EACH MORNING I pick up a copy of The Guardian newspaper (regardless of the headline) and take the same window seat (if it’s available), in the same modest café just off Dame St.. Today’s headline refers to the ongoing crises in the Middle East. This should immediately arrest my attention, but it doesn’t, because as I take my usual seat by the window I’m offered a perfect view of what is unfolding in the Dublin street outside: A man has unwittingly lodged his foot in a damaged drain grate next to his car. Initially, I find it difficult to apprehend how one could manage such a thing, but, he has managed such a thing.
He attempts, in vain, to free himself by pulling at his leg with both hands like it were the root of a stubborn vegetable. A pedestrian then notices his predicament and offers assistance. I can’t help but smile as I stir my coffee. A woman appears to suggest he stand up, but the man declines, seemingly because he is of the opinion that he would snap his leg in doing so. I have no intention of offering my assistance. After all, there’s nothing I’d be able to do, really. He’s sitting on the ground—his leg in the small space between his car and the pavement—wondering, I’m sure, not how to get out of his situation, but how he got himself into it in the first place. A small crowd gathers, mostly out of curiosity, but some—in a bid to be his Androcles—make an attempt at removing his foot. Others film the scene on their phones, at which the entrapped gentleman understandably takes umbrage; shooing them away indignantly.
I’m fixed on this occurrence outside when my phone rings. I place my coffee next to the newspaper, reach a hand into my pocket and answer the call.
‘Dad, it’s me. I- I’ve done something . . .’
It’s my son, and he sounds distressed.
‘What is it?’
‘I’ve done something stupid, Dad.’
‘I can’t . . .’
He becomes silent, and I’m overcome with a feeling of dread which instantly reminds me of when—on occasion—the shadows from the drifting clouds above flood the streets I walk every day after a brief spell of sunshine.
‘Listen,’ I say. ‘Take your time. What’s happened?’
‘You can’t . . . I can’t.’
His voice trembles, and I get up from my seat and walk outside and light a cigarette with a lighter that was recently gifted to me by a colleague which bares the phrase Don’t Worry, Be Happy.
‘I was just—my mind . . . This cloud came over me.’
‘Where are you?’
‘I’m at home, Dad.’
‘Who’s with you?’ He doesn’t respond. I take another pull on my cigarette and look at the man across the street who is trapped; there is now about eleven people gathered round him and his face has turned a brighter shade of red and he still clutches at his leg while I take another drag of my cigarette.
‘Son,’ I say. ‘I want you to do something for me. I want you to take a deep breath and count to ten, no, fifteen, and then think about what it is that you’re trying to tell me.’
What could he have done that has him so distraught? I think. I look at my hand which holds the cigarette and it is steady, before I raise it to my mouth and inhale once again. The fifteen seconds are up and my son still hasn’t spoken, and all these thoughts are racing through my mind: thoughts of something terrible which has happened and thoughts of a massive media frenzy involving my boy and thoughts of my teary-eyed wife being held back by police officers as she reaches for our handcuffed son, and thoughts of the chair. A parent always thinks the worst, but as I look at my hand again it’s still steady and when I look across the street the man is still trapped and now more people are standing around him and his situation.
‘I’ll call you back, Dad.’
And he hangs up. I stand still for a moment and fail to remember that I’m smoking a cigarette and it has burned all the way to the butt. It singes my finger and it drops to the ground, and I put my finger in my mouth and suck where I feel the stinging sensation.
I’m about to call my wife but I realize that it would be a bad idea as this will just cause her to panic, and there’s nothing I can tell her to reassure her that everything will be fine because I don’t know that everything will be fine, because I don’t know what is going on. Suddenly there’s a dog-like yelp and I look over at the man and see that there’s now a dog attempting to gnaw at his trapped foot, and I surmise that the yelp was in fact emitted by the mongrel after the man had struck it. A few gatherers chase it away but it hangs around waiting for an opportune moment when it can pounce once again.
I take a moment and think about calling my son but I decide to wait until he rings first. I make my way back into the café and sit in my usual seat and look at The Guardian on the table which is resting next to my coffee which is still steaming-hot, thankfully. I place my phone on the table and I’m unsure what I should do, so I pick up the newspaper and open it to a random page and read the first article I see. It’s about a trapeze artist who has a fear of flying and it makes me chuckle and then I think about my son. The next article I look at is about a motivational speaker who tours the country who has been arrested for possessing Class A drugs and then I think about my son.
I place the newspaper back on the table and pick up my coffee, sip it, and look at my phone, then out the window at the man on the pavement and the crowd around him, which has dwindled down to a mere four or five and the dog which now lies on its belly; its legs outstretched as it wears a bored expression. I wonder why nobody has thought of calling an ambulance or the fire brigade and I can only assume that the man doesn’t want them to call anyone in fear of further embarrassment. I wonder if he has tried removing his shoe, and I wonder, again, how this could have happened and why he is still trapped.
The ringtone of my phone sounds returns me back to the now. Following an immediate grab for it I answer.
‘Would it kill you to pick up your daughter every once in a while?’ It’s my wife, we’re separated, and she has a constant vendetta against me, or so it seems.
‘She told me you wouldn’t pick her up from her dance class last night.’
‘I was busy.’
‘Doing what, exactly?’
‘That’s none of your business.’
‘Not anymore, no.’ I think about telling her about our son’s phone call but I relent; as much as I dislike her at this moment in time I still don’t want to panic her.
