Mr. O'Reilly was old. He'd always been old. I was 10, and for as long as I could remember he'd always been the same, standing behind the garden gate outside his terraced house, watching the traffic on our busy road. Black bushy hair, eyebrows and moustache; a well worn black suit and waistcoat; and his pipe with which he constantly fiddled. He smelled of tobacco. From four houses away I could smell it, not unpleasant in itself, but for me a warning that Mr O'Reilly was out.
He had a gruff manner, as though continually affronted by what he saw from his observation post at the end of his little overgrown garden. And he'd a loud and gravelly voice to complement his imposing figure and mannerisms. On my daily errand to buy the final edition of the Evening Herald, I had to pass him. Each time my heart would be pounding in my ears. Could I sneak by quickly without him talking to me?
"The state of that car it should be put off the feckin road!"
Oh no. Should I pretend I hadn't heard him, or just smile back, or what? Oh God!
"What?", he'd bark.
"You're right Mr O'Reilly", I'd stammer.
"Huh", he'd retort, severely unimpressed with my limp response.
I'd continue on up the road, turning right to cross at the traffic lights, taking Sally's bridge over the Grand Canal and on down to Kelly's newsagent, all the while fretting over my return journey and how to avoid Mr. O'Reilly.
There was no avoiding Mr. O'Reilly.
"The Guards should do something about it but they're feckin useless."
Oh no. He'd mentioned the Guards. What should I say? Didn't Mam say one of his sons was arrested by the Guards? Is that the fella that was always coming home roaring drunk from the pub, or one of the other rough looking ones?
"What did ye say?" he'd shout.
"Eh, you're right Mr. O'Reilly", I'd offer.
I tried various tactics. I'd cross the road outside my house instead of walking past him up to the traffic lights; I'd often be standing there at the edge of the road for a while, waiting for a gap in the traffic, feeling his eyes boring into my back. I'd take our little dog with me, so that I could take her off the leash at the traffic lights on the way back and race with her past Mr O'Reilly before he could say anything; he'd watch me the whole way, as I kept my eyes facing forward to avoid his gaze. He knew.
I don't know when he stopped being there. I remember one evening much later, back for a visit after a couple of years abroad, I passed him at his gate without either of us speaking. He looked frail, probably didn't recognise me. I knew.
He's not there anymore. I wish he was.
|Mr O'Reilly was here|