Man in the Middle 86: Do I owe you anything?

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 86: Do I owe you anything?

It’s Easter Sunday. The sun has a smile on its face wider than Jurgen Klopp’s after his FA Cup semi-final win yesterday against Manchester City.

Mr Blue Sky is on every radio station. Hey, hey, hey.

At the roadside, daffodils sway like choirs of evangelical lollipop men singing their favourite songs from the Highway Code hymn book and the Archbishop of Canterbury has just called the Government’s plan to hand asylum seekers a one-way ticket to Rwanda ‘ungodly.’

The world feels, for a moment, clear eyed and righteous.

As I turn into the car park of Mother’s nursing home, I slip the gears into neutral, turn off the engine and try to glide the last few feet into a parking space imagining that I am Lewis Hamilton pulling up with a flourish at his favourite casino in Monaco.

Unfortunately, our ancient 1.4 litre Vauxhall Astra is not a Mercedes. And I am not Lewis Hamilton. As I disengage the gears, it splutters like a coal miner with emphysema, stalls and then stops dead sideways across two parking places at the front door of the nursing home. It’s a pitiful pit stop, more Mr Bean than Lewis Hamilton.

Luckily, no one is there to see it. In fact, the car park is completely empty. Strange. It is only ten o’clock. I guessed more people would be here today of all days. This is Easter Sunday, after all. The Day of the Resurrection. A day when miracles might happen, perhaps. A day when one might hope to arrive at a place like this to find the tired minds and crippled bodies of its residents rewired and restored to working order.

Some hope.

I haven’t visited my mother for ten days. She’s been boxed in her room with Covid for a second time. They say she’s brushed it off. Let’s hope so. Each time I see her after a break as long as this, I’m not sure who I’ll meet.

I finish parking properly and head into the home with a little less va-va-voom than before.

Mother is in the resident’s lounge leaning on a table with her head in her hands.

The woman next to her is asleep, head on the table, a Cadbury’s mini-egg nestled next to her grey hair.

Mother sees me and winds herself up from the table, slowly.

‘Do I owe you anything?’ she asks.

It’s an odd opening remark. It feels as if I’ve arrived as she is auditing her annual accounts.

‘Like what?’ I ask.

‘Money, you fool.’

‘No, you don’t owe me anything.’

I wonder for a moment if she’s asking me a metaphysical question: is there anything she still owes me before it’s too late. An explanation? An apology? A racing tip?

Survey after survey shows that old people fear running out of money more than death itself. Mother has a nuanced take on this. She fears dying in debt or with some unpaid or unacknowledged obligation.

I’ve had this conversation before. It tends to go badly, stirring up anxieties from her childhood like mud in a flooding estuary. It is an irrational issue and a conversation which is hard to calm or close down.

‘But I must owe something to someone?’ she asks. ‘I had a haircut last week. And who pays for the meals?’

‘You do. Every month.’

‘But I don’t have cheque book.’

‘You pay by direct debit.’

She shakes her head. She’s forgotten what direct debit means.

‘But I don’t have a red card, so I can’t be paying anything.’

By red card she means cheque card.

‘You don’t need a cheque card to pay,’ I say. ‘It’s all taken care of automatically. Don’t worry, please.’

She shakes her head again. She is frustrated. Something is not right but she doesn’t know what. The world isn’t what it was or how it ought to be. She wants to continue.

‘Why won’t you give me my cheque book? I want to give the sisters a little something for their kindness.’

She calls the carers ‘sisters’, as if they were catholic nuns.

‘It’s better you don’t have a cheque book and card while you’re here,’ I say. ‘We have talked through this before.’

Oh shit, I’ve slipped into school master mode and I’ve only been with her for three minutes.

‘You don’t owe anyone anything,’ I say. ‘Don’t worry.’

She pauses and then starts up again in a more wistful voice.

‘Are you sure?’

‘100%,’ I say.

‘Last night, they held a farewell party for me. But my speech went flat, and nobody understood a word I said and when they brought the bill for the cake, I didn’t have a cheque book to pay for it. It was so humiliating.’

I look at the floor and choke back a tear.

There was no party. This is a recurring dream. A dream about leaving life in debt and dishonour and the hope of a fresh clean start on the other side.

Read more blogs by James Thellusson

Read the next in the series – Man in the Middle – Willy Wonka should run adult social care

Read the previous one – Man in the Middle – We were students here 40 years ago

See all James’s Man in the Middle blogs here

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