GERALDINE MCCARTHY - HOLDING ON
The smell of seaweed wafting in from the porch signalled to Denis that the tide was out. He sat at the table by the window, gently tapping the top of a boiled egg with a teaspoon. The cap of the egg fell onto the faded oilcloth, and he struggled to separate the insides from the shell, his hands big and awkward with rheumatoid arthritis. The clock on the mantelpiece struck seven. That clock was there since his parents’ time. He’d seen Sweeney eyeing it. Wondering if it was an antique, no doubt. That’s the way those fellas thought.
A long, empty day stretched before him, which would be punctuated by meals, a walk as far as the cross, in case his joints would seize up altogether, and news bulletins on the radio. He preferred the radio to the television. The current affairs coverage was more comprehensive. The radio didn’t take you for a fool the way the telly did, the way some people did. Some people would try to cut the very ground from under you. Didn’t he know it? Didn’t he know it?
A week ago today Denis had been out the back, digging a few spuds, when he heard the banging on the front door. A visitor was a rare thing, but still he took his time answering. Whoever it was could wait, could wait indeed then.
“Well, Denis, how are things?” Sweeney took off his hat. It was like one you’d see in a Western.
“Yerra, pulling away.”
Denis hesitated in the doorway, conscious that his housekeeping skills weren’t up to much. His sister used to do all that.
“Tis mighty weather,” Sweeney boomed. “Jaysus, we’ll be all roasted alive if it carries on.”
“Tis boiling alright,” Denis conceded. A fly buzzed in the space between them, and Denis had to stifle the urge to swat it.
“So, Denis, I came on a bit of business.”
Denis had second thoughts about leaving his visitor on the doorstep. People would be passing the road. Their noses might start bothering them.
“You’d better come in so.” He stepped aside, and Sweeney strode through the porch and into the room.
Denis swiped ‘The Southern Star’ from the best armchair and Sweeney plopped down, his bulk filling the space.
“I suppose now, Denis, you find it hard, living so far from the village.”
Denis stayed standing. “Tis only a mile.”
“Yes, but wouldn’t the sheltered housing by the church be just the job for you? You’d be grand and safe and close to all the amenities.”
Denis folded his arms. Why wouldn’t he be safe down this road? Hadn’t he neighbours above and below him? “I’m not at that stage yet. I’ll know when I am.”
“Oh, I know.” Beads of sweat gathered on Sweeney’s forehead, and he took out a handkerchief to mop them. “But we all have to plan for the future, you know. If you were to sell up, you’d make a tidy profit. I’d have plenty of people queuing up for a site like this.”
“Would you now?”
“I would for sure. I’d be able to make you a nice offer. The market is going well at the moment, Denis. We all have to strike while the iron is hot.” And he laughed, as if he’d cracked the greatest joke ever.
Denis felt the colour rising, up his neck and into his cheeks. “I’m doing fine as I am.”
“Oh, you’re doing mighty, of course. But none of us are getting any younger.”
“I’d better get back to my work out the back. Will you see yourself out?”
Sweeney rose with difficulty. “No bother, Denis, boy. Sure, we’ll talk again soon. Good luck.”
“Good luck.” And may the devil sweep you, coming in here, thinking that I’ll be bought.
Denis cleared the breakfast things and rinsed them at the sink in the back kitchen. Sometimes he felt a presence as he washed up, someone standing next to him. His mother or Irene. Not his father anyway; he’d never washed a cup in his life. All his memories were in this house. Himself and his sister doing their schoolwork, under protest, at the kitchen table. His mother poking him with the knitting needle when he got a spelling wrong. His parents playing cards at night with the neighbours, Twenty-Five and Forty-Five, never for money, always for the glory of winning. His mother making jam, pots and pots of gooseberry, to be slathered on her brown bread until the stock ran out and they had to make do with butter.
He would just have time to shave before the eight o’clock news. The coolness of the bathroom was welcome. The size of a horse-box, there was barely standing room, but it did the job. He lathered the soap and plucked a plastic razor from the packet. The public health nurse had suggested an electric one, that there would be fewer nicks and cuts, but old habits died hard. She also suggested home help, but one look shut her up, and she hadn’t dared broach the subject again. How could he have a complete stranger coming into the house? He was doing fine. As long as he could boil spuds and bacon, he wouldn’t go hungry. As long as he could make tea for himself, he wouldn’t go thirsty. As long as he could have a drop of Tullamore Dew at night, he wouldn’t go without sleep. He coaxed the razor over his chin, and down his neck, and then---
When he came ‘round he was lying on the couch in the sitting room. Joe and Maura Brennan loomed over him. Joe had a phone in his hand.
“It’s alright, Denis,” Joe said. “You’ve just had a little turn. We’ve called for the ambulance.”
“We’ve called for the ambulance,” Maura repeated. “I came in to see did you want any messages from the shop and found you collapsed.”
Denis tried to sit up, but it failed him. “There was no need- no need for any show. I could go to the doctor locally.”
Joe tapped his foot on the lino. “We rang Dr Elliot first, and he said to get the ambulance. You’ll need tests, he said.”
Denis wanted to object further, but found that words were not readily forming. Instead, he sighed. The Brennans exchanged looks.
Maura pursed her lips. “I’ve put together a few bits of clothes for you. They’re in the bag there.”
She’d been in his bedroom, going through his things. She’d a right to ask permission. He always said she was daring. He closed his eyes and pretended to be sleepy, pretended that this wasn’t happening.
The paramedics arrived. He rolled onto their stretcher, and they strapped him in. Denis wondered was this the last time he’d be carried out of the house.
“You’ll be fine, mate,” one of them said, a burly fellow with an Australian accent.
The Brennans waved to him as the ambulance doors closed. The road to the hospital was windy and bumpy. Even though he was buckled in Denis had the sensation that he was being tossed around the place.
“So, Mr O’Sullivan, we have the results of your tests.” The doctor stood at the foot of the bed and shouted. Denis wondered why he couldn’t move closer. Maybe what he had was contagious.
“Yes, doctor.” It was like being back at school, having failed to recite the seven times tables.
“We suspect that you’ve had a TIA or a mini-stroke. We will be able to discharge you this evening, but we recommend that you always wear your panic button around your neck.” He paused for effect.
Denis had taken off the panic button while shaving. No point in explaining that now.
“And we recommend that you have home help twice a day.”
Denis wanted to say something, to object, to argue his case, but the doctor had turned on his heel.
A nurse came and said the ambulance would collect him later that evening.
Was it only yesterday he’d got back from the hospital? It felt like a lifetime ago. He sat on the garden wall, inhaling the smell of the seaweed, vowing not to answer the landline any more. The public health nurse had rung to say someone from the HSE would be calling to assess him. Brennans had rung to say they’d bring him messages from the village. Sweeney had rung to inquire how Denis was feeling.
He’d put up with the home help, as much of a nuisance as it would be. And he’d put up with the Brennans delivering groceries – that walk to the village had been getting on top of him for a while now. But Sweeney? Sweeney could bloody well go to hell.
As he rested on the wall, Denis sensed others sitting there with him, inhaling the aroma, taking in the view. He would stay with them as long as possible. All he could do now was hold on.
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