May 30, 2012
First published in In Stitches magazine February 1997
“Doctor Gangrene” is no match for the rural G.P.
‘You’d think I’d know my way about up here,” said Doctor Fingal Flahertie O’Reilly, looking puzzled as he stood in the middle of the long echoing corridor of the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast.
I’d bumped into him on my way to the X-ray department from the ward where I was working. If you remember, I was employed as a registrar at the Royal, my day job so to speak, my other source of revenue and a smattering of post-graduate training, when I wasn’t functioning as O’Reilly’s part-time locum.
I had a moment of smugness. I did know my way about. Not surprising really, I worked in the place. But O’Reilly hadn’t specifically asked for directions. He’d simply made a slightly self-deprecatory statement, “You’d think I’d know my way about up here.”
The smug feeling passed. The burning question was, what was I going to do? Offering unsolicited advice to Doctor O could provoke a minor seismic event. Neglecting to give the necessary directions, and perhaps allowing him to make an idiot of himself, could result in a major tectonic shift with all the resultant unpleasant fallout — usually on me.
It’s a fundamental law of politics and diplomacy that when one is faced with two equally unpalatable options — prevaricate.
“How long has it been since you worked here?” I asked.
“Perhaps they’ve moved the ward you’re looking for?”
He scratched his head. “Do you think so? I just popped in to see one of my customers who was admitted here last night.”
“Rubbish. Nothing possible about it.”
“But, Fingal, the administrators do it, you know.”
“Admit my patients?”
“No. Move wards.”
I felt relieved. He and I had nearly set off on another of our tortuous verbal peregrinations and to be honest I was a bit pushed for time. I was supposed to be assisting the senior gynaecologist Sir Gervaise Grant, a man who was obsessional about time. Lord help any assistant who was late in the operating room.
Sir Gervaise was renowned for the speed with which he could perform vaginal hysterectomies. “Watch me like a hawk,” he would instruct his assistant, the knife flashing, scissors snipping, ligatures going on like trusses in a turkey-plucking factory.
O’Reilly was saying something but I’m afraid I wasn’t paying attention. Coming down the hall, white coat flying, minions scurrying in pursuit, was Sir Gervaise himself. I had to get away from O’Reilly.
“Good God,” he boomed, in a voice that echoed from the tiled walls, “there’s ‘Green Fingers’ Grant.”
The “Green Fingers” soubriquet referred to the fact that Sir Gervaise’s wound infection rate was triple that of anyone else. But while he might be called “Green Fingers” behind his back, it was a braver man than I who would call him that to his granite-jawed, bristling, silver-mustachioed face. And judging by the scowl on Sir G’s countenance — the sort that Medusa reserved for those passing Argonauts she really wanted to fix — he’d overheard O’Reilly’s remark.
I closed my eyes and adopted the hunch-shouldered crouch favoured by bomb-disposal experts when something unexpectedly goes “Tick.”
“To whom are you alluding, O’Reilly?” Sir Gervaise’s treacly voice held all the warmth of a Winnipeg winter.
I opened one eye.
O’Reilly stood his ground, legs apart, chin tucked in. I could see his meaty fists starting to clench and remembered that the man had been a Royal Navy boxing champion. If a bell rang anywhere in those hallowed halls of healing, Doctor O was going to come out swinging. One wallop would have rearranged Sir Gervaise’s immaculately coiffed hair, his nose and his teeth as far back as his molars.
The two men stood scowling at each other like a pair of Rotweilers who’ve met suddenly and unexpectedly over a raw steak.
Discretion is the better part of valour. I knew that I should have found some excuse to slink away, but some idiotic impulse led me to step between the two and say, “Excuse me, Sir Gervaise, but I think we’re going to be late.”
The great man looked at me with all the condescension of Louis XIV for a grovelling peasant. “Indeed, Taylor. I don’t believe I sought your opinion. Indeed when I do want it, I’ll tell you what it is.”
Oh, Lord. I wished I had the tortoise’s ability to tuck its head into its carapace.
“Still. We can’t be late. Can’t be late. Don’t have time to waste on underqualified country quacks.” He strode off, courtiers following in his wake with me bringing up the rear.
