Merci Beaucoup

Death of Mother
Photo by Brett Sayles on


The bathroom is whoosily hot. As I poach myself back into the Land of the Living after an excessive Saturday bacchanal, I wonder where my toes have gone and if they will ever come back. I watch my body turn the colour of a hot cure smoked salmon and doze.


I slip under the water. I can hear my mobile phone humming and humming and humming. I ignore it. I’m not ready for the world yet. It’s too early to talk. Even a desperate Prime Minister desperately searching for somebody desperate enough to join the Cabinet wouldn’t call this early and a Sunday morning, too.


When I come up for air, the bath water smells odd. It could be the Radox salts, but the odour is more like Vermouth. Herby. As if yesterday’s alcohol has infused the bathwater after fermenting overnight in my stomach. I reach for the phone, curious to see who’s called at this hour.


The missed call is from my Mother’s nursing home. There are two reasons the nursing home call. The first is to say you’ve won this month’s Friends & Family Tombola. But I haven’t entered the Tombola for a long time. And something tells me good news is polite and would wait till brunch.


The arches, loops and whorls of my thumb are so flushed and swollen from poaching so long in my vermouth bath that the phone doesn’t recognise my thumb print and won’t open. Again and again, I press my thumb down but the bloody, bloody, bloody phone won’t unlock. I feel like a mountaineer watching the first few stones of a landslide rolling away from beneath his feet.


I dry my right hand, thumb open the I-Phone and start to ring the nursing home but stop half way through. I am naked. It feels disrespectful to make the call without clothes. On a Sunday, especially. I pick up yesterday’s clothes from the floor beside my bed and ring. I’ve lost a minute getting dressed, which will make no difference to the new reality waiting to introduce itself at the other end of the phone.


‘Putting you through to the duty nurse,’ says reception.

‘Thank you,’ I say, in a sunny voice. You sound like you’ve won the Lotto, I say to myself. Pull yourself together.


‘It’s bad news,’ says the nurse and begins a litany of facts: who, when, what, where and how.

The nurse is professional. But her facts are meaningless and mute. All I can hear is the sound of a planet crashing out of the universe and a familiar voice somewhere whispering ‘no more’.


I knock on my son’s bedroom door. He’s the only family member home.

‘Granny’s dead.’

‘How?’ he asks, waking up.

‘They told me, but I can’t remember.’

‘Oh. Do you want a cuddle?’

It’s an infinitely perfect thing to say at this infinitely imperfect moment.

‘Not yet.’

If I hug him now, I will dissolve like a bath salt and I have things I must do.


In the Uber on the way to the nursing home, I remember when my daughter came into the world, courtesy of a late-night emergency caesarean, I was stranded in a hotel in Copenhagen. When my mother left the world, I was in a bath with a hangover. I guess we don’t always get to choose our comings and goings, nor who’s with us they happen.


‘Pull over. Here’s fine,’ I say to the Uber driver.

At the nursing home, three of Mother’s carers come up to me as I enter the dementia wing of the home.

‘She was a lovely Lady,’ says one.

‘So polite,’ says another.

‘Merci Beaucoup’ was what she used to say to us. All the time. Even if we were just giving her a cup of tea.’

‘A cup of tea was the way to her heart,’ I say. Shamefully, I realise I do not even know the names of the carers.


Mother used to say: ‘I don’t know why they do this. They do things others don’t want to. For a pittance. I wouldn’t do this if I were them.’ Politeness was her strategy for keeping people on side. She understood she was dependent on others even though she never called them carers. Calling them by their professional name would have been an admission of defeat and even at the end she hoped she might one day leave and take care of herself again.

She would have torn me off a strip or two if she had seen how badly dressed I was when I arrived: a crimpled shirt and shorts, scuffed shoes, unshaven. Clothes maketh the men, she used to say. She was a professional model and brought up in a home of hand me downs. Both experiences had an impact.

She would have hated herself if she could see what she looked like now. Lying under a bedsheet on the floor in her old nightgown, head back, hair unbrushed, eyes closed. In her open mouth a gold tooth visible. Her last words long gone. I wonder if they were ‘Merci beaucoup.’


‘Why is she on the floor?’ I ask.

‘The bed was too soft to do CPR on,’ says the nurse.

‘Oh,’ I say. ‘Can we move her?’

‘Not until the Police come.’

I sit with her body. They’ve closed the curtains so none of the other residents can see in through her window. I’m not sure they’d notice. I saw a man carried out of a packed residents lounge on a stretcher in the middle of lunch. None of the residents batted an eyelid.


