Do I owe you anything?

Visting Mum in the care home
Cash Zone, Spa Road by Stephen Craven is licensed under CC-BY-SA 2.0

It’s Easter Sunday. I’m visiting Mum in the nursing home. The sun has a smile on its face wider than Jurgen Klopp’s after his FA Cup semi-final win yesterday against Manchester City.  ELO’s Mr Blue Sky is booming out of every radio station. Hey, hey, hey.

Choirs of lollipop men

At the roadside, daffodils sway like choirs of evangelical lollipop men singing their favourite songs from the HighWay Code hymn book and the Archbishop of Canterbury has just called the Government’s plan to hand asylum seekers a one-way ticket to Rwanda ‘ungodly.’

The world feels, for a moment, clear eyed and righteous.

As I turn into the car park of Mother’s nursing home, I slip the car into neutral, turn off the engine and try to glide the last few feet into a parking space imagining I am Lewis Hamilton pulling up with a flourish at his favourite casino in Monaco.

I’m not Lewis Hamilton

Unfortunately, our ancient 1.4 litre Vauxhall Astra is not a Mercedes. And I am not Lewis Hamilton. As I disengage the gears, it splutters like a coal miner with emphysema, stalls and then stops dead sideways across two parking places at the front door of the nursing home. It’s a pitiful pit stop, more Mr Bean than Lewis Hamilton.

Luckily, no one is there to see it. In fact, the car park is completely empty. Strange. It is only ten o’clock. I guessed more people would be here today of all days. This is Easter Sunday, after all. The Day of the Resurrection. A day when miracles might happen, perhaps. A day when one might hope to arrive at a place like this to find the tired minds and crippled bodies of its residents rewired and restored to working order. Some hope.

Mum has had Covid

I haven’t visited my mother for ten days. She’s been boxed in her room with covid for a second time. They say she’s brushed it off. Let’s hope so. Each time I see her after a break as long as this, I’m not sure who I’ll meet.

I finish parking properly and head into the home with a little less va-va-voom than before.

Mother is in the resident’s lounge leaning on a table with her head in her hands.

The woman next to her is asleep, head on the table, a Cadbury’s mini-easter egg nestled next to her grey hair.

Mother sees me and winds herself up from the table, slowly.

‘Do I owe you anything?’ she asks.

It’s an odd opening remark. Is she auditing her annual accounts?

‘Owe me what?’ I ask.

‘Money, you fool.’

‘No, you owe me nothing.’

Fear of debt

Old people often fear running out of money more than death itself. Mother runs with this pack. She fears dying in debt or with an unpaid or unacknowledged obligation.

Unfortunately, I’ve had this conversation before. It tends to go badly, stirring up anxieties from her childhood. Money can’t be discussed rationally but once she’s locked onto the issues it’s very hard to close down.

‘I must owe something to someone?’ she says. ‘I had a haircut last week which must be paid for.’

‘It has been.’

‘But how? I don’t have cheque book.’

‘You pay by direct debit.’

She shakes her head. She’s forgotten what direct debit means.

‘I don’t have a red card, so I can’t be paying anything.’

By red card she means cheque card.

‘You don’t need a cheque card to pay,’ I say. ‘It’s all taken care of automatically. Don’t worry, please.’

She shakes her head again. She is frustrated. Something is not right but she doesn’t know what. The world isn’t what it was or how it ought to be. She wants to continue.

‘Why won’t you give me my cheque book? I want to give the sisters a little something for their kindness.’

She calls the nursing homes’ carers sisters, as if they were catholic nuns.

‘It’s better you don’t have a cheque book and card while you’re here,’ I say. ‘We have talked through this before, let’s move on.’

I’ve slipped into school master mode. I promise myself I won’t do this, but sometimes I can’t help it.

‘You don’t owe anyone anything,’ I say. ‘Don’t worry.’

Dreams of cake

She pauses and then starts up again in a more wistful voice.

‘Are you sure?’

‘100%,’ I say.

‘Last night, they held a farewell party for me. They asked me to make a speech. I didn’t want to. I’ve never been good at that sort of thing. But I did it. Half-way through, my speech went flat. Nobody understood a word I was saying and then they brought me the bill for the cake. I didn’t have a cheque book to pay for it. And I felt so ashamed.’

There was no party. This is another recurring dream. But I’m not going to leave her wallowing in shame.

‘Well, it’s just as well that I paid for the cake beforehand.’

‘Did you?’

‘Of course, I did,’ I say, and try to look her in the eye.



