I’m a changed man, said the General with a faint smile

Not another bungled affair at 3am with some unfortunate actress in the foyer of a five-star hotel, I thought

Michael Harding at Lough Allen, Co Leitrim. Photograph: Brian Farrell

Michael Harding at Lough Allen, Co Leitrim. Photograph: Brian Farrell


The General was at the door one morning after New Year’s Day; pale-faced and watery around the eyes.

He said, “I’m a changed man.”

I said, “Come in and have some tea.”

I’ve been drinking ginseng tea from a Chinese pot that I bought in Mullingar before Christmas.

I was buying hats on Christmas Eve in Birmingham’s clothes shop. Coming out I noticed a teashop next door and decided to treat myself to some red ginseng and a fancy little teapot with a straight handle. The General declined the tea. He looked out on the faint morning light of January across the lake and he declared again that he was a changed man.

Usually the General’s ex-wife turns up at Christmas and they try to cook a turkey and they fantasize about getting together again but they always end up drinking too much whiskey and flinging recriminations at each other about all the ways they hurt each other over the years.

“Not this year,” he said. “I was alone.” And he spoke slowly so that I began to sense there was something indeed changed about him.

“I’ve been a bad person,” he whispered.

Here we go again
Oh God, not again, I thought. Not another bungled affair at 3am with some unfortunate actress in the foyer of a five-star hotel. And indeed other much darker images came to mind; of crashed cars, and bodies abandoned at the side of the road perhaps.

“My God, nothing like that!” he protested.

“So what did you do for Christmas?” I wondered.

“I was alone,” he repeated. “I was alone with the sardines.”

And he looked at my arm, which was bandaged at the wrist.

“What happened your arm?” he wondered.

“I burned my wrists,” I confessed.

“Did you indeed?” he said, raising an eyebrow, like a therapist who suspects the client has been self-harming.

“Honestly,” I said. “I was stoking the fire. There’s a side aperture on the stove which opens like a door and you can push logs in. But if by accident the edge of the door touches the wrist, you end up with a nasty scar.”

“But you have bandages on both wrists,” the General observed.

“That’s true,” I agreed, “and it’s not easy to admit that I burned my right wrist twice, and then to avoid a third accident I began using my left hand. And then burned that one as well.”

The tell-tale eyes
His eyes were dark pools of shadow. He was beginning to look like a character in an Edgar Allen Poe short story.

“What did you mean” I wondered, “about being alone with the sardines?”

“I had an argument with the wife on Christmas Eve,” he said. “She was supposed to pick me up at the house. But I went to the pub. And she got to the house and I wasn’t there, and she phoned, but my phone wasn’t working. It never rang,” he whispered.

“After an hour I phoned her,” he continued, “wondering when she was going to arrive. But she said, ‘I’m back in Mullingar. I got fed up waiting outside your door,’ she said.”

“Dear, oh dear,” I exclaimed, “she drove all the way to pick you up and you weren’t there?”

“I was just across the road in the pub. But my phone wasn’t working,” he insisted.

“But it was working,” I said, “because you just said you phoned her.”

Apparently this thought had also occurred to his wife.

“Yes, she accused me of lying,” the General confessed. “She slammed down the phone and that was the end of it. And I had nothing in the house for Christmas Day and everywhere was closed. So I found sardines in a press and toasted some stale bread, and spent all day on the internet. That’s how it happened.”

“How what happened?”

I dreaded what he might say next. What porn site had he been on? What chat room had he entered? What phone bill had he run up perhaps, by talking half the day to some unfortunate woman on a sex line?

“Nothing like that at all,” he said. “In fact, in defiance of Christmas I went trawling for Buddhist sites. And by accident I found a meditation retreat beginning on Boxing Day in Mayo. So I went because I was starving. And I’ve been away for a week, meditating, and eating raw vegetables and now I’m a new man.”

And I detected a faint smile on his face, which is as unusual as a sunny day at this time of year.

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