‘This bed is very low,’ says my bother, who has just driven up from south London.

‘And too soft for CPR,’ I say.

‘Ah,’ he says.

A few minutes pass.

‘Did she die in her sleep?’ he asks.

‘They found her at 6.30 when they came in to dress her for breakfast. She wasn’t conscious so they did the CPR thing.’

‘I think she woke up and thought ‘enough is enough’ and closed her eyes and let herself go,’ he says and gets up to look at the photos on her table. I lie back on her bed and look at the pictures hanging on the walls.


On the back of each of the pictures, Mother has written the names of one of her grandchildren. It’s an addendum to her will. Other than these paintings and a few photo albums there is nothing left, except her wedding ring.

‘Do you want to take her ring home?’ asks the nurse.

Taking her ring off as she lies there dead on the floor is repelling. We shake our heads silently.

‘No worries. The Police will be here in about five minutes. It’s a formality though, so you don’t need to stay,’ says the nurse.

My brother and I shrug our shoulders at each other. We pick up the paintings and the photo albums and leave.

At the entrance to the home, the receptionist hands me a list of names and phone numbers: funeral directors, the coroner, the local Registrar’s office and the GP who will issue the death certificate.

‘She was a graceful lady,’ says the receptionist.

‘Merci beaucoup,’ I say. ‘Merci beaucoup.’


Chocolate: the opiate of old age

Chocolate: opiate of old age
Chocolate Tiles by Valerie Durak, Whitney Clark is licensed under CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0

Mother is sitting at a table by herself. Her fingers rest on the edge of a cup and saucer half full of spilt tea. Her eyes are open, and her head is tilted backwards, perhaps thirty degrees. I can’t tell if she is gazing up a slight incline towards Heaven or is asleep.

Whichever it is, she seems calm. Until that is, she sees my son and I waving at her through the glass panel, which runs around the dining area. Then, like a dimmer switch yanked to the max with a sudden twist of the wrist, she starts whining like a wounded animal in a trap.

‘Take me home,’ she cries. ‘Take me home.’

My heart slinks away. It can’t cope with the painful truth that the one thing she really craves is the one thing I can’t give her – hope that one day she might leave this place.

Two of the carers walk towards her.

‘Don’t let them near me. They want to hurt me,’ she cries and points at them.

The carers look at me. They’re thinking: does he think that’s true? That we’re going to hurt her. Or does he realise it’s the dementia talking? As it happens, I don’t think they’re cruel. But that doesn’t matter right now. What matters is that she has created a stand-off. They’ve stopped doing what they were going to do, and she is upset, fearful.

I hate asserting myself in the care home

‘Let me deal with this,’ I say, reluctantly asserting myself.

I put my hand under her left elbow and help her up.

‘Shall we go to your room, mum?’

‘No. I just want to die,’ she replies.

In her room she wipes away her tears and pulls her dressing gown around her bony shoulders.

‘So cold in here,’ she says.

I close the window on the summer sun.

‘Unwrap the chocolate,’ I say to my son.

‘Would you like some chocolate, Granny?’ he says, handing her three squares of Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut.

‘Thank you, darling.’

Chocolate is the opiate of old age and I am Mother’s Pusher. I never come without a bag the choicest chocolate bars to calm her nerves or distract her. Nothing bitter or fancy. I can’t remember how many times a Cadbury’s chocolate bar has turned the tide on a depressing conversation and saved me for screaming.

Her wheelchair is folded

She points at her wheelchair, which is folded up in a corner.

‘That’s where he keeps his bike when he comes and spends the night. We had a fight so when he comes now, I move out.’

‘Who keeps his bike there?’ asks my son.

‘I don’t know,’ she shrugs her shoulders. ‘The man who collects the pips, I don’t know?’

I point at my son and say loudly.

‘He’s going back to university tomorrow. He’s here to say goodbye.’

‘I keep his postcards in the cupboard,’ she says.

He sends her postcards to remind her that although she is out of sight she is not out of mind.

‘I’ve got exams when I go back,’ says my son, gamely trying to involve her in a new line of chat.

‘Do you have any friends?’ she asks earnestly.

Anxieties are like old relics

Sometimes Mother’s dementia driven conversations reveal an anxiety or an attitude towards someone (or something) which she has never shared before. Talking to her is like finding a new relic on a well dug archaeological site. In vino veritas, drunks reveal truth unwittingly. The same is true of dementia.

