free web
The Backroom by Edward Mc Whinney | Word Riot
Short Stories

October 15, 2010      

The Backroom by Edward Mc Whinney

An open door to a long corridor with metal-grey air. The December light holds an odour of dampness. He’s half asleep, in coffin position as opposed to foetal, mouth slightly ajar with a hand held in the air as if to test it. There is a weight on his chest which is the memory of a book or someone’s head. His daughter, Mimi, is dancing in the other room. She bought an old gramophone in the Coal Quay. The music adds a touch of cosmopolitan longing to his mood.

The night nurse rang at midnight to say that he had gone on hunger strike, would I speak to him? I heard his voice strong and clear. It’s my decision, it’s my way of getting out of here. Then he said; When coming over tomorrow would I bring one of his little purses with the coins in it, pounds, shillings and pence. I shouted for Mimi but she was preoccupied by frozen pipes. We have no water, she said. She’d also got a shock from the gramophone, the bloody thing was live. She turned off the electricity while rewiring it. Everything at a standstill, running water, electrical current. I gave into insomnia, rummaging in drawers for the purse with silver coins, walking around the house, eerier silence without the buzz of water in pipes. In the hallway I tripped over the stepladder she’d used to reach the electric mains and while trying to avoid a plant she had bought that day, tumbled heavily into the radiator making such a racket that brought her to the top of the stairs. It sounds like an earthquake, she said, is the house collapsing around us?

The following day I drove to the hospital with the leather purse in my inside pocket. I walked over the bridge with the South Link road beneath. I took the elevator to the first floor, pushed through heavy doors, walked down the linoleum covered boards into the ward.

He was asleep. A nurse approached and said that after the conversation at mid-night he had taken tea and toast. She said that it was quite normal to go on hunger strike at this stage but that he had seemed more determined than most. She wanted to know what I said to him? He did most of the talking, I said. She said that he’d been telling her his life-story, extraordinary events. They should make a film about him. She had lovely aquamarine eyes. And who do you think would play the part of yourself in your film, I asked? She twinkled her eyes at me.

I sat by the bedside waiting to share twenty minutes of his twenty four hours. In the window frame – even though it was mid-day – I saw the moon spinning around like a top. A cat stepped along on a rooftop below.

They asked me to read the eulogy at his funeral. But he’s not dead yet, I said. It has to be done, they said. For a moment I saw myself standing on an altar. The listening congregation sat very still. I can’t, I said. I can’t do it. The cat looked up at the moon. I can’t do this. When they repeated that it had to be done I shook my head.

My neighbour on the left believes that the soul transmigrates into the body of an insect. He hails from Central America. My neighbour on the right is from Ballydehob and he believes in something else entirely, he believes in Heaven where eternal life will be found as a reward for being here in the first place, minding the mother-in-law who unfortunately has moved in with them. He says unfortunately only in the way a man from West Cork could do it. Ballydehob, he says, how beautiful, the street winding up to the Woodcock. That’s my idea of heaven. .

He woke and asked for a drink. I tried to keep his hand steady as he raised a plastic cup of Seven Up to his mouth. He sipped the bitter sweet liquid, eyes popping with the effort of swallowing two drops. They pulled the curtains around the fellow in the next bed and sent for the priest. In the bed opposite a decrepit head on a stalk held up by a stack of pillows spoke in a querulous voice; I hope he makes it this time, the fecker. He was sucking an orange. His beady eyes were wild.

How’s Mimi? he asked. She’s fine, I said. She got an electric shock from the gramophone. Did she? Is she alright? She’s fine. I’d be lost without her. The water pipes froze. She had to turn off the mains. Did you bring the purse, he asked? Yes, here it is, why do you want it? I want to have a few bob to give the children when they call. It’s Christmas already, I can’t believe it. But tell me more about Mimi. She was dancing outside in the other room, I began, but he dozed off again.

