Man in the Middle – Chapter 38: The best iron money can buy

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

Image above: Cartoon by Robert Thomson

No. 38 The best iron money can buy

I look at Mother ironing her way through another basket of laundry fresh from the clothesline and suddenly remember the old joke:

Q: What do you call your mother ironing your clothes for you?
A: A free press.

I’m jolted out of my covid dream state. Where has this joke come from? Is it sexist or just patronising? I’d like to claim it’s been triggered by my irritation this week that the British media weren’t allowed to ask publicly funded health experts questions about Dominic Cummings. Or follow ups to the PM. But the truth is this joke has emerged from the primeval stock pot of my unconscious male bias. It’s a reflection of my cultural programming, not my politics. Disappointingly, my sense of humour is still being shaped by gender stereotypes and the Les Dawson Monster Book of Mother in Law gags. When will it end?

I am able to diagnose myself because I have been learning about unconscious bias among male Boomers from my daughter since she went to the thinky place or university. I thought I had some control over this problem. But, no. I wonder what my children would think if they knew. If my son heard the ironing joke, he would forgive me. His view is that male Boomers like me have been crippled by our upbringings and something called toxic masculinity. To him, I’m just a victim who needs re-education like the bourgeoise under Pol Pot. But, if my daughter thought I was still having such reactionary thoughts, I’d be up on the dining room table for an unmedicated castration before you could say Patriarchal Programming.

As I mull my thought crime over, it strikes me unconscious bias is a very unsatisfactory crime for the perpetrator because unconscious bias just spills out, spontaneously. The criminal doesn’t get the chance to enjoy plotting their crime. I feel like Winston Smith in ‘1984’, riddled with guilt without having really done anything wrong. Room 101 beckons.

Later, I confess my thought crime to my wife. She is my superior in all matters except pinball, so I’m hoping she will give me advice on how to play this when my daughter comes home next weekend. On emotional strategy, particularly, she is Pep Guardiola and I am Sam Allardyce, after a night out with the lads.

She’s asks me to repeat the joke three times.

‘It’s not funny,’ she says.

‘That’s not the problem. The problem is I am still riddled with unconscious gender bias.’

‘The problem is you’re riddled with poor jokes,’ says my wife.

‘What will the children say if they realise how unreconstructed I still am?’

‘If they kick off about your gender bias, I would just remind them it was your gender bias that brought us together in the first place and that without it they wouldn’t exist.’

A warm feeling smiles through me. This is one of those moments when you realise what matters most in a marriage and why it’s worth battling through those difficult moments: who gets to sleep on left side of the bed; should you share razor blades and is Sky Sports worth having.

‘I thought it was those boxes of chocolates that did it?’ I say, winking.

‘Don’t dig yourself back into a hole,’ she says.

Mid-afternoon. Mother is back at the ironing board after lunch, ready to resume her battle against her fear of her impending uselessness.

I put another basket of laundry next to her, when she turns to me and asks if I remember the jokes she used to tell us as young children to keep us near her and within her sight, while she was doing household chores.

‘Like?’ I ask.

‘Why are elephants wrinkly?’ she asks.

Because they can’t fit on an ironing board?’ I say, the answer springing out of somewhere, unconsciously and without bias. Mother smiles.

‘That’s right. You remember.’

 

Man in the Middle – Chapter 37: Cummings and goings

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.37 Cummings and goings

Monday. My new yoga regime continues. I’m in Child Pose. My forehead and nose are nestling in the sitting room carpet and my arms are outstretched ahead of me. My yoga teacher is asking me to find some ‘inner peace in the moment’. But I’m getting distracted by the cat fur and microscopic bits of stuff which I can see as my eyes nestle into the purple fibre of the carpet. What is this stuff? Crumbs from one of Mother’s secret cake raves? Flakes of onion bhaji from last night’s takeaway? Flea eggs?

Mother walks into the sitting room and sits down in her TV chair, behind me, which means she’s facing my backside and bald spot. I am dressed only in bamboo underwear and a ragged t-shirt. Both have seen better days. I don’t think even the most self-enlightened yogi would be able to stay focused knowing his mother lurked behind him about to pass comment on his lack of pants.

‘I want to speak to you about something,’ she says. Here we go, I think.

‘What about, mum?’ I reply, rising up from the purple carpet of crumbs.

‘Commins.’

‘Who?’

‘The Durham chap.’ She means Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s chief adviser.

‘OK,’ I say.

‘I don’t understand.’

‘What don’t you understand?’

‘Why is he allowed to travel 200 miles to Durham, but you don’t want me to go 200 yards to Sainsbury’s?’

I don’t think she means this to sound like an accusation, but it feels like one. Since the lockdown, we’ve done our best to follow what we thought were the rules because we’ve been scared that if one of us accidentally brings the covid-19 virus back home, she will inevitably get it. And at ninety-six years old, we didn’t think the odds on her surviving were good. Nor did she.

In fact, we spent the first weeks of lock down enforcing really strict rules: separate rooms, separate crockery and cutlery, eating apart etc. Our daughter stayed lock down in Cardiff rather than travel home to be with us during the pandemic because we thought we were helping the NHS. Maybe, we were too rigid? Maybe, we should have used reasonable discretion and allowed her and ourselves out more. I start to wonder if it was actually cruel to be so strict, especially to her? A guilt seeps into my gut, like bile.

I start to answer her question by saying that her situation and Cummings are not the same. But aren’t they? I hesitate.

‘Is the lockdown over then?’ she asks.

‘No. It isn’t. It’s more complex than that.’

‘Aren’t the rules, the rules?’ she asks.

I tell her that I need to check what exactly the rules are now, because they are changing, and I don’t want to tell her something that’s wrong. I suggest we talk again once I’ve reviewed the rules.

‘I see. You want to ask your wife what to do?’

It’s only a glancing blow to my ego so I smile and move on.

‘The Sainsbury’s Local has special hours for elderly people if she wants to go shopping,’ says my wife, later.

‘Her philosophy is ‘I shop therefore I am’. So, we should let her go shopping,’ I suggest.

‘She just wants some semblance of independence back in her life,’ says my wife.

‘Should she wear a face mask if she goes out,’ says my son.

‘Good luck with that,’ I say.

‘I’m more worried about her being able to stand up in the queues,’ says my wife.

My son looks confused.

‘Isn’t the rule that if she doesn’t need to go shopping, she shouldn’t? And we can get her everything she needs, can’t we? So, shopping is obviously non-essential and therefore wrong?’

I’m not sure I know what the rules are any longer. But there’s no question she doesn’t need to go shopping. But, after Dominic’s comings and goings, what authority do we have to stop her, if she decides she wants to go?

Read the next in the series – Chapter 38: The best iron money can buy

Man in the Middle – Chapter 36: For whom the bell tolls

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.36 For whom the bell tolls

It’s twenty minutes since I slouched past Mother’s bedroom door, yoga mat under my arm, and I can still hear her talking on the phone.

Twenty minutes is an unusually long call for her because her hearing is so poor and her patience quite short. She also keeps calls quick because she thinks telephone charges are ‘scandalously’ high along with the TV licence, bread, milk, butter, eggs and cake. She lives in an imaginary, inflation free Eden.

The last call this long was with a fraudster, who was trying to prise loose her bank account details. Instead they got her life story in a pause free monologue of approximately fifty minutes. I felt sorry for the fraudster. It must have felt like being kidnapped by the terrorist wing of the James Joyce Society, who never set prisoners free until they’ve been forced to read out loud Joyce’s 265,000-word, stream of consciousness masterpiece ‘Ulysses’.

I make a mental note to ask Mother who she was talking to when she comes down for breakfast. If it’s the doctor, I like to know what’s been said. I am in the Downward Dog pose at the time. I realise I’m getting better at yoga because last week I would have fallen over if I had tried to think at all while attempting Downward Dog. Is it time to move on from the five-minute beginner’s warm up video?

I flop into Savasana, the Corpse Pose, which involves lying flat on your back and breathing. I keep my eyes closed as I hear the clumping of Mother’s crutch on the wood floor as she walks through the sitting room to the kitchen. The fact I do not open my eyes to look at her going past is another sign of my growing power of yogic concentration and ability to control my mind / body duality.

At breakfast, I read a report which says 8,000 older people have died of corona virus according to their death certificates in care homes. The death rate in April is 10,000 higher than usual for this month. It makes me wonder what would have happened to Mother if she had gone to an old people’s home instead of moving in with us and feel relief Mother is here with her family, not alone, isolated and scared in a care home. Would she ever want to go to one, after this?

‘Who were you talking to,’ I ask Mother, as she butters her toast.

She looks up and out toward the garden.

‘B— has died.’

B— is an old friend, who worked with Mother worked in the fifties and stayed friends.

‘I was just on the phone to her husband. She died a few days ago,’ says Mother.

‘I’m so sorry,’ says my wife.

‘Was it Covid?’ I ask.

Mother shrugs her shoulders. Her friend was in a care home for people with dementia.

‘When is the funeral?’ asks my wife.

‘I don’t remember anything about a funeral.’

‘Is she allowed to go to a funeral?’ I ask.

‘I was thinking of sending flowers and card, really,’ says my wife.

‘It’s happened, already, I think. Poor B—.’ She sighs.

I can see my son looking under his eyebrows at Mother for signs of distress. But she isn’t shedding any tears and no flood of memories is unlocked. Perhaps she feels she lost her friend to dementia years ago and this is moment has lost its immediacy and hurt. Perhaps she is decided to keep a stiff upper lip?

Anyway, how are you meant to behave when someone you know dies? Can you train for it? Or do you just hope you will find a way to roll with the punch, like a boxer, who knows they must get knocked down one day, and that when that happens it’s instinct, not training, which gets you back up on your feet.

‘I’d like to organise a Mass for her. I’ll go and see the priest today,’ says Mother.

‘I think you better call first. I don’t think you can go to the Church yourself,’ says my wife.

‘Still this bloody Covid thing,’ says my Mother.

‘I’m afraid so,’ says my wife.

Later that afternoon, details from the church and florist to hand, I open Mother’s bedroom door.  She is asleep, fully clothed. Exhausted by emotion. Her radio is on and, for some reason, she’s tuned into Radio 2.  They’re playing ‘We are Family’ by Chic.

Read the next in the series – Chapter 37: Cummings and goings

 

Man in the Middle – Chapter 35: Nachos

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.35 Nachos

Mother is prodding a bowl of Nachos gently, so she doesn’t disturb anything like the first Police Officer at a murder scene.

‘What is it?’ she asks my son, putting her fork down.

‘Nachos,’ he replies.

‘Is it Greek?’

‘No. It’s a Mexican corn tortilla covered with cheese and salsa.’

‘Salsa?’

A thought catches her. She nods at me.

‘His godmother danced the salsa. Argentinian. It’s in their blood.’

She’s confusing nachos with Naxos, salsa with tango and Cuba with Argentina. It is correct that my godmother was a chorus line dancer and married an Argentine. However, she was born in Croydon.

Sometimes this happens. Mother is like a psychedelic signalman, who switches the points on the railway track, setting you off on a journey to an unknown destination. A simple conversation gets absurdly diverted.

‘Salsa is also a type of Mexican sauce,’ my son replies gamely trying to put the conversation back on track.

She peers at the Mexican take-away laid out on the kitchen table, suspiciously. Her radar locks onto an open polystyrene tub.

‘What’s that green stuff?’

‘Guacamole,’ says my wife. ‘It’s avocado mashed up with other stuff.’

‘Other stuff?’ says Mother.

Mother doesn’t like the look or the sound of the food. Events are running out of control faster now, the way the last inch of bath water appears to spiral down the plug faster than the first.
The take-away is her treat to us. A kind gesture to break the covid-19 lock down ritual of DIY cooking, clearing and cleaning and a way to assuage her unnecessary guilt she doesn’t contribute enough around the house.

Instead, it’s turning into a family faux pas. We’re embarrassed we’ve ordered something she doesn’t want to eat. She’s embarrassed to admit it and is now racking her brain for an excuse to say ‘no’ to dinner, like a vegetarian diplomat trying to refuse a plate of exotic offal, without giving offence.

It’s my fault, of course. I could have ordered something safe. She likes fish and chips, especially chips. With careful negotiation we might even have formed a consensus around an Indian or Chinese meal. But no. I decided it was time to experiment.

‘Mexican? Are you sure,’ said my wife?

‘Chilli con carne is your least favourite food,’ said my son. ‘It’s the only opinion you’ve held consistently since I was a baby.’

‘Everything deserves a second chance,’ I said, exuberantly pressing the ‘Add’ button on my ‘Just Eat’ app for portions of enchiladas, burritos, tacos, nachos, quesadillas, tortillas and even a vegetarian chilli con carne.