‘I have lots of friends,’ he replies a little too sternly.

‘But what’s the matter with your voice?’ she asks.

‘My voice? Nothing.’

‘It’s got nuts in it,’ she says decidedly.

‘His voice has got nuts in it?’ I ask, confused.

‘No. This.’

She points at her bar of Cadburys Fruit & Nut chocolate.

Somewhere down the corridor, a door is open, and a resident is calling ‘help’, ‘help’, ‘help’.

Dementia has no translator

‘They’ve been stealing things from me. This blouse, for example. One night, we had an auction to see who should win the blouse and they had to toss for it and the one who tossed the coin right was the girl who got the blouse. And I had to give it to her. I had to give a speech, too, and say how terribly sad I was that only one of them could have it. But she deserved it. She’s done a lot of work for me, washing and manicuring and everything like that. But it set up a terrible anger on the opposite side, with the girl who does all of those intricate things like giving you your medicine at certain times. Well, at least, that’s what I’m told by the scruffy little man who puts everything in his pocket.’

‘Oh,’ I say.

Sometimes conversation is impossible. Dementia has no translator.


‘You can make wonderful soup with rotten vegetables if you have an imagination,’ she says. ‘When you were a child, I often made you soup out of rotten old vegetables and water.’

‘I don’t remember,’ I say. ‘I do remember eating snails, though.’

‘It was good soup,’ she says.

‘I guess. After all, I’m still alive,’ I say.

‘That was very ‘Green’ of you Granny,’ says my son impressed she was such an early convert to the food waste movement.

‘Sometimes it came out green, sometimes it came out red, depended if I poured in a tin of tomatoes or not,’ she replies .

‘Speaking of which it’s time for us to go shopping for dinner,’ I say. ‘I’ll come see you tomorrow.’

‘Don’t bother,’ she says and starts waving. ‘Nothing will have changed.’

Sweatbreads? What an offally nice idea

Sweatbreads? That’ll be offally nice.

Sunday. I walk into the kitchen hoping for a quiet breakfast brew and an update from the papers on Boris Johnson’s latest falsehoods, fabrications and fibs, only to discover that overnight Netflix have converted my kitchen into the film set for a new version of George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’.

The place is swarming with young people whom I don’t recognise. Sitting, standing, lounging and generally at ease. Almost as if they own the place. This is the payback for years of overperforming as a welcome-all-comers parent. We’ve been so bloody successful at it the kids and their entourages now take all our parental virtue signalling literally.

‘The Chateau Margaux? Sure, it’s the perfect wine for drinking games. Why not take the whole case? If there’s any left tomorrow, it will go well with your Rice Krispies at breakfast.’

They don’t teach irony anymore.

Dad had a different view of parenting

My father took a different approach to our friends. He refused to speak to anyone he didn’t know over breakfast. In fact, he wasn’t even that keen on speaking to his family, preferring to eat his grapefruit in silence and solitude.

After eight at night, he would answer the front door in a half knee length kimono, which barely covered his crown jewels, clutching a golf club. It was his way of saying: enter at your peril. And, if you are bold enough to come in, remember the game here is played by my rules and rule number one is keep your eyes above my waistline.

Back to the present

All over the kitchen the lights are on despite the bright sun. The  Sonos is super sonically woofing. The smell of burnt bacon pervades the room like a crime and the extractor fan is sucking up the acrid smoke like a guilty mosquito trying to cover up the evidence.

There are giggles, grunts and groans, everywhere. Broken eggshells, everywhere. Plates with bacon rind stuck in tomato ketchup, everywhere. Energy, everywhere.

‘Mi casa es su farmyard,’ I mutter to myself, suddenly feeling like a Bolshevik and Old Boomer fused  into one Youth hating body. I didn’t spend 40 years selling my soul to global capitalism to have Sunday’s turned into this.

Several groomed youths are gathered at the table. They’re all busy shaking my breakfast cereals into their milk filled bowls, like misers eagerly emptying out someone else’s piggy bank.

‘Are there any Coco Pops left?’ I ask, pointing at a young man with a goatee beard, pouring my Coco Pops into his bowl.

‘Don’t think so?’ he says, as he rattles the box next to his ear. ‘No, none left.’

‘They’re my favourite breakfast cereal,’ I say.

‘Sorry, do you want to share mine?’ he says, as he lowers the tip of his goatee into the bowl of milk and hoists a spoonful of coco pops and chocolate milk towards his waxed and bearded mouth.

‘Not today, thanks,’ I say.

