Man in the Middle 83: The lady of the lake

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 obsolescence. 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 83: The lady of the lake

At the nursing home my mother, like an eccentric monarch interrogating a much-missed servant, starts hurling questions at me before my feet have even stepped over the threshold of her room.

Her questions merge into one wall of sound, one current of untamed thought. If I tried to write down her words as they cascade from her they would form one fluid sentence like Finnegan’s Wake or another such impenetrable Modernist novel.

This is going to be one of her bad dementia days. But, as I sit down on her bed, one question becomes crystal clear because she keeps repeating it.

‘Who was that woman you were with here with last night?’ she asks.

She’s trying to hide it, but her voice betrays her. She’s anxious and I’m taken aback.

‘What on earth are you talking about?’ I say.

‘Who was that woman you were with here last night?’ she repeats.

‘I wasn’t here last night, mum.’

‘Yes, you were,’ she says. ‘I saw you and her. And I didn’t like the look of her one little bit.’

When she is anxious or deluded, I lower my voice and call her Mum. Not Mother. Or her first name. Mother is too cold and the second too informal, though I can’t explain why.

I don’t know if calling her ‘mum’ has any calming effect either. But it reminds me of the voice I used to put on when the children were very young and needed baulking up against a bad dream. Only with her it feels insincere and patronising.

‘I wasn’t here last night with another woman, mum.’

She stares at me from her armchair for a few moments. It feels to me her mind is churning matters over like a washing machine with dirty laundry.

I pull off my blue gloves and hang my F94 covid mask from my right ear, where it swings like a door off its hinge. Outside her window, there’s a tomato plant leaning against the pane brown and cracked.

‘Honestly, mum. I. Was. Not. Here. Last. Night. With. A. Woman.’

‘She’s not your new bit on the side, then?’

My new bit on the side? How many bits on the side does she think I’ve got time for? She must think I’m Casanova or Boris Johnson? For a moment I am insulted and angry.

But the feeling morphs and emerges as a strangulated laugh. This is a fantasy fueled accusation and in the land of the ludicrous, laughter is the only sane response.


‘What’s so funny,’ she asks, straightening up in her chair.

‘The only thing I have ever had ‘on the side’ is a Yorkshire pudding with my Sunday roast,’ I say.

‘You talk nonsense.’

‘Touché,’ I reply and lie back on her bed, wondering where this absurd conversation will go next.

As my mother goes on about ‘women of the night’ renting rooms at her nursing home for ‘their nightly tricks’ I close my eyes. As I sink into sleep I don’t feel rude or guilty for ignoring her, just pleased my body has decided to shut off the pain of listening to her like this any longer.


Half an hour later, I wake up. Mother is asleep upright in her chair. Someone on the TV is wittering on about how bloody wonderful Cornwall and all its fish are.

When I look up, I see it’s Rick Stein simpering away again. When will he stop? How many more series about beer battered Cornish cod can the world stomach?

The short kip has put me in a better mood. But I haven’t fully recovered from being woken up at 4.30am by my wife blow drying her hair as she prepared to catch an early morning flight to the Caribbean to see her family, or from the boozy farewell dinner the night before.

My mother turns her head towards me and asks about my son.

‘What is B- up to?’

‘He’s been working as an extra in a TV series this week,’ I say.

‘He’s always wanted to be an actor, hasn’t he?’

‘I don’t know about that. But it’s a great experience for him.’

‘Oh, yes. He’s such a good-looking boy, he’ll do well.’

She looks at me as if she is trying to remember something. Perhaps, the conversation about my ‘bit on the side’?

‘Have you seen your father recently?’ she asks. ‘I wonder why he doesn’t come to see me.’

She asks me this every second or third time I visit her. My father died in 2007. Sometimes I ignore this question and change the subject. Other times, I remind her that he is dead. One is a deceit, the other a form of brutalism. I usually opt for deceit.

My phone pings. It’s a message from my son asking if I want to join him for lunch. If I want to catch him, I’ll have to go immediately. I’ve been with mother less than an hour and been asleep for half of that time. My visit is as cursory as a care visit can get.

Mother looks at the clock.

‘Do you want to stay for lunch,’ she asks.

‘I have to go. To see B- before he goes back to university. I’m sorry.’

She looks at me quizzically. I am not sure if she is weighing up the choice I’ve just made between my son and her and is disappointed. Perhaps she’s just still waking up.

‘Send him my love,’ she says and smiles.

In the doorway, I turn around. She is still beaming, cheerful. Her dementia has lifted like a fog taking with it the anxiety of this morning’s delusions and I can see the woman she once was waving encouragement to me like a refugee on the far shore of a lake. I understand, she says. Go now. Go. Before the fog returns.

Read more blogs by James Thellusson

Read the next in the series – Man in the Middle – A month of birthdays

Read the previous one – Man in the Middle – The cost of fixing kitty

See all James’s Man in the Middle blogs here

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