Watch Over Me

Written by Anthony Murphy 

 Photograph by   Daan Stevens

Photograph by Daan Stevens

The man’s face was crumpled and saggy like a wet paper bag. He lay on the bed, his breathing helped by a machine that kept him barely hanging on to life. He was just a shell, an empty sack of flesh on a bone frame. Angelo thought that anything this person had once been had died a long time ago.

The room had long been starved of the fresh air it so clearly needed. The dirt-stained window of heavy glass protected by bars from the outside looked like it hadn’t been opened in years. The pungency of chemicals and death permeated the room. This was more of a cell than a last stopping place of man on his way out of life.

Angelo sighed to himself and came fully into the room dragging the trolley behind him. The door banged against the side of the trolley as it closed. The left wheel squeaked as he pulled the trolley. The old man didn’t flinch.

This was the first day in a long list of first days for Angelo. Like every other first day he’d ever had it started off well. He was keen to learn, eager to do the right thing, but a few hours in and his enthusiasm began to falter and he’d start to get bored, restless and that’s usually when trouble began.

Angelo’s job was to check that the guests - he was specifically told that they were guests, never patients, never old folks, never OAPS, but guests - hadn’t soiled their beds. Then he was to change the bed linen if required and mop the floor. It was supposed to be a two-person job but Angelo’s supervisor had decided that he didn’t want to show Angelo the rest of his duties. “You know what you’re doing. You look like you’ve turned a few beds in your time,” he was told.

Aside from the man in the bed and the whirring machine that kept him alive, the room also contained a yellow chair with a foam seat, and back, a little table that could be wheeled over to the bed and a bedside table. On the bedside table was a clear vase that would have once held some flowers. Now it only held clouded and stale, foul-smelling water.

Angelo took a few steps towards the bed, his soft blue plastic trouser-legs rustling against each other. He pulled back the blanket to check that the bed sheets were still dry. That’s when he saw the watch.

Angelo looked at the watch on the man’s wrist. It was the best looking watch in the world. It had a pristine black leather strap. Despite being strapped to the man’s wrist it looked like it had never been worn. The leather hadn’t even creased or buckled. The outer edge of the watch was made of solid silver. Even the dull light of the fluorescent bulbs couldn’t detract from the shininess. The hour and minute hands were arrows, the sort that children drew, long straight lines with smaller diagonals coming off at the tips.

Looking at the old man’s face, eyes closed, breathing shallow, hearing the whirring machine doing its thing, Angelo thought that the man probably wouldn’t even miss it. He probably wouldn’t even know anyone had been in here. In all honesty it looked like hardly anyone had come in here in years. Yeah, he thought. I could get a few quid for this.

He could already see the story forming in his head. He’d met some old army vet in his new job. The guy had really taken a shine to him, told him a few stories about his time in The Service. He said he picked up the watch from an old tour he did and now he was in the home. His friends all long in the ground, his family had deserted him, never visited once since they had dumped him here. They couldn’t wait to get him out of his house and sell all the wonderful items he had accumulated in his life. Except the watch; the old man had kept that. Hidden it amongst his things, waiting to pass it on to someone who deserved it — and now he had met that person. He wanted Angelo to have it. Angelo was like the son he never had. Yeah, that would do it, he told himself. Any pawnbroker would believe a heartbreaking story like that. Maybe if he went to the right broker, like that one on Archer Street the guys had told him about. He’d end up with one of those old biddies behind the counter who lived for stories like that and she’d give him a bit extra for it. Angelo could be very persuasive when he wanted to. The girls always told him he had chocolate brown eyes that they could just melt into.

‘Hello,’ he said, his voice no more than a whisper. The man didn’t answer. There was no flicker of movement in his eyelids. Nothing, except for the machine whirring, pumping air into an ever-deflating tyre.

He felt along the side of the bed so that if anyone were to enter the room to check on him they would think that he was checking to see if the sheets were soiled. Slowly, he moved his hand up to the man’s wrist. His hand passed over the man’s skin. It was rough and cracked like broken tree bark. He could feel the veins sticking up like vines poking through hard brown earth. He lifted the man’s arm up so that it bent at the elbow. It felt like it weighed no more than a decaying twig.

With the man’s arm in his hand, he slid the clasp of the watch from its notch. The watch came free of the skin with a sucking sound as if it had been slightly embedded into the wrist.  Angelo gently lowered the man’s arm down onto the bed. I may be robbing the guy but at least he deserves some respect, he thought.

Raising the watch to his ear he could hear the strong metronomic tick. To Angelo it seemed to be exactly in time with the whirring machine. Every pump matched the tick of the watch exactly.   

He placed the watch onto his wrist and did the clasp up so that it felt secure and tight against him. The cool metal pushed into his skin. It hurt a little. Maybe I’ve done it up too tight, he thought. Angelo tried to undo the clasp on the watch, only this time it wouldn’t come away from the notch. It seemed to be stuck fast. He placed his hand between his legs to try and see if he could get at the clasp better but no matter how much he tried, it wouldn’t undo. Getting annoyed Angelo searched the cart for anything that he could possibly take the watch off with. Anything to lever the clasp out, but the cart only had sprays and dusters, disinfectants, spare sheets, a mop and bucket.