Now it’s arrived, Mother has come to inspect the gift she’s bought us. She’s standing next to the table tilting like a Tudor house, ground floor timbers leaning one-way, top floor leaning the other. If she sits down, getting up will be a big effort so she’s weighing things up carefully, while my son snaps the lids off the takeaway’s plastic containers. Each snap sounds like a dull firework and infuses the kitchen with an aroma of plastic, cheese and chilli.

My son pours a kidney bean sludge into a serving bowl in front of Mother, who turns away from the table with a faint groan, her mind made up.

‘I’m not very hungry right now. I haven’t been feeling quite myself all day. I’ll help myself to some cheese and biscuits later, if you don’t mind.’

‘Nachos is sort of cheese and biscuits,’ says my son, pointing at the yellow cheese on top of the pile of nachos, setting like lava as it meets the air. It’s his last roll of the dice.
‘No, thank you, darling. I think I’ll go to bed. I’m not feeling well.’

Once she’s gone upstairs and my son has taken her a plate of cheese and biscuits my wife turns to me.

‘There’s a lesson here, isn’t there.’

‘Never order Mexican,’ I ask?

‘We should just focus on giving her food she knows and likes and not try to turn these moments into a foodie festival.’

‘She was fine until she saw the chilli con carne,’ I say.

My wife shakes her head.

‘By the way, the chilli is disgusting,’ says my son. ‘One positive take out from this debacle is that dad has been right about one thing all these years: chilli con carne is the worse dish in the world.’

Read the next in the series – Chapter 36: For whom the bell tolls

Man in the Middle – Chapter 34: The lure of yoga

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.34 The lure of yoga

I’m woken by a South African woman urging me to ‘keep going’ and the sound of panting in my right ear. Her voice is slightly muffled, but her message is clear.

‘Nearly there. Don’t stop now.’

I can’t remember starting, to be frank, and I’d much rather go back to sleep. It’s 8.30am, for Heaven’s sake.

‘Noooooh,’ I moan, two fifths awake. ‘Too tired.’

I only went to bed five hours ago after a marathon TV binge with my son: ‘Zombieland Double Tap’ followed by two back to back series of ‘Adventure Time’, the greatest work of art about pre-pubescent boyhood, an era which my family agree I’m an expert in.

Unfortunately, the woman’s has voice has latched onto me. Much as I’d like to, I can’t go back to sleep. I get out of bed and go to the window.

In the next door garden, the young family is exercising together on yoga mats while their South African female fitness instructor’s voice urges them onto new levels of well-being from out of a laptop.

‘And…Rest. Egg-cellent, you guys. Same time tomorrow?’ she asks.

‘OK,’ I mumble, staring at my bare feet and tired, grey pyjamas.

I shut the window and lie on the bed. I’m being left behind. Others are using the lock down to better themselves, whereas my only achievement has been to master the YouTube app’s new voice search function. And I only did that to save the energy required to press the buttons on the TV remote. I must take a lead from my neighbours and shake off my covid lassitude.

At breakfast, I take my first step to redemption by apologising to the family for failing to be a positive role model.

‘I should have done something constructive with the time but all I’ve done is wallow in Ground Hog Day,’ I confess.

‘You’ve been eating like a ground hog too,’ says my son.

‘But today, I’m putting that right. I’m adopting a new faith, a new mantra: ‘Carpe Diem’.’

‘Is he converting to Catholicism?’ asks Mother.

‘No, he’s going to stop being a slob,’ says my wife.

Mother releases what could be a hiccup or a truncated giggle.

‘How will we recognise this ‘Carpe Diem’ stuff, dad?’

‘I’m open to suggestions.’

‘Try to get a bit fitter,’ pleads my wife, who has taken up Italian, crocheting and bread making in the spare time around doing her full-time job.

Getting fit? I wonder if I could slip into our garden each morning and secretly work out alongside the neighbours? The instructor’s South African accent easily carries the fence.

‘Don’t even think about it,’ says my wife.

‘Think about what?’ I ask.

‘Joining in with the neighbours. They don’t want to hear you puffing away like an asthmatic sea lion and if you tried their workouts, you’d have a heart attack in five minutes.’

I don’t how she knew what I was thinking but she’s right. It would be unfair of me to disrupt my neighbours’ morning work out by having a heart attack. They’d be within their rights not to speak to us again, if I did.

‘What about yoga?’ says my wife.

‘Yoga sounds fun,’ I say, remembering yoga doesn’t involve running around or weights.

‘I once bought his father a yoga tape,’ Mother chips in. ‘Just after his first stroke.’

‘Tape means VHS video,’ I say to my son, not wanting him to be excluded from a piece of family memorabilia by old fashioned terminology. He shrugs his shoulders.

‘I’m not stupid you know.’

‘He often got very angry with the video player, didn’t he?’ I say to my mother.

‘I think the video player caused his second stroke, actually. I found a tape jammed stuck in the machine’s mouth and him puce on the floor alongside it,’ says Mother.

The possibility his second stroke was caused by a fight with a video player is highly plausible. My father believed inanimate objects had malicious souls and set out to frustrate human beings. His blood pressure would soar when they were disrespectful, as he saw it. He wasn’t an animist, though. This was just a prejudice he adopted after years of failing at simple household tasks and DIY.

My wife gets up because she has work zooming looming. She looks me in the eye.

‘What’s it going to be, then? ‘Sitting on the Dock of the Bay’ or ‘Carpe Diem’?’

‘Bring me the yoga mat, I’m going to start right now’ I say, grabbing the moment by the throat.

‘Ha. Dad’s going to attempt yoga,’ says my son to his sister via Facetime.

‘She wants to know if I can film it. This could be our chance to become YouTuber millionaires,’

Read the next in the series – Chapter 35: Nachos

 

 

 

 

Man in the Middle – Chapter 33: Hilary Mantel & the dead body

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.33 Hilary Mantel & the dead body

My wife wants me to bring down the dead body when I get out of the shower.

‘Sure thing,’ I reply.

She’s on the floor below shouting up, practicing marriage by megaphone.  I’m not sure if I’ve heard her correctly, but I’ve learnt it’s better to say yes first and ask questions later.

It’s early morning and I want some ‘me time’ under the warm stream of the shower to wake up and get my wits about me, too. If I question her instructions the next thing I know she’ll be her knocking on the bathroom door and I’ll have to get on with it, whatever it is.

As I knead my bald patch with a volumizing conditioner a thought begins to nag. It’s the same thought footballers have when they say something ‘hasn’t quite sunk in yet’, a feeling something momentous has happened which one can’t yet grasp or articulate.

This feeling begins to take shape as a series of questions: why is there a dead body on the landing? Whose body is it? How the hell does my wife expect me to carry it downstairs with my back problem?

I’m pretty certain it’s not a family member that’s dead because my wife’s voice would have betrayed more emotion and the tone of her voice was definitely from her ‘TaskMaster’ wardrobe, steely cold and clear.

I lean my head against the shower screen and have an epiphany. My wife is a Hilary Mantel fan. Last night, after finishing ‘The Mirror and the Light’, she said she wanted to re-read ‘Bring up the Dead Bodies’, which is on the bookshelf outside the bathroom. I’ve misheard her. What she wants is for me to bring down, the bring up the dead bodies book. Mystery solved.

‘Dad. I think you need to come out now,’ says my son.

‘Why?’

‘There’s a dead body out here.’

‘Just throw it down to mum.’

‘I’m not picking up a dead body.’

‘It’s not a big deal for heavens sake,’ I shout, irritated my ‘me time’ under the shower is clearly coming to a premature close.

‘If you do, I’ll add it as a credit on your Task Listicle,’ I add, enticingly. Task Listicles are the list of jobs we’re given each day by my wife to protect us from idleness and sloth.

‘Don’t patronise me with your patriarchal, reward-based behaviour systems. I’d rather clean the bogs than pick up a dead body,’ he replies.

Mother has come up to see what the fuss is all about. It’s unusual for her to come up to the third floor. The last time she was up here she was so distressed by the sight of so many un-ironed children’s clothes and the general disorder that she didn’t sleep during the day for a week.

‘Your son’s right. It’s definitely dead. I’ve just given it a prod,’ says Mother.

I’m not a specialist in infectious diseases like Donal Trump but it occurs to me a dead body could still pass on the Covid-19 virus. If it really is a dead body and not Hilary Mantels’ book, then Mother prodding away at it with her crutch is just going to stir up the virus and spread it around the landing.

‘Don’t panic,’ I say as I open the bathroom door with a towel wrapped around my waist.

‘He’s like Corporal Jones in Dad’s Army,’ she says with a wink to my son.

‘Whose army?’ my son asks.

‘I’ve seen dead ones before. I don’t need you to tell me not to panic,’ says my Mother.

On the landing outside my son’s bedroom is a dead bird. I don’t know what sort. Small. Not a pigeon. The cat is sitting up next to it. I’m tempted to say he looks proud, like a Big Game Hunter standing next to dead prey, ready for the safari paparazzi to snap his picture. But, actually, he just looks bemused by all the rumpus and the sight of Mother this far up the stairs.

‘It’s a dead bird,’ I say, as if I had discovered the Holy Grail.

‘Yeeeesss,’ say my mother and son, sneers in their voice.

‘I thought…’

‘He killed a mouse yesterday,’ says Mother. ‘I watched him from the balcony. He played with it for hours.’

‘Why didn’t you stop him?’ says my son, who loves the idea of natural ecosystems only without the messy bits like killing and eating.

‘Have you got it yet?’ I hear my wife’s voice getting closer.

I look from the dead bird to the copy of ‘Bring Up the Dead Bodies’ on the bookshelf and wonder if I have time to put on my trousers. As I hesitate, my wife arrives on the landing with a sigh and a dustpan and brush.

Read the next in the series – Chapter 34: The lure of yoga

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Man in the Middle – Chapter 32: Howard Hughes Stays Over

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.32 Howard Hughes Stays Over

If Howard Hughes were still alive, he’d want to spend lock down in our oxygen tent.

Hughes, the billionaire businessman, had a phobia about germs. He wore tissue boxes instead of shoes and insisted his valet wrapped his hands in paper towels when serving his food. Covid-19 would be his worse fear, which is why he would have he’d liked the oxygen tent which my brother-in-law lent us.

He’d also would have admired our cleaning regime, which is probably unmatched, outside of an ITU. Complacent cobwebs, which thought they had squatters’ rights, have been snuffled up by the handheld vacuum with a snout like an anteater. Windows sparkle like Meghan Markle. Dishcloths are disinfected daily. The cat has been doused with flea drops and run away, disgusted we think so poorly of his hygiene.

I’m mulling Howard over while working my brush around the toilet bowls of our home. My task today is to get them spick and span.

I’ve created a slogan which is ‘If it’s not good enough for Howard, it’s not good enough for me.’ It reminds me of the standards I need to aspire to. It’s my chore mantra. Without it, I could easily settle for second best and give into the siren song of the TV and the sofa.

Mantras also remind me of the days when I used to think the Harvard Business Review was worth reading. Mantras reconnect me with a time when I thought success meant having the latest creamiest management mantra ready to share, like a box of chocolate bon-bons.

‘If it’s not good enough for Howard, it’s not good enough for me’ came to me on a call last night with our daughter, locked down in another city. We were discussing my wife’s germ battle plan for the day ahead.

‘Dad’s Head of the Bog Squad,’ said my son.

‘Am I?’

‘Well, you can’t expect me to do the loos. I’m putting up with enough shit as it is. What with not being able to go to school and see my friends.’

‘Can I be Head of Ironing?’ asks Mother.

‘Of course. Never in doubt,’ says my wife. ‘I’m putting on an overnight wash to ensure that there’s a full load ready and waiting for you in the morning.’

‘I think mum’s acting like Florence Nightingale,’ says daughter.

‘She’s the Lady of the Listerine,’ I say.

The conversation stalls.

‘Why does he always have to try to be funny?’ asks my daughter.

‘It’s his way of…. Actually, I don’t know what it is his way of doing. He just does it,’ says my wife.

My son looks at me.

‘You’re like the Play That Goes Wrong. You’re only funny when you’re not meant to be.’

As Head of Ironing, Mother feels empowered to offer her insight.

‘His father couldn’t take things seriously for long either. Underneath it all, I think it’s a psychological problem. It’s safer playing the clown. It’s a defensive mechanism.’

My wife is digesting Mother’s point, more diligently than I might want. I’m trying to think of something to say which will move the conversation on, when I realise this would simply prove my Mother’s point. With a Mother like this, who needs a psychoanalyst?

‘Can I stay in the oxygen tent tonight?’ asks my son, after a short pause in the conversation.

‘I think your father deserves it more?’ says my wife.

‘Why?’

‘Because it’s this week is #Stop Snoring Week. The tent will soundproof the rest of us from his snoring.’

Read the next in the series – Chapter 33: Hilary Mantel and the dead body

 

 

Man in the Middle – Chapter 31: Can you be Hygge without hugs?

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.31 Can you be Hygge without hugs?

‘Is the ‘Dutch Housewife’ a porn movie?’ asks my son, looking up from his phone.

