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Will Brexit bring us cannabis gravy?

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In America you can buy Thanksgiving gravy infused with cannabis, which my daughter says is one way gravy can enhance a meal.

‘Enhance is one word for it,’ I say thinking about the havoc a dose of THC, the chemical in cannabis, might have on Mother who loves gravy like F Scott Fitzgerald loved Gin Rickey’s.

We’re planning a BBQ to celebrate my daughter’s recent graduation. The question is: should we serve gravy or not?

I am passionately anti-gravy for many reasons, the key one being that gravy obscures and overwhelms the natural taste of everything it envelops. Poured over meat, it competes with the wonderful umami taste of cooked animal flesh. Slopped over steamed vegetables, the delicate flavour of the vegetable is drowned in a meaty flood and what is the point of producing dry, crisp roast potatoes only to soak them in a tsunami of liquid with lumps in it like slurry from a quarry?

‘Gravy is fog for food,’ I say.

‘Gravy is the glue in any roast meal,’ says my daughter.

‘Gravy is like glue full stop,’ I reply.

‘Only if made badly. Anyway, jus is just a pretentious name for the same thing,’ she quips.

‘Gravy is starch gelatinisation disguised behind a homely word,’ I reply.

‘What?’

‘When flour is added to pan juices and heat applied the mixture thickens in a process called starch gelatinisation. Gravy is starch.’

‘You need to spend more time focussed on important things, not gravy,’ says my daughter.

‘I accept gravy is a First World problem.’

‘With you, it’s more of an OCD problem,’ says my son.

Clearly, most people wouldn’t waste three minutes of their lives, let alone thirty, debating the pros and cons of gravy.

In Maslow’s hierarchy, gravy is a nice to have like self-actualisation, not a necessity like food and shelter.

Nor is gravy integral to Boris Johnson’s ‘Bounce Back’ strategy, though I could imagine jus being banned from British restaurants to signal to Michel Barnier we won’t hesitate to take back control of our sauces as well as our coastal waters if the Brexit negotiations get a little more choppy.

‘Surely, it’s important for children to learn to discriminate between jus and gravy?’ I say turning to my wife.

‘We’ve got more important things to get on with. This argument about gravy is a storm in a tea-cup,’ she says.

‘You mean storm in a gravy boat,’ I say, smiling.

‘No. I don’t,’ says my wife.

My mother perks up.

‘You used to watch gravy by the bucket as a child. Virtually drank it like water,’ she says.

‘Really?’

‘Your brother and you loved it. You had your own separate gravy boats you loved it so much. You were paranoid about peas, too.’

‘Paranoid about peas? What do you mean, granny,’ says my daughter hoping her gentle question will unearth the smoking gun to give her victory over me in the case of ‘Gravy versus Jus’.

‘If they didn’t get exactly the same number of peas they’d fight. The only way to stop them fighting was to count the peas onto their plates one by one until they had the exact same number. Imagine it. Literally, counting peas one by one onto their plates before we could get on with the meal.’

‘That explains quite a lot,’ says my son.

‘I was just a dinner lady to them in those days,’ she continues.

This reminds me of my brother spitting on his roast potatoes, every Sunday lunch, to discourage me from stealing them and food fights and the dog snaffling food as it tipped from the table in uproar.

‘My God, there aren’t many good things about getting old. But not having to deal with you and your brother fighting over peas and potatoes is one of them,’ she says.  

A shroud falls on the conversation not unlike a grey leaden gravy. Mother lifts a cup to her lips with both hands and sips her tea, silent. My wife googles something, my daughter leaves the room to find her boyfriend. My son asks me a question.

‘You know all this chlorinated chicken business?’

‘The UK / USA trade deal, you mean?’

‘Do you think we’ll be allowed to import cannabis gravy when it’s done?’

‘I don’t know,’ I say.

But I do know – even if it is allowed – it will be fifty years too late to heal any hurt done over those riotous Sunday lunches.

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The Best Iron Money Can Buy

I look at Mother ironing her way through another basket of laundry fresh from the clothesline. Seeing her reminds me of the old joke:

Q:   What do you call your mother ironing your clothes for you?

A:   A free press.

I’m jolted out of my covid dream state. Where has this joke come from? Is it sexist or just patronising?

I’d like to claim it’s been triggered by my irritation this week that the British media weren’t allowed to ask publicly funded health experts questions about Dominic Cummings. Or follow ups to the PM.

But the truth is this joke has emerged from the primeval stock pot of my unconscious male bias. It’s a reflection of my cultural programming, not my politics. Disappointingly, my sense of humour is still being shaped by gender stereotypes and the Les Dawson Monster Book of Mother in Law gags. When will it end?

I’m capable of diagnosing myself because I have been learning about unconscious bias among male Boomers from my daughter since she went to the thinky place or university. I thought I had some control over this problem. But, no.

I wonder what my children would think if I told them this joke?

If my son heard the ironing joke, he would forgive me. His view is that male Boomers like me have been crippled by our upbringings and something called toxic masculinity. To him, I’m just a victim who needs re-education like the bourgeoise under Pol Pot. But, if my daughter thought I was still having such reactionary thoughts, I’d be up on the dining room table for an unmedicated castration before you could say Patriarchal Programming.

As I mull my thought crime over, it strikes me unconscious bias is a very unsatisfactory crime for the perpetrator because unconscious bias just spills out, spontaneously. The criminal doesn’t get the chance to enjoy plotting their crime. I feel like Winston Smith in ‘1984’, riddled with guilt without having really done anything wrong. Room 101 beckons. 

Later, I confess my thought crime to my wife. She is my superior in all matters except pinball, so I hope she will give me advice on how to play this when my daughter comes home next weekend. On family strategy, she is Pep Guardiola and I am Sam Allardyce, after a night out on the beers with the lads.

She asks me to repeat the joke three times.

‘It’s not funny,’ she says.  

‘That’s not the problem. The problem is I am still riddled with unconscious gender bias.’

‘The problem is you’re riddled with poor jokes,’ says my wife. 

‘What will the children say if they realise how unreconstructed I still am?’

‘If they kick off about your gender bias, I would just remind them it was your gender bias that brought us together in the first place and that without it they wouldn’t exist.’

A warm feeling smiles through me. This is one of those moments when you realise what matters most in a marriage and why it’s worth battling through those difficult moments: who gets to sleep on left side of the bed; should you share razor blades and is Sky Sports worth having. 

‘I thought it was those boxes of chocolates that did it?’ I say, winking. 

‘Don’t dig yourself back into a hole,’ she says.  

Mid-afternoon. Mother is back at the ironing board after lunch, ready to resume her battle against her fear of her impending uselessness. 

I put another basket of laundry next to her, when she turns to me and asks if I remember the jokes she used to tell us as young children to keep us near her while she was doing household chores.

‘Like?’ I ask.

‘Why are elephants wrinkly?’ she asks. 

‘Because they can’t fit on an ironing board?’ I say, the answer springing out of somewhere, unconsciously and without bias.

Mother smiles. 

‘That’s right. You remember.’ 

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Bad Grandma’s Rules for Living

Buy the Best Hearing Aid Money Can Buy
Do you want to spend the rest of your life listening to your family talking to you in a loud, slow voice like you’re the village idiot? Of course, you don’t. Do your family and friends want to repeat every question to you four times? Of course, they don’t. Nothing breeds inter-generational conflict more than poor hearing so don’t be dumb about getting deaf. Re-mortgage to the max and don’t scrimp on the pennies when it comes to audiology.So, if you hear yourself saying ‘You’re slurring your words are you drunk?’ or ‘Why can no one speak the Queen’s English anymore?’ it’s time to hop onto your mobility scooter and get a hearing test.

A good audiologist is more important than cardiologist as you get older.

Photo by Edu Carvalho on Pexels.com

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Bad Grandma’s Rules for Living

LEARN SIGN LANGUAGE

Newly-weds get a lot of bad advice from lifestyle gurus and other quacks about money, sex, romance etc. Ignore it all. There’s really only one thing you need to know as a newly-wed: learn sign language. The moment the honeymoon’s over, subscribe to an accredited signing course.

Why? Because signing means you can have a full-blown argument in front of the children without them understanding how pissed off you are with each other, thereby, saving them from any psychological scarring and you from having to pay exorbitant fees to therapists.

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Sandstone Short Fiction Prize

I shouldn’t break character but my creator has won the 2020 Sandstone Press short fiction prize for his story ‘An Epidemic of Kindness [redacted]’. Sandstone Press judge DanBrotzel described the piece as ‘dystopian’ and ‘sinister’.

The Sandstone Press citation states: “In this dystopian satire – a partially redacted dispatch from a carer on the frontline of a world with many unnerving echoes of our own – the epidemic has become an enduring fixture of life, the elderly are subject to news censorship and coercive caring, and the phrase ‘Kindness Services’ has a very sinister meaning.”

Based in Inverness, Sandstone Press  books have won and been shortlisted for literary prizes including the Man Booker International, Man Booker, Commonwealth, Arthur C Clarke, Creative Scotland, Green Carnation and Saltire Society.

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For whom the bell tolls

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It’s twenty minutes since I slouched past Mother’s bedroom door, yoga mat under my arm, and I can still hear her talking on the phone. Twenty minutes is an unusually long call for her because her hearing is poor and her patience quite short. She also keeps calls quick because she thinks telephone charges are ‘scandalously’ high along with the TV licence, bread, milk, butter, eggs and cake. She lives in an imaginary, inflation free Eden.

The last call this long was with a fraudster, who was trying to prise loose her bank account details. Instead they got her life story in a pause free monologue of approximately fifty minutes. I felt sorry for the fraudster. It must have felt like being kidnapped by the James Joyce Society, who won’t set you free before they’ve read you Joyce’s 265,000-word, stream of consciousness masterpiece ‘Ulysses’, slowly and in one sitting. 

I make a mental note to ask Mother who she was talking to when she comes down for breakfast. If it’s the doctor, I like to know what’s been said. I am in the Downward Dog pose. Delighted, I realise my yoga is getting better because last week I would have fallen over if I had tried to think at the same time as attempting Downward Dog. Is it time to move on from the five-minute beginner’s warm up video?

I flop into Savasana, the Corpse Pose, which involves lying flat on your back and breathing. I keep my eyes closed as I hear the clumping of Mother’s crutch on the wood floor as she walks to the kitchen. The fact I do not open my eyes to look at her is a sign of my growing powers of yogic concentration and ability to control my mind / body duality.  Another triumph!

At breakfast, I read a report which says 8,000 older people have died of corona virus in care homes. The death rate in April is 10,000 higher than usual for this month. Is the covid death rate being under reported?  

It makes me wonder if Mother would still be alive if she had gone to an old people’s home instead of moving in with us. I  feel relief Mother is here with her family, not alone, isolated and scared in a care home. Would she ever want to go to one after this? 

‘Who were you talking to,’ I ask Mother, as she butters her toast.

She looks up and out toward the garden.

‘B— has died.’

B— is an old friend, who worked with Mother worked in the fifties.

‘I was just on the phone to her husband. She died a few days ago,’ says Mother.

‘I’m so sorry,’ says my wife.

‘Was it covid?’ I ask.

Mother shrugs her shoulders. Her friend was in a care home for people with dementia.

‘When is the funeral?’ asks my wife.

‘I don’t remember anything about a funeral.’

‘Is she allowed to go to a funeral?’ I ask.

‘I was thinking of sending flowers and card, really,’ says my wife. 

‘It’s happened, already, I think. Poor B—.’ She sighs.

I can see my son looking under his eyebrows at Mother for signs of distress. But she isn’t shedding any tears. No flood of memories is unlocked. Perhaps she feels she lost her friend to dementia years ago and so this is moment has lost its hurt? Perhaps she’s just decided to keep a stiff upper lip? 

How are you meant to behave when someone you know dies? Can you train for it? Or do you just hope you will find a way to roll with the punch, like a boxer, who knows they must get knocked down one day, and that when that happens it’s instinct, not training, which gets you back up on your feet.

‘I’d like to organise a Mass for her. I’ll go and see the priest today,’ says Mother.

‘I think you better call first. I don’t think you can go to the Church yourself,’ says my wife.

‘Still this bloody covid thing,’ says my Mother.

‘I’m afraid so,’ says my wife.

Later that afternoon, details from the church and florist to hand, I open Mother’s bedroom door. She is asleep, fully clothed. Exhausted by emotion. Her radio is on and, for some reason, she’s tuned into Radio 2. They’re playing ‘We are Family’ by Sister Sledge.

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Bad Grandma’s Rules for Living

Don’t Be A Panko Prawn  

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You shrink as you get older. This is nothing to be ashamed of, it’s God’s way of giving you the lead in our own production of ‘Honey, I shrunk the kids’. But heed my golden rules for dealing with this, if you want to have a truly happy ThirdAge.

