Man in the Middle – Chapter 55: In the sweat of your brow shall you eat

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.56: In the sweat of your brow shall you eat

My wife gets anxious at the weekends. It’s not just because she has to spend more time with me. It’s because she likes to GET THINGS DONE and with the working week behind her, she has to hunt around for things to fill up her time. And ours.

It’s not enough for her to drift her way through the weekend like a jelly fish, happy to be swept along by the tide whichever way it ebbs and flows, which is how I would choose to spend my Saturdays and Sundays. In her world, time is precious and must be used purposefully. Pleasure should be earned. Lists must be drawn up and ticked off. In our house, the clock never stops tocking for ticking.

It was different during the summer when Gavin Williamson was flip flopping across the education system in his muddy sandals, changing his mind every few days about the exams. Then, she spent the weekends working out which way Gavin would jump on Sunday night and what impact it would have on her school plans on Monday morning. She simply didn’t have time to worry about other things such as the laundry, the empty light sockets in the hallway, the coffee stains on the skirting boards and the permanent imprint of my backside on the sofa.

Now that school is back to near normal, the usual pattern of our weekend is re-establishing itself. She has needs to find things to do again. I wonder if it really is a coincidence that a new series of ‘Taskmaster’ has just restarted?

It’s Saturday morning. We’re in bed and I can hear several plans for the weekend preening themselves inside her head, like horses in a paddock before a race.

‘I don’t want to fritter away another weekend doing nothing,’ she says, as we sip a coffee in bed.

‘You say to fritter, I say frittata, let’s call the whole thing off,’ I sing.

I’m hoping that a pre-emptive strike of breakfast buffoonery will put her off her stride.

‘By the sweat of your brow will you have food to eat,’ she says, citing the Bible.

‘Fake news!’ I say. ‘Simply order your food from ‘Just Eat’. There’s no need to sweat at all.’

‘It’s a metaphor, not the post Brexit food policy.’

‘Can’t we just be lilies of the field? No toiling. No spinning. Just lounging.’

She’s heard this nonsense before. It’s the usual sound and fury signifying nothing, except the fact I haven’t grown up yet. She’s already put her coffee mug back on the dresser beside the bed, swung her legs out from under the duvet and is standing up sounding her reveille. Metaphorically, of course.

‘The house is a filthy. Can you ask everyone to do two hours cleaning? And I mean proper cleaning: washing floors etc. Piling things up in heaps doesn’t count.’

‘Muck In to Muck Out,’ I say, smiling.


‘It’s our slogan for today. Muck In to Muck Out. Like Rishi’s ’Eat Out to Help Out’, only for the indoors economy.’

‘Do you need a slogan to do the housework?’

‘It’s motivational. Like songs on a chain gang.’

‘I’ll be back in two hours. Remember to tell the children to help.’

And with that, she is dressed and gone.

Downstairs my son is in his pyjamas and playing ‘Mortal Kombat’. He looks up as I come into the sitting room.

‘She said I could have ten more minutes,’ he says getting his retaliation in first.

He knows it is 11.05am. According to the Family By-Laws, wearing pyjamas in public spaces is banned after 11am. We call it the Pyjama-shed. It’s like the TV watershed only for clothes.

‘OK,’ I say. ‘But after that we need to ‘Muck In to Muck Out’.

‘What does that mean?’ he asks.

‘It means two hours of house cleaning. For everyone.’

From the kitchen my daughter asks: ‘Can’t you get a cleaner instead?’.

I explain to them that today the house is going to be run like a Kibbutz not a Fun Fair, which means everyone needs to do their bit to make a success of the project.

‘If everyone chips in, it’ll be over quicker,’ I say.

‘I’ll chip in £5 for someone to do my share’ says my son.

‘By the sweat of your brow shall you eat,’ I say.

‘That’s so typically portentous of you,’ says my daughter.

‘The sweat part really worries me,’ says my son.

I decide I must win them over to the project through persuasion, not hectoring. So, while I make them a second round of pancakes for their Saturday brunch, we discuss how they can help me clean the house.

They start by saying that leadership will be crucial to the success of the project and that I should set them a good role model on how to GET THINGS DONE.

‘You are the Pater Familias, after all’ says my daughter.

‘Why don’t you start by washing the kitchen floor and we’ll come down once we’re dressed,’ says my son.

They are young, they continue, and haven’t had a chance yet to develop the domestic skills necessary to clean a house by themselves. But they are certain, given enough time and the chance to observe me at work, that they will be able to ‘pick up the necessary skills’. They just need to feel ‘empowered enough skills-wise before they start.’

‘You do have a Health & Safety Policy, don’t you?’ asks my son.

‘Health and safety policy?’ I say, flummoxed.

‘Yes. You can’t expect us to handle dangerous substances like bleach and cleaning fluid without one. This isn’t Victorian Britain,’ he says.

This reminds me that I haven’t renewed my life insurance.

‘Just get dressed and get back down here, pronto’ I say.

I look at my watch. My wife has been gone an hour and nothing has been achieved. If she walks in now, I will get my first yellow card of the weekend. Even though I am also still in my pyjamas I start sweeping.

An hour later, the kitchen floor is clean. The sitting room carpet is hoovered and the cobwebs in the window frames have been brushed away. I am so immersed in project ‘Muck In to Muck Out’ that I haven’t noticed that the kids haven’t come down yet.

I am scrubbing away the tea and coffee stains on the ground floor stairs, when my wife walks back in.

Frankly, the timing is perfect. I am still in my pyjamas, so it looks like I have been cleaning non-stop since she last saw me. I am sweaty from all my efforts and the wooden floors are wet and smell of pine, so I clearly haven’t just started cleaning. All in all, Rufus Norris couldn’t have staged it better for me.

‘In the sweat of your brow shall you eat,’ I say, with a sycophantic smile.

‘Good job,’ she says.

‘It’s much cleaner, isn’t it?’

‘Where are the kids?’ she asks.

‘I don’t know.’

‘Did you tell them they had to clean up too?’

‘Of course. They said they’d be right down once they felt empowered skills-wise,’ I say.

She puts down her shopping bags in the hall with a thud.

‘Enough of that nonsense. It’s time for them to Knuckle Down and Muck In.’

‘It’s ‘Muck in to Muck Out’,’ I correct her.

But she’s not listening. She’s off, bounding up the stairs, two steps at a time to find the kids.

Read more blogs by James Thellusson

Read the next in the series – Chapter 56: Mixed emotions about the day ahead

Read the previous one – Chapter 54: Sipping roast parsnip soup

See all James’s Man in the Middle blogs here

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