Man in the Middle – Chapter 22: Rice Pudding

A middle aged man decides his elderly mother can no longer cope alone, so she moves in with them. 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.22: Rice Pudding

I am making a chocolate rice pudding when my Mother asks me if I plan to poison her. She’s crept up next to me at the stove and is pointing at the rice pudding with a wooden spoon.

‘Not yet,’ I say, ‘though if you start stirring the pudding while I am trying to mix the rice with the melted butter and sugar, I can’t guarantee anything.’ I get very anxious whenever anyone stands close to me while I am cooking.

‘Don’t you remember it was rice pudding that did for your father?’ she says.

She’s right. Rice pudding did kill my father. A grain or two of milk sodden rice slipped past his trachea and blossomed into clostridium difficile, the super bug. The doctors sucked on his lungs and pricked him full of antibiotics, but he was old and frail.  After a few days the bug shut him down.

A year or so before, he had been diagnosed with throat cancer. He survived the operation but the muscles in his throat were so weak afterwards that he never ate solid food again.

My father loved cooking and eating. If he were still alive, he would self-identify as both a gourmet and a gourmand. So, this final year of dining on mashed foods and semi-liquid puddings was probably as humiliating as any of the other indignities he had to bear during that time: unable to dress, unable to walk and wearing diapers.

I don’t know how to answer my mother’s question, so I pour a glass of Cointreau and a handful of white chocolate chips into the pot and keep stirring.

‘It wasn’t the way he’d have chosen to go. He never liked sweet things or desserts. If he’d had a choice, he would have rather choked on a boeuf bourguignon or something classically French.’

This could be a joke or a statement of fact. It is perfectly possible my foodie father would have spent most of his final year lying on his bed thinking about his last meal, like many a condemned man before him.  But the question which has grabbed me is not what my father would have preferred choked on but why has my Mother asked me if I am planning to kill her? I haven’t studied Freud, but everyone knows there’s no such thing as an innocent joke. Could it be making a chocolate rice pudding is actually a subliminal act of aggression, even something Oedipal?

‘I think he’d have chosen cheese. Roquefort and French bread,’ I say, deciding to let Oedipus go and follow the flow of my Mother’s macabre conversation.

‘Snails swimming in garlic and butter,’ says my Mother, jauntily.

‘Both. With steak frites in between. A three-course meal was the least he deserved, ‘I say. We’re both smiling at the thought.

‘I remember a Roald Dahl story in which a woman murders her husband with a frozen leg of lamb and then eats the lamb to destroy the evidence,’ says my Wife, coming at the conversation from a different angle, but one I can’t help feel is equally laden with Freudian menace only for me.

‘Meat is murder,’ says my vegetarian Son, chipping in.

‘If I were going to murder Granny, I would probably use old eggs under cooked. Or lightly cooked sprouts, which are a breeding ground for bacteria. I was reading about them the other day,’ I say cheerfully.

The conversation stops. The room fills with silence. The rice pudding pops. I’ve gone one step beyond.

‘How does the pudding look,’ says my Wife, after a short while.

‘Not bad,’ says my Mother. ‘His father would have been proud of him. It looks better than the stuff I used to give him out of a tin.’

Read more blogs by James Thellusson

Read the next in the series – Chapter 23: Laurence Fox

Read the previous one – Chapter 21: New Year’s Resolutions

See all James’s Man in the Middle blogs here

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