At Five In The Afternoon

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Part One: Origins

I’ve come to borrow my brother’s saying since the doctor diagnosed me with prostate cancer. ‘And how’re you now?’ is what Tom says when he answers the phone. Commonplace, you may say, but he’s the only one I know who does that. The rueful way he accents the ‘now’ implies his sympathetic understanding of life’s predicament, that although matters had been bad previously, the projected outcome will oftentimes be a great deal worse. And yet he’s also saying, ‘Bring it on.’ For me, that’s like the lethal, flourishing, blood-red gesture of a matador: the male equivalent of the tight skirt-strutting, killer-heel clacking, hand through the hair gesticulating, broadest ‘Díga me’, that ‘Say it to me’ greeting I so much enjoy hearing and observing in Spain. Such black humour continues the family conversation: ‘The Murphys of The Mall’ advance, swords straight, aiming for the more difficult feat of the estocada al recibir, when a man receives the full force of the black bull’s last charges.

For the longest time now, I’ve been hearing in mind the valour of the matador in his costume of lights, facing death in the corrida at five in the afternoon. About six months after my next brother, Kieran, died from cancer at forty-two years of age, I was in Innsbruck one sunny Palm Sunday morning, searching the skyline for the spires of a church in which I could attend mass to pray for the repose of his soul. Although, lined with cars, the streets were empty. There was no movement. I became aware of the absence as I walked in the centre of an avenue which seemed, straight as a Roman road, to go on for ever. I turned around, but there was nobody behind me, fast a silent kiss from the wind, stooping down to brush the cold forehead atque in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale with parted lips.

I heard a shuffling sound. It was like hundreds of the softest footfalls, louder, getting louder, marching in unison. I could hear the rat-tat-tat of the snare-drum. Out from a side-street in the distance stepped the eight-wide phalanx of a Tyrolean brass band in lederhosen period costume, row after row of men with red plumes cocked in their hats, the sun glinting off their instruments and multi-coloured banners waving in the breeze. The corps was wheeling around and heading directly up towards me. Wave after wave of musicians were coming, bands from every valley in Austria preceded by their standard-bearers, hundreds of people in marching boots, with white stockings and shirts and velvet Spanish-style boleros.


I moved to the side and reached for my camera. The leader looked me in the eye, pointed over at me with his baton, then hurled it heavenwards where it shattered the sun into stars. As he caught he struck it down, and every brass band began to play. The shock of the noise beat me back against the side of a car. It was awe-inspiring. And I realised that all of these people were making music just for me: there was nobody else to hear this explosion of joy. It was Kie. It was my younger brother Kie, who was saying to me in the trumpeting music of the massed brass hands, ‘And how’re you now?’ For certain I knew that this was his way of getting through to me.