The mystery of the Colman’s mustard tin

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

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

‘Mrs. Johnson?’

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

‘MRS JOHNSON. ROOM FIVE. NOW. PLEASE.’

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

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

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

Is there an NHS fast track pass?

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘To cheer up the punters?’ I say.

I must remember my wife’s warning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Colonel Mustard?’ she asks.

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

Last time she used an eggbox

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

‘Don’t they give you a test tube?’

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

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

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

This article first appeared in the Chiswick Calendar

Never look your mother in the mouth

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Mother has a silver salt cellar cupped in her hands which she holds out towards me as if she were a beggar. Her gesture reminds me of the scene in the musical Oliver when the young Oliver asks for a second portion of gruel. I am unsettled by her gesture and my reaction to it, but I can’t work out why. 

What I do know is that she has made a huge effort to bring that salt cellar downstairs because it is usually hidden in an orange Sainsbury’s bag under her bed with other dusty pieces of family silverware.

She keeps the salt cellar under her bed

To get it, she’s had to rummage around on her hands and knees, which given the arthritis in her hips and knees will have been very painful. She wouldn’t have done this unless it was important to her.

‘Why have you got that old salt cellar out, mum?’ I ask.

‘I was thinking of rowing across the Thames in it,’ she snaps. ‘Do you think it’s big enough?’

The salt cellar is approximately two inches in diameter. 

‘Nice one, granny,’ says my son from the kitchen table, his fist raised above his head in salute.

‘Thank you, darling,’ she says to him, like a standup comedian acknowledging the audience’s applause.

‘To get some salt, of course. What else?’ she says to me. 

‘But why do you need salt?’ 

‘To clean my teeth,’ she says. ‘What is this: Twenty Questions?’

To clean her teeth? 

We are in different Galaxies

At moments like these, I’ve learnt to take a deep breath and wait. She and I are temporarily living in parallel universes. There is a logic to what she’s said but it isn’t apparent to me because it’s based on the natural laws which govern her universe not mine. If I am patient our universes may realign and the mystery will reveal itself.

I look at my wife and raise my eyebrows.

‘Have you run out of toothpaste?’ asks my wife. 

She cleaned her teeth with salt in the War

Mother explains that she ran out of toothpaste ten days ago while the rest of us were holidaying in the Brecon Beacons. She is still scared to go to the shops because of the ‘Covid thing’ and doesn’t want to burden us – ‘even more than she already does’ – by asking us to buy toothpaste for her. Instead, she’s come up with a better alternative to toothpaste: salt. Ta Da!

Mother sees the horror in my face as I imagine what the salt must be doing to the enamel on her teeth and says quickly: ‘We cleaned our teeth with salt during the War, you know.’

‘But that’s like using a metal scourer on a non-stick pan,’ I say.

‘Nonsense. It’s bloody good for your gums. Everyone knows that.’ 

When Mother uses the phrase –‘Everyone knows that’ – it is because she’s on a sticky wicket and wants to close the argument down quickly. Once she’s said this, she will only shake her head, silently and relentlessly if you try to carry on the debate.

My daughter comes into the kitchen. 

There’s a dead tooth on the kitchen table

‘Is this someone’s tooth?’ she asks, holding an ivory slither between some loo roll.

‘Arghhh. Gross,’ says my son. 

After a short hiatus, in which my son suggests she may be holding the relic of an ancient saint, Mother confesses the ivory slither is half of one of her lateral incisors. The tooth fell out yesterday and she decided to wrap it in loo paper to keep it safe for the dentist when she next sees him.

‘There. You see,’ I say. ‘It’s the bloody salt chipping your teeth away.’

‘Imbecile’ mutters Mother. 

‘Perhaps it belongs to a woolly mammoth?’ asks my son, staring at the chipped tooth as it lies on the kitchen table like a museum exhibit. 

‘Does it hurt?’ asks my wife.

Mother sits down. Yes, it hurts a little. It’s more a throb than a pain. She was going to mention it to us as she didn’t think it was anything worth worrying about. A paracetamol is all she needs. 

Immediately, I phone the dentist to ask for an appointment, but because of Covid they won’t take bookings until the dentist has done a phone consultation. Face to face appointments are not the new normal. Mother refuses to do a phone consultation because her hearing is bad ‘today’ and no one speaks ‘clearly’ anymore, so I speak to the dentist when he calls back. 