‘Why would we watch a porn movie while Granny’s still up?’

Mother is sitting with us silently mouthing answers to University Challenge. Or doing a Mindfulness exercise.

‘Why would we watch a porn movie full stop?’ says my wife, horrified.

‘Dad said: ‘You’d like the ‘Dutch Housewife’?’ It sounds like a porno. Don’t get shirty with me,’ says my son.

We’re debating what movie to watch after University Challenge.

‘I said she’s LIKE a Dutch housewife. I was complimenting her for organising the deep clean we did on the house today,’ I say.

‘We?’ says my wife.

‘It’s a saying. In the 17th century, Dutch women were famous for their hygiene standards and their rigorous cleaning regimes. Just like Mum.’

I smile at the beloved.

‘Famous for my cleaning regime, am I? I guess you’ll be pimping me out on a neighbourhood website as a deep cleaner, next?’

Covid-19 cabin fever has set in. Nothing I say or do now can get me out of this deep and dangerous impasse. The situation is potentially so ugly that I may have to apologise and send myself to bed without supper.

‘Noel Coward!’ shouts Mother at the TV rocking forwards with excitement. For a moment, it looks like she is going to fall off her chair.

‘Noel Coward’ Jeremy Paxman repeats softly from the TV.

Mother has correctly answered a question which the mighty Trinity College Cambridge team have fluffed. And they don’t fluff many.

‘Goal!’ shouts my son and breaks into a strange jig, which he’s copied from a Jack Black Instagram video, to celebrate Mother’s one answer victory.

I don’t want to rain on her parade, but we are watching a repeat of last week’s show and she got the same question right then. But that’s Covid-19 for you: every day is Groundhog Day.

My son’s jig has broken the tense atmosphere. If I keep my head down, I may make it to bed fed and still married. But Covid-19 has got me thinking deeply about life. For example, while disinfecting the bannisters this morning, I wondered if it is possible to be hygge without hugs?

Hygge is fuzzy Danish word stands for homely conviviality and Nordic knitwear. I get that artisan woollen beanies, socks and jumpers can fill many gaps in a bourgeoise life. And I’ve often wished I were Scandinavian because of their superior social system and crime procedurals. But if you can’t hug or kiss your family because you have to stay two metres apart how long can you create a happy hygge household? I guess Gywneth Paltrow would know? I also want to know if the family agree with me that the Government should rename the ‘Nudge Unit’ because it is clearly inappropriate in current circumstances to be nudging anyone.

Should I risk these thoughts with them? Or call it quits now?

‘Chekov.’ My wife starts whistling and fist pumping. She’s got a question right on University Challenge.

‘Dad,’ my son whispers and showing me some no-name online dictionary on his phone.

‘What?’

‘It says here a Dutch housewife can mean a prostitute, a sex doll or a body length pillow.’

‘Let’s not go back over that now,’ I say. ‘At least, not till after dinner.’

Read the next in the series – Chapter 32 Howard Hughes Stays Over

Man in the Middle – Chapter 30: Has Covid made pants pointless?

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.30 Has Covid made pants pointless?

I’ve given up wearing trousers. They’re superfluous in the current situation. Unless I have to go outside to the shops or for a walk, I can’t see any benefit in them. The same applies to shirts and shoes. Neither are necessary in this indoor world.

Pyjamas, on the other hand, have become more valuable than ever.  They’re the ultimate all-rounder, like Ben Stokes. You can rely on them to come good in different situations: bedroom, kitchen, sitting room. You can even work out in them.  Pyjamas will never let you down which is why I’ve been in mine for several days.

I’m explaining to the family that Covid-19 is challenging the very fabric of our society and posing profound questions like: are clothes pointless? I wouldn’t be surprised if in some louche parts of London, like Mayfair, where people can afford good underfloor heating, many families have moved beyond the pyjama and embraced nudism. We’re still conforming to Bourgeoise timidities, however, and haven’t reached that point yet.

‘I’m just saying that Covid-19 makes pants pointless. They’re an affectation like shaking hands or kissing when you meet.’

‘OMG. You’re becoming a student again,’ says my wife, her voice trembling between horror and despair.

‘You’re rewilding,’ says my son. ‘Like an ancient forest being returned to its natural state.’

‘On Zoom, no one can see your chinos,’ I point out. He nods in agreement.

‘What about socks?’ asks my son.

‘Good point. The only reason I’m wearing socks is these wooden floors. They haven’t been varnished for years and I’m worried about splinters.’

‘Fair enough. Plus there’s an environmental upside to your approach: reducing the clothes you wear means fewer wash cycles which means reduced use of chemicals and water. It’s a virtuous circle,’ says my son.

‘Please don’t encourage him,’ my wife scolds my son.  ‘He hasn’t even put his T-shirt on the right way this morning. How long have you been wearing that, anyway?’

‘Two, three days?’

‘It’s the crack in the dam,’ says my wife.

‘The decline of the Roman empire,’ says my son, chipping in on his mother’s side now.

‘You have a responsibility, as a father, to maintain decent standards of dress. And to set a positive example to your son. Do it for your Mother, at least.’

Mother looks up from her toast and jam.

‘He used to blow his nose on the curtains when the vicar came around. He’s always trying to shock people. His brother is worse.’

‘I’m just saying there’s a case for temporarily relaxing some of the usual social norms. We spend most of our time on different floors of the house. What does it matter what clothes we have on? Or even if we have any on?’

‘Is there any Government guidance on Covid and nudity?’ asks my son.

‘How many naked health workers have you seen recently? You idiot,’ says my wife.

I feel a lecture coming on from Mother about the Blitz spirit and what King George VI would do in these circumstances. I start to edge out of the kitchen, shoulders sliding along the wall, like a drape on a curtain rail. This way, I maximise the distance from the others who are splayed across the kitchen like a star fish.

Later, I Zoom with my daughter, who is in Cardiff. I hope she can explain why my pyjama policy isn’t winning votes from the clan. She says research proves communities become more conformist when threatened by disease. It makes people psychologically reject outsiders and embrace conventions. It’s a psychological version of our biological immune systems.

‘Clothes enforce gender stereotypes. The gender convention in clothing is that men should ‘wear the trousers’’. Right? By not wearing trousers, you’ve broken that gender convention. You’ve sent them a sign that you are surrendering your position as the family’s patriarch. Symbolically, you’ve emasculated yourself.’

‘Emasculated myself?’

‘Yes. You’re behaving like a pathogen.’

‘I’m a pathogen?’

‘Yes. You’re as bad as Covid-19 because both of you are a threat to their conventions.’

‘I’ve managed to emasculate and debagged myself at the same time without even realizing it?’

‘Yes.’

‘What can I do?’

‘Put your trousers on?’

Read the next in the series – Chapter 31 Can you be Hygge without hugs?

 

Man in the Middle – Chapter 29: Mother’s birthday

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.29 Mother’s birthday

I’m wearing black leather driving gloves and carrying a plate of scrambled eggs and smoked salmon. It’s Mother’s birthday. I’m taking her breakfast in bed as a surprise treat. I knock on the door. There’s no answer.

‘Room service,’ I shout and knock again.

I don’t usually wear leather driving gloves because they make me feel like Alan Partridge. But we’ve run out of the blue disposable hygiene ones and her health trumps my self-esteem. I must do everything possible to reduce spreading the virus. Even wearing black leather driving gloves.

‘Actually, they’re not that embarrassing. Are they?’

I’m admiring my gloved right hand as I rotate it around in that way the Royal family do when waving from a carriage.

‘A bit Alvin Stardust,’ replies my wife, grimacing.

‘You should buy those police tactical ones, next time. They’ve got the best grip and they only cost £12,’ says my son.

My wife and son are behind me on the landing at a socially responsible distance. They’re wearing face masks and yellow washing up gloves. They’re primed to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ when Mother opens her bedroom door.

‘Jeeves here,’ I shout again, my lips almost kissing the door.

Once the breakfast tray is safely landed on her bedside table, I plan to pass over her three birthday cards. Giving her the cards by hand risks coming within two metres of her, so I’ve decided to slot the cards into the stiff bristles at the end of our long-handled yard broom. Then my son will feed the broom into her room and she can pick the cards from the broom without having to come too close to us. It’s a little Heath Robinson, I know. But, last night, I experimented with a spatula, barbecue tongs and the broom. The broom was the most effective, by far.

Mother opens her door with a sleepy look. We burst into Happy Birthday. She is bewildered. Perhaps she thinks we are the council’s deep cleaning squad come to give her bedroom the once over?

When the song ends there is a bemused silence. Embarrassed, I try to lighten the atmosphere.  Before I can help myself, I’ve slipped into the voice of the late Australian cricket commentator Richie Benaud.

‘Great innings. Ninety-six not out. The century’s there for the taking. Just need to be careful not to play any rash shots, now.’

‘Are you trying to impersonate an Indian or an Australian?’ asks Mother.

‘Happy Birthday, Gran. Your birthday cards are on the end of the broom,’ says my son, extending the broom towards her.

‘What a novel way of giving me a birthday card, darling. Are you training to work on a barge?’

‘Dad’s idea to keep you safe from Covid-19, Granny.’

Her eyebrows twitch upwards.

‘Do you know what I’d like to do after my breakfast,’ she says to my wife.

‘No?’

‘Ironing. If you could set the ironing board up, please.’

Since the mental health charity MIND said ironing is good exercise for old people locked down by covid-19, she has become obsessed by ironing. It’s her way of staying useful in the lockdown.

‘Ironing and friends,’ Mother says.

‘Friends? We can’t have friends around at the moment. It’s against the rules.’ says my wife.

‘The TV series, I mean. I love Phoebe and Joey reminds me of your husband: well-meaning but a little dumb.’

Read the next in the series – Chapter 30 Has Covid made pants pointless? here

 

 

Man in the Middle – Chapter 28: Covid-19 didn’t ruin Mother’s Day

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.28 Covid-19 didn’t ruin Mother’s Day

The Sun and our cat are celebrating Mother’s Day together in the garden. The Sun is dry combing the grass and the cat is trampolining on it while shadow boxing with clouds of insects. He’s happy the months of muddy lawn are past, and the magnolia is flowering.

This side of the patio doors, Mother’s Day isn’t quite so carefree. We’re having a Family Emergency General Meeting to decide if we can salvage anything cheery out of Mother’s Day without breaking Government medical guidelines. This is proving harder than we thought. In many ways.

One of them is the Mother’s not been able to follow the cut and thrust of family chit-chat as clearly since she gave back her hearing aid, last week. She believes her decision is an historic act of self-liberation and calls it her Unilateral Declaration of Hearing Independence. We think it’s the equivalent of ‘Sakoku’ the Japanese trade policy which isolated the country from foreigners for 200 years. The fact we now have to stand six foot away from her because of social distancing rules hasn’t helped, either. Which is why my wife is having problems trying to explain to Mother the difference between a lock-in and a lock-down.

‘Why does the Government want us to lock ourselves in the pub?’ asks Mother.

‘Lock-down. Not lock-in,’ says my wife, slightly ruffled.

‘His father enjoyed lock-ins. They had them at our local pub in the Seventies.’ replies Mother.

As I wait for my wife to work her way through this Gordian knot of semantic confusion, I gaze out at the cat. He reminds me of my father’s favourite Edward Lear’s poem ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’. I start whispering:

‘The Sun and the Pussycat went to play,
On a beautiful pea green lawn’.

‘What?’ says my wife, in a voice like weed killer.

‘Dad’s favourite poem,’ I turn to my Mother hoping the memory will kick start her reminiscing and distract my wife from the lawn mowing coming my way.

‘Did you behave like this in business meetings when you were a grown up?’ asks my son. Actually, I did spend one business meeting pretending to be a mouse for a bet. But I’m not going to admit it, now.

‘Let’s just focus on the issue at hand,’ says wife, calmly.

‘Don’t worry. Social distancing is something that happens to you inevitably as you get older. Your friends die, the phone stops ringing, you can’t go out much. I’ve been living with it for years. Today’s no different,’ she says, staring out at the garden where the cat has just done the most extraordinary somersault from the fence into the middle of the lawn. He thinks he’s caught something but it’s only the shadow of a passing cloud.

Only a sociopath wouldn’t be worried right now. We’re scared that being locked down at home with Mother for the next three months means one of us may expose her to Covid-19 with fatal consequences. It’s the unavoidable irony of our situation: she moved in to have a safer, more sociable life in her last years but now it could be a death sentence.

‘How about making today ‘Mothering Day Movies’? Granny binges on her favourite movies this afternoon. This evening, it’s your turn, mum.’

I almost tear up with admiration for my son. My favourite embodiment of XY chromosomes has smashed it. We’ve just installed a new, super powered Wi-Fi system, TV, speakers and super-woofer which could blow the roof off Wembley stadium. She’ll be able to watch and hear some old classics all day long. What better way to spend Mothering Sunday?

