Man in the Middle 85: We were students here 40 years ago

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 85: We were students here 40 years ago

In the middle of the aisle is a young man, tall as a pine tree, swaying in tune with the train as it leaves Kings Cross. His left palm is flat against the carriage ceiling, propping him up like a flying buttress, while his right hand steadies half a bottle of vodka against his lips.

He begins to suck the vodka out of the bottle like a hungry calf. His cheeks sink and swell like an accordion. He leans back until the bottle is almost vertical over his head. At this point, his posse of young male friends start to make a low mooing noise as the vodka disappears down his throat.

‘Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahoo,’ they moo.

As their chant reaches its climax, so does he, pulling the empty bottle from his lips and spraying the last few drops of vodka and his spittle over the old couple sitting beside him. His pals stand, applaud and cheer. He bows to them, his trousers sagging away from his buttocks and exposing his designer underpants. He turns and bows to the rest of the carriage.

‘All gone,’ he says out loud with a wide triumphant grin and thin, high voice.

The old couple stare ahead pretending they have heard nothing, felt nothing. It’s 10.30am on a Friday morning. Oh God, I think. I’m booked on a train next to a stag do. How will I survive another two hours of this babel of boyish banter before I  get out at York?

‘Why did he say: all gone?’ I ask quietly. The loathsome pine has sat down now but he’s only three rows away and might easily misunderstand my interest in him if he overhears me.

‘It’s what a conjuror would say at the end of a trick,’ says Friend Number 1.

‘Or a four-year old when they’ve eaten all their greens,’ says Friend Number 2.

‘Oh, come on. They mean well. We were as bad when we were his age,’ says Friend Number 3.

‘Nonsense,’ I say. ‘We couldn’t afford vodka and our trousers never came off accidentally.’

There are five of us on the train on a reunion weekend away to York university, where we first met nearly forty years ago. We’re privately a little surprised to be here, I suspect. Probably a little nervous too that it could all go wrong. I’ve never been to a school or university reunion, but I imagine that it wouldn’t take much for things to get tricky. A clash of political ideology or an unwise joke could easily upset the apple cart.

‘The worst that could happen,’ says my daughter. ‘Is that you realise you have nothing in common with each other any longer. Which in a way is a positive. Sometimes, it’s a good idea to let go of the past.’

‘I’ve got so little future to look forward to that I want to hold onto as much of my past as I can,’ I say.

‘If you remember any of your old student jokes, please bring them back. It’d be interesting to see if your humour’s evolved at all over the last forty years,’ says my son.

‘It hasn’t,’ says my wife. ‘Two of your father’s original jokes are on permanent loan at the Jorvik Centre in an exhibition called ‘The Viking’s and Vulgarity’,’ says my wife.

‘Right,’ I say. ‘I’m off to spend the weekend with people who respect and care for me.’

After Palmers Green, the conversation loosens up and we start to swap stories. The stag party are numb with alcohol and plug into their i Pods. The good times begin to rock and roll.

Friend Number 2 explains how he is due a hip replacement operation in a few weeks but is still looking forward to walking the Roman Walls and that we shouldn’t let his hips hold us back.

Friend Number 1 says she may be developing an arthritic shoulder because of the year after university which she spent as a geriatric nurse and Labour councillor in Croydon lifting old folks on and off the toilet. But we’re not to worry as she is still able to use a knife and fork and so she won’t embarrass us at the posh riverside restaurant we’re going to on Saturday night by asking us to feed her.

Friend Number 2 says that Number 1’s story reminds him that as part of his pre-op hip replacement physiotherapy he is being taught how to sit on a raised toilet and to pull his socks and trousers with ‘a pair of long tweezers.’

To keep the chat upbeat, I bring everyone up to speed with my mother’s dementia, which reminds them of their own parents’ trials and tribulations with cancer, dementia, delusions and death. By the time we’ve rattled through all the medical conditions we are (or might soon be) suffering from including high blood pressure, poor cholesterol and early onset diabetes, we’re nearly at Doncaster.

As we pull into the station, I decide to share with them the short version of the time I had a colonoscopy and the strange sensation of seeing your own innards on a TV screen, while you lie on a couch with a backless surgical gown.

‘What did they find?’ asks Friend Number 4.

‘Haemorrhoids,’ I say proudly.

As if he were trying to trump me in a game of cards Whist, Friend Number 2 leans forwards and points at a small purple bubble on his lower lip and says: ‘Benign tumour.’

When we arrive at York, the sun is shining. There are daffodils all over the hill leading up to the ramparts. I’m overwhelmed with a sense of wellbeing. Our clinical chat has put us well on the way to getting properly reacquainted. We decide to get a cab and have lunch in the pub opposite the house which we used to share.

Friend Number 5 turns to the cab driver and says, as if he were sharing a momentous piece of news: ‘We were students here forty years ago.’

‘Sure you were,’ says the driver with true Yorkshire phlegm.‘But where do you want to go? This isn’t the Tardis and I can’t drive you to the past.’

Read more blogs by James Thellusson

Read the next in the series – Man in the Middle – Do I owe you anything?

Read the previous one – Man in the Middle – A month of birthdays

See all James’s Man in the Middle blogs here

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