Home alone.

I’m home alone. My wife has gone back visiting to the small Irish provincial town she was born and raised in, to be with her kith and kin because they’re putting up a commemorative plaque to one of her older brothers, a policeman who died in the line of duty. He’s more than forty years gone, but in all our memories he’s still that middle twenties young guy with it all in front of him. Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

He and three other colleagues were lured into a remote farmhouse deep in the countryside by an anonymous phone call. Him, perhaps being that fatal inch too rashly obliging of youth, gained access through a side window.

Somewhere inside he tripped what’s called an IED these days, and he was blown up. He was killed, his best friend was blinded and deafened for life and the other two after a long battle through injuries received were retired out of the force. One of them, despite dreadful injuries, made the absolutely heroic effort to stagger back to the main road to get help for his brothers. He got them the help they needed.

I still recall a bunch of cops bursting into a flat we were sharing in sin to break the news. Without much preamble, they dropped the bomb on her, but blue always looks after blue, because they know all too often when push comes to shove nobody else fucking well will. In short order, she was in a police car speeding towards Heathrow airport and the first flight home.

“We want her on the next flight to Ireland”.

“There’s no seats left”.

“Then throw someone off the flight”. In an officer down situation, cops have no problem abusing the few privileges their calling provides.

At the other end of the flight to Belfast was some Northern Irish cops waiting to do the care thing. They picked her up without any of the usual airport security bollocks and drove her southward over the border and got waved through the usual border scrutiny.

I have a very large extended family and know there are very definitely occasions when it’s just us doing our stuff. No affront intended to the married ins, but there are times when we need our own space to talk about childhood memories, which I know they’ll be doing that weekend.

They’ll be sharing memories of a loved one lost, and I know how that feels. A kid who trailed the local guard, which is what they call a policeman in Ireland, around the town at a discreet distance. In the end, the cop told him about some stretching exercises that might get him past the height requirement. The story about him climbing out of a fourth story window to sit perched on the crown tiles of the roof; a lord of all he surveyed over the town. About his sisters shouting up at him “Come down, come down”.

And of a mother who shushed them up and shouted up “Be careful Michael”, which meant you’re hurting me. That got him off the roof straight away. I always had a vague feeling that he just had a little bit more of her heart than her other children, but being a good mother, she never played favourites. She died nominally of cancer within six months of his death, but I’m not sure.

The father was the rock they all clung to for support. No mortal man should ever have to take that much grief in so short a period and still be strong for the childer. Perhaps because of the sturdy country stock he was hewn from or his strong Christian faith, he never became an embittered man and indeed is remembered very fondly by my sons as Granda Pat who’d always take time out to play with them.

It was a hard year for the family, and we came to dread the sound of that bloody phone ringing of an evening. It seemed to deliver nothing more than a steady stream of bad news.

When he was murdered, a friend who was in the Irish army at the time, said there were terrible things done that night as they pulled in any and every suspect or sympathiser in sight. Examples were made. The kid gloves came off and the knuckle dusters came out. Feel free to murder each other in the North like savages, but not south of the border was the return message. The lesson was learnt. The provisional IRA never went after a copper south of the border again.

To add insult to injury, he should have been automatically awarded the Scott Medal, but wasn’t for various political reasons that have never came to light. Thirty years later after constant pressure by his brother officers and the family, he was, but by that time, his father who’d kept the folded tricolour and his service cap in a glass case in the house, had passed away. Cold comfort perhaps, but it might have gone some way to assuage his grief at losing a child. He rarely talked about it but one time when I lifted him to the cemetery to pay his respects, he made that sad remark about how no father should ever outlive his children.

It’s Saturday evening and I’m in the garden, sitting on a patio I formed and concreted into place, and being quiet. I learnt that construction skill from a lot of good men when I was learning how to be a decent boyo.

Being quiet has an entirely different meaning for me. Just as in a different life I could somehow extend my consciousness forward and around and feel the danger I was supposed to walk into. For love, I would never allow that to happen, and it never did. I could always sense the pressure of all those eyeballs waiting. I knew they were there.

But there’s another side to that inexplicable talent.