‘Brilliant. Better than spending the rest of the day, wiping down the bannisters and washing the floors like a Dutch housewife,’ says my wife.

Covid-19 is sulphuric acid to social bonds and rituals. It forbids hugs and handshakes. It separates marriage beds and turns families into disconnected passengers stuck in the same railway carriage. It scowls at fun and laughter. But it can’t control the TV remote. Covid-19 hasn’t cancelled our Mother’s Day!

Mother installs herself in front of the outstretched TV, a plate of Belgium chocolates nearby. The BBC ‘I Player’ is loading up Noel Coward’s war time classic ‘In Which We Serve’.
‘I worked on that,’ she says, a smile wrinkling her cheeks. ‘This is much better than going to that noisy pub you normally take me to.’

Read the next in the series – Chapter 29 Mother’s birthday here

Man in the Middle – Chapter 27: Can’t Hear, Won’t Hear

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.27 Can’t Hear, Won’t Hear

I’m waiting, shamefacedly, for my appointment with the audiologist at a leading high street retailer where Mother bought her hearing aid. The staff eye me furtively because this is my sixth appointment in a fortnight which they know can only mean one thing: Mother still refuses to believe her hearing aid works. They’re right.

I suspect the appointment is running late because most of the staff are out back drawing straws to decide which unfortunate one has to talk to me. They’re probably muttering under their breath ‘Wish He’d Gone to Boots’ and cursing their successful TV advertising campaign.

Mother has issued me my battle orders. Either they fix it, or she gets a refund. The shop consistently says there is nothing wrong with the hearing aid but she says it hasn’t improved her hearing. It’s a common complaint among seniors, apparently, but a weak case for a refund. However, the staff, whom I have come to regard almost as family over the last fortnight, are caring and considerate. They may take pity on me and give me a refund if only to shift a relentlessly unsatisfiable customer to a competitor.

I’m not unsympathetic with Mother, though. Alexa can hear me order pot noodles from six foot, but she can’t hear me ask if she wants a cup of tea from two. Why can’t Alexa make hearing aids? Perhaps there’s a demographic injustice here waiting for the right person to champion it. ‘Ear Rights’?

I am sure that if Dario Fo, the Italian playwright were still alive, he’d be writing a new version of his Marxist farce ‘Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay’, only it would be renamed ‘Can’t Hear, Won’t Hear’. Mother would be his co-author and lead actor.

The original play featured the looting of a supermarket as workers protested at the soaring cost of living. ‘Can’t Hear, Won’t Hear!’ would climax with an angry mob of nonagenarians requisitioning stocks of capitalist hearing aids and stamping them to pieces under the furious heels of their walking sticks and zimmer frames.

Set in a coastal town filled with retirees attracted by the sea air and a network of soft tarmac motability scooter friendly lanes, the new version would star Mother as the leader of a group of OAPs no longer willing to suffer overpriced and underperforming hearing aids.

The focus for their anger would be ‘Hear Here’, the town’s largest retailer of hearing aids, owned by a careless capitalist known as the ‘Audiologist’ who owns the local hearing aid cartel. He has a perma-tan and a yellow comb-over, which suspiciously never flutters even during the towns’ stormy winter gales.

In the penultimate scene of the play, he would get his comeuppance. Members of the Bowls, Bridge and Golf clubs have gathered as one on the promenade, walking sticks bristling like spears, dentures chattering with anger. Mother rouses her troops to revolt.

‘The hegemony of the Audiologist must end. We reject batteries, which barely last an episode of the ‘Antique Roadshow’ and pink ear moulds which embarrass us. Today, we will set our hearing free.’

Some of the mob chant in agreement ‘Here Here’, others point at the Audiologist’ shop and shout ‘No. There. There.’

The shop is their Bastille. They shuffle towards it singing a croaky version of ‘Do you hear the people singing’ from the musical ‘Les Misérables’ and from the side streets, their sons and daughters join them to stand shoulder to shoulder in their fight for aural liberation.

In the last scene, the mob of seniors standing around a pyre of plastic hearing aids. On top of the pyre is the Audiologist, bound. He begs them to let him down. Mother stands with a flaming torch in her hands next to the moulded mound.

‘Do we hear his plea?’

As one, the revolutionaries take their hearing aids out of their ears and toss them on them onto the pyre and turn their faces to the sea as Mother leans her flame towards the pyre. Curtain falls.

I am wondering if I have accidentally invented a new theatrical genre Third Age Agitprop, when one of the staff comes up to me.

‘Come through, please. Sorry to have kept you waiting.’

The senior audiologist looks up from her PC, as I come into the room.

‘Good morning, Mr -. We’ve had another look at the device. It is working according to our tests. However, I wonder if it would be better all-round if we just took this on the chin and gave your Mother a full refund? What do you say?’

‘Here, here,’ I say. ‘Here, here.’

Read the next in the series – Chapter 28 Covid-19 didn’t ruin Mother’s Day here

 

 

Man in the Middle – Chapter 26: International Women’s Day

A middle aged man decides 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.26 International Women’s Day

We’re celebrating International Women’s Day by searching for the Lost Batteries of Mother’s Hearing Aid, which sounds like a rare Indiana Jones DVD, but actually is a regular and tedious domestic ritual in which we hunt for the missing bronze batteries which power Mother’s hearing aid.

‘They’re mischievous little buggers,’ says my Mother, whenever the latest goes AWOL.

My wife is downstairs excavating the sofas for these minuscule, self-isolating pellets, which are a fidget to fit and as dedicated to escaping their hearing aid as Steve McQueen is to exiting Stalag Luft III in the Great Escape. I am upstairs scrubbing my right cheek on the sisal carpet, my head half under Mother’s bed. There are so many unidentifiable packets and packages under Mother’s bed that finding the batteries is as hard as spotting doubloons on a sunken ship. I peer into the fluffy gloom hoping a shard of half-light might refract off their shiny bronze skins and give their position away.

‘I feel like I’m snorkelling on a wreck,’ I say, tongue half in cheek.

‘The only wrecks down there are the relics of my life,’ says Mother. ‘Please focus. I’ve lost six batteries this week and I can’t afford for this to carry on.’

‘There’s a lemon drizzle here,’ I call up from under the bed.

‘Is it beyond the eat by date?’ she asks.

Lemon drizzle cake is her favourite. I stretch my hand out towards the faint yellow glow of icing sugar behind a cellophane window.

‘Still good. Coming up for air.’

I stack the lemon drizzle cake on a growing tower of biscuits, sweets and sandwiches on her bedside table. There’s enough here for the Millennium Convention of Mad Hatters. Or enough to reassure an old woman worried about the threat of Covid-19 to feed her cake addiction. Actually, Mother’s hoarding habits pre-date Covid-19. She’s been stashing food in her bedroom since before Christmas. I’ve found chocolate bars luxuriating in a bed of silk stockings in her chest of drawers. Packets of tea biscuits like paratroopers next to the picture frames on her bookshelves. Maltesers snooze under the drape on her bed. Zoologically speaking, she’s behaving like a gerbil. I recognise the parallels because the children had one once which used to hide sunflower seeds in stashes around its cage like a drug dealer fearful of a police raid.

‘Any batteries?’ she asks returning me to the main task. Slowly, I lower myself on my knees and unroll my stomach and chest onto the carpet.

‘Once more under the bed, dear friends, once more….’ I jest.

‘Can’t resist making every little thing a drama, can you?’ she says.

I’ve got a red rash on my cheek and a sore neck. At my age, getting down, stretching out and then getting back up again is more than a bit of a drama, it’s a piece of civil engineering. If Henry V keeps me motivated, surely that’s a small price to pay?

Nevertheless, I do what I’m told. I roll out onto the floor like a supplicant and inch myself into the under-reef of the bed. Suddenly, a flash of bronze catches my eye like a darting fish. My first grab pushes the battery away, but I get my fingers around it and without lifting it, drag it back.

‘Gotcha,’ I cry.

For a while, like a sea elephant, I roll around trying to get up without losing hold of the battery or my dignity.

‘How many?’ says Mother, like a pirate waiting for the plunder to be counted.

‘One little beauty.’

‘Better than none.’

The battery is sitting in a cup made by thumb and index finger like a bronze gem in a jeweller’s ring setting. I drop it into her shaking hands. Then a sharp pain runs up my back and my neck muscles set solid as cement. My head becomes a weather vane stuck in a north westerly direction. I roll onto my back and wonder if this is God’s way of suggesting I give up snorkelling and take up yoga.

Read the next in the series – Chapter 27 Can’t Hear, Won’t Hear here

 

Man in the Middle – Chapter 25: Blue Suede Shoes

A middle aged man decides 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.25 Blue Suede Shoes

Mother holds a glass jar of orange marmalade in her left hand while she lances a knife into the jars’ mouth with her right, as if she were threading cotton through the eye of a needle.

Her hands tremble with the effort so the knife taps against the glass as if she were playing a triangle in an orchestra. She half pours, half spreads the marmalade onto her toast, but her weak hands can’t sustain an even downward pressure, so it smears unevenly, and globules spill off onto her plate and the floor.

I have been watching her for five minutes and don’t know whether I should offer to help or look away. Intervening would be kind. It would also save marmalade from falling onto the floor which would win me plaudits under the Family’s new ‘Policy on Food & Kitchen Waste’. Ethos: ‘Look after the marmalade and the breakfasts will take care of themselves’.

I opt to do nothing. My Wife would say this was my usual modus operandi. But I have decided it would be patronising and undermine Mother’s dignity if I suggest I should spread jam on her toast for her. It will also unleash a ‘Stop Teaching Your Grandmother to Spread marmalade’ speech and I’m still feeling fragile from drinking too much at last night’s Book Club.

Before I think further about this dilemma, my Daughter sweeps into the kitchen and my Mother’s face lights up as if every Sun in the Galaxy had turned its ripening warmth on the orange pieces in her marmalade.

‘How are you feeling about the interview,’ says my Wife.

‘Good,’ says my Daughter.

She’s wearing a dark blue trouser suit, a white blouse and a scarf. Her trousers stop at her ankles, but I think this is a stylistic choice not a mistake caused by putting her trousers into the washing machine at the wrong temperature.

‘You look both professional and beautiful,’ says my Wife.

Mother, however, has been anxiously scanning her granddaughter. Her toast is listing like a ship in a storm as her hands shake and a large blob of marmalade is sliding towards the edge of the toast like a slurry of molten magma down a steep volcanic mountain side. She leans towards me.

‘You must say something to her?’

‘Good luck today,’ I say willingly, waving a spoon in the air at my Daughter.

‘No. About the shoes, you idiot’ says Mother, pointing at my Daughter’s shoes.

‘What’s the matter with her shoes?’ says my Wife.

‘She can’t do a job interview in blue suede shoes,’ says Mother, her thoughts spilling into speech just as the marmalade blob slips onto the floor between her feet.

My Daughter’s shoes are blue suede and a bit scuffed but we’re no longer living in an age which believes that clothes ‘maketh the man’. Or woman. Or the non-binary person. Are we?

‘I told her to wear a pair of lime green Vaporfly’s,’ says my son, referring to Nike’s new controversial performance enhancing running shoes. ‘Anyone else turning up for the interview who sees you in a pair of those will give up immediately.’

‘It’s a job interview, not the London Marathon,’ says my Wife.

‘Vestis virum facit. Clothes make the man,” says Mother, using the only Latin phrase she knows apart from ‘Tempus Fugit’. ‘People make judgements about you based on your shoes. It’s a fact of life.’

Currently, Mother’s shoes are a morass of Sevillian thick cut orange marmalade globules, so I am glad she’s not going for a job interview this morning. But I am worried that my daughter’s pre-interview equanimity may be badly shaken if Mother starts lecturing her on her choice of shoes.

Mother’s turning her chair from the kitchen table to face my daughter, like the gun turret of a battleship bringing its guns to bear on a target, so I realise I have to do something quickly to distract her.

Flushed with inspiration, I turn on Spotify and start singing along to ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ by Elvis Presley while swinging my hips in an homage to the King. The song contains a moral that will surely shut Mother up.

‘You can burn my house
Steal my car
Drink my liquor
From an old fruit jar
Well do anything that you want to do
But uh-uh, honey lay off of my blue suede shoes’

The music is too much for Mother who turns her gun turret back to the kitchen table and starts to reapply marmalade to her toast. It’s too much for my daughter and wife, too, who quickly leave the room to find a suede brush, apparently.

Only my Son seems to recognise my performance for what it is – a selfless diversionary stratagem to defuse a dangerous family conflict. He’s supporting my efforts by drumming along on a packet of Cheerio’s and singing along ‘Go Cat, Go’. It’s possible there’s a faint trace of irony in his voice, but I am not entirely sure.

Read the next in the series – Chapter 26 International Women’s Day here

Man in the Middle – Chapter 24: Goop

A middle aged man decides 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.24 Goop

It’s dawning on me Mother and I are trapped in a psychodrama neither of us remembers auditioning for. Day by day, our roles as parent and child are reversing. But we’re not sure of our new lines yet and are like uncertain actors in the hands of a director who isn’t sure if they are directing a tragedy or a farce.