The nurse returned and in reference to an album of photos Mimi had brought to the hospital, said; Isn’t it amazing how family resemblance is passed on? Even two generations later you suddenly turn out the spitting image of your great grandmother. Our eyes are the conduits of illusion, I muttered. What? And then she asked me what it was I did? I told her I’d been an actor for many years. How do actors do it, I often wonder? I mean how do you possibly remember the part of Hamlet, how do you memorise every, single line? When I was a child I was beaten for not knowing my poem. I couldn’t even learn a sonnet. She went on to express her admiration for Dr. Jones. He’s a genius, she said. I know that, I said.

The elevator presented a mystery. Pressing number 1 brings you to the second floor. Pressing 0 brings you to the ground floor. At the front door a hall porter greeted me as I braced myself to return to the frozen world. I ignored him for a moment then before departing said; I can’t figure that elevator out. You push 1 to get to the second floor and yet 0 gets you to the ground floor. He said remember I told you about my bad luck in Dundalk the other night, the photo finish, well all losses recouped yesterday, a 10/1 winner in Killarney.

Outside the accident and emergency there was a drunken girl being subdued by security men. Her coarse voice bleated out ridiculous obscenities. A medical student in a white coat and lovely, long, black hair shining beautifully in icy air, knee-length brown boots with furry inners, fur overflowing onto the knee, tripped towards the pathology building with a carton of blood or maybe urine. Even there in the hospital car park, there were cars stacked up to the roof with Christmas presents.

I left the car and took a walk downtown. Sometimes the world comes at me like a shark out of the water, ready to snap my head off. Every man has a purpose, every man’s death has a reason but I couldn’t see it for fear of the shark’s teeth. Sometimes the world comes at me like a blowtorch. Everything that happens, happens, and for fear of the blowtorch I can’t see reasons. Nothing is important I say to myself with no conviction at all. I crossed a square with a glance up at high buildings with clocks and advertising. I wondered what it would be like to levitate and rise up towards the stars? I wanted to go up there and find answers. A favourite catch phrase of his captured his cosmic awareness; We only live for a second. I touched the purse still in the inside pocket. I felt the coins. They were useless now. They wouldn’t buy a coffee. I felt a sensation of pain in my left foot as I swung it to clear the pigeons out of my way, heads nodding towards the dirt, beady eyes, beaks pecking at nothing, insouciant cooing sound, trapped in black and white feathers, harmless yet annoying.

I walked along the quays by the river. A freezing mist shrouded the weir. I turned over Parliament Bridge onto The Mall. I felt like crying above the beat of music from bars and clubs. I paused outside the G.P.O. The air was heavy with ghosts whose history rose quietly out of the frozen stone. They were like silver lights flashing without meaning we could decipher. I kept an eye on their movements like a child watching electronic gadgets running in a shop window; a black Marklin steam engine, Scalextrix racing cars, a bear with a telescope in a hot air balloon, descending, ascending, a techni-coloured ferris wheel and a miniature circus big top illuminated from inside. The child’s mind is impressed forever as the pulse of life throbs with abandon around him.

By the time I got back to the car I was very tired. Both my legs ached. I looked up at the windows and thought of him in there, then I got in the car and drove. The pure cold light of the night sky troubled my animal blood.

About the author:

Edward Mc Whinney lives in Cork, Ireland, with his wife and son. He has stories published online, most recently in Contrary Magazine where there is an index of his work. He also features in Word Riot, Juked, Fiction on the Web and Spilling Ink.

    2 comments to The Backroom by Edward Mc Whinney

    • Annam

      This is so ripe with feeling and imagery, I found myself lost in the words. Thank you.

    • Sad and lovely. Sometimes just being there is enough. Favorite lines: Our eyes are the conduits of illusion… and…a decrepit head on a stalk… I especially like the way you leave it open with the old man still alive–the torture goes on and on–although come to think of it, you never said he was old. And the crazy girl cursing, just adds to the eeriness of a hospital; they are the same all over the world. Why though, I wonder, did you make the outside world colder than the hospital??

    Leave a Reply

    You can use these HTML tags

    <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>




    Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.