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.”
“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.”