I sometimes tell people during gaps in conversation and the like that they’re in the presence of an attempted murderer, that in a past life my former self, presented with a terrible stressor in his external environment, arrived at a solution to that stressor which involved killing someone. I study my companions’ reactions, relishing their shocked expressions before dropping the punch line.
“I was eight,” I usually say. “And the problem — my grandfather.”
Sometime between my seventh and eighth birthday, my mother’s father came to live with us. The usual story: his wife had passed on, he was finding it hard to manage on his own, the ticker was acting up a bit, he wasn’t able to get about as well as he used. I don’t know if my seven-and-a-half-year-old self’s feelings were taken into account at the hour of making the decision and neither do I recall being canvassed by my mother and father as to whether I wanted to share our household with the old man. In truth, I probably would have answered no and, certainly, after a few weeks of cohabiting with him, had I been asked for my opinion, I would have made it quite clear I wanted him packed off to his own house once more.
You see, I had never been fond of my grandfather. To me he was just this old grouch we were dragged by the scruff of the neck to visit a couple of times a week. He never gave my brother or me anything, no sweets or toys or footballs, he didn’t have any cool stuff in his house and he never played with us. There was none of this taking you to the park or teaching you how to fish malarkey that grandfathers on TV were always at. You never walked in the door of his house to have a shiny new bicycle or an Action Man thrust into your arms. He rarely even interacted with us, beyond warning us not to touch things or knock things over. In fact, he didn’t seem to have much time for us at all. So you can appreciate how, after a few weeks living with the man, a certain coldness towards him, a frosty ambivalence of feeling, could turn into a definite dislike.
Initially, the conflict was territorial. What had once been a spare room, a kind of play room for my brother and me, was co-opted into being my grandfather’s bedroom, which from then on was off-limits for us (not that we would have wanted to set foot in there anyway). Strange and unwelcome items began appearing around the house: inhalers, boxes of pills, cowboy books, greasy spectacles and combs, razors and shaving brushes in the bathroom, slippers. He bullied us about what programmes got to go on the TV and was usually installed in the comfiest seat in the living room already watching some old folks show by the time we got home from school. Then there was the smell. I know it’s a clapped-out old cliché, but my grandfather did have an undeniable and characteristic fug which hung about him and all his possessions and eventually came to impregnate his bedroom — eau de OAP. I can still conjure up the smell in my memory: a sweet, marmaladey odour with a pronounced meaty, buttery tone. Perhaps it’s a biological verity that young boys are programmed through natural selection to find the scent of older men repugnant, or perhaps it was a genuinely unpleasant aroma to the young olfactory system, but it was usually towards the top of my list of things I disliked about my grandfather. Somehow, the smell focused your beady eye even more closely on the old man and brought other odd details and foibles to your attention, making you dislike him even more; you started to notice the funny way he had of chewing, his annoying habit of tapping while he read, how he always walked with his right hand stuck into the breast of his overcoat, Napoleon-like, and his weird, veiny, transparent skin.
But the principal reason I grew to loathe my grandfather and see his presence in our house as problematic was because of his drinking: he was an alcoholic. Not only that — he was a roaring alcoholic. Now, we Irish have as many terms to describe partiality to drink as the Eskimos reputedly have for types of snow. At the low end of the scale, you can be merely ‘fond of the drink’, a quality that may or may not imply addiction, depending on the personage under discussion. At the other end of the scale, you can be ‘big into the drink’, ‘a martyr for the drink’ or the theologically opposed ‘demon (or divil) for the drink’. Character can come into it: ‘He’s a great (or a wicked or a terrible) man for the drink.’ Calling someone a ‘great man for the drink’ suggests admiration for the man, that it’s a joy and pleasure to be in his company while he’s getting stocious. On the other hand, you don’t want to be around your ‘terrible man for the drink’, whose epithet carries images of a turbulent domestic situation, being fired from work for being drunk on the job, house repossession and so on. It goes without saying that you don’t want to be around your ‘awful baisht of a man for the drink’ at all, at all! Terms such as ‘problems with the drink’ or ‘trouble with the drink’ are usually overheard as snippets of earnest, whispered gossip. There are secret drinkers, inveterate drinkers, hopeless drinkers. Your secret drinker is a dangerous animal, from a health and safety point of view; you happen to be in this fellow’s house when you, being inquisitive of nature, open the medicine cabinet and have a half-concealed bottle of whiskey fall down on the bridge of your nose. Or your secret drinker lady friend asks you to change a light bulb in her utility room and you find half-empty vodka bottles clinking around in the lampshade and threatening to hop out onto your foot. Then there’s all the various modifiers of the A word. There are bad alcoholics, as if it were necessary to distinguish this breed from the outstanding or merely good alcoholic. We have raging alcoholics, whose main occupation, besides filling their bellies with porter and whiskey, is the destruction of bar-room fixtures and fittings after a certain threshold of inebriation has been crossed. And finally, and this system of nomenclature is only admissible in Ireland, where attitudes towards alcoholism and drinking in general are more relaxed than, say, Canada, we have qualifiers placed before the A word that play down the importance of the subject’s addictive behaviour. A number of choice adjectives imply that, while technically under the stringent grading systems in existence in ‘enlightened’ countries such as the aforementioned north American territory your man may be an alcoholic, in reality his consumption and comportment are just about inside the limit of what Irish society considers normal and so he deserves a mitigating modifier. Therefore, we have the mild alcoholic, the bit of an alcoholic and the more formally named, but no-less-of-a fudge-for-that, high-functioning or borderline alcoholic. These are men that hold down regular jobs, are decent husbands and fathers, live unremarkable, humdrum lives, but spend inordinate amounts of their free time in the pub, drinking there every night of their lives before staggering home and pulling themselves out of bed the following day to repeat the cycle.