Sunny Disposition

February 27, 2012

Originally published May 1996 in In Stitches Magazine

The O’Reilly Method of Social and Preventive Medicine


Doctor O’Reilly was fond of extolling the virtues of general practice. He reckoned that a good G.P. should be the master of what he called, “all branches of the medical arts.” Once I thought I’d caught him out, but as usual he managed to get the better of me. It all came about because Sunny disappeared. O’Reilly was very fond of Sunny and by chance couldn’t stand Councillor Bishop.

If you’re feeling confused, don’t worry, any association with O’Reilly will do that to you. If you can bear with me, I’ll try to explain.

Sunny lived in his car — not because he was penurious far from it; he’d inherited a sizable sum when his father died — and not because he was stupid; he held a PhD. He lived in his car because there was no roof on his house.

There was no roof on his house because 20 years before the roof had needed new slates. Sunny had engaged Mr. Bishop, town councillor, building contractor and property developer, to do the job. For reasons that are lost in the mists of Ulster history, just at the time that the old roof had been removed, Sunny and Bishop had fallen out. Sunny refused to pay and Bishop refused to finish the job. Sunny moved into his car and decided to retire from the rat race.

O’Reilly had introduced me to Sunny shortly after I’d started to work there. One of us would drop by to check on him about every couple of weeks or so. I don’t think I’ve ever known a more contented 60-year-old man.

His car was parked at the front of what had been the garden. One patch of ground remained uncluttered and there Sunny grew his vegetables, which he sold to the locals. The rest of the place looked like a junk yard that had come into close proximity with a tornado on stimulants. Other old cars, perambulators, washing machines, scrap metal, phonograms, two tractors, and an old caravan were piled hither and yon, vaguely covered by tattered tarpaulins, weeds growing merrily in the interstices.

His treasured possessions did little for local property values but his neighbours tolerated his eccentricity, bought his vegetables and passed the time of day with him. O’Reilly had mentioned that the caravan had been a gift from Sunny’s neighbours, but he’d only lived in it for a week before returning to his car and turning the caravan over to his four dogs, who were his best friends and constant companions.

I was surprised one afternoon when I made a routine call to find that neither Sunny nor his dogs were anywhere to be seen. The woman who lived next door told me that Mr. Bishop had taken Sunny away two days earlier and that someone from the animal protection society had come for the dogs yesterday. I thought it seemed strange and raised the matter with O’Reilly during the course of our evening meal.

The progress of a large slice of steak to O’Reilly’s mouth halted precipitously. He lunged at me with the meat-covered fork. “What?”

I wondered if the old adage, “don’t shoot the messenger,” could be adapted to, “don’t skewer him on a dinner fork,” and repeated the intelligence.

            “Bloody Bishop!” O’Reilly slammed the meat into his mouth and worried at it like a jackal with a particularly tasty piece of dead zebra. He swallowed, larynx going up and down like an out-of-control U-boat. “Bloody Bishop!” O’Reilly hunched forward, elbows on the table, shoulders high. “I bet he’s found a way to have Sunny put in the home.” My mentor sat back, pinioned the remains of his steak and slashed at it with the fervour of a member of the Light Brigade venting his spleen on a Russian gunner. “He’s trying to get his hands on Sunny’s land.” He scowled at his plate and pushed it away. “Right. You nip round to the home and see if Sunny’s there.” O’Reilly stood. “I think I’ll go and have a chat with Mr. Bishop.”

By the look in O’Reilly’s eyes and the pallor of the tip of his nose, I knew Mr. Bishop was shortly going to wish he was spending a relaxing time with a Gestapo interrogator who was suffering from strangulated haemorrhoids.

Sure enough, Sunny was in the home. He was a lost, terrified old man. He told me that the nurses scared him, the other inmates were rude and he couldn’t stop worrying about his dogs. He begged me to take him home and cried when I had to explain to him that I’d discovered he was under a restraining order, for his own good and that until it was lifted, I was powerless to intervene. I stood beside his bed, looking at a man who’d been reduced in two days from an independent, albeit slightly unusual, individual, to a pathetic institutionalized wretch. I could see that he’d lost weight and indeed looked very ill.

I still had his, “Och, please get me out, Doctor,” in my ears as I climbed the stairs to O’Reilly’s sitting room. Doctor Fingal Flaherty O’Reilly was parked in one of the armchairs, pipe belching like a Pittsburgh steelworks chimney. He didn’t bother to turn to see who’d come in. “Well?”

I shrugged. “Sunny’s in the home. You were right.”

His big head nodded ponderously, acknowledging his rightness, but he said nothing.

I carried on. “If we can’t get him out of there, I think he’s going to die.”

O’Reilly half turned and waved towards the other chair. “Sit yourself down, my boy. God is in his heaven and all is right with the world.”

I started to argue but he interrupted. “Sunny should be on his way home now.”

“But …”

“No buts. I explained things to Mr. Bishop.”

