My brother and I weren’t more than a minute in bed, when we heard the front door gently shut and the Escort being cranked up in the driveway; my mother had decided to embark upon a second foray into the wilds of the Ennis evening pub scene. (A note to the young reader: it was quite common when I was a boy to leave children older than six to eight in the house on their own for a few hours. My parents often left my brother and me completely unattended while they went shopping or to a funeral or even to the pub at night after we’d been put to bed. In those days there was nothing unusual in this practice. Please don’t be left with the impression that, just because there was an alcoholic grandfather in the household, we were a dissolute, degenerate lot and that my brother and I were only dragged up!) A short time later, we were awoken by a loud crash coming from the downstairs hallway. My grandfather had returned! Once more, the old fox had eluded my parents and while they were dashing from pub to pub up town he would be sleeping off his intoxication in his cosy bed! Except on this occasion my grandfather must have had the munchies. Instead of staggering upstairs, flopping onto his mattress, falling into a deep sleep and rocking the house with his snores until mid-afternoon the next day, he made a windy-day beeline for the kitchen. Now, as an example of one of those peculiar rules that are welcomed far more by the governed than by the issuing authorities, my brother and I had been instructed to under no circumstances get up and try to deal with a drunken grandfather if my parents weren’t present. This was fine by us. We had even less desire to set our eyes on a drunk grandfather than on the sober, daytime one we normally went out of our way to avoid. No matter what he got up to downstairs or on the way to his bedroom (singing, banging, clattering, bumping, cursing, coughing, hawking or, of course, roaring), the few times he arrived home when my parents were absent, my brother and I stayed put and schtum in our beds. This time, however, there was such a commotion emanating from the kitchen that we had no choice but to forsake our safe, warm beds and investigate.
Quite high in the mix of sounds coming from below was the barking of our old dog, Max, a portly, lazy cocker spaniel, who was characterised by an almost reptilian lethargy. He was usually comatose in his basket beside the range in the kitchen from early evening until we got up at eight o’clock, and outside this schedule could only be roused if tempted with a morsel of his principal concern in life — food! My grandfather must have done something quite terrible to have disturbed the creature from his slumber. More out of concern for canine than human (in truth we liked the dog a heck of a lot more than the old man), my brother and I crept down the stairs and snuck a peep into the kitchen. We immediately saw the cause of Max’s agitation. My grandfather had somehow fallen into his basket and appeared to be stuck there! With one hand on the rail of the range, he was attempting to pull himself up, but, through a combination of drunkenness, the oval shape and high sides of the basket and the dog’s barking and snapping, he was unable to do so. In his other hand, my grandfather held a bite-marked block of Cheddar cheese. Behind him, the door of the fridge was wide open, letting all the cold spill out onto the lino (a mortal sin in our house!). The penny dropped! The old man had staggered into the kitchen, opened the fridge, pulled out a block of cheese, at which he proceeded to nibble, lost his balance, fell down on top of the dog, who must have squirmed out from underneath him, shocked and annoyed, and let the whole neighbourhood know of this fact through sharp, indignant barking. We closed the fridge, appeased the dog, pulled my grandfather to his feet and helped him up the stairs. He still had the cheese in his hand as he lay down on his bed.
That was it for me. That was the final straw, the declaration of war. It was one thing to cause worry and stress to my poor, long-suffering mother, to send my parents scurrying off into the night on a fool’s errand, consigning my brother and me to an early bed, to stagger in blind drunk at an unearthly hour roaring the words of some God-awful come-all-ye, waking the whole household and causing lights to flicker on in bedrooms across the road, to endure the queer looks of the neighbours and the taunts of their children the next day. But to upset the poor dog? To half squash the craythur, disrupt its precious slumber, drive it from its warm basket by the range? Have the helpless, confused and frightened animal — a softie of the doggy world — heckles raised, barking in the middle of the night, when it wouldn’t normally stir even if the Hamburglar happened to pay the house a visit? This was just too much; the old man had to go.
