Presumably there was something within my father—something that shook him awake at night, poked at his bowels daily, reached out of his mouth and slapped him in the face in front of the mirror each morning—that prompted him to make the list. You could call it a bucket list, I guess. But seeing as the list in question was nameless, I had referred to it as The Grating List.
The Grating List consisted of seven things which were eating away at my father, Walter O’Shea Jr., like dry rot; seven tasks or gestures that needed to be undertaken before he found himself supine on the icy slab at the mortuary. Death wasn’t something he’d talk about, ever; he’d never even considered drawing up a will. But it wasn’t as if he didn’t know that death was around the corner like a recidivist lying in wait for yet another vulnerable pensioner. It wasn’t a faraway destination like it had once been, when it was a place on the map he’d never considered visiting. Tajikistan. He knew he was closer to the soil than to the womb.
The Great Last Breath, however, was not a topic up for discussion during that day. That day was dedicated to the last grater on the list. Number seven: Punch Larry Hennessey in the face.
Numbers one through six had all been seen to—in admirable time, it should be noted. But to be fair, compared to the last on The List, they were rather simple tasks; settling a small debt with his sister—using my money—and visiting a motorcycle showroom on the Long Mile Road (he had owned a 1980 Kawasaki z1000 before my mother made him sell it shortly after they’d moved to Tallaght). Number seven on The List meant that I needed to book two days off work, take my old man from the nursing home and drive him to Gorey, Co. Wexford, in order to find Larry Hennessey and allow my father—a pensioner—to assault another, and most likely frail, pensioner. My agreeing to assist my father arrived after weeks of persistent badgering and a final, legitimate threat that if I didn’t bring him, he’d find a way to get there by himself.
Mountain View Nursing Home is situated off a busy main road and down a steep hill (making any attempt at fleeing practically impossible for possessors of old, rusted joints, bad backs and weakened bones) and is covered with a friendly coat of canary yellow paint “promoting the calming effects of summertide,” apparently.
When I entered the room I found him with his cardigan wedged in one of the bedside drawers. With both hands he pulled at the 100% cotton fabric, and as he yanked hard the drawer opened, setting him free and onto his back.
‘Lousy, lousy . . .’
At the reception, one of the staff members had me fill out a form declaring that I was taking out my father at 1pm on Monday the 3rd, and that he’d be back by 8pm on Tuesday the 4th.
‘It’s okay if it’s a little later, although do keep in mind that he usually gets his medication around 8:30,’ an amiable, rotund nurse with a thick Cork accent told me as I signed my name.
He shuffled across the car park and I helped him into the passenger seat of the coupe. I took his seatbelt while he sat still in the seat, manoeuvring the belt between his raised hands, and once the click sounded I closed the door and made my way around to the driver’s seat. I looked at my old man who stared straight ahead.
‘Are you sure you want to do this? You know how I feel.’
‘Yes, yes,’ he said, growing irritated
‘Okay,’ I said as I started the ignition. ‘Here we go.’
I’d been dutifully informed by my father that an overnight stay in the old family bungalow situated in the nearby mobile home site, Royal Meadows, was to be part of this excursion. Old family bungalow because my old man had sold it after the death of my mother, and considering that I was, and still am, childless (not to mention wifeless) and that my brother—his eldest son—lived across the Atlantic with his Hispanic wife and two Irish/Cuban/American children, Santiago O’Shea and Juan José O’Shea, it seemed that there was little need for us to have a family holiday home.
I’d helped negotiate the sale of the bungalow—or mobile home—and so I was on somewhat friendly terms with its current occupants, The Dwyers.
Eamon Dwyer was a round-faced and round-bellied man with a foreboding stature which was somewhat diminished by a frontal lisp disorder which he’d never fully addressed. He and I had played a few rounds of golf together a couple of years earlier, and so there was a friendliness and familiarity to the whole affair of finalising the sale.
After my father made his demands (demands, not requests) in relation to number seven on The Grating List, I telephoned Eamon and, after discussing Tiger Woods’ form and Jordan Speith’s genius, and Eamon’s daughter’s involvement in the UCD Young Entrepreneurs Initiative, I kindly asked his permission for my dad and me to stay one night in Royal Meadows.
Of course, he said ‘Of coursse!’
The M50, approximately fifteen minutes after leaving the nursing home. My father had grown to make requests like a restless child would, such was the manner of his existence now. First he’d asked if we could stop at a garage to pick up a bar of chocolate. I told him we’d stop at the next garage. His second request was a wish, in fact: ‘I wish I never got sick.’ This was not an irregular request. The next was one I did have a chance of fulfilling, at least.
‘Will you play Bohemian Rhapsody?’ he asked.
‘Yeah. Play it.’
‘I don’t think I have it, Da.’
He didn’t respond. Instead of Queen, the surrounding traffic delivered the melody to the ears of the car’s occupants. Then I remembered that I could play songs on YouTube from my phone through the car’s audio system. Carefully attempting Man’s Great Challenge (doing two things at once), I searched for the track, and Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen appeared. I selected the first video in the search results, and after a few seconds Freddy Mercury and co. began to sing Is this the real life . . .