The only word I can find to describe the smile on O’Reilly’s battered face is demoniacal. “You remember the lass we had to ship off to England a couple of months ago — piffy?”

“Piffy? Right. PFI, pregnant from Ireland.” I knew that the Ulster community had about as much tolerance for young women with child, but out of holy wedlock, as a mongoose for a cobra. These unfortunates had to be shipped out. “What about her?”

He blew a smoke ring at the ceiling and stabbed his pipe stem through the hole. “Mr. Bishop’s maid. I just explained to him that if the order wasn’t lifted, I might just have to have a word with Mrs. Bishop — tell her the real reason that the lassie had to visit her sick sister in Liverpool. That cooled him.” O’Reilly stood and started heading for the sideboard, remarking over his shoulder, “The last I saw of Bishop, he was on his way to the Town Hall, aye, and to the animal shelter.” He poured himself a stiff whiskey. “They don’t teach you young fellows medicine like that.”

Relieved as I was that Sunny’s troubles would soon be over, I thought I might just have a bit of a dig at the self-satisfied Doctor O’Reilly, he who reckoned that good G.P.s should be masters of all the branches of the healing arts.

“And what branch of the healing arts would you say you were practising?” I asked, guilelessly.

O’Reilly stopped in mid-pour, put one finger alongside his bent nose and said, as if to a not-too-bright child, “Social and Preventive Medicine, son. Social and Preventive.” 

Anatomy Lesson

February 13, 2012

The things you learn on a Dublin pub crawl

Originally published in In Stitches Magazine,  April 1996

Doctor O’Reilly was a keen sportsman. I think I’ve remarked previously that he was an ex-boxing champion. He’d also played a fair bit of rugby football in his youth. I found out about his interest in rugby one weekend in January. Ireland was to play Scotland at Landsdowne Road in Dublin. To my great pleasure, O’Reilly invited me to accompany him to the match. He would provide the transportation and tickets, and would pay for my hotel room on the night before the match.
The drive to Dublin was uneventful and we checked into the Gresham Hotel. I’d barely begun to unpack my bag when there was a knocking at my door. I opened it. There stood O’Reilly, grinning from ear to ear. “Do you fancy a jar?”
It is, I’m told, possible, just possible, for an entertainer to decline the Royal Command to appear at the London Palladium. It was not possible, not remotely possible, for anyone to turn down O’Reilly’s invitation for a drink.
“Right,” I said, with all the enthusiasm that must be evinced by the prisoner on death row when the chaplain sticks his head round the cell door. I’ll say one thing for convicted American murderers: the electric chair is reputed to be very fast. Their suffering is over quickly. I’d been with Doctor Fingal Flaherty O’Reilly in full cry on his home turf and had lived, barely, to regret it. What he might be like when he was truly off the leash didn’t bear thinking about. Oh well. My life insurance was paid up. “I’d love one. Where to?”
He winked, a great conspiratorial wink. “Usually the rugby crowd goes to Davy Byrne’s, but I thought we might take a wee wander to The Stag’s Head at the back of Grafton St.
“Do you know how to get there?” I asked, knowing that when O’Reilly was ready for his tot, depriving him of it for long could produce the same effects as poking an alligator in the eye with a blunt stick.
“Of course. Didn’t I go to medical school here, at Trinity College?”
That was something I hadn’t known. Those of us who were graduates of Queen’s University Belfast referred disdainfully to Trinity as “that veterinary college in Dublin.” It was unfair to a fine school, but there was a rivalry between Queen’s and the other place. The picture of the enraged alligator popped into my mind and I decided not to mention my lack of respect for his old Alma Mater. “Silly of me.” I said. “Lead on, Fingal.”
And away we went, just like the caissons, over hill over dale.
Now Dublin isn’t that big a city, it just seemed big after about two hours of walking. O’Reilly was becoming just a tad irritable if the pallor of his nose tip was anything to go by.
“Jasus,” he remarked, as we found ourselves at the end of yet another publess cul-de-sac, “I’d have sworn it was down here.”
I coughed. “Should we maybe ask directions?”
I imagine Capt. Oates would have received the same kind of look from Robert Scott that O’Reilly hurled at me if the gallant gentleman had asked the same question on the way back from the South Pole. Frosty — very frosty.
“Not at all,” O’Reilly countered, making an about-turn on the march and heading back towards the main thoroughfare. “I know this place like the back of my hand.”
I took little comfort from that statement. He had both hands in his trouser pockets.
Dusk was falling as we trudged along Grafton St. for the umpteenth time. O’Reilly was never one to admit defeat gracefully, but his internal drought, which by then was probably on a par with the drier reaches of the Sahara, finally got the better of him.
A grubby youth was washing a shop-front window or, to be more accurate, redistributing the streaks of city grime. O’Reilly tapped him on the shoulder. The youth turned.“My good man,” O’Reilly asked in the tones that he reserved for lesser mortals, “do you know where The Stag’s Head is?”
The Dubliner wasn’t one bit overawed, neither by O’Reilly’s size nor his overweening manner. He gave O’Reilly a pitying look and said with an absolutely straight face, “Do I know where The Stag’s Head is? Of course I do — it’s about six feet from its arse.”
I thought O’Reilly was going to explode, but instead he collapsed in peals of helpless laughter.
We did eventually find the pub in question. The irony was that just kitty-corner from it was another pub, The Vincent Van Gogh which, believe it or not, is known to the locals as The Stag’s Arse. The Dublin lad hadn’t even been trying to be funny.

