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Roddy Doyle's Charlie Savage: How to make an old man smile



Illustration: Ben Hickey

Illustration: Ben Hickey

Illustration: Ben Hickey

I'm sick of people asking me what's wrong. So I've been working on the face.

This all started about 10 years ago. There'd I'd be, feeling grand in my head, and I'd notice someone - the wife, my sister, always a woman - looking at me like I was displaying the early stages of leprosy or something.

It was always the same.

- Are you alright? they'd say.

- I'm grand, I'd say. - Why?

- No reason, they'd say - almost always the same words. - No reason - just.

- Just what?

- Well...

- Well, what?

- Your face.

- What's wrong with my face?

- Nothing, they'd say. - Just.

- Just what?

And it would start all over again.

I'd look at my face now and again, just to be sure. I'd bring the reading glasses up to the bathroom and I'd lock the door. I'd put on the specs, brace myself, say a quick Hail Mary - and look.

But it was never too bad. Don't get me wrong; I didn't see Clooney or Tom Hanks looking back at me. It was just me getting older, that's all.

I'm grand with that - life, ageing. I don't mind that I'm falling apart. Or, not falling apart exactly - it's more like, year by year, week by week, I'm sliding towards the floor. There's bits of my neck where my chest should be, and my belly button seems to have headed south for the winter, and the spring, summer and the bloody autumn - emigrated, basically, with no intention of ever coming back.


It's not great, getting old. But it's inevitable and it happens to all of us. And if you're lucky enough to be able to grow old slowly and without too much creaking, grand. That's my philosophy most of the time - and when I remember.

But recently the question has been changing. 'Are you alright?' has become 'What's wrong?' And the facial expressions have changed with the question. 'Are you alright?' comes with concern, affection, big fond eyes. But 'What's wrong?' is accompanied by impatience and a slight panic or horror. You're no longer a man in need of a hug or something stronger; you're a thing that's going to drop dead on the kitchen floor five minutes after it's been mopped.

So. Enough is enough.

I hand myself over to the daughter.

- Fix my face, love, I tell her.

And she knows exactly what I mean. She sits me down and stands in front of me.

- Smile, Dad, she says.

- I am smiling, I tell her.

- Okaaa-aaay, she says... and nothing else.

- A big job? I ask her.

- A challenge, she says. - But not impossible.

She's still gawking at me. She brings a finger up to one of my cheeks and pokes it. Then she sighs, steps back and sits down.

- Tell me a bit about yourself, she says.

- What?

- Well, like, she says. - What age are you?

- Sixty-two - I think.

- And do you want to look 52...?

- No, no, I tell her. - Nothing like that. I don't want to look any younger.

She's been glancing across at the wooden knife block - the yoke that holds the knives we never use.

- I don't want cosmetic surgery, love, I tell her.

- Worst-case scenario, like?

She's grinning.

- Is there nothing a bit less dramatic? I ask her.

- Okay, she says. - Listen to this. Men hit 50, like, and they forget how to smile.

- They don't, I say. - Do they?

She nods her head.

- They absolutely do, she says. - And it's all about your state of mind.

She points at the fridge.

- The fridge there, like, she says. - A young man, a teenager, like, opens the fridge door and he expects to find something worth eating.

- That's true, I say.

- But a man over 50 expects it to be empty, she says.

I ponder that one.

- That's true as well, I conclude.

It's actually brilliant.

- Is it as simple as that? I ask her.

- Go over to the fridge, she says.

And I obey.

I grab the door.

- Stop, she says.

- What?

- I can tell, she says. - You think it's going to be empty.

- I don't.

- You do, she says. - Even though you did the shop this morning with Mammy, like.

She's right.

- But you're still expecting the worst, she says.

I open the fridge: it's full.

She makes me walk out of the house, around the block, and straight back in, to the fridge.

I'm hungry after all the exercise and I know the thing is full. And I can feel it; I'm smiling.

- Is that the trick, so? I ask her. - Whenever I see a woman who looks like she's going to ask me what's wrong, I just imagine she's - what? - a fridge?

She shrugs.

- A full one, like.

Then she smiles - and so do I. I'm getting the hang of it again.

Weekend Magazine