In August last year, my mum had a fall at home and was taken to hospital. She was given an instant hip replacement, but she didn’t get much use from it. After three weeks of discomfort and exhausted misery, she died.
She had been a very stubborn woman, my mum. For years, I had argued with her about having an alarm to press, or giving a key to a neighbour. But her greatest anxiety was over security: every sensible precaution I proposed to her, she shot down on the grounds that people could get in.
“But the thing is, Mum,” I used to say, “one day you could be lying on the floor, and then you’d be praying for people to get in, wouldn’t you?”
Regrettably, some concerned neighbours once summoned police to the house when there was no need. Their act was well intentioned, but Mum never saw it that way. It was afternoon, and she had been asleep. She woke to discover a policeman’s arm coming through the front door, and shattered glass on the carpet.
I sympathised with her sense of violation, but I argued with her about the motives behind it.
“They just wanted to get in,” she said. “No,” I said, “they were worried you might be lying on the floor!”
For the rest of her life, Mum referred to this incident as “the break-in”. It was key to her personality that while accusing other people of having no empathy, she had zero empathy herself. Instead of thanking the neighbours for their misplaced efforts, she sent them off with a warning: “Don’t you ever do that again!”
And so, one day last summer, my poor mum found herself actually lying on the floor, unable to move. By the most miraculous chance, she fell on a Sunday, the day I usually phoned. Getting no reply initially, I told myself not to panic. Mum was quite deaf; she often fell asleep watching films with headphones on; she might be in the loo. I tried again after half an hour, then again, then again. Then I called a neighbour who had a go at peering through the dense net curtains (three pairs).
Finally, I asked the same neighbour to call the police while I drove up from Sussex. By the time I arrived, Mum was on her way to hospital and I met her there.
“Sorry I couldn’t answer the phone,” she whispered, as if nothing much was happening.
It turned out that the boy next door had managed to climb in through a window to let in the police.
There was no pleasure in being right about all this, but secretly I did expect Mum to acknowledge that I’d been correct, after all: that there are times when you need to be rescued. But do you know what she was trying to shout, from the floor, when she heard people gathering outside? “Don’t break the door down! Don’t break the door down!” That, you see, was my mum.
Next week: Mark Ellen
This article appears in the 30 Mar 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The terror trail