Troubles at the Table

February 6, 2012

First published in In Stitches magazine, March 1996

O’Reilly expounds on the Great Wall of Ulster

Doctor Fingal Flaherty O’Reilly was rarely lost for an opinion, and not only on matters medical. Now it’s just possible that you’ve noticed during the last 25 years that there has been a touch of internecine unpleasantness going on in the North of Ireland. Although at this time of writing peace seems to have broken out over there, when I was working for O’Reilly there were nights when I began to wonder when they were going to issue the civil war with a number, like WW1 or WW2. Many great minds had done their collective best to try to come up with a solution. Alas, in vain.

After another huge bomb had remodelled another chunk of Belfast, I foolishly asked O’Reilly, over supper one evening, what he thought could be done about the Troubles.
He paused from disarticulating the roast fowl, stared at me over his half-moon spectacles and waved vaguely in my general direction with a slice of breast that was impaled on the carving fork. “Which troubles?

I toyed with my napkin, feeling a great urge to have bitten my tongue out — before I’d asked the question. It had been a busy day and Mrs. Kincaid’s roast chicken would have gone a long way to easing the hunger pangs. By the way O’Reilly had asked his question in reply, I could tell that he was ready to expound at some length, and I had a horrible suspicion that he might forget that he was meant to be carving.
“Come on, man.” He laid the fork and its toothsome burden back on the plate. “Which troubles?”
I sighed. Dinner, it seemed, was going to be late. “The Troubles. The civil war.”
He picked up the fork and expertly dislodged the slice of meat with the carving knife — dislodged it onto his own, already heaped plate. “Oh. Those troubles.”
No, Fingal. The outbreak of foot and mouth disease on Paddy Murnaghan’s farm, the civil war in Biafra, or the fact that you seem to have forgotten that locums, like gun dogs, need to be fed at least once a day. I kept my thoughts to myself. Captain Bligh and his few loyal crew members had rowed a long-boat about 2,000 miles to East Timor existing on one ship’s biscuit. Perhaps if I let O’Reilly expound for a while he might eventually see fit to toss me the odd crumb of nourishment.
A spoon disappeared into the nether end of the bird and re-appeared full of steaming sage and onion stuffing.
“Those troubles.” O’Reilly hesitated, trying to find room on his plate between the slices of breast and the roast potatoes before deciding to dump the stuffing at random on top of the pile. He replaced the spoon in the bird with the finesse of a proctologist. “Those troubles. I reckon there’s a pretty simple solution. Pass the gravy.”
I did so. “Fingal …” I tried, hoping at least to encourage him to start serving me as he held forth. Try interrupting the incoming tide in the Bay of Fundy.
“Simple. Now. You tell me: what are the three most pressing problems in Northern Ireland?” He ingested a forkful and masticated happily while waiting for my reply.
How about pellagra, scurvy, and beri-beri in underpaid, underfed junior doctors?
“Come om, come om …” His words were a little garbled. He swallowed. “Right, I’ll tell you. Unemployment, falling tourism, and the brave lads who like to make things go bang.”
I was drowning in my own saliva, watching him tuck in. He pointed at me with his fork. “The solution is a Great Wall of Ulster.”
“A what?”
“Great Wall of Ulster.” He pulled the half-carved chicken towards himself, stood, expertly dissected the remaining drumstick and laid three roast potatoes between the severed limb and the rest of the carcass. “Now look. The thigh there’s Ulster and the tatties are my wall.”
Brilliantly pictorial, I had to admit, but I really would have forgone this lesson in Political Science if a bit of his improvised Ulster or the rest of Ireland, if that was what the breast was meant to represent, could somehow have been transported to my still-empty plate.
“Now. Tourism. The tourists would come for miles to see the Great Wall.” He used the carving knife to line the tubers up more straightly. “The unemployed would have had to build it in the first place, of course.”
My unemployed stomach let go with a gurgle like the boiling mud pits of New Zealand.
“You’re excused,” said O’Reilly. “Finally,” — he squashed one of the potatoes with the spoon he’d used to help himself to stuffing — “the brave banging lads could blow it up to their hearts’ content and” — he paused and replaced the mashed spud with a fresh one —“the unemployed could be kept occupied rebuilding.” He sat beaming at me. “Told you it was simple.”
I hastened to agree, hoping that now he’d finished I might finally get something to eat.
The door opened and Mrs. Kincaid stuck her head into the dining room. “Can you come at once, Doctor Taylor? There’s been an accident.”

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