We were students once

Photo by Rene Asmussen on

Oh, God. It’s a stag party

In the middle of the aisle is a young man, tall as a pine tree, swaying in tune with the train as it leaves King’s Cross.

His left palm is flat against the carriage ceiling while his right hand steadies half a bottle of vodka against his lips.

He begins to suck the vodka out of the bottle like a hungry calf. His cheeks sink and swell like an accordion. He leans back until the bottle is almost vertical over his head.

At this point, his posse of young male friends start to make a low mooing noise as the vodka disappears down his throat.

‘Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahoo,’ they moo.

As their chant reaches its climax so does he, pulling the empty bottle from his lips and spraying the last few drops of vodka and his spittle over the old couple sitting beside him.

His pals stand, applaud and cheer. He bows to them, his trousers sagging away from his buttocks and exposing his designer underpants.

He turns and bows to the rest of the carriage.

‘All gone,’ he says out loud with a triumphant grin.

The old couple stare ahead pretending they have heard nothing nor felt the vodka splashing over their shoulders.

It’s 10.30am on a Friday morning.

Oh God.

I’m booked on a train next to a stag do. How will I survive another two hours of this babel of boyish banter before I  get out at York?

‘Why did he say: all gone?’ I ask very quietly.

The loathsome pine tree has sat down now, but he’s only three rows away. He might easily misunderstand my interest in him if he overhears me.

‘It’s what a four-year old would say when they wanted you to be pleased they’d eaten up all their greens,’ says Friend Number 2.

‘Oh, come on. They mean well. We were as bad when we were his age,’ says Friend Number 3.

‘Nonsense,’ I say. ‘We couldn’t afford vodka and our trousers never came off accidentally.’

This weekend is a return to the past

‘The worst that could happen,’ said my daughter, earlier that morning. ‘Is that you realise you have nothing in common with each other any longer. Which in a way is a positive. Sometimes, it’s a good idea to let go of the past.’

‘But I’ve got so little future that I really want to hold onto as much of my past as I can,’ I say.

‘If you see any of your old student jokes, bring them back. I’d like to see if your humour’s evolved over the last forty years,’ says my son.

‘It hasn’t,’ says my wife. ‘Two of your father’s jokes have been on permanent loan at the Jorvik Centre since 1985,’ says my wife.

‘Right,’ I say. ‘I’m off to spend the weekend with people who respect me.’

It’s a university reunion

There are five of us old university mates on the train for a reunion weekend away to York university, where we first met nearly forty years ago.

I’ve never been to a school or university reunion, but I imagine that it wouldn’t take much for things to get tricky.

A clash of political ideology or an unwise joke could easily upset the apple cart.

But, after Palmers Green, the conversation loosens up and we start to swap stories. The stag party are already numb to alcohol and have retreated into the ear plugs into their I Pods.

Friend Number 2 explains how he is due a hip replacement operation in a few weeks but is still looking forward to walking the Roman Walls and that we shouldn’t let his hips hold us back.

Friend Number 1 says she may have an arthritic shoulder because of the year she spent as a geriatric nurse and Labour councillor in Croydon lifting old folks on and off the toilet. But we’re not to worry because she can still use a knife and fork and so she won’t embarrass us at the posh river side restaurant we’re going to on Saturday night by asking us to feed her.

Friend Number 2 says that Number 1’s story reminds him that as part of his pre op hip replacement physiotherapy he is being taught how to sit on a raised toilet seat and pull his socks and trousers with ‘a pair of long tweezers, which is quite hard.’

We discuss each other’s illnesses

‘This is what they call an Organ Recital,’ I say. ‘When old people talk about how their organs are functioning.’

To keep the Organ Recital rolling, I bring everyone up to speed with my mother’s dementia, which reminds them of their own parents’ trials and tribulations with cancer, dementia, delusion and death. The party is pumping.

By the time we’ve rattled through all the medical conditions we are (or might soon be) suffering from including high blood pressure, poor cholesterol and early onset diabetes, we’re nearly at Doncaster.

As we pull into the station, I decide to share with them the story of my colonoscopy and the strangeness of watching your own innards on a TV screen, while you lie on a couch with a backless surgical gown.

‘What did they find?’ asks Friend Number 4.

‘Haemorrhoids,’ I say proudly.

As if he were trying to trump me in a game of cards Whist, Friend Number 2 points at a small purple bubble on his lower lip and says ‘Benign tumour.’

We arrive at York

When we arrive at York. The sun is shining and there are daffodils all over the rampart in front of the city walls. Our organ recital has brought us all closer together. We’ve literally got to know each other’s insides.  What can stop us now from moving to an even deeper level of friendship?

