He parked his car in a space behind the hospital, on a rutted, rubbled patch of land, clay-red and pooled with rainwater, marked by spills of concrete. This was the building site. They were building a new Royal just behind the old one. Millions, it was costing. There must be a bit there for me, McInerney thought.
It wasn’t that late in the afternoon but work on the site had stopped for the day. The light was dimming. There were still one or two men on site, in their high-vis jackets and hard hats. McInerney was pleased with his victory. If he parked in the hospital carpark it’d cost him maybe close to a tenner. He could afford it, of course he could, but a win’s a win.
They were robbers these men who ran the carparks. Good business though. McInerney had read somewhere that after the war, a few enterprising fellers with their heads screwed on had bought up bomb sites around London, turned them into carparks, made a fortune. They knew cars were the future. That’s the way to do it, McInerney thought. Have the foresight, look ahead. You need the money though, so you can sit on the idea and wait for the world to catch up.
He got a few things out of the boot of the car – laptop bag, document case. Carry things like that and people see you belong, accept you’re meant to be there. If he’d asked the men if it was okay for him to park there, they’d have told him to sling his hook. Look like you belong, carry the gear, stride purposefully, that was the way. So he stepped round the puddles without looking like he was taking too much care, cut through a gap in the wire fencing as if he knew it was there and there for him, and into the hospital by one of the rear entrances.
Blue signs, red signs, white writing, grubby, faded, stale. He hated the words, feared them. Oncology, Phlebotomy, Vascular Surgery, Clinical Haematology, Cardiology, Critical Care. Intrusive, threatening, precise, cold. Just the look of them terrified him, the severity, the undeniablity, the inevitability. But if he ignored them, blurred them, if he looked away quickly, then it was okay. He could pretend they didn’t exist for him, and if he strode purposefully, no dawdling, no uncertainty, then he could dismiss them and leave them for others.
He knew where he was going, but the route there eluded him. All you needed was to take one wrong turning, one door on the left instead of the next one, and you would be lost, like Hansel and Gretel foolishly leaving a trail of breadcrumbs, and you’d need to look at those horrible signs that pointed the way to your own death.
He found the lifts he needed, pressed all the summoning buttons and took a staff only lift because it was the first one that descended for him.
Here to visit his mother. The first thing McInerney said when he saw her was, “I can’t stay long.” She didn’t hear him, or couldn’t hear him, or could but didn’t care. Michael McInerney was a man in a hurry, a man always on his way to somewhere else. Another meeting, another proposal, another deal, another move closer to success.
But the room was seductive. Despite the machines and the sterility, despite the cardboard trays, despite the nurses who came in and acknowledged him cursorily, if at all, despite the shrivelling, dying woman lying small in the bed, a tray of plastic beakers with baby drinking spouts and cold, milky tea left barely touched. Despite all that, the room was seductive. It wrapped him in its warmth and soft and hard noises and hospital smell, and seduced him. It was a haven and a refuge, a hiding place while someone counted to 100. No-one would find him there; maybe no-one would even be looking for him.
He decided to stay, knowing instantly how to flip the situation. Instead of leaving his mother so as not to miss meetings and phonecalls and talks about deals and plans, he would sacrifice those to be with his mother, his dying mother.
Phonecalls, texts, emails followed, most of them to people who weren’t expecting to meet him or hear from him anyway.
...I’m at the Royal...with my mum...yeah, won’t be long now...no, she isn’t suffering much…thanks, mate, good of you, I’ll be in touch...
He dismissed his own accusation that he was using his dying mother to make contact with people, gain their sympathy, put him in their minds.
He was a good son. The dutiful son. People knew that now. They’d think that now. People understood. The meetings would be rearranged, the timetables adjusted, the plans rescheduled. Or plans made, if there were none to begin with.
Michael meant it. He was the good son, the dutiful son. He will stay by his dying other’s bedside, stretched out in the chair, asleep and then gently shaken awake by a nurse to say his mother has passed. He will rub his dry face with his dry hands and there will be work scattered around his chair. He will thank the nurse and ask for some time alone and kiss his dead mother goodbye. He has seen this. This is the way it is done.
There was another reason to stay. Another truth.
The room was safe. The room was safe because it wasn’t real.
Of course the room was real! His mother was lying in the bed, dying. That was real. McInerney could hear her breath as it scuttered and scuttled through her throat. “These feelings! These emotions! My grief and sadness! I am feeling them! Truly!”
So what, then? Apart from this room? Apart from this mother? The phones, the laptop? The notebooks? The case he carried with its padded compartments? The clipped conversations he had on the phones, different phones for different purposes, different ringtones, different email accounts, a tumbling of passwords? No time for pleasantries. Pared-down discussions only. Am not I am. Will go not I will go. All extraneous words removed because they only get in the way. It was business. This was how people in business conducted themselves. That’s not real. That’s not real?
