Man in the Middle is the fictional diary of a Boomer coping with the demands of an ageing mother with dementia, his millennial children and his own impending obsolence. Bowed down by Brexit, Covid and self-pity, all he wants is more ‘me time’. Will he succeed? Or is he destined to be stuck forever in No Man’s Land in the war between the generations?
If you’d like to begin at the beginning and missed the first instalment, you can read
No. 1: The Letter here
No 69: Wrapping a present for my son’s birthday
Slowly, Mother is folding blue polka dot tissue paper around a book which is lying on a small table between us, cover face down. She’s wrapping a present for my son’s birthday.
She’s intensely lost in the task, like a code breaker, and hasn’t spoken to me for over ten minutes, which is five minutes longer than her previous lifetime personal best for ‘Not Saying Anything While Awake’.
Normally, I would have pulled the emergency cord hanging next to her bed if she had been speechless this long. Or furtively put a mirror up to her lips to see if there was any breathe still squeezing out of her. Conversation is her life blood, its absence a bad sign like a poor pulse.
I think the last time she was speechless this long was when Chris Waddle smashed his penalty kick over the German goalpost in the 1990 World Cup semi-final and England sank into a peat bog of disappointed pride.
That night, she got up from the sofa and wrote Waddle a consoling letter, reminding him that every young life has its setbacks and that it is how you recover from them that really counts. In return, she received a signed photo of him with his signature strung out below his mullet haircut like a necklace. She never watched England played football again.
Faced with a silent group, Mother would always say something to get the banter going. Silence was a void she always wanted to fill. My brother and I used to joke that ‘At home, silence never gets a word in edgeways.’ It was our parody of the strapline to the movie Alien: ‘In space, nobody can hear you scream.’
How things change.
The task of wrapping presents for her beloved grandson is eating up more of the processing power in her brain than it would have before. She can’t chat and wrap. Her fragile fingers no longer have the power or precision they once did in those long-gone days when all our birthday presents came with knotted bows and were wrapped in paper as neat and pressed as the doorman at the Ritz.
How long will this take?
Mother has folded half of the sheet of paper over the book. Her left palm is pressing on the book holding the paper down. The midnight blue veins on the back of her hand throb like a river running through a ravine.
She picks up the other edge of the wrapping paper and with her righthand folds it over the book which bring her right hand and left hand together, the craggy knuckles of her index fingers adjacent, like two peaks in a mountain range. Both hands rest on top of the book.
‘Quick. Sellotape,’ she says without lifting her head.
I am opposite her with uneven strips of sellotape hanging off my fingers like translucent biltong. I look like an untidy Morris Man. I’ve been poised waiting for this moment awhile. But, right now, with both her hands pressed down on the book the only thing I can Sellotape are her hands. The book and the polka dot tissue paper are inaccessible below her palms.
‘You need to move your hands,’ I say.
‘But the wrapping paper will fold away,’ she replies.
‘Not if you’re quick,’ I say.
‘I don’t do quick anymore,’ she says, hands still pressing down on the book.
‘This is what they call a Catch 22 situation.’
‘You never were a very practical boy,’ says Mother with the faintest rock of her head.
I hear my wife and children giggling gently somewhere.
‘It’s your hands that are the problem,’ I say.
Mother looks at me. I suspect she thinks I’m as absurd as a Gordon Ramsey quiz show.
‘I can’t lean on this book forever, you know,’ she says.
‘It won’t kill you to hold on for a while,’ I say, playing for time. What would Bear Grylls do in this situation?
‘I wouldn’t bet on it,’ she says.
There’s only one way out of this cul-de-sac.
‘How about we start again?’
‘I can’t possibly do all that paper folding again,’ she says.
‘You sign his birthday card and I’ll finish the wrapping at home, later,’ I say.
She leans back and the tissue paper folds slowly away from the book. If I had been quick, I would have been able to sellotape the paper down.
‘Time for tea?’ she asks.
‘Why not,’ I reply making a note to tell my children never to waste my time, or theirs, by asking me to wrap up their children’s birthday presents if I live as long as Mother. After all, it’s the thought that counts, not the wrapping paper.
Read more blogs by James Thellusson
Read the next in the series – Man in the Middle 70: Father’s Day
Read the previous one – Man in the Middle 68: Escape to the Country
See all James’s Man in the Middle blogs here
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