Man in the Middle 67: Not all that’s said is clear 

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 67: Not all that’s said is clear

Mother is in a chair by her window, looking out.

‘I’ve been crying.’

‘Why?’ I ask.

‘I thought you weren’t coming.’

‘I always come on Fridays.’

‘Is today Friday?’

I nod.

‘Oh. Are you late?’

‘No, I’m on time.’

She raises her eyebrows.

‘The doctor was here just now.’

‘What did he say?’

‘He wanted to know if I could look after myself. I said if I’m allowed to, I’m very good at it. If someone pops in and wants, you know, a scrambled egg, I can prepare it without any fuss.’

She has no cooking facilities in her room. The last time she cooked for herself at our house she went to bed with the gas on and the smoke alarm raging.

‘Of course, you could,’ I say.

‘He asked me do you know how old you are? Oh, yes, I said, I’m not an idiot. I had an enormous birthday cake only the other day and they gave me a party. He was impressed by that. I think.’

I give her a large print edition of her favourite short stories to replace the edition which has disappeared. She turns the book over in her hands a few times.

‘Does anyone ask after me?’

‘Terry rang yesterday.’

Her brother Terry lives in Canada.

‘When I was a child, the people in the street used to say where’s Granny ‘SoAndSo’? And they’d say oh, they’ve put her in a home. It was shameful. It sounded like somebody had been put on a shelf and forgotten.’

I look at my shoes.

‘Anyway…He was asking about my, my…domesticity. Is that the right word? He wrote something down. I don’t know what.’

She pauses. I know she will start talking again soon because of the way her lips tremble, like a croupier shuffling the cards before dealing.

‘Of course, I can look after myself, I said. Of course, of course. All my life I’ve looked after myself and others. I used to look after three kids, when I was only nine. Jonny. Pat. Terry. Got them to school, made sure they had breakfast. Oh God, poor Jonny.’

I’ve never heard of a sibling called Jonny. Pat is a dead sister.

‘He asked where I was brought up. Now you’ve got me, I said. I don’t know! What was that famous film all about vegetables? He laughed like a drain. He said I know the one you mean.’

‘Passport to Pimlico’?’

She shrugs and shakes her head.

‘We were very poor. You had to think carefully if you wanted to spend money. Which reminds me. I need a new toothbrush.’

Her mind has teleported from her childhood in the Thirties to the present quicker than the Tardis could carry Dr Who to the edge of the galaxy. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

‘I brought you a new one last week. Is it lost?’

‘Cost? About £1?’

I laugh.

‘Is my hearing a little funny?’

‘A little,’ I say.

She smiles.

‘Putting your socks on at my age is a terrible bore. That’s why I wear these most of the time.’

She points her walking stick at her slippers.

‘Your legs are looking better,’ I say.

‘They swell up and down like a trombone. Where do you live now?’

I tell her.

‘You lived there, too.’

She shakes her head.

‘The one with a balcony,’ I say.

She turns away from me.

‘And a view of the garden?’ she says with the enthusiasm of a child waking.


‘Such a lovely room. What are you doing with it now?’

Her bedroom has been reconverted to an office. But I don’t want to say so. It would be an admission we have moved on, that part of her has been erased. Would it help to be honest?

‘Nothing,’ I say.

‘Is Terry coming over?’

‘No, he just sent his love.’

‘Of course. Are the children, OK?’

‘They’re well.’

She asks if my son has decided which university to go to.

‘Exeter, probably. He may end up studying Italian in Venice?’

‘Vanish? Oh, no. I hope he doesn’t vanish.’

‘Venice, not vanish. Though he might vanish in Venice. Like in that Donald Sutherland movie.’

She shakes her head. She doesn’t approve of my joke. She’s still anxious with the thought her grandson might vanish. I wish she would wear her hearing-aids, these conversations can be like playing Blind-Man’s-Buff.

‘I’m sorry. It was a joke. He won’t vanish.’

She looks down at her lap.

‘Yesterday, they moved the entire building. Spun it right around. But today, I’m still in Room 51. Wasn’t that clever? To move it all and then to move it back. How do you think they do that?’.

I shrug my shoulders. The door opens with a gust of good humour.

‘Sorry, sorry,’ says one of the carers. ‘How are you, my darling?’

Mother grabs the carer’s arm with both her hands and nestles her face against her arm.

‘Wonderful. This is my son. He’s put on weight.’

‘Hello,’ I say.

‘Hello, darling’ says the carer.

Mother points at the carer and mouths the words ‘wonderful’.

‘Tea and biscuits,’ says the carer and retreats.

Mother sips the tea.

‘Not bad. Lukewarm, though. If I go to the canteen, the girls who know me well, the ones I really get on with, well, then I get a really special cup of tea.’

I wonder if the tea is lukewarm deliberately, so the residents don’t scald themselves.

She takes another sip.

‘I never thought it would come to this. I thought I would be stronger.’

She points to her head. ‘Here.’

I put my hand on hers. We look out of the window at time passing away, silently waiting for the moment, when both of us know, I will decide to leave.

Read more blogs by James Thellusson

Read the next in the series – Man in the Middle 68: Escape to the country

Read the previous one – Man in the Middle 66: I made a terrible error

See all James’s Man in the Middle blogs here

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