Sometimes, when I look around the world and see how screwed up things are according to the news, I take a time out. I remove myself from the landscape. Bingo! Just like that, I’m gone. I’m invisible. Nobody can see me. It’s a certain kind of watchful stillness which is impossible to explain. You can put yourself into that zone or you can’t.

It’s a time in a free space. The sun has set behind the house so I move position to sit on the steps up to my front door to watch the sun going down behind the trees across the park and people passing by. They never notice me if I’m being quiet. They’re mostly families with someone pushing the buggy with the inevitable 3yo jogging along on behind them. I sit and watch and see us as we were over three decades ago.

I’m barely twenty paces away from them, but I can sit on the step slowly sipping a glass of Pinot Grigio, or Pinot Gringo as a wine snob friend of mine calls it, and watch them struggle past. I’m the invisible man.

Once in a while, I stop being quiet and reach out for them. It’s what I call doing a ping, and we’re entering a very deep and inexplicable space here. The men, after a period of looking around themselves at a nagging feeling of unease, occasionally see me sitting there. I’d expect them to have a lot more primal and protective instincts when they’re out and about with their family. The women are so much better at receiving it. They have much better intuitive instincts than men and spot me sitting there pretty much straight away. I smile, raise my glass to them and they smile back. They know they’ve been pinged.

It’s Saturday night, I’m missing my woman, and I’m sitting out in the back garden and doing my quiet thing. By now, it’s sorta a reflex. Feeling lonely. I can hear my neighbours holding some sort of summer BBQ and want nothing more than to shout over the boundary, can I join you? They’re decent people and I know I’d be welcome, but I simply can’t bring myself to be so intrusive when they’re entertaining. I know I’d be subdued company and resist the need so instead leave them to the enjoyment of their friends.

The weather is scorching and the evening is humid and oppressive. I really don’t want to go indoors. We don’t have any AC. Opening two windows would be as close as we’d get to anything like that.

As always, I seek the solace of music. I go indoors and unplug the CD player the kids got us for last Christmas after a few not too subtle hints. It’s a nice bit of kit. Just a box with no speakers hanging off it but a really good sound as far as I’m concerned. I was never a Hi-Fi snob. I bring it out into the garden and into the garage and plug it in.

Another trip into the house to sort out a selection of CDs, mix myself a whiskey and water with lots of ice and the book I’m currently reading. I put some stuff on but very low, because I don’t want to become the embarrassing neighbour them next door will have to explain to their friends. They’re having a good old party time listening to Abba and no doubt having a good bop. When we have a party, I always ensure there are a few numbers like Dancing Queen or Fernando on the playlist for the evening. I’m more than partial to a good bop myself.

I read my book and sip my drink before the ice melts. It’s an old favourite, Ken Kesey’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It’s about the human spirit and a man who won’t give up, even when he’s simply got nothing left to fight back with, which means he has to be crushed as an example to the others. The kernel of tragedy within it is he had the chance to make good his escape from an intolerable regime, but instead chose to remain in order to protect a lot of vulnerable people.

A curious thing happens and because I was deep in the book, it takes a moment to realise it’s happened. Abba had been turned down. They were listening to a Mahler piece I was playing ever so quietly. It’s elegiac and suits my thoughts of friends loved and lost all too early. They’re salt of the Earth people rather than an over complicating individual like me. The adagietto from the fifth symphony. It wouldn’t be their normal fare. Stepping into the situation, I just go into the garage and turn up the volume just a tic. Fuckit, if they’re engaged by the piece, they’re engaged. We all get to share an adagietto drifting across the sweltering heat of a summer’s night for ten minutes while a bright moon beams down on us all. It’s a nice summer moment. Abba stays off for a while.

Not going to push it, so at the end of it, I turn the volume back down and Abba resumes from next door. It was one of those neighbourly favours you do.

I’m getting hungry. My wife before her exit for the weekend has carefully explained to me what’s in the fridge and exactly what I need to do to make it edible. I did all the paying attention gestures, but she lost me a couple of minutes into the lecture. I can’t really remember half of what she had to say. I can live on anything, but I know she’s really concerned to keep me alive in the few days of her absence. It’s appreciated.