First, stop telling your children they’ve grown since you last saw them. They haven’t, you’re shrinking.

Second, admit you’re now a size 6 not 12 and buy clothes which fit you now not then. Alternatively, only wear kaftans.  

Third, be clean, not chic. No one cares if you no longer dress like a fashionista, but they will if you look like you sleep in a biscuit tin and look like a panko prawn.

Fourth, never wear pink.

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Mother Breaks the Covid Rules

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Mother is in a light brown raincoat and a faded Dior headscarf, clutching a shopping fibre bag printed with the smiling faces of her grandchildren. She’s obviously decided to go out to the shops. Old habits are reasserting themselves, like weeds in a garden.

‘Do you want anything at the shops?’ she asks.

My wife, son and I are chewing in different corners of the kitchen. Cows in a field. It’s lunchtime.

‘The lock down is still in place, mum. You can’t go out,’ I say.

‘Yoghurt?’ she asks.

It’s hard to know if she’s asking a second question or just misheard my reply to her first. She doesn’t wear her hearing aid often, so a misunderstanding is most likely. Clearly, she’s forgotten that going out is dangerous, possibly deadly.

If she goes out and contracts the virus, the chances of her getting referred to hospital for treatment are currently slim, according to her GP. She would be a low priority in any competition for medical resource. A possible victim, if that’s the right word, of triage.

‘The Government recommends you shouldn’t go out at all, at your age unless it is essential.’

‘I thought I could go shopping if I have a special note. Or did I hear that wrong?’

‘Do you have a special note?’

‘No.’

There’s a brief pause.  

‘I went out more often during the Blitz, you know.’

We’ve had several discussions about the Blitz, the War and the parallels with Covid-19. Mother’s conclusion is it’s only those who didn’t live through the War who talk so frequently of the parallels. Working a large cud of homemade vegetarian sausage roll to the side of my mouth, I reply.

‘It’s frustrating. I know.’

‘When will it end?’

I shrug my shoulders. This seems to be the 64-million-dollar question which no one has an answer (or not one they want to share, at least). She looks down to the floor and, for a moment, is motionless.

‘I don’t care. I’m going out.’

She wants to shop because it is her way of exercising. She wants to buy something because it’s her way of making a contribution to the household economy. She wants to get out to prove to herself she’s still independent, in some small way. Most of all, she wants to do…something. Anything which would break the dull cycle of ironing and movie repeats she’s trapped in.

‘You can’t go to the shops because other people are there. But how about a walk to the shops? Or up and down the street?’ asks my wife.

I’m surprised she is suggesting this. She has been the most conscientious of us in following government instructions since February. Sometime in the last minute, though, she’s decided the psychological benefit for Mother of getting out of the house, if only briefly, far outweighs the remote chance of her contracting covid-19.

‘Yes, that would be nice. I’ll just go up and down the street once. Maybe twice.’

‘Shall one of us come with you?’ says my son.

‘No. I want to go myself. It’s lovely and sunny.’

My son opens the door for her. I watch her paused in the doorway, like an astronaut hesitating in an airlock. The sharp sunlight may have dazzled her or she’s just steadying herself before plunging into the street. But she’s paused there for a few seconds. Suddenly I am reminded of the image of Captain Oates, at the doorway of his frostbitten tent, heading into the Antarctic blizzard. Should I stop her?  

‘I’ll watch her from the front wall,’ says my son.

A while later, she comes back in. She’s happier and looks around the sitting room to see if the ironing board is up and a full basket of laundry nearby. 

‘Is there any ironing to do?’

‘Is the Pope a catholic?’ I smile.

‘Time to keep calm and carry on ironing, then,’ she says.  

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Easter Sunday ends in ‘Apocalypse Now’

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Time: 00.00-02.30

Son: Teach Dad to play ‘Animal Crossing’. It’s flattering. He wants to show he’s interested in my life etc. But, quickly, he becomes very needy. Wants to visit my island, water my orchard, chat to me all the time. Will he behave like this when I get my own home?

02.35

Me: Exhilarated. I have my own island in ‘Animal Crossing’ (‘a peaceful paradise of your own making’) I love collecting seeds and doing DIY! Getting on fabulously with son, who is a patient tutor. Can’t wait for tomorrow so we can have another session together.

02.45

Son: Discuss my ‘dad dilemma’ with Friendship Group. Many report similar cases. Parents insisting on ‘doing things together’, faking interest in stuff we like. ‘F’ says dad’s behaviour is a type of cultural appropriation, like the Elgin marbles. Warns me if Dad is allowed to carry on, he’ll want to join my WhatsApp and Snapchat groups, effectively invading every part of my life, like Japanese knot weed. We agree it is important parents are given clear boundaries or they will take the mickey. Resolve to be cruel to be kind, tonight.  

06.00

Mother: Easter Sunday. Panic: haven’t bought grandson an Easter egg or flowers for daughter in law. Must get to shops. Perhaps church service, too.

08.30

Me: Mother heading out the door. She’s forgotten (again) that going out is dangerous, possibly deadly. I better stop her.

09.30

Mother: Government says I can’t go out, according to son. Half of what he says is unintelligible, the other half unintelligent. Says I will be arrested if I go shopping? But daughter in law says he’s right so come back inside. Daughter in law has bought me an Easter egg to give grandson. Wonderful woman. Son says I can go to church online but I have never heard such nonsense, even from him. 

10.00

Me: Wife asks me if I have heard of Middle-Class Bingo. Tell her I’ve been playing it all my life. Feeling bruised by last night’s bottle of wine and intense initiation into ‘Animal Crossing’. Slip upstairs for a quick snooze, as wife heads off for a run. As I drift off, I wonder if I will ever go on the tube again?

12.30

Son: Accidentally wake up. Rearrange duvet and go back to sleep.   

14.30

Mother: Death on the Nile’ is on. Met David Niven several times. Utterly charming man. Wrote a brilliant memoir, whose name escapes me.

15.00

Me: Wake up and wonder if son wants to play ‘Animal Crossing’. Decide not to wake him up as he is only young once.

15.05

Wife: Sour dough bread in a Dutch Oven. New recipe. Very excited. Play Handel’s ‘Messiah’ while making the dough. Can hear ‘Death on the Nile’ from the sitting room. Turn up the volume on the Messiah. Battle of the bands?  

15.30

Wife: ‘V’ brings coffee around for a chat in the front garden. Husband lurks around the conversation, like Fester, and manhandles the red Japanese maple, whose feathery leaves are blossoming.  When he brings out the hedge clippers, I ask him to go and get dressed. ‘V’ very patient.

16.55

Wife: Slobbery is getting me down. Tonight we are going to dress up for dinner and eat outside. Clarify with husband that this means trousers, shoes and a shirt. There’s enough time for him to go iron something, if he wants to.

17.05

Mother: ‘Death on the Nile’ is as dated as I am. As ironing is banned because it’s a holy day, I retire to bedroom before tonight’s dinner sur l’herbe.   

17.15

Wife: Mow lawn.

17.45

Wife: Clean and varnish garden table.

18.15

Wife: Zoom with daughter.

18.45

Wife: Shower. Is it wrong to drink a G&T while dressing for dinner or just another banal box ticked in Middle Class Bingo?

19.15

Son: I have laid the table in the garden. This means carrying: 4 plates, 12 items of cutlery items, 4 wine glasses, 4 water glasses, a salt cellar, a pepper grinder, 4 condiment bottles (some unpleasantly sticky), 4 napkins, 4 chair cushions, a bottle of red and white wine and a jug of water. This is quite a lot of exercise (300ft there and back?). I realise we are all in this together, but I am sure dad will pretend he has done his bit tonight just by grilling 3 steaks. We need to collect more data about who is actually doing what to ensure the pain is shared equitably. How?

20.30

Me: Propose we watch ‘Apocalypse Now: Final Cut’ after dinner because (1) it is the greatest film ever (2) son is studying ‘Heart of Darkness’ forA Level and this movie is based on it. I announce Son says he’s already got his English A Level and doesn’t believe it can be as good as ‘Bridesmaids’. Mother doesn’t want to be reminded of the apocalypse on Easter Sunday but and wife is game on, as long as she can do her crocheting while it’s on. Watching Apocalypse Now while crocheting feels disrespectful, like knitting at the guillotine. But I’m happy her vote gives me a working majority over the TV remote.  

21.30

Wife: Thoroughly depressed. Crocheting cocked up, too many G&Ts? Movie equally grim.

23.45

Me: Apocalypse Now: Final Cut’ enormously uplifting film. This version has a section involving French plantation owners and a sex scene with Martin Sheen, which I have never seen before! Only £3.99 on Amazon TV! Is it relevant to lock down? Absolutely. As Kurtz says in the movie we must look horror in the face. Isn’t that what we’re doing with Covid-19. Head upstairs to play ‘Animal Crossing’ with son.

00.00

Son: Dad’s outside my bedroom wittering on about the face of horror? If he asks to play ‘Animal Crossing’ am I strong enough to say no? Must I set boundaries?

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Covid makes pants pointless

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I’ve given up wearing trousers. They’re superfluous in the current situation. Unless I have to go outside to the shops or for a walk, I can’t see any benefit in them. The same applies to shirts and shoes. Neither are necessary in this indoor world. 

Pyjamas, on the other hand, have become more valuable than ever.  They’re the ultimate all-rounder, like Ben Stokes. You can rely on them to come good in different situations: bedroom, kitchen, sitting room. You can even work out in them.  Pyjamas will never let you down which is why I’ve been in mine for several days. 

I’m explaining to the family that Covid-19 is challenging the very fabric of our society and posing profound questions like: are clothes pointless? I wouldn’t be surprised if in some louche parts of London, like Mayfair, where people can afford good underfloor heating, many families have moved beyond the pyjama and embraced nudism. We’re still conforming to Bourgeoise timidities, however, and haven’t reached that point yet. 

‘I’m just saying that Covid-19 makes pants pointless. They’re an affectation like shaking hands or kissing when you meet.’ 

‘OMG. You’re becoming a student again,’ says my wife, her voice trembling between horror and despair. 

‘You’re rewilding,’ says my son. ‘Like an ancient forest being returned to its natural state.’ 

‘On Zoom, no one can see your chinos,’ I point out. He nods in agreement. 

‘What about socks?’ asks my son.

‘Good point. The only reason I’m wearing socks is these wooden floors. They haven’t been varnished for years and I’m worried about splinters.’ 

‘Fair enough. Plus there’s an environmental upside to your approach: reducing the clothes you wear means fewer wash cycles which means reduced use of chemicals and water. It’s a virtuous circle,’ says my son. 

‘Please don’t encourage him,’ my wife scolds my son.  ‘He hasn’t even put his T-shirt on the right way this morning. How long have you been wearing that, anyway?’ 

‘Two, three days?’ 

‘It’s the crack in the dam,’ says my wife. 

‘The decline of the Roman empire,’ says my son, chipping in on his mother’s side now. 

‘You have a responsibility, as a father, to maintain decent standards of dress. And to set a positive example to your son. Do it for your Mother, at least.’

Mother looks up from her toast and jam. 

‘He used to blow his nose on the curtains when the vicar came around. He’s always trying to shock people. His brother is worse.’ 

‘I’m just saying there’s a case for temporarily relaxing some of the usual social norms. We spend most of our time on different floors of the house. What does it matter what clothes we have on? Or even if we have any on?’

‘Is there any Government guidance on Covid and nudity?’ asks my son.

‘How many naked health workers have you seen recently? You idiot,’ says my wife. 

I feel a lecture coming on from Mother about the Blitz spirit and what King George VI would do in these circumstances. I start to edge out of the kitchen, shoulders sliding along the wall, like a drape on a curtain rail. This way, I maximise the distance from the others who are splayed across the kitchen like a star fish. 

Later, I Zoom with my daughter, who is in Cardiff. I hope she can explain why my pyjama policy isn’t winning votes from the clan. She says research proves communities become more conformist when threatened by disease. It makes people psychologically reject outsiders and embrace conventions. It’s a psychological version of our biological immune systems. 

‘Clothes enforce gender stereotypes. The gender convention in clothing is that men should ‘wear the trousers’’. Right? By not wearing trousers, you’ve broken that gender convention. You’ve sent them a sign that you are surrendering your position as the family’s patriarch. Symbolically, you’ve emasculated yourself.’

‘Emasculated myself?’ 

‘Yes. You’re behaving like a pathogen.’

‘I’m a pathogen?’ 

‘Yes. You’re as bad as Covid-19 because both of you are a threat to their conventions.’ 

‘I’ve managed to emasculate and debagged myself at the same time without even realizing it?’ 

‘Yes.’

‘What can I do?’ 

‘Put your trousers on?’

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Covid & the Dutch House

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‘Is the ‘Dutch Housewife’ a porn movie?’ asks my son, looking up from his phone.

‘Why would we watch a porn movie while Granny’s still up?’ I reply.

