The mystery of the Colman’s mustard tin

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‘Mrs. Johnson. Dr Smith will see you now.’

I am in the queue at the family clinic waiting to help Mother show the doctor her right leg which has turned blue like an uncooked lobster and ballooned up again. 

‘Mrs. Johnson?’

The doctor’s surgery makes me anxious. The people in it are ill or withering away. The atmosphere is hesitant. It’s a picture of an inevitable future: mine. And I resent being reminded of this future now. I feel like a dog having its nose rubbed in a mess it hasn’t yet committed.


The young receptionist’s voice is suddenly as loud as a fog horn.

Like a flash mob everyone in the reception comes alive, turning around to find Mrs. Johnson. Suddenly, we’re all playing the NHS version of ‘Where’s Wally?’.

Some of the waiting patients call out ‘Mrs. Johnson’, softly. They want to help but because they are British they don’t want to do it too loudly or enthusiastically. One or two women look furtive, as if they might actually be Mrs. Johnson, but don’t want to admit it now, because it would be too embarrassing to be the centre of all this fuss.

Is there an NHS fast track pass?

I wonder if there is a prize for finding her, for example, an NHS Fast Track Pass which takes you straight to the front of the queue whatever your ailment?

Even if there isn’t, I want Mrs. Johnson to step forward soon because it will help me and Mother get in and out of the clinic quicker. It’s a selfish thought and I blame my ‘surgery stress’.

The person standing in front of me moves aside. I step forward to give the receptionist my Mother’s date of birth. I feel my mood tick up because checking in is one step closer to checking out. 

‘We love your Mother here,’ says the receptionist, standing up to wave to Mother. ‘She makes us laugh so much.’

‘I should bring her more often then,’ I say.

‘Why would you do that?’ asks the receptionist, wondering what sort of son would take his mother to the doctor more often than is strictly necessary. 

‘To cheer up the punters?’ I say.

I must remember my wife’s warning

The look on the receptionist’s face reminds me of my wife’s warning. When you’re with people you don’t know, don’t try to be funny, she says. Your sense of humour is problematic and many find it offensive. In fact, as a general rule, it’s best to keep your personality under wraps whenever you’re outside the family bubble. You’re a very slowly acquired taste, she says.

The receptionist is still looking at me, curiously. Is she about to push the panic button below her desk?

‘Your Mother brings her urine samples to us in a Colman’s Mustard tin. You know, the ones normally filled with mustard powder,’ she explains.

NHS staff are usually professional and kind. But surely this one is literally taking the piss? Really? I ask. Yes, she says. In a Colman’s Mustard tin, she says. She looks me straight in the eye. 

What is the mystery of the Colman’s mustard tin?

‘But how does she get her urine into a Colman’s Mustard tin? She can barely bend down to put her socks on.’

‘Isn’t the important question whose mustard tin she uses and what happens to it once she’s finished?’

One of the challenges in looking after your old parents is you learn things about them which you never knew before. Sometimes these things are uplifting. Other times, they are not. This is one of the latter.

As the doctor inspects Mother’s lobster leg, I begin to think that I will ask Mother about the Colman’s mustard tin. It can’t be hygienic to transport urine samples in mustard powder tins, so I have a duty to investigate. To lift the lid off the Colman’s mustard tin mystery.

‘The receptionist says you take them your urine samples in a Colman’s Mustard tin?’ I say, as we walk to the car.

‘Colonel Mustard?’ she asks.

She hasn’t got a ‘Cluedo’ what I’m talking about I jest to myself and then ask her again, more slowly, if she takes her urine samples to the doctor’s in a Colman’s Mustard tin.

Last time she used an eggbox

‘Yes,’ she says. ‘But I lost the mustard tin so I used an egg box last time, instead.’

‘Don’t they give you a test tube?’

‘Of course, they give me a test tube. I fill the test tube and then put it into a mustard tin so if the glass breaks it won’t ruin my handbag. What did you think I do with the mustard tin?’

I can’t answer this question without looking like an idiot or a pervert.

‘I’ll buy you a new mustard tin on the way home,’ I say wishing I had never tried to solve the mystery of the Colman’s mustard tin.

This article first appeared in the Chiswick Calendar

Published by Man in the Middle

Ecce Man in the Middle. The stale meat in the inter-generational sandwich.

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