As he struggled with the watch a small seed of thought grew in his mind. The tick of the watch that he had only heard from the watch, he could now hear in his mind. The ticking thought seemed to say what it would be like to watch the man in the bed die. This was new. The thought had appeared as if from nowhere. He had a sudden feeling of what it would be like to place a pillow over the man’s face. Hold it down tight. Squash the life out of him. The man hardly looked like he would put up a struggle. The ticking in his mind nagged at him. 'Just see what it happens,' it seemed to say. These thoughts scared Angelo. No, thought Angelo. It was one thing to be a petty thief but to be a murderer. This was something else.

'Kill me,' croaked a voice. It rasped and grated like rocks scraping against rocks. A grinding sound that sent shivers down Angelo’s spine and made the dark hairs on the back of his hands stand up.

Angelo stared at the man in the bed. Had he spoken? His dry cracked lips had parted slightly but nothing had changed in him. The slow rise and fall of his chest continued along with the hum of the machine.

'Kill me,' the voice said again. It came from in the room. Angelo was sure of it. He spun round to see if anyone was at the door but there was no one there. He could feel his heart beating in his chest, banging hard against his ribcage, the whooshing sound of blood in his ears.

'Kill me,' the voice said for a third time. Only this time the voice appeared in his head. The ticking sound was insistent and probing. It seemed to be knocking out a rhythmic way of speaking to Angelo.

'What… What do you want?' He said to the room. Angelo could barely get his words out of his mouth.

'This was no way to live' the ticking thought said. 'Dying in a sparse room of an old people’s home, all personality and dignity stripped away. It is like watching an animal suffer, nobody wants to see it in agony, so they put out of its misery, swiftly, quick, do it, onto the next thing. But this? No, they drag on, they make a spectacle of it. They revel in the suffering.'

I could just turn off the machine Angelo thought. That way he would die naturally.

'No,' said the ticking thought. 'That would alert the nurses.'

'I can’t do this,' Angelo said, addressing the room. He started to back away slowly from the bed, thinking that if he could just make it to the door this strange experience would end.

'You must,' said the tick. This time the thought pushed and clicked harder in Angelo’s mind. It sent waves of pain shooting through him. Angelo’s right eye began to throb, pulsing in time with the mechanical ticking of the watch. The pain made his legs buckle under him. He caught himself on the edge of the bed to steady himself. The tick clicked in his mind, again and again 'Do it, Do it, Do it.' Each click and tick matched the words exactly. He felt it in the centre of his mind. He could almost visualise the watch hands clicking against his brain, bouncing back and forth between the two hemispheres, slowly pushing them apart, a pendulum splinter in his mind.

'All right, I’ll do it,' he spluttered leaning against the bed catching his breath. The pain behind his eye pulsed angrily. He gently lifted the old man’s head up, and slid the pillow out from underneath. He stood with the sweat stained pillow in his hand, debating whether to push it over the old man’s face.            

'Push,' the thought said. 'Push!' Angelo lowered the pillow over the man’s face, pressing down heavily. The man reacted more than Angelo thought he would. His arms flew up as if in an automatic response to push Angelo off him but they were too weak. They flailed against his arms, beating softly like leaves being blown along on the wind.

As he pressed down on the pillow, sweat gathering on his face, the ticking in Angelo’s head started to tick ever faster. The more he pressed the quicker the ticks increased in speed until there was no space between them. They continued on, an ever constant hi-hat of sound, clicking and clicking until one tick couldn’t be distinguished from the next. The pressure he was applying to the pillow was turning his knuckles white, his arms were starting to ache and shake with the effort of holding the pillow down. Just at the point that he thought he couldn’t go on any further, the ticking reached a peak and started to slow. He noticed it. The spaces between each one was getting longer and longer until there was a tick and then nothing more except silence.

 Looking at the man he could see that his chest was no longer rising and falling. The machine next to the bed continued to pump up and down.

He lifted the pillow off the man’s face. There was no light in his eyes. All that remind was an empty husk of skin.  Angelo dropped the pillow on the floor as if in a daze. He walked to the window. The window overlooked a small garden area. A dull green patch of hard grass that looked like it had never seen water. Beyond this was a high wall of grey stone. From this angle the place looked like it was designed more as a prison than a nursing home.  Why would they need high walls like that in a place like this? Would the geriatrics suddenly wake from their dotage and make a bid for freedom, escape back into a world that had abandoned them?

Angelo felt unease in his stomach. His insides were as cold as ice as if he had just eaten a bucket of ice cream. The shaking of his hands wouldn’t go away as if he couldn’t believe what he had just done. He noticed that the ticking sound inside of his head had disappeared. The pain in his head had gone away leaving him feeling washed out and on edge. He looked at the watch on his wrist, the hands not moving. He held the watch to his ear. No ticking sounds came from it. It seemed to have stopped dead. He pulled out the dial on the watch and wound it several times in quick succession. He pushed the dial in and fully expected the hands to start moving. They didn’t.               

Angelo sat down in the chair. It was lumpy and the lumps dug into him. He now knew how he wanted to go out, by staring death in the face. It seemed to him to be more dignified than checking out in a urine soaked bed not recognising anyone, surrounded by nurses who were too tired to care. That was no kind of way out for him. 

He thought he could still hear the faint sounds of ticking reverberating in his ears. He shuddered. He never wanted to hear the sound of a clock or watch again. Time here was a long slow wait for death and he wanted to be without time. He squished his buttocks around trying to find a place in the chair where he wouldn’t feel uncomfortable.