I poke my head into the fridge and can’t be arsed. I take one portion out of it just to please her, and throw it in the outside bin to be convincing. I head up to the local takeaway and come back with a battered sausage and a rubbish cheese burger. A squige of BBQ sauce to dip the battered sausage into and I’m away. Quite simply, life doesn’t get any better. Disturbingly, one of my grandchildren insists on a dot of BBQ sauce on his plate when we’re pampering ourselves by having an evening off cooking dinner and instead consuming a shared pizza takeaway. Not sure if the clock is going clockwise or anti-clockwise with that particular peccadillo.

The light is coming down, but the prospect of sleeping alone in a double bed just doesn’t appeal. There’s no way that’s going to happen. No way I can squiggle over to for a cuddle, or she wrestles you down when those awful nightmares that occasionally visit you out of the blue. That’s the only time when I’m vulnerable because I’m asleep and have no control. It’s a very intimate space for just the two of you. When one rolls over, the other one does too and you get the added extra of an arm embracing you. It’s not about being sexual but tactile and being in sync. Comforting and supportive.

The couch becomes the preferred option. I think about putting on the idiot box, but increasingly I find the sheer banality of it to be viscerally repulsive. Instead, I go back into the study and pluck out a book of poetry. A fondness for poetry seems to be the furtive equivalent of pornography these days; only to be indulged in when alone. I decide on AE Housman’s a Shropshire Lad. It’s an old and valued friend with the covers hanging off it and yet contains so much beauty and logic. At times, it’s brutal. A good poet can rip the raw beating heart out of your breast in forty words or less.

I go and make myself another whiskey and water and then settle down to reading the poetry on the living room couch. I just let the words wash over me. This guy knows what he’s doing. Not a verbal klunk in sight. It’s such a pleasure and I know I’m getting sleepy, but I can’t resist reading on. One poem follows another, and they’re falling one after another on me gently, like the first leaves of autumn you watch with a certain sadness saucer boating from side to side to earth.

One poem of his which I love seems to be particularly apt. It’s called “To an athlete dying young“. It reminds me of what Hemingway wrote about a fierce spring rain knocking all the blossoms off a tree before they’d time to be pollinated by the bees – it was like a person dying young and for no good reason.

She finds me the next day on the living room couch when she’s arrived home. Fast asleep, still with my reading glasses on and Housman laid gently across my chest and opened at a favourite poem. She touches me lightly on the chest but from a distance. She knows I can have some bad first reactions when being woken up unexpectedly. Sleeping on a hair trigger. There’s a standing order; never let the grandchildren come anywhere near me in that granddad nap situation because I tend to jump three foot off the ground.

Would I like some breakfast?

Of course. What did you have in mind?

Scrambled egg on toast. It always contains some bacon bits, grated Gouda cheese, a generous dollop of Colman’s English mustard and a pinch of sea salt, which give it both a bit of body and a tasty zing. Can you micro a few baked beans on the side? Sure.

I’m happy because I’m no longer home alone. After a day or two, I hate it.

I’m heading for a pee in the downstairs loo and notice a note has been pushed through the letter box sometime in the morning while I slept. Simple message. What was that music you were playing last night? I’ll write the answer on the reverse side later and push it through my neighbour’s letter box.


9 Responses to “Home alone.”
  1. Annie says:

    A very moving piece Pointman.


  2. David Chjappell says:

    “… that sad remark about how no father should ever outlive his children.”
    I know the feeling from a comparable situation and it brought me to tears…again.


  3. Happy go lucky says:

    Rest In Peace sweet Michael 🙏


  4. NoFixedAddress says:

    I cried.

    I remember that.

    For no particular reason but I offer you this.


  5. meltemian says:

    Lovely piece Pointy, just suited my mood. I was sitting outside with a drink while my dinner cooked, tired from dog walking in 30deg heat even though it’s nearly dark, and pondering on things. Perhaps I should have tried Mahler although he’s not really my thing.
    Cherish her, every day.


