The Efficiency of the State observed.
by Martin Rea © 2015
I had seen the man with the hat a few times those winter months after I had moved in to where I now still live. I watched him from my kitchen window as he made his way along the road, leaning heavily on his walking cane, dragging an unwilling leg behind him and forcing himself on and into the rain or the wind, or whatever other impediment the day in question would throw at him. He was slow but he never stumbled and the wind never managed to knock the black fedora from his head. When I concentrated on him alone the world was all monochrome: his hat was black, his overcoat was black, his trousers and shoes too; the sky and the light around him were grey; the road he walked on an indeterminate shade between the two.
Then I met him one rainy morning. I had closed my front door behind me and I could see him coming along his familiar route. I had a large umbrella with me, a sturdy full-sized one, and I thought I'd wait and walk with him, offer him the shelter of the umbrella for the short time we'd walk together. I waited for him to reach me and raised the umbrella over both of us.
The skin on his face was rough and yellowed. He wore a beard which was grey and unevenly trimmed; large blackheads were prominent on his crooked nose. It was difficult to put an age on the man; he could have been as young as fifty but appeared much older. None of these details was apparent from my kitchen window. Taken aback a little by his appearance and demeanour, I struggled to find something to say.
"Bad morning," I said.
"They're all bad around here," he replied.
Those were the only words we exchanged and we walked on in silence until we got to the main road and branched in different directions. He half nodded in my direction as we parted and I was glad to regain my natural pace and go my own way. I regretted my gesture with the umbrella- it had achieved nothing -and the whole awkward encounter and my callow alacrity to please a stranger made me feel embarrassed for myself.
Some months later a police car arrived at his block of flats. Being settled in somewhat more and more familiar by then with the scene and the characters in it, I had, for the most part, given up on looking out the kitchen window. I had also given up on trying to make conversation with people. However, I watched the car pull in and stop in front of his building and I stayed at the window to watch some more. Two Guards*, one male and one female were met at the door by a woman who I could see was upset. They accompanied her inside and the door closed behind them.
It was some time before they returned; the female guard was talking into her radio. They both sat back in their car and nothing happened for a while but they did not drive off either. Maybe half an hour later a large dark blue car, a station wagon model, appeared. The driver, a short, round man in a brown suit got out, opened the boot and took out a black leather bag, the sort doctors carry. The Guards got out of their car, spoke with him for a while and then they entered the building together. I made a cup of tea and pulled a chair to the window.
As they were still inside a hearse arrived. It parked behind the station wagon; a second man sitting in the front next to the driver. The Guards and the doctor reappeared. The doctor was writing something, leaning on the bonnet of his car, using it as a desk. He made a short call on his mobile phone. Then he smartly tore two pages from the pad he was writing on, gave one to the male Guard, one to the driver of the hearse and then, business-like, shook hands with everybody. He put his bag in the boot of his car, closed the boot sharply, sat into his car and drove off.
The two men from the hearse took a stretcher from the back of their vehicle and went inside with the Guards. Shortly later they reappeared, deftly carrying the stretcher out the door and they loaded it into the hearse. The contents of the white, aseptic, plastic body-bag could not have weighed very much as the two average sized men moved it about with ease. They sat into the hearse and drove off; the guards followed them out of the estate.
About two weeks after this display of efficiency by the apparatus of the State, a Council truck arrived at the deceased man's flat and in the course of one morning the two workmen had roughly thrown all the contents of the flat, everything the man had owned, into the truck. In the afternoon they returned and filled the truck with clear plastic bags full of beer cans and other drinks containers. There must have been thousands of beer cans there because they needed to make three journeys to take them all away.
* Note: 'Guards' are the Irish civil police force, the word is from the Irish, 'An Gárda Siochána', literally the Guardians of the Peace.