SEPTEMBER ISSUE: On Time

Image from author’s collection: Book of Life - The Marshall Cavendish Encyclopaedia
Image from author’s collection: Book of Life – The Marshall Cavendish Encyclopaedia

This month’s extract from The Cure For Sleep for subscribers on Substack looked at time, drawing on my perspectives as a former hospice scribe. I then asked readers to tell me a short true tale about when time has taken on a strange new dimension for them. Here is where any responses will be showcased.

September extract

ALL THINGS BRIGHT AND BEAUTIFUL in my second life came from those darkest hours in the car park, when I chose time as my teacher, and decided to apprentice myself to it.

This element in which we are all of us at swim or adrift – natural resource that can’t be dammed for future use, or gathered back in (both of which I’d always tried to do, even as it ran through my fingers). And it occurred to me then that there was one place where my small, spare ration would have true use and value: among those who had very little left. People who were coming close to their end: they may have a thirst to speak frankly, and by listening I might meet my own need for a deeper communion than could be got in day-to-day talk with colleagues and friends.

Once my daughter was settled in nursery, I drove out beyond the bounds of town to the region’s hospice to explain and offer myself: They had a befriending programme where volunteers were trained to give an hour of respite to those caring for terminally ill family members, but might they consider me for a role of my own creation? To let me be alongside any patients pained by regret, as I had been? An encounter different in kind to the slow and steady talking cure of counselling; a discomfort not touched by opiates from the palliative care team; what perhaps the chaplains there did for those who were still comfortable with people of faith? Me as a lay version of that? A person able to simply sit and listen to difficult things that could not be fixed. There to help the dying preserve in words moments of joy that were strong in mind as they got ready to go?

[full extract on substack]

The Cure For Sleep

Reader responses

Doing the time warp (again)

*

I was taken by surprise, that first time, going back

that everything was not just as I had left it

at eighteen when I skidaddled out of there

as fast as my legs would carry me

Stretching the elastic, praying it would snap

Not stopping to look back to catch

my father’s smiles and waves

or my mother’s withheld blessing

I had imagined that they’d still be there

Held in some magical time warp.

While I was off on the bus with Kathy and the gang

all of us come to look for America

(new pastures, new people, new me)

they’d be going about their frozen lives

waiting for my return

with laurels for the prodigal daughter

So I was shocked by the boarded up windows

The patch of scrub where the branch library had stood

stacked with promises of escape

The red phone box gone

The church locked up

Only hostile stares from tattoo-ed young men

wondering who the strange woman was

looking around from her parked car

Sad that he died soon after I left

Sad that I never did get her blessing

for anything I did

No love

Lost

I learned to do without it

Learned to give and receive it

from more big-hearted women

Sisters and I

Doing it for ourselves

Benedict-us.

JACKIe GOODE

It had been a long day. A warm, calm, bright day. A fine summer day of reading old maps and retracing steps. Along the rocks by the coast, up muddy cliffs and on across fields looking for the paths that our ancestors would have followed. I watched the sun set over the Blackwater from an ancient graveyard above a nineteenth-century ferry point, now a stony shore sprinkled with cornflowers and daisies.

That night I fell asleep easily with the gentle chatter of sheep and swish of the tide carrying through my open window. When I woke for a pee at 3 a.m., rather than taking off my eye mask I decided to allow the wall to guide me to the bathroom. All so familiar after many years.

How life changes in a second.

My body hit the ground with a force of about 32 kmph. I discovered afterwards the fall of 12 feet would have taken would have taken about 0.8 seconds.

I woke seated at the bottom of the steep stairs to see my foot partially severed from my leg. Alone in a remote cottage, I recognised instinctively that survival was in my hands. Reaching down I placed a hand on either side of my broken limb and slowly pushed my ankle back together again. Then I bound it tightly with cotton leggings, fortuitously hanging on the baluster, and crawled back upstairs to find my phone and call 999.

