Michael Harding: For men, growing old can be a solitary experience

I use Facebook to look in at all that intimacy without undermining my own solitude

Photograph: Thinkstock

Photograph: Thinkstock

 

One day at the end of February the weather was so gentle that I ventured into the garden and refilled the bird feeders with peanuts. I noticed after an hour that the little finches were in a feeding frenzy on the two small cages that hung from the apple tree. Until, that is, the magpie arrived and they scattered. But he failed to get at the food, because both feeders were hanging on branches so fragile that he couldn’t land anywhere close. So he strutted about on the ground, frightening off the smaller birds.

Unfortunately I couldn’t hang about because I had an appointment with an eye doctor in Sligo to check my peripheral vision. The test went well, and the doctor assured me that I could still take up a career as an airline pilot if I wanted.

I said, “That’s consoling but what about the floater: that strange hair that falls across the sky when I’m day-dreaming?”

“That’s there to stay,” he said. “You might as well give him a name and get used to him.”

He was trying to be funny, although I wasn’t entirely amused with him or the floater. But the day was so lovely that I went for a walk on the beach near Strandhill, where the sand was mud-coloured after the rain and a dead fish lay near the shoreline.

A hooded crow and a seagull stood on either side of the carcass. Both of them pecked with their beaks and the dead fish flew in the air. Eventually the crow stood back. He was surprisingly small for a hooded crow, and he stood, waiting for the boss to finish his dinner.

I was fooled so much by the weather that I even bought some plants in Sligo to put in the pond, which is really a drain of red, rusty sludge. But when I got up the next morning, on the last day of February, the garden was covered in snow.

The branches of beeches and alders were drooping with frozen snow, and tiny blades of grass poked up like pencil marks across the white lawn. The Met Éireann man made the usual distinction in his forecast: “It will be wet across Ireland,” he said, “with wintery showers on high ground.” For me Ireland is another country. I live on the high ground.

And nothing gets more wintery than freezing fog. I couldn’t see beyond the edge of the garden, and the voices of politicians discussing the formation of a new government on the wireless sounded like noise from another world.

I turned off the radio and watched the magpies in their black-and-white plumage as they negotiated the snow like monks plodding around their cloisters.

Intimacy gone

He came to our house 25 years ago, before he left Ireland, with a bottle of whiskey. We sat by the fire all evening soaking it in, and oozing with nostalgia for a time before our gods dissolved.

And he came back once, with his slim woman and tall children, and they sheltered with us for a few nights like exotic geese before heading farther south.

We didn’t keep in touch over the years, and eventually I was afraid to pick up the phone. Whatever intimacy had been was gone, and age had left us both adrift in space and time. I feared if our voices collided on the end of a phone line we might just be awkward and remote. Because I think men find old age to be a solitary experience, no matter how closely their partners or children hold them.

But it is consoling to see my old friend on Facebook nowadays, his rugged features chiselled by the years and his goatee and long hair gone grey, as he stands in the snowy mountains, like a weathered country and western singer, his chin up and his eyes defiant and heroic, and his arms around the children he loves.

I use Facebook to look in at all that intimacy without undermining my own solitude. And then with one click I can move on to the front page of the morning newspaper or turn my head to the window and watch my magpie, strutting on the ground again, waiting for me to refill the feeder with nuts.

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