I stop at Mrs Nelson’s door but she’s nowhere to be seen either. I call out softly, first Mrs Nelson, then, louder, Phyllis. I lean through the open door. The room is more than empty. There’s no newspaper on the little table next to the vinyl-covered armchair, no paperback or reading gasses on the chest of drawers by the bed which, itself, has been stripped bare. The mattress looks tired and worn, stained.
A nurse I haven’t seen before steps into the corridor from my mother’s room and I collar her to ask where Mrs Nelson is.
Are you family?
No, I’m – I’m Mrs Potter’s son but I... I’ve sort of got to know Phyllis.
The nurse, who hasn’t actually stopped to talk to me, but is taking tiny backwards steps up the corridor, seems to weigh the options and decides that neither matters.
Mrs Nelson died on Thursday night. I’m sorry.
The nurse, whoever she may be, is already turning away from me. Make haste, her posture says. I am a busy woman, her stern face confirms.
A stroke. A massive stroke. I’m sorry.
And with that, she turns to the double doors at the end of the corridor and is gone.
I’m still trying to absorb this news as I stumble into mother’s room, to the extent that when she calls out hello Oscar it doesn’t put me on my guard. It should, of course. It should tell me that today is a bad day. But I’m thinking about Phyllis, how she could be so vital, so alive one day and then gone the next.
In another way, Mum is gone too.
Hello Oscar, she repeats.
Mum, hello, it’s Pet-
I stop in mid-sentence. Mother is still in her night-gown, but has it hoiked up at the front. I don’t want to keep looking but I do, because Mum has her hand down the front of her giant old-woman knickers.
I had an accident.
It breaks the spell.
Mum, it’s alright. We can sort that out. I’ll call a nurse, we’ll get you cleaned up.
I start towards her, crossing the tiny room with my arms out. Role reversal, I think, not for the first time. The parent becomes the child. But this is different, worse. An incontinent child would not be scooping a handful of her own excrement from her underwear and offering it, like a gift, to the parent.
The cocktail of drugs my Mother is on has quite an effect on her digestive system, I know that already. Even so, I am unprepared for the sight and smell. A globule of the slurry squeezes out from Mum’s semi-clenched hand and drops to the floor where it lands with a flat, wet sound.
I turn away, dry-heaving, the excess of last night suddenly washing back over me. I taste tea, toast and orange juice, struggle to keep them in their place. I win, just, and with a deep breath turn back to this stranger who has stolen my Mother away.
I had an accident, she repeats.
It’s okay, Mum. It’s okay... Frances.
I press the call button, and wait for a nurse.