To my surprise, the eruption I’d been expecting from Doctor O’Reilly failed to materialize. All I heard him say to our departing backs was, “And good day to you too, Sir Gangrene.”
As we sped down the corridor it began to dawn on me why O’Reilly didn’t think highly of Sir Gervaise. I remembered the case quite vividly. The man with the Mach 1 scalpel had whipped her uterus out in something under 15 minutes. Surgical time, that was. The victim took three months to recover from her post-operative abscess. And she’d been one of O’Reilly’s patients.
Sir Gervaise seemed to have regained his icy equilibrium as we stood side by side scrubbing for the impending surgery. I wondered if he had any idea what he might have wrought. Recall how Fingal Flahertie O’Reilly lay in wait for Doctor “Thorny” Murphy. I could still hear the words, “Underqualified country quack,” and picture the malevolence under O’Reilly’s grin as he bade Sir Gervaise, “Good day.”
When I was a boy I used to delight in a firecracker called a Thunderbomb. The instructions on the side read, “Light blue touchpaper and retire immediately.” Whether he knew it or not, Sir G had lit O’Reilly’s touchpaper. There was a phone message waiting for me when I left the theatre. Would Doctor Taylor please report to the Pathology Department and see Prof. Callaghan?
I imagine an altar boy would feel much as I did had he been summoned unexpectedly by the Pope. Awe, fear and trembling. Prof. Callaghan was the dean of the faculty and, in the eyes of us junior doctors, outranked the Pope. There was even some suspicion that he outranked God.
I ran to his office and knocked on the door.
Oh, Lord. I opened the door and to my surprise saw his exalted magnificence sitting at his desk, head bowed over a piece of paper which also seemed to be fascinating none other than Doctor Fingal Flahertie O’Reilly.
“That should do it, Fingal.”
Snotty! Snotty? O’Reilly’s familiarity was on a par with that of the young American naval officer who, at some embassy function, asked Queen Elizabeth II, Fid. Def., Ind. Imp., “How’s your mum?”
“Ah, Taylor.” O’Reilly took the piece of paper from Prof. Callaghan. “You know my old classmate, Prof. Callaghan?”
I nodded. Yes, and I was on first-name terms with President Nixon and the British Prime Minister too.
“He and I played rugby together. He’s just done me a little favour.” O’Reilly rose. “We won’t detain you any longer, Snotty.”
“My pleasure, Fingal.”
I felt a bit like the Emperor’s new clothes: not there, as far as Prof. Callaghan was concerned.
“Now,” said O’Reilly, “let’s get a cup of tea.”
He headed for the cafeteria with the unerring accuracy of a Nike missile, and this was the man who’d started today by remarking, “You’d think I’d know my way about up here.”
He refused to show me the paper until we were seated, teacups on the plastic tabletop. “Here,” he said, “take a look at this.”
I could see immediately that it was a copy of a pathology report form. Three pages of detailed description of a uterus that had been removed by — I flipped back to the first page — Sir Gervaise Grant. The sting was in the tail. Just one line which read, “The specimen of ureter submitted showed no abnormalities.”
Dear God. The complication most feared by gynaecological surgeons. Damage to the tube that carried urine from the kidney to the baldder. “Is it true?” I asked in a whisper.
O’Reilly guffawed then said, “Not at all, but it should give old ‘Green Fingers’ pause for thought, possibly a cardiac arrest when he reads it, before he realises that the patient is fine and the report must be wrong,” said O’Reilly. He sipped his tea. “Decent chap, Snotty Callaghan, to fudge the report. He can’t stand Sir Gangrene either.”
He smiled beatifically. “And you thought I didn’t know my round up here.”
May 24, 2012
First published in In Stitches magazine, January 1997
O’Reilly exacts a heavy price
‘Aye,” said Doctor Fingal Flahertie O’Reilly, helping himself to a liberal dollop of horseradish dressing, “old Basket’s a decent enough chap for a Presbyterian minister.” Fingal was continuing the conversation that had begun upstairs, a conversation that had been interrupted by Mrs. Kincaid’s summons to Sunday dinner. I watched in awe as he spread the white concoction over a slice of roast beef prior to transferring the morsel to his mouth.