‘Why would we watch a porn movie full stop?’ says my wife.

‘Dad said: ‘You’d like the ‘Dutch Housewife’?’ It sounds like a porno. Don’t get shirty with me,’ says my son.

Mother is silently mouthing answers to University Challenge. Or doing a Mindfulness exercise. The rest of us are debating what movie to watch after University Challenge.

‘I said she’s LIKE a Dutch housewife. I was complimenting her for organising the deep clean we did on the house today,’ I say.

‘We?’ says my wife.

‘In the 17th century, Dutch women were famous for their hygiene standards and their rigorous cleaning regimes. Just like Mum.’ I say to my son and then smile at the beloved.

‘Famous for my cleaning regime, am I? I guess you’ll be pimping me out on a neighbourhood website as a deep cleaner, next?’

Covid-19 cabin fever has set in. Nothing I say or do now can get me out of this deep and dangerous impasse. The situation is potentially so ugly that I may have to apologise and send myself to bed without supper.

‘Noel Coward!’ shouts Mother at the TV rocking forwards with excitement. For a moment, it looks like she is going to fall off her chair.

(‘Noel Coward’ Jeremy Paxman repeats softly from the TV).

Mother has correctly answered a question which the mighty Trinity College Cambridge team have fluffed. And they don’t fluff many.

‘Goal!’ shouts my son and breaks into a strange jig, which he’s copied from a Jack Black Instagram video, to celebrate Mother’s one answer victory.

I don’t want to rain on her parade, but we are watching a repeat of last week’s show and she got the same question right then. But that’s Covid-19 for you: every day is Groundhog Day.

My son’s jig has broken the tense atmosphere. If I keep my head down, I may make it to bed fed and still married. But Covid-19 has got me thinking deeply about life. For example, while sterilising the bannisters this morning, I wondered if it is possible for a house to be hygge without hugs?

This fuzzy Danish word stands for homely conviviality and Nordic knitwear. I can see that artisan woollen beanies, socks and jumpers could heal many gaps in a life and I’ve often wished I were Scandinavian because of their superior social system and crime procedurals.

But if you can’t hug or kiss your family because you have to stay two metres apart how long can you stay a happy hygge household? I also want to know if they agree with me that the Government should rename the ‘Nudge Unit’ because it is clearly inappropriate in current circumstances to be nudging anyone. Should I risk these thoughts with them? Or call it quits now?

‘Chekov.’ My wife starts whistling and fist pumping. She’s got a question right on University Challenge.

‘Dad,’ my son whispers and showing me some no-name online dictionary on his phone.

‘What?’

‘It says here a Dutch housewife can mean a prostitute, a sex doll or a body length pillow.’

‘Let’s not go back over that now,’ I say. ‘At least, not till after dinner.’

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Mother thinks I’m Joey Tribbiani

I wriggle my fingers into black leather driving gloves and take a plate of scrambled eggs and smoked salmon upstairs. It’s Mother’s birthday and I’m taking her breakfast in bed as a surprise treat. I knock on the door. There’s no answer.

‘Room service,’ I shout. I lean forward and knock again.

I don’t usually wear black leather driving gloves because they make me feel like Alan Partridge. But we’ve run out of the blue disposable ones and I recognise anything I can do to reduce spreading the virus must be done. Even wearing driving gloves.

‘They’re not that embarrassing, are they?’

I’m admiring my gloved right hand. I turn it around and back again like the Royal family waving from a carriage.

‘A bit Alvin Stardust, maybe?’ replies my wife, grimacing.  

‘You should buy those police tactical ones, next time. They’ve got the best grip and they only cost £12,’ says my son.

My wife and son are behind me on the landing at a socially responsible distance. They’re primed to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ through their facemasks when Mother opens her bedroom door. They’re both wearing yellow washing up gloves.

‘Jeeves here,’ I shout again, my lips almost kissing the door.

I plan to pass over her birthday cards once the breakfast tray is safely landed on her bedside table. Giving her the cards by hand risks coming within two metres of her, so I’ve decided to slot the cards into the stiff bristles at the end of our long-handled broom. My son will then feed the broom into her room so she can pick the cards from the broom without coming too close to me. It’s a little Heath Robinson. But, last night, I experimented with a spatula, barbecue tongs and the broom. The broom was the most effective, by far.

Mother opens her door with a sleepy look. We burst into Happy Birthday. She is bewildered. Perhaps she thinks we are the council’s deep cleaning squad come to give her bedroom the ‘once over’? After all, we look the part in gloves and masks and with my my son holding a long handled broom.

When the song ends there is a bemused silence. Embarrassed by the silence, I try to lighten the atmosphere.  Before I can help myself, I’ve slipped into the voice of the dead Australian cricket commentator Richie Benaud.

‘Great innings. Ninety-six not out. The century’s there for the taking. Just need to be careful not to play any rash shots, now.’

‘Are you trying to impersonate an Indian or an Australian?’ asks Mother.

‘Happy Birthday, Gran. Your birthday cards are on the end of the broom,’ says my son, extending the broom towards her like a bargeman.

‘What a novel way of giving me a birthday card, darling. Are you training to work on a barge?’

‘Dad’s idea to keep you safe from Covid-19, Granny.’

Her eyebrows twitch upwards.

‘Do you know what I’d like to do for my birthday?’ she says to my wife.

‘No?’

‘Ironing. If you could set the ironing board up, please.’

The mental health charity MIND have said ironing is good exercise for old people locked down by Covid-19, so she insists on a daily shift at the ironing board. It’s her way of being useful, too.

‘Ironing and friends,’ Mother says.

‘Friends? We can’t have friends around at the moment. It’s against the Government guidelines,’ says my wife.

‘The TV series: Friends. I love Phoebe and Joey reminds me of your husband: well-meaning but slightly dumb.’

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Bad Grandma’s Rules for Living

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Talking openly to your children about their childhood is like being in a police station without a lawyer. Eventually, you’ll accidentally say something they can take down in evidence and use against you. Best to keep mum at all times about the past.

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Gwyneth Paltrow helps Mother

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It’s dawning on me that Mother and I are trapped in a psychodrama neither of us remembers auditioning for. Day by day, our roles as parent and child are reversing. But we’re not sure of our new lines and are actors in the hands of a director who isn’t sure if they are directing a tragedy or a farce.

‘Like the ‘Play that Went Wrong’?’ asks my Son.  

‘Or ‘One flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’?’ says my Wife.  I’m trying to get them to understand how I feel but they don’t get it. Whoever coined the phrase ‘a problem shared is a problem halved’ couldn’t do basic Maths.

Our psychodrama plays out across daily life. Food, for example. Once, I was the fussy eater, now she is. Once, she complained I must eat greens, now I find myself lecturing her about her diet. Am I wrong to be frustrated by her refusal to acknowledge that a daily packet of Bahlsen Choco Leibniz Biscuits and twelve cups of heavily sugared tea isn’t a balanced diet? 

I wonder if Gwyneth Paltrow’s ‘modern lifestyle brand’ Goop has a solution to Mother’s dietary problem? I plug in the phrase – ’diets for seniors’ – into the site’s search bar but it returns nothing. Clearly, Goop isn’t geared to the challenges of the older generation, but I bookmark an article there about someone called Wim Hof, who is a specialist in Breathwork, a new way of relaxing from the daily grind, in the belief I need to investigate anything which may help me battle my middle aged anxieties. 

Although Mother’s weight is stable, it is a constant worry that Mother doesn’t eat more.  I’ve looked at the NHS guidance and wonder if I can persuade her to eat more of the foodstuffs they recommend.

‘How about porridge?’

‘Only for Scots.”

‘Peanut butter?”

‘For American children.’

 ‘Avocado on toast.’

 ‘Too water intensive.’

‘I just want you to stay healthy,’ I despair.

‘I just want you to mind your own business.’

A recent study has shown that those who eat at least half of their daily calories in the morning are healthier. I suggest she adopts it as a breakfast regime for a week and in return I’ll stop my nagging.

“A regime’s is something you find at Butlin’s or a concentration camp. I’m not keen on either,’ she says. “However, how about sausages? We haven’t had them in a while?”

The reason she hasn’t had a sausage for a while is because they became a banned substance in our house under the new Heathy Foods Regulations written by my Wife and passed with the support of my children at the start of the year by a clear majority of three to one.

Not only are sausages a processed meat, they have nitrates, sodium and fat in them, which I am told are bad for you. I eat them whenever I can, especially in a sandwich, but only when alone and at cafes more than two tube stops from home in case anyone I know sees me. 

Asking me to bring home sausages is no different to asking me to smuggle in an illegal substance. Nevertheless, a few days later, I am grilling sausages for lunch. I have interrogated the butcher about additives and the meat’s provenance, and I am convinced these sausages are about as healthy and ethical as a sausage can be.  

‘Do you remember you godfather John, ‘asks my Mother from the dining table, shaking tomato sauce onto two slices of bread and casting aside the real tomatoes and lettuce which I had draped over the bread.

‘Yes.’

Divorce left my god father bereft of the love of his life and any culinary interests apart from bangers, as he called sausages. He was found dead of a heart attack outside the door of his flat gripping a shopping bag with three packets of them in it.    

‘Wouldn’t have approved of you grilling those sausages. Always fried them.’

Mother has no sense of the risks I have taken bringing sausages into the house. But rather than take umbrage, I take a big Wim Hoff style ‘Breathwork’ and console myself that by criticising my cooking she’s returning to one of her traditional Motherly roles in the family psychodrama – the Critical Cook – and that is good enough for now and, somehow, reassuring.

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Can’t Hear, Won’t Hear

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I’m waiting, shamefacedly, for my appointment with the audiologist at a leading high street retailer where Mother bought her hearing aid. The staff eye me furtively because this is my sixth appointment in a fortnight which they know can only mean one thing: Mother still refuses to believe her hearing aid works. They’re right.

I suspect the appointment is running late because most of the staff are out back drawing straws to decide which unfortunate has to talk to me. They’re probably muttering under their breath ‘Wish He’d Gone to Boots’ and cursing their successful TV advertising campaign.

Mother has issued me my battle orders. Either they fix it, or she gets a refund. The shop consistently says there is nothing wrong with the hearing aid but she says it hasn’t improved her hearing. It’s a common complaint among seniors, apparently, but a weak case for a refund. However, the staff, whom I have come to regard almost as family over the last fortnight, are caring and considerate. They may take pity on me and give me a refund if only to shift a relentlessly unsatisfiable customer to a competitor. 

I’m not unsympathetic with Mother, though. Alexa can hear me order pot noodles from six foot, but her hearing aids can’t pick up me asking if she wants a cup of tea from two. Why can’t Alexa make hearing aids? Perhaps there’s a demographic injustice here waiting for the right person to champion it. ‘Ear Rights’?

I am sure that if Dario Fo, the Italian playwright were still alive, he’d be writing a new version of his Marxist farce ‘Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay’, only it would be renamed ‘Can’t Hear, Won’t Hear’. Mother would be his co-author and lead actor.

The original play featured the looting of a supermarket as workers protested at the soaring cost of living. ‘Can’t Hear, Won’t Hear!’ would climax with an angry mob of nonagenarians requisitioning stocks of capitalist hearing aids and stamping them to pieces under the furious heels of their walking sticks and zimmer frames.

Set in a coastal town filled with retirees attracted by the sea air and a network of soft tarmac motability scooter friendly lanes, the new version would star Mother as the leader of a group of OAPs no longer willing to suffer overpriced and underperforming hearing aids.

The focus for their anger would be ‘Hear Here’, the town’s largest retailer of hearing aids, owned by a careless capitalist known as the ‘Audiologist’ who owns the local hearing aid cartel. He has a perma-tan and a yellow comb-over, which suspiciously never flutters even during the towns’ stormy winter gales.

In the penultimate scene of the play, he would get his comeuppance. Members of the Bowls, Bridge and Golf clubs have gathered as one on the promenade, walking sticks bristling like spears, dentures chattering with anger. Mother rouses her troops to revolt.

‘The hegemony of the Audiologist must end. We reject batteries, which barely last an episode of the ‘Antique Roadshow’ and pink ear moulds which embarrass us. Today, we will set our hearing free.’

Some of the mob chant in agreement ‘Here Here’, others point at the Audiologist’ shop and shout ‘No. There.

There.’

The shop is their Bastille. They shuffle towards it singing a croaky version of ‘Do you hear the people singing’ from the musical ‘Les Misérables’ and from the side streets, their sons and daughters join them to stand shoulder to shoulder in their fight for aural liberation.

In the last scene, the mob of seniors standing around a pyre of plastic hearing aids. On top of the pyre is the Audiologist, bound. He begs them to let him down. Mother stands with a flaming torch in her hands next to the moulded mound.

‘Do we hear his plea?’

As one, the revolutionaries take their hearing aids out of their ears and toss them on them onto the pyre and turn their faces to the sea as Mother leans her flame towards the pyre. Curtain falls. 

