Man in the Middle – Chapter 25: Blue Suede Shoes

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.25: Blue Suede Shoes

Mother holds a glass jar of orange marmalade in her left hand while she lances a knife into the jars’ mouth with her right, as if she were threading cotton through the eye of a needle.

Her hands tremble with the effort so the knife taps against the glass as if she were playing a triangle in an orchestra. She half pours, half spreads the marmalade onto her toast, but her weak hands can’t sustain an even downward pressure, so it smears unevenly, and globules spill off onto her plate and the floor.

I have been watching her for five minutes and don’t know whether I should offer to help or look away. Intervening would be kind. It would also save marmalade from falling onto the floor which would win me plaudits under the Family’s new ‘Policy on Food & Kitchen Waste’. Ethos: ‘Look after the marmalade and the breakfasts will take care of themselves’.

I opt to do nothing. My Wife would say this was my usual modus operandi. But I have decided it would be patronising and undermine Mother’s dignity if I suggest I should spread jam on her toast for her. It will also unleash a ‘Stop Teaching Your Grandmother to Spread marmalade’ speech and I’m still feeling fragile from drinking too much at last night’s Book Club.

Before I think further about this dilemma, my Daughter sweeps into the kitchen and my Mother’s face lights up as if every Sun in the Galaxy had turned its ripening warmth on the orange pieces in her marmalade.

‘How are you feeling about the interview,’ says my Wife.

‘Good,’ says my Daughter.

She’s wearing a dark blue trouser suit, a white blouse and a scarf. Her trousers stop at her ankles, but I think this is a stylistic choice not a mistake caused by putting her trousers into the washing machine at the wrong temperature.

‘You look both professional and beautiful,’ says my Wife.

Mother, however, has been anxiously scanning her granddaughter. Her toast is listing like a ship in a storm as her hands shake and a large blob of marmalade is sliding towards the edge of the toast like a slurry of molten magma down a steep volcanic mountain side. She leans towards me.

‘You must say something to her?’

‘Good luck today,’ I say willingly, waving a spoon in the air at my Daughter.

‘No. About the shoes, you idiot’ says Mother, pointing at my Daughter’s shoes.

‘What’s the matter with her shoes?’ says my Wife.

‘She can’t do a job interview in blue suede shoes,’ says Mother, her thoughts spilling into speech just as the marmalade blob slips onto the floor between her feet.

My Daughter’s shoes are blue suede and a bit scuffed but we’re no longer living in an age which believes that clothes ‘maketh the man’. Or woman. Or the non-binary person. Are we?

‘I told her to wear a pair of lime green Vaporfly’s,’ says my son, referring to Nike’s new controversial performance enhancing running shoes. ‘Anyone else turning up for the interview who sees you in a pair of those will give up immediately.’

‘It’s a job interview, not the London Marathon,’ says my Wife.

‘Vestis virum facit. Clothes make the man,” says Mother, using the only Latin phrase she knows apart from ‘Tempus Fugit’. ‘People make judgements about you based on your shoes. It’s a fact of life.’

Currently, Mother’s shoes are a morass of Sevillian thick cut orange marmalade globules, so I am glad she’s not going for a job interview this morning. But I am worried that my daughter’s pre-interview equanimity may be badly shaken if Mother starts lecturing her on her choice of shoes.

Mother’s turning her chair from the kitchen table to face my daughter, like the gun turret of a battleship bringing its guns to bear on a target, so I realise I have to do something quickly to distract her.

Flushed with inspiration, I turn on Spotify and start singing along to ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ by Elvis Presley while swinging my hips in an homage to the King. The song contains a moral that will surely shut Mother up.

‘You can burn my house
Steal my car
Drink my liquor
From an old fruit jar
Well do anything that you want to do
But uh-uh, honey lay off of my blue suede shoes’

The music is too much for Mother who turns her gun turret back to the kitchen table and starts to reapply marmalade to her toast. It’s too much for my daughter and wife, too, who quickly leave the room to find a suede brush, apparently.

Only my Son seems to recognise my performance for what it is – a selfless diversionary stratagem to defuse a dangerous family conflict. He’s supporting my efforts by drumming along on a packet of Cheerio’s and singing along ‘Go Cat, Go’. It’s possible there’s a faint trace of irony in his voice, but I am not entirely sure.

Read more blogs by James Thellusson

Read the next in the series – Chapter 26: International Women’s Day

Read the previous one – Chapter 24: Goop

See all James’s Man in the Middle blogs here

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