The horse in Mrs. Kincaid’s horseradish was not a Shetland pony. It tended more to the Clydesdale: big, muscular and very, very strong. Strong enough to have stripped paint. I’d been foolish enough to try it once before. I think it took about three weeks for the mucous membrane inside my mouth to regenerate. I watched O’Reilly’s happy mastication, expecting steam to appear from his ears. For all the apparent effect, he might as well have been eating ice cream.
“Here,” he said, spreading some of the incendiary condiment on my beef, “spice yours up a bit, young fellow.”
I smiled weakly and settled for a piece of Yorkshire pudding.
“Aye,” said O’Reilly, “Basket’s not a bit like his assistant. That McWheezle. That man has a smile like last year’s rhubarb. Mrs. Kincaid reckons that anyone who reared him would drown nothing.”
I thought it fair to surmise that Doctor O. didn’t exactly hold the Rev. Angus McWheezle in high regard.
“Pass the gravy.”
I complied, nibbling on a roast potato and avoiding the 50-megaton meat.
“Not one of your favourite people, Fingal?”
“Him? He’s a sanctimonious, mean-spirited, mealy-mouthed, narrow-minded, hypocritical, Bible-thumping little toad. That man has as much Christian charity in him as Vlad the Impaler.” O’Reilly harrumphed and attacked another slice of beef. “Bah.”
“So you don’t like him very much?” Sometimes my powers of observation astounded even me.
“How could anyone like a man like that? Do you know what he used to do?”
I hoped the question was rhetorical. I think I’ve remarked previously that O’Reilly seemed to think I was blessed with some kind of extra-sensory perceptive powers. I simply munched on another piece of Yorkshire pudding and shook my head, both to signify that indeed I didn’t know what the Rev. Angus McWheezle had done to draw O’Reilly’s ire and to distract him while I tried to hide the horseradish-beef time-bomb under a small pile of broccoli.
“Do you know” — I continued to shake my head — “that if there were an Olympic event for smugness and self-satisfaction, the man could represent Ireland?” O’Reilly helped himself to another roast potato. “But I fixed the bugger.”
“Aye. You remember I told you how Mr. Basket used to preach against the sins of the flesh?”
“Well, McWheezle went one better. He used to hound unmarried women who’d fallen pregnant. Humiliate them from his pulpit. Name them. That little @#$&*! didn’t think that their being pregnant out of wedlock was hurt enough.”
O’Reilly’s florid cheeks positively glowed — and it wasn’t the horseradish. It was his genuine concern for the feelings of his patients, most of whom would have had to leave the village, such was their disgrace.
“I see what you mean.”
“Right. I asked him to stop, but he refused.” O’Reilly paused from his gustatory endeavours, laid his knife and fork aside for a moment, folded his arms on the table top, leant forward and said, “But I stopped him anyway.”
O’Reilly chuckled, in much the same way that I imagine Beëlzebub must chortle when a fresh sinner arrives on the griddle. I couldn’t prevent a small, involuntary shudder.
“Ah,” he said, “pride cometh … McWheezle showed up in the surgery one day.
“‘It’s a very private matter,’ says he.
“‘Oh?’ says I.
“‘Yes,’ says he. ‘I seem to have caught a cold on my gentiles.’
“Threw me for a moment, that. ‘Your gentiles?’ says I.
“He waved a limp hand toward his trouser front.
“‘Aha,’ says I. ‘A cold on your genitals.’
“‘Let’s have a look.’”
O’Reilly’s chuckle moved from the Beëlzebubbian to the Satanic.
I knew what was coming next. I knew the story had done the rounds of every medical school in the world, and yet Fingal Flahertie O’Reilly was the most honest man I’ve ever met. If he said what I thought he was going to say had actually happened, I’d believe him.
“Mr. Wheezle unzips. He has the biggest syphillitic chancre on his ‘gentiles’ that I’ve ever seen.
“‘It’s a bad cold right enough,’ says I, handing him a hanky. ‘See if you can blow it.’”
O’Reilly picked up his knife and fork. “Good thing we had penicillin. Poor old McW. was so terrified that I wrung a promise out of him there and then to leave the wee pregnant girls alone.” Fingal O’Reilly started to eat. “Tuck in,” he ordered.
