyance. Me? Apathy.
Every time the phone rings, it could be The Call, and I’m probably steeling myself in anticipation, solidifying the icy wall around my heart. The panic, fear and worry – they’re old familiar friends now, slowly overwhelmed by the emotionless void of numbness I’m crafting inside.
I park behind the cafe. Employees ought to park across the street, but I don’t give a shit, and nobody here ever bothers enforcing it.
Under the harsh fluorescent lights, Rose’s eyes are red from crying, and I inwardly scold myself; for all my jaded outlook on life, she’s still just a kid. Still too young to train herself not to feel. And this is all the support I can offer: a canteen as small as a broom closet with a sticky floor, a vending machine stripped of everything but Doritos and a dusty long-dead TV.
She surveys the dismal space, grimacing at the reek of fryer grease and aftershave. ‘So … what do I do now?’
Bob raps on the door behind me, mimes that time-out is over. There’s almost an hour left of my shift, and Rose still has a child-lock phone that only lets her call and text; it won’t keep her occupied. I pull out my own smartphone and hand it over. ‘You tweet from my account, I’ll shave your head in your sleep.’
Her pout is adorable; she curls her arms around me and grumbles into my shoulder. I kiss her forehead and slip out the door, hiding my gnawing worries behind a faux-smile. Back to work.
Every time I walk through these sliding doors, I think, this is it. The day I’ll have finally grown immune to the smell, sights and sounds. And every single time, I’m wrong. There’s no hope developing an immunity to this place. The stinging, sterile tang of bleach, nurses’ trainers squeaking on worn lino, saline drips ticking over in hidden rooms, the faint stench of vomit wafting down the corridor.
Medical staff bustle past. Cleaners tug vacuums through the swing doors separating the healthy from the ill. The world rolls on. The grieving are afforded their private space, but for god’s sake don’t let it spill out into the communal areas. Stiff upper lip. All that bollocks.
Rose presses close as we shuffle wordlessly toward the elevators. I punch in, then it’s a silent ride to the fourth floor.
My gaze reflexively slides to the wall clock; twenty minutes before visiting hours. I steer Rose into the family waiting room. Mum’s already here – or still here, since she drove Dad to the hospital at the first warning sign. She’s perched stiffly in a chair, purse on her lap, a full styrofoam cup of coffee beside her.
She tuts as we settle into a pair of facing chairs, greets me with: ‘I wish you wouldn’t wear your hair like that, Sam.’ Good old Mum, wearing her stress like a judgmental bitch.
I cut her some slack and don’t rise to the bait, just tuck a loose strand behind my ear.
Waiting’s the worst part. But that’s all we do, really. All I do. I turn frowning to Rose. ‘Don’t you have homework to finish?’
Somehow, this surprises me. I chew my thumbnail, already gnawed down to a jagged stub, and wonder, how the hell did I even forget what month it is? How is this my life?
The past three years, I’ve had to be selfless and practical; everything a teenager isn’t meant to be for years yet, not supposed to be. But I am. Sometimes I daydream about life when this is finally all over. And I feel … good. Calm.
And then, inevitably, I feel awful.
So I shove the daydreams aside and nurture that tiny kernel of hope. I have to, not just for Mum, Dad and Rose, but for me, too. Without hope, all I have is the sickening fear that my life won’t truly begin until Dad’s ends.
At nine o’clock, Mum gives us a meaningful frown before walking out, coffee untouched. The silence thickens.
‘We should go in,’ I finally mutter.
Neither of us moves. Something on Nickelodeon drones low in the background as we relish these last precious moments of peaceful freedom, before we enter the next stage of our endless routine.
What will I do, if this is it? If the doctor doesn’t have good news for us this time, and this is really it?
Nervous anticipation churns my stomach, and I swallow. ‘C’mon.’ I stand, and Rose trails after me.
Doctor Jones smiles when we enter the ward, her full-face dazzling grin that chips away at the thick ice wall around my heart, because she’s the cheeriest person I know. She’s been waiting for us, knowing we’d be here as soon as permitted. He’s had a scare, but he’s stabilised and sleeping now. Both a relief and a burden.
He isn’t the man I remember. Hollow cheeks sag against clenched teeth. A few wisps of silver hair on a liver-spotted scalp. Like someone’s plugged one of the hospital vacuums into his mouth and sucked out his life-force. The blankets have slipped down his bare torso; wrinkled skin stretches over a jutting ribcage like sodden rags. His sunken eyes. His wizened stomach.
There’s nothing meaningful between us … only the stubborn lack of dialogue that’s marred our past five years. Probably for the best. Our last words were like angry floods, raging and devastating. I can still recite our lines face-to-face, even though he couldn’t bear to look at me. Disowning me with every venomous word he spat.
At college barely a year and now you find this … this harlot!
Dad, please … I love her …
Oh, that makes it sooo much better …
I ain’t asking for your pity, Dad …
… never been so ashamed in all my life … get out! Take your filthy slut and never come back!
And through it all, Rose had never let go of my hand. Mum said nothing all through Dad’s furious lashing tirade, just gazed teary-eyed into the fireplace. But I’d only told them the truth, was that really so selfish? Our honesty sells for so little, but it’s all we ever have. All we ever truly own. It’s the very last desperate inch of ourselves, but within that single precious inch, we’re free.
There’s nothing for me here anymore, just a shrunken shrivelled husk choked with resentment and furious denial. He’s fine. This time. He’s pulled through. This time. But we all know we’ll be right back here soon enough. His rotten heart could stutter on for days, weeks even, stewing in his own juices, nourished by bitterness. Crotchety old sod.
I rise from my reluctant vigil and take Rose’s hand. If I hurry we can be home by nine-thirty.
I pull the blankets up around him as a parting gesture. My forearm brushes his bony fingers. He burbles something. Perhaps in his sleep. Perhaps I just imagined it.
We’ll leave. Carry on. Await the inevitable. I’ll strengthen my inner coping mechanisms, turn down the emotional dial yet another notch and retreat a little deeper into myself. Pretend that when I finally get the call, there won’t be a little shiver of relief mingled with the hurt.
Doctor Jones meets us outside. ‘Take care, you two. What name should I log in the Visitors’ Book? D’you prefer Sam, or …?’
I shrug. ‘Samantha’s fine. C’mon.’ I pull Rose towards the elevator. ‘Let’s go.’
© 2021 | Tom Burton
Pocketful of Time is now available from Amazon Kindle