Man in the Middle – Chapter 63: The scent of despair

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.63: The scent of despair

Our car is as ancient as a Viking long ship and as glamorous as a discount warehouse baked bean can. Something inside the old jalopy smells bad, like sweaty moss or mushrooms, but it’s not so bad that you want to puke and with the windows open it’s bearable over short distances.

However, I’m driving to Mother’s nursing home, which may be too far away to survive the smell, even with the windows open. It may be time to purge the pong.

‘What’s that smell in the car?’ I ask.

‘Eau de Despair. The scent of Boomer dreams rotting,’ says my son.

I turn to my wife hoping for a sensible answer.

‘When did we last clean the car?’


‘But we only bought it four years ago.’

‘Oh, sorry. When you said ‘we’ I thought you meant ‘you’. The last time ‘you’ cleaned a car was March 12, 2004. It was my birthday and you cleaned it because you had forgotten to buy me a birthday present and hoped that by cleaning up the car, I would forgive you for not buying me a birthday present.’

‘Did it work?’

My son watches my wife carefully.

‘I’m still here, I guess,’ she eventually replies.

He’s not old enough to remember what happened in 2004, but he’s assessing the value of this new fragment of his parent’s past, like an archaeologist studying a new hieroglyphic in an alphabet he doesn’t yet fully understand.

This is a moment when I can shape how he sees me forever. I just need to decide what I want him to remember. A caring, car cleaning husband or a ‘Chore Coward’?

I have a sudden vision of the future. I’m dead and hovering on the sitting room ceiling, looking down on my grandchildren, who are weeping at my wife’s feet. They’re asking: ‘Grandma, did Grandpa know how to jump start a motor? Or what the colours of the wires in a plug stand for?’

Her answer is devastating. Frankly, my dears, he never gave a damn, she says and starts singing the Temptations hit ‘Papa was a Rolling Stone’ only she’s changed the lyrics to ‘Papa, never cleaned the home.’

I’m shaken out of my reverie. If I am to rescue myself from going down as a ‘Chore Coward’, I must stride outside immediately and clean the car. But, instead, the thought of cleaning the car fills me with such boredom that, instead, I offer my son ten quid to do it for me.

‘No, you do it,’ he says. ‘It’s good for old people of your age to try new things, it’ll help keep you mentally agile.

‘Oh, for God’s sake,’ says my wife.

She pulls a red bucket out from under the sink and waves it at me.

‘This is called a bucket. Fill it with hot water and soap.’

‘Then, dip one of these into it and rub it slowly over the car,’ says my son, holding out a cloth to me.

After an hour’s cleaning, the car is presentable and I’ve made friends with three men in the street with whom I’ve never spoken before. (In fact, i didn’t even know they lived in the street). They drifted over to chat, while I was cleaning the car, and talked to me about car waxes and something called a chamois leather, which I plan to look up when I come back from seeing Mother. Car cleaning is like a Masonic signal to some men.

At the nursing home, I slip into a pair of plastic gloves and a thin strip of PPE barely big enough to wrap around a lamb chop, but which is meant to cover my body. I look like a sumo wrestler heading for the buffet bar with a bib fit for a child.

Mother is sitting in the window holding a book up to her face sitting. She’s dressed in a green velvet jacket and a blouse. She’s wearing a mid-length black skirt and has gold earrings on. But she’s shoeless and wearing red and white striped woollen socks.

‘My feet are swollen,’ she says, seeing where my gaze has gone. Then she quickly asks: ‘How are the kiddie winks?’

I am allowed only twenty minutes with her, so I rattle off what’s been happening to the family like a Town Cryer on amphetamines. I’m not sure how much she hears or takes in, but she stares at me intently, as I speak.

‘What about you?’ I ask.

‘We have our moments,’ she says.

Then, like a burst pipe, Mother talks non-stop for ten minutes.

She tells me about a male resident who complains every breakfast about the porridge (though it’s fine) and how the builders redecorating the residents’ sitting room curse all day long.

‘They think we’re stone deaf and can’t her them,’ she laughs.

She tells me about the nurse who fixed her broken spectacles after finding them under her bed and how she wants to meet her new bank manager, which strikes me as quaint and old fashioned as driving gloves and as pointless.

Her voice is as strong and clear as a woman 20 years younger than her. But her stories are not as coherent as they were before her falls. Past and present overlap, characters drop in and out of the plot randomly, and words occasionally evade her. Sometimes, it’s like listening to a glorious free form poet, at other times, it’s like watching a drunk driver swerving across a motorway. But it could be so much worse.

Suddenly, she stops and says: ‘I haven’t been out in a year.’

I wonder if this is an accusation against me.

‘It’s because of Covid. We’re all in the same boat,’ I say.

Immediately, I regret saying it. The idea she and I are in the same boat is cack handed and almost offensive.

There is a knock on her door.

‘Time’s up,’ says a carer.

‘I’m sorry. I have to go now, mum.’

She gets up to say goodbye. The carer and I watch her winch herself up from her chair. I can’t remember if the rules allow me to kiss her. I decide not. I should hug her, but if I am clumsy, I could knock her down. I feel awkward.

I put my arms around her shoulders and embrace her slowly. It feels like I’m squeezing air from a feather pillow. She’s shrunk so much and her body seems to be buried deep beneath her clothes. It takes an age before my arms come up against flesh and bones.

‘Bye Mum,’ I whisper into the top of her head, which I’ve unwittingly drawn forward onto my chest with my embrace.

‘Off you go now,’ she says, breaking away. ‘You’ve got lots to be getting on with.’

In the car park, the car coughs into life. Two birds have shat on the car bonnet and a branch has fallen into the trench where the windscreen washers rest. I start to get out of the car to clear it all up. Then I think ‘fuck it’, I’ll up the offer to my son when I get home or sort it out myself in a few years.

Read more blogs by James Thellusson

Read the next one – Man in the Middle Chapter 64: Should men wear Alice bands?

Read the previous one – Man in the Middle Chapter 62: Melvin Bragg is in my bathroom

See all James’s Man in the Middle blogs here

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