Time stretched out once more in the minutes, days and weeks that followed. Waiting for emergency services as the swish of the sea drifted through the open door, or for surgery in a ward of waiting women sharing stories from within our medicated fogs, or listening to children’s laughter through the window as, on my heavily plastered leg a kitty lay languid, purrrrrring.

sheila de courcy

You know those big clocks they have in institutions – schools, hospitals? You know how they go when the batteries are almost dead? The second hand keeps flicking forward and dropping back. It counts the seconds, but the hands don’t turn. It can fool you – you look up and think ‘Oh, it’s 9.30’ or ten past two, or whatever, and then when you look back half an hour later it’s still 9.30, or ten past two, or whatever.

Time in waiting rooms is like that. It ticks by, but somehow it doesn’t move. It becomes liquid – pooling, eddying, slipping between your fingers.

Waiting rooms are liminal spaces. You sit there, suspended between health and sickness, barrenness and pregnancy, hope and fear. Everything is different. Footsteps resonate. Conversations happen in lurching whispers. Your heartbeat might be the fiercest thing in the universe. You hold your most private fears in your lap in a relentlessly public space. Out there in the real world you have multiple roles. in here you only have one.

My last consultant had ridiculously overbooked clinics. It must have been hard for him: there’s a limit to how quickly you can see a patient, listen to them, examine them, and then work out a plan with them. Once you got in there you were never rushed, he gave you all the time you needed. You just had to wait for it.

We expected to wait a couple of hours. We took books and people-watched. We kept our conversation light and meaningless. What is there to say, anyway? I love you. I’m scared. How long have we got in the carpark? Do we need to get milk on the way home? I love you. I’m scared.

Sarah Connor

Throughout my life, I have fallen prey to the ‘witching hour’, that bottomless pocket of time in the middle of the night. It must be a man who came up with the name, because witching is the very essence of wild feminine power, not a recipe for nightmares. Sometimes I become a sea witch, weaving spells in the waves, screeching and spinning in the surf. Witches are girls who rebel and dare to be different, women who refuse to conform, who challenge with their eyes. But the so-called witching hour still haunts me and is drenched in negative connotations of peril and fear. It rarely lasts for an hour, I know that from the blue glare of my phone. Time stretches, drapes me in its heavy cloak so that I am pinned to sheets that wrinkle and shift under my body. The squeak of a child turning in bed becomes a rat in the drawer of my bedside table. Night breeze knocking the blind against a vase is a stranger’s whisper. The cat jumping onto the kitchen floor is a man at the bottom of the stairs waiting to steal my breath for good. There is little I can do to break the spell – it is a trick of darkness. Soaked in the night, I try to pour myself into a book, to lose myself in someone else for a while. If the sky is clear, I can step out of my bedroom, heart bumping hard because of the man at the bottom of the stairs, and tiptoe onto the landing. If I am lucky there will be a moon, and this means I can breathe once more. The moon rejects the witching hour and spins magic in the tides, where the real witching takes place. I can bask in the glow splintered by my dusty window and wait for time to catch me up once more.

Caro fentiman

‘Here lies John Dickinson. Prematurely mown down by Death’s inexorable scythe, aged 87.’

Wandering around the church – cool refuge from the August heat – Pete was all architect, stone carving and wonder; I was all names, and lives and language.

And this John; he had twinkling blue eyes, and skin leather-brown from years working the land, ploughing the furrow. Mischievous, kindly, warm-hearted, seemingly ageless.

‘Ah John, now there’s a man. Loved life, he did. Sun and rain were alike to him. Could name every bird and mimic their calls. Knew the soil like his own body. Never left the village, they said, but contentment ran through his veins like blood. Always a smile.’

And that day I knew him, his cottage, his Martha. I recognised him with his jug of ale sat against the sun-soaked wall at the end of the day. I saw his eyes light up as she sat beside him.

‘Might as well take a minute.’

‘Might as well lass.’

