It is the early hours in the casualty X-ray room of the Mater Hospital, Dublin, the mid-’80s. The consultants have been forced in from their comfortable suburban homes to man the on-call barricades while the junior doctors are on strike.
One consultant sweeps in, white coat billowing, to the Dark Room where I sit with my legs up on another chair, reading Part Two of the Penguin Classics’ Remembrance of Things Past. I jump up, embarrassed. He is bored or has forgotten what he came to ask because he picks up my enormous volume, examines it front and back. He leafs through the pages, he wants to say something but can’t find the words. He settles for, “You’re an A-type personality like me!” I’ve never heard of such a thing. I’ve never been praised for my personality or told I was an A in anything. I thank God there are no witnesses to laugh at us because that is something I am familiar with.
I was a 25-year-old reluctant radiographer, planning an English degree, working my way through the Penguin classics in Fred Hanna’s bookshop. I couldn’t even explain to myself why I loved Proust. Half the time I was bored but then one or more labyrinthine sentences would add up to something personally electrifying. The way he skewered characters was radical –true and funny. I’d never seen these kind of thoughts written down but I knew them. His obsessiveness, fetishisation of objects and art spoke to me. He didn’t seem to suffer from embarrassment and he helped me with mine.
Drawn by Proust’s examination of time and memory, I wanted to dive down into memory too. He made me want to write. What was my madeleine? I decided on cream crackers buttered with Blue Band margarine (popular in the ’70s when butter was “bad for the heart”). I enjoyed pressing them, watching the squiggles of margarine emerge from the tiny holes like when I was a child. But when I ate my buttered cracker, no “Combray” sprang up like a Japanese paper flower garden in my mind. Involuntary memory is just that – involuntary. It calls you. It decides the time and place. Lately, my feet have been portals to the past, especially my X-ray days:
Chopping the stitches with the side of his hand, he took out the heart and massaged
it in front of me while I heaved in my forbidden open-toe sandals. I'd stopped wearing shoes
after my first 24 hours on call in Cork Regional. They rang from Casualty, RTA –
get up out of that quick! the porter who knew the whole of the Yangtze River menu by heart
shouted there were two stretchers coming up from a road traffic accident. I sat at the side
of the narrow bed, felt for my shoes only my feet were tender watermelons now that refused
to go in. Forcing them, I couldn't manage one step - like an ugly sister or a step-mother,
dancing in hot iron shoes. I hoped bare feet wouldn't be noticed in an emergency.
And is it a gypsy you are now so? the A&E Sister snapped out of her blue lead apron, as I padded
around the immobilised blood & alcohol smelling bodies with my sandbags and cassettes,
marking right and left with my metal marker, concentrating on not mixing them up like I had
before. That bossy Sister noticed everything I did. Next day I woke at half four, in the stuffy
on-call room, my day off already disappeared into November darkness as I hurried
to the shoe shop in Wilton Shopping Centre. The assistant told me that feet never stopped
growing, Half a size for every year, I'm telling you, girl – sleepy and bewildered,
I bought a big size seven. It was only when I revived over beans & toast at 8 o'clock
that it hit me – by that reasoning I'd be size eleven at the age of thirty, with yards
to go ahead of me. The coffin that would hold me hasn't been built yet! I shouted into the empty
beige kitchen. Back in the shop next day for an exchange – no sign of the first assistant.
The bee-hived older woman said she'd never heard of her.
(Excerpt from Nighttown)
I was surprised and not at all surprised when the writing which emerged from my pen was the opposite of Proust’s oceanic brilliance. Nothing complicated, my voice close to the rhythm of Co Limerick women like my mother and her sisters although I knew I could never surpass their inimitable style. Although Mammy could have given Proust a run for his money when it came to narratives with boundless associations. “Get to the f-ing point!” my brother would shout in agony. Embarrassed by my efforts, I tried to do just that, I cut them down to the smallest pieces.
From age three, I escaped into books. Anything to get away! Yet by my late twenties, the process of remembering lost time – speeded up by leaving Ireland – became urgent as the original “getting away”. It was not nostalgia then, especially not now as I am much happier. I was, still am, amazed by the existence of younger selves. Was that me? Was I really there?
Time is the ultimate enigma and lately, place seems like an idea, too.
I peer backwards into that Dark Room – the hot film processor where I warmed my hands, beyond its door – the rickety skull table where I laid so many bleeding heads:
Getting the angle right meant
staring into people’s eyes,
getting close, some of them
giggled. But they had to stay still
because of the radiation.
Keep still please! I said.
I didn’t like to think of the oozing
grey matter inside. So soft
it gave me the shudders.
A baby’s fontanelle made my knees
go from under me. The huge gaps
between their bones - sometimes junior
doctors took them for fractures and
scared hell out of young parents
in the middle of the night.
I’m always banging mine - in Belfast,
I ran up and down the hotel
corridor looking for 12 B.
The manager told me it was
really number 13 -
But you're not superstitious surely! he laughed.
Not superstitious in Belfast?
Oh I am, I said. Please can I have 12 A?
Which was tiny. I went in and bang!
against the angled ceiling.
I had an egg on my forehead for
the public reading. Sometimes junior
doctors followed me into the Dark
Room for my opinion but I fled
because I was sure there was nothing in
my head apart from the nineteenth century novels
I squeezed into my uniform pockets.
The Category A prisoner from Mountjoy
noted this when he sat down for his X-ray
at 4 a.m. in ‘87. Angling in at thirty degrees
for the Townes view, nervous
before his bleached eyes, I forgot
the lead cone left on the tube. It flew for
his head but he was faster-
catching it in his two blue tattooed hands.
Lucky for you I caught it! he kept saying.
We saw nothing! said the two prison
officers as they cuffed him again,
laughing hysterically. I watched them
chained to each other.
Returning to Proust is a little like meeting up with my former self. I’m surprised to find we like the same things. I thought she was a terrible fool. Now I go back to find out what it was like to be her. It’s a neverending addictive labyrinth as Johnny O’Hare – whose inner quest takes up half of American Mules – finds out:
If you tell your dream, you don’t have to dream it
any more, says Alan Ladd, This Gun For Hire (1942).
I can tell you now I’ve tried it and it doesn’t work.
It’s your subconscious! Your subconscious my eye!
They were just over-excited about Freud in the 40s.
Ingrid Bergman clucking over Gregory Peck in Spellbound (1945)
driving him mad with her fork on the white tablecloth.
Well, I, Johnny O’Hare, video-shop proprietor, (2008)
thought if I wrote it all down, I’d get those
girls out of my mind, that my sister Greta would
agree what the Ould Fella did, along with
Attracta, the skivvy, to our bed-ridden mother
& Blackie the cat & how we’d have been finished
if wasn’t for Mrs Savage the Post Mistress.