I am wondering if I have accidentally invented a new theatrical genre Third Age Agitprop, when one of the staff comes up to me.

‘Come through, please. Sorry to have kept you waiting.’

The senior audiologist looks up from her PC, as I come into the room.

‘Good morning, Mr -. We’ve had another look at the device. It is working according to our tests. However, I wonder if it would be better all-round if we just took this on the chin and gave your Mother a full refund? What do you say?’

‘Here, here,’ I say.

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Rice pudding killed my Father

I am making chocolate rice pudding when my Mother asks me if I plan to poison her. She’s crept up next to me at the stove and is pointing at the pudding with a wooden spoon.  

‘Not yet. Though if you stir the pudding while I am trying to mix the rice with the melted butter and sugar, I can’t guarantee anything,’ I say. I get very anxious whenever anyone stands close to me while I am cooking.

‘Don’t you remember it was rice pudding that did for your father?’ she says.

She’s right. Rice pudding killed my father. A grain or two of milk sodden rice slipped past his trachea and blossomed into clostridium difficile, the super bug. The doctors sucked on his lungs and pricked him full of antibiotics, but he was old and frail.  After a few days the bug shut him down.

A year or so before, he had been diagnosed with throat cancer. He survived the operation but the muscles in his throat were so weak afterwards that he never ate solid food again.

My father loved cooking and eating. If he were still alive, he would self-identify as a gourmet and a gourmand. So, his final year dining on mashed foods and semi-liquid puddings was at least as humiliating as the other indignities he had to bear during that time: unable to dress, unable to walk and wearing diapers.

I pour a glass of Cointreau and a handful of white chocolate chips into the pan and keep stirring.

‘It wasn’t the way he’d have chosen to go. He never liked sweet things or desserts. If he’d had a choice, he would have rather choked on a boeuf bourguignon or something classically French.’

This could be a joke or a statement of fact. It is perfectly possible my foodie father would have spent most of his final year lying on his bed thinking about his last meal, like many a condemned man before him.  

But the question which has hooked me is not what my father would have preferred to choke on but why my Mother has asked if I am planning to kill her? 

I haven’t studied Freud, but everyone knows there’s no such thing as an innocent joke. Could it be making a chocolate rice pudding is actually a subliminal act of aggression, even something Oedipal?

‘I think he’d have chosen Roquefort and French bread,’ I say, deciding to let Oedipus go and follow the flow of my Mother’s macabre conversation.

‘Snails swimming in garlic and butter,’ says my Mother, jauntily.

‘Both. With steak frites in between. A three-course meal was the least he deserved, ‘I say. We’re both smiling at the thought.

‘I remember a Roald Dahl story in which a woman murders her husband with a frozen leg of lamb and then eats the lamb to destroy the evidence,’ says my Wife, coming at the conversation from a different angle, but one I can’t help feel is equally laden with Freudian menace only for me.

‘Meat is murder,’ says my vegetarian Son, chipping in.

‘If I were going to murder Granny, I would probably use old eggs under cooked. Or lightly cooked sprouts, which are a breeding ground for bacteria. I was reading about them the other day,’ I say cheerfully.

The conversation stops. The room fills with silence. The rice pudding pops. I’ve gone one step beyond.

‘How does the pudding look,’ says my Wife, after a short while.

‘Not bad,’ says my Mother. ‘His father would have been proud of him. It looks better than the stuff I used to give him out of a tin.’ 

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Frank Sinatra?

Mother is reading about Margaret Mackie, the pensioner, whose version of ‘My Way’ has been in the charts recently. Mrs Mackie has dementia. But it hasn’t stopped her giving Ed Sheeran, James Blunt and Stormzy a run for their royalties while raising awareness of dementia. 

‘Good for her. You can’t beat old-fashioned pluck. You don’t see enough of it these days,’ she says, holding up the newspaper as evidence. 

Mother admires Pluck. It became an endangered species in the UK after its habitat was destroyed by the Swinging Sixties and the sexual revolution. It is now as rare as a Tory Remainer and seldom found except in people over the age of sixty-five. Mother has it in spades. Sometimes, she tells me, it’s the only thing which gets her out of her bed in the morning.

‘It proves you shouldn’t write us oldies off.’

‘Nobody writes you off, Granny,’ says my Daughter gently.

‘He does,’ she says pointing at me. ‘Won’t even help me with the TV without a putting a condescending smirk on his face.’

I would like to refute this. But the truth is I have had to explain to her how to use the TV remote controls four times this week and my patience may have frayed. The last time was to help her watch ‘Judge Rinder’, a TV programme which I think is a threat to the public’s confidence in our justice system and whose host may one day win a Nobel Prize in Smugness.  In the circumstances, was it really so wrong for me to let slip my frustration? Surely, the Judge himself would urge Mother to be more lenient? 

Instead of trying to justify my tender, but inept condescension, I switch the conversation back to brave Margaret Mackie.

‘‘My Way’ is the most popular song at funerals. Do you think she will play Sinatra’s version at her funeral or her own?’

‘Jesus wept,’ says my wife.

I have started digging a different hole for myself. Mother revolts whenever funerals are mentioned. Luckily, my son, who always sings in the bathroom and sometimes in school musicals, pipes up.

‘How about we write a musical about Granny’s life?’

‘What would we call it?’ asks my wife, supporting her little chick’s creative twitch.

‘The Long Goodbye,’ says Mother, darkly. 

‘That’s a movie not a musical,’ says my son, who wants to stay focused on his idea.

‘It could be both,’ I say.

I have my open mouth and smiley eyes emoji face on as I say this. I hope by supporting both of their suggestions I can take a place at the constructive centre of this family debate rather than its outer ring, which is where I normally am.  

‘Why don’t we start with one single song like Mrs. Mackie and then go from there? A whole musical will take a long time to do,’ suggests my daughter, demonstrating her mother’s pragmatism. 

‘That’s very sensible. Squeeze every drop out of me while as you can. There are no guarantees that I’ll be around if we attempt anything more long term,’ says Mother, determined not to let go of her grump, even with the beloved grandchildren.

Mrs Mackie would admire her pluck for not giving up the fight.

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International Women’s Day

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We’re celebrating International Women’s Day by searching for the Lost Batteries of Mother’s Hearing Aid, which sounds like a rare Indiana Jones DVD, but actually is a regular and tedious domestic ritual in which we hunt for the missing bronze batteries which power Mother’s hearing aid.  

‘They’re mischievous little buggers,’ says my Mother, whenever the latest goes AWOL. 

My wife is downstairs excavating the sofas for these self-isolating pellets, which are a fidget to fit and as dedicated to escaping their hearing aid as Steve McQueen is to exiting Stalag Luft III in the Great Escape.

I am upstairs scrubbing my right cheek on the sisal carpet, my head half under Mother’s bed. There are so many unidentifiable packets and packages under Mother’s bed that finding the batteries is as hard as spotting doubloons on a sunken ship. I peer into the fluffy gloom hoping a shard of half-light might refract off their shiny bronze skins and give their position away.

‘I feel like I’m snorkelling on a wreck,’ I say, tongue half in cheek.

‘The only wrecks down there are relics of my life,’ says Mother. ‘Please focus. I’ve lost six batteries this week and I can’t afford for this to carry on.’

‘There’s a lemon drizzle here,’ I call up from under the bed.

‘Is it beyond the eat by date?’ she asks.

Lemon drizzle cake is her favourite. I stretch my hand out towards the faint yellow glow of icing sugar behind a cellophane window.

‘Still good. Coming up for air.’

I stack the lemon drizzle cake on a growing tower of biscuits, sweets and sandwiches on her bedside table. There’s enough here for the Millennium Convention of Mad Hatters. Or enough to reassure an old woman worried about the threat of Covid-19 to feed her cake addiction.

Actually, Mother’s hoarding habits pre-date Covid-19. She’s been stashing food in her bedroom since before Christmas. I’ve found chocolate bars luxuriating in a bed of silk stockings in her chest of drawers. Packets of tea biscuits like paratroopers next to the picture frames on her bookshelves. Maltesers snoozing under the drape on her bed.  Zoologically speaking, she’s behaving like a gerbil. I recognise the parallels because the children had one once which used to hide sunflower seeds in stashes around its cage like a drug dealer fearful of a police raid.

‘Any batteries?’ she asks returning me to the main task.

Slowly, I lower myself on my knees and unroll my stomach and chest onto the carpet.

‘Once more under the bed, dear friends, once more….’ I jest.

‘Can’t resist making every little thing a drama, can you?’ she says.

I’ve got a red rash on my cheek and a sore neck. At my age, getting down, stretching out and then getting back up again is more than a bit of a drama, it’s a piece of civil engineering. If Henry V keeps me motivated, surely that’s a small price to pay? Nevertheless, I do what I’m told. I roll out onto the floor like a supplicant and inch myself into the under-reef of the bed. Suddenly, a flash of bronze catches my eye like a darting fish. My first grab pushes the battery away, but I get my fingers around it and without lifting it, drag it back.

‘Gotcha,’ I cry. 

For a while, like a sea elephant, I roll around trying to get up without losing hold of the battery or my dignity.

‘How many?’ says Mother, like a pirate waiting for the plunder to be counted.   

‘One little beauty.’

‘Better than none.’ 

The battery is sitting in a cup made by thumb and index finger like a bronze gem in a jeweller’s ring setting. I drop it into her shaking hands. Then a sharp pain runs up my back and my neck muscles set solid as cement. My head becomes a weathervane stuck in a north westerly direction. I roll onto my back and wonder if this is God’s way of suggesting I take up yoga. 

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Reeling in the years

There is a black and white picture of Mother on our sitting room wall. She’s in an editing suite. It is 1941. She is working at Denham Studios as a third assistant editor on a film called ‘One of Our Aircraft is Missing’.

In her left hand she is gently pinching a length of film tape and with her right hand she is reeling the tape onto a wheel. Her dark black hair is long and combed back from her forehead and she is smiling at the photographer, as if the War did not exist. In the background, there is an Emergency Exit sign.

The picture hangs alongside a cluster of other family photographs on the wall next to the entrance to our kitchen. The children have nicknamed it the ‘Wonder Wall’. This is not a reference to the Oasis song but to the fact that when they look at the old pictures of me, they wonder how I ever got so badly out of shape.

‘You actually have hair all over your head in this one,’ says my son, slightly shocked, looking at a picture of me at university.

‘You’ve only got one chin in this one,’ says my daughter, pointing at me at an industry awards ceremony. ‘It must have been just after this that you started to let yourself go.’

‘That wall is meant to be a Museum celebrating our family, not a reason for body shaming me,’ I say.

‘More like a mausoleum in your case,’ says my son.

My wife tells me I should not be offended by their disparaging comments about my current body shape. She thinks the comments are meant affectionately.

‘Anyway, they can’t help it. They’re at an age when they’re hormonally programmed to be body conscious. On top of that, they’re bombarded every day by social media images of young people with perfect hair and well-toned torsos. Is it surprising they find old pictures of you disappointing in comparison?’

This is not the reassurance I was hoping for. But I agree that social media and ‘Love Island’ have got a lot to answer for.

‘You can’t blame ‘Love Island’ for your lack of exercise or the second portions of spaghetti carbonara you’ve longingly wound around your fork all these years,’ says my wife.

In the picture, Mother is not the rice paper thin person she is now. She is a seventeen-year-old with puppy fat cheeks. I wonder if there is a genetic excuse for my ever-growing jowls?

‘Not really, darling. You were always a pig when it came to food,’ says Mother. ‘Don’t you remember at school they nicknamed you ‘wobbler’?’’

I do. Wobbler. Because when I tried to run, I looked like a Telly Tuby chasing Usain Bolt.

‘Your father wasn’t very sporty, unless you count golf as a sport, which would be ridiculous. But he loved cooking. He was very proud of you because you cooked your first souffle aged ten.’

Out of her bag, Mother pulls a black and white photograph of me on the balcony of the flat where I was born. I am about six. I am staring intently at a large plate of food and have a white dishcloth tied around my neck as a bib. My elbows are level with my shoulders and I have speared my knife and fork into the food like a surgeon. The photo is too faded now to identify the food on the plate but whatever it is, I am looking forward to eating it. A lot.

‘Why don’t you hang this picture up on the wall with the other family photos?’ asks Mother.

‘Stowin’ away the time?’

I find myself mouthing the line from the Steely Dan song ‘Reeling in the Years’. 

‘I don’t understand,’ she says.

‘Hanging it up is a way of stowing away the past. Only in full view.’

‘If you want to be pretentious that’s up to you. I just thought it would be nice to see how sweet you were as a young child.’

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Kitchen sink

Mother’s pink pyjamas are soaking in my favourite copper stock pot on the stove. Meanwhile, she is kneading her underwear in the kitchen sink like Mary Berry with a batch of sour dough.

