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 87: Willy Wonka should run adult social care
Mother is sitting at a table by herself. Her fingers rest on the edge of a cup and saucer half full of spilt tea. Her eyes are open, and her head is tilted backwards, perhaps thirty degrees. I can’t tell if she is gazing up a slight incline towards Heaven or is asleep.
Whichever it is, she seems calm. Until that is, she sees my son and I waving at her through the glass panel, which runs around the dining area. Then, like a dimmer switch yanked to the max with a sudden twist of the wrist, she starts whining like a wounded animal in a trap.
‘Take me home,’ she cries. ‘Take me home.’
My heart slinks away to hide in the car park. It can’t cope with the painful truth that the one thing she craves is the one thing it can’t give her – hope that one day she might leave this place.
Two of the carers walk towards her.
‘Don’t let them near me. They’ll hurt me,’ she is shedding fearful tears as she speaks.
The carers look at me. They’re thinking: does he think that’s true? Does he think we hurt her, that we’re cruel? I don’t but that doesn’t matter right now, what matters is Mother’s perception that they might hurt her and the distress that will cause everyone. Everyone? Actually, the other residents seem oblivious to her distress.
‘Let me deal with this,’ I say, reluctantly asserting myself.
I put my hand under her left elbow and help her up.
‘Shall we go to your room, mum?’
‘I want to die. I just want to die,’ she replies.
In her room she wipes away her tears and pulls her dressing gown around her bony shoulders.
‘So cold in here,’ she says.
I close the window on the spring sun.
‘Unwrap the chocolate,’ I say to my son.
‘Would you like some chocolate, Granny?’ he says, handing her three squares of Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut.
‘Thank you, darling.’
Chocolate is the opiate of old age, and I am mother’s Pusher. I never come without a medicine chest of choices, and I can’t remember how many times a fix of Cadbury’s chocolate has helped turn the tide on a depressing conversation. Frankly, I would put Willy Wonka in charge of adult social care.
She points at her wheelchair, which is folded up in a corner.
‘That’s where he keeps his bike when he comes and spends the night. We had a fight so when he comes now, I move out.’
‘Who keeps his bike there?’ asks my son.
‘I don’t know,’ she shrugs her shoulders. ‘The man who collects the pips perhaps?’
I point at my son, so she doesn’t think I’m referring to the fantasy biker.
‘He’s going back to university tomorrow. He’s here to say goodbye.’
‘I keep his postcards in the cupboard,’ she says.
He sends her postcards to remind her that although she is out of sight she is not out of mind.
‘I’ve got exams when I go back,’ says my son, gamely trying to involve her in a new line of chat.
‘Oh, I am so pleased. But do you have any friends?’
Clearly, in the tangled forest of her mind, friends are more important than exams. But it sounds as if she’s more worried about his ability to make friends than pass exams.
‘Yes, I have friends,’ he replies a little sternly.
‘But what’s the matter with your voice?’ she asks.
‘My voice? Nothing.’
‘It’s got nuts in it,’ she says decidedly.
‘His voice has got nuts in it?’ I ask.
‘No, stupid. This.’
She points at her bar of Cadburys Fruit & Nut chocolate.
Somewhere down the corridor, a door is open, and a resident is calling ‘help’, ‘help’, ‘help’.
Sometimes conversation is impossible and its best just to sit back and listen.
‘They’ve been stealing things from me. This blouse, for example. One night, we had an auction to see who should win the little blouse and they both drew, so they had to toss for it, you know, toss a coin and the one who tossed the coin right was the girl who got the blouse.
‘I had to give it to her. And I had to give a speech and say how terribly sad I was that only one of them could have it. But deserved it. She’d done a lot of work for me, washing and manicuring and everything like that. It was fair the way we did it, and eventually she got it. But it set up a terrible anger on the opposite side, because the one who got it was a very popular girl, and was top of her job, which was washing and cleansing and all of those intricate things like giving you your medicine at certain times. So, she won everything and got the most marks. Which was fair. Well, at least, that’s what I’m told by the scruffy little man who puts everything in his pocket.’
‘You can make wonderful soup with rotten vegetables if you have an imagination,’ she says. ‘When you were a child, I often made you soup out of rotten old vegetables and water.’
‘I don’t remember,’ I say.
‘It was good soup,’ she says.
‘I’m still alive,’ I say.
‘That was very Green of you Granny,’ says my son impressed that she was an early adopter at managing food waste.
‘Sometimes it came out green, others it was more like tomato soup, especially if I poured in one of those nine penny tins of tomatoes.’
‘Speaking of which it’s time for us to go shopping for dinner,’ I say. ‘I’ll come see you tomorrow.’
‘Don’t bother,’ she says. ‘Nothing will have changed.’
Read more blogs by James Thellusson
Read the next in the series – Man in the Middle – An Offaly nice idea
Read the previous one – Man in the Middle – Do I owe you anything?
See all James’s Man in the Middle blogs here
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