Murphy’s Law

April 23, 2012

First published in In Stitches Magazine, October 1996


Doctor O’Reilly has the last laugh


I have characterized Doctor Fingal Flahertie O’Reilly as an ex-navy boxing champion, classical scholar, unregenerate poacher, bagpiper, souse, cryptophilanthropist, foul-mouthed bachelor and country G.P. This, I believe, is called a thumbnail sketch. There was nothing thumbnail-sized about O’Reilly, however, not his physical dimensions, not his personality and certainly not his ability to hold a grudge. He could, on occasion, be the perfectly balanced Irishman — a man with a chip on both shoulders.

Someone described revenge as a “dish best eaten cold.” For the life of me I cannot remember if it was that well-known Scots-Italian, Mac E. Avelli, or some other dead white male. No matter. O’Reilly had certainly heard of the concept but as usual had improved on it to suit his own requirements. In O’Reilly’s world, revenge wasn’t best eaten cold. It should be consumed deep-frozen, preferably at about absolute zero.

Job, it’s rumoured, was possessed of a modicum of patience, but when it came to waiting for just the right moment to deflate a swollen ego or right a perceived wrong, O’Reilly made Job look like a hyperactive child who’d been fed a sugar-enhanced diet and stimulated with an electric cattle prod.

I first became aware of this attribute when O’Reilly arrived home after making a house call. The barometer of his temper, his bent nose, was pallid from tip to bridge and his eyes flashed sparks. He helped himself to a rigid whiskey (stiff would have been an understatement) hurled himself into an armchair and snarled, “I’ll kill the bloody man!”

I tried to hide behind a copy of the British Medical Journal. King Kong tried the same thing on top of the Empire State Building. At least O’Reilly didn’t shoot at me.

“That *#@##** Doctor Murphy! He’s a menace.” O’Reilly inhaled his drink. “Put down that comic and listen.”

Hardly respectful of the organ of organized medicine in the U.K., but I felt, given O’Reilly’s *#@##*** mood — and please remember that I did describe him as “foul-mouthed” — it might be better to say nothing. Besides, I dearly wanted to know what Murphy had done to raise my colleague’s ire, temperature and, judging by the colour of O’Reilly’s naturally florid cheeks, blood pressure.

“Bah,” said O’Reilly.

“Humbug?” I inquired.

“Exactly,” he agreed, devouring yet more of the potent potable product of Paddy pot-still Distillery.

A modicum of colour was returning to O’Reilly’s schnozzle, so either the ethyl alcohol was having its recognized vasodilatory effect — probable — or O’Reilly was beginning to calm down — unlikely.

“That Murphy. I’ll get the &#@**. Do you know what he’s just done?” Definitely vasodilatation. “Do you remember Maggie O’Halloran?”

This was an easier question than its predecessor relating to Dr Murphy’s doings. The answer to the first question required second sight; for the latter, simple recall was all that was needed.

“Oh, yes, Fingal. The woman with the headaches two inches above her head. The one who thought she was pregnant with the second coming?”

“Exactly,” he said. “The silly old biddy decided to consult that well-known veterinarian, Doctor Murphy.”

Oops. I had a fair idea of what was coming next. Doctor Murphy and Doctor O’Reilly existed at opposite ends of the spectrum, not only of visible light but of electromagnetic waves not yet discovered by physical science. As O’Reilly was rough and ready, Murphy was devious. O’Reilly’s clothes tended to fit him where they touched and Murphy always dressed immaculately. O’Reilly would walk on hot coals for his patients; Murphy might venture onto ashes, but only in very stout, highly polished boots.

And O’Reilly had a soft spot for Maggie O’Halloran.

“Poor old duck,” he said, “Murphy told her she needed to see a psychiatrist.” He snorted like a warthog with severe sinusitis. “It took me two hours to calm her down.”

I knew he didn’t begrudge the two hours but did resent the trauma caused to a simple, if somewhat eccentric, woman.

“Oh dear,” I said and waited.

“Do you know what else he said to her?”

The second sight thing again. I shook my head. “He said, ‘Doctor O’Reilly should know better than to play God.’”

I maintained a diplomatic silence.

“Play God! Me? That bloody man doesn’t play at being God. Murphy works at it. Pour me another.”

I did as I was told, handed the glass to O’Reilly and tried to change the subject. “What did you think of the Irish rugby team’s showing last Saturday?”

His reply was unprintable. I began to suspect that it was entirely my fault that they’d been beaten by Scotland by a substantial margin, but at least I was able to get him off the subject of Doctor Murphy.


                                    <                                                          >


I forgot about the whole thing until about three months later. There was a meeting of the local medical society. Doctor Murphy was there, immaculate in a three-piece suit. As usual, he took a pontifical stance on most issues and on one occasion, in public, in front of our peers, admonished Doctor Fingal Flahertie O’Reilly about the dangers of doctors in general and O’Reilly in particular of playing God.

I’m told that the Manhattan Project scientists hid before they made a little bang at the Alamogordo test site. I looked round for the nearest bunker, but to my surprise O’Reilly said nothing. Absolutely nothing. A nuclear blast would have been preferable. Just imagine the feelings of Doctor Oppenheimer if the switch had been thrown, nothing had happened and it had been remarked that somebody really ought to nip outside and see what was the matter. Now what?

I found out just as we were about to leave.

Doctor Murphy had slipped into his overcoat but seemed to having some difficulty adjusting his shiny bowler hat.

“Bit of trouble with the hat, Murphy?” O’Reilly inquired, solicitously. “Not surprising, really.”

The rest of the company waited expectantly, all knowing full well the lack of brotherly love between the two men.

“And why not?” asked Murphy.

“Ah,” said O’Reilly. “It’s the playing God thing. A fellah’s head must hurt when he’s spent most of his life wearing a crown of thorns.”

The Biblical allusion wasn’t lost on those assembled. Poor old Doctor Murphy from that day was known locally as “Thorny Murphy,” to his great discomfort and O’Reilly’s great joy.

And Doctor Murphy never again accused Doctor O’ Reilly of playing God. 

Working As Equals

April 9, 2012

Originally published in In Stitches Magazine, September 1996


O’Reilly fails to mellow with time


From time to time after I’d emigrated to Canada, I would return to my roots in Ulster. When I did so, I’d always make a point of visiting my old friend Doctor Fingal Flahertie O’Reilly to see if he’d mellowed with time. The last time I dropped in to see him, in the early ’80s, he was still in harness.

When I called at the house. Mrs. Kincaid answered the door. She told me that for the last week Doctor O’Reilly had been dealing with a particularly rough ’flu epidemic. He’d been summoned the night before to see a little girl who was desperately ill with pneumonia. He’d simply loaded the parents and the child into his own car, driven the forty-odd miles to the Royal Victoria Hospital and then, because the parents had no phone, brought them back to his own home so they could receive regular progress reports. He was like that. He was very tired, she said, but she was sure he’d be glad to see me.

She knocked on the door. “Come in.” I’d have recognized those gravelly tones anywhere. She opened the door.  O’Reilly sat at his old roll-top desk. The heavy boxer’s shoulders were more bent, his complexion more florid. He was writing a prescription for a young woman. “Just a minute.” He didn’t look up. “Remember, Annie. One at breakfast time and one in the morning.”

“Thank you, Doctor O’Reilly.” The young woman left.

“Good God.” He saw me standing there. “You still alive?”

I could tell by the grin he was pleased to see me. He didn’t get up. He arched his back. “I’m buggered. Tell you what: you have a pew” — he motioned towards the examining table — “and I’ll finish the surgery.”

“Right, Fingal.” I went to the couch, remembering vividly that this was exactly how we’d started.

