Man in the Middle 84: A month of birthdays

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, you can read No. 1: The Letter here

No 84: A month of birthdays

In our garden is an English hawthorn. Its branches are twisted and its bark is cracked and flaked. For most of the year, it looks like an old person wracked with arthritis and eczema.

But when March arrives, it breathes again and exhales small, red buds through its dead skin. By the end of the month, the tree is a flambé of red and green, like an eccentric pensioner in church wearing a shamelessly colourful hat. March comes and spring is sprung.

March is also the month of birthdays. First, comes my wife’s, shortly after the hawthorn starts to bud. Then, at the end of the month, it’s my mother’s turn. As if that wasn’t enough gift buying for any one man to cope with in any one month, some smart arse in charge of the global calendar decided to put Mothering Sunday in March, too.

This means I am on edge the whole month, like a sapper treading their way through a minefield, until April Fool’s Day arrives.

My biggest worry is I will forget one of these anniversaries altogether. A birthday card and flowers counts as underwhelming and you can get away with being underwhelming, just. But you can’t get away with nothing at all. Ignorance is not a plausible plea after 25 years of living together.

In fact, if you ever hear your loved one saying: ‘Do you remember what yesterday was?’ you know you’re in deep doo doo and the only way you can redeem yourself is to buy a Maserati or commit seppuku in front of the local residents association.

To avoid either of these situations, I write prompts in my diary for every day in March to goad me into gift buying action. On the first of March, I like to write something flippant like ‘Beware the Ides of March’. This joke makes me feel like I’m still cool and in charge of events.

But as the month goes on, my diary notes become more hysterical. The week before the notes start screaming things at me like: ‘Pull Yourself together’ or ‘Your about to make the biggest mistake of your life’. Two days out it just says: ‘Try Moonpig’.

It’s my wife’s birthday in three days and I’ve bought nothing, organised nothing and am shortly to become less than nothing in the eyes of my wife and family.

‘How’s mum’s anniversary going?’ asks my daughter.

I hang my head in shame.

‘Nothing sorted, then?’

‘I’m a blind man in a maze. I keep trying to find a way out of this dreadful mess but can’t find an exit.’

‘Why do you always leave it this late?’ asks my daughter.

‘It’s a sort of Freudian style death wish, I think.’

She sighs.

‘There’s always Moonpig,’ she says.

‘I can’t get away with a Moonpig mug two years on the trot,’ I say.

‘I’ve got it. How about an old-fashioned hi-fi system. You know, a turntable and speakers and stuff.’

‘Like we had in the Eighties?’

‘That’s right, when you were vibrant and interesting.’

‘God bless you,’ I say. ‘If it wasn’t for you, I’d probably have bought her something useless like a season ticket to Chelsea.’

I’ve been in Richer Sounds staring at the speakers and turntables and other electronic whatnots for five minutes trying to look like someone who reads every word of ‘What Hi-Fi’ and knows a woofer from a tweeter.

I don’t, of course. But that doesn’t stop me from making little appreciative noises now and again as if I know what I’m looking at.

‘Can I help you, sir’ asks the assistant.

Suddenly all my pent up fear and anxiety rushes out.

‘Yes. Please, please help me. You see it’s my wife’s birthday in two days and we’ve been married for over twenty years and there’s nothing left for me to buy her and I have no idea if it will be any good but my daughter tells me that she’s always wanted a turntable with all the trimmings and frankly I haven’t got a clue what all this stuff is or how it works and basically if I haven’t got her a present by Saturday it could all be over for me, do you know what I mean?’

The assistant has a look in his eye that reminds me of our cat inching towards an injured bird.

‘What sort of system are you looking for?’

‘A working one?’ I answer.

He laughs.

‘They all work, sir. I mean do you want something all in one?’

‘Like a onesie?’

‘Sort of.’

I hunch my shoulders.

‘Would you like to be able to connect via Blue Tooth?’

I shrug my shoulders again.

‘Look. All I know is that you can’t let me leave this shop without one. Do you understand what I’m saying? I can’t leave here without an old-fashioned turntable and whatever else it needs to make a decent noise. If I try to leave without having purchased something, anything then I’m giving you the right to lock the door and keep me in here until you’ve made a sale and my birthday duty to my wife is fulfilled.’

‘You’d like me to suggest something then?’

‘See it. Say it. Sort it.’

‘How much do you want to spend, sir?’

‘Whatever it takes. She’s worth it.’

Read more blogs by James Thellusson

Read the next in the series – Man in the Middle – We were students here 40 years ago

Read the previous one – Man in the Middle – The Lady of the Lake 

See all James’s Man in the Middle blogs here

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