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Bog people
By Mark Kilroy

THE RE was a bog body found up behind the house one time, a leathery old thing suspended in the soft turf for a thousand years. He came up gleaming, holes for eyes, slow-motion mouth gulping in the sweet air. The men stood back and crossed themselves; the museum was called. Locally, the interest centred more on the team that came down from Dublin than the poor yoke himself, as though there was something backward-looking about having one of these things found in your very own townland, as though some secret knowledge about his death lurked around the place that right-minded people would prefer to hold their silence on. They took him away in their fancy cars, a delivery van for a hearse.

And that was that. Then a few months later a photograph appeared in the local paper. He'd been cleaned up, more readable now, skin taut like a smoked ham.

Kevin, the nine-year-old boy near whose house he'd been found, stared down at the picture at the kitchen table.

Something strangely attractive about the whole thing, death and sex all mixed up together.

His older sister looked across at him.

"Have you the calves fed?" she said sharply.

He cracked the newspaper closed and turned for the door, hoping she hadn't noticed how much the bog man looked like himself.

Decades on, high summer again and the motorway drags Kevin's car east. Hot now with the windows up, trucks rumbling by like giant insects. Old car not quite up to this game.

It's years since he's been in Dublin; Croke Park with the old man, Galway thrashed unmercifully. If it wasn't for the bloody sister he wouldn't be going near the place, drugs and young fellas hanging out at street corners with badness in their eyes. He's seen it all on television, rows of boxy houses with crime-scene tape marking out the latest killing.

But isn't he still young himself, scraping 40, and ready for the best of them?

A big sign for Maynooth slides by.

"That's where they make the priests, " Kevin remembers his father saying. And the way he'd smiled across at him all those summers ago. Strange how things work out. Father and mother gone and him sharing the farm with the sister and her hangdog husband, the two kids treating him like a foreigner.

There's a jostling for lanes at the M50 roundabout, unnerving him for a moment but he gets the old Ford going again, ignoring the fella behind with the horn.

"Drive on to hell!" he says.

He passes Heuston station, follows the flow across the Liffey, then down along the quays. He might as well be in Moscow all he knows where he's going. He takes a chance at O'Connell Bridge, crossing the river again, then down D'Olier, Townsend and Pearse streets, shocking place to live a life.

He stops at traffic lights. There's a bunch of girls outside Apache Pizza, waiting for something to happen. One of them turns and stares right through him.

"Don't be afraid to ask, " the sister had said to him. "Don't the Jackeens do it round our way all the time?"

Ah, but we don't look like that, don't look at people like they're not there.

Kevin pulls into the next petrol station. He walks into the shop, keys jangling. He asks directions for St Vincent's Hospital, Merrion Road, but the young fella behind the glass just shrugs his shoulders.

"He's Polish, " the woman behind him says. "Hang on there a minute."

She's thick lipstick on and a gold bracelet clinks against the counter as she takes a credit card from a battered purse.

Outside, she leads him to the edge of the forecourt. Her red hair flares up in the late afternoon sun as she stretches out a hand, as though you could see all of Dublin from where they're standing. She tells him right, then left, then along past the big bus depot. . .

He tries to remember, nodding, thanking her inside, and goes back to his car.

He's chuffed and surprised when her directions unfold just as she'd told him. Bus depot, big road, take a left at the Eiffel tower of RT�?.

And there they are, the big naked blocks of Vincent's Hospital.

Don't mind them, Kevin thinks, a thousand windows gaping down as he judders over the speed bumps.

Signs direct him to the parking area but he doesn't fancy handing out cash when, with a bit of luck, Aunt Nora will be all packed and waiting for him. He eases the car into a perfect little nook, well out of anyone's way. Might even get back to Galway for a last pint in with the lads.

It's like a little city inside. Kevin's lost for a moment, corridors running off at all sorts of angles, writing and arrows, people everywhere, visitors, patients, doctors and nurses, children running between the seats. They must all be sick in Dublin today.

He looks around carefully but there's no sign of Nora, though he'd have to admit he'd be hard pressed to spot her straight off after all the years.

A woman with a crying baby stops beside him, a beautiful little black fella bawling over her shoulder like there was no tomorrow. Kevin steps back, scratching the back of his hand.

How the hell did he let the sister talk him into coming up? Her and her fecking big ideas.

The receptionist, an island of calm amidst all the voices, eventually finds Nora on the computer, tells him she's in St Rita's and points towards the lift.

So much for a quick getaway.

He takes the stairs. Hopefully now she'll be ready for him; use the lift on the way down, he reminds himself. Old people can be fierce slow. An old man, catching his breath, waits for him to pass.

On the third floor, the nurse in St Rita's directs him down the corridor.

"She's all set to go, yeah?" Kevin says.

The nurse puts her hand over the phone, looks at him blankly, juggling names and faces.

"I don't know. Can you come back to me in a minute?"

Cork, definitely Cork; gas accent, like Mikey the cop's son.

His boots squeak on the polished floor. Though he's wearing rough jeans - only yesterday he was out mending fences in them - he walks the walk of a man wearing the best of trousers. A good, clean shirt will get you through most of these type of situations.