At times, a voice spoke to him, whispered to him at the times when all else was quiet. Ah, the voice was always there but McInerney couldn’t always hear it. He turned the traffic of his life to the highest volume. The radio was always on, his smartphone always offered access to something, some fact, some slogan, some route. But still, that voice...You’re pretending. Fake.
“I’m not! This is real! Yes, it is! I engage. I’m involved. I count!”
How could it be otherwise? He had an office, a secretary, a company name, a car registered to that company. He had a business card. His company was called McInerney Solutions. He had hundreds of business cards. He had spent time carefully styling them. Less is more, he thought. But then sometimes less was just less. More was always more. “Here’s my card.”
“Do you like the shape? Distinctive, yes. Freestyle script, Times New Roman, Bauhaus 93, and Century Gothic. Call me, or email me, or tweet me, or like me on Facebook. Yeah, I know, I forgot. A feller I know did them for me. Got hundreds of them. Still. I can change them, get new ones.”
Boxes of his cards sat in his office. Sometimes they fell and the cards would spill out.
McInerney’s mother’s room overlooked the city. The day was leaving and the night was arriving. The sky was different shades of pink and blue and grey. The lights in the city were starting to shine. Michael could see the Catholic cathedral tapering out into the sky and funnelling down into the ground. Mount Pleasant, Brownlow Hill. Hope Street, Leece Street, Hardman Street beyond.
That was where his office was, Hope Street. “You need a good address. People expect it, respect you for it. Sends the right message. Can see it in people when you tell them. Must get the sign sorted. And get new cards with the address on.”
McInerney tried to get comfortable in the chair in his mother’s room. He was wearing blue jeans, black brogues, dark blue shirt. Paisley tie. Tweed waistcoat and jacket. A pocket handkerchief, blue with white spots. A bit of levity, a bit of dash. What was the word? Elan. One for show and one for blow. He felt squeezed into the clothes. The jeans gripped his thighs. They pushed his stomach up and over the waistband. The buttons on his shirt and waistcoat were pushed and strained. His shirt collar was tight around his neck, rippling his skin and chins. When he fastened his jacket the lapels buckled. They wouldn’t sit right. Only the handkerchief fitted him. He didn’t recognise the body he saw in the mirror, the reflection he caught in shop windows.
He talked often of a constant battle with his weight, or a determination to change. He bought new scales on which to weigh himself, digital ones that gave him an exact reading rather than having to bend over and squint at the marker. They didn’t help. Still his weight rose, or stayed, never dropped. Maybe he should get new scales again, maybe those ones you get at the doctor’s, where the nurse slid a weight across a bar. But he wasn’t sure how those worked.
The wires and tubes and machines connected to his mother flipped, shuttered, switched, shunted, flicked, blinked. What did they do? McInerney wondered. Did they do anything even? They were so many contraptions, jokey gadgets made for some stop-motion film. The idea was to give the impression of action, of something going on. Weren’t they doing the same with cars now? Electric cars? They were so quiet they’d added sound effects, so the drivers knew something was happening. That was what these machines were producing around his mother – sound effects.
It all seemed so haphazard – so many trolleys and stands surrounding her, jostling for space, crammed and squeezed into the space around her bed. Easy for a wire to come out, a drip to come out. Shouldn’t everything have a place? A space? It was too untidy for Michael.
He checked his phone, to see if there’d been any emails, any texts, any Facebook messages, any tweets, any responses to the messages he’d left.
There was a pub on Hardman Street, the Fly in the Loaf, just down the way from his office. He’d go in there sometimes, after work, there or the Phil. He’d take a paper in with him, have a pint or two to wind down. He liked an early drink, of a Friday especially. He liked the company of others who’d finished their week’s work, still in their suits, winding down. He didn’t need to speak to anyone, just to be among them. Get a table, maybe a German beer, good and cold, and the paper or a magazine. A man of the world, a man of affairs.
When he was a young lad, in his late teens, it was called Kirkland’s, the Fly in the Loaf. It was a bit of a trendy place to be. You could meet girls there, nice girls, the kind he’d meet at his sixth form dances. He was good with girls, always had something to say, a bit cheeky, made them laugh, confident. No great looker, maybe, but slim back then, and something about him. He’d often get a snog, cop a feel of a breast, make it seem like an accident.
His local was called The Grapes. He went there every night, or most nights, around 10. He’d have a couple of pints, three at the most. It was just a short walk from the house he’d remortgaged a year or two ago and was struggling to make the payments on.
His wife would sometimes come with him, especially on a Friday or Saturday after they’d been out for a meal or had a nice curry at home. Or she’d stay in, watching the television and telling him to get along and have a nice time.
He’d sometimes buy drinks for people he met in there, old friends. Pub friends. He’d greet familiar faces in the pub.
