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.16: Rorke’s Drift
We didn’t watch the film ‘Zulu’ this Christmas. Instead, we relived it.
Not literally, of course. But as wave after wave of friends and relatives hurled themselves upon our hospitality for three nights, continuously probing for shortfalls in our tempers and our wine supplies, home felt like Rorke’s Drift, the beleaguered army post in the movie.
It’s Boxing Day. Mid-morning. I’m still in bed, but I hear Christmas Carols playing and can picture Wife having a coffee with her mum downstairs. She’ll be drinking from the recyclable, foldable coffee cup which Son gave her as a Christmas present because she wants him to see her using it the minute he wakes up. She’s signalling: ‘I love your Christmas gift so much I couldn’t wait to use it.’ Which is just as well because he was up till 3am playing Mortal Kombat so the chances of her seeing him before tea-time are slim.
I hear the scraping of tables and chairs. Wife is moving things around. Putting things away. Soon, she and my Mother-in-Law will decide the day’s battleplan. This is, after all, only day two of the Rorke’s Drift Christmas siege and an overseas regiment of relatives arrive this lunchtime. Beds will need to be changed. A smorgasbord of new nibbles will need to be laid out and fresh bottles of Prosecco loaded onto the wine rack in the fridge, like mortar shells ready to fire.
There is no point me getting involved in the battle plan. I’m infantry. In fact, I’m catering corp. My job to pass plates and pour drinks, not to reason why. There’s no rush, either. The CO knows how to Get Christmas Done and, soon enough, I’ll be instructed to get up, find an ironed shirt and comb my hair. The call to arms is inevitable.
I hear my bedroom door opening slowly and think the moment has come. I shut my eyes quickly and pretend to be asleep. If I’m caught with my eyes open, it will raise all sorts of questions. Have you had a bath yet? Don’t you realise they’ll be here in an hour? But if I pretend to be asleep still, I can blame the alarm and spring into action purposeful and apologetic. In mature moments, I realise I am as bad as Private Hook in the movie ‘Zulu’ who hides in the army hospital when his colleagues are fighting for their lives. We’re both Class A malingerers.
But it isn’t Wife coming into the bedroom. It’s Son who creeps under the blankets next to me. The moment is poignant with sweet memories of when he was a little blond teddy bear, climbing into our bed to open his Christmas presents.
‘Was it always like this?’ he asks, sleepily.
‘You mean Christmas?’ I say putting my arm over him.
‘No, I mean you not pulling your weight. We were discussing this last night after you stomped off.’
‘You ruined ‘Call the Midwife’ with your moaning even though you know both Grannies love it. When Mum asked you to shut up you stormed off into the kitchen.’
‘I was just pointing out some pretty fundamental flaws in the plot.’
‘Was it necessary though?’
‘How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!’
‘Classic. You can’t handle the truth, so you get all pompous and start quoting Shakespeare or someone to shift the conversation away from the fact that you’re in the wrong.’
I wonder when he went from being a teddy bear to teddy boy but, at the same time, feel a little parental pride at his analysis. He’s right. I keep a collection of phrases to scare people off when I feel cornered, which I use like a skunk uses its spray.
Wife opens the door. For a moment, there’s a smile on her face as she remembers the old days of family snuggles and a bed full of wrapping paper. But the smile disappears as she realises that there are Things to Be Done to Get Christmas Done and she must make them happen.
‘I’m afraid we don’t have time for this bromance right now. I need you both downstairs dressed. Sharpish. Comb your hair and find a clean shirt. Preferably ironed.’
‘I was just saying we should do exactly that to Dad,’ says Son, like a sycophant.
‘Is it time to reinforce the North Wall?’ I say, knowing Wife will get the reference to the movie Zulu and hoping it will earn me more brownie points than Son’s shameless grovelling.
‘Oh dear. I thought you’d given up on that Zulu movie fantasy years ago,’ says Wife, shaking her head.
Read more blogs by James Thellusson
Read the next in the series – Chapter 17: Resolutions
Read the previous one – Chapter 15: Christmas Crackers
See all James’s Man in the Middle blogs here
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