“I’m at the back door.”
“Is that right? Hold on now.”
Within seconds I hear him singing in the garden, then pulling at the rusty bolts and heaving the door open, ruining all the cobwebs.
I say hello back and try to have a good look at him while he’s heaving the door back on its hinges.
Today he’s wearing a giant orangey brown Timberland coat that’s too big for him but I sense it would have been expensive and possibly in fashion in the 80s when he bought it. Things never look big on him, he’s still 6 foot 4 and I wonder how much weight he’s lost.
I keep walking towards the kitchen door at the back of the house and scream over my shoulder at him – this is how we converse.
“How’s the eye?”
He’s announces this loudly with a kind of pride – he’s convinced himself that cataract operations are some sort of conspiracy that make no improvement at all to eyes and if anything make them worse. Bridie who lives a few doors down got him started on this idea a while back after getting both of hers done. She still can’t read the deaths in the paper.
“Did you chop that wood?”
For the first week after the operation he’s not supposed to bend down or do anything remotely strenuous. There’s a pile of roughly thirty bits of freshly chopped logs stacked up beside the kitchen door.
“I found them in the garage.”
“Don’t chop anymore, and don’t be mowing the lawn either.”
He ignores this and points at the oven.
“I put that fella on. I want to get the last of this programme.”
He’s already striding towards the sitting room as he says this, still wearing the coat, and I know he’s watching Winning Streak and that he’ll also watch the repeat of it tomorrow.
Since my grandmother’s death he’s turned the kitchen into a small garage. He grew up in the country and says that tea never tastes as good as it did in the fields. Some days you might find a chainsaw in the middle of the floor. His latest thing is bringing in apples from the tree in the garden and leaving them lined up along the sink beside his false teeth.
I set out the bags I’ve brought on the counter. I got cheap pink rubber gloves and antibacterial wipes in Lidl and they’re probably shit but he finds joy in throwing out any cleaning products I bring into the house. I take off the lids of all the saucepans he has on the hob and peer inside. I boil the kettle and put his teeth into an empty mug. There’s a reek of petrol around the sink but I’ve never managed to find the source of it – god only knows.
He was one of the first guards to arrive on Talbot Street after the bombings. I read in a book that they had to try and identify people just by their dismembered limbs. He never talks about it. They didn’t have counselling or anything back then.
The oven is hot like he promised but coughs out a dark blue smoke. I’ll use it anyway. I open the kitchen door and roar,
“WE’RE HAVING DUCK.”
He screams GRAND back to me and I shut the door so the smoke alarm won’t go off. It’s duck confit, vacuum packed from Lidl with garlic and spices. I shove it in on some tinfoil and hope we don’t die from food poisoning.
I take everything out of the plastic draining board then lift it up and pour scalding water over the grease beneath it. I wipe down everything a few times and then wash the plates and cutlery again along with the saucepans.
I look in the presses then out in the garden then stand on one of the kitchen chairs to check on top of the cupboards.
I pull the door open again and yell,
“WHERE’S THE POT FOR DRAINING THINGS. THE ONE WITH HOLES.”
He’s silent for a second then
“THE ONE FOR THE SPUDS.”
“HAVEN’T SEEN THAT IN YEARS.”
I put potatoes on to boil and figure I’ll somehow steam the broccoli by balancing it on top of them towards the end.
I turn on the radio and RTÉ One blares out. He can get anxious if I change the channels so I turn it down and leave it on to have some noise in the background.
I can’t fully clear off the table so I clean around it. There are playing cards laid out on one side, an unfinished game of patience. Towards the wall there’s an assortment of Our Lady statues, a container for his pills marked with each day of the week, a bottle of cod liver oil, small white church collection envelopes stacked on top of the toaster, a blackened tin of boot polish, three green buttons, a bowl of sugar stained by the tea spoon in it, a pair of scarlet rosary beads, a small glass bottle of holy water with Knock written on it, some sort of apparatus for his diabetes, various tubes of creams and a box of Johnsons cotton buds.
I don’t know what I’ll do with all this after he dies. Or anything that’s his.
I look up at the clock and see that it’s an hour off since the hour went back and reach up to fix it. It’s nearly six. I stick a knife in the potatoes and they’re soft so I throw in a few bits of the broccoli. I hold my breath pull the duck from the oven. They look slightly burnt but in an appetising way. I open the back door and try to wave the smoke out with a tea towel. I can hear him marching in from the sitting room, singing again. Just as he sits down at the table the gongs of the Angelus start booming. I stop serving out the food and wait until he beats his hand over his heart which means he’s finishing saying it to himself.
I pour him a small glass of milk and place his plate down first. He starts eating the second it’s on the table which he always does but I’ve gotten used to it. He came from a family of fourteen.
I sit beside him and wait for him to mention the Winning Streak wheel. He takes each potato with the fork of his left hand and holds each one up while peeling it with the knife of his right hand with the deft skill of a barber.
“How much this week, how much?”
“Mmm. Fifty thousand.”
He has conspiracy theories about the winning streak wheel.
“TEN! TEN! Would you believe it and it was nearly RIGHT BESIDE the quarter million.”
“Is it a quarter of a million or half a million, the big one?”
He was eating well and it was good to see him hungry. He had to learn to cook for himself after she died and he wouldn’t talk during meals for the first few years. Some men drink. As far as I could see he stopped wanting to exist.
“Whatever it is they make sure it doesn’t land on it, I’m tellin you.”
“We’re having a mango for dessert. Have you ever had a mango?”
“Ah I’d say I have.”
He’s picked up the duck now to get at the meat stuck to the bones.
“You know when you were younger what did people do for fridges, like when they wanted to churn butter?”
“The farmers would put the buckets in the river.”
Because he refuses to discuss the past I have to approach things in round about ways to suss out his memory.
I stand up and get the mango and some raspberries and blueberries in bowls. Without warning he gets up abruptly and disappears out to the garden with his dinner knife still in his hand. I take two tea bags from the rectangular tin, it’s painted red, gold and black with Japanese figures. I boil the kettle again and as I put the teapot on the hob he comes in from the garden with his arms full of rhubarb, the soil and leaves still hanging off the stalks.
“Give these to your mother.”
“We’ll never eat all that.”
“Ah ye will.”
I ignore this as he drops the rhubarb onto the floor and goes into the dining room to get to the cups. He’ll only have tea from a China cup and saucer, lifting his little finger up as he drinks it. It’s one of his eccentricities that my grandmother found maddening but hilarious.
The night she died, before I went in to see her body, he took me close and told me he would take care of me now, that he would keep me safe.