A strange thing, a heartbeat.
Something so steady, so pervasive, that we ignore its rhythms for all our lives. It’s such a continuous feature of existence that it only becomes noticeable when it finally stops.
Frank and I had been friends since high-school. He was always the funny man, playing his jokes off of me. I never minded, though, it was how we were. We graduated together, moved into the same city, joined the police together. This was back in the day when policing was a people business, you could walk down the street and people would say hello to you, ask you how the day was going. You don’t see any of that anymore.
He would always get into trouble with the higher-ups, Frank. He was something of a social pioneer – it was a trait that I greatly admired in him. In a time when people of different backgrounds, different skin colours, were being unfairly treated, wronged at every turn, Frank would be there to set things right. I made Sergeant, he didn’t.
That never bothered him though: he enjoyed the beat, walking amongst the people he protected. In many ways he was the cliche of a cop, abiding by every law and rule and never straying from what he saw as justice.
It was down to him that I met my wife. We used to drink at a bar in town called Mallory’s. It was an Irish place, which suit Frank just right, his grandfather being from Derry after all. I was stood at the bar my eyes glued on this stunning woman when Frank clocks me and just strides right up to her.
“Come and meet my buddy,” he says. “He’s a little on the short side but he’s a real charmer.”
We’ve been married for 34 years, and he brought up that story at every anniversary.
“It’s a good thing I wasn’t on my game that night,” he’d chuckle at every get-together. “Or we’d be celebrating my marriage!”
Frank never did settle down. Some women did steal his heart, but more often then not they would disappear as soon as they had appeared. One girl, Mel was her name, really put him through the wringer. She made all these plans with Frank, about settling down, having kids, the whole package. He fell for it hook, line and sinker, right up until she ran out on him with most of his money. I don’t think he ever really recovered from that – he took to drinking a lot more than usual after her.
Slowly but surely our work became more about filing forms and paperwork than being out on the street. I had by this time become a lieutenant. There had been overtures for me to make detective but I had turned it all down to keep an eye on Frank, who was becoming like an old dog in the station. He would arrive at five in the morning and not leave until ten or eleven at night. That station was his life, and when he retired it took something out of him.
I’ll always remember one night at Mallory’s, he had been retired for about five years – I had already been out for longer after a shootout left me with a bullet in the hip – when I think something in him snapped.
Mallory’s had, by then, come under new ownership and had been overlapped by an urban sprawl that had turned quite a nice suburb into a “shady” area. We still took the trip every week or because the place had such a history with us, but there was no mistaking it had gone downhill.
We had been sat there for around an hour or so when someone jabbed Frank in the ribs.
“That’s my seat,” he had said, in that way that told you what he really cared about wasn’t some bar stool in a dive bar.
Now, ever since Frank has asserted that what he had jabbed him with was the muzzle of a gun. I don;t want to dispute that, but Frank hated seeing his neighborhood, his patrol, his beat, being degraded year by year. It may have been a gun, it may have been an excuse. Either way, his reaction was instantaneous and incredible for a man pushing 60. In one swift movement he span on the stool, beer bottle in hand, to smash it against the man’s temple.
As the glass shattered and the gruff-looking patron toppled over, one of his colleagues evidently decided to lunge for me, as I was one of two old men who seemingly didn’t look crazy.
They say that your instincts from old days as a cop never die, and I suppose I can attest for that. With speed that I would pay for when I woke up the next day, I dismounted my stool, caught the man’s neck in my hand and drew my pistol. Frank had never liked guns but having been disabled by one I had resolved to always carry my own in defence.
The appearance of my firearm cooled the situation somewhat and Frank and I made our getaway, two old pensioners giggling like schoolchildren after almost being assaulted.
That was the last time we saw Mallory’s. Someone burnt it down about a year after. It was about that time that Frank began to get sick, too. It was as if the last remnant of his old beat disappearing finally took its toll on him.
Cancer is an awful disease. I had to watch a man who had looked as alive at 60 as he had at 18 wither away in front of me. There were no more jokes, no more beers, no more anniversary anecdotes. Just a hospital bed, some tubes, and the steady beat of a heart monitor.
It’s a strange thing, a heartbeat. Something that can represent an entire being, and entire life, condensed into a staccato of pips on a machine.
The silence it leaves behind is deafening. Deafening and lonely.