I can’t say I’m chuffed by the sight. The stock pot is French and very expensive. Its tanned sheen stirs up memories of summers in Provence and when I touch it I feel like King Arthur with Excalibur. With it in my hands, my mediocre cooking is made magical and I can do battle with even the most complex of recipes with hope in my heart.

Looking at it, now, filled with old pyjamas and a veloute of soup suds, I feel its magic draining away as fast as the dark water Mother is tipping down the sink. Why is she doing this? We have a laundry room. The washing machine and drier are working. Normally, she throws her dirty clothes into the communal laundry basket and they get washed along with everyone else’s. Is she dissatisfied with the way we’ve been washing her clothes? Is this a sign of early onset OCD?

‘What are you up to?’ I say from the kitchen doorway.

‘Have you gone blind?’ she snaps.

‘Why are you washing your clothes in the kitchen sink?’

‘To save your wife from having to do it. What’s wrong with you this morning? You’ve come downstairs without your brain.’

When it comes to the laundry, I’m pretty woke. I do my fair share. At least, that’s how I see it. I certainly do more than when I was a student, which is some form of definition of progress, surely? But she’s missed my point. It’s not who’s doing the laundry that worries me. It’s why she’s doing it in my stock pot and the kitchen sink?

‘To save the planet. A single load in a washing machine creates 600g of CO2. If we wash our clothes less often and at a lower temperature, then we may be able to save the planet. I decided to cut out the machines altogether.’

I admire the fact she cares about climate at her age. But does this excuse her defiling my favourite stock pot? I remember my son ranting on about the ‘outrageous’ energy consumption of washing machines and tumble driers as he tried to persuade us to recycle the tumble drier and use a washing line instead.

‘If you want to go to school in wet clothes for half the year be my guest,’ said my wife. ‘But if the tumble drier goes, so do I.’

No husband in his right mind would even consider trading in his wife for a washing line. Nor would any child who understood the proper geography between bread and butter. But my Mother has clearly taken my Son’s son argument to heart.

‘We can fight climate change without ruining my copper cooking pots,’ I suggest.

‘We should wash clothes less frequently. I’ve worn those pyjamas for over ten days,’ she says proudly pointing at her pink pyjamas.

My stomach tightens. I remember a line from ‘Lipstick Vogue’ by Elvis Costello: ‘some words don’t allow to be spoken’. Something sacred has been changed forever. The Turin shroud has become a dishcloth, the Holy Grail a dishwasher. I can never make a bechamel sauce or a bouillabaisse in that stock pot again. Now, it’s only fit to boil eggs. I am as sad as a Parisian watching Notre Dame burn.

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Much Ado About Nothing

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I used not to believe that life imitates art. But I do now because Mother is telling me about her courtship with my father.

It’s as if they had modelled their early relationship on Benedict and Beatrice in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Mother playing the role of the feisty, young Beatrice and my father Benedict, the aristocratic wit and marriage hater.

Like the characters in the play, they spent their early meetings throwing barbed comments at each other like rival artillery brigades, their courtship more fight than flirt.

 ‘I first met him at a dinner party. He was so arrogant that after a few exchanges I simply turned my back on him. Refused to speak to him for the rest of the meal.’

Picture the scene. It’s Chelsea in the late Forties. Everyone’s dressed up for dinner and how you hold your knife and fork says more about you than your bank balance. Turning your back on someone at dinner is a public declaration of war.

‘What did he do to deserve that?’ I ask, not sure if I really want to know. Every time we discuss my father with her, I feel I’m walking through a minefield.

‘He told he was holding a drinks party the following week and asked me if I could ask my sister to it. He suggested that if I could persuade her to come then I could come too. Hardly, flattering, don’t you think?’

Mother’s sister was a successful actress at the time and married to a film director. She was a minor celebrity and would have added some cache to father’s cocktail party.

I struggle to see my father as this social snob. But I can see him saying something as ham fisted as this. He was a shy man and didn’t always handle social situation’s well.

I want to know why she was there in the first place. She comes from a large, working class Irish family with barely a bean to their name.

‘How come you were hob knobbing in Chelsea given your lowly start in life,’ I say, not meaning to sound patronising but failing. 

‘Thanks to my sister’s connections and my looks. I was modelling then. Being good looking has always been a passport to social mobility,’ she says.

‘Sounds like an episode of ‘Made in Chelsea’ with Grandpa imitating that stuck up p***k Spencer Matthews. Frankly, it’s amazing they ever got married,’ says my Daughter, later.

I am not sure which one is Spencer Matthews, but I know the programme is a loathsome homage to vanity and the social neuroses among the over tanned trustafarians of SW3. I remember lecturing the children on the lack of wit and moral fibre of its participants and begging them to switch over to something more wholesome like Blue Planet. Unsuccessfully.

‘Must be tough for you,’ says Son, as he cuts into a Linda McCartney red onion and rosemary sausage. ‘All those years telling us not to watch the programme because the people were so self-obsessed and stupid. And now it turns out that you were ‘Made in Chelsea’ yourself. How does that feel?’

I want to answer but I can’t find any words. Instead, a picture of Derek Underwood, the England cricketer, comes to mind. His off stump is being wrenched out of the ground by a ferocious fast ball from Michael Holding and he is turning towards the pavilion, utterly defeated.

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Brexit Junkie

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Brexit made Mother a political junkie. It put the drama back into democracy and the ping-pong into Parliament as far as she was concerned. Last year, she consumed five to six hours a day of political Brexit badinage like a teenager drinking birthday shots and went cold turkey on her usual diet of daytime war time movie re-runs without any regrets.

She studied select committee meetings in a quest to understand what will really happen to the country after Brexit and shouted along to the drama of the set piece debates in the Commons. Most of all, she fell in love with PMQs, which is still her ‘appointment to view’ programme of the week.

‘I don’t know why they keep criticizing it for being like Punch & Judy, darling. It’s far more vicious and much, much more entertaining.’

She’s admitting something most of us don’t have the courage to accept. PMQs is popular precisely because it is a bear pit brawl.

‘Is Bercow on today?’ she says ‘I do so love to hate him. Suffers classic short man syndrome. Like Napoleon,’ she says.

‘He’s left Parliament,’ I say.

This is bad news as far as Mother is concerned. She worries the new Speaker won’t be the same value for money. Worse, things may slip back to the boring old days of faux politesse and stupefying procedural interventions. Bercow going is like ‘Dirty Den’ leaving Eastenders who will be the new bad boy?

‘It’s the end of an era,’ she says sadly.

In the absence of Bercow, she now gets her dose of politics from the Daily Politics because she adores Jo Coburn, who is the sort of daughter she’d have wanted if she had ever had one.

‘She knows how to keep them on their toes,’ she says admiringly, as she dips into a pack of Ritz biscuits, her snack du jour. According to Mother, keeping people on their toes is a skill every girl should learn at an early age.

‘Got him on that! That’ll teach him for not giving a straight answer.’

She likes the way Coburn let’s the panelists trade blows, too.

‘She knows how to get them to do her dirty work for her. Well done,’ she applauds.

I can’t remember Mother ever being interested in politics before now. But I do remember once going out with my father to deliver leaflets for the local Conservative Party. I think it was February 1974. After one road he gave up and dumped the leaflets into a bin.

‘Too cold,’ he said. ‘Let’s go to the pub.’

I was slightly shocked. My dad was a political litter lout. But I was flattered: he wanted to hang out with me. I replay the memory to Mother. Is it true?

‘Probably.’ She says. ‘Given the choice between the pub or politics, there was only going to be one winner. Ted Heath lost that election. It was probably your father’s fault.’

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Last Boxing Day

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It’s Boxing Day. Mid-morning. I’m still in bed but I hear Christmas Carols playing and picture my wife having a coffee with her mum downstairs. She’ll be drinking from the recyclable, foldable coffee cup which son gave her as a Christmas present because she wants him to see her using it the minute he wakes up. She’s signalling: ‘I love your Christmas gift so much I couldn’t wait to use it.’

Which is just as well because he was up till 3am playing ‘Mortal Kombat’. Her chances of her seeing him before tea-time are slim.

I hear the scraping of tables and chairs. My Wife is moving things around. Putting things away. Soon, she and my Mother-in-Law will decide the day’s battleplan. This is, after all, only day two of the Rorke’s Drift Christmas siege and an overseas regiment of relatives arrive this lunchtime. Beds will need to be changed. A smorgasbord of new nibbles will need to be laid out and fresh bottles of Prosecco loaded onto the wine rack in the fridge, like mortar shells ready to fire.  

There is no point me getting involved in the battle plan. I’m infantry. In fact, I’m catering corp. My job to pass plates and pour drinks, not to reason why. There’s no rush, either. The CO knows how to ‘Get Christmas Done’, as Boris Johnson would say, and soon enough, I’ll be instructed to get up, find an ironed shirt and comb my hair. The call to arms is inevitable. 

I hear my bedroom door opening slowly and think the moment has come.  I shut my eyes quickly and pretend to be asleep. If I’m caught with my eyes open, it will raise all sorts of questions. Have you had a bath yet? Don’t you realise they’ll be here in an hour? But if I pretend to be asleep still, I can blame the alarm and spring into action purposeful and apologetic. In mature moments, I realise I am as bad as Private Hook in the movie ‘Zulu’ who hides in the army hospital when his colleagues are fighting for their lives. We’re both Class A malingerers.

But it isn’t my Wife coming into the bedroom, it’s my Son who creeps under the blankets next to me. The moment is poignant with sweet memories of when he was like a little blond teddy bear, climbing into our bed to open his Christmas presents, so many years ago.

‘Was it always like this?’ he asks, sleepily.

‘You mean Christmas?’ I say putting my arm over him.

‘No, I mean you not pulling your weight at Christmas. We were discussing this last night after you stomped off.’

‘Stomped off?’

‘You ruined ‘Call the Midwife’ with your moaning even though you know both Grannies love it. When Mum asked you to shut up you stormed off into the kitchen.’

‘I was just pointing out some pretty fundamental flaws in the plot.’

‘Was it necessary though?’

‘How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!’

‘Classic. You can’t handle the truth, so you get all pompous and start quoting Shakespeare or someone to shift the conversation away from the fact that you’re in the wrong.’

I wonder when he went from being a teddy bear to teddy boy but, at the same time, feel a little parental pride at his analysis. He’s right. I keep a collection of phrases to scare people off when I feel cornered, which I use like a skunk uses its spray.

Wife opens the door. For a moment, there’s a smile on her face as she remembers the old days of family snuggles and a bed full of wrapping paper. But the smile disappears as she realises that there are Things to Be Done to Get Christmas Done and she must make them happen.

‘I’m afraid we don’t have time for this bromance right now. I need you both downstairs dressed. Sharpish. Comb your hair and find a clean shirt. Preferably ironed.’

‘I was just saying we should do exactly that to Dad,’ says my Son, like a sycophant.

‘Is it time to reinforce the North Wall?’ I say, knowing Wife will get the reference to the movie Zulu and hoping it will earn me more brownie points than Son’s shameless grovelling.  

‘Oh dear. I thought you’d given up on that Zulu movie fantasy years ago,’ says my Wife, shaking her head.

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New Year’s Resolutions

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It’s New Year’s Day. Everyone is slouching in front of the TV. Only the TV is off, because one of my Wife’s New Year resolutions is that the family should watch less TV.

She hasn’t quantified exactly how many hours of TV that means we can watch this year or how it’s going to be monitored. Nor are we clear if we will each get our own allocation of hours or if there is just one giant family budget to draw down on.

Son suggests we use a model like the EU Emissions Trading Scheme with each of us getting a fixed number of TV hours at the start of the year which we can use up or trade with each other.

‘It’s carbon offsetting only with TV hours instead of carbon units. It will create a more flexible model better suited to the TV viewing needs of each individual member of the family while capping our household TV consumption.’ 

Daughter asks if she can sell all her TV units now because she is back at university next week so can’t be expected to participate in the scheme if she is not here. She could also do with the money.

‘I don’t think the trade would be financial,’ I say, remembering the trauma when the children tried to trade stamps with each other.

‘I’d be happy to act as the trading platform. Keep tabs on the hours. Track trades. Though I may need some seed capital to underwrite the initial start-up costs,’ says Son.  

Mother hasn’t said anything yet. But she’s tuned in. I think she is trying to understand if the proposed cap on TV might actually be serious. If so, we can expect a fight. Clearly, her TV consumption can’t be included under our family’s TV Viewing Cap even if she is the largest consumer in the house. Asking her to cut back her TV consumption is as pointless as asking the Chinese to stop building coal powered generators.

‘Shall we discuss it all over a beer down the pub?’ I say trying to break the conversation up before things get tricky.  

‘I thought you were doing Dry January?’ says my Wife.

Eleven hours into the New Year and I’ve already forgotten my only New Year’s resolution. The first sign of family difficulty and my sub-conscious is ordering a session IPA.