Where can I retire to?

I look around for space to gather my wits. Of course, I don’t mind the children having friends to stay, even though I am feeling pretty cut up about the missing out on the Coco Pops. It’s their liveliness I can’t stand.

All I wanted was 30 quiet minutes to rekindle the fire under my soggy Sunday Boomer metabolism. All I wanted was a little time to myself to unpack the dishwasher, a task which fills me with Puritanical pleasure, a sort of Sunday morning rosary, before which nothing else can happen.

Yeah, before the Dishwasher is cleared, thou shalt not sip from your  espresso cup. Nor shall the front page of the Sunday paper be opened until the cutlery drawer is refilled with clean spoons.

As a child, I was taught that you had to earn your rewards, that British Prime Ministers told the truth and that puddings follow a main course like daylight follows the dawn. These old truths no longer apply. The kids have eaten breakfast, but the dishwasher is unloaded, its red light blinking at me saying: ‘Look upon your parenting and despair.’

Do humans evolve?

Is this how they will always live? Like Mongols, forever moving carelessly from one house to the next leaving behind them empty boxes of Rice Krispies, half eaten sausages and unwashed Smoothie blenders?

Suddenly, the juicer, the coffee grinder, the Sonos and the kettle are turned on at the same time. It’s a cacophony of symphonic dimensions. My brain shrivels under the assault of noise like a slug sprinkled with salt.

‘What is that?’ I ask.

‘Jazz funk,’ says the young man standing next to the stove, obviously referring to the loud noise coming from the Sonos.

‘No, you fool, that,’ I say, pointing at four uncooked egg yolks wrapped in cling film which are lying on the kitchen next to a boiling pan of water. They look like the castrated orange testicles of two farm animals.

‘Poached eggs,’ he says.

‘Why not use the poacher?’

‘Because he ran away when he saw us coming,’ he says.

‘That’s a pretty poor joke,’ I say, secretly admiring it. It takes chutzpah to tell jokes that bad in someone else’s house.

‘Sorry,’ he replies and drops the cling filmed eggs into a pan of swirling water.

Poached eggs a go go

‘I’ve been thinking about food,’ I say.

‘So, what’s new,’ says my wife, who has come down to the kitchen to join me and the remaining remnants from the overnight posse.

‘I think we should plan our food better. Spend less on meat. Buy cheaper cuts. Head to toe eating. That sort of thing.’

‘Have you signed up for one of those budgeting lessons with that Tory idiot?’ asks one of the remnants.

‘Not exactly.’

‘Lee Anderson MP?’ says my daughter.

‘Yes. I did listen to that idiot. But that’s not what I mean.’

‘Is this ‘thinking’ of yours a specific proposal? Or is it one of your usual ‘ideas’ as in: ‘I’ve been meandering around the Google verse like a village idiot collecting disconnected ideas about environmental policy, food production and our family food budget which I’d now like to disgorge on you like a dumper truck unloading sand at a cement factory?’

‘The former,’ I say.

‘Let’s hear it then,’ she says.

‘This week I shall mainly be eating offal.’

Someone at the far end of the table chokes on their coffee.

‘Is that a line from an old comedy show,’ asks one of the remnants.

The Fast Show is alive and well

‘Yes, the Fast Show,’ I say rather proud that my children have friends who have such strong comic references.

‘Offal?’ says my wife.

‘Like kidneys?’ says my daughter.

‘Or liver?’ asks my son.

‘Or my personal favourite sweetbreads,’ I say.

‘Sweetbreads? Aren’t those essentially testicles,’ says one of the remnants.

‘No. Sweetbreads are the thymus. From the throat or the pancreas.’

‘I’m not keen on pancreas,’ says my daughter.

‘I’d rather go back to being a vegetarian,’ says my son.

‘Offal is cheaper than most meat, nutritious and delicious. It would be a sensible way for us to make a small contribution to reducing our carbon footprint and reducing food waste. Butchers can’t get rid of this stuff these days.’

‘I’m not surprised,’ says my son.

‘Are you sure they’re not testicles,’ asks my daughter again.

‘Certain,’ I say.

‘I’m out,’ says my wife, with a Deborah Meaden, Dragon’s Den look of contempt.

‘I don’t think you’re giving me a fair hearing. I feel like that Lee Anderson,’ I say.

‘You won’t get any sympathy that way,’ says my daughter.

‘It’s an offaly nice idea,’ says my son and the table titters.

I get up and start to unload the dishwasher.

‘Don’t patronise me,’ I say.