I was still chuckling at his tale when I suddenly realized that I’d just filled my mouth with enough of Mrs. Kincaid’s horseradish sauce to start the second great fire of London.
O’Reilly must have noticed the tears pouring from my eyes. It’s hard to miss something with the flow rate of the Horseshoe Falls.
“Ah, come on now, Pat,” he said solicitously. “It’s a funny story — but it’s not that funny.”
May 15, 2012
First Published in In Stitches Magazine, December 1996
How the minister learned about sex
In today’s egalitarian society it may be hard to believe that once upon a time some members of a community were held in greater respect than the rest of the common herd. In rural Ulster the possession of a higher education was thought to confer exalted status. The pecking order among the upper echelons wasn’t always clear, but it was fair to say that the local teachers, physicians and men of the cloth were somewhere at the top of the heap.
In his own eyes at least, Doctor Fingal Flahertie O’Reilly, stood at the apex. Mind you, the challengers for top spot were a motley crew.
Mr. Featherstonehaugh, the teacher, besides having a name that could strangle a pig, was as tall and skinny as a yard of pump water and suffered from what was known charitably as a “terrible strong weakness.” (Which is to say that any pupil foolish enough to come within two feet of Mr. F. was at some danger of suffering skin burns from the whiskey fumes of the permanently pissed pedagogue’s pulmonary products.)
Father Fitzmurphy was a quiet man who’d taken his vows of humility so seriously that his presence was scarcely noticed. Compared to Father Fitz., Uriah Heep would have looked like a blatant self-promoter.
On the other side of the sectarian divide, the Presbyterian Church was represented by a senior and a junior minister. The senior minister, Rev. Manton Basket, was middle-aged and very tall across, an allusion to the fact that he was in no danger of being suspected of suffering from any form of anorexia. The junior, Mr. Angus McWheezle, was of Scottish descent. Actually he hadn’t so much descended as plummeted — the kind of man who would have given Charles Darwin some very difficult times wondering if he hadn’t got things quite right and perhaps the apes were in fact offspring of the clan McWheezle.
O’Reilly, while nominally of the Protestant persuasion, could not have been described as devout. Well, he could, but it would have been like attributing feelings of piety and love for all mankind to that well-known philanthropist, A. Hitler. Business, however, was business, and O’Reilly did attend morning services on Sundays if only to try to persuade his potential customers that he was a worthy physician.
You may well wonder why I’m telling you all this. Bear with me. O’Reilly’s relationships with both of the Presbyterian ministers are worth the relating.
“Good to see you, Doctors.” Rev. Manton Basket beamed at O’Reilly and me over his chins as he stood outside the church door greeting the departing members of his flock. He had a paternal arm draped over the shoulder of his eldest son, a spherical boy of about 12. The rest of the tribe, all five of them, were lined up in a row, tallest on the right, shortest on the left, like a set of those chubby Russian dolls.
O’Reilly nodded as he passed the Baskets. “Powerful sermon, your reverence,” he said, but he kept hurrying on. I was well aware that he found old Basket dry and, as you know, Fingal Flahertie O’Reilly’s preferences tended more to the wet — the wet that even now was waiting for him in the upstairs sitting room over the surgery.
“You should have heard his sermons when he came here first,” O’Reilly said to me. “I’ll tell you all about them when we get home.”
I had to lengthen my stride to keep up with O’Reilly, who moved from a walk to a canter to practically a full-blown gallop as he neared the source of his sustenance. He relaxed once he was ensconced in his favourite armchair, briar belching, fist clutching a glass of what he’d referred to as his communion wine.
“Where was I?”
I settled into the chair opposite and prepared for another of O’Reilly’s reminiscences.
“When?” I asked.
“Not ‘when,’ ‘where.’”
“Not ’what,’ not ‘when’ … where.”
“No,” I said, feeling the inexorable tug of yet another of those moments with O’Reilly when the circuitousness of the conversation began to feel like the Maelstrom. I knew how old Capt. Nemo must have felt as the Nautilus sank lower and lower. “I meant what did you mean when you asked, ‘Where?’”
“Silly question.” He exhaled in his best Puff the Magic Dragon fashion. “I should have asked, ’Who?’”
