Man in the Middle – Chapter 13: Burning down the house

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. 13: Burning down the house

Wife is telling us that it is essential that Mother doesn’t feel like a lodger in our home. She must have full citizenship, not settled status is the thrust of the lecture.

‘She has to feel this home is as much hers as ours. We must encourage her to have her friends around. Have parties.’

‘And sleep overs,’ says Son.

‘Them, too,’ says Wife refusing to rise to his bait. However, I am distracted by an image of elderly women in sleeping bags on Mother’s floor, sucking on popcorn while arguing over which Cary Grant movie to watch.

‘We need an online booking system. I’ve got a few parties booked over Christmas and we don’t want diary conflicts,’ says Daughter, who’s on a flying visit from University.

‘Where are these parties happening?’ I ask.

‘Here, of course. Why else would I be suggesting a family booking system?’ says Daughter. Both children look at me as if I’m an inferior species.

‘Keep up,’ says Son.

Later that week, Mother tells me that two of her former neighbours, who now live in South Africa, have arranged to come around at the weekend to see her.

‘Are they staying with us?’ I ask hesitantly.

‘Why would I ask them to stay without checking with your wife? Just because I’m old doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten my manners,’ she snaps. ‘Lunch. It’s just lunch.’

‘Would you like me to do anything to help?’

‘Yes. Make sure everyone’s out by 12.45 on Saturday. I don’t want you fussing around me or the boy slumming in front of the TV playing one of his ghastly games. Just buy me some lemons and makes sure there’s full bottle of gin around.’

It is clear she has fully embraced Wife’s philosophy of ‘Mi casa, su casa’. In fact, it feels like she’s taking it one step further. Not only has she asked friends into our home, but she’s throwing us out. This is more ‘Mid Witch Cuckoo’ than ‘Su Casa’. I wonder how this will go down with Wife.

‘Perfect,’ she says. ‘This is just how it should be. She wants to be in control of her party and to have some privacy with her old friends. We can go out for lunch.’

‘What about me?’ says Son. His Saturday morning routine of slobbing around is in tatters.

‘You’ll have to be up and dressed before mid-day for once. It’s nothing to be scared of,’ replies Wife.

I can’t resist chipping in.

‘Mummy and Daddy will be there for you through the trauma. Just like we always have been there for you at the big turning points in your life.’

‘Boomers.’ He shakes his head and walks out.

Wife and I come back at about teatime to find Mother triumphant from her lunch party. Three hours of uninterrupted, old fashioned banter about the old days, the old neighbours and the old man, my father. What’s not to like?

‘They loved the house, by the way. They asked me to complement you for your marvelous good taste and to thank you for your hospitality.’

I don’t need to turn around to know Mother is talking to my wife not me.

‘They loved the new wood fire, especially. Reminded them of winter in London. In South Africa they only need fires to barbecue on,’ she laughs.

‘Wood fire?’ says Wife alarmed.

‘Yes. I put some logs on the fire in the sitting room to make them feel at home. Such a wonderful, woody smell, isn’t it?’

The fire she’s referring to isn’t a real fire. It’s a ‘Wood Burner Gas Fire with Realistic Flame Effect’. Unfortunately, it looks so real Mother has spent the afternoon lobbing wood logs onto it. Luckily, its fire retardant and hasn’t caused an explosion.

Later, with Mother upstairs exhausted with fun, Wife sweeps up the ashes.

‘Thank God for EU safety standards. They could have been burnt alive. You must warn her about not doing it again.’

Mother’s sister died of severe burns after candles set her bed alight. Telling her she’s almost burnt our house down will remind her of that. It’s going to make her feel foolish, too. Is that helpful? Will that stop her making the same mistake again? Or just humiliate her?

Son, who has changed back into his pyjamas and is booting up the PS4, pipes up.

‘Shall I have a chat with her instead of Dad? It’s easier for me to tell her she’s a silly old bat than him and I won’t make it sound like a lecture.’

There are moments when you realise how good your child rearing skills are. This is one of them.

‘Perfect, ‘I say. ‘Deal.’

‘Coward,’ says Wife, as I rush upstairs.

‘Just going to check if the insurance policy,’ I say. ‘Want to see if we’re covered for arson by elderly relatives.’

Man in the Middle was first published in Age Space

Read more blogs by James Thellusson

Read the next in the series – Chapter 14: Made in Chelsea

Read the previous one – Chapter 12: Political junkie

See all James’s Man in the Middle blogs here

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