‘You’re right. But I’ll have something non-alcoholic.’

‘Let’s stay here, put the fire on and do something together. The Quiz of the Year or a puzzle, perhaps?’

The children groan. Mother is silently assessing the situation.

‘Like the old days,’ my Wife appeals.

‘In the old days, we’d have watched a movie together. Now we can never find something we all want to watch,’ says my Son.

‘No TV. Until tonight. That’s that,’ says Wife, picking up the TV remote with a fierce grip. It’s clear it will be a fight to the death if anyone tries to take it off her.

‘Quite right,’ says Mother, in an overly stern voice. ‘No TV till tonight. It’s bad for you.’

Quite why Mother’s so keen on backing Wife’s ‘No TV’ policy is not immediately obvious. But she admires decisive parenting even though she herself was laissez faire as a parent.

‘If only I’d been as strong willed with you and your brother about the TV. You both watched far too much of it. Planet of the Apes and all that other rubbish. I blame your father he was never firm enough with you.’

My Wife’s ‘NO TV’ resolution has reminded Mother of identical ones she issued years ago to curb my excessive youthful TV habits. My Wife quickly hides her face behind the newspaper. Daughter runs for the kitchen her eyes crinkled up. I think she’s crying with laughter. Son is googling something.

‘Planet of the Apes. 1968. Charlton Heston. It’s on tonight. Nice one, Granny. How about it everyone? We’ve finally found something even Dad will like.’

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Christmas Crackers

We didn’t watch the film ‘Zulu’ this Christmas. Instead, we relived it. Not literally, of course. But, as wave after wave of friends and relatives hurled themselves upon our hospitality, continuously probing for shortfalls in our goodwill and our wine supplies, home felt like Rorke’s Drift, the beleaguered army post in the movie. 

There were moments when our defences were nearly breached and Christmas goodwill was reduced to the usual petty, family squabbling. The first breach nearly came when my son accused me of ‘an innovative form of parental cruelty’ because I’d bought him a new, Sony wireless speaker even though I know the WIFI in his bedroom hasn’t worked for six months.

‘What is it you Boomers don’t understand? Without WIFI it’s as dead as a Dodo,’ he spits. 

‘I understand why he may be feeling under valued?’ says my Wife, in the kitchen, where we have retreated to reorganise my defences.

‘What do you mean undervalued? That speaker is a Which magazine ‘Best Buy’ in the under £25 category. Surely, that counts for something?’

‘Not when you’ve been promising to call Virgin for six months to fix his WIFI and nothing’s actually happened,’ says Wife.

The second wave of attack comes at Christmas lunch, when Mother complains my pommes dauphinoise is as hard as rock because I refused to pat the potatoes dry before cooking them.

‘I told him repeatedly, you can’t cook them damp. But did he listen? No, when it comes to potatoes, he thinks he knows best. I’m Irish, for Christ Sake’s. Potatoes are something, I know a little about.’

Mother looks around the table to see if anyone will join her attack. But our guests can’t tell if she is joking or gone mad. Either way, getting pedantic with your host about how he cooks his potatoes is something they don’t want to get drawn on. The family isn’t breaking ranks on this one, either, even though Mother is right – the pommes dauphinoise is seriously undercooked.

‘They taste cooked to me,’ says my daughter ‘Perhaps it’s your teeth that are the problem, Granny?’

Is this what people mean by Christmas Cheer? The unconditional support you give to those you love even when you know they are wrong and what you’re actually doing is lying? Or is this something more sinister like Omarta, the loyalty of the Mafia? Either way, I make a mental note to donate another £20 to Daughter’s fund-raising for the forthcoming London Marathon.

Mother has been excused watching the Queen’s speech. But she has lost her battle to ban Christmas Crackers because she has heard all the jokes before. My wife insists she needs Christmas crackers if she is going to ‘Get Christmas Done’, which is our Yuletide mantra.

‘It’s not the fact the jokes are awful. Or that we’ve heard them before. The point is that reading out the jokes is a Rite of Passage for children. This is a chance for them to tell a joke publicly in a safe family context and to an appreciative audience. It’s a steppingstone to understanding the power of comedy in an adult, social context.’

It’s not often that Wife talks like she’s reading from a sociology book. But when she does, I listen hard, because normally there’s a lesson for me when she finishes. This time it’s clear to me that Wife has discovered the Missing Link in the early psychological development of every comic in the universe – the Christmas Cracker.

‘Do you think Christmas Crackers account for the comic success of Michael McIntyre?’ I ask.

‘I doubt it, darling. He can hardly be said to understand the power of comedy in an adult context,’ she says.

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Mother sets the House on fire

It is essential Mother doesn’t feel like a lodger in our home, according to my Wife. If this experiment in family life is to work, she must have full citizenship, not just settled status.

‘She has to feel this home is as much hers as ours. We must encourage her to have her friends around. Have parties. Be herself’

‘What about sleep overs?’ says my Son.

‘Them, too,’ says Wife refusing to rise to his bait, while I imagine half a dozen elderly people here for a sleep over. Would they wrapped argue over which Cary Grant movie to watch and stay up all night wrapped in their sleeping bags like teenagers?

‘We need an online booking system to manage this new situation. I’ve got a few parties booked over Christmas and we don’t want diary conflicts,’ says my Daughter, who’s on a flying visit from University.’

‘Which parties? Where?’ I ask.

‘Here. Why else would I be suggesting a family booking system?’ says my Daughter, looking at me as if I’m an inferior species.

‘Try to keep up,’ says my Son. 

Later that week, Mother tells me that two of her former neighbours, who now live in South Africa, are coming at the weekend to see her.

‘Are they staying with us?’ I ask hesitantly.

‘If they were staying, I would have asked your wife first. Just because I’m old doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten my manners,’ she snaps. ‘It’s just lunch.’

‘Would you like me to do anything to help?’

‘Yes. Make sure everyone’s out by 12.30. I don’t want you fussing around me or the boy slumming in front of the TV playing one of his ghastly video games. Just buy me some lemons and makes sure there’s a full bottle of gin in the cupboard.’

It is clear Mother has embraced Wife’s philosophy of ‘Mi casa, su casa’. In fact, it feels like she’s taking it one step further. Not only has she asked friends into our home, but she’s throwing us out, which feels more ‘Mid Witch Cuckoo’ than ‘Su Casa’. I wonder how this will go down with Wife.

‘Perfect,’ she says. ‘This is just how it should be. She wants to be in control of her party and to have some privacy. You can take me out for lunch.’

‘What about me?’ says my Son. His usual Saturday morning routine of slobbing around on the games console is in tatters.

‘You’ll have to be up and dressed before mid-day for once. It’s nothing to be scared of,’ replies my Wife.  I can’t resist chipping in. 

‘Daddy will be there for you through this trauma. Just like we were when the internet went down for two hours last week and those other big turning points in your life.’

‘Boomers,’ he sneers and walks out.

Wife and I come back at about teatime to find Mother triumphant from her lunch party. Three hours of uninterrupted, old fashioned gossip about the old days, the old neighbours and my old man. What’s not to like?

‘They loved your house, by the way. They think you’ve got marvelous taste and soft furnishings.’

I don’t need to turn around to know Mother is talking to my Wife not me.

‘They loved the new wood fire, especially. In South Africa they only need fires to barbecue on,’ she laughs.

‘Wood fire?’ says Wife alarmed.

‘Yes. I put some logs on the fire in case it went out. Such a wonderful, woody smell, isn’t it?’

The fire she’s referring to isn’t a real fire. It’s a ‘Wood Burner Gas Fire with Realistic Flame Effect’. Unfortunately, it looks so real Mother has been laying wood logs onto it. The smell is smouldering plastic. God knows what might have happened if the fire plastic wasn’t fire retardant.

Later, with Mother upstairs exhausted with fun, Wife sweeps up the ashes.

‘Thank God for EU safety standards. They could have been burnt alive. You must warn her about not doing it again.’

Mother’s sister died of severe burns after candles set her night gown alight. Telling her she’s almost burnt our house down will remind her of that. It’s going to make her feel foolish, too. Is that helpful? Will that stop her making the same mistake again or just humiliate her?  My Son, who has changed back into his pyjamas and is booting up the PS4, pipes up.

‘Shall I have a chat with her instead of Dad? It’s easier for me to tell her she’s a silly old bat than him and I won’t make it sound like a lecture.’

There are few moments when you realise how good your child rearing skills are. This is one of them.

‘Perfect, ‘I say. ‘Deal.’

‘Coward,’ says Wife, as I rush upstairs.

‘Just going to check if the insurance policy,’ I say. ‘Want to see if we’re covered for arson by elderly relatives.’

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Burning the evidence

Mother is sitting in the window leafing intently through a stack of loose leafed old photographs. She studies the picture on the front and then slowly turns it over to check the back like an archeologist gently handling an ancient artifact for clues. 

Her chair has high wooden armrests and a deep seat so the chair seems to swallow her. The light on her white hair looks ethereal and she’s so absorbed it takes a while time for her to realize I am in the doorway. When she does she snaps.

‘Don’t you know it’s rude not to knock before you come into someone’s bedroom? I thought I’d taught you better than that.’

‘You did. But I knocked three times and decided I couldn’t wait any longer.’

‘You’re as impatient as your brother,’ she sighs. ‘And as rude.’

Being as rude as my brother is as bad as it can get. It puts me at the top of the table in the League of Rudeness & Poor Manners alongside Prince Philip and Frankie Boyle. But she’s right. I shouldn’t have snuck in and spied on her.

‘Would you like me to get an album for those photographs?’ I ask shifting into compliant, helpful mode.

‘There’s none left,’ she says portentously.

This isn’t an answer to my question so I am confused. Is this a line from ‘Waiting for Godot’? Or the moment dementia took control?

 ‘Destroyed them all,’ she says.  

Acting runs in Mother’s family. Her sister was particularly successful at ‘treading the boards’, as my father called it. Mother is not beyond occasionally hamming things up, especially if she’s feeling bored or mischievous.

‘What are you talking about?’ I ask, gently.

She reminds me of one day in the early eighties when my brother came back from University and burnt all the photographs of us. He made a funeral pyre of them outside the garage while my parents were asleep. Unusually for him, he did a thorough job and set light to the negatives, too. I call him up to see if he remembers. He does, proudly.

‘Why did you do it?’ I ask. 

‘Self preservation.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘From five to fifteen Mother cut our hair,’ he says. ‘Only she wasn’t Vidal Sassoon. Bowl haircuts. In every photo.’

Embarrassed memories begin to stir. I remember a picture of my brother and me in pajamas standing next to our beds. I am holding our cat against my chest and my brother is pulling on its tail, one eye red from the camera’s flash. Mother is standing behind us ruffling our bowl haircuts. She’s smiling, proud of us and, perhaps, even of her hair handiwork.

‘Christ, she made us look like medieval monks,’ he says. ‘If those photos had got into the wrong hands, we’d have been ruined. Girl friends lost. Friends shamed. They were so embarrassing they could have even ruined careers. I did us both a favour.’

On the book shelf opposite her bed, there’s a photo of my god father, whisky glass in hand talking to my god mother who married an Argentine diplomat and was never short of corned beef during the Second World War. I wonder why she has chosen this photo to be the last thing she sees before she goes to sleep? I wonder if she remembers the picture of me and my brother and the cat having his tail pulled, if that’s what he was doing? I am about to ask her about all these things but then I hesitate and decide that some stones are best left unturned, some evidence best left destroyed.

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Mother Moves In

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I am hanging Mother’s paintings and pictures in my study. The study smells of drying paint and I have a headache. I am not sure if the ache is because of the paint’s volatile organic compounds or because I cannot hang a single painting straight.

I am frustrated because I’m not even winging it like I normally do with household chores. I have done some preparation. I have watched a Wickes DIY video on how to hang pictures (twice) and bought a new tape measure, plugs, picture wire and a hammer. I’ve put a pencil behind my ear like a DIY guru, in the hope that by living the part like a Method actor, I’ll be able to get the pictures up fast and efficiently. But after four hours only three mall pictures are on the wall. 

‘You’re not a natural at this DIY thing, are you?’ says my Wife from the doorway. ‘It all looks a little random.’ 

She’s right. There’s no rhyme or reason to the way the pictures are hanging.

‘I didn’t want it to look formal like an exhibition,’ I say lamely. 

I am hanging Mother’s pictures in my study because she moves in next week and my man cave is becoming her bedroom. She has called time on solo living.  It is the end of hesitation and the start of something new, though none of us is quite sure what.

Many of the photographs are from a shared past: departed aunts, uncles and godparents. Others are of unknown people who played a part in her life which I can only guess at.  They are from an age when men wore dinner jackets and women smoked through cigarette holders clasped in gloved hands.  