He would have lived beyond a hundred. Everyone agreed on that. But no one knows the hour, the time. Everyone agreed on that too.

jean wilson

Three in the Morning

*

I never have trouble getting to sleep. Head hits the pillow and I’m out for the count. It is staying asleep that is the problem. Covers off, legs out the bed, nightie stuck to a clammy body, damp sheets. I’m sure the wine makes it worse, with the sweating, fidgeting and feeling of utter wretchedness that comes at three in the morning.

Then there is the snoring husband: elbows out, hands behind head, mouth open.

‘Roll over!’

‘What?’

‘Roll over, you’re snoring.’

I shove his shoulder. I kick his hip with my foot. He holds his breath while he shifts, then bellows like a cow from our farmyard.

I’m wide awake. I need a wee. Back in bed thoughts race with a miasma of worry. The pandemic has coated everything with an oil slick of unease. Thoughts dart and dash: the phone call with my mother – she’s broken her shoulder, tripping over her palazzo pants. My brother thinks I should go down to Sussex to see her. I think about the shopping – should I go to Aldi or can we make do with what we’ve got?

He sticks an arm out.

‘Have a cuddle.’

I rest my head on his shoulder. His shoulder bones dig into my ear socket and the hairs from his chest tickle my nose. He is snoring again.

I give up and head for one of three empty rooms by the torchlight of my phone. I pick up a teddy that sits on the bed. Hug it tight. Inhale. Then slip between cool, clean sheets and sink into memory foam bliss.

Sue reed

mess clutter dust hearts on wall in a frame and hanging from strings raindrops like lace on screen fern under glass cat sniffs air eyelids close eyelids open light pierces left eye shoulders sink so..heavy. h e a v y. h e a v y. single words fragments half thoughts and no end in this room with shades down beneath blanket breathing— in out. nine years so far of breathing and watching others move on: chronic illness is hard time

Amy Millios

We decided, my friend and I to drive from LA to Vegas.

Only she wasn’t so good at driving. Chatting and laughing we hit a pothole on the desert road and our car flipped over, and over. Shards of windscreen glass headed for us as we flew through the air, turning.

This is it, I thought. I am going to die. I felt light. Time slowed. Right down. It almost stopped. I put my hands up to my face. Got ready for the glass, or for the end. But the car stopped. I opened my eyes, moved my hands. My body was there. I couldn’t believe it. I turned to my friend. I could see the white of her brain.

A man came to my window to help me out. Worried the car would catch fire I let him help me. Sitting at the side of the road, a man leant down as a helicopter landed and asked if my friend had insurance. Inside a desert hospital a man sits before me, nervous, hands shaking. He’s going to stitch up my arm and today is his first day on the job.

Oh so what was your last job? I asked. Tracking satellites, he said.

(Checking the scar now I smile because he was kind. I can picture his big hands and my young girl’s arm in it, so far away from home.)

I’m shaking with shock. A warm blanket is wrapped around me. The warmth feels incredible and my body calms. I listen as a doctor stitches my friend’s head. They’re both from Nigeria.

Tell me your name, he asks, to keep her conscious.

She tells him.

Oh, like our president! He jokes.

Yes, my Dad, she replies.

Did time slow for him in that moment too?

Once I told him: Yes, its true.

Molly cooper

I am here by my bookcase of thick cherry planks, one shelf devoted to books telling me how not to suffer…read, then forgotten. Reading a Jack Gilbert poem, ‘Highlights and Interstices.’ He writes, ‘Our lives happen between the memorable.’

My husband, losing his hearing from being surrounded by woodworking equipment, plugging his ears and using his elbow to push down the lid on the coffee grinder and I laughed with him this morning. We are here, in our time between the memorable.

I write about all of the mud here: mud of chicken tracks, mud that turns worms into cartographers, mud that holds the broken hearts of deer hooves, of human-like raccoon prints, mud that my dog tracks in, leaving perfect pawprints on the wood floor, perhaps like Suda the Painting Elephant but in more of a Rorschach kind of way. Perhaps I mop away my chance at fortune. Mud like us, then dust.

sheila knell
%d bloggers like this: