‘Stupidity has been a heavy burden since childhood’

Michael Harding: My mother once gazed at me and, with one question, opened up an appalling possibility

‘A queen bee has hundreds of males to mind her. So she’s fine.’ Photograph: iStock

‘A queen bee has hundreds of males to mind her. So she’s fine.’ Photograph: iStock

 

I was walking on the outskirts of a town near Kilkenny one day when a man in an old Ford pulled up beside me. He jumped out suddenly and rushed to open the car boot.

“If this was Beirut you might worry I was going to get a Kalashnikov out and shoot you,” he joked.  

Having lived in Fermanagh during the Troubles, I wasn’t entirely comfortable with his sense of humour. 

“Don’t worry,” he said. “I have a gift for you.” And when I looked closer I realised he was an old school friend.

“Hold that,” he said, handing me a shovel from the boot, while he rummaged underneath fencing posts, biscuit tins and sheep wire until he found two jars of honey.

“I keep bees,” he explained, holding the honey pots aloft. “And I’d like to give you some.”

“I’m so stupid,” I confessed. “I didn’t recognise you. Will we go for a drink?”

“No,” he replied. “I have to go home and mind the queen.”

“I didn’t know bees needed minding,” I replied.

“A queen bee,” he declared, “has hundreds of males to mind her. So she’s fine. But I have my own queen, and she needs the car to visit the mother. So I better get going.”

I carried my two bags up the stairs, which wasn’t a great idea considering the delicate condition of my left artery

We leaned against the side of the car and chatted about the weather, bees and the importance of fencing posts.

“Well, thanks for the honey,” I said.

“Do you know,” he said, “that every August all the male bees get thrown out. And yet my woman has put up with me for 34 years.” Then he drove off and I walked towards my hotel with honey in both coat pockets.

Back to back

That night I was in Westport, doing a reading, and everything went very well. But the next day I travelled to Ballina, where I was due to give another reading, and even as I arrived at the hotel, I felt exhausted. I realised it had been a mistake to schedule two readings back to back.

As I checked in I noticed that the foyer was cold. Then I headed to my room, but the lift wasn’t working. So I carried my two bags up the stairs, which wasn’t a great idea considering the delicate condition of my left artery.

By the time I reached the top landing, I was dizzy, but the room wasn’t ready. A vacuum cleaner was lying idle in the doorway and someone was inside changing the sheets. 

If my mother had been a queen and my father an ordinary little drone, he might not have lasted as long as he did

Later I discovered the radiators were cold, so I plugged in a portable heater I carry with me for such emergencies. But the heater blew the hotel fuse, and I was stranded without heat, television or a kettle to make tea. And that was only the beginning of my woes. 

By late afternoon I had worked myself into such a stressful frenzy, with my heart palpitating like a dying mouse, that I was forced to cancel the reading.

Someone drove me home to Leitrim and I sat on the sofa in silent depression. And I felt stupid at having disappointed so many people in Ballina. 

A heavy burden

Stupidity has been a heavy burden since childhood. I remember asking my mother where my shoes were one day many years ago. To which she replied: “Wherever you left them.” 

“But Mammy,” I explained, “I don’t remember where I left them; that’s why I can’t find them.” 

She gazed at me, and with a single question opened up an appalling possibility.

“Are you stupid?”

To be fair she had issues with men’s shoes. My father never took his shoes off in the house. And after an hour of golf, he would trample across the dining room, leaving grass everywhere.

If my mother had been a queen and my father an ordinary little drone, he might not have lasted as long as he did; sitting up in bed in old age, enjoying porridge drenched with honey, as she minded him with loving tenderness in the years before he died. I suppose what was amazing about their marriage was how much she forgave him in the end. 

And as I sat on the sofa after letting down the people of Ballina, my own beloved came into the room holding my coat. “What do you have in here?” she wondered. 

“Look and see,” I suggested, so she dug her hand into the pockets and drew out the jars of honey. I had forgotten completely about them. But now they reappeared and I understood their meaning clearly.

“They’re for you,” I said, smiling.

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