“We’ll have lunch at the Black Swan when I’ve finished stamping out disease,” he said, as Mrs. Kincaid ushered in the next supplicant.

I sat there quietly as he saw patient after patient, flu case after flu case. In the middle of the chaos, a well-dressed man in his early 40s entered the room and took a seat.

            “Good morning,” said O’Reilly, “What seems to be the trouble?”

            “Oh, I’m fine,” said the man, looking disdainfully at the shabby furnishings. “Perfectly fit.”

            O’Reilly’s bushy brows moved closer to each other, like two hairy caterpillars heading for a choice leaf. “I’m just a bit busy …”

            “My business will only take a moment. I’m new in this town.”

            The caterpillars reared their forequarters questioningly. O’Reilly said nothing.

            “Yes.” The man crossed one immaculately creased trouser leg over the other. “I’m interviewing healthcare providers.”

            O’Reilly leant forward in his own chair, head cocked to one side. “You’re looking for a what?” His question sounded so ingenuous he could have been addressing an American tourist who’d inquired where he might find a leprechaun.

The man shook his head and smiled a pitying smile, the kind he obviously kept for yokels like O’Reilly. “A healthcare provider. One who will be sensitive to my needs as a consumer.” He looked down his nose at O’Reilly’s rumpled tweed sports jacket. “One with whom I can work as an equal, defining and discussing my options, so that I can identify the optimal approach to a given problem.”

O’Reilly sat back. The black brows settled. I saw the tip of his nose begin to whiten, an ominous sign, but his rugged face wrinkled in a vast grin. “I doubt if I’m the man for the job.” He shook his head sadly.

The man sat stiffly. “And why’s that?”

O’Reilly ran his beefy hands along the lapels of his jacket, like a learned judge about to deliver his opinion, fixed the stranger with a stare that would have been the envy of any passing basilisk and said, in dulcet tones, “For one thing, I’m only a country doctor, not one of those healthcare what-do-you-ma-callums you were telling me about.” An edge had crept into his voice. Any one of O’Reilly’s regular patients would have found urgent business elsewhere. “And I don’t think we could work as equals.”

The stranger shifted in his chair. “And why not?”

“Because,” said O’Reilly, rising to his feet,” you’d be a very old man. You’d need six years of medical school, two years’ postgraduate work and 42 years in practice.”

The man rose, sniffed haughtily and said,” I don’t like your attitude.”

O’Reilly’s smile was beatific. “I was wrong. We are equals. I don’t like yours either.” He held the door open and waited for the man to leave.

Doctor Fingal Flahertie O’Reilly, I’m glad to say, definitely had not mellowed with time. 

A Pregnant Silence

April 2, 2012

First published in In Stitches Magazine, July/August 1996


Another lesson by Doctor O’Reilly, practical psychologist


Some therapeutic interventions simply do not appear in the textbooks.                             

            Regular readers will remember Maggie, she of the incessant complaints, the headache two inches above her head, the chronic backache. In her early fifties, she was what the ministers of the time when reading the banns would have referred to as a “spinster of this parish,” except that for Maggie the banns had never been called. She remained what the locals charitably described as “one of nature’s unclaimed treasures.”

Her trials and tribulations, and the way O’Reilly handled them, let him teach me a lesson in practical psychology, a lesson that I’ll be happy to pass on to anyone who has the fortitude to stick with this story to the bitter end.

(As an aside, “the bitter end” is the part of a ship’s anchor cable that’s attached to the vessel. This column isn’t called Taylor’s Twist, another nautical term, for nothing.)

“Pat, that one’s driving me bloody well daft,” said Doctor O’Reilly. We were walking along the main street. O’Reilly stopped and pointed with his blackthorn walking stick through the window of the local grocery store. Naturally, when he stopped, so did I.

“The grocer?” I asked, knowing full well that the source of O’Reilly’s impending descent into raving lunacy was entirely the fault of the other figure, visible through the pane.

