Michael Harding: After my heart attack I needed more exercise so I went to Aldi

Self-pity afflicts me, I spent most of Christmas brooding about my illness

I’ve been trying for years to make the General laugh, but he has little sense of humour. Almost nothing amuses him. The day I was leaving hospital he showed up in the reception area.

He suggested we step outside because he wanted to smoke.

“You can’t smoke here,” I declared. “It would be an outrage.”

“I can smoke outside,” he insisted.


And so he did. Flicking cigar ash into a plastic coffee cup even though there was a sign at the door declaring that the entire hospital was a smoke free zone.

“Don’t you realise that there is a coronary unit just inside the door?” I asked.

“But my dear boy,” he said, “a coronary unit is the safest place to smoke. Imagine if I had a heart attack here. All I would need to do is step inside for assistance.”

Athlone is awash with samurai warriors. But what do you need a sword for?

“By smoking openly, you are insulting every nurse and doctor that works here,” I declared, and his face melted into a jelly of self-pity like a chastised child. Although at least he dumped the remains of his cigar.

Self-pity afflicts me too. I spent most of Christmas brooding about my illness.

I lay on the sofa every day, transfixed by the unrelenting assault of Netflix on my idle mind.

I watched 24 episodes of a romantic television drama from Korea, set against a backdrop of Japan’s brutal colonisation. The hero, Mr Sunshine, would regularly gaze at his beloved, a young Korean woman, for such long periods that I often wondered if the screen had frozen or if they had forgotten their lines.

And I had dreams at night that I was walking around Leitrim in a kimono, with a samurai sword dangling from my belt.

Athlone samurai

One morning after New Year's Day, the General arrived with a bottle of brandy. He said it was a Christmas gift. I was in the kitchen in my dressing gown, holding a porridge bowl in both hands and staring at the sink.

“What are you thinking of?” he wondered.

I told him that I had found a samurai sword on DoneDeal and was wondering if it would look well over the mantelpiece.

“Someone in Athlone is selling it,” I added.

“Well in that case it must be genuine,” he said. “Athlone is awash with samurai warriors. But what do you need a sword for?”

“Taking the top off my boiled egg,” I said. It was a joke. Another attempt at amusing him. But once again he stared back at me in confusion and said, “What’s wrong with using a spoon to open your egg.”

I offered him a brandy.

“Too early in the day,” he protested, “but I’ll join you if you’re having one.”

I returned to the tills, and up the next aisle, before coming down the alcohol aisle. It took four minutes. And five times four would be equivalent to a 20 minute walk

I said I wasn’t.

“Oh very well,” he said, “seeing that it’s still Christmas, I’ll accept a thimble full.”

The conversation turned to Brexit.

“Clearly, Brexit was the cause of your heart attack,” he said. “I have seen how your blood pressure rises every time Jacob Rees-Mogg appears on the television.”

I tried to explain to him that painful as it was to watch Rees-Mogg standing on a laneway in Fermanagh, describing Cavan as a foreign country, it wouldn’t really give me heart disease.

“Heart disease is caused by smoking,” I said pointing at his cigar.

“And drinking,” I added, pointing at his brandy. “And taking no exercise.”

“Then come with me to Donegal,” he declared. “We can walk for hours.”

“Too many hills,” I said. “I need flat ground.”

“And where do you find flat ground among the drumlins of Leitrim?”

“Aldi,” I replied.

‘Not a stalker’

The previous day it had been raining, and I was in Aldi to buy batteries, when it dawned on me that the place was large enough for a respectable stroll.

I walked up the vegetable aisle, across the top where the yoghurts are, and down the aisle where the men’s toys are displayed.

Then I returned to the tills, and up the next aisle, before finally coming down the alcohol aisle. It took four minutes.

And five times four would be equivalent to a 20 minute walk.

So off I went at a brisk pace.

The only problem was that a woman rummaging in a basket of sports bras noticed me, and as I passed her for the fifth time, she became alarmed.

“Don’t worry,” I said, “I’m not a stalker.” And when I explained what I was doing she shook with laughter.

“Why on earth did she laugh?” the General wondered.

“Because she found it amusing,” I replied.

But I knew by his bewildered face that the notion had no meaning for the General.