Subscriber OnlyPeople

Michael Harding: A squadron of midges attempted to penetrate the General’s hide without success

After bumping into him in the pharmacy, we went for coffee and compared our medication. This was a level of intimacy we had not bargained for

I bumped into the General last week. We were both in the pharmacy queuing for prescriptions. We spoke about the weather in May and our hopes for June and the prospect of imminent holidays.

“Did you cut the grass yet?” I wondered.

“No,” he replied. “As you suggested, I let the dandelions flourish in order to assist the bees. Not that I saw many bees yet; just midges.”

We didn’t mention any details about what tablets either of us was waiting for. The fact is that tablets are an intimate record of a person’s physical and mental condition. Only the pharmacist knows how fragile I am or how precariously I hold myself together with various chemical remedies.


So we both held our tongues until the queue was over and then we left the shop together with little paper bundles full of pill boxes beneath our arms; like children going home from school with an assortment of sweets.

The General suggested coffee so we went across the road and sat at an open-air restaurant. We ordered Americanos while the General examined his bag and laid the pill boxes on the table. He was checking each item against the receipt.

“I paid over €83 for this month’s supply,” he declared. “I want to make sure the money corresponds with the items on the prescription.”

The coffee arrived and the heavens opened all at the same time, and we made a flurry to gather up our stuff and go inside the restaurant for shelter. I picked up a few of his medicines from the table but in the panic his receipt was blown away and as he went to grab it he scattered my entire bag of goodies all across the pavement.

The little boxes landed in puddles near the gutter and grew soggy by the second so we gathered them as fast as we could into his bag.

When we got inside, we were tasked with sorting everything out; going through each item to check which name was on the label, his or mine.

Most of my tablets are white, with a few burgundy-coloured fellows as big as Smarties and shaped like tiny rugby balls. I also take grey-coloured capsules and powders from a variety of sachets. But both of us possessed a number of identical substances apart from a difference in strength.

“These statins are 40mg,” I remarked, holding up a box.

“They must be yours,” he said; “mine are 80mg”.

This was a level of intimacy we had not bargained for. But on we went scrutinising bisoprolol, candesartan and aspirin, comparing and contrasting strengths, as we divided everything into two separate piles.

The big fat blue ones could no longer be ignored. The box remained on the table with Viagra emblazoned on the side

“My goodness,” I exclaimed, holding up a bottle of Avon Skin-So-Soft. “You’re using moisturiser!”

“Ah yes,” he confessed. “That’s for the midges. There’s nothing better for keeping them at bay.”

Not that I remember the General ever being bothered by midges before. I often saw him at a barbecue in his vest and shorts roaring like an army officer in a 19th-century jungle, declaring that he was untouchable.

I even saw him in the garden in Mullingar one summer, bent over a lilac bush with the pale moon of his backside exposed above the rim of his trousers, and a squadron of midges around his arse attempting to penetrate his hide without the slightest success. He even had a theory about why that was the case.

“It’s only the female of the species that bites,” he assured me. “And they don’t like testosterone. So I’m safe as long as I reek of strong male juices.”

But that bravado ended a long time ago. Now he succumbs to Skin-So-Soft, and any other ointments that might afford comfort to his ageing frame.

We were almost finished the coffees. Almost done with the tablets. Although the big fat blue ones could no longer be ignored. The box remained on the table with Viagra emblazoned on the side.

We had studiously ignored it.

As if it might go away.

As if neither of us should admit to it.

As if we hoped the waiter would take it off like an empty cigarette package when he came to collect the dirty cups.

“Ahhh,” says he finally, as if noticing it for the first time. Then he slipped the package into his pocket with a hand as swift as a lizard removing some small fly from the visible universe.

“They’re for a friend,” he declared, recovering his decorum.

Yes, I thought, of course they are!