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 70: Father’s Day
Father’s Day was a flop again this year. It took seven hours to drive down the creepy crawly M4 and M5 to celebrate the great day with my children, who had been play acting Californian beach bums at a seaside resort in North Devon. Seven gear grinding hours of driving at an average cruising speed so imperceptible, we could have got here quicker on the back a Galapagos tortoise, and what did I get as my Father’s Day present?
A ladybird. Not a Maserati. Or a hair transplant. Or, better still, a men-only weekend retreat for Boomers full of lectures entitled ‘Your Best Years are Behind You & There’s No Catching Up’; ‘Managing Inter-Generational Conflict Without Alcohol’ and ‘One Pot Dishes for a Healthier Third Age Colon’.
Just, a single, spotty ladybird. Not even a bloom of ladybirds (the collective noun for a group lady birds). Would it have harmed them to extend their student loans a few quid or broken open their old childhood piggy banks to rustle up a few extra ladybirds?
It is clear to me they’ve been so busy this last week learning to body board and drink pre-mixed cocktails in the house’s hot tub that they’ve completely forgotten about me and an appropriate response to their obligations on Day of the Patriarch.
I’m feeling a little hurt. In fact, the growing hole in my self-esteem would sink a battleship. But I can’t let my disappointment show. I’ve seen ‘King Lear’ and I know what happens to old men once they let the children get the upper hand.
However, I’ve learnt it’s the job of every father to learn to live on the minimum of praise, like the kangaroo rat which survives in the Australian desert without water all its life.
The fact they’ve remembered to buy me a present at all this year is an improvement on last year, when the only thing I got was the bill at the end of the slap-up lunch I booked for myself to mark the occasion.
I take a long look at the digital certificate from the Woodland Trust, which my daughter has posted in the family WhatsApp group. It’s has a ladybird on it and the words: ‘It’s a bug’s life’. Well, there’s no disputing that.
The family are standing around me waiting for me to say something about the gift. I decide to dissemble. I wobble my chin and blink rapidly, as if I’m about to cry.
‘This is a wonderful Father’s Day present,’ I say tremulously. ‘I can’t think of anything I’d have rather got for Father’s Day.’
‘Are you sure you’re feeling OK?’ asks my son.
‘Your grandfather was an amateur lepidopterist. This present has stirred up memories of him. Forgive me for being so emotional. I’ll be alright in a minute.’
I wobble my chin again. The children look at each other suspiciously. They can smell a kangaroo rat at twenty paces, but my chin twitching and broken voice has them bamboozled.
‘We knew you’d like it,’ says my daughter.
‘It was the ladybird or a drinks voucher,’ says my son.
My knees buckle and tears well up in my eyes. They’ve given me a digital certificate for a virtual ladybird instead of a real voucher for real booze. I’m flabbergasted. Have they learnt nothing about me in the last 20 years?
‘Can I see the ladybird?’ I ask my daughter.
‘Can I give it a pet name?’
‘Will it send me a newsletter telling me how it’s getting on?’
‘I don’t think so.’
‘So, it’s a present I can’t see, hear, touch, smell or form any emotional attachment to,’ I say.
‘Correct,’ she says.
‘It’s a virtual present,’ says my son.
‘You mean it doesn’t exist,’ I say.
‘Except for the certificate,’ says my daughter.
‘On the upside, it has zero carbon footprint. You’re an eco-hero,’ says my son.
‘You said you wanted to support the Woodland Trust,’ says my wife. She hasn’t fallen for the chin trembling and wants to end the discussion before things get serious and I say something seriously dangerous or dismissive to family unity. The UN Peace Keeping Force has arrived.
‘How much was the drinks voucher for?’ I ask.
‘£25,’ says my son.
I sigh. That’s four free bottles of beer or three glasses of decent French or Italians wine at the local bar.
My wife looks at me. I can tell she’s saying to me: don’t make a mountain of out of this ladybird sized molehill. You could choose to see this as a sign that you are washed up beyond the high tide of their indifference. But don’t. It isn’t.
She’s right. After all, Father’s Day is nothing more than a marketing exercise to sell the recycled greetings cards left over from Mother’s Day, another of capitalism’s guilt trips. It doesn’t mean anything unless you let it. And I shouldn’t. I am old enough to know better. I think.
My wife suggests we have a drink to celebrate Father’s Day on the terrace and the kids start to chant ‘hot tub, hot tub, hot tub’.
‘Good idea,’ I say.
‘No skinny dipping, dad,’ says my son.
‘I’ll go get my trunks, then,’ I say.
I nip upstairs to our bedroom. There’s a half bottle of champagne in a cooler bag in the corner of the room. It’s still cool enough to drink. I take it into the bathroom and lock the door.
‘Will you be long?’ asks my wife from the stairway.
‘No, darling,’ I shout.
‘And we’re over the ladybird, right?’
‘Water off a duck’s back.’
‘See you in the hot tub, then’ she says.
I’m standing in front of the bathroom mirror, naked, except for my old Hawaiian swimming shorts. Everything including my shorts is saggy and loose. I wonder if a hot tub is an appropriate place for someone my age and temperament anymore?
The muscles in my left foot are twitching incessantly. It’s been brought on by the 37,000 gear changes I’ve had to make on the seven-hour journey here.
‘Plantar fasciitis, I bet,’ I say to myself.
I need some Dutch courage to get into the hot tub. The whole half-bottle should just about do it. The only glass in the bathroom has toothbrushes in it and a smear of toothpaste congealed at its bottom. So, I peel off the foil and pop the cork.
‘Here’s to you, Grumpa,’ I say, saluting myself and raise the bottle to my lips. I wonder if I can drink it all in one go like in the old days.
Read more blogs by James Thellusson
Read the next in the series – Man in the Middle 71: De Pfeiffel’s Day of Freedom Just Went Wrong
Read the previous one – Man in the Middle 69: Wrapping a present for my son’s birthday
See all James’s Man in the Middle blogs here
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