For the umpteenth time, the woman in white stands at the end of the bed and asks him the same questions. Just like every time before, Sylvie sits in the hard plastic bucket seat, biting her nails and wincing with every inquiry.
“What’s your name?”
. . .
His eyes skitter back and forth as he scans the empty space in his head. Michael sounds good. He likes Michael. James is good, too. But neither of them sound more familiar than Patrick, or David, or Ian, or Bobby, or…
“Is it Michael?”
“How old are you?”The woman asks.
“No idea. But I feel young. Strong.”
The right side of his body aches, though. He flexes, and his feet push against the tightly folded corners of the bed sheets. The bed’s too damn small.
“Who’s the Taoiseach?”
. . .
“And where are you?”
He’s bored now.
“Are we on a farm?”
Sylvie glares at him.
“Ah, c’mon now, Jimmy. Have a look around yourself. Does it look like a bloody farm?”
“Is it Jimmy? Is my name Jimmy?”Jimmy smiles.
Sylvie comes around after work, just like every evening before. Like she does every morning, too. She tells him stories, in the hope that they’ll reboot his memories. And if they don’t, maybe she can help him rebuild those memories. So the story she tells most often is the story of the day they met.
Their origin story.
“Do you remember, Jimmy? I was running in Phoenix Park. It was a warm summer day. Beautiful, like, but I was sweating like a dog. I don’t know what you were thinking!”
“You were taking Brian and Scottie for their walk, and it was them that brought you over.”
Jimmy smiles, and with some effort pushes himself up on his pillows. He always enjoys this bit. He remembers Sylvie telling him the story yesterday. Or maybe it was the day before.
“And I told you I took the dogs for a walk in the park every Saturday morning, because I thought it would help me meet girls. But I’d never let their leads out, because I’d never seen a girl as beautiful as you.”
“You always did have the gift of the gab, Jimmy McPhee. I was a mess, and you know it! But that shock of white hair of yours hooked me, Big Man. I swear, I’d never seen anything like it in my life.”
She swears, but Jimmy can’t tell if the story rings true. “Jimmy” still doesn’t ring a bell any clearer than Ian or David or Bobby or Patrick.
Now three weeks have passed, and Jimmy’s temper has cooled a little bit. The woman in white, Nurse Myrna, had explained to Sylvie as she sat by the bed one day that the violent mood swings were a common symptom of a brain injury. Jimmy had been a terror at first, waking in the night, calling out, and grabbing items from the bedside table and hurling them with such force that they’d leave dents in the wall. Myrna had never seen such strength in here. One crater, with cracks in the minty green paint above, depicted the shape of a deer. Another, a salmon leaping over the deer.
Sylvie’s visits had been the only thing that would cool him off. That had always been the way. When she had met Jimmy, he’d been a wrong’un, alright. Like father, like son. Jimmy’s dad had fancied himself as a bit of a gangster, with a following of lieutenants. They’d swagger into snooker halls and bars and swing around a few cues or chuck a few glasses. When they were done, they’d screech off in Cole’s red Ford Capri. They said that daft car was the first sign that Cole McPhee was getting cocky and careless. Sure, he’d made enemies, but nobody messed with him until he started pushing drugs. Cole was named and shamed, and forced out of the city. Jimmy’s mother had known nothing about the drugs. It turned out her father had been right about Cole all along, and when whispers filtered back to Dublin that he’d been killed in a bar fight, she couldn’t bear the shame of association with that brute any longer.
So Jimmy was brought up by his father’s older sisters. They were hardy types, but he still quickly came to fancy himself as the man of the house. At school, he’d see slights in every interaction, and the women were run off their feet scraping together money for the family that would melt away with every torn pair of trousers and every shirt that was ruined by stains of blood and grass. That’s when they started taking Jimmy out into the hills at the weekend to try to work off some of that aggression.
Jimmy had loved the hills, but he had never felt as comfortable in his skin as when he was with Sylvie. When she would walk into Jimmy’s ward, he’d be yelling about where the bloody hell his orange juice was, or what awful muck he was getting for dinner. For a second, she’d remember that cocky, troubled lad she first met, who was only kind to his dogs. Then he’d see her come in, and he was her Jimmy again, suddenly content. He’d listen to her requests quietly, and eat a little more when she encouraged him. Like the other day when she brought in boxty.