He enters the room. There are visitors around most of the beds.

In the last one - no Nora sitting there with her coat on, eyes turning towards him - there's a small, old woman asleep. It can't be her. He steps closer. He peers around the oxygen mask over her face.

"Auntie Nora?"

Nothing. Eyes stay shut. He watches her breathing, her little body working from memory, tick, tack, tick, tack over the voices behind him. Someone starts laughing.

He goes back to the nurses' station. A different nurse tells him that Nora had been doing great until last night and that they'd called about her changed condition and left a message. Had he not been told?

Kevin shakes his head.

"And what's wrong with her?"


Straight out she says it, like she was ordering pork chops. Kevin knows pneumonia's not good.

"We'll be moving her to a highdependency ward where she'll be more comfortable. . ."

The sister'll be livid. All the plans she has for welcoming Nora into their house, everything rushed to be just right and proper.

He finds a public phone downstairs.

"Listen, " he says, and tells her what's happening.

"I know all about it, " she says. "I was only out a half hour getting new pillows and I heard the message." Then she goes on about doctors and the money they earn and remember the time she'd the chest pain and they kept her in and it turned out to be nothing at all.

Kevin stares at a tiny face scribbled on the wall.

"So I'll come back then, " he says, but the sister tells him to hang on till morning. Sure she might suddenly sit up and be fine to go.

She's calm enough with him but he knows her voice is really saying:

can't you do anything right?

He goes outside for a cigarette.

Visiting time's over and people are coming out into the warm, evening air in twos and threes, their voices in the falling light fading into the hum of the city. A ripple of loneliness nudges against him as he stands there, head cocked to one side. Worse than that, here he is facing a night on a hard chair or trussed up in the back seat of the car and he barely knows the old woman above.

He starts walking up and down.

He glances over to check the old car, just a flick of the eyes to make sure. . .

It's clamped. Ugly, fecking yellow thing around the wheel, writing on the window. Jesus!

Kevin ascends the stairs two at a time, fuming with the whole clamping situation. Maybe if he explains that he thought he was only going to be parked there a couple of minutes the nurse could do something about it.

Back up in St Rita's, two of the nurses are talking away behind the counter.

"Good timing, " one of them says, seeing him standing there.

What's she got to be so cheerful about?

"They're just taking her up now."

A black man's steering a trolley towards them, the slow, long stride of the hourly paid. Nora's barely visible till she's alongside. Not a bit of movement out of her, mask still on, wispy hair against the pillow.

Kevin nods at the black man.

Down the corridor they go, taking it easy. So much more civilised now with fewer people around.

They enter a big lift and the doors close. The motor jigs into life.

"Is it your mother?" the porter says.

"No, aunt. My aunt Nora."

They let the conversation drop, like a fish unhooking way below the surface.

Kevin looks down at Nora; such a small little thing, two strange men by her side. She'd left home at 16, knocked the Galway clay off her boots at Heuston station and got a job serving in a shop. She married young, Billy, who worked on the buses; no children, though it wasn't for the want of trying. Billy was never liked back home - he didn't know what the country was for - and the visits became less frequent. Kevin had only met her twice, funerals, one of them Billy's;

cards at Christmas. What was it she had? A ring with a red stone in it Billy had given her. The way the mother had talked of it under her breath when she'd gone, how a showy thing like that might bring you bad luck.

The lift doors shudder open.

He follows the porter along the green corridor, watches him ease the trolley into the highdependency ward.

"Paul, is it?" the new nurse says.


19"You're the son?"

"No, she's my aunt."

The nurse glances down at Nora.

"So you're a nephew?"

Kevin nods, not overly impressed with her powers of reasoning.

"We'll get her settled in, Kevin, if you give us a little bit of time."

A touch of relief, then guilt, as he turns away. In all honesty he's not hankering to be sitting beside aunt Nora, watching her tick-tacking through her mask. Illness was never encouraged in the family.

Strange then the way the sister's so keen to have Nora back home.

He finds a small waiting room at the end of the corridor. It's unlit save for a television, volume on low. He sits down on one of the chairs and stares forward.

The woman on the news is talking about the water shortage in England. A man in a red tie keeps smiling as she goes on and on about hosepipe bans, and how one family somewhere solved the problem by collecting. . .

Kevin goes over to the window.

Through a gap between the buildings he can see cars passing, a bus pulling away from its stop, the lights of Dublin beyond. What are they doing with Nora anyway?

Hospital stuff, all those things they don't want the public to see.

He's turning back to his seat when a man comes in, heavy set, quick eyes.

"Do you mind?" he says, hand on the light switch.


The room bursts into neon glory.

Kevin watches the man putting coins into the coffee machine, tapping his foot as he waits for the paper cup to fill.

"Have you someone here yourself?" the man asks suddenly.

"The aunt. I was supposed to be taking her away but they tell me she's not going anywhere tonight."

He looks at Kevin, sizing him up for a moment, then sits down across the room.

"The wife had surgery a week ago."

