Being 16 when his father died gave him an opportunity to become angry and sensitive, to give up his paper round, to fail at school. He didn’t need a reason, to be fair. Michael was quite clever – above average for the country but no more than so-so for the school he’d passed his 11Plus to get into.
He didn’t try. He was lazy. Later he said he was scared to fail and that that fear had taught him a valuable lesson. There was some truth in that but not a whole lot. Mainly he was lazy and not that clever. Even if he’d tried his best, he wouldn’t have done that well. If he didn’t try, he couldn’t fail. That was another thing he used to say later, looking back, giving advice and the benefit of his experience, but at the time he didn’t really rationalise it that way.
Class clown. His teachers called him that. Too busy trying to make the other boys laugh. He liked that.
His father’s death gave the lack of effort extra dimensions. It added poignancy. It let him be rude, and surly, and disruptive, even when he didn’t feel like it. He sometimes just went through the motions. Not an act, exactly, but…He always stood slightly to the side of his real self. He was always a little too aware of his actions and behaviour.
Michael wasn’t the calculating sort. He didn’t sit down and plot his response to his father’s death. But it didn’t come instinctively either. If he snapped at his mother, or answered a teacher back, or stormed out of the house or the classroom, there was always a moment, a fraction of a second, when he made the conscious decision to do so, when he could have decided not to. Messages would flash across his mind – I can get away with this because my Dad has just died. Or, This is how a boy whose father has just died acts. The latter more often, because it gave distance and made it impersonal, lessened the responsibility. He used it on girls too.
Yet though he was false, his falseness was true and honest. He always pretended with such heart and soul that he really meant it. He could – and it stayed this way into adulthood – convince himself most easily.
He remembered a different truth.
Sometimes, by accident, he remembered the wrong things. They never left his head.
Dry skin, psoriasis. Plaque psoriasis. Symmetrical. Get it on one elbow and you’ll get it on the other. On goes the ointment. Give up dairy. Become wheat intolerant. Take your coffee black, your tea with lemon. Another coat to his personality, another interesting quirk. A father who died when he was most vulnerable, a dying mother, a skin condition, a wheat intolerance. Could you call it glamour?
Michael McInerney worried very occasionally that he felt nothing, just what he was meant to feel, or thought it would make him look better to feel. And were his actions and responses and words and phrases genuine and pure? Or learned from films and songs and TV dramas and Latin phrases chanced upon and self-help books devoured?
Michael McInerney both worried about his health and ignored worries about his health. He kept both things to himself. To others, the front he presented was assured and confident, mature and accepting of the inevitable. Rational. Inside he pushed the inevitable away.
If he had an ailment, if something was bothering him, he would research it, find out the facts and opinions, and then tell others those facts and opinions. And he’d tell his friends and acquaintances to do the same.
“You can’t ignore it, mate,” he said. “Here, have a look at this website. Learn about it. Conquer that fear.”
He told the world that here was a man who acknowledged his own mortality, his own speck in the firmament, who harnessed his fears and overcame them with knowledge and understanding and assurance. He talked fluently and knowledgeably, handled technical language with flow and aplomb, and chided others who buried their heads in the sand.
“You can’t bury your head in the sand, mate,” he said. “It won’t go away if you ignore it. You’ve got to face it. I’ll help. I’ll go with you. I’ll talk to her, if you like. I’ll be there whenever you need me, whatever you need me for.”
(You can bury your head in the sand! Look at me!)
He told people of his intention to cut this out and eat more of that. He did neither. He proved conclusively that the doctors were wrong when they recommended this or that.
Late at night he ate heavily, takeaways big enough for two or three people, spooning the chicken fried rice and Singapore vermicelli into his mouth straight from the silver carton, starting to eat on his way from the kitchen to the lounge, fitting a spring roll into his fist and taking huge, devouring bites. He’d spread the cartons on the coffee table and hunch over them, the TV on with the sound down low so as not to wake Amanda, changing channels with greasy fingers.
His great fear was a stroke. He was haunted by a story Stella, his first wife, had told him. The husband of one of her colleagues had been away on business, Amsterdam or Brussels, somewhere like that. Anyway, one night he went to bed, same as normal, and during the night he had a stroke. God love him, the poor man. He was alone in bed, God love him, and it was hours before he was found, the poor man, God love him.
Stella didn’t know the woman well – she’d only just joined her work. Stella came home one night and told Michael the story while she was getting tea ready. This was going back a few years, the late 90s. Stella told Michael the story in a ghastly, shocking account, in a shivery, just goes to show you never know the moment, God love him kind of way. And then she carried on making the tea, singing to the radio, shouting the children to come down to the table, the story behind her, its effect deep but brief.