My father didn’t react at the arrival of the song he’d requested.
‘Turn it up,’ he demanded evenly, and I did.
‘Louder,’ he said. ‘Play it as loud as you can.’
I hired the volume so that it most likely wasn’t good for our ears, but not so loud that it could ruin the sound quality, or damage the speakers. It played as I drove along the motorway at 100km per hour; me and my father listening without uttering a word, the space in the car filled with sonic vibrations, and after four minutes Brian May had his moment of melodic glory, and as the legendary rock section enveloped the car I saw my father smile for the first time in what was probably over a year. He began to rock his head up and down, gently, as if he were moshing at a gig for old-timers, and I couldn’t help but join in.
As we passed Bray and continued on the road to Wexford, I asked the old man, ‘Was Eileen up over the weekend?’
Eileen is my father’s sister; a mercurial woman who to most was as cold as a corpse but to a select few gave off the life-maintaining warmth of a fire in the unforgiving wilderness. A dedicated churchgoer, she frowned upon most modern, progressive schools of thought, couldn’t even bring herself to utter the word homosexual, and shuddered at the mentioning of divorce. Not that separation was anything she could ever consider: She’d been single her whole life, apart from one mysterious Spaniard who had—according to my mother—existed in the form of a photograph surrounded by a gilded baroque frame on Eileen’s bedside locker throughout the eighties. His bushy moustache crowned a smile that could “charm the Pope into Pimping”. Suffice to say, unlike my pugnacious and pious aunt, my mother was not in the least religiously inclined, but was—when the occasion called for it—readily deficient in savoir faire.
‘She was up on Sunday. We got mass.’
‘How is she?’ I asked.
‘She’s grand,’ he said.
‘How was mass?’ I asked.
‘Nice,’ he answered.
‘Jesus and everything?’
‘Yeah,’ he said.
We arrived in the small market town of Gorey just after 2:30pm. All we’d consumed on the journey was a chocolate bar each.
I accelerated slowly along Main Street which was lined by shops and parked cars on either side before I eventually found a free parking space. Helping my father out of the car, I held him by the forearm as he rose to his feet.
‘Hang on here a second,’ I instructed before I went in search of the nearest Pay and Display machine. After inserting €2—guaranteeing us two hours of parking before we’d be parked illegally—I returned to the car and my old man, who was standing hunched with his arms involuntarily raised and arched, as if he were creeping up on someone from behind in order to scare them, like a villain from an episode of Scooby Doo.
‘So,’ I began as I looked around at the modest shops and pubs on either side of the street, which stretched for about 900 yards before a roundabout sent drivers or strollers left or right, towards forestry and homes and holiday parks and the coast which sloped into St. Georges Channel. A light and not unpleasant breeze ruffled the collar of my jacket, and this prompted me to take note of the ominous clouds in the distance threatening to put an end to the sunny day we’d been experiencing all the way from Dublin to Co. Wexford. ‘Where do you want to go first?’
‘I want to find Larry,’ he said, his words slightly slurred, his mouth dry and his voice communicating a mild tremor. He raised his fist. ‘I want to smack him in the jaw, the prick.’
‘Jesus,’ I said. ‘I know that, Da. But I was thinking we could amble about a little. Visit some of the old haunts: Duke’s, Readers’ Café, the Indoor Market . . .’
‘I don’t want to go to the market.’
‘Okay. What about Duke’s? We need to have lunch. Or we could get something smaller in the Café if you’d prefer that?’
The Duke’s is a pub and restaurant situated at the top of Main Street, and The Readers’ Café is, unsurprisingly, both a café and a bookstore situated around the middle of the street.
‘No, I don’t think so.’
‘We’ve made the trip,’ I argued. ‘We might as well enjoy ourselves; ramble around a bit.’
‘You know what I want to do,’ he said impatiently.
‘Yes, I know. I do know. You want to punch somebody in the face. It’s ridiculous.’
‘It’s one thing I’d like to do,’ he said with a struggle to enunciate correctly. ‘One thing I’ve asked for.’
‘You asked for seven things, actually, if we’re going to be accurate here. This is the seventh thing you’ve asked to do.’
‘He has it coming to him.’
I shook my head; even though we’d made the trip, once I thought about it, or if my dad spoke about it, I’d register just how preposterous the whole thing was. But still, the old man wanted to do this. He had a gripe, something he needed to do—for his own, personal reasons which he wouldn’t divulge—and who was I to deny him it?
‘Look, I’ve taken two days off work to do this for you. I want to have lunch, and I want you to at least try and enjoy yourself and enjoy something to eat. Besides, this place means a lot to us. We’ve lots of good memories of this place, Da.’
‘Memories,’ he said, shaking his head. ‘When you’re old, memories only serve to torture you.’
I placed the palm of my hand on his back and ushered him forward: we were going for lunch whether he liked it or not.
‘You’re a barrel of fun today,’ I told him.