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.