‘Like the ‘Play that Went Wrong’?’ asks my Son.

‘Or ‘One flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’?’ says my Wife.

Whoever coined the phrase ‘a problem shared is a problem halved’ couldn’t do basic Maths.

Our psychodrama plays out in many ways. Food, for example. Once, I was the fussy eater, now she is. Once, she complained I must eat greens, now I find myself lecturing her about her diet. Am I wrong to be frustrated by her refusal to acknowledge that a daily packet of Bahlsen Choco Leibniz Biscuits and twelve cups of heavily sugared tea isn’t a balanced diet? Surely, a hot cross bun doesn’t qualify as ‘lunch’ unless we re-write the English dictionary?

I wonder if Gwyneth Paltrow’s ‘modern lifestyle brand’ Goop has a solution to Mother’s dietary problem? I plug in the phrase ’diets for seniors’ into the site’s search bar but it returns nothing. Clearly, Goop isn’t geared to resolve the dietary challenges of the older generations, but I bookmark an article on the site about someone called Wim Hoff, who is a specialist in Breathwork, a new way of relaxing from the daily grind, in the belief that at my age I need to investigate anything which may help me battle my anxieties with life.

Although her weight is stable, it is a constant worry that Mother doesn’t eat more. I’ve looked at the NHS guidance and wonder if I can persuade her to eat more of the foodstuffs they recommend.

‘How about porridge?’
‘Only for Scots.”

‘Peanut butter?”
‘For American children.’

‘Avocado on toast.’
‘Too water intensive.’

‘I just want you to stay healthy,’ I despair.
‘I just want you to mind your own business.’

A recent study has shown that those who eat at least half of their daily calories in the morning are healthier. I suggest we agree a new breakfast regime for a week and in return I’ll stop my nagging.

“A regime’s is something you find at Butlin’s or a concentration camp. I’m not keen on either,’ she says. “However, how about sausages? We haven’t had them in a while?”

The reason she hasn’t had a sausage for a while is because they became a banned substance in our house under the new Heathy Foods Regulations written by my Wife and passed with the support of my children at the start of the year by a clear majority of three to one. Not only are sausages a processed meat, they have nitrates, sodium and fat in them, which I am told are bad for you. I eat them whenever I can, especially in a sandwich, but only when alone and at cafes more than two tube stops from home in case anyone sees me. Asking me to bring home and cook sausages is no different to her asking me to smuggle in an illegal substance.

Nevertheless, a few days later, I am grilling sausages for lunch. I have interrogated the butcher about additives and the meat’s provenance, and I am convinced these sausages are about as healthy and ethical as a sausage can be.

‘Do you remember your godfather John?’, asks my Mother from the dining table, shaking tomato sauce onto two slices of bread and casting aside the real tomatoes and lettuce which I had draped over the bread.
‘Yes.’

Divorce left my godfather bereft of the love of his life and any culinary interests apart from bangers, as he called sausages. I remember he was found dead of a heart attack outside the door of his flat gripping a shopping bag with three packets of them in it.

‘Wouldn’t have approved of grilling them, though. Always fried them.’

Mother has no sense of the risks I have taken bringing sausages into the house. But rather than take umbrage, I take a big Wim Hoff style ‘Breathwork’ and console myself that by criticising my cooking she’s returning to one of her traditional Motherly roles in the family psychodrama – the Critical Cook – and that is good enough and, somehow, reassuring.

Read the next in the series – Chapter 25 Blue Suede Shoes here

 

 

Man in the Middle – Chapter 23: Laurence Fox

A middle aged man decides 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.23 Laurence Fox

My Wife and I regularly watch the police TV series ‘Lewis’. But I wouldn’t call us fans. Usually, we’ve forgotten by breakfast what we saw the night before and we often find ourselves half-way through an episode and realise we’ve already seen it.

We have a catch-phrase for this moment of déjà vu: ‘The professor. In the quod. With a signed copy of Gerald Manley Hopkins’ Collected Poems.’ The first to say it is excused a household chore of their choice the next day. It’s one of those little tropes which give meaning to marriage.

The fact we’re not really absorbed by ‘Lewis’ doesn’t undermine our commitment to the show, though. We watch it because it is one of a precious few TV shows we can easily agree to sit through together. It’s a pro forma trade deal which can be done quickly without facing any potential high-stake conflicts of interest and allows us to stay up beyond 9pm without having to acknowledge we have nothing more left to say about the day just gone or the one to come.

Laurence Fox, the actor, plays DS Hathaway in ‘Lewis’. In the series, he’s always seemed sensitive, even a forerunner of more woke men to come, but his real-life views on women and race are causing a furious furore. I haven’t followed what he has actually said, but he’s appearing on Top Gear, a programme which has always struck me as the propaganda wing of the Fossil Fuel & Patriarchy Party. So the women he’s angered may well have a point.

I’ve also heard Laurence self-identifies with broccoli. I’m not clear if this is ‘bants’ (as my kids call it) or a recognised condition (if that’s the right word) but he does have a broccoli icon on his Twitter feed. I once became obsessed with lentils, especially puy lentils, which I later realised was an early sign of my mid-life crisis brought on by early onset paunch, loss of hair and a growing sense of impending economic irrelevance. I wonder if Laurence’s identification with broccoli may have the same root causes?

I need to speak to my daughter about his views and the way he’s expressed them. She’s informed, intelligent and balanced. She will understand what the furore is all about and why he’s wrong to say he won’t date women under the age of thirty-five. She’s down from University for a job interview so tonight is the perfect the moment for me to get to grips with the issue.

When I suggest this to my Wife, she turns pale. She makes it plain to me that our marriage now hinges on me doing two simple things: first, never mentioning Laurence Fox again. Second, not asking my Daughter about his views on women the night before her job interview.

‘Are you an idiot? This man is poison to her generation. She’ll flip if you even bring his name up. She may not recover her focus in time for tomorrow’s interview.’

‘You’re right. She cried the night Donald Trump won the Presidency because it symbolised the triumph of toxic masculinity.’

‘Didn’t we all,’ she stares at me, as if I am hiding something.

‘Of course, we all did.’ I puff out my chest. ‘Which is why we must now take a stand with our daughter and women across the country.’

‘What on earth are you talking about?’ says my Wife.

‘We must follow through on our principles and boycott ‘Lewis’.’

‘Boycott ‘Lewis’? How will that help?’

‘Solidarity,’ I say.

‘But we’ve seen all nine series, already. Boycotting ‘Lewis’ is hardly a sacrifice or much of a political gesture.’

It’s not often that my wife shows even a faint flittering of panic, but her face is changing as she speaks. Something dreadful is dawning there.

‘How will we get through the evenings without ‘Lewis’?’ she asks me.

I put my arm around her.

‘Midsomer Murders. We’ve only seen eight series. That means we’ve got another 12 still to go.’

Read the next in the series – Chapter 24 Goop here.

Man in the Middle – Chapter 22: Rice Pudding

A middle aged man decides 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.22 Rice Pudding

I am making a chocolate rice pudding when my Mother asks me if I plan to poison her. She’s crept up next to me at the stove and is pointing at the rice pudding with a wooden spoon.

‘Not yet,’ I say, ‘though if you start stirring the pudding while I am trying to mix the rice with the melted butter and sugar, I can’t guarantee anything.’ I get very anxious whenever anyone stands close to me while I am cooking.

‘Don’t you remember it was rice pudding that did for your father?’ she says.

She’s right. Rice pudding did kill my father. A grain or two of milk sodden rice slipped past his trachea and blossomed into clostridium difficile, the super bug. The doctors sucked on his lungs and pricked him full of antibiotics, but he was old and frail.  After a few days the bug shut him down.

A year or so before, he had been diagnosed with throat cancer. He survived the operation but the muscles in his throat were so weak afterwards that he never ate solid food again.

My father loved cooking and eating. If he were still alive, he would self-identify as both a gourmet and a gourmand. So, this final year of dining on mashed foods and semi-liquid puddings was probably as humiliating as any of the other indignities he had to bear during that time: unable to dress, unable to walk and wearing diapers.

I don’t know how to answer my mother’s question, so I pour a glass of Cointreau and a handful of white chocolate chips into the pot and keep stirring.

‘It wasn’t the way he’d have chosen to go. He never liked sweet things or desserts. If he’d had a choice, he would have rather choked on a boeuf bourguignon or something classically French.’

This could be a joke or a statement of fact. It is perfectly possible my foodie father would have spent most of his final year lying on his bed thinking about his last meal, like many a condemned man before him.  But the question which has grabbed me is not what my father would have preferred choked on but why has my Mother asked me if I am planning to kill her? I haven’t studied Freud, but everyone knows there’s no such thing as an innocent joke. Could it be making a chocolate rice pudding is actually a subliminal act of aggression, even something Oedipal?

‘I think he’d have chosen cheese. Roquefort and French bread,’ I say, deciding to let Oedipus go and follow the flow of my Mother’s macabre conversation.

‘Snails swimming in garlic and butter,’ says my Mother, jauntily.

‘Both. With steak frites in between. A three-course meal was the least he deserved, ‘I say. We’re both smiling at the thought.

‘I remember a Roald Dahl story in which a woman murders her husband with a frozen leg of lamb and then eats the lamb to destroy the evidence,’ says my Wife, coming at the conversation from a different angle, but one I can’t help feel is equally laden with Freudian menace only for me.

‘Meat is murder,’ says my vegetarian Son, chipping in.

‘If I were going to murder Granny, I would probably use old eggs under cooked. Or lightly cooked sprouts, which are a breeding ground for bacteria. I was reading about them the other day,’ I say cheerfully.

The conversation stops. The room fills with silence. The rice pudding pops. I’ve gone one step beyond.

‘How does the pudding look,’ says my Wife, after a short while.

‘Not bad,’ says my Mother. ‘His father would have been proud of him. It looks better than the stuff I used to give him out of a tin.’

Read the next in the series – Chapter 23 Laurence Fox here.

Man in the Middle – Chapter 21: New Year Resolutions

A middle aged man decides 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.21 New year’s Resolutions

New Year’s resolutions are like donkeys at the Grand National.  They seldom reach the finishing line. But that doesn’t stop us liking donkeys or resolutions. They’re game little beasts that willfully ignore Einstein’s advice about insanity and do the same thing over and over again, regrouping every New Year’s Eve to plead like sirens: ‘Believe me. This year I will jump Becher’s Brook, I promise.’

Nine out of ten New Year’s resolutions are scrap metal by the middle of January, which makes them as reliable as a British made car of the 1970s, and pundits say the only way to succeed is to focus on one single mission, like a German car engineer obsessing on how to fix an emissions test.

Mother has embraced their advice. This year she has set herself only one goal, which is to stay alive. My Wife’s only hope for 2020 is that I remember our 25th wedding anniversary in time to do something about it and the children want new Wifi, which is doomed to failure because everybody knows there are no qualified electricians in London free before 2025 to do the necessary re-wiring.

‘How about we learn sign-language together this year, so Granny doesn’t have to keep buying useless hearing aids,’ says my Son.

Researchers call this a Family Resolution. It’s the equivalent of an accumulator in horse racing. A lot of stuff has to go right for you to win, but if it does you win big.

‘The problem is we can’t even agree on what to watch on Netflix. How will we agree on a Family Resolution?’ asks my Wife.

I disagree with the expert’s advice. I think their pedigree is questionable. I support diversification and have my own methodology – ‘The Aintree Method’ – which promotes starting each new year with at least five or six resolutions just as I always start the Grand National with five or more bets. The more resolutions the more fun, ditto Grand National bets. Why be puritanical with your annual dose of puritanism?

Of course, it’s only once your resolution sets off down the muddy lane of January’s fine intentions that you find out whether you’ve picked a thoroughbred or a donkey.  Some disappear quickly as if they suddenly recognise their own existential pointlessness. Most are just weak willed and give up after a cursory effort and head back to the stables, mumbling ‘I’ll give it another go next year.’

This year has been no exception. ‘Stop Swearing’ refused at the first. ‘Going Dry’ was leading until my birthday when it pulled up suddenly and ‘Veganuary’ looked like a stayer until mid-month, when we discovered Parmesan has animal rennet in it and we had to retrospectively disqualify ourselves. It felt like failing a drugs test.

(My Son has carried on Veganuary like a rider-less horse at the Grand National, who keeps on running for the thrill of it.)

It’s February. There are few resolutions still in the race. Miraculously, an electrician has been found and I still have time to sort the wedding anniversary, like a jockey waiting to break from the chasing pack. And far out front still is Mother, not jumping as well as before, but still eager for the race.