‘You’ll have to be my eyes,’ he says to me. ‘Can you ask her to open her mouth and tell me what condition her teeth and gums are in.’

Peering into her mouth, I feel like a cave diver

‘The dentist wants me to look into your mouth,’ I shout at Mother, feeling queasy like a cave diver on their first solo dive. 

‘Open your mouth wide so I can see what’s going on in there?’

‘Not on your nelly,’ she says. ‘What do you think I am a bloody horse having its teeth inspected at a gypsy fair? Give me the phone. I’ll diagnose myself.’

With that, she grabs the phone. Her hearing is miraculously restored and she and the dentist decide a short course of antibiotics is the first thing to be done. 

‘There. All done. Now give me some baking soda and some salt and I’ll polish up this beautiful old salt cellar. The cellar was a wedding gift from your father’s mother. She was a dreadful woman but she did have very good taste.’

Walking boots, sweaty socks and scary phonecalls

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I take off my walking boots and sweaty socks in the porch of the cottage and hobble bare foot to the kitchen mantel piece, where my mobile phone is charging below a map of the Brecon Beacons. 

The family and I have been out walking along the River Usk for over four hours and we left our phones behind to see if we have the willpower to detach ourselves from the mobile phone network, if only for a few hours. 

‘Why bother?’ asked my son, when my wife first proposed a dose of phone-free rambling.

Life was mobile free in the 1980s

‘It’s a chance for you to understand what life was like living in the 1980s before the internet,’ replied my wife. ‘And it’s good to get away from all the poison on social media.’

‘You’re not going to try to make us talk to each other instead, are you?’ asked my son. 

‘No. It’s a just a chance to enjoy the beautiful scenery without being annoyed by the latest idiocies of Kayne West or Donald Trump,’ said my wife. 

‘I’ll come. But only if Dad promises not to repeat his story about his geography field trip. You know, the one where he got stuck on the mountainside with the other fat boy and had to be rescued by helicopter,’ said my daughter, condemning one of my favourite school stories to the archives forever.

Calves as taut as violin strings

As it turns out, the phone fast has only affected one of us. Me. I haven’t been able to keep up with the score in the second Test Match and as the game was turning into a chiller thriller when we left the cottage, I am now desperate to know what cricket magic has been performed since this morning. Which is why I am dragging myself as fast as I can towards my phone, though my calves are as taut as violin strings after the walk and could snap at any moment.

I pick up my phone and see that I have five voicemails: three from Mother’s doctor and two from my brother, who is house sitting my mother while we are away. The messages have all arrived in the last three hours. They say: ‘Please call when you get this’.

Why would my Mother’s doctor call me three times the same afternoon? It doesn’t take a PhD in Rambling to know she’s not asking me out to a barn dance.

Is Mother ill or dead?

Immediately, my anxiety to know the cricket score is replaced by the need to know what has happened to Mother. I call the doctor. Engaged. I call my brother. Engaged. I call Mother’s landline but her phone just rings and rings, which could mean nothing because her hearing is so poor, but could also mean so much.

I wait a few moments before calling again to run through the possible scenarios. Has she fallen down the stairs? Maybe she’s burnt herself filling up a hot water bottle. Has she lost the TV remote?

Or is she dead?

Is this my JFK moment?

The thought she may have died is unavoidable and irrepressible. It’s a nagging neurosis everyone with a parent her age lives with. People say they remember where they were when JFK died and I think everyone has a similar JFK moment, remembering forever where they were or what they were doing when their parent’s die. Is this my JFK moment?

My phone rings. It’s my brother.

‘All right, pal?’ he booms down the phone.

‘What’s happening?’

‘Nothing much,’ he shouts.

‘Why has the doctor called me three times then?’ I ask my nervousness rising.

‘Oh, that. Her ankles have swollen up. Thick as an elephant’s trunk, actually. Nothing to worry about, though. I booked her an appointment with the doc. They’re just confirming it.’

Her ankles are like elephant trunks

Elephant ankles sounds pretty good compared to what I was imagining a few moments ago. I relax. Anything else I should know, I ask.

‘Yeah. All she’s eaten all week is boiled eggs and cake. And chocolate biscuits. Is that normal?’

‘It’s not unusual, if you get my drift.’ I can’t ask for better evidence that Mother is still very much alive and kicking than her insatiable appetite for cakes and biscuits.

