Man in the Middle – Chapter 32: Howard Hughes Stays Over

A middle aged man realises 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.32: Howard Hughes Stays Over

If Howard Hughes were still alive, he’d want to spend lock down in our oxygen tent.

Hughes, the billionaire businessman, had a phobia about germs. He wore tissue boxes instead of shoes and insisted his valet wrapped his hands in paper towels when serving his food. Covid-19 would be his worse fear, which is why he would have he’d liked the oxygen tent which my brother-in-law lent us.

He’d also would have admired our cleaning regime, which is probably unmatched, outside of an ITU. Complacent cobwebs, which thought they had squatters’ rights, have been snuffled up by the handheld vacuum with a snout like an anteater. Windows sparkle like Meghan Markle. Dishcloths are disinfected daily. The cat has been doused with flea drops and run away, disgusted we think so poorly of his hygiene.

I’m mulling Howard over while working my brush around the toilet bowls of our home. My task today is to get them spick and span.

I’ve created a slogan which is ‘If it’s not good enough for Howard, it’s not good enough for me.’ It reminds me of the standards I need to aspire to. It’s my chore mantra. Without it, I could easily settle for second best and give into the siren song of the TV and the sofa.

Mantras also remind me of the days when I used to think the Harvard Business Review was worth reading. Mantras reconnect me with a time when I thought success meant having the latest creamiest management mantra ready to share, like a box of chocolate bon-bons.

‘If it’s not good enough for Howard, it’s not good enough for me’ came to me on a call last night with our daughter, locked down in another city. We were discussing my wife’s germ battle plan for the day ahead.

‘Dad’s Head of the Bog Squad,’ said my son.

‘Am I?’

‘Well, you can’t expect me to do the loos. I’m putting up with enough shit as it is. What with not being able to go to school and see my friends.’

‘Can I be Head of Ironing?’ asks Mother.

‘Of course. Never in doubt,’ says my wife. ‘I’m putting on an overnight wash to ensure that there’s a full load ready and waiting for you in the morning.’

‘I think mum’s acting like Florence Nightingale,’ says daughter.

‘She’s the Lady of the Listerine,’ I say.

The conversation stalls.

‘Why does he always have to try to be funny?’ asks my daughter.

‘It’s his way of…. Actually, I don’t know what it is his way of doing. He just does it,’ says my wife.

My son looks at me.

‘You’re like the Play That Goes Wrong. You’re only funny when you’re not meant to be.’

As Head of Ironing, Mother feels empowered to offer her insight.

‘His father couldn’t take things seriously for long either. Underneath it all, I think it’s a psychological problem. It’s safer playing the clown. It’s a defensive mechanism.’

My wife is digesting Mother’s point, more diligently than I might want. I’m trying to think of something to say which will move the conversation on, when I realise this would simply prove my Mother’s point. With a Mother like this, who needs a psychoanalyst?

‘Can I stay in the oxygen tent tonight?’ asks my son, after a short pause in the conversation.

‘I think your father deserves it more?’ says my wife.


‘Because it’s this week is #Stop Snoring Week. The tent will soundproof the rest of us from his snoring.’

Read more blogs by James Thellusson

Read the next in the series – Chapter 33: Hilary Mantel and the dead body

Read the previous one – Chapter 31: Can you be Hygge without hugs?

See all James’s Man in the Middle blogs here

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