Being 69 is not so bad. At least I can say that I’m not yet 70. But I’m on the edge of old age and even in summer I wear good suits that I buy in Magees of Donegal so that I don’t look entirely like a scarecrow on a wet day.
That’s what you need to do at my age: spruce up the image. When I was young I could wear an old jacket or wrinkled trousers with frayed hems and still look well. But at 69 you have to make a fierce effort to avoid being labelled a doddery old man. Which is why I wore a linen suit and a silk tie all summer; being old is expensive.
The General is even worse than doddery. Last week he was lying on the flat of his back when I arrived at his front door. Even his jeep looks like something out of Killinaskully.
“Thank God you’ve arrived,” he said when I walked into the front room. “The pain is terrible.”
He was lying on the sofa with his distended gut rising in the air and his face as tortured as the astronaut in Alien, the movie where a monster finally gets born from a human belly. The General pulled up his shirt to show me in more detail the white orb’s magnificence.
“You look like you’re going to lay the egg of a dinosaur,” I joked, although I was uneasy about the size of the bulge. I could imagine the flabby muscle of his little heart palpitating away somewhere inside that mountain of fat.
“That’s a very big belly you have there, General,” I said. “What’s the matter?”
“I tried to cook a sausage with a hairdryer,” he said. “And then I ate it. But it was still raw.”
“You can’t cook anything with a hairdryer,” I pointed out. “That’s ridiculous.”
“It’s a new type of dryer,” he explained. “It’s like a box, and you put the food inside in a container.”
“Ah,” I said, “that’s an air fryer.”
“Correct,” he said, “a hairdryer.”
“So what happened,” I wondered, “when you ate the sausage?”
“I was vomiting all night. Now I’m lying here like a sick frog waiting to die.”
“Did you take any medication?” I asked.
“I took a few whackers of brandy,” he said, “but it made no difference. The bile still rose up.”
A whacker, as far as I know, is half of a half; it was a fashionable measure of brandy years ago at Cavan Golf Club.
“I filled the basin three times last night,” the General said, pointing at a red plastic basin on the floor. “Pasta, carrots, even bits of chicken from last Sunday’s lunch came up. Not to mention that accursed sausage.”
“Perhaps the brandy made things worse,” I suggested.
“It was the sausage,” he roared. “And that f**king hairdryer.”
If this happened 20 years ago myself and the General would have laughed it off, gone down to the Greville Arms Hotel for a feed of roast beef from the lunch menu and washed it down with few glasses of beer; but age has made us fragile.
He wobbled up the stairs towards his bedroom before I left the building, and when he turned to say goodbye from the top of the stairs I saw an old man before me, greatly diminished in his power, although he smiled at the absurdity of his predicament.
And I know I’m not very far behind him. I met a woman in Supermac’s a few months ago when I was coming home from a consultation at the Galway Clinic, and while I was finishing a cheese-and-bacon burger she sat down to talk to me.
“That’s not very good for your heart,” she said, “especially when you have a stent.”
“How do you know I have a stent?” I wondered.
“I read your books,” she said.
She stared at the burger — and, to be honest, there was more meat, saucy goo, rasher and cheese on it than would be good for any person with coronary issues.
And when I had devoured every morsel and washed it down with a Diet Coke I examined my image in the bathroom mirror; gravity and age were conspiring against me. I thought of the General flailing on his couch like a stranded whale and I decided that it might be wise to cut down on the burgers, and perhaps invest in a tidy woollen suit for the winter.