It is December 2004, and I am sitting in an old people’s home just outside Birmingham. I am holding my aunt’s hand. My aunt is ninety-nine, my eldest surviving relative on my father’s side of the family, and probably the person I am closest to. The home was chosen not for its convenient location, or even for its price, but simply because it was the only one I could find that didn’t smell of pee.
A woman moves past us pushing a Zimmer frame. As she gets level with us she starts to fart, a sound that goes on for what seems like eternity as she continues to move along in her bumpy, caterpillar fashion. My aunt, who has much the same schoolboy sense of humour as me, starts to giggle.
‘What is it about Zimmer frames that makes people trump?’ I ask, having heard her parp her way round the communal lounge on several occasions.
‘It’s all the pushing,’ she says. ‘Those things take a lot of pushing.’ Her giggle becomes a helpless, stuttering cough. ‘They just come out. You can’t stop them. You’ll be like that one day. And sooner than you think. Anyway, they give us too much cabbage in here. We had it three times last week.’
Many of the residents have their food put through the mincer, so the only difference between meals is the smell. It’s like baby food without the bright colours … It must be interminably dispiriting to cook in an old people’s home, to watch your careful cooking, a neatly peeled vegetable or a delicately filleted piece of fish, being pushed through the mincer, but that is the long and short of it. The advert in the Caterer and Hotelkeeper will insist that applicants must have passed their catering exams, should have the requisite experience and a love of cooking for other people, but it is unlikely to point out that everything the successful interviewee cooks will end up as a puree. One can only imagine they know that easily-swallowed food goes with the territory. Like having no hair or teeth and filling your pants, eating purees is what you do when you come into this world, and again when you go out of it.