March 2, 2012

I’m driving between my father’s house and my partner’s. I’ve had a good day at my desk and although I’m not due to see Mum until tomorrow, I decide to call in on the care home. Let’s label it a bonus visit. For Mabel and for me.

It’s half past seven in the evening and there are four elderly women in the lounge. Mabel is sprawled in her usual seat with a little table in front of her.

She is delighted to see me. Her face cracks into a lop-sided grin and she puts both her hands to my face when I crouch down by her side.

I tell her I’ve come to give her a chocolate. “Good,” she says, even though I see the remains of some banana bread and a half-drunk plastic beaker of tea in front of her. Her BMI (Body Mass Index) has been steady at 18 this year after a difficult spell last year when she wasn’t eating properly.

The box of chocolates I have in mind is a present from Christmas and it’s time the high-class contents were eaten. Mum gets first pick, of course. Her hand loses no time in grabbing one at random. “That looks like a good choice,” I say, reassuringly. Though Mum is not looking for reassurance, she is looking for a chocolate that hits the spot.

I leave her to enjoy her choc in the contemplative silence she prefers to spend most of her time these days, and take the box to Edith who is sitting on the sofa. I sit beside her and politely ask if she would like a chocolate. “Yes, please,” she says, looking at me fondly. (I prefer this to her usual ‘Can you tell me what on earth I’m doing here?’ line.) I tell her she’s chosen
‘chocolat riche’ and read from the leaflet. “Traditionally the hosts of Austrian Alpine lodges gave rich chocolates to passing travellers to keep them warm in the snow.” But I get no response; Edith is lost in a flavour-induced reverie. If I was wanting to play word games concerning chocolates, I should have done so before she put one into her mouth. Food is so important to elderly people who have lost a greater proportion of their other senses.

Molly is trying to get up from her chair. I’m not sure she can manage to do so any more, no matter how often she mutters “God almighty” in the rhythmic way that she does. So I interrupt her Herculean efforts and ask if she’d like a chocolate. She seems surprised. She peers at the box. ‘Yes, I will,” she says. She picks one up, moves her eyes back to my face and says simply: ‘Thank you very much.” I tell her she’s very welcome, because she absolutely is. And I move on to Doris.

“I won’t have a chocolate, thank you,” says Doris. She adds: “But how’s your writing going?” I tell her what I’ve been doing today, turning a mouldering old manuscript into a shiny new website.

“Do you do other work as well?” she asks. I tell her that I get paid for some of my writing and that I look upon that as my job. Though I also spend a lot of time looking out for my father’s interests. After all, am I not his carer?

“Good for you. And how’s your daughter today?” she asks. Doris means my mother, so I look across the room to Mum and wave. “Mabel’s fine,” I tell doe-eyed Doris, who is creeping slowly downhill, sad at finding herself in a care home so far from where her children and their families live in the south of England.

There is one other resident in the room. Daisy accepts a chocolate wordlessly, with a smile like a wince and uncertain nods. Then I turn around and ask Doris the big question once again.

“Oh yes, I think I will have one,” she says.

“That’s more like it.”

“Is there a caramel?”

“Let’s see. There’s one called ‘catalana’. It says here: ‘Close your eyes and the taste of the honeycomb and the caramel might just take you back to Catalonia, the home of’ ‘
Crema Catalana’ the region’s most cherished dessert.’”

“That’ll do.” And Doris tries to pick it up. But she has difficulty in achieving the pincer effect, so I ask if she’d mind if I picked it out of the box for her.

“Yes, please do that, dear,” she says. And soon she is eating her chocolate.

A carer comes in. “Everyone happy?” she asks. Renata is flashing such a big smile that I feel I don’t need to offer her a chocolate. Apart from a half-hour break, she’s been working since eight in the morning and it is now very close to eight at night when her shift ends. So, of course, she’s happy. For the moment, time is on her side.

“How’s your chocolate?” I ask Edith.

“Lovely,” she tells me.

”That’s the kind of word we like to hear,” I say, as my eye passes from face to face, “Lovely, lovely, lovely.”

“Everyone got a chocolate?” asks Renata.

“Well, Doris tried to refuse hers. I practically had to ram it down her throat. “

Doris, Edith and Renata laugh.

Yes, not a bad box of chocolates; not a bad fifteen minute visit.

I tell Mabel I’ll be calling round for her tomorrow. I realise she’s trying, not very successfully, to come out with something she used to say, and that’s: “Carry on and carry on and carry on all day…”

The next day, as Dad and I finishing lunch, I ask him if the quote means anything to him. Ian collects himself and comes up with this:

“It’s ‘Carry on!’ and ‘Carry on!’ and ‘Carry on!’ all day,
And when we cannot carry on, they’ll carry us away.
To slumber sound beneath the ground, poor beggars dead and gone.
Til Gabriel shouts on Judgement Day, ‘Get out and carry on!’”


“Thanks Dad, I think you’ve finished the latest blog for me.”

Well, not quite finished it. Because later it strikes me that some fragmented version of the verse may have been going round Mabel’s mind as she watched me going round the room with the chocolates, her thoughts a demented mix of maternal affection, religion, good humour and nonsense.