Now it seems that the dark days that had followed his injury have passed.
“Myrna, do you think I can take him home soon?” Sylvie asks. “It seems like he’s really improving.”
“Maybe so.” Myrna purses her lips. “But you know Allan? Allan from the night shift? Last night, Jimmy told him he was the Vice-President of the United States. He told Allan he had to get the President on the phone or there would be hell to pay. It turns out, last week Jimmy thought he was Iron Man, and if Allan got him his suit, he’d make him head of human resources at Stark Industries!”
So although everyone has been working to prepare Jimmy to go home again, it’s a long, slow process. Each day, he goes through a battery of therapies. Speech therapy. Physical therapy. Occupational therapy.
After the discussion with Myrna, Sylvie sits with Jimmy as he toys with his food.
“I don’t want any more of this. It’s stone cold.”
Sylvie pulls her chair closer, takes the fork from him, and loads it up.
“You’re just being picky, Big Man. You can leave the beans, but you’ve got to eat your salmon. It’s brain food.”
As he chews away, smiling that smile, Sylvie asks how his therapies went today.
“Not bad. Liath said my short-term memory’s improving. She said you could bring my phone in.”
Sylvie’s alarm rings early for her to make her visit to the hospital before work, and wakes her from a nightmare about The Event.
She knows her guilt at not being able to avert Jimmy’s disaster is misplaced. What could she have done, after all?
Jimmy had gone to their local. She knew that much because she had been kept late at the office, and he’d called to say he was going for a game of darts with the lads. Back in the days when his father had drunk there, it had been a really rough place. The sort of place you needed a three-piece tracky, ten tattoos, and a stretch in the Joy to get in the door. It wasn’t so bad these days, everyone reckoned.
Eugene had filled in some of the blanks later.
“Matt and I had a job to do in the morning – installing some stained glass in Merrion Square – so after we’d finished a game of five-oh-one, we left Jimmy finishing his drink with the Doyle brothers. It was funny to see them being all friendly, but that was all a long time ago, you know?”
Eugene had been surprised by this détente between the Doyles and Jimmy. It was common knowledge that Frank Doyle had never forgiven Jimmy for that scar he had given him in a playground brawl. Jimmy had told Sylvie about once it in the pub, shame-facedly confessing the venial sins of his former self. Frank and Jimmy had nipped at each other all through primary school. By the time they’d reached secondary, Jimmy’s incredible growth spurt had begun and they were finally on a level playing field. Frank thought they were still in the sixth class, and he was still an arrogant, mouthy eejit. It had taken three teachers to pull Jimmy off Frank, and all the while Jimmy was shouting, “You mention my Da again, and I’ll kill ye!”
Frank and Chris Doyle had laughed with Jimmy about the old days three weekends ago in the bar. Then in the alley afterwards Frank roared, “You’re no laughing any more, are you, you wee gobshite?” as they kicked his head in.
For the next week after he was allowed his phone, Jimmy spent all his time outside of therapies tapping away on it. Except for the times he’d lose it, and Sylvie or Myrna would find it under his pillow where he kept it safe. It’s if his mind has instituted its own rehab programme, he explains to Sylvie.
“Remember when I said I felt young? Well sometimes, lying here, I feel really old. Thousands of years old. But even so, my mind’s going to work like a young man’s mind. Getting some exercise, you know?”
Jimmy’s hitting his stride.
“Twitter. Wikipedia. Facebook. The phone’s only a few inches wide, but it’s like a window to the outside world. And I feel like I’ve got things I have to do out there, you know?”
Sylvie takes to checking Jimmy’s social media accounts first thing in the morning and last thing at night, leaving little comments, liking posts, and clicking the little hearts below his tweets. Jimmy tells her that these signals of recognition from outside of the walls of the hospital make his existence feel more concrete, even though his long-term memories are still fuzzy.
And Jimmy’s posts really are good stuff. Sylvie’s likes and favourites are genuine. But she worries that she doesn’t entirely recognize the man who has written them. Haiku crammed into one-hundred-and-forty characters. Ballads of ancient adventure and redemption stretched over a series of status updates. Jimmy may have had the gift of the gab, but this side of him is new. Sylvie wonders if it’s something to do with his brain injury. Couldn’t he have woken up being able to do something useful? Like speak Spanish? Or see through walls? Or cook? She’ll settle for cooking.
