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 64: Should men wear Alice bands?
My wife looks up and sniggers.
The children turn around, exchange a shrug of their eyebrows and then swivel back to their cereal bowls.
‘What’s so funny?’ I ask myself.
Is the cat behind me doing something cute to make them laugh, like moon walking on the hob or playing table football with the butter dish? He’s always trying to upstage me, so I look back over my shoulder.
The cat is nowhere to be seen.
‘WhatsApp?’ I joke.
My wife looks at me and laughs again. But not at my joke.
I feel like I’ve walked into a bar and the music has stopped. The silence is pregnant, like the pause before a punchline. They’re ganging up against me. Have they hidden a whoopee cushion on my chair like they did on April Fool’s Day?
‘Did you look in a mirror before you came down?’ asks my daughter.
‘No. What do you think I am? A sadomasochist?’ I reply.
‘Maybe you should go look in the mirror,’ says my wife.
I squint down at myself. My tee shirt wrinkled like rhino skin and is also inside out. I have thick walking socks on. But the worse bit is that I am wearing grey pyjamas inside out and back to front. The pockets are hanging out down the side of my legs, like elephant ears, and the flap which should be at the front of the pyjamas isn’t, so it’s possible my backside is visible to anyone behind me.
‘I look like Dumbo,’ I say.
‘Dumbo’s dad,’ says my daughter.
‘But your hair is all tufty, like Tintin, or maybe Segei the Meerkat,’ says my son.
‘all told, it’s quite a feat to look that ludicrous without even trying,’ says my wife.
I could try to blame last night’s drinking session for my clownish, careless look. Frankly, getting my pyjamas on at all (even back to front and inside out) was not a bad result in light of the amount I drank. But the truth is my poor dress sense is a genetic problem. The male line of my family has a flaw in its chromosomes which makes us dress badly. At least, that’s what Mother has always told me.
‘If you gave the men in your father’s family a blank cheque and sent them to the top tailors in Saville Row, they’d come back looking like the hobos in a John Steinbeck novel.’
At my father’s funeral, my brother said Scotland Yard’s top forensic team would have struggled to find a trace of vanity in my father even if they had spent ten years excavating the smallest molecules of his being. My brother was right. Our father had no personal vanity and was suspicious of men who took too much care of their looks and clothes.
‘Grooming is for horses,’ he used to say.
He distrusted the fashion industry, too. Clothes are the fashion industry’s way of making us slaves, he used to say. I was twelve and the phrase sounded true and weighty, as if he had lifted it from Marx or Engels. He hadn’t, of course. It came from his heart.
He also rejected the idea that ‘clothes maketh the man’ or woman. He thought uniforms and clothing conventions were usually acts of social repression or exclusion. It was his time in the army or boarding school that encouraged him to believe this and he was probably the only person in the country who did not fume at Michael Foot, when he turned up at the Cenotaph in 1981, looking scruffy.
‘Pure snobbery,’ he said of the media rage.
‘As if the war dead give two f**** about his overcoat.’
He certainly didn’t give two hoots what he looked like. He would have happily gone to the local pub for his regular evening snifter wrapped in a Persian rug and Mother’s woollen slippers if he’d run out of clothes.
‘Why would my friends care what I am wearing?’ he would say to Mother as she tried to smarten him up.
‘It’s the police, not your friends, that I’m worried about,’ replied Mother.
I wish I knew what he would have felt about men wearing Alice bands or putting their hair up in buns? I know he would have thought Brexit was baloney and footballers are overpaid. But if he were sitting at the breakfast table with us this morning, looking at me with my pyjamas inside out and wrong way round, flap open on my backside and a haircut like a Mohawk, would he have cared? Would he have been disappointed?
‘You do remember we’re going out for a walk soon, don’t you,’ asks my wife. ‘Or are you going to stand there all day?’
‘Just wondering what Grandpa would have thought of men wearing Alice bands.’
My son looks up at me, sharply. Tomorrow we’re taking him to see one of the universities which has offered him a place. He thinks he’s spotted a ruse of mine to ruin his campus tour.
‘You’re not coming onto the campus wearing an Alice band.’
‘How about a bun instead?’ I say, sensing a wind up is on the cards.
‘Sadly, you don’t have enough hair,’ says my daughter.
She’s right. My wife took the clippers out two weeks ago and my hair is cropped closer than the centre court at Wimbledon.
‘Promise me tomorrow you’ll behave like an adult,’ says my son.
There’s a sudden crack as the butter dish crashes to the floor. A yellow slab of butter glues a shard of crockery to my daughter’s bag, which is lying below the worktop. The cat looks at it broken dish, pretending the accident is nothing to do with him. But then he lifts a paw to his mouth, and we can all see a smear of butter between his claws, passing towards his mouth. Effectively, it’s a confession.
The family leap up and rush towards him. Is there a piece of crockery in his paws? Has he been hurt? They fuss over him, poor pussycat, like he’s just come back from the First World War.
I head upstairs to dress, faintly aware my buttocks may be visible through the flap of my pyjamas, which are on back to front and inside out. But nobody’s watching me. The bloody cat has upstaged me again.
Read more blogs by James Thellusson
Read the next one – Man in the Middle Chapter 65: I drink therefore I am
Read the previous one – Man in the Middle Chapter 63: The scent of dispair
See all James’s Man in the Middle blogs here
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