“How are you, good sir?”
“How the devil are you, good sir?”
Old fashioned, antique greetings, archaic, convivial.
Women were love, or sweetheart, or angel, maybe. It wasn’t sexist, they were just terms. Warmth, camaraderie, connection. He was a throwback, or just a conservative. McInerney loved change and wanted to keep so much.
He said to one of the nurses, “Could you get her an extra pillow, please, sweetheart?”
Each doctor was Doc. The consultant was Prof. Genial, relaxed, informal, but respectful. People were his equals or inferiors, but in a benevolent way. There was a social scale, parallel to which McInerney slid up and down, slotting easily alongside whoever he needed to speak to at the time. Michael McInerney was a man at ease with the world. He had the touch.
He did have some superiors, though. Men, always men, just a coincidence, who had written autobiographies explaining their rise. Millionaires, billionaires, men who provided pithy phrases and mottoes and capsule consultations that Michael underlined and sometimes remembered to copy out and blutack to the crowded wall of his office at home or office in Hope Street. Sometimes he tweeted the pronouncement followed by #mcinerneysolutions. He loved a bit of Latin, though fought shy of mea culpa.
Anyway, these men, and it was always men, though he loved women, and would often tell people, “I love women”, were only his temporary superiors.
He was unsure which toilet to use. Some doors said Patients Only, others Staff Only. Handwash dispensers were fitted up and down the corridor walls.
It wasn’t visiting time. The wards doors were locked when he came out of the lift. They were double swing doors that gave an inch or two when pushed and then held firm. He buzzed the intercom but there was no answer. He buzzed again. He buzzed again, longer this time, hearing his irritation in the sound, his insistence. No answer, then a crackle.
He didn’t like this, this feeling of being blocked, stymied, halted, kept waiting. This wasn’t for him. Hints of don’t you know who I am crept into his mind. They should have known these rules weren’t for him. This feeling of being a spare part, of looking like a spare part, of not belonging. A door should open when he pushed it. A locked door should be unlocked when he buzzed, or caught someone’s eye and they saw who it was. Michael McInerney was a man who strode, who went assured from place to place. He wasn’t abruptly halted by closed doors. His buzzes never went unanswered. He took stairs two at a time. He made phonecalls as he walked and pushed doors open with his shoulder and acknowledged acquaintances with a raise of the eyebrows and a mouthed hello while he was on the phone. He looked at documents and letters handed to him by his secretary and nodded his agreement or made an alteration and handed them back. He scanned texts. All the while conducting a conversation on the phone. And when the call was over he moved straight on to another issue, never forgetting the subject of the call. Doors swung open for him. He wasn’t good at hanging around outside a ward waiting for a busy nurse to acknowledge him.
He’d have to let his secretary go. He should never have taken her on. He should never have signed the lease on the Hope Street office. But who would hand him documents to look at while he was on the phone? Who would remind him it was his wife’s birthday or stepson’s birthday and go out and buy some flowers or a card if he didn’t have a secretary? Who would secretly fall in love with him and be the only one who really understood him if he didn’t have a secretary?
His mother had a catheter. The tube snaked out from under the blankets and into the container. Her urine was dark yellow. Michael McInerney doesn’t want to see this.
Eventually the buzzer was answered and the door unlocked. As he pulled open the door, two female nurses were on their way out. He held the door open for them and said, “After you, ladies.” One of them glanced at him in some sort of thanks. They wore scrubs and had ID cards clipped to their trousers, and one wore trainers and the other wore crocs. They could have been anything – nurses, technicians, pharmacists, doctors. Not doctors, maybe. They looked too young and too small. Is that stupid, Michael wondered. Too small to be a doctor?
They were pretty. Attractive, anyway. Soft, clear, young skin, an easy confidence, a belonging. Belonging was attractive. The deep V of the scrubs allowed a suggestion of a journey down to their breasts. He watched them, pretending to guide the swing door gently shut. They went as far as the vending machine by the lifts, to get Coke, or crisps, or chocolate.
He tried to complain at the ward desk, about buzzing so often and being kept waiting outside, but the nurse on duty didn’t really take any notice.
“I can’t always make the normal visiting hours,” Michael explained. I’m too busy. They’re for normal people who aren’t too busy, who can leave their 9-5s.
“That’s okay,” the nurse said. He didn’t care. He was looking at a chart. There was a box of chocolates on the desk, a gift from a grateful family, more than likely. “She’s been moved to a private room.” Then he looked away from the chart and smiled and dismissed him.
A private room. Not paid-for private. Just a room with one bed. Michael’s mum was moved there because she was disturbing the other patients on the main ward, crying out in pain in the night. She was settled now. They’d upped her dose.
There must be a contract in the NHS for him, something for McInerney Solutions to provide a solution for.
Michael McInerney needed his mother to die. He needed the money from the sale of her house.