I cooked up a plan over the next few days and waited patiently for Saturday to come. My scheme required me being present when my grandfather awoke sometime around midday and, because of the small matter of school, this was only possible during the weekend. Even though designating Saturday as my D-day meant sacrificing an entire morning’s play on the road with my friends in order to keep watch on my grandfather’s movements, I could hardly have chosen to bump him off on a Sunday. Wasn’t any sin, no matter how slight, amplified in its wickedness for having been committed on the Lord’s day, and wasn’t my prospective sin likely to weigh heavily enough on my immortal soul already?
On that Saturday morning, in spite of my nervousness, I tried to go casually about my normal routine. In any of the books I’d read or TV shows I’d watched, all the best criminals breezily lived what looked like a regular life while preparing the most hideous of crimes. I went downstairs in my pyjamas, let the dog out to do its business, had a hearty breakfast in front of the television, washed, got dressed, read a little and then, about an hour before the old man was wont to rise, took out a quantity of toys (soldiers, Lego, armoured cars, tanks and marbles) and proceeded to make war in the hallway, with the last five or six steps of the stairs being the high ground the German forces were attempting to take from the severely outnumbered Allies. I crowded the stairs enough with Afrika Korps and Marines to compel my mother to warn me to have it clear by the time my grandfather surfaced and add: ‘We don’t want him breaking his neck on the stairs, do we?’ A few minutes before the bells of the Angelus sounded, I made a big show of moving operations to the other end of the hallway, to the rug inside the front door, and received a ‘Good boy’ from my mother. Now, I would be off the hook; whatever happened from here on in would be seen as an unlucky accident and the half dozen marbles — black crystal bowlers — that I had carefully positioned on the stairs’ fourth and fifth steps and which lay camouflaged within the pattern of its carpet would be seen as an unfortunate and blameless oversight on my part rather than malice.
I heard the creaking of floorboards above me. The old man was up! His footsteps took him to the bathroom. Down in the hallway, a wide arc of German paratroops pinned the few surviving Marines against the legs of an old chair. The toiled flushed and I heard water running. A German captain went down and his men began to lose hope. The bathroom door opened. A few bars of ‘The Banks of Claudy’ at the top of the stairs. More Germans went down. The blue-grey figures began to retreat. Out of the corner of my eye I saw him reach the booby-trapped steps. He lowered his right foot onto the fifth step then put his weight on it as he prepared to take the next step downwards. The slippered foot slid from under him. ‘The Banks of Claudy’ was replaced by an involuntary yelp. He wobbled, like in the cartoons I used to watch, and began to fall, head first. I forgot all about my soldiers to study the plunge I’d been planning all week. The smile that had begun to spread across my face quickly did its own retreat, however. Just as it appeared that my grandfather would go careering down the stairs and make a fatal — or at least hospitalisation-worthy — landing against the tiles of the hallway, his right arm made a grab for the banister. His fall was arrested. The whiplash from his momentum caused the banister to shudder and my grandfather to be thrown harmlessly onto his backside. My mother raced out of the kitchen to see my grandfather rooting under his backside and producing a black sphere about half an inch in diameter.
‘Marbles,’ he remarked.
My mother looked over at me and I hoped and prayed that the disappointment on my face might appear to her like contrition, but I was left guessing, because she just shook her head and went about helping her father to his feet. I gathered up the retreating soldiers and said in my best German officer accent: ‘Ziss mission hass been a severe failure. You vill pay ze consequences!’
I didn’t make any further attempts on my grandfather’s life after that. He died in his sleep about six months later, going on his weekly bender right up until the end. Most of the friends and acquaintances to whom I have told this story express nothing more than mild shock and polite amusement. It is as if this type of amoral and borderline psychotic behaviour is to be expected in children. I recognise myself that the incident is not something I am at all ashamed of. On the contrary: every time I see children playing with marbles on the street (which isn’t very often nowadays), I feel proud of that boy. While his methods were crude and wicked, they were also decisive and direct, and I admire his unabashed attempt to put an end to an intolerable situation that had defeated the grown-ups around him.