Man in the Middle 78: Becoming a detectorist

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 78: Becoming a detectorist

Morning 10.30 am

Mother is asleep on her bed, a biscuit clenched in her right hand. Her right hand lies on her heart. She looks like an effigy on a tomb gently holding an important family relic, which she hopes will come with her into the future.

‘Once she’s got a Hob Knob in her hand she won’t let go. She’s like a terrier with a rat,’ I say to the nurse who’s escorted me to her bedroom.

The nurse is not sure if I’m joking or if I’m just being a facetious prick. Faced with the touching or the terrible, I become trite. I blame my father, mother, brother and private education among many external and extraneous factors.

‘She didn’t sleep well last night,’ says the nurse. ‘Perhaps you should let her wake up in her own time?’

I sit down in her armchair and put my hand on her left arm which has almost fallen off her bed.

Evening 7.00 pm

My daughter is looking at me like a poker player who knows she holds a winning hand.

‘Did you know when you were a baby you wouldn’t let anyone push you in your pram except your mum,’ says my daughter.

‘Oh yeah?’ I say, swigging casually from a can of zero alcohol Danish lager. (Danish lager is the latest accessory in my rebrand as a post Brexit liberal Boomer).

‘If your father tried to push the pram you’d scream,’ she says, smirking.

Jeez. This is seriously Oedipal. I might have to open a can of something stronger to get me through this conversation.

‘On Saturday, Granny gave me a picture of you doing your ‘Don’t come near my pram or I’ll scream’ face. Do you want to see it?’

‘Oh, yes, I do’ says my wife putting a spoon down.

‘Risotto burns if you stop stirring it,’ I say. ‘I think you should stay over there and keep stirring.’

‘It’ll be OK for a minute,’ she says.

‘No worries. I’ll bring it over to you,’ says my daughter eagerly, like a paparazzi at a Fleet Street auction of illicitly obtained Royal swimming wear photographs.

In the picture, I’m strapped into a metal pram as clunky as a first World War tank. My face is turning over my left shoulder as I try to see who or what is behind me, pushing the pram. The look on my face would freeze water or scare even the most unreformed Tory MP into obeying the Nolan principles.

‘That’s still your ‘Mr Angry’ face, isn’t it?’ says my wife. ‘Amazing how little you’ve changed.’

I don’t answer. I don’t care about my Mr Angry face anymore. What I want to know is why am I wearing ballet shoes and which hard-hearted, cack-handed descendant of Sweeney Todd cut my hair and turned me into a laughable version of a miniature medieval monk. Perhaps he’s just out of the shot and that’s why I’m turning around. To cast my Medusa stare at him. Or her.

Morning 11.00 am

Mother’s eyelids flutter open. She has a cataract in one eye which one day may have to be operated on, so it takes her time to adjust to the light when she returns from her dreams.

‘Is that you?’ she asks.

‘I think so,’ I say.

‘Have you seen your father lately?’

My father died in 2007. At first, I’d tell her the truth – he was dead. But she never believed me or would accuse me of lying. Both would make her upset. Now, if I’m asked where he is, I change the subject. It’s cowardly. But it’s a fudge which works for both of us.

I help her up in the bed.

‘Would you like a cup of tea?’ I ask.

Tea, biscuits and chocolates are powerful weapons in changing the conversation. Once she’s upright in the bed, she says, out of nowhere.

‘You know I hated being called Nora,’ says Mother. Norah was her first given Christian name.

‘It’s an ugly name. I think Joyce was married to a woman called Nora and she was a very strong character. But I hated it because it was Irish. I wanted to get away from all that and my mother. I wanted none of it, thank you. It’s sometimes spelt with an h at the end and sometimes without. NORAH. NORA. Whichever way, it always looked so ugly. Ugly on the page. The way it was written, everything about it even the sound. And I didn’t want to be reminded of where I came from. Do you see?’

‘I think so,’ I say.

Evening 11.00 pm

‘How do you feel about it?’ asks my wife as she turns her bedside light off.

‘The photo?’

‘No, stupid. Not the photo. About her?’

‘I feel like I’m becoming a detectorist,’ I say.

‘Randomly piecing together the faint echoes of her past?’ says my wife.

‘Sort of.’

‘Does it feel good or bad?’

‘I don’t know.’

There’s no joy in watching a parent dissolving into dementia. But perhaps there is a point to being a detectorist? Perhaps there is a value to capturing her memories and her journey. After all, dusk is a beautiful time of day, even if darkness must eventually fall.

Read more blogs by James Thellusson

Read the previous one – Man in the Middle 77: Chaos at Catania airport

See all James’s Man in the Middle blogs here

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