We decide to have lunch in the pub opposite our old student digs and grab a cab.

Friend Number 5 turns to the cab driver and says: ‘We were students here forty years ago.’

Number 5 smiles as if he’s shared a life changing secret like the date of the Second Coming.

‘Is that so,’ says the driver with Yorkshire phlegm. ‘Unfortunately, this isn’t the Tardis so I can’t take you back to the past.

A bad dementia day

At the nursing home my mother, like an eccentric monarch interrogating a much-missed servant, starts hurling questions at me. I haven’t  even stepped over the threshold of her room.

Her questions merge into one current of untamed thought. Words cascade from her like one fluid sentence from James Joyce’s ‘Finnegan’s Wake’ or some other impenetrable Modernist novel. This is going to be a bad dementia day.

As I sit down on her bed, she keeps repeating one question.

‘Who was that woman you were with here with last night?’ she asks.

‘What on earth are you talking about?’ I say.

‘Who was that woman you were with here last night?’ she repeats.

‘I wasn’t here last night, mum.’

‘Yes, you were,’ she says. ‘Don’t lie. I saw you and her. I didn’t like the look of her one little bit.’

When she is deluded, I lower my voice and call her Mum. Not Mother or her first name. Mother is too cold and the second too informal. I don’t know if calling her ‘mum’ has a calming effect. But it reminds me of the soft voice I used when the children were young and needed baulking up against a bad dream.

‘I wasn’t here last night. Nor was I with another woman, mum.’

She stares at me from her armchair for a few moments. It feels to me her mind is churning matters over like a washing machine full with dirty laundry.

I pull off my blue PPE gloves and hang my F94 covid mask from my right ear, where it swings like a door off its hinge, not unlike the conversation.

‘Honestly, mum. I. Was. Not. Here. Last. Night. With. A. Woman.’

‘She’s not your new bit on the side, then?’

My new bit on the side? She thinks I’m Casanova or, perhaps, Boris Johnson. For a moment I am insulted for myself and my wife and family.

But the feeling morphs and emerges as a strangulated laugh. This is a fantasy fuelled accusation and in the land of the ludicrous laughter is the only sane response.

‘What’s so funny,’ she asks, straightening up in her chair.

‘The only thing I ever have ‘on the side’ is a Yorkshire pudding with my Sunday roast,’ I say.

‘You talk nonsense.’

‘Touché,’ I reply and lie back on her bed, wondering where this conversation will go next.

My mother starts telling me that ‘women of the night’ rent rooms at her nursing home for ‘their tricks’. I close my eyes and sink into sleep. I don’t feel rude for ignoring her. My body has decided to shut off the pain of listening to her like this.


I wake up. Mother is asleep upright in her chair. Someone on the TV is wittering on about how bloody wonderful Cornwall and its fishermen are. It’s Rick Stein simpering away again. How many more series about beer battered Cornish cod can the world’s day time TV viewers  stomach?

My mother turns her head towards me and asks about my son.

‘What’s he up to?’

‘He’s been working as an extra in a TV series this week,’ I say.

‘He’s always wanted to be an actor, hasn’t he?’

‘I don’t know about that. But it’s a great experience for him.’

‘Oh, yes. He’s such a good-looking boy, he’ll do well.’

She looks at me as if she is trying to remember something.

‘Have you seen your father recently?’ she asks. ‘I wonder why he doesn’t come to see me.’

My father died in 2007. She regularly forgets that he is dead. Sometimes, I ignore her question and change the subject. Sometimes, I remind her he is dead. One is a deceit, the other a cruelty.  Usually, I opt for deceit.

My phone pings. It’s a message from my son asking if I want to join him for lunch. If I want to catch him, I’ll have to go immediately. I’ve been with mother less than an hour and been asleep for half of that time. My visit is as cursory as a care visit can get.

Mother looks at the clock.

‘Do you want to stay for lunch,’ she asks.

‘I have to go. I’m sorry. I promised to see B- for lunch.’

Another lie.

She looks at me quizzically. Is she weighing up the choice I’ve just made between seeing my son or staying with her? Is she disappointed?

‘Send him my love,’ she says and smiles.

In the doorway, I turn around. She is still smiling. Her dementia has lifted like a fog taking with it her earlier delusions. For a moment, I can see the mother she once was, like a refugee on the far shore of a lake, waving at me from across the water, wordlessly. Go, she seems to be saying. Go now. Before the fog returns and I am lost again.