  6. gallopingcamel says:

    I envy your gift of writing. I lived in Belfast during the best of times and hoped to end my days there. Then stuff started to happen that turned one of the most peaceful places in the world into something resembling Beirut. If I had your gift how would I explain it?

    There was my friend Kevin who joined the “People’s Democracy” while a law student at the Queens University of Belfast. That caused his name to be added to a UDA “Death List”. During the first attempt to assassinate him, his uncle was shot dead. I begged Kevin to spend some time in England until things cooled down but he stayed “In Disguise” meaning that he grew a beard.

    It should be no surprise that the beard fooled nobody and the second assassination attempt ended with him being shot five times at close range. I was turned away when trying to visit him at the Royal Victoria hospital as I was not family and he was not expected to survive, Three days later I got a phone call from Kevin……..where the hell are you?

    On arriving in Kevin’s ward he was sitting up in bed holding court with a dozen friends and family. Six weeks later we were playing golf.

    Kevin became a barrister and eventually a judge. Until his retirement he lived under constant threat of assassination. He had a permanent armed bodyguard. I could only meet with him by working through complicated security procedures. Here is a link to one of the cases he presided over:

    Back then I owned a small factory with thirty employees next door to the much larger Grundig company. Getting to work could be exciting especially using the most direct route though Andersonstown. On occasions I encountered burning trucks across the road and a spotty youth with a pistol high-jacking the car in front of mine at a pedestrian crossing while a “Lollipop Man” was controlling traffic for children on their way to school.

    I instantly recognized the spotty youth’s weapon…….it was a Webley Mk4 used by my regiment in the 1950s (3rd Royal Tank Regiment):

    The spotty youth was nervous and his hand was visibly shaking. It seemed to me that he might shoot the motorist by accident. It flashed through my mind that I would prefer a steely eyed professional who knew what he was doing.

    Eventually I found a military patrol and reported the incident but there was no sense of urgency. Three hours later I was sitting at my desk when two Land Rovers full of paratroopers (Red Berets) arrived. These are serious dudes you don’t want to mess with. They took careful notes on everything I could remember.

    Then the manager of that next door Grundig factory disappeared. While I never shook his hand he was the de facto leader of our little industrial park so it was a great shock when he was killed:

    All the technicians in my factory were protestants. One of them was dating a Catholic and got caught while visiting her. He was blindfolded, beaten and warned that next time he would be killed. Unlike my friend Kevin he was happy to leave town and I was able to help him find a job in London along with his girlfriend.

    One of my close friends was a dentist who lived across the street. Like Kevin he was a Catholic who made it onto a UDA “Death List”. One evening his house was flattened by an explosion. The windows on one side of my house were blown in but nobody was injured by the flying glass because we had heavy drapes in place owing to the lateness of the hour. Fortunately, nobody was hurt as my friend had been warned to expect trouble.

    While these events were troubling I never thought of leaving Ireland until my #2 son found a bomb on his way home from school. He found a bomb in a hedge……..it seems likely that someone dumped it in fear of being picked up by a patrol. My #2 son is a man of action so he brought the bomb home. When I got back from work the house was surrounded by crime scene tapes. Fire, police, bomb disposal trucks were there along with a bunch of officials who were good at asking questions but not inclined to answer them.

    That day my bubble burst. I sold my business at a loss. I sold my fine house. While it only has a single car garage it has four bedrooms, a greenhouse, a bar and a pair of ornate gates. I must have been crazy to sell it for 7,500 pounds given that it is valued at over 500,000 pounds today!


    • Annie says:

      My OH did two tours of NI. On one of them he was in the room next door to one where a doctored parcel exploded. One colleague was killed and my OH’s friend blinded and maimed. 50% of the time at that time of day my OH would have been in the same room. Very sobering. Such a shame in a country with lovely people and scenery.


  7. Kristin DeBacco says:

    Point man thank you for writing so beautifully.
    Thanks for the Mahler piece. I got tears in my heart.


  8. Fiona84 says:

    You have a way of writing. I felt I was there with you on the stoop watching them go by, listening to the Mahler, falling asleep reading Housman.


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