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 90: Merci Beaucoup
The bathroom is whoosily hot. As I poach myself back into the Land of the Living after an excessive Saturday bacchanal, I wonder where my toes have gone and if they will ever come back. I watch my body turn the colour of a hot cure smoked salmon and doze.
I slip under the water. I can hear my mobile phone humming and humming and humming. I ignore it. I’m not ready for the world yet. It’s too early to talk. Even a desperate Prime Minister searching for a Cabinet wouldn’t call this early. It’s 7.30am and a Sunday morning, too.
When I come up for air, the bath water smells odd. It could be the Radox salts, but the odour is more like Vermouth. Herby. As if yesterday’s alcohol has infused the bathwater after fermenting overnight in my stomach. I reach for the phone, curious to see who’s called at this hour.
The missed call is from my Mother’s nursing home. There are two reasons the nursing home call. The first is to say you’ve won this month’s Friends & Family Tombola. But I haven’t entered the Tombola for a long time and good news is polite and would wait till brunch.
The arches, loops and whorls of my thumb are so flushed and swollen from my poaching so long in my vermouth bath that the phone doesn’t recognise my thumb print.
Again and again, I press my thumb down but the bloody, bloody, bloody phone won’t unlock. I start to like a mountaineer watching the first few stones of a landslide rolling away from beneath his feet.
I dry my right hand first and finally thumb open the I-Phone. I start to phone the nursing home but stop. I am naked. It feels disrespectful to make the call without clothes. On a Sunday, especially.
I pick up yesterday’s clothes from the floor beside my bed and ring. I’ve only lost a minute getting dressed, which will make no difference to the new reality waiting to introduce itself at the other end of the phone.
‘I’ll put you through to the duty nurse.’
‘Thank you,’ I say, in a sunny voice. You sound like you’ve won the Lotto, I say to myself. Pull yourself together.
‘It’s bad news,’ says the nurse and begins a litany of facts: who, when, what, where and how.
The nurse is professional. But her facts are meaningless and mute. They pass me by. All I can hear is the sound of a planet crashing out of the universe and a voice somewhere whispering ‘no more’.
I knock on my son’s bedroom door. He’s the only family member home.
‘How?’ he asks, waking up.
‘They told me, but I can’t remember.’
‘Oh. Do you want a cuddle?’
It’s an infinitely perfect thing to say.
If I hug him, I will dissolve and I have things to do.
In the Uber on the way to the nursing home, I remember when my daughter came into the world, courtesy of a late-night emergency caesarean, I was stranded in a hotel in Copenhagen. When my mother left the world, I was in a bath with a hangover. I guess we don’t always get to choose our comings and goings, nor who’s with us they happen.
‘Pull over. Here’s fine,’ I say to the Uber driver.
At the nursing home, three of Mother’s carers come up to me as I enter the dementia wing of the home.
‘She was a lovely Lady.’
‘Whatever we did she always thanked us. ‘Merci Beaucoup’ was what she said. All the time. Even if we were just giving her a cup of tea.’
‘A cup of tea was the way to her heart,’ I say.
Mother used to say: ‘I don’t know why they do this. They do things others don’t want to. For a pittance. I wouldn’t do this if I were them.’ Politeness was her strategy for keeping people on side. She understood she was dependent on others, but also an insight into others.
She would have torn me off a strip if she had seen me today: a crimpled shirt and shorts, scuffed shoes, unshaven. Clothes maketh the men, she used to say. She’d have been shocked to see herself today, too. Lying under a bedsheet on the floor in her nightgown, head back and eyes closed. In her open mouth a gold tooth is visible.
‘Why is she on the floor?’ I ask.
‘The bed was too soft to do CPR on,’ says the nurse.
‘Can we move her?’
‘Not until the Police come.’
I sit with her alone for five minutes. They’ve closed the curtains so none of the other residents can see in through her window.
Read more blogs by James Thellusson
Read the previous one – Man in the Middle 90: The Repair cafe
See all James’s Man in the Middle blogs here
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