We sit in the shape of an unlucky horse-shoe, armchairs
shoulder to shoulder, a ragged rank waiting for lunch or
dinner or bed, some not knowing which and most not caring.
Jimmy Mackin is rambling, not about anything in particular,
just wittering on in broken sentences, his words disjointed
and awkward, his tongue too big for his tiny, puckered,
pencil sharpener shaped mouth.
Big Ronnie, the Armagh man, is staring at the ceiling and
marvelling quietly to himself, rubbing his closely-shaved
chin a ruby red and saying “Boys a dear” over
and over to himself.
The others, all women well on in years with powdered faces
and empty features, are either sleeping, dozing or about
to nod off. Those memories that they still treasure silently
have been packed away for safe-keeping
in a room where no-one else can go.
I have my Rosary beads wrapped tightly around the broken
knuckles of my right hand, my mother’s beads, blood
red and battered from a thousand vigils, counting up the
Hail Mary’s and counting down the mysteries like a
man who has been given the answer to a prayer. An answer
that came in a sentence, a life sentence of total care and
confinement at the Salisbury Lodge Home for the Elderly.
Birdsong through the bare November branches of rowan, horse-chestnut
and alder was like a chorus of telephone calls along the
avenue that led to the reservoir. Chattering sparrows, cawing
crows and larcenous magpies, with indigo tails dipped in
the bluest of ink, nestled among the remaining leaves of
spent Autumn that clung like torn pages of leathery parchment
to boughs and branches. The late afternoon sky was grey-wide
and darkening, topped with peaks of water-colour red, orange
and vanilla that promised sunshine for another day.
Jack the Labrador, his mud splattered golden coat huddled
round him against a biting north wind, lay in the driveway
of number 24, unusually quiet, his head to one side like
a king on a coin. Only the slight discoloration at his temple
and the single droplet of blood at the end of his snout
giving a lie to yet another afternoon of indolence.
The back door of that house lay open, a gash the size of
a fist showing in its broken window, the eager wind whistled
in the narrow hallway like a radio being tuned, but the
shouting and screaming from the front room went unnoticed
in a street that commuted to the city for eight hours each
day. The neighbours, such as they were, young folk with
two cars, two holidays and too little time to care, were
far away in offices, showrooms and shops.
I felt my hands on his throat, squeezing the breath from
him like a bag of air and about as musical. His face reddened,
his eyes bulged and spit-flecks of foam ran through my fingers
as I kneaded, watching his tears of fear turn to a sweet
wine of suffocation. And all the time I worked hard to drain
the life from him, the music of the record player, a Chopin
nocturne as peaceful as a kiss on the ear, played on in
my head and in my hands.
“Jesus Christ”, I shouted, jumping back from
the body; “ You’ve made me kill you, you thieving
get”. I screamed into his distorted face, my breath
racing, my heart an ebony stone.
His gulping, gasps for air broke my concentration and I
watched as the puzzlement of a child dragged his features
back from the brink.
“ I’m sorry mister”, he whined; “I’m
sorry, I never meant you no harm”.
I kicked him hard in the ribs, through his greasy, denim
jacket, as he tried to get to his feet. He folded like a
“Not as sorry as you will be”, I screeched,
hearing my own words like angry knives between us.
“Not as sorry as you will be”.
His sobs and cries and whingeing simply fuelled the rage
in my feet and I kicked out, my new shoes, worn only once
on the walk through Roselawn, hard and hurting against his
flailing hands, arms and shoulders.
“Your sort don’t know the meaning of the word”,
I said, my eyes downcast, my words soft among the violence,
my breathing regular, my thoughts murderous and organised.
“You’re worse than animals”.
I kicked him again, harder this time as if I was taking
a fifty at Croke Park and against the wind.
He squirmed and writhed like something born to it, something
that I wanted to kill.
“What would know about ordinary decent people, what
would you care, even if you could”.
The beating continued, only measured now that I was in control.
I was no longer afraid of this twenty-something intruder
with his shaved head and hand-drawn tattoos. I was the boss.
He would do the same to me I thought, would have done so
already if I hadn’t caught him with the coal scuttle
to the side of the head. And for what? The poker hand of
ten pound notes between the leaves of our pension book,
the six-year-old video recorder that always managed to record
the wrong programme on the wrong channel.
Beads of sweat ran like string from my hair, salt water
in the fresh saliva of my mouth as I punched and kicked,
punctuating my words with blows that meant as much as any
“My poor wife went through 12 months of cancer –
do you know what that means. My Mary, a woman who never
“You’re right you’re sorry sonny - this
will be the sorriest day of your life, by God it will”,
and I stopped, startled, at the mention of his name.
The over-mantle mirror showed the face of a monster, with
bared teeth and blazing eyes – my face!
I crushed my right fist, a ball of fire, in my left hand
and stepped back, crying out “Jesus help me”
for only him to hear.
The boy, his blood and mucus trailing from the good carpet
we had bought in the Co-op, made a break for the door, his
face a fleshy pulp. I watched him go, my first visitor since
Later, when the police had taken their statements and dusted
Mary’s little palace with a light sheen of finger
print film, I traced her name on the front of our allowance
book like a blind man.
“You know you could find that you are in for some
trouble, Mister Hogan”, said the young constable,
wearing his cap on his knee and his side arm bulging against
the lill of our armchair.
“Excessive force and all that”.
“I’ll take what’s coming to me, son,”
I said calmly; “Always have done, good or bad, as
God is my judge”.
He left with his partner, a thin lad whose frame cried out
for a flak jacket, like two bob-a-job cubs after a well-earned