“When?” It just slipped out.
“Don’t you start.”
Fortunately he was in one of his expansive moods. He laughed and handed me his empty glass. “Who do you think Manton was?”
“Why?” The sight of the tip of O’Reilly’s nose beginning to pale pulled me up short. I refilled his glass and waited.
“Manton was a minor prophet.” He accepted the tumbler. “That’s who his reverence is named after.”
I admit I was pleased to be so informed. It was a name I’d never heard before.
“Came from a very strict family. That’s why you should have heard his sermons when he first came here.”
“Fire and brimstone?”
“And how.” O’Reilly chuckled. “You could have felt the spits of him five pews back.” O’Reilly sipped his drink. “He’s a decent man, Manton Basket. Unworldly, of course.”
I was about to ask what that meant when O’Reilly continued. “When he first came here he put an awful amount of effort into denouncing the sins of the flesh.”
“Including gluttony?” I inquired, thinking of Dumbo, Jumbo and the Rev. Manton Basket.
“No. Just the sexual kind.” O’Reilly made a sucking noise through his pipe. The gurgling was like the sound of the run-off through a partially clogged bath-drain. “Pity was, he hadn’t a clue what he was talking about.”
O’Reilly rose and stretched and ambled to the big bay window. “Aye. He’d been here about two years when he came to see me professionally. Seemed he and the wife couldn’t get pregnant.” O’Reilly turned away from the view of Belfast Lough. “Bit tricky asking a man of the cloth about his procreative efforts. Even worse, his sermon the week before had been about the sin of Onan.”
“Yeah. The bloke who spilled his seed on the ground and got clobbered by a thunderbolt for his pains.”
The “bit tricky” became clearer.
“Fingal, how did you persuade Rev. Basket to provide a sperm sample? Bottle in one hand, lightning conductor in the other?”
“Didn’t have to.” O’Reilly looked smug. “That’s the advantage of a bit of local knowledge. I just asked him to describe exactly what he and his wife did.”
“Every night for two years they’d knelt together by the bed and prayed for offspring.”
“That was all?”
“Aye. I had to put his stumbling feet on the paths of righteousness, so to speak.”
“Good Lord. How did he take that?”
O’Reilly chuckled. “Frostily. Very frostily at first.”
I had a quick mental picture of the six little Baskets.
“Ice must have thawed a bit when he got home.”
“And he was a big enough man to thank me. He is a decent man.” A cloud passed over O’Reilly’s sunny countenance. “Not like that weasel McWheezle.”
“The assistant minister?”
Before O’Reilly could reply, Mrs. Kincaid stuck her head round the door. “Dinner’s ready, Doctors.”
“Come on,” said O’Reilly, “Grub. I’ll tell you about McWheezle over dinner.”
To be continued.
May 7, 2012
First published in In Stitches Magazine, November 1996
O’Reilly’s near-death experience
I was surprised one day when, after evening “surgery,” I retired to the upstairs sitting room to find my senior colleague, Doctor Fingal Flahertie O’Reilly, sitting in his usual armchair sipping what appeared to be a gin and tonic rather than his usually preferred whiskey. He ignored my entrance and my polite inquiry about whether he’d like me to refurbish his drink.
Do remember that such suggestions were usually greeted with the enthusiasm towards an impending monsoon of those peculiar toads that live in states of total dehydration in certain deserts, only coming to full animation when the rains appear.
“Sure?” I said, helping myself to a very small sherry.
“No,” he replied lugubriously, pulling out his old briar and stoking the infernal device until the smoke clouds gave a fair impression of the aftereffects of the combined weight of the attentions of the RAF and the USAAF on the hapless town of Dresden.
“No/yes or no/no?” I said brightly.
“What are you on about, Taylor?”
As far as I could tell through the industrial haze, his nose wasn’t pallid, yet his use of my surname was an indicator of his general state of displeasure. Foolishly, I ploughed on.
“Er, no you’re not sure you don’t want another, which is a way of saying yes you do, because if you had been sure that you wanted no more to drink your answer should have been yes and …”
“Sit down,” he said, “and shut up.”
