As usual I go downstairs at five o’clock in the morning and into the dining room, which now serves as my mother’s bedroom. She generally sleeps fitfully until about four, punctuated by visits to the lavatory, the door of which is beside her bed, on the side she sleeps on. These visits are undertaken with the deliberation and the creeping slowness of a two-toed sloth. One wonders how she manages it.
After she wakes she lies there, praying for everybody, I expect, until this zombie appears at five. I help her on with her dressing gown and day socks and assist her on the ten-yard expedition from the bed to the recliner chair in the adjoining sitting room. Finally I draw back the curtains on the surreal, pink-tinged clouds of another June dawn.
But this morning the bed is empty. The lavatory door is firmly closed, however, and it’s safe to assume she’s in there. I listen at the door but hear no movement. Perhaps she is concentrating. I won’t disturb the poor thing, I decide. Instead I go into the kitchen to make up her breakfast tray and count out the day’s tablets. Then I bear the tray in, expecting her by now to be either sitting on the bed or pushing her trolley ahead of her on her way to her recliner.
Still no sign of her in either room. (The rooms are divided by glass-panelled double doors, one of which is permanently open.) The lavatory door remains shut. I park myself in her recliner to wait for her to finish. The local paper is tucked under a cushion. While I wait, I read it.
The front-page headline is ‘Parking problems at superstore site — man’s penalty charge overturned on appeal’. As headlines go, it’s thrillingly trivial. It’s right up there with one I remember from 30 years ago — ‘Harold’s back!’ Harold was an insanely lenient, very popular traffic warden who had been off sick. This week’s lead story consists of a detailed account of the exchange of letters between the recipient of the parking ticket and the parking-enforcement company, and the happy ending. It was continued on page three and a joy to read. To pick up our local paper is to slip into a deep warm bath. There can’t be much wrong with the world with headlines like these.
On page two, however, is a surprisingly arch piece about local MP Sarah Wollaston, who, in the space of four months, has switched from the Conservative party to Change UK and is now an independent. She is rumoured to be having ongoing discussions with the Lib Dems. On her Facebook page people are asking whether she will next be joining the Labour party, says the reporter, who must be new.
On page seven, the warm bath goes suddenly tepid. Beneath a cheerful article and colour photo of smiling faces, headed ‘Volunteers thanked for their dedication’, is another about an 88-year-old wheelchair-bound former PE teacher who has appeared in court on 11 charges of sexually abusing five pupils in the 1960s and 1970s, including one charge of ‘oral rape’, which is surely the frankest, most disturbing image ever to appear in the newspaper’s 165-year history. The defendant had just 17 days to go of a previous sentence of two years and eight months. Appearing via a video link, he said he had no memory of what he did but admitted the offences. The judge awarded him another four years and four months.
Among the letters to the editor, a novelist complains about the cost of parking for an hour in the town-centre car park being raised from 80p to £2. (His latest book, he adds, is called Gone to Devon, HQ/HarperCollins.) Someone writing from a remote village makes an elaborate comparison between the Brexit impasse and the search for the Northwest Passage. The obvious solution, he says, is another Panama Canal. After studying meteorological records from 1906 onwards, a man writing at inordinate length from an even remoter village says he can find no evidence for global warming.
I look at the clock. Twenty minutes have flown by. I wonder if she’s in trouble — or even alive still. I stand outside the lavatory door and listen. I can hear breathing — what a relief. I knock. Silence. I knock again. ‘Is that Jeremy?’ she says. The voice is tentative, suspicious, apprehensive. ‘Yes, it’s me,’ I say. I hear the key turning in the lock. The door opens a few inches. Mum’s frightened face. She opens the door wide and says: ‘There’s a man. I saw him. Standing over there.’
I reassure her that whoever he is, he is a figment of her imagination, a side effect of the tablets. But he was so real to her it takes all the morning to convince her.