‘Cigarette holders came in different lengths for different situations. One for the theatre, one for dinner and so on. It was a more elegant age,’ she says pointing at a photograph of my father lighting a cigarette for her. They are at a party in a place she can no longer remember.

The study walls are too small to curate her entire life, of course. Tough choices have to be made. How many pictures to hang of the grandchildren versus husband? Is a photograph of our wedding day necessary when there are so many elsewhere in the house? Making these choices is stressful for her but she’s passed the decisions to me and I feel more like an ignorant museum curator than a caring son. 

Choosing the pictures for her bedroom is a small challenge compared to the sorting the rest of her possessions. We have agreed a plan to sort things into three groups: Keep, Donate or Dump. But she keeps redefining the categories or re-allocating things between them. Overnight one pile grows, another shrinks. It’s a border without customs controls.

I’ve booked a small van to bring her stuff over in two days. At this rate, I’ll need to hire a lorry instead. The whole house will be full of her stuff and tip from a shared home into a Museum for Mother. I wonder if the British Museum have a video, which could help me?

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Mother’s Religion is Cakeism

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Mother thinks Boris Johnson is right about cake. She supports having it and eating it like he does. She also tells me no British politician is stupid enough to let the trade negotiations damage the cake supply chain.

‘Cake shortages caused the French revolution. They won’t repeat that mistake. Anyway, Britain survived the War without panettone and we will do so again.’

I wonder when my Remain voting Mother morphed into a Johnson supporting cross between Mary Antionette and Geoffrey Boycott? I can forgive her questionable analysis of the causes of the French revolution but not knowing that panettone is a breaded loaf not a cake is unforgivable.

I am about to confront her with this when I remember I came round only to check she’s OK and not to waste time debating the impact of the Brexit trade negotiations on the global cake supply chain.

I offer to make her a cup of tea, instead. Her fridge is almost empty. A pint of milk sits next to a lemon drizzle cake, a Bakewell tart and four jam donuts. There’s a tin of tomato soup on the top shelf. Unless she is auditioning for an extreme episode of ‘Ready, Steady, Cook’ it’s clear her obsession for cake and other sweet things is more than just political.  

I decide it’s time for me to talk to her about getting some balance into her diet.

‘I worried you’re not eating enough,’ I say. ‘When did you start this cake thing?’

‘When did you start being a nosey parker?’ she replies.

Undaunted, I suggest she needs to include whole grains, proteins and more fat in her diet. I say that cakes are not bad per se but should eaten in moderation.

‘We need to make your diet less Willy Wonka and more Yotam Ottolenghi.’

Mother falls silent during my sermon. In fact, she has turned off her hearing aid and jacked up the volume on the TV. It’s so loud the dead could be walking all over West London.

‘You’re becoming a cake addict,’ I shout, irritated at being stonewalled. ‘Don’t you realise the sugar in all those cakes is like having crack cocaine.’

‘If crack cocaine is as good as lemon drizzle cake could I try some?’  she replies.

Fretting over dinner, I explain to the family why they should also feel aggrieved by Mother’s reaction.  

‘It was all for her own good,’ I end.  

There is an embarrassed silence. They’re like ambassadors at a diplomatic reception where Donald Trump has misread the autocue. They don’t know what to say or which way to look.

After a while, my Son speaks.

‘Supermarket cakes come in lots of packaging. If she cuts back on that it has to be a good thing for the environment,’ says Son, showing he values the Gaia in Granny.

There’s another short pause.

‘This an example of the conflict between the individual’s right to eat what they want and the State’s desire to prevent harmful behaviours. You’re Mr Nanny State. Given that Granny doesn’t like being told what to do, I don’t understand why you are surprised at her reaction?’ says my Daughter, in that irritating way undergraduates adopt after their first year at university. 

It’s not the support I was hoping for so I turn, hopefully, to my Wife who is clearing up the plates.

‘Your daughter’s right. The moral of this story is don’t teach your Grandmother to suck eggs’,’ she says. ‘Now, who’d like some pudding?’

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Shop with Mother

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I don’t know many men who enjoy clothes shopping. I know even fewer who would risk buying clothes for their wives or girlfriends unsupervised. I did it once and never again want to feel the hopelessness provoked by my Wife asking: ‘Did you keep the receipt?’

I once had a male friend who enjoyed clothes shopping for his girlfriends. He’d even go shopping for their clothes alone. His girlfriends thought his willingness to go clothes shopping with them was proof of his commitment to them. We thought it was a cunning ploy, like a fox pretending to care about the interior design of a chicken coop.

I have not seen this man for thirty years. But I am thinking of giving him a call because Mother wants me to go clothes shopping with her and I want to know if he has any tips on shopping with the older woman. Or better still, if he can come along.  

I have tried to persuade her we do not need to visit the shops. I have explained she can buy clothes on-line and these days everyone offers ‘quibble free returns’, one of the great metrics of an advanced human civilization. But she still insists on going to the shops.

‘Don’t worry. I won’t ask your opinion on anything in front of anyone,’ she says pricking one of my deepest fears.

At the retail park, things are going better than expected. I am getting into the swing of being a bag carrier by saying things like ‘Man-made fabric looks good on you’ and ‘The sale stuff is this way’. But, mostly, Mother wants to plough her own path down the aisles, pleased not to have me fussing nearby.

I have not seen her for a few minutes because I have been entranced by a rack of jeans with elasticated waists. I can hear laughter at the checkout and look over to see an assistant talking very, very slowly and loudly to Mother. There’s a queue of bemused people around her. I walk over.

‘Can I help?’

‘She had a turn when I gave her the bill,’ says the assistant.

‘What’s the matter?’ I ask Mother.

She mouths words but makes no sound. She points to her ears and shakes her head.

‘Is she deaf and dumb?’ asks the assistant.

‘Not when we came in,’ I say.

Mother is tugging my arm. I lean down.

‘Lost my wallet,’ she whispers.

Getting to the front of a shop queue and finding herself unable to pay is one of Mother’s great fears. It is linked to childhood humiliations of seeing her mum and dad fobbing off the rent collector with fake excuses. She actually has nightmares of exactly this scenario.

I pay for the clothes and we leave. Walking to the car, I can’t resist asking if pretending to be deaf and dumb isn’t a little excessive? Couldn’t she just have admitted she had lost her purse and wait for me?

‘Last year, in M&S I pretended to faint. They sent me home in a black cab,’ she says with a slightly wicked smile.

Are these extreme avoidance strategies more common among the old? I remember a friend saying his mother pretended she was going to hospital for a blood transfusion to avoid going to her grand-daughter’s primary school pantomime. Compared to this, playing deaf and mute in M&S seems understated.

The shopping trip is over. We are feeling good despite the drama. We have come away with new clothes, a full set of receipts and without an argument. This is my greatest retail success since I spontaneously bought an omelette pan without consulting my Wife. I can’t help feeling if my old mate had been there, like my guardian retail angel, that he would have been proud of me.

I turn out of the car park and mother tells me to ‘slow down’. We’re doing 10mph.

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Hell is a holiday

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Mother and I agree we are going to ignore the advice of the ex-Minister for Loneliness to ‘take your grandparents on holiday’. She used to take her parents on holiday with her and wants us to follow her lead. It’s part of a strategy to ‘beat loneliness’.

Mother does not think the Minister’s advice is bad per se. But she hates trains, planes, automobiles, ferries, lorries and cars. So getting her anywhere is a Herculean task.

She also detests bicycles. Or rather bicyclists, whom she regards as thoughtless hooligans who enjoy scaring old people by riding on the pavement and not stopping at pedestrian crossings.

The only way to get her to the south of France – which is where we’re heading – is to hire a sedan chair and a team of muscled youngsters to carry her there. It would be slow but the journey would leave almost no carbon footprint and employ some fit, young people for a fortnight or more. I wonder if the new Minister for Loneliness would finance this as an innovative initiative and policy making? The company slogan would be ‘Sedan and Enjoy the Ride’.

‘The last time I went to France the dog had diarrhea for a week and your father drank a bottle of a brandy every day. At my age, I can’t risk reliving that all over again,’ says Mother.

My Son thinks she has hodophobia, a rare disease, which makes you fear travelling and should be taken to the psychiatrist. My Wife thinks she’s being selfless and should be allowed to make her own decisions. I am trying to remember if Father liked brandy that much. The bit about the dog is true.

‘If she were a dog, we’d put her in a dog home. Why aren’t there dog homes for old people?’ says my Son.

‘We could set up CCTV in her flat so we can keep an eye on her from our iPhones,’ says my Daughter, trying to lessen the guilt we are all beginning to feel for going on holiday.  

‘We could just respect her wish to stay at home by herself like a million other adults,’ says my Wife. 

The worry that something bad might happen while we’re away doesn’t disappear. However, my son has given me an idea. I investigate the options for respite care while we are away and talk Mother through the concept of her signing up while we are in France.

She looks at me forgivingly as if I was an untrained puppy that had just wet the sofa.

‘If I drop dead in this so-called respite care home they’d be obliged to tell you immediately. Which means you’d be obliged to come home and cut short your holiday, which would be distressing for the family, who will feel oblige to come back with you. But none of that will bring me back to life.’

‘Do you see what I’m saying, darling? You may as well go and leave me here. If I die while you’re away, they’ll just put me in a giant freezer and you can deal with all the funeral arrangements when you come home, sun-tanned and relaxed. When you think it through this holiday respite care idea is a pointless complication and expense.’

Her logic is faultless, though it is missing something, I can’t put my finger on.  

‘What you’re saying is you’d rather be by yourself at home?’

‘Yes. Why do people always assume us oldies need to be with other people? The politicians and those busy bodies need to remember that.’

She pauses for a moment.

‘L’enfer c’est les autres.’

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Mother is like a gorilla

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Since my father died, I have tried to persuade Mother to make a Will. It has been a decade long guerrilla war fought on behalf of the old fashioned principles of Good Sense and Forward Planning. But I’ve not made any headway. My Wife calls this on-going contest the ‘War of the Wills’.

Mother is dug deep down into a foxhole and she greets any attempt to parlay about her last will and testament with outright hostility.  

‘No. No. No,’ she says like Margaret Thatcher when she was asked to return the British EU Rebate. ‘I do not wish to make a will. Or talk about it.’ 

She has many arguments why. There’s no point because she has ‘nothing to leave’ is one. She thinks the process as ‘vulgar’ is another and if she’s pushed on the subject she complains that she hasn’t spent ninety years counting every bean and is damned if she’s going to start now. She adopts the tone of an offended Dowager Aunt.

I suspect the real reason she doesn’t want to make a will is not that discussing death is uncomfortable, but she doesn’t want to confront the choices which making a will forces on you. Who gets what? Who gets nothing?

Wills are not just about allocating assets; they’re about allocating affection. They force you to prioritise people. But on what basis? She realises writing a will is a risky business easily open to misinterpretation, which once dead can’t be corrected. Why should she take that risk at this stage of her life?  

I do not want to force her to confront anything she does not want to. But everyone – including my accountant – tells me it is the responsible thing for her to do. And being responsible is the Boomer’s Burden. What they don’t know is that she is as stubborn as a silver back gorilla and, so far, the gorilla is winning the guerrilla war of the wills.   

One day, I find her in her flat putting a white sticky label onto the frame of a painting.

In fact, everything in the flat has got a white sticky label on it: tables, sofas, vases, pictures even individual items of cutlery and the bathmats. The flat looks like an auction room in which every object has been labelled ‘Sold’.

‘What on earth are you doing?’

‘My will,’ says Mother, feverishly.

‘Putting stickers on things isn’t making a will.’

‘You asked me to make a will. I’m just doing it my own way.’

Looking around, i can see Mother has tagged every object with the name of one of our family. It’s so we can each see what she wants us to have when she dies. She’s been so thorough that even the family cat has a tea saucer with his name on it.

‘So he thinks of me every time he has a bowl of milk.’

‘When did you decide to do this?’

‘I listened to a phone-in on the law of ‘Bona Vacantia’. It is an old law that gives the Royal family the right to take control of your estate if you die without a will. It all goes to the Duchy of Cornwall. Or Lancaster. I can’t remember which.’

I don’t know if Bona Vacantia is exists or even applies anymore. But if an irrational fear of the Royal Family getting their hands on her cutlery means she will do her Will, then who am I to complain?

‘Would it help if I wrote all this down in a proper will?’

‘Yes. Yes. Whatever,’ she says still slapping stickers onto things. 

The war of the wills is at an end. The gorilla has surrendered.

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Leonardo Da Vinci

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Somewhere in the world there’s always a Leonardo Da Vinci exhibition open, or about to open. Which means someone, somewhere is always blathering on about Da Vinci’s genius for designing scuba gear centuries before it became a reality.

Mother is listening to someone doing exactly this and she is not impressed. Mother values domestic appliances more highly than scuba gear.

‘If he was that smart he’d have invented the electric kettle or the hot water bottle,’ she says.