My daughter’s boyfriend appears in the kitchen and mouths: ‘we won the test’. I look at my watch. It’s coming up seven o’clock – time for test match highlights.

‘I’ve got to go, now,’ I say rudely closing my brother down. ‘Test Match highlights on any moment now. Let me know how it goes with the doctor.’

My mother wants to know what existentialism is

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Breakfast. Mother licks her index finger and pats it onto the crumbs of pain au chocolate on her plate, while casually asking my daughter what existentialism is.

‘It was all the rage thirty years ago. But you don’t hear people talking about it anymore,’ Mother says, as if mourning the end of the golden age of dinner party banter. 

My daughter stops supping up Cheerios and takes a deep breath. She says she doesn’t know why existentialism is unpopular now, but she does know that existentialism is a philosophical concept from the ‘Forties’ and is a major influence on post War thinking.

‘Some academics would call existentialism a cultural movement more than a philosophy,’ she goes on.

“Ooooh,’ gasps Mother, as if my daughter had pulled a talking rabbit from the box of Cheerios.

Can philosophy be a fad?

My daughter goes onto suggest that philosophies are like fads and perhaps existentialism is out of fashion right now. Mother sweeps the last flakes of the pain au chocolate into a small funeral mound, grunts thoughtfully, and then dabs her damp finger into the pile, again.

‘It’s a French thingamy, isn’t it?’ she says.

‘Jean-Paul Sartre was French, and he invented existentialism together with his partner Simone de Beauvoir,’ says daughter.

There’s a brief pause while Mother digests this.

Does it matter of Sartre wasn’t good looking?

‘He was terribly ugly. He looked like a toad,’ says Mother. ‘I’m surprise any woman went near him.’

‘I guess she was attracted by his ideas not his looks,’ says my daughter, irked by her grandmother’s focus on Sartre’s looks rather than his learning.   

‘Wonky eye, too,’ says Mother.

My daughter sighs and asks why she is thinking about existentialism. Mother says she doesn’t really know it was just something that popped into her head.

‘Like a piece of toast,’ she laughs.

I have never heard Mother talk about philosophy before. She has always struck me as more interested in people than philosophy, the concrete not the conceptual. I am not saying this makes her superficial or stupid. 

In fact, she reads alot and ploughs through every page of the Times each morning. She even reads the sport and business sections though she has no interest in either. She thinks business is a pastime for crooks and sport is a refuge for people who never got used to wearing trousers at school.

Novels are too heavy for her to hold now

Mother’s reading habits have changed, though. She’s given up on reading novels because the books are too heavy for her to hold up for long. She also finds their length a challenge.

‘By the time I’m halfway through a novel I’ve forgotten who all the characters are. And by the end I can’t remember what happened at the beginning. So it’s pointless reading them now,’ she smiles.

Mother reads short stories now not novels. She’s reading a collection by Isaac Bashevis Singer. The book is thirty years old and a present from her dead elder sister, and its pages have aged a strange terracotta tint.

‘I am more likely to drop dead before I finish a novel than a short story and you know I hate to start a book and not finish it,’ she says.

Back at the breakfast table, my son asks if my daughter has finished her philosophy lecture. She pokes her tongue out at him. I watch a video compilation of cats reading Shakespeare Sonnets because Mother stole the sports section from me when I got up to make her a cup of tea.

Commenting on her legs annoys her granddaughter

Mother seems absorbed in the sports until my daughter gets up to make coffee. My daughter’s wearing shorts and bare legs.

‘Look at your legs,’ says Mother.

‘What do you mean?’ asks my daughter. 

‘They go all the way to your hips,’ says Mother.

‘Where else would they go?’ asks my son.

‘Why is everything so body centric with you this morning?’ says my daughter.

‘I just mean they’re good legs,’ laughs Mother, her compliment is not going down how she meant it to.

Is Mother posing a philosophical question: are my daughter’s legs capable of making ethical decisions by themselves, like boycotting BooHoo or refusing to wear tights which aren’t Fair Trade?

I hope she doesn’t mean good as in attractive. If she does, she may find herself on the receiving end of a lecture from my daughter on why women shouldn’t objectify other women’s bodies. There’s more than enough men doing that already.

My daughter lets the moment pass. Mother’s compliment reflects an attitude which looks as out of date to my daughter, as existentialism seems unfashionable to her granny.

She also realises that – sometimes – it’s best not to take offence if you want don’t want the different values of the old and the young to trigger inter-generational war.