Read the next in the series – Chapter 22  Rice Pudding here

Man in the Middle – Chapter 20: Musical Mothers

A middle aged man decides his elderly mother can no longer cope alone. 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.20 Musical Mothers

Mother is reading about Margaret Mackie, the pensioner, whose version of ‘My Way’ has been in the charts recently. Mrs Mackie has dementia. But it hasn’t stopped her giving Ed Sheeran, James Blunt and Stormzy a scare, while raising awareness of dementia.

‘Good for her. You can’t beat old-fashioned pluck. You don’t see enough of it these days,’ she says, holding up the newspaper as evidence.

Mother admires Pluck. It became endangered in the UK after its habitat was destroyed by the Swinging Sixties and the sexual revolution. It is now as rare as a Tory Remainer and seldom found except in people over the age of sixty-five. Mother has it in spades. Sometimes, it’s the only thing which gets her out of her bed in the morning.

‘It proves you shouldn’t write us oldies off. We’ve still got lots to offer.’

‘Nobody writes you off, Granny,’ says my Daughter gently.

‘He does,’ she says pointing at me. ‘Won’t even help me with the TV without a putting a condescending smirk on his face.’

I would like to refute this accusation. But the truth is I have had to explain to her how to use the TV remote controls four times this week and my patience may have frayed. My last intervention was so she could watch ‘Judge Rinder’, a TV programme which I regard as a threat to the public’s confidence in our justice system and whose host may one day win a Nobel Prize in smugness.  In the circumstances, was it really so wrong for me to let slip my frustration? Surely, the Judge himself would urge Mother to be more lenient? 

Instead of trying to justify my tender, but inept condescension, I switch the conversation back to brave Margaret Mackie.

‘Did you know, ‘My Way’ is the most popular song at funerals,’ I say. ‘Do you think she will play Sinatra’s version at her funeral? Or her own?’

‘Jesus wept,’ says my Wife.

I realise immediately that instead of getting out of a hole, I have just started digging again. Mother revolts whenever funerals are mentioned. Luckily, my Son, who always sings in the bathroom and sometimes in school musicals, pipes up.

‘How about we write a musical about Granny’s life?’ He says.

‘What would we call it?’ asks my Wife, supportively of her little chick’s creative twitch.

‘The Long Goodbye,’ says Mother, darkly. 

‘That’s a movie not a musical,’ says my Son, who wants us to stay focused on his new wheeze.

‘It could be both,’ I say. I have my open mouth and smiley eyes emoji face on as I say this. I hope by supporting both of their suggestions I can take a place at the constructive centre of this family debate rather than its outer edge, which is where I normally am.  

‘Why don’t we start with one single song like Mrs. Mackie and then go from there? A whole musical will take a long time to do,’ suggests my Daughter, demonstrating her mother’s pragmatism or an eagerness to get her hands on the money which might flow more quickly from a chart topping single. 

‘That’s very sensible. Squeeze every drop out of me as soon as you can. There are no guarantees, after all, that I’ll be around if we attempt anything more complex,’ says Mother, determined not to let go of her grump, even with the beloved grandchildren.

Mrs Mackie would admire her pluck for not giving up the fight.

Read the next in the series – Chapter 21  New Resolutions here

Man in the Middle – Chapter 19: Reeling in the years

A middle aged man decides his elderly mother can no longer cope alone. 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.19 Reeling in the years

There is a black and white picture of Mother on our sitting room wall. She’s in an editing suite. It is 1941. She is working at Denham Studios as a third assistant editor on a film called ‘One of Our Aircraft is Missing’.

In her left hand she is gently pinching a length of film tape and with her right hand she is reeling the tape into a film wheel. Her dark black hair is long and combed back from her forehead and she is smiling at the photographer, as if the War did not exist. In the background, there is an Emergency Exit sign.

The picture hangs alongside a cluster of other family photographs on the wall next to the entrance to our kitchen. The children have nicknamed it the ‘Wonder Wall’. This is not a reference to the Oasis song but to the fact that when they look at the old pictures of me, they wonder how I ever got so badly out of shape.

‘You actually have hair all over your head in this one,’ says my son, slightly shocked, looking at a picture of me at university.

‘You’ve only got one chin in this one,’ says my daughter, pointing at me at an industry awards ceremony. ‘It must have been just after this that you started to let yourself go.’

‘That wall is meant to be a museum celebrating our family, not a reason for body shaming me,’ I say.

‘More mausoleum in your case,’ says my son.

My wife tells me I should not be offended by their disparaging comments about my current body shape. She thinks the comments are meant affectionately.

‘Anyway, they can’t help it. They’re at an age when they’re hormonally programmed to be body conscious. On top of that, they’re bombarded every day by social media images of young people with perfect hair and well-toned torsos. Is it surprising they find old pictures of you disappointing in comparison?’

This is not the reassurance I was hoping for. But I agree that social media and ‘Love Island’ have got a lot to answer for.

‘You can’t blame ‘Love Island’ for your lack of exercise or the second portions of spaghetti carbonara you’ve longingly wound around your fork all these years,’ says my wife.

In the picture, Mother is not the rice paper thin person she is now. She is a seventeen-year-old with puppy fat cheeks. I wonder if there is a genetic excuse for my ever-growing jowls?

‘Not really, darling. You were always a pig when it came to food,’ says Mother. ‘Don’t you remember at school they nicknamed you ‘wobbler’?’’

I do now. Wobbler. When I tried to run, I looked like a Telly Tubby chasing Usain Bolt.

‘Your father wasn’t very sporty, unless you count golf as a sport, which would be ridiculous. But he loved cooking. He was very proud of you because you cooked your first souffle aged ten.’

Out of her bag, Mother pulls a black and white photograph of me on the balcony of the flat where I was born. I am about six. I am staring intently at a large plate of food and have a white dishcloth tied around my neck as a bib. My elbows are level with my shoulders and I have speared my knife and fork into the food like a surgeon. The photo is too faded now to identify the food on the plate but whatever it is, I am looking forward to eating it. A lot.

‘Why don’t you hang this picture up on the wall with the other family photos?’ asks Mother.

‘Stowin’ away the time?’

I find myself mouthing the line from the Steely Dan song ‘Reeling in the Years’.

‘I don’t understand,’ she says.

‘Hanging it up there is a way of stowing away the past. Only in full view.’

‘If you want to be pretentious that’s up to you. I just thought it would be nice to see how sweet you were as a young child.’

Read the next in the series – Chapter 20  Musical Mothers here

Man in the Middle – Chapter 18: Kitchen Sink

A middle aged man decides his elderly mother can no longer cope alone. 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.18 Kitchen Sink

Mother is washing her clothes in the kitchen sink. She is kneading them slowly and methodically like a master baker with a new batch of dough. On the counter next to her, I can see her pink pyjamas and some other garments soaking in my favourite copper stock pot.

This stock pot is French and very expensive. It’s bronze sheen is beautiful and every time I use it, I feel it does something magical to my otherwise mediocre cooking. With it by my side, I can open any cookbook with hope and ambition.

Looking at it now, full of undergarments and washing powder suds, I feel my culinary aspirations slipping away as fast as the dark water Mother is tipping down the plughole. I don’t want to exaggerate, but I think my emotions are close to what Parisians felt as they watched Notre Dame burn last year.

For a minute, I watch her from the doorway, while coming to terms with the violation of my stock pot. Why is she doing this? After all, we have a laundry room and the washing machine and drier are both working. Normally, she throws her dirty clothes into the communal laundry basket and they get washed along with everyone else’s. Is she unsatisfied with the way we have been washing her clothes? Or is this one of those seminal moments when I am going to realise that her mental health is beginning to crack?

‘What are you up to?’ I ask, gently.

‘Have you gone blind?’ she snaps back.

‘What I mean is, I was just wondering why are you washing your clothes down here? By hand? In the sink?’

‘To save your wife from having to do it for me, of course. What’s wrong with you this morning? You seem to have come downstairs without your brain.’

I’m a bit stung by this. To be fair to me, when it comes to doing the laundry, I’m pretty woke. I do my fair share alongside my wife. At least, that’s how I see it. But she’s missed my point. It’s not who’s doing it that I am worried about, but where and what it’s being done in. I ask again why she has chosen to do her laundry in the kitchen sink?

‘To save the planet, of course. Did you know, a single load of laundry in a washing machine creates 600g of CO2. If we wash our clothes less often and at a lower temperature, then we may be able to save the planet. Besides, it gives me something useful to do.’

I admire the fact that she has decided to try to save the planet at this stage of her life, even though it involves defiling my favourite stock pot. But I’m peeved because I can hear the voice of my Son speaking through her. I remember him ranting on about the ‘outrageous’ energy consumption of washing machines and, especially tumble driers a few weeks ago, when he tried to persuade us to recycle the tumble drier and use a washing line instead.

‘If you want to go to school in wet clothes for half the year, then be my guest,’ said my wife. ‘But if the tumble drier goes, so do I.’

For me, this was the decisive moment in the debate. No man in his right mind would ever consider trading his wife and a tumbler drier for a washing line. But, obviously, my son hadn’t given up on the argument and had continued his lobbying efforts with his grandmother, quietly and effectively.

‘There are lots of ways we can help fight climate change without washing our clothes in the kitchen sink,’ I say.

‘Of course, there are. The United Nations says we should wash our clothes less frequently, too. I’ve been wearing this lot for ten days, at least,’ she says proudly pointing at the garments in the stock pot.

My stomach tightens. I don’t want to know what clothes are in the stock pot. Or how long it is since they were last washed. Something beautiful has been desecrated and can never be the same.

Read the next in the series – Chapter 19  Reeling in the Years here

Man in the Middle – Chapter 17: Resolutions

A middle aged man decides his elderly mother can no longer cope alone. 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.17 Resolutions

It’s New Year’s Day and everyone is slouching in front of the TV. Only the TV is off, because one of Wife’s New Year resolutions is that the family should watch less TV. She hasn’t quantified exactly how many hours of TV that means we can watch this year or how it’s going to be monitored. Nor are we clear if we each get our own allocation of hours or if there is just one giant family budget to draw down on.

Son suggests we use a model like the EU Emissions Trading Scheme with each of us getting a fixed number of TV hours at the start of the year which we can use up or trade with each other. ‘Think of it as a sort of carbon offsetting scheme with TV hours instead of carbon units. It will create a more flexible model better suited to the TV viewing needs of each individual member of the family while keeping a lid on the total TV consumption of the household.’

Daughter asks if she can sell all her TV units in one go because she is heading back to university next week and so shouldn’t be expected to participate in the scheme. She could also do with the money.

‘I don’t think the trade would be financial,’ I say, remembering the trauma when the children tried to trade stamps with each other.

‘On the contrary, I’d be happy to act as an exchange for the trading house. Though you’d all need to make a small deposit to underwrite the initial start-up costs,’ says Son.

Mother hasn’t said anything yet. But she’s tuned in. I think she is trying to understand if the proposed cap on TV might actually be serious. If so, we can expect a fight. Clearly, her TV consumption can’t be included under our family’s TV Viewing Cap even if she is the largest consumer in the house. Asking her to cut back her TV consumption is as pointless as asking the Chinese to stop building coal powered generators.

‘Shall we discuss it all over a beer down the pub?’ I say trying to break the conversation up before things get tricky.

‘I thought you were doing Dry January?’ says Wife.

Eleven hours into the New Year and I’ve already forgotten my one and only New Year’s resolution. The first sign of family difficulty and my sub-conscious is ordering a session IPA.
‘You’re right. But I’ll have something non-alcoholic.’

‘Let’s stay here, put the fire on and do something together. The Quiz of the Year or a puzzle.’

The children groan.

‘Like the old days,’ she appeals to us all.

‘In the old days, we’d have watched a movie together. Now we can never find something we all want to watch,’ says Son.

‘No TV. Until tonight. That’s that,’ says Wife, picking up the TV remote with a fierce grip. It’s clear it will be a fight to the death were anyone to try to take it off her.

‘Quite right,’ says Mother, in the stern voice she uses whenever she’s signalling that she wants to be taken seriously. ‘All of you. No TV till tonight.’

Mother admires decisive parenting even though she herself was laissez faire as a parent. Quite why she’s so keen on backing Wife’s ‘No TV’ policy is not immediately obvious.

‘If only I’d been as strong willed with you and your brother about the TV. You both watched far too much of it. Planet of the Apes and all that other rubbish. I blame your father he was never firm enough with you.’

It seems our New Year resolution has reminded Mother of an identical one of her own years ago to curb my excessive youthful TV habits.

Wife quickly lifts the newspaper up so we can’t see her face. Daughter leaps for the kitchen her eyes crinkled up. I think she’s crying. Or laughing. Son is googling something.

‘Nice one, Granny. Planet of the Apes. 1968. We can watch the original with Charlton Heston tonight. How about it, everyone? We’ve finally found something even Dad will like.’

Read the next in the series – Chapter 18 Kitchen Sink here.

