Man in the Middle – Chapter 47: The salt cellar

4 August, 2020 / By James Thellusson

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.47: The salt cellar

Mother has a silver salt cellar cupped in her hands which she holds out towards me as if she were a beggar. Her gesture reminds me of the scene in Oliver, the musical, when the young Oliver asks for a second portion of gruel. I am unsettled by her gesture and my reaction to it, but I can’t work out why.

What I do know is that she has made a huge effort to bring that salt cellar downstairs because it is usually hidden in an orange Sainsbury’s bag under her bed with other pieces of family silverware. To get it, she’s had to rummage around on her hands and knees, which given the arthritis in her hips and knees will have been very, very painful. She wouldn’t have done this unless it was important to her.

‘Why have you got that old salt cellar out, mum?’ I ask.

‘I was thinking of rowing across the Thames in it,’ she snaps. ‘Do you think it’s big enough?’

The salt cellar is approximately two inches in diameter.

‘Nice one, granny. Whoop, Whoop,’ says my son from the kitchen table, his fist raised in salute above his head.

‘Thank you, darling,’ she says to him, like a stand-up comedian acknowledging the audience’s applause as they come on stage.

‘To get some salt, of course. What else?’ she says to me.

‘But why do you need salt?’

‘To clean my teeth,’ she says. ‘What is this: Twenty Questions?’

To clean her teeth?

At moments like these, I’ve learnt to take a deep breath and wait. She and I are temporarily living in parallel universes. There is a logic to what she’s said but it isn’t apparent to me yet because it’s based on the natural laws which govern her universe, not mine. But if I am patient our universes will realign and the mystery will reveal itself. I look at my wife and raise my eyebrows.

‘Have you run out of toothpaste?’ asks my wife.

Mother explains she ran out of toothpaste while the rest of us were holidaying in the Brecon Beacons over ten days ago. She is still scared to go to the shops because of the ‘Covid thing’ and doesn’t want to burden us – ‘even more than she already does’ – by asking us to buy toothpaste for her. So, she came up with a better and cheaper alternative to toothpaste: salt. Ta Da!

She looks at the horror in my face as I imagine what the salt must be doing to the enamel surface of her teeth and says quickly: ‘We cleaned our teeth with salt during the War, you know.’

‘But it’s a terrible idea. Like using a metal pan scourer on a non-stick pan,’ I say.

‘Nonsense. It’s bloody good for your gums. Everyone knows that.’

‘Everyone knows that’ is a phrase Mother uses when she’s on a sticky wicket and wants to close down an argument quickly. Once she’s said it, she won’t engage in any further debate and resorts to shaking her head, silently and relentlessly. I have heard you can use baking soda and salt to clean silver but to clean gums and teeth? My daughter comes into the kitchen.

‘Is this someone’s tooth?’ she asks, holding an ivory slither between some loo roll.

‘Arghhh. Gross,’ says my son.

After a short hiatus, in which my son suggests she may be holding the relic of an ancient saint, Mother confesses the ivory slither is half of one of her lateral incisors. It fell out the day before and she decided to wrap it in loo paper to show the dentist when she next sees him.

‘There. You see,’ I say. ‘It’s the bloody salt chipping your teeth away.’

‘Imbecile’ mutters Mother.

‘Perhaps it belongs to a woolly mammoth?’ asks my son, staring at the chipped tooth as it lies on the kitchen table like a museum exhibit.

‘Does it hurt?’ asks my wife.

Mother sits down. Yes, it hurts a little. More a throb than a pain. She was going to mention it, but she didn’t think it was anything worth worrying about. A paracetamol is all she needs.

I phone the dentist immediately and ask for an appointment. But because of Covid they won’t take bookings until the dentist has done an initial phone consultation. Face to face appointments are not the new normal. Mother refuses to do the call because her hearing is bad ‘today’ and no one speaks ‘clearly’ anymore, so I speak to the dentist when he calls back.

‘You’ll have to be my eyes,’ he says to me. ‘Can you ask her to open her mouth so tell me what condition her teeth and gums are in.’

‘The dentist wants me to look into your mouth,’ I say to Mother, feeling queasy like a cave diver on their first solo dive.

‘Open your mouth wide so I can see what’s going on in there?’

‘Not on your nelly,’ she says. ‘What do you think I am a bloody horse having its teeth inspected at a gypsy fair? Give me the phone. I’ll diagnose myself.’

With that, she grabs the phone. Her hearing is miraculously restored, and she and the dentist decide a short course of antibiotics is the first thing to be done.

‘There. All done. Now give me some baking soda and some salt and I’ll polish up this lovely old salt cellar. It was a wedding gift from your father’s mother. Dreadful woman, but had very good taste.’

Read the next in the series – Chapter 48: The Mystery of the Colman’s Mustard tin

Read more blogs by James Thellusson

Read the next in the series – Chapter 48: The Mystery of the Colman’s Mustard tin

Read the previous one – Chapter 46: Walking boots and sweaty socks

See all James’s Man in the Middle blogs here

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