‘The man under the bench’
The rain was dirty and miserable on my drive to Sligo. The radio atoned. There was talk of a Larry Goodman company being overpaid ten million euro in rent for a property in Baggot Street, all because whoever had measured the size of the building got it wrong. Matt Cooper was more than bemused at this tale, with its unfunny punchline for taxpayers. The reporter chatting to Matt genuinely speculated that someone working for the OPW might have actually used a measuring tape, but made incorrect calculations. It’s set to cost us all 10m euro over 25 years. Matt was gobsmacked So was I.
By the time I parked at a filling station near Sligo, Matt had moved on to some other issue of the day. The rain was still ugly enough. As I entered the shop, my mask snapped. I somehow managed to keep the mask in place while filling a cup of coffee and picking out a roll. Head tilted (to keep the mask in position) and hands full, I approached the cashier, confident that I wasn’t quite in Mr. Bean territory. “I think you need a new mask” she said.
I was back in the car – off-loading the coffee, roll and soon-to-be-discarded mask – when I saw him. I don’t know when I last got such a shock. At the gable of the filling station, there were two or three tables with chairs, those park bench-type, all-in-one wooden structures.
He was lying so neatly under one of the benches, it was as if it had been fitted around him. His head was rested on his hands, his knees raised as if to protect himself further from the rain. He was, at a guess, in his mid-60s, a rugged man with a thick beard and a face that bore the hallmark of a hard life. He seemed content enough, if that is plausible. His body fitted well into this carefully chosen refuge. The wonder was that I saw him at all. These structures have so much timber, one might be sitting there for a moment without realising there was, at your feet, a desperate human effectively hiding from the world, certainly from the elements. You’d easily miss him.
I wondered, briefly of course, about his life up to this point. I wondered if demons brought him under the bench, or bad luck, or poor judgement, or the unkindest of upbringings, or some combination of all of those.
I wondered if the man under the bench experienced happiness as a child, if he played football, if he had the ambition and resoluteness to be the something or someone he’d want to be. I wondered if the man under the bench had married, if he had children, if he’d built what we call a normal life. I wondered if he’d squandered any such life, or if he never had it at all. I wondered if the man under the bench was just unlucky, a man of talent and decency who fell from society, falling into a spiral that brought him under a bench outside a filling station on a miserable night.
I knew, deep down, that he’d been here before. I reckoned he’d deliberately selected this refuge, calculating that the strong wooden table and tight seating offered some protection. Like most people, from time to time I give a few quid to homeless folk on the street, to so-called beggars. I choose my moments. This evening, I just looked, quite shocked, at the man under the bench (who wasn’t inviting any charity).
Other motorists came and went. The moment passed. I wondered how the man under the bench would be on Friday, when the sun shines and a new day begins. I wondered about his shattered dreams.
I wondered too, if, before his downfall, the man under the bench would have managed to measure that building in Baggot Street. I think he probably would. I think the man under the bench could have done many things. But the cards have been dealt, the choices made. As I drove off, the rain rattled against my windscreen, and the man under the bench settled down for the night.
The last thing I needed on arriving at Sligo Hospital yesterday evening was…a puncture. Oh dear. I’d put some air in a few miles back, then feared the worst as I drove into the carpark. I was already late, plus I hate any problems with cars.
A little wearily, I took the spare and the other stuff out. I was just beginning the ‘Now where do you jack this up?’ phase when a guy walking by stopped. I’ve no problem changing tyres, but maybe my body language wasn’t great. Maybe I looked almost as deflated as my front tyre.
“Might just be a slow puncture” the guy said. He was an employee of the hospital and had just finished his shift. His next sentence was beautiful. “I have a pump”.
He drove his van over while I practised looking casual. An extremely nice young man, he couldn’t have been more helpful. His pump reversed my slow puncture without delay. I asked him how difficult had it been in the hospital during the first lockdown, peak pandemic time.
“It was extremely difficult” he said. “Very stressful. Fishing was my escape”.
It turns out that he fishes a lot, in Lough Arrow and elsewhere. Trout fishing. Born and bred in Sligo, he’s one of the many heroic frontline workers who are doing such great work in our hospitals.
Tyre back to full strength, I thanked this gentleman for stopping and offering to help. “I’d like to think if I was in a spot of bother on the road, someone would stop and help me” he said.
It’s a reminder that there are so many good people in this world.
I wished him well with his fishing. “There’s nothing like it in the world” he replied, his day’s work done and his thoughts probably drifting to the peace and quiet on Lough Arrow.
“I can’t understand the obsession with soccer” a GAA diehard once said in my presence. “You could be watching a game for ninety minutes, and there mightn’t be a single score”.
That assessment long noted, I still thought tonight’s Champions League Final was an enthralling game, even if it only produced one goal. That superb score won it for Chelsea, leaving a gracious Pep and his Manchester City superstars to reflect on how tough sport can be. No doubt they’ll bounce back. Meantime, while they’re hardly the best team in Europe, congratulations to Chelsea. Any team that beats Real Madrid in the semi-final and Manchester City in the final deserves this great prize. It was well earned; they were magnificent tonight.
A final thought: While Brian Kerr and Niall Quinn are perhaps bearable as analysts on Virgin Media, they need to get rid of the pads/notebooks which are awkwardly propped on their laps. Virgin Media, please invest in some desks!
In an almost empty Hyde, the birds seemed to be much quieter today than when we played Dublin. Maybe the birds are just sick of the Dubs winning. Meanwhile, the sheep in the nearby field were silent. Presumably one sheep wasn’t in the mood, and the others…well, you know the rest. On the field, Roscommon and Kerry played a cracker. We have full coverage on pages 42-43.
It’s a glorious day, possibly the best of the year so far. I know if I turn the radio on, the blah blah will devour me. It seems almost everyone has a strong view on the young folk partying on the streets of Dublin, Galway and Cork. Later in the day, I will be amused by the typically cowardly approach of politicians as they tut-tut at the scenes on social media, while stressing that they are in no way blaming young people! On Monday morning, I opt out, and go for a long walk. The bog road behind our house is still as beautiful as ever, even more glorious in such fine weather. I choose nature over noise!