He interrupted my thoughts.
It seems silly to say it now and I’m a little ashamed, but it’s the truth.
It pissed me off.
I had just popped out of the office, was only for taking a ten minute break or so. I had grabbed coffee and was sitting on the bench by the river.
I had obviously seen him sitting there, I’m not blind, but I paid him no heed. I wasn’t for sitting there long, just long enough to clear my head after a particularly arduous meeting.
But he interrupted my thoughts.
“They’re tearing down my home today,” he said.
To be honest, I didn’t listen to what he said and had to ask him to repeat himself. Which he did.
“They’re tearing down my home today.”
What do you say to that!?
I just pulled a strange smile-grimace look and tutted before ending the engagement with a sip of my coffee. My still-scalding hot coffee, which burnt my tongue. Still feels funny even now.
I assumed the man was either an alco or was half-demented. Maybe fully demented.
In that moment of silence scraps of thoughts blew through my mind; did he know where he was? Did he think he knew me? Is it wrong to leave a man with dementia alone on a bench? Who do I phone for help? Why is there no one else here to help? Why did he have to talk to me? If only the meeting had been shorted.
My tongue feels furry.
He was dishevelled.
That’s a good word for him.
I guessed him to be in his eighties. His face was lined with age, you know the type of face where the lines exaggerate the features? The bags under his eyes hung so heavily they pulled his lids down exposing the red lining. Deep furrows ran from each corner of his nose around his mouth leaving his cheeks sagging. All in all, it looked as though the skin had been hung on his face in a hurry and not quite fitted right. The joy of age, I suppose.
Thin wisps of grey hair had been matted over a well balded head and their ends danced gayly in the breeze.
He wore a heavy green overcoat. An old overcoat. It was much too big for him and fitted him about as well as his face did.
I’m not sure why I’m describing him so much. It’s not really important.
But alcoholic or demented, those were the options in my mind.
“See,” he said and pointed a gnarled finger to the water.
Demented, I thought immediately until, with a little shame, I realised that he was pointing at the scaffolded building on the far bank.
I knew that building. It had jarred so awkwardly against the it’s neighbours that it was hard to miss. It was an ugly old apartment block, not a particularly tall one, clad in bands of crumbling once-beige-turned-grey plaster. Each band was separated by rows of panel glass that seemed to suck the light from the air into the abyss behind them.
Ugly was the word. And dreary.
Not like the modern sisters that had sprang up on either side, with their inviting balconies and reflective windows.
“That was my home,” the man said, “and it’s gone.”
He sighed heavily and let his arm drop to his side, padded by the loose layers of coat.
I didn’t know what to say.
“The new building will be nice,” I offered apologetically.
I had seen the proposal for the new building in the newspaper, it looked amazing! Although computer generated mock ups usually do.
“That’s my home,” is all he said in return.
I nodded mutely and took another, this time trepid, sip of coffee.
I remember glancing at my watch thinking I would need to head back soon. At this point the thought of the office was more of a comfort.
“I was born there,” he said obliviously, “it’s been my life. A life spent in 4B.”
He stopped there and looked off at the masked building again.
“And now the scaffolding has it.”
I thought this my chance to make my escape and gently slapped a hand on my thigh but the old man continued.
“Me mammy had me there. Died when I was two, cancer took her. Me Father went the same way when I was sixteen, pancreatic they told me. He never got over me mammys passing. I’ve no memories of her at all, but me father said she was a great woman, very well liked in the town. Hers was a big wake he said. Mind you, it seemed like half the town turned out for his wake. Four priests said the funeral, there was more priests back then. The place was left to me after the old man died.”
“I met my Maggie just down there,” he said pointing at another new tower block by the bridge.
IPCO is emblazoned down the corner of the building in large red letters that are backlit at night. They’re an IT company or a bank company, I’ve never been sure which.
“That was Leemans grocers back then, before the scaffolding got it. She was Leemans daughter and every fella was after her. She worked the Saturday shift and I’d make an excuse to go in to buy an apple or a penny chew. Any excuse at all just to say hello to her. And let me tell you son, I was the envy of the town when she fell for me. God knows why she did. We married after four months and I brought her back to 4B. She gave me a son and a daughter. Peter and Noleen. Peter and Noleen.”
He was talking now out to the river, I’m not even sure if he was aware of my presence.
“Pneumonia took Peter when he was five. He died in the flat in his sleep. The doctor had tried antibiotics but he went down too fast. And Noleen, God love her, became our pride of joy. Went off to study in London would you believe. Met a Canadian doctor and never bothered coming home. But she keeps in touch, will give me a call once a week or so.”
His head sagged a little.
“And then it was just me and Maggie in 4B. And we watched the scaffolding come and go, stealing our little town and leaving these big new buildings behind them. Maggie hated them. Didn’t like how tall they were. She was afraid of heights and our fourth floor was just high enough. Not sure she ever got comfortable of it but she never complained. She wasn’t a complainer at all. Even with her pains and aches, never heard her complain. My Maggie.”
He paused and threw a look over to me, his heavy eyes a little redder. They glistened.
“Cancer took her too,” he said quietly and turned back to the river.
“And then it was just me. Me and 4B in an ever changing town. I don’t even recognise the place any more. My wee building is all that remains of the past and now it too will be taken by the scaffolding, as all this concrete and glass makes a city of my town. My mother, my father, Peter, Maggie and now 4B will all be buried and forgotten, hidden behind the scaffolding and taken away.”
He fell to silence and I joined him in it, both looking out across the river at the old building, unsure of what to say or do.
How long we sat there I’m not sure until I heard him grunt and, out of the corner of my eye, I saw his lean heavily toward me.
Instinctively I grabbed him to try and prop him up but his weight continued to fall until I had rested him flat upon the bench.
Seconds passed in a blur, I shook him, I scream for help, I panicked. I panicked and screamed again.
A passerby phoned an ambulance and another knelt beside me as useless as I was.
I held his hand and told him it was going to be alright. I lied to comfort him. Or perhaps to comfort myself.
His breathing was staggered and broken.
“It’s going to be ok,” I said, “you’re going to be ok.”
I felt his hand tighten in mine.
His voice came whispered.
“Don’t worry,” he said, his eyes fixed across the river. “Here comes Maggie holding Peter in her arms. They’re coming to take me back to 4B.”