Man in the Middle – Chapter 48: The Mystery of the Colman’s Mustard tin

10 August, 2020 / By James Thellusson

A middle aged man realises his elderly mother can no longer cope alone, so she moves in with them. Squeezed by the demands of the demographic time bomb and the requirements of the rest of the family, the Man in the Middle is bemused that life has become a hi-wire act, just when he thought it should start getting easier. How can he keep everyone happy and survive with his sanity intact?

If you’d like to begin at the beginning and missed the first instalment, you can read
No. 1: The Letter here

No.48: The Mystery of the Colman’s Mustard tin

‘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.


Suddenly, the young receptionist’s voice is as loud as a foghorn and, like a flash mob, everyone comes alive, turning around to find Mrs. Johnson. We’re playing the NHS version of ‘Where’s Wally?’. Some of the patients call out ‘Mrs. Johnson’, softly. They want to help but being British, they don’t want to be too loud or enthusiastic about it. One or two women look furtive, as if they might actually be Mrs. Johnson, but don’t want to admit it because it would be too embarrassing to be the centre of all this public fuss. I wonder if there is a prize for finding her? An NHS Fast Track Pass, for example, which takes you straight to the front of the queue whatever your ailment? Either way, I’d like Mrs. Johnson to step forward because it will help me and Mother get in and out of the clinic quicker. It’s a selfish thought, but I can’t help thinking it. 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.

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 repress your natural instincts whenever you’re outside the family bubble. You’re a 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, she’s 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.

‘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 key question whose mustard tin she uses and what happens to it once she’s finished?’

One of the challenges in looking after your parents when they are very old is that you learn things about them and yourself which you never knew before. Sometimes these are uplifting things. Other times, 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.

I ask her again slowly if she takes her urine samples to the doctor’s in a Colman’s Mustard tin.

‘Yes,’ she says. ‘But I’ve 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 the test tube into a mustard tin, so that 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. It’s a mystery that must remain unsolved. Instead, I decide to stop at the supermarket on the way home to buy her a new Colman’s powdered mustard tin.

Read more blogs by James Thellusson

Read the next in the series – Chapter 49: Acute Deliriums episode one

Read the previous one – Chapter 47: The salt cellar

See all James’s Man in the Middle blogs here

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