If the British Museum asked Mother to curate an exhibition, scuba gear wouldn’t make her long list. Her prize exhibit would be the electric kettle followed by the hot water bottle and she would campaign for their inventors to be canonized because they deliver two quotidian essentials to old people – tea and warmth. A bed and the BBC, preferably free, would come third and fourth in her League of Useful Things for Old Age.

Hot water bottles are important because they are an antidote to the cold she constantly feels despite the fact her central heating is always full on. During the winter months, which is every month except July, she wears a faded brown flannel dressing gown over her clothes. She claims to sleep in her raincoat and hugs a hot water bottle to her chest whenever we go round to make sure we get the point.

‘It’s a Siberian gulag in here,’ she says. ‘I don’t think the boiler works properly. Can you get someone to fix it?’

There’s nothing wrong with the boiler. The pressure is fine; its lights are green and steady. But I have set up an account with a direct debit with the local plumber so she can call him round whenever she thinks it’s on the blink.

My Son, who is thinking of joining Extinction Rebellion, finds this difficult. He asks me if she understands how many polar bears she is killing with her selfish desire to avoid hypothermia and the gallons of tea she brews everyday. He suggests I tell her to wear more clothes and install a smart meter instead of whining about the boiler.

‘You can’t smart meter a person, darling,’ my Wife says, only half listening.

‘If she put on more clothes, she’d never be able to stand up,’ says my Daughter. ‘She’s a bag of bones as it is.’   

‘Is she on a renewable energy tariff?’ says my Son, suspiciously.

‘Of course,’ I say, faintly flushing.  I am lying. She isn’t though he has asked me several times to switch her to a renewable tariff.

The next morning I change her utility contract to a renewable tariff. Unfortunately, the changeover will take a month. I wonder if my Son will discover my lie before the contract changes?  I am scared he that might phone the nearest branch of Extinction Rebellion and organize an occupation of Mother’s flat, if he does.

‘Don’t be stupid,’ says wife. ‘He can’t find his shoes and socks most mornings. How is he going to find out what energy contract your mother has? Let alone organize an occupation?’

‘She brings her bills here for me,’ I remind her. ‘He could see them then.’

‘You’ll just have to live with the risk. But let’s steer clear of any David Attenborough programmes for awhile in case it reminds him.’

I am more worried about Mother scalding herself than her flat’s contribution to climate change. Every time she makes a cup of tea her hand trembles like a gambler shaking dice. Her wrists are frail and she spills tea from her cup as she walks. Everytime I see her making tea I wait for an accident to happen. Does she realize that her kettle is a threat as well as a favoured appliance?

Mother turns off the radio and goes to fill the kettle.

‘Do you need a hand with that?’ I ask.

‘No. I may not be Leonardo Da Vinci but I am perfectly capable of making myself a cup of tea,’ she barks.

The Death of Patriarchy

Father’s Day. 07.30am. I sneak downstairs hoping to catch the family by surprise as they lay out a smorgasbord of gifts for me.

I’ve cleaned my teeth, shaved for the first time this week and put on fresh pyjamas because I want to look respectable opening my presents at the breakfast table.

Last Father’s Day, I shuffled downstairs a little the worse for wear and with an old egg yolk stain on my T-shirt to receive a volley of abuse from Mother, who said my slovenliness was disrespectful to the efforts of my wife, children and those who died to defend freedom in the world wars.

I want to avoid this year’s celebrations getting off on the same footing. If my family have made an effort to buy me lots of presents and prepare me a full English the least I can bring to the party is fresh breath, a pink chin and jimmy jams as clean and straight as a brand new ruler.  I’m feeling so money supermarket.

I creep past Mother’s room. She is asleep, snoring gently, probably dreaming about ‘Avengers: The Age of Ultron’,  which we watched as a family last night.

She enjoyed the movie but was horrified at the number of cars, houses, shops, trains, planes, office blocks and streets which were turned over, smashed up, pulled to pieces, bombed to the ground and generally messed up by the Avengers team.  

‘We would never have destroyed so many sets when I was at Denham. We couldn’t have afforded the insurance,’ she says, reflecting on her war time role as an assistant editor. My daughter, whose back from university, tries to explain the sets are not real but made with CGI and the devastation wasn’t inflicted on real streets and buildings.

‘It’s more like a cartoon than anything,’ she explains. This explanation seems to satisfy Mother.

‘The stuntmen are much better than in my day, especially that green one,’ she says pointing at Hulk as he tears up the outside of a tall office block, ripping out windows as he goes.

As I tip toe down to the ground floor, I am not worried by the fact Mother is not awake. She’s been delegating her gifting obligations to my wife or daughter for years now and has probably had her full of watching me opening presents. Or maybe she’s had a bad night with cramps.

But as I step into the sitting room, I start to feel something is amiss. The curtains are still drawn, a coke can lounges on the carpet. There are no cutesy Father’s Day cards or packages with name tags on them only the sagging balloons saying Happy Birthday left over from my son’s 18th birthday earlier in the week. In the kitchen, no one is around. There are no piles of gifts, just plates in the sink.

The place is like the Marie Celeste, devoid of life, not even a pot of coffee warming on the stove for me. I can almost hear the walls mocking me with the faint echo of my son’s last game of ‘Mortal Kombat’, finished only a few hours before: ‘Die, die, die’, it says.

This is how the patriarchy ends, then. Not with a bang, but a whimper. Not with a sold-out farewell tour to Fatherhood, but a sink full of unwashed plates. I realise I have no right to be disappointed, of course. For Millenia, women have woken up every morning and faced a sink full of dirty dishes with no thanks. Why shouldn’t I suffer the same? And, to be fair to the family, there’s been lots to organise this week: two events for my son’s 18th; the return of my daughter after months in lock down and a crunch week at work for my wife. Father’s Day was understandably just one event too many for them to think about. Perhaps they thought letting me watch both Premier League football games yesterday was gift enough?

I give myself a little time to brine in vengeful thoughts, like a Medici Pope. I invent sarcastic jokes for when the family come downstairs, but none of them quite zing:

Q:   Who put the fun into Father’s Day?

A:   I don’t know. I couldn’t be F***ing bothered to get out of bed that day to find out.

OR

A:   I don’t know, I outsource that sort of stuff to Serco.

I realise I’m going to have to work a lot harder before I get anything into the Father’s Day Book of Jests and Japes, when my daughter’s boyfriend comes into the kitchen.

‘Morning,’ I say.

‘Morning,’ he says.

‘Father’s Day,’ I say.

‘Jeez, I had no idea. I better go text my Dad right now. Thanks for reminding me,’ he says and shoots upstairs to get his phone.

Father’s Day is a $12bn event worldwide, apparently. I don’t believe this is a real figure based on hard cash and goods. It’s just fraudulent accountants toting up the so-called goodwill value of tweets, texts and WhatsApp messages hurriedly sent by guilty family members when they realise that they’ve forgotten to put the date in their diaries.

To console myself I unwrap a couple of my favourite sausages from Huntsham Farm, who produce the finest rare-breed meats. I pop them into a pan on a low heat. These sausages will be solace enough for any Father’s Day breakfast.

I look out into the garden, any vengeful feelings slipping away slowly as the sausages spit and sizzle. The cat is sitting in the middle of the lawn, meowing. I open the patio door. The cat leans forward and picks up a dead mouse in his jaws and slinks towards me, dropping it at my feet, like a gift.

Would you ever eat your cat?

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My son and I are debating if we would ever eat the cat.

‘Only as a last resort,’ I say.

‘Like a zombie apocalypse?’ he asks. 

‘Or a global famine brought about by rampant climate change.’

‘Yeah,’ says my son.

‘I think his thighs would be OK if they were marinated for long enough.’

My son mulls this over for a few seconds.

‘In an apocalypse, we’d need a large supply of meat so wouldn’t it better to marinate you?’

From a calorific point of view, he has a point. From a survivalist perspective, too, I’d be a longer lasting resource than the cat. But what about the moral issue? This is the central dilemma in every apocalyptic fantasy: which social conventions fail first and how far will human behaviour sink in a dog eat dog world. Or, in this case, a man eats cat sort of world.

‘Would you eat me, your own father?’

‘Never say never. Besides, you’ve been looking for a quick way to lose weight for some time. It might be a blessing in disguise.’

We are outside on the patio watching the cat groom itself on top of our gas-fired powered barbecue. The sun is very hot. We’ve been outside for an hour discussing dystopian futures and his job prospects this year, which are pretty much the same thing. Are we suffering sun stoke? Or is cooking the cat and cannibalism a natural place for any father and son conversation to gravitate, after months of lock down in which we’ve squeezed the last drop of interest out of every other topic? 

‘Would you eat his cat food if you had to?’ my son asks.

We’re off again. I’ve thought about eating the cat’s food several times, in fact almost every time I feed him. The cat’s dry food doesn’t smell and is bite sized, like Grape Nuts, so I could easily imagine eating a bowl of it with milk.

‘No to the wet food. But I would eat his dry food if I could have it with some milk,’ I reply.

‘But there’s be no milk left. You Boomer carnivores would have eaten all the cows within days of Sainsbury’s shutting its meat counter.’

‘How about with water and sugar, then? There might be some sugar left at the back of one of the supermarket cupboards.’

‘Or sweets under Granny’s bed,’ he suggests, helpfully. 

‘Yeah,’ I say.

Mother has a collection of chocolate squirrelled away around her room which could be used to enhance our dystopian diet.

‘If we had chocolate we could cook ‘Chat au Chocolat’,’ I say.  

The look on my son’s face says the fantasy is over, the conversation dead, offence has been taken. His phone pings and he heads inside. The cat jumps down from the barbecue and settles in the bushes out of the sun. Mother steps onto the patio and blinks. She doesn’t like the sunlight or the summer heat. She’s wearing her winter raincoat and a scarf.

‘Aren’t you hot in all that?’

‘I’ve been out shopping,’ she says triumphantly, ignoring the question.

While I’ve been creating a cookbook for the apocalypse, she’s been outside on the streets and in the shops against the advice of the government, her GP and our daily pleas.

‘How did you get out?’

‘Through the door. Have you got sun stroke?’

My question was rhetorical. I meant how did she get out without us spotting and stopping her.

‘Did you wear a mask?’

‘No. Too fiddly.’

‘Did you maintain a social distance?’

‘I always keep a social distance. What sort of person do you think I am?’

Two days ago, we had an Ocado delivery. Every item from that delivery is now playing a game of sardines with all the other food items in the fridge and freezer.  

‘You’re only meant to go out for essential items. What did you buy?’

‘Cat food. It wasn’t in the delivery.’

An epidemic of Kindness (redacted)

To:CXXXXX MXXXXXX (Redacted)  
Subject:Care Report (Personal)  
Date:Viral Surge 15.1 

Dear Mother

I hope you are not alarmed to lose me to the War effort and are bearing Lock Down well. As this is not your first Lock Down, perhaps you are numb to its necessary privations?  

I know you worry I am too inexperienced to be sent to the Frontline so soon after qualification, but my training is unrivalled and my equipment first class, so I beg you not to fret about me. I could not be happier.

Since I was a young girl, I have dreamt of nothing else but becoming a Carer. Therefore, this outbreak is a welcome opportunity to prove myself quickly, rather than spend years dredging in Trace & Test, like father. In time, I hope you will see it this way, too.

Let me tell you as much as I am allowed about my first Kindness assignment.   

They have billeted me with an old couple, risk rated ‘Category A’, in a house outside xxxxxx. They have a large garden, which we use when the weather permits, and I count myself lucky not to be boxed in a flat like so many other newly qualified Carers.

My couple survived the first season and tell many stories of it, which is both endearing and trying. Mostly, they praise the Institution for the improvements it has made since then. I think they are as happy as could be expected. But there have been challenging moments, as training predicted. The old man is used to his own way about the affairs of the house and he has created a major fuss on two occasions. The first when I disabled the News Channel (because the surge data is so poor) and the second when I insisted they sleep in separate bedrooms. When he refused, I reminded him that ‘Hygiene trumps Habit’ and this brought him to heel, thankfully.

I am surprised at their selfishness. It befits their years to be more compliant, but they appear reluctant to put aside their foibles to protect Key Workers, like myself, and the affairs of the Institution. They certainly make no allowance for my feelings in this difficult situation. I cannot imagine you and father behaving the same way.

Today, I received instructions to issue phase two medication. I will commence the procedure tonight. I have cancelled the food drone and have spent the day rehearsing the procedure, while they relax in the garden. I am nervous but I hope to shepherd them through this with kindness, as if I were doing this for you and father. I shall do my best, as you have always taught me.

Mail soon. I worry a little about the data. Let me know if Kindness Services contact you.

Stay safe.

Your loving daughter

XXXX  xxxxxx (Redacted)

This story appeared in May as the winner of the Sandstone Press short fiction prize

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