‘Well it’s your daughter’s business. It’s strange how you make a big deal about our arrangements—which we’ve both agreed on—yet you don’t make time to take a lousy fifteen-minute journey to pick up your daughter from her dance class.’
‘Listen, I wanted to, but there was this big deal at the office about some inappropriate e-mail and I—’
‘Listen, you know the issues these days with sexism and whatnot, and if I’m not seen to be taking appropriate action I’ll look bad.’
‘In the eyes of your colleagues.’
‘Of course, and my superiors.’
‘But not your daughter?’
And I stop, and I look at the man outside and I want to run over and remove the drain grate and call him an idiot and tell him he should find a carer, and then I think about my son and then my daughter and her dance class and I feel lousy.
‘I’m sorry,’ I say. ‘I should’ve slipped out of the office and picked her up.’
‘Don’t apologise to me.’
‘I’ll make it up to her.’
‘Don’t just say it.’
‘I’m not. I will.’
‘You know we can all get wrapped up in certain things—trapped even—but you have to remember what’s important.’
I think about her words and acknowledge the benevolence in them, and then I look at the man outside again.
‘Just tell her I’m sorry—No, I’ll tell her. I’m going to call her and tell her I’m sorry and I’m going to make it up to her.’
‘Don’t just say it,’ and my wife hangs up. I pick up my coffee and sip it and look out the window and back at The Guardian and I look at the Trapeze article and this time I don’t find it humorous.
After a few minutes pass I begin to lose patience. I reach for my phone and dial my son’s number and wait for an answer, which I don’t get. I’m beginning to become more worried now and I think about calling my wife and telling her about the phone call but, once again, I decide against it.
An employee at the café—Erica, I believe is her name—approaches the table next to mine and wipes it down with a paper towel and glances at me with a smile. I smile back and look at her as she walks away. I think about what her smile meant and then I think about my son.
After attempting to call him again and not getting an answer I go outside for another cigarette and I look at the man again and see that he’s on his own; even the dog—fed up—has left. I approach him and he looks at me without saying anything.
‘How’s it going?’ I ask.
‘It’s going great,’ he sneers.
‘What happened to your audience?’
‘I don’t know, do I?’
‘Why don’t you call someone?’
‘The fire brigade, maybe?’
‘I don’t want to trouble them.’
He scratches his trapped leg and looks up at me again.
‘How did you manage that?’ I ask.
‘I was getting out of my car and somehow it got lodged there. I don’t know how it . . . I mean how should I know? This bloody government. This shower . . . They should have this area inspected regularly. Sure someone should report damaged grates. It’s somebody’s responsibility.’
He’s about to continue with his diatribe but he swallows a few words—as if deciding to hold his breath—and I imagine that he’s counting to five in his head.
‘Does it hurt?’
‘I think it’s sprained, only.’
‘Why don’t you give me your keys and I’ll move the car.’
‘Look, it’s wedged in there, if you move the car you’ll probably break my leg.’
‘Then let me call someone.’
‘I don’t want to trouble anyone.’
‘So you’re just going to sit here?’
‘I’ll think of something,’ he says, and I finish my cigarette (not before offering him one—which he declines), and I walk back into the café and sit in my usual seat and look out at him sitting on his own and then I look around the café and see I’m sitting on my own; the staff being the only other people here. I pick up my coffee and realise that it’s now cold so I put it next to The Guardian and I take my phone from my pocket and dial my daughter’s number.
‘Hello?’ she answers.
‘Hi, sweetie. Listen, I want to apologize for not picking you up from your class last night. I was snowed under in work but that’s no excuse, I should have picked you up.’
‘Oh, it’s okay. My friend’s dad dropped me home.’
‘That’s not the point,’ I say. ‘You ever need a lift you just give me a call, okay?
‘Sure? That’s it?’
‘What do you want me to say, Dad?’
‘Nothing, I suppose. I just, I want you to know that you can count on me.’
‘Okay,’ she says. Okay. ‘It’s not a big deal.’ Not a big deal.
‘I’ve got to go, Daddy. I’ll text you,’ and she hangs up.
I sit there for a moment and look at the employee who’s serving a customer who just walked in and she looks over at me—the employee—and I smile at her. She doesn’t smile back, and then she asks the customer if they would like it ‘to go’ or ‘for here’.
I look at my phone again and dial my son’s number.
‘Hello?’ To my relief he answers. I stand up, feeling an urgency within.
‘Well, what happened?’
‘Oh, that. Don’t worry, it’s okay.’
‘Yeah, Dad. It was nothing. Jeez!’
‘But you said—’
‘Oh, listen, I got a little worked up but it’s cool.’
‘What about the cloud?’
‘The cloud. You said a cloud came over you—’
‘No, it’s fine, Dad. I’m fine.’
‘Listen, Dad, I’ve got to go. I’ll text you.’
He hangs up, and a part of me wishes I had called my wife.
I sit down once again and although I’m confused I still feel relieved that everything is ‘cool’. I pick up The Guardian but then return it next to my cold coffee and my phone because I realise I don’t want to read it. From my usual seat I look outside at the man who is still sitting alone on the pavement and I think about the trapeze artist and my wife and my daughter and my son, and look at the shadow beginning to creep along the street outside as the sun begins to take shelter behind the tall buildings in Dublin’s city centre, and I look at the waitress who doesn’t look back at me and I take a sip of my cold coffee.