One day, Sylvie asks Jimmy were all this stuff is coming from.
“Don’t take this the wrong way, but I never thought of you as a poet before, love.”
He strokes her hand.
“You know, neither did I. But when I woke up, after what had happened, I felt like I had stories to tell.”
As Jimmy’s mental faculties improve, so do his physical abilities, and at last Sylvie is allowed to take him outside for a walk. They’ve built up to it, Jimmy sticking up and down the corridor outside the ward and Sylvie blocking for him the way Myrna had taught her.
Still, they pause for a second when they reach the doors out of the hospital. Jimmy is dressed for the outside, but he is still surprised by the actual, physical wind that blows in with each person who walks through the entrance. The sky is blue, though, so they decide to walk down to the car and take the short trip to Beaumont Woods. In his excitement, Jimmy forgets how to negotiate the stairs with a cane.
“Stop and think about that for a second, Big Man,”Sylvie advises, tenderly.
So Jimmy reaches out his functional arm and extends the triangular foot of the stick down onto the second step. Just like he’s been told to, he positions his weight squarely over his left leg. Then he lets his other leg slap onto the stair, before readjusting with a superhuman effort and following with the stronger leg again. He recalibrates once more, and smiles at Sylvie.
“It’s beginning to feel natural. Funny. It feels like forever since I last took a good walk.”
In the park, Sylvie smiles too, as she thinks about their first meeting again. He’s coming back to her. She points at a dark form in the sky.
“Do you know what that is, now? Is it a bird?”
“No,”Jimmy guffaws. “I’ve got a brain injury. I’m not dense. It’s a plane!”
“Aye, that’s right. Just coming into the airport over there.”
And they talk about the trips they’ll take when Jimmy is better. They’ll reschedule the trip to New York they had to postpone. Jimmy mentions a hankering to go to Scotland, and visit Glencoe.
When they get back to the hospital, it’s quiet, and Myrna and Liath are chatting, as if passing the time waiting for someone.
“Hi, Jimmy! You’ve been busy! You looking forward to going home?”
“I can’t wait!”
Jimmy’s friend Paul pays a visit, bearing an offering of homemade bread. He pulls back the covering tea towel, and it smells like some ancient, imagined home.
“Ah, Paul, that’s magic. You wouldn’t believe what they had me eating in here when I first arrived. They take a slice of bread and put it in a blender with some water, right? Then they mould it back into a square, and put brown food dye around the edges to make it look like regular bread. It’s brutal!”
Paul is incensed.
“But why would they do that?”
“They were concerned I would choke. That if I’d lost feeling in my throat, I wouldn’t be able to swallow properly and I’d aspirate my food.”
“Good lord! Well, you won’t miss this on the way down. It’s hearty stuff! Will they let you have a knife? It’s not sliced.”
Sylvie and Paul hold a conference and decide that, since it’s only a butter knife Paul has brought, it should be okay.
Later that same day, Myrna comes by and eyes the knife suspiciously as it lies atop the high cabinet next to Jimmy’s bed.
“You can’t have this, Jimmy. No metal knives for the patients.”
“Myrna! I’ve so few pleasures in life. Let me have my bread at least! What do you think I’m going to do with it?”
“Sorry, Jimmy. Rules is rules. I’ll give it to Sylvie when she comes in.”
“For goodness’ sake, Jimmy. I’ll cut you a few slices for show,”Sylvie tells him later that evening.
“Then keep the blasted thing out of sight, will you?”
The rest of the week is quiet. Jimmy passes the time while Sylvie is at work writing increasingly epic poetry.
Then, one day, Jimmy emerges from webpages and images of Celtic mythology to hear a stentorian voice heralding the news. On that bloody telly that’s forever honking away in the corner of the ward.
And they talk about the trips they’ll take when Jimmy is better.