Man in the Middle – Chapter 16: Rorke’s Drift

A middle aged man decides his elderly mother can no longer cope alone. 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.16 Rorke’s Drift

We didn’t watch the film ‘Zulu’ this Christmas. Instead, we relived it.

Not literally, of course. But as wave after wave of friends and relatives hurled themselves upon our hospitality for three nights, continuously probing for shortfalls in our tempers and our wine supplies, home felt like Rorke’s Drift, the beleaguered army post in the movie.

It’s Boxing Day. Mid-morning. I’m still in bed, but I hear Christmas Carols playing and can picture Wife having a coffee with her mum downstairs. She’ll be drinking from the recyclable, foldable coffee cup which Son gave her as a Christmas present because she wants him to see her using it the minute he wakes up. She’s signalling: ‘I love your Christmas gift so much I couldn’t wait to use it.’ Which is just as well because he was up till 3am playing Mortal Kombat so the chances of her seeing him before tea-time are slim.

I hear the scraping of tables and chairs. Wife is moving things around. Putting things away. Soon, she and my Mother-in-Law will decide the day’s battleplan. This is, after all, only day two of the Rorke’s Drift Christmas siege and an overseas regiment of relatives arrive this lunchtime. Beds will need to be changed. A smorgasbord of new nibbles will need to be laid out and fresh bottles of Prosecco loaded onto the wine rack in the fridge, like mortar shells ready to fire.

There is no point me getting involved in the battle plan. I’m infantry. In fact, I’m catering corp. My job to pass plates and pour drinks, not to reason why. There’s no rush, either. The CO knows how to Get Christmas Done and, soon enough, I’ll be instructed to get up, find an ironed shirt and comb my hair. The call to arms is inevitable.

I hear my bedroom door opening slowly and think the moment has come. I shut my eyes quickly and pretend to be asleep. If I’m caught with my eyes open, it will raise all sorts of questions. Have you had a bath yet? Don’t you realise they’ll be here in an hour? But if I pretend to be asleep still, I can blame the alarm and spring into action purposeful and apologetic. In mature moments, I realise I am as bad as Private Hook in the movie ‘Zulu’ who hides in the army hospital when his colleagues are fighting for their lives. We’re both Class A malingerers.

But it isn’t Wife coming into the bedroom. It’s Son who creeps under the blankets next to me. The moment is poignant with sweet memories of when he was a little blond teddy bear, climbing into our bed to open his Christmas presents.

‘Was it always like this?’ he asks, sleepily.

‘You mean Christmas?’ I say putting my arm over him.

‘No, I mean you not pulling your weight. We were discussing this last night after you stomped off.’

‘Stomped off?’

‘You ruined ‘Call the Midwife’ with your moaning even though you know both Grannies love it. When Mum asked you to shut up you stormed off into the kitchen.’

‘I was just pointing out some pretty fundamental flaws in the plot.’

‘Was it necessary though?’

‘How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!’

‘Classic. You can’t handle the truth, so you get all pompous and start quoting Shakespeare or someone to shift the conversation away from the fact that you’re in the wrong.’

I wonder when he went from being a teddy bear to teddy boy but, at the same time, feel a little parental pride at his analysis. He’s right. I keep a collection of phrases to scare people off when I feel cornered, which I use like a skunk uses its spray.

Wife opens the door. For a moment, there’s a smile on her face as she remembers the old days of family snuggles and a bed full of wrapping paper. But the smile disappears as she realises that there are Things to Be Done to Get Christmas Done and she must make them happen.

‘I’m afraid we don’t have time for this bromance right now. I need you both downstairs dressed. Sharpish. Comb your hair and find a clean shirt. Preferably ironed.’
‘I was just saying we should do exactly that to Dad,’ says Son, like a sycophant.

‘Is it time to reinforce the North Wall?’ I say, knowing Wife will get the reference to the movie Zulu and hoping it will earn me more brownie points than Son’s shameless grovelling.

‘Oh dear. I thought you’d given up on that Zulu movie fantasy years ago,’ says Wife, shaking her head.

Read the next in the series – Chapter 17 Resolutions here.

Man in the Middle – Chapter 15: Christmas Crackers

A middle aged man decides his elderly mother can no longer cope alone. 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.15 Christmas Crackers

This Christmas we have people flying in, popping by and sleeping over. It’s going to be a week-long Bacchanal which will test our livers, family unity and organisational skills to the max. There’s only one person capable of pulling this complex operation off and it’s not me. Wife, on the other hand, has the diplomatic and logistic skills of an Olympian. If she’s on her game, we’re all OK. If she’s not, nothing will happen. Christmas will be a cock up.

In days gone by, she would have embraced her role as Head of Making Christmas Happen willingly. She would even have counted it as fun. But her love affair with Christmas has been eroded over the years and now hangs by a thread. It started with the children skipping Midnight Mass and now involves the questioning of most of the rituals and routines which she created for them and once charmed them so much. She must feel like a Pope faced with the Protestant Reformation.

I haven’t helped. I lack Christmas spirit, apparently. I say things like ‘I don’t like Christmas carols as a genre’ and if someone starts waxing lyrical about the John Lewis Christmas advertising, I will lecture them about the contradictions between the preaching’s of Jesus Christ and what capitalism has done to his birthday celebration. Thinking about it, I’m probably the biggest Christmas downer of all.

We need Wife to ‘Get Christmas Done’. The oven is ready but the turkey is days away from being stuffed. Which is why when I hear Mother say she wants to veto Christmas crackers I start to panic.

‘No point buying them. I’ve heard all the jokes before. After all, I grew up with half of them.’

Son supports her on environmental grounds. According to him, the UK wastes 30% more paper at Christmas than at any other time of the year and cutting back on Christmas crackers would be a small step towards climate salvation.

‘Why stop at crackers? I think we shouldn’t wrap any of our presents this year,’ says Daughter. I can hear Wife grinding her teeth as another relic of her Christmas ritual is thrown to the heretics of utilitarianism.

‘Respect,’ says Son, as if he were a hoodlum from the Bronx. ‘What else can we ditch?’

‘Please God, the Queen’s Speech,’ says Mother throwing herself fully into the unfestive spirit.

I am genuinely worried that Wife might explode if this conversation goes on. Not least because her mother will want to watch the Queen’s Speech, making it another conflict zone to navigate come the day. I switch the conversation to the Christmas menu, which is normally controversy (but not gluten) free.

‘I’m thinking nibbles are smoked salmon canapes, crisps, nuts washed down by a glass of prosecco. Spinach souffles as a first course and for the main event beef wellington and a vegetarian loaf. Potatoes, red cabbage, carrots, peas, bread sauce on the side. Christmas pudding for dessert and then cheese and port. OK?’

‘Are you feeding the five thousand or just the family?’ asks Wife, dry as a ten-year-old panettone.

‘You need to lose weight, not put it on,’ says Mother, thinking she’s supporting Wife.

‘Your vegetarian loaf is like a brick,’ says Son. ‘I don’t see why I should be penalised at Christmas because of my vegetarian principles.’

‘This is why I may go to Jonny’s. Why does Christmas have to be so bloody stressy,’ says Daughter, perhaps not realising that the threat to be elsewhere on Christmas day is only adding to the stress.

I am having a man in the middle moment. It’s like being surrounded by smoke on a battlefield. You can hear shouts and groans but you can’t see where they’re coming from. It’s impossible to know what the right thing to do is next. But doing nothing is dangerous, too.

Mother has made her decision. She’s retreating to her bedroom. She’s picked up the smell of gunshot and decided she may get caught in the crossfire if she stays.

Age UK says more than half a million older people aren’t looking forward to Christmas, because they feel lonely. I wonder if she feels the opposite.

Read the next in the series – Chapter 16 Rorke’s Drift here

Man in the Middle – Chapter 14: Made in Chelsea

A middle aged man decides his elderly mother can no longer cope alone. 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. 14 Made in Chelsea

I have never believed life imitates art. But I do now because Mother is telling me about her courtship with my Dad.

It’s as if they had modelled their early relationship on Benedict and Beatrice in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Mother playing the role of the feisty, young Beatrice and dad is Benedict, the aristocratic wit and marriage hater. Like the characters in the play, they spent their early meetings throwing barbed comments at each other like rival artillery brigades, their courtship more fight than flirt.

‘I first met him at a dinner party. He was so arrogant that after a few exchanges I simply turned my back on him. Refused to speak to him for the rest of the meal.’

Picture the scene. It’s Chelsea in the late Forties. Everyone’s dressed up for dinner and how you hold your knife and fork says more about you than your bank balance. Turning your back on someone at dinner is a public declaration of war.

‘What did he do to deserve that?’ I ask, not sure if I really want to know. Every time we discuss my father with her, I feel I’m walking through a minefield.

‘He told me he was holding a drinks party the following week and asked me if I could ask my sister to it. He suggested that if I could persuade her to come then I could come too. Hardly, flattering, don’t you think?’

Mother’s sister was a successful actress at the time and married to a film director. She was a minor celebrity and would have added some cache to father’s cocktail party. I struggle to see my father as this social snob. But I can see him saying something as ham-fisted as this. He was a shy man and didn’t always handle social situation’s well.

I want to know why she was there in the first place. She comes from a large, working class Irish family with barely a bean to their name.

‘How come you were hobnobbing in Chelsea given your lowly start in life,’ I say, not meaning to sound patronising but failing.

‘Thanks to my sister’s connections and my looks. I was modelling then. Being good looking has always been a passport to social mobility,’ she says.

‘Sounds like an episode of Made in Chelsea with Grandpa as that stuck up p***k Spencer Matthews. Frankly, it’s amazing they ever got married,’ says daughter, later, as I share the story.

I am not sure which one is Spencer Matthews, but I know the programme is a loathsome celebration of vanity and social neuroses among the over tanned trustafarians of SW3. I remember lecturing the children on the lack of wit and moral fibre of its participants and begging them to switch over to something more wholesome like Blue Planet. Unsuccessfully.

‘Must be tough for you,’ says Son, as he cuts into a Linda McCartney red onion and rosemary sausage. ‘All those years telling us not to watch the programme because the people were so self-obsessed and stupid. And now it turns out that you were ‘Made in Chelsea’ yourself. How does that feel?’

I want to answer but I can’t find any words. Instead, a picture of Derek Underwood, the England bowler comes to mind, his off stump being wrenched out of the ground by a ferocious fast ball from Michael Holding and him turning immediately towards the pavilion, defeated.

Read the next in the series – Chapter 15 Christmas Crackers here

Man in the Middle – Chapter 13: Burning down the house

A middle aged man decides his elderly mother can no longer cope alone. 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. 13 Burning down the house

Wife is telling us that it is essential that Mother doesn’t feel like a lodger in our home. She must have full citizenship, not settled status is the thrust of the lecture.

‘She has to feel this home is as much hers as ours. We must encourage her to have her friends around. Have parties.’

‘And sleep overs,’ says Son.

‘Them, too,’ says Wife refusing to rise to his bait. However, I am distracted by an image of elderly women in sleeping bags on Mother’s floor, sucking on popcorn while arguing over which Cary Grant movie to watch.

‘We need an online booking system. I’ve got a few parties booked over Christmas and we don’t want diary conflicts,’ says Daughter, who’s on a flying visit from University.

‘Where are these parties happening?’ I ask.

‘Here, of course. Why else would I be suggesting a family booking system?’ says Daughter. Both children look at me as if I’m an inferior species.

‘Keep up,’ says Son.

Later that week, Mother tells me that two of her former neighbours, who now live in South Africa, have arranged to come around at the weekend to see her.

‘Are they staying with us?’ I ask hesitantly.

‘Why would I ask them to stay without checking with your wife? Just because I’m old doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten my manners,’ she snaps. ‘Lunch. It’s just lunch.’

‘Would you like me to do anything to help?’

‘Yes. Make sure everyone’s out by 12.45 on Saturday. I don’t want you fussing around me or the boy slumming in front of the TV playing one of his ghastly games. Just buy me some lemons and makes sure there’s full bottle of gin around.’

It is clear she has fully embraced Wife’s philosophy of ‘Mi casa, su casa’. In fact, it feels like she’s taking it one step further. Not only has she asked friends into our home, but she’s throwing us out. This is more ‘Mid Witch Cuckoo’ than ‘Su Casa’. I wonder how this will go down with Wife.

‘Perfect,’ she says. ‘This is just how it should be. She wants to be in control of her party and to have some privacy with her old friends. We can go out for lunch.’

‘What about me?’ says Son. His Saturday morning routine of slobbing around is in tatters.

‘You’ll have to be up and dressed before mid-day for once. It’s nothing to be scared of,’ replies Wife.

I can’t resist chipping in.

‘Mummy and Daddy will be there for you through the trauma. Just like we always have been there for you at the big turning points in your life.’

‘Boomers.’ He shakes his head and walks out.

Wife and I come back at about teatime to find Mother triumphant from her lunch party. Three hours of uninterrupted, old fashioned banter about the old days, the old neighbours and the old man, my father. What’s not to like?

