In the conservatory at my parents’ house I am surprised to find a yuzu tree. My mum tells me that initially it flowered, but did not fruit. Then last year my brother cross-pollinated it with a paintbrush and now it produces delicious little yuzus that she puts in gin and tonic.
On the drive to the hospital I tell Mum that being home has a strange familiarity. That everything is recognisable, but it doesn’t feel the same. Shops and restaurants have closed and opened. Storefronts sit empty, while bars I’ve never seen are full of people I don’t know. There are new pictures on the walls. A carpet where floorboards used to be. There’s yuzu now, where once there was lemon.
I point out the changes, excruciatingly, as we pass.
Didn’t that used to be a balti restaurant?
Wasn’t that KFC two doors down and much smaller?
Didn’t that pub used to be called something else?
What is a kids’ hair salon?
Where’s Pizza Express?
Mum humours me in the same way I humour old people who won’t trust their card details to the internet: Welcome to 2020. The world has changed.
At the hospital, Mum points out all the toilets and gives me her review of each facility. The one she describes as the “nice” one has had a cubicle door rent from its hinges and propped against the sinks, which makes me nervous of what the others might be like. They are all lit with a pale blue light, which prevents you from finding a vein and gives your reflection an appropriately sickly pallor.
Dad seems to be in the ward furthest from the entrance. Take the escalator to level one, follow the corridor, turn right at the dolphins, take the lift to level three, ward eleven.
The drip is administered three times a day. The nurse attaches it to a large paperclip that hangs from the TV. Mum comments that it’s lucky the TV is well positioned and the nurse replies, I know. The amount of IV stands that go missing from this ward… She jokes that they’ll have to start padlocking the hand sanitiser next. Or perhaps it isn’t a joke.
We talk a little, then read the paper. Dad’s phone broke so he’s using a borrowed Android that he hasn’t really got the hang of. At his request I download WhatsApp and BBC Sport and the emoji keyboard. We sample the canteen sandwiches. On the third day I discover a new fervour for Sudoku.
One day when we’re leaving, I ask Mum why Dad is lying to the nurse about the pain meds he’s taking. She says that if you tell them what you’ve got they take it off you and dispense it themselves. She says the nurses are excellent, but he wants the painkillers when he wants them, not when they want to give them to him.
My parents are familiar with how hospitals work now. They know that after a decade with cancer, there are only so many ways you can take your life into your own hands.
On the route home we pass the new KFC and the old balti and the pub that used to be called something else and I think that perhaps it isn’t the restaurants that are making me feel strange. Perhaps its something bigger that feels unfamiliar. Perhaps it’s not the yuzu’s fault at all.
A version of this post was sent by email on the 15th March 2020 as part of Internet Care Package – a weekly memoir project in the form of a newsletter. It also includes links to the best things I’ve found on the internet each week and occasional updates on my theatremaking. This blog is a select archive of those emails. Subscribe to get them right in your inbox.