“Forecasters are predicting that the storm, which has been assigned the name “Orla” will be the worst storm to hit Ireland since the remnants of Hurricane Charley passed the south coast in 1986. Dublin is bracing itself for flooding, with twenty-four hour rainfall in excess of twenty centimetres and winds over 100kph expected. Met Éireann has issued a red national warning, and advises residents of the capital to stay indoors as much as possible. If you must go out, please try not to walk or shelter close to buildings and trees.”
Jimmy remembers Charley. It’s strange the things he can remember. Liath asks him each morning to remember the names of three objects. A minute later, he can remember them, with effort. Ten minutes later, nothing. But he can remember meeting Sylvie that first day. And he can remember Charley, alright. The special-needs folks being evacuated in Bray by boat when the Dargle overflowed. Five poor people dying across Ireland. Jimmy remembers his heart breaking for his countryfolk.
He remembers summers learning to hunt in the Slieve Bloom Mountains and looking our over the four ancient provinces, oh, so long ago.
Over the phone, the nurses tell Sylvie to take a day off. Jimmy will be fine. But the atmosphere in the neurological wards is tense. Outside, the sky is dark by 3pm. The patients’ sleep patterns are already disturbed by long days in bed, and when the main lights are switched off in the evening, howls of complaint stalk the corridors. One of the symptoms of Jimmy’s injury is anxiety, and he can’t find his phone to call Sylvie. He calls Myrna over as she makes her rounds in the yellow light creeping like moss into the ward.
“Myrna, can you help me find my phone? I want to speak to Sylvie. I want to go home.”
“Now, Jimmy. You’re getting yourself all agitated. Just try to get some sleep. Sylvie called, and she’s fine. Allan will be looking after all of you tonight. There’s nothing to worry about. Good night.”
Jimmy smiles, then turns over in his bed. When Myrna has finished checking on the other patients, he listens in the semi-dark as her footfalls fade down the corridor.
He pulls Paul’s knife out from underneath his pillow.
High on the wall, the clock shows that it’s gone two a.m. The windows billow as the storm grows in strength. Alarms sound in the car park. Trapped in hospital corners, Jimmy thinks about his poetry, and is concerned that he won’t be able to defend the people of Ireland in the hour of their greatest need. So he slowly counts to three hundred again, and once more grinds Paul’s butter knife into his forehead.
The dark blood on the knife tastes of iron, and the pain keeps him awake.
When the other patients in the ward are finally quiet, Jimmy listens for Allan. When he quietly pads into the ward, Jimmy half-opens his eyes and watches. The night nurse moves over to the window and watches the precursors of a cataclysm unfold outside. It’s an awesome sight. Cars’ lights flash as more alarms erupt behind double-glazing, under the gales. The wind blares at the seam of the windowpane.
Three times the gale sounds, and Jimmy materialises. Allan’s a big man, but he’s dwarfed by the white-haired giant looming behind him.
“Listen very carefully, Allan,”the voice in his ear rumbles. “I need you to open this window. You help me, and you can live. Dublin needs me tonight.”
Allan measures his words carefully. There’s a butter knife pressing at his throat, and it’s smeared with blood.
“Jimmy. Come on. Put the knife down and go back to bed. You’re safe in here.” The nurse sighs. “Who do you think you are? Batman? You’re not the hero the city needs right now.”
“No, Allan. But I’m the hero we deserve,” Jimmy laughs mirthlessly. “I thought I was unwell, myself. But Ireland does need me, she has woken me, and now everything is becoming clear. Open the damned window, or you’re a dead man.”
Allan starts on the complicated process of unscrewing knobs, sliding catches and lifting the sash window. Meanwhile, Jimmy moves backwards, keeping the knife trained on the nurse the whole time.
“I’m known by many names, Allan. In this body, you know me as Jimmy McPhee. Two-hundred-and-fifty years ago, the Scots called me James Macpherson. During the fifteen preceding centuries, I occupied many vessels, and when I first learned to hunt as a boy in the Sliabh Bladhma, they were the highest mountains in Europe.”
With utter conviction, Jimmy fixes his gaze on the uncomprehending Allan.
“Today, I am as strong as I ever was, and Fionn mac Cumhaill will not let Dublin be cut down. Not today!”
And when the man who was known as Jimmy McPhee leaps out of the third floor window to save his city, his feet carve out channels in the tarmac where black storm waters gather.