This was the refrain from the last ‘Police’ single, and incidentally, their biggest hit, ‘Every Breath you Take’. I loved the song but never saw the lyric as in any way sinister – however a few women I’ve known thought them creepy; the words of a stalker.
As a small boy I literally believed that my mother had magical powers. She would say to me, when I went out to play or walked to school, “I’ll be watching you.” And she was, or so I believed. It was a small town and my mum knew everybody. She proved her powers regularly by saying that she had seen me messing around, walking on walls or pulling faces. And she was right – I had been. I later learned that she would stop and talk to neighbours and women in the town who reported my naughtiness, and then she would say “Mrs Robinson saw you swinging your satchel in the air on Curwen Road this afternoon.” So, by proxy, she had indeed been watching me.
She could always tell if I was lying too; a more than common occurrence. She would say “I can see right through you; I know what you are thinking. Now, tell the truth.”
For years I would momentarily glance over my shoulder to see if she was still watching me. When it came to girls, I was scared that my mother would see, or find out, what I was up to; she might as well have been watching, because, terrified as I was, I never went too far. And many times, even as an adult, I have been aware of someone watching me; some unseen observer, spying on my life and reporting back – either to God or my mother. There wasn’t much difference in my mind, as I hadbeen a good Christian and attended Bible classes where we learned that the Almighty, or Jesus – or maybe the Holy Ghost himself, who literally put the fear of God up me, was watching at all times. “Watching over me,” was the expression the vicar used. So, I was never alone, never unobserved. Someone was always watching me.
I left home at seventeen. I literally ran away from home and school to London. And I had a few misadventures, and gradually I realised that I had managed to lose the watcher over me. I loved the fact that in London I was anonymous. Nobody knew who I was, and more importantly, nobody cared. At last I was free. And, of course, I fucked up. Without someone watching over me; because as well as escaping my Mother’s beady eye, I had rejected God too, I was free to screw up my life – which I dutifully did.
Well things calmed down eventually and I made a sort of success of things – or at least no worse a mess than most other people did. But I occasionally suspected that I may still be silently observed. Someone was continuing to watch me, and I was, as ever, glancing guiltily over my shoulder.
Of course, my Mother had never abandoned me. I was far away but she was still keeping a silent watch over me; just as I do over my children, who, as Leonard Cohen once sung “Papa don’t look, papa don’t peek, and they run away and hide, they hide in the World.”
My mother has been very ill this Winter. There were a few days when the doctors said there was nothing more they could do for her; she wasn’t responding to their antibiotics and we must be prepared for the worst. I sat beside her bed watching a shell of the woman who had filled my horizon as a child. This dominant confident young woman who I had thought all powerful, was reduced to a shadow of her former self. She was on a morphine drip and her mouth hung open; her skin tight around the bones of her face and her breathing was terribly laboured. I barely recognised her; she wasn’t the mother I had known. Every now and then her eyes would open as she drifted back to consciousness; she looked around, panicking until she saw me. Then a ghost of a smile would hover for a moment on her lips before she drifted back into oblivion. She was still watching me; even with eyes closed she was still watching me, her first-born.
She had kept her promise from all those years ago. Her small hand held in my large one, our roles were reversed and now I was watching her. A part of me was devastated – I was losing her. For years I had rejected her, despising her controlling ways, her dominance over me – or rather, my weakness in front of her. I could never stand up to her, I never answered her back. One look was enough to silence any rebellion. And when I left the house, I used to look back just at the point where our house disappeared behind a corner. And I would run. And run and run, breathing in the cold air of freedom. I would run and run until I ran out of breath and slowing down, look back nervously to see if my worst fears were realised and she was right there behind me – still watching me. Because I was never sure I had really escaped her gaze. Even in my new-found freedom in London I sometimes thought I saw her on a bus or coming down the escalator as I rode up. And of course, in the middle of the night, my dreams were of my childhood; being caught naked in the back garden and laughed at by the neighbours while my mother smiled, or threatened me with the stick she used to regularly beat me with.
But now the tables were reversed and I was watching her. In fact, I have been watching, or watching over her, for a few years now. I have watched as both her and Dad have slowed down. I have watched with a mixture of horror and sadness as they shuffle around their house and clumsily try to cook a Sunday lunch. I have watched, even from here in France; making sure I telephone them every week, checking on them.
So, I sat by her bed and the minutes crept by and I wished it would end. I wanted her to be at peace, out of this misery. She wasn’t the mother I remembered and I wanted her out of this pain. And all I could do was to sit and watch her as she drifted in and out of morphine oblivion. She tried to speak but the sentences wouldn’t form. All she could do was to very faintly squeeze my hand. I talked to her of the good times when I was a child, the holidays and the bike rides and the Christmases we had together. I stroked her hair and it may have given her some comfort; it certainly helped me to be watching over this, my very oldest child; the one who had given me life, the one who had raised me, who had watched me all those years ago, and was now reduced to a fretful and helpless infant herself, her breath rattling in her chest, and her eyes searching desperately for mine. And I was crying. I was crying for all the wasted years, crying for the times I thought I hated her, crying for the heartache I must have caused her – and crying for me – soon to be, as I thought, a motherless child, as we are all destined to become one day.
So, this is the essence of what makes us human. Our unconditional love, and the fact that despite distance and differences we are all watching each other and are there ready to catch if one of our loved ones should fall. Of course, we all live with the strange phenomenon of blankly watching hundreds die in some far-off land through tsunami or war or epidemic and not caring at all, while worrying about a sick relative or mourning the passing of a celebrity who we never met but somehow felt a connection to. And so, the phrase ‘I’ll be watching you” should not be seen in a sinister way, but in the most caring and loving way of all. For without someone watching us we are truly alone and totally helpless in this cruellest of all possible worlds.