Which actually seemed like a very sensible thing to do. I sat and said, self-effacingly, “Right. First law of holes: when you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.”
The thought struck me as, if not original, at least comical.
“How,” he said peering over his half-moon spectacles, “did you know?”
“How did I know about what?”
“The hole, you idiot.”
“I read it somewhere,” I confessed.
He grunted. “Couldn’t have. It only happened last night.”
I was becoming confused. Truth to tell, my being in a fuddled state around O’Reilly was closer to the norm than his drinking gin and tonic. I felt a sense of relief, the kind of feeling that comes with knowing that God is indeed in His Heaven and all is right with the world.
“And,” he said, “no one knows about it except Seamus Galvin and me.”
My confusion was now as dense as the tobacco fog that surrounded us.
O’Reilly sighed heavily. “Would you like to hear my side?”
It almost seemed a shame to be enlightened. “Please.”
He gestured with the glass in his hand. “I’ll have to give it up.”
Enlightenment was going to be some time coming. I’d thought we were discussing holes. “Digging holes?”
“No.” He shuddered like a wounded water buffalo. “The drink.”
Oops. I thought for a moment that I was having an auditory hallucination. Fingal O’Reilly? Give up the drink?
“All because of the hole, you see.”
“Of course,” I said. They’d taught us in psychiatry to humour certain types of raving lunatics. I saw not at all but had no intention of enraging O’Reilly.
He pointed at his glass. “Just tonic water,” he said in tones that would have done a professional mourner great credit. “Bloody Galvin,” he added, and lapsed into silence.
Tonic water. Holes. Galvin. I had some difficulty seeing any logical connection. Then I remembered. Seamus Galvin and his wife Mary were the ones who were going to emigrate because O’Reilly had restored their family fortunes by clandestinely purchasing a garage full of rocking ducks.
The Galvins were leaving tomorrow and last night there had been a send-off at the “Mucky Duck.” I’d missed it because of a long confinement in an outlying cottage, but O’Reilly had attended. Something Fingal had said earlier came back to me: “It only happened last night.” Now, Galvin’s party was last night and something concerning a hole had happened, something sufficiently catastrophic as to make O’Reilly decide to take the pledge. I was beginning to feel I merely needed a magnifying glass and a deerstalker to be able to change my name to Sherlock. I might even ask Fingal if I could borrow his pipe. Only one question. What was the “something”?
O’Reilly’s rumbling interrupted my attempt to reason things out. “Should never have let Galvin leave by himself.”
So it was at the party.
“I should never have taken a short cut through the churchyard, but it was pouring, you see.” He peered over his spectacles.
“Quite,” I said solicitously.
O’Reilly took a deep swallow of his tonic water and regarded the glass with a look of total disgust before fixing me with a stony glare and saying, “No harm telling you, seeing you already know.”
I merely nodded.
“I fell into a freshly dug grave.”
The — or more accurately, my — mind boggled.
“I couldn’t get out. It was raining, you see,” he said by way of an explanation. His nose tip was now becoming pallid.
I seem to remember that when stout Horatio made it across the foaming Tiber, his enemies ”could scarce forbear to cheer.” Being attached to my teeth I felt that despite the mental image of O’Reilly scrabbling like a demented hamster against the slick sides of a muddy six-foot hole, I definitely should forbear to laugh.“Oh dear.”
“Yes,” he said aggrievedly. “Bloody Galvin. How was I to know he’d fallen into the same grave? It was black as half a yard up a chimney down there. And cold. What was I to do?”
“Stop digging? First law of holes,” I said.
“Don’t be so bloody silly. I huddled against a corner and like an eejit said aloud to myself, ‘Fingal Flahertie O’Reilly, you’re not going to get out of here tonight.’ Galvin, who must have been lurking in another corner, tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘By God you won’t.’ But …,” O’Reilly shrugged, “by God, I did.”
“Must have given you an awful shock,” I remarked, wandering over to the sideboard and pouring a stiff Paddy.
“It did. Oh indeed it did. Got the strength of ten men.”
I handed him the glass. “I believe shock can be treated with spirits.”
“Are you sure?” he asked, swallowing a large measure, “and none of your no/yes, no/no rubbish.”
O’Reilly’s near-death experience