With Michael, though, the story stayed. He wanted to know more. (He wanted to know nothing, to erase it from his brain.) He wanted details, names, ages, places, times. Where was he? Brussels or Amsterdam or where? How old was he? What was his name? Was he my age? (If he was not Michael’s age, if he was younger, then maybe that meant Michael had escaped, that it couldn’t now happen to him, that Michael had won that round. But older? Just a year or two? Then that meant it could still be waiting for him.) What did he do for a living? Was he away on business alone?
(There was glamour here. Work took this man abroad. Maybe he normally would take a conference call but this trip was unavoidable because what was needed to be said had to be said face-to-face. Michael wanted such a trip. A hotel by the canal, some useful phrases in Dutch or Flemish or French, he wasn’t sure. Bicycles over the bridges, cars on the wrong side of the road, maybe he’d hire a car and take a trip, maybe to the battlefields of the First World War, just for a few hours after the meeting finished early. And the sirens on the ambulance, that continental bell ringing, that continental two-tone, thin, like a toy almost. Like in the films.)
One evening, he said to Stella, “How’s Rob?”
“Who?” said Stella.
“You know,” said Michael. “Rob. Gemma’s husband?”
“Gemma?” asked Stella. It didn’t click. Then it did click and Stella shrugged and said she didn’t know and why are you so interested.
“No reason,” Michael said. Certainly he wouldn’t have been able to say what the reason was, wouldn’t have been able to form the words even if he could have formed the thoughts. Stella had said his name was Robert, but he called him Rob, like he was a friend.
He created a narrative for him, a film Michael watched in his head over and over again, each time adding touches and flourishes. Rob and his colleagues in a hotel bar in Brussels. Not Amsterdam, although it had been Amsterdam to begin with. Brussels was more international, its buildings spare and universal, business-like, sharp. Their day of meetings was over, their meal finished. They’d thought of eating in the hotel, but one of them had heard of a restaurant around the corner that did fantastic moules frites and had a great range of beers, so they’d gone there.
Was their work in Brussels finished? No, tomorrow was the crucial day. So that changed the film. They ate in the hotel. The bar with the moules frites and range of beers, each requiring a different glass, would have to wait. Just one bottle of wine between the three of them. They discussed strategy, who would say what, how far they could go over costs, what they couldn’t compromise on.
An early night. There’d be time to celebrate if things went well tomorrow. Then they’d have a few of those famous Belgian beers, each requiring a different glass.
Good night then. See you here for breakfast, 7.15 sharp. The car’s here at 8.
In his room, Rob went over a few points one last time. Then he called Gemma and told her he loved her and asked how were the kids and no, he’d not forgotten those Tintin books she’d asked him to get, in French, good for the kids.
And then Robert, 37, went to bed and had a stroke. His body collapsed and froze, trapping him silent screaming inside a twisted, useless shell. Would he have woken first? Woken, and then known everything, all knowledge for a fraction of a second before his body and mind contorted and locked.
Locked in and locked out.
He pushed the story away. It never left him but it generally stayed hidden and forgotten. It tapped him on the shoulder at times, the dangerous times when he woke in the night, or the times when he and Stella, and later he and Amanda argued, and she went to stay at a friend’s, or with one of her grown-up children by her first marriage, or – as Michael sometimes wondered, even, sometimes, hoped – with her ex-husband.
At such times the details of the story, the embellishments that he’d added, would herd round him, would drive him, butting him towards a point where he could keep his eyes squeezed shut no longer. He had to look. And the images and words of the film he’d made swarmed round him and stampeded over him and crushed him.
He imagined his body as having an outer shell that melted like a doll left too near the fire. Mouth drooping and dribbling unfelt saliva from a downturned corner, one eyelid toppled uncontrolled to near-shut, his flesh-smeared face and useless, lifeless limbs. Unable to move, unable to speak, but his mind working and his voice shouting and screaming soundless, unheeded, unheard. And he heard everything going on around him, too, the voices talking about him, unaware and not caring that he could hear them.
Could his mother hear? Lying there in her hospital bed? Could she hear his voice when he spoke to her when he visited? He didn’t say much to her, in truth. Too busy making calls from the bedside. Too busy looking busy.
He saw a programme on TV once about patients who had woken during their operations. The anaesthetic hadn’t worked properly, so they were aware of what was happening to them, aware of the pain, but unable to speak or let anyone know of their situation.
Michael McInerney hated aloneness. Not loneliness. He could just about stand that, so long as there were others around him.
DOMINIC KEARNEY was born in Liverpool and now lives in Derry. He is the author of “Cast-Iron Men” and of “Ireland’s Beautiful North”, published by The O’Brien Press. He does freelance work for the Irish News, Culture Northern Ireland, BBC Radio Foyle, and BBC Radio Ulster.