Man in the Middle – Chapter 33: Hilary Mantel & the dead body

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.33: Hilary Mantel & the dead body

My wife wants me to bring down the dead body when I get out of the shower.

‘Sure thing,’ I reply.

She’s on the floor below shouting up, practicing marriage by megaphone.  I’m not sure if I’ve heard her correctly, but I’ve learnt it’s better to say yes first and ask questions later.

It’s early morning and I want some ‘me time’ under the warm stream of the shower to wake up and get my wits about me, too. If I question her instructions the next thing I know she’ll be her knocking on the bathroom door and I’ll have to get on with it, whatever it is.

As I knead my bald patch with a volumizing conditioner a thought begins to nag. It’s the same thought footballers have when they say something ‘hasn’t quite sunk in yet’, a feeling something momentous has happened which one can’t yet grasp or articulate.

This feeling begins to take shape as a series of questions: why is there a dead body on the landing? Whose body is it? How the hell does my wife expect me to carry it downstairs with my back problem?

I’m pretty certain it’s not a family member that’s dead because my wife’s voice would have betrayed more emotion and the tone of her voice was definitely from her ‘TaskMaster’ wardrobe, steely cold and clear.

I lean my head against the shower screen and have an epiphany. My wife is a Hilary Mantel fan. Last night, after finishing ‘The Mirror and the Light’, she said she wanted to re-read ‘Bring up the Dead Bodies’, which is on the bookshelf outside the bathroom. I’ve misheard her. What she wants is for me to bring down, the bring up the dead bodies book. Mystery solved.

‘Dad. I think you need to come out now,’ says my son.


‘There’s a dead body out here.’

‘Just throw it down to mum.’

‘I’m not picking up a dead body.’

‘It’s not a big deal for heavens sake,’ I shout, irritated my ‘me time’ under the shower is clearly coming to a premature close.

‘If you do, I’ll add it as a credit on your Task Listicle,’ I add, enticingly. Task Listicles are the list of jobs we’re given each day by my wife to protect us from idleness and sloth.

‘Don’t patronise me with your patriarchal, reward-based behaviour systems. I’d rather clean the bogs than pick up a dead body,’ he replies.

Mother has come up to see what the fuss is all about. It’s unusual for her to come up to the third floor. The last time she was up here she was so distressed by the sight of so many un-ironed children’s clothes and the general disorder that she didn’t sleep during the day for a week.

‘Your son’s right. It’s definitely dead. I’ve just given it a prod,’ says Mother.

I’m not a specialist in infectious diseases like Donal Trump but it occurs to me a dead body could still pass on the Covid-19 virus. If it really is a dead body and not Hilary Mantels’ book, then Mother prodding away at it with her crutch is just going to stir up the virus and spread it around the landing.

‘Don’t panic,’ I say as I open the bathroom door with a towel wrapped around my waist.

‘He’s like Corporal Jones in Dad’s Army,’ she says with a wink to my son.

‘Whose army?’ my son asks.

‘I’ve seen dead ones before. I don’t need you to tell me not to panic,’ says my Mother.

On the landing outside my son’s bedroom is a dead bird. I don’t know what sort. Small. Not a pigeon. The cat is sitting up next to it. I’m tempted to say he looks proud, like a Big Game Hunter standing next to dead prey, ready for the safari paparazzi to snap his picture. But, actually, he just looks bemused by all the rumpus and the sight of Mother this far up the stairs.

‘It’s a dead bird,’ I say, as if I had discovered the Holy Grail.

‘Yeeeesss,’ say my mother and son, sneers in their voice.

‘I thought…’

‘He killed a mouse yesterday,’ says Mother. ‘I watched him from the balcony. He played with it for hours.’

‘Why didn’t you stop him?’ says my son, who loves the idea of natural ecosystems only without the messy bits like killing and eating.

‘Have you got it yet?’ I hear my wife’s voice getting closer.

I look from the dead bird to the copy of ‘Bring Up the Dead Bodies’ on the bookshelf and wonder if I have time to put on my trousers. As I hesitate, my wife arrives on the landing with a sigh and a dustpan and brush.

Read more blogs by James Thellusson

Read the next in the series – Chapter 34: The lure of yoga

Read the previous one – Chapter 32: Howard Hughes stays over

See all James’s Man in the Middle blogs here

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