It's 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, even joined the force together. This was back in the day when policing was a people business, y'know? 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.
Frank would always get into trouble with the higher-ups. 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 were being unfairly treated and wronged at every turn, Frank would be there to set things right. I made Sergeant. Predictably, he didn’t.
That never bothered him though: he enjoyed the beat, walking amongst the people he protected. In many ways he was the ultimate 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 suited 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 just strides right up to her.
“Come and meet my buddy,” he said. “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 arrived. 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. That was, 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 Mel.
Slowly but surely our work became more about filing forms and paperwork than being out on the street. I made lieutenant, Frank still stuck to his beat. There were rumours I was being looked at for captaincy, but I 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 this one night at Mallory’s. Frank had been retired for about five years – I'd 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 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 so because the place had such a history with us. Yet 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 a way that told you what he really cared about wasn’t some stool in a dive bar.
Now, ever since Frank had asserted that what the guy had jabbed him with was the muzzle of a gun. I don;t want to dispute that, but Frank had always hated seeing his neighbourhood, 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. In a flash of glass and blood this tough guy was sprawling on the bar floor. All hell broke loose.
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 certainly paid for when I woke up the next day, I dismounted my seat and drew my old pistol. Frank had never liked guns but having been disabled by one I have always felt the need to 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 naughty schoolchildren.
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.