Holiday without Mother in the Welsh Brecon Beacons

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Our plan is to holiday in the Brecon Beacons

I am co-chairing with my wife a family meeting to discuss the battle plans for the week-long holiday which we’re about to take in the Brecon Beacons without Mother.

I am co-chair in name only, of course, because my wife has made all the decisions already and my only job as co-chair is tell the children to shut up if they interrupt her while she explains what she’s decided we’re going to do.

While some men might find this family governance model troublesome I don’t and nor do the kids, because we’ve learnt that when things need to get done my wife has Superpowers and the rest of us are just muggles.

It isn’t that I can’t organize things but just that when I do they end up half-cocked, like the time I bought plane tickets to the wrong country. The fact that I had booked us to land at Faro in Portugal which is not far from Seville in Spain where we actually wanted to go didn’t make a blind bit of difference to the family’s scorn.   

I’ve booked holidays to the wrong place

‘That Geography A level worked out really well for you, didn’t it, Dad?’ said my son.

I made my wife speechless once when she discovered I had booked flights during school term time.

‘Did you just forget I work at a school? Didn’t you think to check with me?’ she said.

Back at the Brecon Beacons board meeting everything is running to schedule until my son interrupts as my wife is talking about hill walking options from the cottage.

‘Where exactly is the Brecon Beacons?’

‘Questions at the end, please.’  

‘In Wales,’ says my daughter, ignoring my attempt as co-chair to prevent interruptions.  

‘Where’s that?’ says my son, who didn’t do Geography GCSE.

‘It doesn’t matter where it is. You should be grateful you’re going on holiday at all,’ I say.

‘Your attitude is so typical of a Boomer. You just expect me to go along with whatever you decide.’

My wife says everyone is allowed to have questions.   

‘What is it you really want to know?’ she asks.

Why are Gen Z only interested in the WIFI?

‘Is there WIFI?’

‘Typical Gen Z attitude,’ I huff.

‘WIFI’s pretty important you know that’s why Boris Johnson talks about it all the time,’ he replies.

‘I’ve checked and the house does have WIFI and I’m taking dongles just in case,’ says my wife.

As always, my wife has defused a potential problem.  This is what great leaders do. She is our Xi Jinping and we are her devoted National People’s Congress. The children give her a spontaneous round of applause to show their admiration for her planning skills.

With WIFI off the table as a potential deal breaker, my wife guides the meeting onto the next agenda item: food. I suggest we buy everything from the local shops to support the local economy. My wife isn’t sure there are any local shops.

Welsh shopkeepers are kidnapping English tourists

My son believes English tourists are being kidnapped and ransomed by local Welsh shopkeepers because they have centuries of unresolved grievances against us and because we are bringing Covid to their communities. My daughter thinks he’s confusing fact with the fictional shopkeepers in the League of Gentlemen, the TV series.

He insists there’s a rumour on Snapchat that Welsh shop keepers particularly dislike Londoners, which makes us prime targets, so we should stay away from local shops altogether and get our food from an Ocado delivery, instead.

‘Does the risk of kidnapping mean we can’t go to the pub?’ I ask, wondering if there is any point to going on holiday if you can’t drink at the local pub.

‘Perhaps we could just have a holiday dedicated to walking and talking, not drinking and eating,’ says my wife turning to my daughter, who winks back at her.

‘But isn’t it our national duty to ‘eat out to help out’?’ I say.  

‘Not if the locals are anti-English kidnappers,’ says my son.

When does the Eat out to Help Out scheme start?

‘In any case, the ‘eat out’ scheme doesn’t start until August,’ says my wife.

‘What will Granny eat while we’re away?’ asks my daughter.

‘The cat,’ says my son.

I tell them I’ve asked my brother to live here while we are away and that he will take care of the cooking and everything else for her. When I say this they suck in their breath. They are weighing up if it would be safer for Granny, who hates holidays, to risk being kidnapped by shop keepers in Wales or driven mad by a week spent with my brother, who isn’t the most reliable of people.

‘Are you sure about this,’ says my wife.

‘Holiday without Mother?’ I say.

‘No, your brother staying in our house.’

‘What’s the worst he can do?’

‘Burn the house down?’

I wish I could reject this idea out of hand. But I can’t. And I can’t help wondering if I shouldn’t have consulted with my wife before I booked my brother.