Kevin nods.

"Tough old business. You know, breast cancer."

He touches his own chest like it was tender. Kevin knows cancer tops pneumonia.

"I'm Tom, by the way."


"Welcome to La La land."

And he laughs.

The two of them sit in the bright room, ignoring the television, killing time with bits and pieces of talk.

He's probably a builder, Kevin thinks, the working boots, the nononsense manner.

"What time is it anyway?" Tom says, pushing back his shirt-sleeve.

"Nearly 11."

"Do you fancy a bit of grub?"

Tom brings him down to the nurses' café. They're not supposed to be there but the woman taking the money knows Tom's name and no one else seems to mind.

They sit down with their plates of lasagne and chips and cups of tea, and Tom talks him through the ropes.

"Nurse Sophie's on tonight.

Indian, you'll like her. She lets you move around a bit more."

Kevin nods.

"Now, the only one you've to watch out for is Sinead. Tall one, likes to boss it around."

Tom's pushing his chair back, standing up.

"It's like your first day at any job.

Takes you a while to get to know the routine."

Where are they off to now?

They stand outside, smoking, staring out into the dark. It's still warm, moths fluttering around the light behind them, a woman in short sleeves smoking a little way off.

"Your wife will be alright?"

Kevin says, out of the blue.

"Please God."

Tom looks away.

"I see some poor bastard's got himself clamped, " he says after a minute.

"That's my car."

"Why didn't you put it in the parking?"

Kevin sniffs, says nothing.

Suddenly, Tom's laughing.

"Fella the other day was shouting at your man. See, they only take credit cards, you know security reasons, and the fella had the cash out, trying to stick it into yer man's jacket, chasing after him. . ."

He stops, sensing Kevin's not enjoying the story.

"Don't worry about it. If you haven't a credit card I'll pay your man and you can fix up with me later.

"Thanks, " Kevin says, grinding his cigarette into the concrete.

Of course the sister told him he'd be a fool getting one of those things. One credit card in the house was plenty.

"I'd better go up."

* * * * Taking the lift up to the sixth floor, Kevin wonders if the sicker you are the higher they bring you.

Closer to God, the mother would have said.

He walks down the half-lit corridor, a strange sort of feeling seeping into him.

There are four beds in the room, a small light over each of them.

Nora's lying on her side. Did they put her that way or did she turn herself?

He sits down beside her.

Something peaceful about the room, like an empty church in winter. Tick tack, her breathing goes.

God, she's small. The mask over her face makes her look like a crumpled up child. His own flesh and blood, he reminds himself, like the bog man found above the house.

Her now, lying here, and the bog man stretched out in the dark museum.

Kevin leans forward in the seat.

What's that all about, the sister's sudden interest in getting Nora home? The way she picked up the mother's thing and laughed at the ring, joking about how big and stupid and red it was.

Kevin stretches out slowly and draws back the sheet a few inches;

no ring. He touches her hand - it just comes to him - and as he's putting back the sheet, Nora moves a little, her breathing struggling for a moment. Then calm.

That's what the sister's after, Kevin thinks, and how slow he's been to see it: Nora's house in Dublin. Has he no cop on at all?

Nora's very quiet now. Kevin can't even see her breathing, the mask and the tubes and the watching machines holding her body together. Nothing about her is moving. Nothing about her is moving. . .


He's up and moving towards the door. The Indian one's coming towards him. She brushes past and straight over to Nora's bed.

Kevin watches, two of them now around her, taking the mask on and off, but he knows it's all over.

Maybe they do too but they stay there, one of them holding Nora's hand, the other looking back at the machine. Like something out of a gallery painting.

The Indian nurse turns around to him, lets a couple of seconds tick by.

"She's gone."

Kevin nods. Tears well up that haven't welled in years.

She leads him out of the room.

They're standing in the corridor, quiet all around.

"She was very old, I think."

"She was. Eighty-six."

Kevin looks away. He sees Tom at the other end of the corridor heading towards them, a slow juggernaut of a man. Can't talk to him now.

The nurse signals to Tom. By the way they're standing together he knows full well what's going on, gives a little wave and turns back.

They bring him into a room behind the nurses' station, give him tea, and he tells them about Nora, and Billy and her coming up to Dublin when she was only 16.

Such grace in the way they listen to him.

One of them reaches into a drawer behind her and takes out something. It's Nora's ring. Sure it wouldn't win any beauty prizes but it's a sparkling thing tonight.

He takes it and thanks them, tells them he'd better call them back home.

"Yes, " the Indian nurse says.

"I'm sure they are keen for news."

* * * * Downstairs, he walks past the phone and out into the night. Just the one cigarette left, which he lights, moving on again, not wanting to stand still. The stars seem very far away.

He passes his old car, almost missing. . . the clamp's gone.

He smiles. Can't all be that bad, these Dubliners, doing a thing like that. Isn't it where Nora chose to live, safe from the clutches of family?

Mark Kilroy lives in Sandycove, Co Dublin. He has published some stories and was a runner-up in the Sean O'Faolain short story competition

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