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
Mother is prodding a bowl of Nachos gently, so she doesn’t disturb anything like the first Police Officer at a murder scene.
‘What is it?’ she asks my son, putting her fork down.
‘Nachos,’ he replies.
‘Is it Greek?’
‘No. It’s a Mexican corn tortilla covered with cheese and salsa.’
A thought catches her. She nods at me.
‘His godmother danced the salsa. Argentinian. It’s in their blood.’
She’s confusing nachos with Naxos, salsa with tango and Cuba with Argentina. It is correct that my godmother was a chorus line dancer and married an Argentine. However, she was born in Croydon.
Sometimes this happens. Mother is like a psychedelic signalman, who switches the points on the railway track, setting you off on a journey to an unknown destination. A simple conversation gets absurdly diverted.
‘Salsa is also a type of Mexican sauce,’ my son replies gamely trying to put the conversation back on track.
She peers at the Mexican take-away laid out on the kitchen table, suspiciously. Her radar locks onto an open polystyrene tub.
‘What’s that green stuff?’
‘Guacamole,’ says my wife. ‘It’s avocado mashed up with other stuff.’
‘Other stuff?’ says Mother.
Mother doesn’t like the look or the sound of the food. Events are running out of control faster now, the way the last inch of bath water appears to spiral down the plug faster than the first.
The take-away is her treat to us. A kind gesture to break the covid-19 lock down ritual of DIY cooking, clearing and cleaning and a way to assuage her unnecessary guilt she doesn’t contribute enough around the house.
Instead, it’s turning into a family faux pas. We’re embarrassed we’ve ordered something she doesn’t want to eat. She’s embarrassed to admit it and is now racking her brain for an excuse to say ‘no’ to dinner, like a vegetarian diplomat trying to refuse a plate of exotic offal, without giving offence.
It’s my fault, of course. I could have ordered something safe. She likes fish and chips, especially chips. With careful negotiation we might even have formed a consensus around an Indian or Chinese meal. But no. I decided it was time to experiment.
‘Mexican? Are you sure,’ said my wife?
‘Chilli con carne is your least favourite food,’ said my son. ‘It’s the only opinion you’ve held consistently since I was a baby.’
‘Everything deserves a second chance,’ I said, exuberantly pressing the ‘Add’ button on my ‘Just Eat’ app for portions of enchiladas, burritos, tacos, nachos, quesadillas, tortillas and even a vegetarian chilli con carne.
Now it’s arrived, Mother has come to inspect the gift she’s bought us. She’s standing next to the table tilting like a Tudor house, ground floor timbers leaning one-way, top floor leaning the other. If she sits down, getting up will be a big effort so she’s weighing things up carefully, while my son snaps the lids off the takeaway’s plastic containers. Each snap sounds like a dull firework and infuses the kitchen with an aroma of plastic, cheese and chilli.
My son pours a kidney bean sludge into a serving bowl in front of Mother, who turns away from the table with a faint groan, her mind made up.
‘I’m not very hungry right now. I haven’t been feeling quite myself all day. I’ll help myself to some cheese and biscuits later, if you don’t mind.’
‘Nachos is sort of cheese and biscuits,’ says my son, pointing at the yellow cheese on top of the pile of nachos, setting like lava as it meets the air. It’s his last roll of the dice.
‘No, thank you, darling. I think I’ll go to bed. I’m not feeling well.’
Once she’s gone upstairs and my son has taken her a plate of cheese and biscuits my wife turns to me.
‘There’s a lesson here, isn’t there.’
‘Never order Mexican,’ I ask?
‘We should just focus on giving her food she knows and likes and not try to turn these moments into a foodie festival.’
‘She was fine until she saw the chilli con carne,’ I say.
My wife shakes her head.
‘By the way, the chilli is disgusting,’ says my son. ‘One positive take out from this debacle is that dad has been right about one thing all these years: chilli con carne is the worse dish in the world.’
Read more blogs by James Thellusson
Read the next in the series – Chapter 36: For whom the bell tolls
Read the previous one – Chapter 34: The lure of yoga
See all James’s Man in the Middle blogs here
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