Man in the Middle 75: Who do you think you are?

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 obsolesce. 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 75: Who do you think you are?

Mother and I are answering a questionnaire called ‘Getting to Know Me’. It’s designed to give the staff at the new nursing home she is moving to an insight into her history and her likes and dislikes.

The questionnaire is a multiple-choice version of the TV series Who Do You Think You Are? Most of the questions are straight forward. We rattle through these quickly enough. No, Mother does not like beer festivals, carpentry or rock climbing. Yes, she does like tea, films and reminiscing.

There are boxes for you to make additional comments to help the staff better understand what makes their future residents tick. In the box next to ‘Do You Like Reminiscing?’ I write ‘Won a gold medal for GB at the Moscow Olympics’ and wonder if the new staff will notice or I will ever grow up.

Other questions are taking more time. Partly because the questions are complex. Next to ‘What makes you Happy?’ Mother asks me to write down ‘things that money can’t buy without having to work too hard’. I don’t think she’s horsing around but you can’t always tell if it’s her old sense of humour or the dementia responding.

Unfortunately, her hearing is poor. She’s mistaken bread making for bed making and dog petting for God petting. Several questions need repeating.

‘What was that question?’ she asks. She sounds offended.

‘DO-YOU-LIKE-RUG-MAKING?’ I repeat slowly for the third time.

She shakes her head in disbelief.

‘In the name of God, what sort of place are you sending me to?’

I am also bemused why the care home think she might want to take up rug making. Perhaps the Government has decreed that old people should pay for their social care by weaving rugs? I imagine knuckled nonagenarians at long benches hand weaving Union Jack rugs humming along to the ‘Best of Gracie Fields’ underneath a giant poster of the Queen.

‘Do you want to try Rug Making?’ I repeat, wearily. There are 50 more questions to be completed.

‘At my age? The idea is disgusting.’

‘Have you ever tried it?’ I ask.

‘Of course. With your father. What do you think you were an immaculate conception like Jesus Christ?’

My Mother has misheard rug making for love making. She thinks I’m sending her to a care home for Swingers.

‘I meant R-U-G making,’ I say. ‘The things you put on floors.’

‘Oh,’ she says.

We decide to let the embarrassment fade away over a few silent minutes. She looks out of the window. I pretend to study the questionnaire.

‘Here we go,’ I say. ‘The food section should be more fun. Do you like BBQs?’

‘Too rowdy,’ she says.

‘Sherry Afternoons?’

‘Can’t think of anything worse.’

‘Wine tasting?’

‘I’d prefer a pedicure.’

Her sense of humour is returning. The rug making faux pas is waving goodbye.

‘Favourite foods?’

‘Porridge.’

‘Anything else?’

‘Chips.’

‘And?’

She pauses.

‘Whelks.’

I haven’t seen her eat a whelk in 60 years.

‘Why?’

‘Chewy and very tasty. The wine gums of the sea.’

Would the Whelk Marketing Board would be interested in buying this slogan off her?

‘We ate whelks every Saturday,’ she says. ‘With a bag of chips and vinegar. Outside the pub while we waited for my parents to come out.’

She stops and stares at the net curtain rising and falling like an echo from a distant universe. Is this the start of a story or end of one? It’s not easy to know. Sometimes her stories stop abruptly like a path at the edge of a cliff or picked up again like a spoilt child returning to a half opened present previously tossed casually away.

‘The first time I tried to kill my mother was on St Patrick’s Day 1934. I was ten years old at the time. Or maybe eleven. But it was definitely St Patrick’s Day,’ she starts up.

‘On Paddy’s Day she drank from dawn to dusk. It was always the worst day of the year. She went from pub to pub until she could barely stand up. Then she came home, spitting like an angry dragon, lashing out with her fists, pulling at our hair.’

She lifts up her right fist and clenches her fingers together  like a claw. Her fist shakes. I can’t tell if she is re-enacting the moment her mother tugged the hair from her scalp that dreadful evening or if this gentle movement is just the incontinent tremor of old muscles.

‘I remember her on her bed almost unconscious from all the day’s drinking. She shouted at me to bring her a cup of tea. I hadn’t eaten since breakfast. None of us had. And she was there dead drunk, screaming at me to bring her a cup of tea. I thought this can’t go on. This is the moment to end it. She’s so drunk she won’t feel anything. I can just put it in her tea and it will all be over.’

‘Put what in her tea?’

‘Stuff from the chemist.’

‘Stuff?’ I ask.

‘Cleaning powder. The chemist kept them in beautiful blue and green bottles. They looked like jars of sweets.’

‘You mean bleach?’

She nods.

‘We were houseproud even though we were poor. We were great ones for cleaning everything. We wanted to keep up with the Joneses.’

I’ve always known my Mother resented her mother. But I never knew she tried to kill her. Twice. Suddenly, ‘Who Do You think You Are’ is morphing into a Netflix crime confessional. I’m not sure what I feel about it. Curious? Yes. Ashamed? No. Shocked? No. Should I report her to the Police?

‘I gave her a dose thinking it would knock her out forever. But it didn’t. She was so drunk she just slept it off.’

‘You could have gone to prison.’

She shakes her head.

‘No one would have betrayed me to the Police. We all hated her. Anyway, I was so good at pretending and who would believe a ten-year old would poison their mother?’

‘Lots,’ I say.

Mother shrugs her shoulders.

‘Is that the end?’ she asks.

‘There’s a section called ‘My religious and spiritual beliefs’ left to do,’ I say.

‘I’m feel there is something out there,’ she says. ‘But I’m too tired now to discuss it.’

Read more blogs by James Thellusson

Read the next in the series – Man in the Middle 76: The Ear of Dionysus

Read the previous one – Man in the Middle 74: Pig in the Park

See all James’s Man in the Middle blogs here

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