Man in the Middle – Chapter 11: Archaeology

A middle aged man decides his elderly mother can no longer cope alone. Squeezed by the demands of the demographic time bomb and the requirements of the rest of the family, the Man in the Middle is bemused that life has become a hi-wire act, just when he thought it should start getting easier. How can he keep everyone happy and survive with his sanity intact?

If you’d like to begin at the beginning and missed the first instalment, you can read
No. 1: The Letter here

No. 11: Archaeology

Mother is sitting in the window leafing intently through a stack of loose leafed, old photographs. She looks at the front of each photograph and then folds it over to check the back like an archeologist gently turning ancient stones in her hands. Her chair has high, wooden armrests and a deep seat so the chair seems to be swallowing her. The autumn light on her white hair looks ethereal.

She’s so absorbed it takes a while time for her to realize I am in the doorway. When she does she snaps.

‘It’s rude not to knock before you come into someone’s bedroom. I thought I’d taught you better than that.’

‘You did. But I knocked three times and decided I couldn’t wait any longer.’

‘You’re as impatient as your brother,’ she sighs. ‘And as rude.’

Being as rude as my brother is about as bad as it can get. It puts me in a league alongside Prince Philip and Frankie Boyle. But she’s right. I shouldn’t have snuck in and spied on her.

‘Would you like me to get an album for those photographs?’ I ask shifting into compliant, helpful mode.

‘There’s none left,’ she says portentously.

I am confused. Is this a line from ‘Waiting for Godot’? Or the moment dementia took control?

‘Destroyed them all,’ she says.

Acting runs in Mother’s family. Her sister was particularly successful at ‘treading the boards’, as my father called it. Mother is not beyond occasionally hamming things up, especially if she’s feeling bored.

‘What are you talking about?’ I ask.

She reminds me of one day in the early eighties when my brother came back from University and burnt all the photographs of us. He made a funeral pyre of them outside the garage while my parents were asleep. Unusually for him, he did a thorough job and set light to the negatives, too. I call him up to see if he remembers. He does.

‘Why did you do it?’ I ask.

‘Self preservation.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘From five to fifteen Mother cut our hair,’ he says. ‘Only she wasn’t Vidal Sasson. Bowl haircuts. In every photo.’

Embarrassed memories begin to stir. I remember a picture of my brother and me in pajamas standing next to our beds, in particular. I am holding our cat and my brother is pulling on its tail, one eye red from the camera’s flash. Mother is standing behind us ruffling our bob haircuts. She’s smiling, proud of us and, perhaps, even of her hair handiwork.

‘Christ, we looked like medieval monks,’ he says. ‘If those photos got into the wrong hands, we’d have been ruined. Girl friends lost. Friends shamed. They were so embarrassing they could have even ruined careers. I did us both a favour.’

Mother has propped up on the shelf opposite her bed a photo of my god father, whiskey in hand, talking to my god mother, who married an Argentine diplomat and was, therefore, seldom short of decent corned beef during the Second World War. I wonder why she has chosen this photo over the others? I wonder if she remembers the picture of me and my brother and the cat having his tail pulled? I am about to ask her about all these things but then something in me hesitates and I decide that some stones are best left unturned.

First published in Age Space

Read more blogs by James Thellusson

Read the next in the series – Chapter 12: Political Junkie

Read the previous one – Chapter 10: The Phone

See all James’s Man in the Middle blogs here

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