‘They loved the house, by the way. They asked me to complement you for your marvelous good taste and to thank you for your hospitality.’

I don’t need to turn around to know Mother is talking to my wife not me.

‘They loved the new wood fire, especially. Reminded them of winter in London. In South Africa they only need fires to barbecue on,’ she laughs.

‘Wood fire?’ says Wife alarmed.

‘Yes. I put some logs on the fire in the sitting room to make them feel at home. Such a wonderful, woody smell, isn’t it?’

The fire she’s referring to isn’t a real fire. It’s a ‘Wood Burner Gas Fire with Realistic Flame Effect’. Unfortunately, it looks so real Mother has spent the afternoon lobbing wood logs onto it. Luckily, its fire retardant and hasn’t caused an explosion.

Later, with Mother upstairs exhausted with fun, Wife sweeps up the ashes.

‘Thank God for EU safety standards. They could have been burnt alive. You must warn her about not doing it again.’

Mother’s sister died of severe burns after candles set her bed alight. Telling her she’s almost burnt our house down will remind her of that. It’s going to make her feel foolish, too. Is that helpful? Will that stop her making the same mistake again? Or just humiliate her?

Son, who has changed back into his pyjamas and is booting up the PS4, pipes up.

‘Shall I have a chat with her instead of Dad? It’s easier for me to tell her she’s a silly old bat than him and I won’t make it sound like a lecture.’

There are moments when you realise how good your child rearing skills are. This is one of them.

‘Perfect, ‘I say. ‘Deal.’

‘Coward,’ says Wife, as I rush upstairs.

‘Just going to check if the insurance policy,’ I say. ‘Want to see if we’re covered for arson by elderly relatives.’

Man in the Middle was first published in Age Space

agespace.org

Read the next in the series – Chapter 14 Made in Chelsea here

Man in the Middle – Chapter 12: Political junkie

A middle aged man decides his elderly mother can no longer cope alone. 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. 12 Political junkie

Brexit has made Mother a political junkie. It’s put the drama back into democracy and the Ping-Pong into Parliament as far as she is concerned. She watches up to six hours a day of political news and has gone cold turkey on her usual diet of daytime movie re-runs, without any regrets.

She likes Select Committee enquiries, especially if the witnesses are disrespectful, and any debate in the Commons, so long as John Bercow is adjudicating. Most of all, she likes Prime Minister’s Question Time, which is her ‘appointment to view’ TV programme of the week.

‘I don’t know why they keep criticizing it for being like Punch & Judy, darling. It’s far more vicious and much, much more entertaining.’

She has no truck with those who say Brexit has poisoned the political discourse and she loves PMQs precisely because it is a bear pit brawl. Perhaps all she is doing is being honest where others are not.

‘Is Bercow on today?’ she says ‘I do so love to hate him. Classic short man syndrome. Like Napoleon,’ she says.

‘There’s no Parliament while there’s an election on. Besides he’s leaving Parliament, he’s stepped down,’ I say.

This is bad news as far as Mother is concerned. She worries that the new Speaker won’t be the same ‘value for money’. Worse, a new Speaker may take things back to the ‘boring old days’ of faux politesse and stupefying procedural interventions. Bercow going is like ‘Dirty Den’ leaving EastEnders or the National without Olivier. I am too scared to tell her that the new Speaker is planning to ban clapping.

‘It’s the end of an era,’ she says sadly.

In the absence of Parliament TV, she gets her morning dose of politics from Sky News. At lunchtime she switches to the Daily Politics because she adores Jo Coburn, who is the sort of daughter she’d have wanted if she had ever had one.

‘She knows how to keep those men on their toes,’ she says admiringly, as her thin fingers wriggle into a pack of Ritz biscuits. According to Mother, keeping men on their toes is a skill every girl should learn at an early age.

‘That’ll teach him for not giving a straight answer,’ she glows with pride every time Jo Coburn nails down an evasive spokesman.

I don’t remember Mother ever being interested in politics before Brexit. But I do remember that my Father occasionally volunteered for the local Conservative party. He took me out to deliver leaflets one evening. I think it was February 1974. After one road, he gave up and dumped the leaflets into a bin.

‘Too cold,’ he said, turning to me. ‘Let’s go to the pub.’

I was slightly shocked. My dad was a litter lout. But I was also flattered: he wanted to hang out with me. I replay the memory to Mother. Is it true?

‘Probably.’ She says. ‘Given the choice between the pub or politics, there was only going to be one winner. Heath lost that election. Probably your father’s fault.’

First published in Age Space

agespace.org

Read the next in the series – Chapter 13 Burning down the house here

Man in the Middle – Chapter 11: Archaeology

 

A middle aged man decides his elderly mother can no longer cope alone. 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. 11 Archaeology

Mother is sitting in the window leafing intently through a stack of loose leafed, old photographs. She looks at the front of each photograph and then folds it over to check the back like an archeologist gently turning ancient stones in her hands. Her chair has high, wooden armrests and a deep seat so the chair seems to be swallowing her. The autumn light on her white hair looks ethereal.

She’s so absorbed it takes a while time for her to realize I am in the doorway. When she does she snaps.

‘It’s rude not to knock before you come into someone’s bedroom. I thought I’d taught you better than that.’

‘You did. But I knocked three times and decided I couldn’t wait any longer.’

‘You’re as impatient as your brother,’ she sighs. ‘And as rude.’

Being as rude as my brother is about as bad as it can get. It puts me in a league alongside Prince Philip and Frankie Boyle. But she’s right. I shouldn’t have snuck in and spied on her.

‘Would you like me to get an album for those photographs?’ I ask shifting into compliant, helpful mode.

‘There’s none left,’ she says portentously.

I am confused. Is this a line from ‘Waiting for Godot’? Or the moment dementia took control?

‘Destroyed them all,’ she says.

Acting runs in Mother’s family. Her sister was particularly successful at ‘treading the boards’, as my father called it. Mother is not beyond occasionally hamming things up, especially if she’s feeling bored.

‘What are you talking about?’ I ask.

She reminds me of one day in the early eighties when my brother came back from University and burnt all the photographs of us. He made a funeral pyre of them outside the garage while my parents were asleep. Unusually for him, he did a thorough job and set light to the negatives, too. I call him up to see if he remembers. He does.

‘Why did you do it?’ I ask.

‘Self preservation.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘From five to fifteen Mother cut our hair,’ he says. ‘Only she wasn’t Vidal Sasson. Bowl haircuts. In every photo.’

Embarrassed memories begin to stir. I remember a picture of my brother and me in pajamas standing next to our beds, in particular. I am holding our cat and my brother is pulling on its tail, one eye red from the camera’s flash. Mother is standing behind us ruffling our bob haircuts. She’s smiling, proud of us and, perhaps, even of her hair handiwork.

‘Christ, we looked like medieval monks,’ he says. ‘If those photos got into the wrong hands, we’d have been ruined. Girl friends lost. Friends shamed. They were so embarrassing they could have even ruined careers. I did us both a favour.’

Mother has propped up on the shelf opposite her bed a photo of my god father, whiskey in hand, talking to my god mother, who married an Argentine diplomat and was, therefore, seldom short of decent corned beef during the Second World War. I wonder why she has chosen this photo over the others? I wonder if she remembers the picture of me and my brother and the cat having his tail pulled? I am about to ask her about all these things but then something in me hesitates and I decide that some stones are best left unturned.

First published in Age Space

agespace.org

Read the next in the series – Chapter 12 Political Junkie here

 

Man in the Middle- Chapter 10: The Phone

A middle aged man decides his elderly mother can no longer cope alone. 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. 10 The Phone

Mother is having problems with her new phone. Or rather she is having a problem with the people who phone her.

‘Ever since I moved in, the only people who phone me pretend to have foreign accents. I don’t understand a word they say.’

‘Perhaps it’s your long lost Irish cousins calling? Their Irish brogue is confusing you,’ I say.

‘Don’t be stupid, darling. They’re all dead or beyond caring about me,’ she replies contemptuously.

I can’t work out why anyone calling Mother would put on a pretend to be foreign unless RADA have introduced a new course called ‘English with a Funny Foreign Accent’ and mischievous trainee actors are rehearsing on her. Perhaps she accidentally agreed to be an oral examiner for the course?

‘It’s that new phone you put in my room. It doesn’t work. I told you we should have kept the old one’ she says.

The old one in the flat was 30 years old and a death trap according to the electrician. But rather than debate this, I promise Mother I will launch an investigate into the problem. Investigations are my new, fail safe response to Mother’s queries, which seem to be increasing in number and complexity. Like a politician faced with a tricky problem, investigations allow me to kick the can down the road and hold out the hope that the problem may be forgotten.

‘It’s probably the doctor calling her about an appointment,’ says Wife, later that day in the kitchen.

‘Or Extinction Rebellion asking her to turn her electric heater down,’ says Son.

‘It’s probably is the new Rotary phone I bought her. The reviews on Amazon weren’t very good,’ I say sheepishly.

‘Have you ruled out demonic possession?’ says Son.

‘Of Granny?’

‘No. The phone. In horror movies like ‘The Ring’, phones are conduits for demons to come to earth or threaten people.’

‘I can assure the people of Midsommer that I have ruled demonic activity from my investigation,’ I say in my best DCI Burnaby impersonation.

Wife is clearly irritated by this boyish banter and brings things back to reality. Or in this case, her favourite bug bear – pointless subscriptions.

‘What’s the point of having a subscription to ‘Which?’ if you can’t even be bothered to read it before splashing out on a new phone?’

‘It was only £25. That’s hardly splashing out.’

‘But it doesn’t work, does it?’ says Wife, driving a full stop into the argument.

Sensing which way the conversation is going, son has put in his earplugs and is staring intently at his phone. I am wondering if I can counter-attack or beat a retreat with my dignity intact when Mother appears in the kitchen doorway.

‘All sorted,’ she says triumphantly. ‘I listened to the ansaphone. There were five messages on it from Specsavers about my appointment for a hearing test. They’re so diligent aren’t they?’

‘So, the phone works?’ I ask.

‘Of course, darling. I just needed to turn the volume up. Much better than the old one and reminds me of the one your father and I had in our first flat years ago.’

Out of the corner of my eye, I can see Wife reaching for a large frying pan. For a moment, I am not quite sure what she is going to do with it.

‘Anyone fancy an omelette for supper?’ she asks.

First published in Age Space

agespace.org

Read the next in the series – Chapter 11 Archaeology here

 

Man in the Middle – Chapter 9: Mother moves in

A middle aged man decides his elderly mother can no longer cope alone. 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. 9 Mother moves in

I am hanging Mother’s paintings and pictures in my study. The study smells of drying paint and I have a headache. I am not sure if the ache is because of the paint’s volatile organic compounds or because I can’t hang a single painting straight.

I’m peeved because I’m not even winging it like I normally do with household chores. I’ve watched a Wickes DIY video on how to hang pictures (twice) and bought a new tape measure, plugs, picture wire and a hammer. I’m locked and loaded. I’ve even put a pencil behind my ear like the guy in the video to get me into the role like a Method actor. But after four hours only three small pictures are actually on the wall.

‘You’re not a natural at this DIY thing, are you?’ says Wife from the doorway. ‘You hang pictures like Jackson Pollock paints – randomly.’

I feel an urge to dispute this. But she’s right. There’s no rhyme or reason to the way the pictures are hanging.

‘I didn’t want it to look formal,’ I say lamely.

I am hanging Mother’s pictures in my study because she moves in next week. My study is becoming her bedroom. She has called time on solo living. It is the end of hesitation and the start of something new, though none of us is quite sure what.

Many of the photographs are from a shared past: now departed aunts, uncles, and godparents. Others are of people, who played a part in her life, which I can only guess at. They’re from an age when men polished their shoes before going out in the evenings and women smoked through cigarette holders.

‘Cigarette holders came in different lengths for different situations: one for the theatre, one for dinner and so on. It was a more elegant age,’ she says pointing at a photograph of my father lighting a cigarette for her. They’re at a party in a place she can no longer remember.

The study walls are too small to curate an entire life, of course. Tough choices have to be made. How many pictures to hang of the grandchildren versus husband? Is a photograph of our wedding day necessary when there are so many elsewhere in the house? Should every decade of life get a showing? Making these choices is stressing everyone and I am feeling more like an insensitive curator of an exhibition than a caring son.

Choosing the pictures for her bedroom is a small challenge compared to the sorting the rest of her possessions, though. We have agreed a plan to sort things into three groups: Keep, Donation and Dump. But the categories keep getting redefined. Overnight some piles grow, some shrink. It’s a border without customs controls. I’ve booked a small van to bring her stuff over in two days. At this rate, I’ll need to hire a lorry instead. The whole house will be full of her stuff and tip from a shared home into a Museum for Mother. I wonder if Wickes have a video, which will help me?

First published in Age Space

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Read the next in the series – Chapter 10 The Phone here