Man in the Middle – Chapter 37: Cummings and goings

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.37: Cummings and goings

Monday. My new yoga regime continues. I’m in Child Pose. My forehead and nose are nestling in the sitting room carpet and my arms are outstretched ahead of me. My yoga teacher is asking me to find some ‘inner peace in the moment’. But I’m getting distracted by the cat fur and microscopic bits of stuff which I can see as my eyes nestle into the purple fibre of the carpet. What is this stuff? Crumbs from one of Mother’s secret cake raves? Flakes of onion bhaji from last night’s takeaway? Flea eggs?

Mother walks into the sitting room and sits down in her TV chair, behind me, which means she’s facing my backside and bald spot. I am dressed only in bamboo underwear and a ragged t-shirt. Both have seen better days. I don’t think even the most self-enlightened yogi would be able to stay focused knowing his mother lurked behind him about to pass comment on his lack of pants.

‘I want to speak to you about something,’ she says. Here we go, I think.

‘What about, mum?’ I reply, rising up from the purple carpet of crumbs.



‘The Durham chap.’ She means Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s chief adviser.

‘OK,’ I say.

‘I don’t understand.’

‘What don’t you understand?’

‘Why is he allowed to travel 200 miles to Durham, but you don’t want me to go 200 yards to Sainsbury’s?’

I don’t think she means this to sound like an accusation, but it feels like one. Since the lockdown, we’ve done our best to follow what we thought were the rules because we’ve been scared that if one of us accidentally brings the covid-19 virus back home, she will inevitably get it. And at ninety-six years old, we didn’t think the odds on her surviving were good. Nor did she.

In fact, we spent the first weeks of lock down enforcing really strict rules: separate rooms, separate crockery and cutlery, eating apart etc. Our daughter stayed lock down in Cardiff rather than travel home to be with us during the pandemic because we thought we were helping the NHS. Maybe, we were too rigid? Maybe, we should have used reasonable discretion and allowed her and ourselves out more. I start to wonder if it was actually cruel to be so strict, especially to her? A guilt seeps into my gut, like bile.

I start to answer her question by saying that her situation and Cummings are not the same. But aren’t they? I hesitate.

‘Is the lockdown over then?’ she asks.

‘No. It isn’t. It’s more complex than that.’

‘Aren’t the rules, the rules?’ she asks.

I tell her that I need to check what exactly the rules are now, because they are changing, and I don’t want to tell her something that’s wrong. I suggest we talk again once I’ve reviewed the rules.

‘I see. You want to ask your wife what to do?’

It’s only a glancing blow to my ego so I smile and move on.

‘The Sainsbury’s Local has special hours for elderly people if she wants to go shopping,’ says my wife, later.

‘Her philosophy is ‘I shop therefore I am’. So, we should let her go shopping,’ I suggest.

‘She just wants some semblance of independence back in her life,’ says my wife.

‘Should she wear a face mask if she goes out,’ says my son.

‘Good luck with that,’ I say.

‘I’m more worried about her being able to stand up in the queues,’ says my wife.

My son looks confused.

‘Isn’t the rule that if she doesn’t need to go shopping, she shouldn’t? And we can get her everything she needs, can’t we? So, shopping is obviously non-essential and therefore wrong?’

I’m not sure I know what the rules are any longer. But there’s no question she doesn’t need to go shopping. But, after Dominic’s comings and goings, what authority do we have to stop her, if she decides she wants to go?

Read more blogs by James Thellusson

Read the next in the series – Chapter 38: The best iron money can buy

Read the previous one – Chapter 36: For Whom the Bell Tolls

See all James’s Man in the Middle blogs here

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