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The Lazarus Manoeuvre
How the young Doctor O'Reilly earned the respect of his community
We were sitting in the upstairs lounge of Doctor O'Reilly's house at the end of the day. Himself was tucking contentedly into his second large whiskey. "So," he demanded, "how do you like it?"
Being a little uncertain whether he was asking about the spectacular view through the bay window to Belfast Lough, the small sherry I was sipping, or the general status of the universe, I countered with an erudite, "What?"
He fished in the external auditory canal of one thickened, pugilist's ear with the tip of his right little finger and echoed my sentiments: "What?"
I thought this conversation could become mildly repetitive and decided to broaden the horizons. "How do I like what, Doctor O'Reilly?"
He extracted his digit and examined the end with all the concentration and knitting of brows of a gorilla evaluating a choice morsel. "Practice here, you idiot. How do you like it?"
My lights went on. "Fine," I said, as convincingly as possible. "Just fine."
My reply seemed to satisfy him. He grinned, grunted, hauled his twenty stone erect, wandered over to the sideboard, and returned carrying the sherry decanter. He topped up my glass. "A bird can't fly on one wing," he remarked.
I refrained from observing that if he kept putting away the whiskey at his usual rate he'd soon be giving a pretty fair imitation of a mono-winged albatross in a high gale, accepted my fresh drink, and waited.
He returned the decanter, ambled to the window, and took in the scenery with one all-encompassing wave of his arm. "I'd not want to live anywhere else," he said. "Mind you, it was touch and go at the start."
He was losing me again. "What was, Doctor O'Reilly?"
"Fingal, my boy. Fingal. For Oscar." He gave me one of his most avuncular smiles.
I couldn't for the life of me see him having been named for a small, gilded statuette given annually to movie stars. "Oscar, er, Fingal?" I asked.
He shook his head. "No. Not Oscar Fingal. Wilde."
He did this to me. Every time I thought I was following him he'd change tack, leaving me in a state of confusion bordering on that usually felt by people recovering from an overdose of chloroform. "Oscar Fingal Wilde, Fingal?"
I should have stuck with "Doctor O'Reilly." I could tell by the way the tip of his bent nose was beginning to whiten that he was becoming exasperated. He shook his head. "Oscar … Fingal … O'Flahertie … Wills … Wilde."
I stifled the urge to remark that if you put an air to it you could sing it.
He must have seen my look of bewilderment. The ischaemia left his nose. "I was named for him. For Oscar Wilde."
The scales fell from my eyes. "I see."
"Good. Now where was I?"
"You said, ‘It was touch and go at the start.'"
"Oh yes. Getting the practice going. Touch and go." He sat again in the big comfortable armchair, picked up his glass of whiskey, and looked at me over the brim. "Did I ever tell you how I got started?"
"No," I said, settling back in my own chair, preparing myself for another of his reminiscences, for another meander down the byways of O'Reilly's life.
"I came here in the early '40s. Took over from Doctor Finnegan."
I hoped fervently that we weren't about to embark on the genealogy of James Joyce, and was relieved to hear O'Reilly continue, "He was a funny old bird."
Never, I thought, but kept the thought to myself.
O'Reilly was warming up now. "Just before he left, Finnegan warned me about a local condition of cold groin abscesses. He didn't understand them." O'Reilly took a mouthful of Irish, savoured it, and swallowed. "He explained to me that when he lanced them he either got wind or shit, but the patient invariably died." O'Reilly chuckled.
I was horrified. My mentor's predecessor had been incising inguinal hernias.
"That's why it was touch and go," said O'Reilly. "My first patient had the biggest hernia I've ever seen. When I refused to lance it, like good old Doctor Finnegan, the patient spread the word that I didn't know my business." He sat back and crossed one leg over the other. "Did you ever hear of Lazarus?"
"Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Lazarus?" I asked.
"Don't be impertinent." He grabbed my by-now-empty glass and headed back to the sideboard. The delivery of a fresh libation, and one for himself, signalled that he hadn't been offended. "No, the biblical fellow that Jesus raised from the dead." He sat.
"That's how I got my start."
Was it the sherry or was I really losing my mind? Whatever his skills, I doubted that Doctor O'Reilly had actually effected a resurrection. "Go on," I asked for it.
"I was in church one Sunday, hoping that if the citizens saw that I was a good Christian they might look upon me more favourably."
The thought of a pious O'Reilly seemed a trifle incongruous.
"There I was when a farmer in the front pew let out a yell like a banshee, grabbed his chest, and keeled over." To add drama to his words O'Reilly stood, arms wide. "I took out of my pew like a whippet. Examined him. Mutton. Dead as mutton."
I knew that CPR hadn't been invented in the '40s. "What did you do?"
O'Reilly lowered his arms and winked. "I got my bag, told everyone to stand back, and gave the poor corpse an injection of whatever came handy. I listened to his heart. ‘He's back,' says I. You should have heard the gasp from the congregation."
He sat down. "I listened again. ‘God,' says I, ‘he's going again,' and gave the poor bugger another shot." O'Reilly sipped his drink. "I brought him back three times before I finally confessed defeat."
Innocence is a remarkable thing. "Did you really get his heart started?"
O'Reilly guffawed. "Not at all, but the poor benighted audience didn't know that. Do you know I actually heard one woman say to her neighbour, ‘The Lord only brought Lazarus back once and the new doctor did it three times.'" He headed for the sideboard again. "I told you it was touch and go at the start, but the customers started rolling in after that—will you have another?"
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