“No. Maggie. Maggie MacCorkle.”

“Oh?” I wondered what was coming — Maggie had been visiting Doctor O’Reilly on a weekly basis for the last three months, and absolutely refused to see me.

“She’s convinced she’s pregnant.” As he spoke, O’Reilly tapped his temple with one thick index finger. “Nutty. Nutty as a fruit cake.” He sighed.

I confess her presenting symptoms caught me off-guard. Wishing to demonstrate my encyclopaedic grasp of the physiology of the reproductive process, I immediately wondered aloud, “Would she not have needed a bit of masculine help?”

O’Reilly shook his head ponderously. “She says that it’s another immaculate conception, and the responsibility is more than she can bear.”

I was beginning to see what he meant about Maggie’s resemblance to a filbert-filled Christmas confection. The troubled look on his face rapidly disabused me of any notion of making remarks about wise men and stars in the East.

“She’s a sorry old duck.” O’Reilly leant on his stick with one hand, jamming the knuckles of the other under his nose. “I’m damned if I can figure out how to persuade her she’s just going through the change of life.”

“Have you thought about getting her to see a psychiatrist?” I inquired helpfully.

O’Reilly shook his head. “Sure you know by now what these country folk are like about things like that.”

I did indeed. The last patient to whom I’d made such a suggestion had bristled like an aggrieved porcupine and stormed out of the surgery. I could imagine Maggie’s reaction.

“Anyway,” said O’Reilly, “she’s no danger to anyone or herself.” He produced a large handkerchief from his jacket pocket, buried his battered nose and made a noise like the RMS Queen Elizabeth undocking.

“If she tells one of our headshrinking colleagues that she’s the mother-to-be of the Second Coming, she’d be in the booby hatch as quick as a ferret down a rat hole.” He stuffed his ’kerchief back into his pocket. “She’d really lose her marbles in there. No. It’s just a matter of getting her to see that she’s not up the builder’s.”

Unable to make any useful suggestions, I began to ruminate about the quaint euphemisms of the day for pregnancy: up the spout, in the family way, up the builder’s, bun in the oven, poulticed.

It was clear from the way Fingal kept furrowing his brow that he was also at a loss for a solution and, knowing him as I’d come to, I could tell that he was worried.

Fate intervened.

As we stood there silently, Maggie bustled out of the grocer’s shop. She was carrying a brown paper bag, presumably her purchases. Her face split into a wide grin when she noticed Doctor O’Reilly and she began to hurry towards him. I could see that she’d failed to notice a young lad wheeling a bicycle.

The resultant collision wasn’t quite of the magnitude of the meteor that smacked into planet Earth and, it’s rumoured, put paid to the dinosaurs, but the fallout was dramatic.

The lad picked himself and his cycle up and rode off muttering some less than complimentary epithets about old bats who should watch where they were going. Maggie sat on the pavement, hair askew, legs wide under her voluminous skirt, surrounded by the wreckage of the contents of her parcel. A shattered ketchup bottle lay at the edge of a spreading scarlet puddle of its contents. Right in the middle of the crimson tide, the yolks and whites of two broken eggs peered malevolently upwards.

I saw a look flit across O’Reilly’s face, a look the like of which must have been there when Archimedes spilled his bath water. Fingal didn’t exactly yell, “Eureka,” but he’d clearly thought of something. He stepped over to where Maggie sat, knelt, put one solicitous hand on her shoulder, whipped out his hanky, dried her eyes, peered closely at the crimson clots and their ocular ova, and pronounced in sad, sombre, sonorous sentences, “There, there, Maggie. There, there. No need to grieve.” He looked up at me and winked. “It couldn’t have lived — its eyes were too close together.”

The relief on Maggie’s face could only have been matched by the joy of the old boy scout Baden-Powell when the British Army arrived at the outerworks of Mafeking.

Some therapeutic interventions simply do not appear in the textbooks. 


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