Judgment day in the kitchen
A man’s righteous anger over abortion stirred up a party
I was at a party last week in a remote part of the country. People nibbled cheese and drank wine and ate chicken legs around a barbecue, in a garden sloping towards the mountains. I met a nurse and two retired teachers and a man from Long Island. Most people left when it got dark, but I was staying for the night, so I ended up in the kitchen with my host, and a woman from France, the Long Islander and an old man who said he lived down the road with his mother.
“She’s in her 90s,” he said. He looked like he was at least 70, and he had a mobile phone. Not a new one with a glass screen and coloured icons but an old black Nokia, with small keys that made it impossible for him to phone anyone with his shaking hands.
Of course, he probably didn’t have any friends; the phone was just grand enough to hold him tethered to the mammy at the other end of the line. He took it out of his pocket every few minutes and glanced at it with alarm as if she might suddenly screech at him though the air, or bring him to heel if she needed assistance going to the toilet.
“Our house is just five minutes’ walk,” he explained, as he took another drink.
“I lost my licence last year.”
It was 2am in the kitchen. Everyone was nursing mugs of tea and talking about wind farms. I enjoyed just being there, in the present moment, listening to the soft tones of French, American and Irish voices; but the old man couldn’t settle. He kept shuffling over to the worktop to refill his wine glass.
“I’ll just have one more,” he’d mutter to himself, isolated in his hunger for drink. Every time he got a chance to enter the conversation he spoke with lightly veiled anger about abortion and the sexual morality of young people, but it was the cough that made listening difficult; a dry agony in his lungs that persisted through every sentence he uttered.
“Do you believe in an afterlife?” he asked me at one stage. I think there was something about heaven and judgment that made minding his mother seem bearable. When I said that it didn’t bother me if there was no afterlife, he looked like he had been slapped and might just slap me back. But then he suppressed the emotion and changed the subject.
He disapproved of the way the country was going. He told us that the devil had made a bargain with God to take over the world for 100 years – a bargain that was made almost a century ago – and now the time was up and the devil would have to give it back. Christ would come soon, he told us, in his glory, to judge the world, and in particular those “hoors” up in Dublin that were voting for abortion and who would soon be hanging from their tongues over the hot coals of hell.
“God will put manners on them,” he assured us in a rasping raging voice. “And the end will come with a sign,” he warned. “Two tears will fall. Two tears. That’s the sign. Mark my words.”
His arms were skeletal, and his elbows and shoulders showed through his shirt, and the flesh on his jowl wobbled like jelly.
Nobody argued with him and when he was heading off into the night I could hear him grumbling to himself. I imagined him lying awake, due to that terrible cough, and I imagined him in the morning, exhausted, and trembling as he faced mammy’s need for attention.
When I was young I used to think all old men were wise. They wore caps to shield themselves from the sun in summertime, and pipes to puff in wintertime, and they baked bread in pot ovens over open fires, as they sat in silence, like old Indians in cowboy movies who always knew the future.
The following morning I saw the man with the bad chest near the main road. He stood at his gate watching me drive away, and his bloodshot eyes squinted as the sun blazed down on his head. It was such a fine morning that anyone else might have received the suns rays like a blessing on their cheeks; but not this Christian. I could see that the sun also was killing him. It was beating him, beating him, relentlessly, as he waited for God.