A novel (2004) was published in Canada by Trafford. Miriam's short stories have been published in anthologies, and literary journals, such as A Page Falls Open, The Turning Tide, New Grapevine & WP Journal.
When Salamander Quinn decides to liberate all the lost souls at St. Job's Infirmary, he embarks on a Kafkaesque journey. Powerful forces determine his ultimate destiny.
Ever since finding out about Dr. Porterre's new technique I tried to display an outstanding memory. My zeal often caused misunderstandings, which I bore manfully, determined to avoid the knife at all costs. I decided to conceal my discovery from the other patients. The news would frighten the highly strung and sink the rest. People needed regular routine with the benefit of occasional advice.
Suddenly I was tired of being quizzed by Dr. Porterre. Put under the microscope. Answering his questions was a game of risk where the Great Man set the rules. It was always his call. Now I decided the time had come to change places. I would become the doctor and he would be my patient. If I was feeling magnanimous we could take turns. It would be unwise to show my hand. Moreover, our little game of bouleversement, where we swapped places, might never cause a metanoia or change of heart, become a 'Road to Damascus' thing. And God knows I have had my share of those! No, this represented more of a mind shift. A mental thing.
In the boardroom your eyes light up. I hear you exclaim. Hah! Now he is getting to the nub of it. But, kind doctors, that is your job, not mine.
Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin.
Today I am going to tell you about Miss Baker, who loves a man from Maldon. He works in the mines and is full of sweat and gold dust but alas! no gold. None at all. In Maldon, after finishing your tea and scones, you are off to see the mines. Your gaze is held by the hypnotic dance of the horse drawn carts, winding up the hill and around the crater, that cuts into the earth like a wound. After waiting for the metal containers, trug trug trugging out from the inside, the carts are filled. Then, down the road, made by pick and shovel, as that railway in Queensland was hewn, cut and shaped by Red Lynch, the fiery Irish foreman, way down by Nureemba. It is the biggest gold rush the world has ever known. Half the world comes from Canada, America, England, Scotland. Oh yes, plenty come from there. A Scot will hover and hum over an opportunity anywhere the world over. Miss Baker knows that when she falls in love with Robbie Maclean. He is shovelling earth into containers at the mouth of the mine, when she gets her first glimpse of him. Beads of sweat stand out on his brow. He works in a slow steady rhythm, pausing now and then to push a lock of dark hair back from his forehead. The rhythmic movements of the shovel, glinting in the sun, catch her eye. She is standing on a nearby hill and pauses to get her breath back. His arms work the soil. Back and forth, back and forth. That man, Miss Baker says, works like a galley slave in days gone by. Each time he touches his brow, his hand leaves behind a smear of earth. Earth from inside the black mouth of the mine. Earth plundered for gold. Trickles of sweat and earth run down his forehead. Gold in his eyes. The more he shovels with strong muscular movements, the more sweaty his brow. How strong, yet vulnerable, he looks. Somehow, the contrast makes her smile. Miss Baker says, when she first looks at Robbie Maclean, standing there, full of gold dust, at the mouth of blackness, it is not with lust in her heart. That comes later. On that first day, when it is time for the man to stop, he leans on his shovel and lets out a big sigh. Then, as he looks up from the work, he becomes aware that someone is watching him.
I awoke to the sound of gentle snoring. I coughed politely. There was no response.
'Lying here, listening to the rain, reminds me of the rain forest' I began.
Dr. Porterre woke with a start. 'What was that eh?'
Should I share with him the terror and drama of talking to sharks? I decided to plunge on. 'One of the sharks is my champion. He warns me of danger. But I keep diving for buried treasure. I'm searching for my shadow self.'
There was silence from his leafy lair. Was I wasting my dream on thin air? How could Dr. Porterre understand about the sharks unless he got inside my head to dream the dream with me? But how? I waited several moments before forging ahead with the tale of the giant sting ray. Again I waited. 'Aha' or even 'Hmm' would have been nice. When no encouragement was forthcoming I took the coward's way out, praising the benefit of pink pills. Used to tiptoeing around the doctor's feelings, my own were put to one side. After all, what was I but a mere patient?
On the eve of battle I stood in my pyjamas on the corridor outside Daffodil and Amaryllis, waiting for my fellow conspirator. He did not disappoint me. Later that night, I was filled with a surge of hope. And what is hope but enthusiasm? En Theos. Two Greek words meaning, A God Within - as I discovered in the school dormitory, torchlighting my way through the delights of dictionary land. Lying there in Daffodil, I rolled the words over on my tongue, savouring their sound, shape and meaning, tossing them about, making them my own. En Theos: two smooth pieces of translucent amethyst, tasting far sweeter than any lozenge. I felt surprisingly calm. Everything was in place. I would strike at dawn.
As soon as the new Annalivia Hospital opened, chaos reigned. Surgeons were denied access to the glinting operating theatres full of expensive equipment.As the hospital bordered a busy under pass going north, accidents were bound to happen; Casualty was crammed; waiting lists for operations grew longer. The lifts broke down, stranding the Minister for Health in mid air. Rumours circulated that his pet project, destined to save the overstretched Health Service, would lose him votes. Especially those of nurses. The Labour Court was to set up a commission to examine and report on nurses' role in the Health Service. Matron would be part of a group from the commission that would travel to Australia to examine nursing practices over there.
Passing the half open door of Matron's office, I overheard Dr. Porterre giving her advice. I was not actually snooping, but pausing to get my breath back, after taking the stone steps too fast in the heat. For a week now St. Job's had been in the grip of a heat wave. Tulip ladies relinquished their cardigans and men took to wearing knotted handkerchiefs on their heads while outdoors. 'In Cairns make sure to stay at the Colonial Club Resort,' the Great Man advised. 'A haven of repose set in a garden of rain forest.' He sighed. 'Nothing like it.'
'Really Manon,' she feebly protested. 'I'll be working.' The Great Man seemed not to have heard her. 'Jumbo prawns to beat Banagher. Mad fresh from the Pacific.'
'I'll remember that.' Matron laughed a girlish laugh
'Plenty of sharks out there at the Great Barrier Reef,' he warned.
'I can take care of myself,' she countered, completely missing the point.'
'Of course Euphonia.' Suitably chastened, he wiped his brow with a polka dot silk handkerchief.
I laid my cheek against the cool wood of the door. Rivulets of sweat ran down my neck. We might have been in Cairns only without the delights of the Colonial Club Resort, described by Dr. Porterre; the secret pool inside a cave with its own Jacuzzi; an open rock pool into which, like Tarzan, lifesavers on vacation dived from impossible heights, golden hair glinting in the Queensland sun. The Great Man preferred lolling beside a secluded pool bar. If parched, you just swam a few strokes and drank, sitting on a stool at the bar, your legs in the water. It reminded me of a film I once saw where everyone went to Paradise.
'Doctor, in my dreams I find myself swimming in shark infested waters.'
'Unwise Mr. Quinn. Those fellows can bite.'
'Yes but they smile at me as they glide by. Grinning mouths with pointed teeth'
'Now I know about sharks. When I was in Cairns Colonial Club Resort-'
'I'd like to hear more of that Doctor,' I murmured politely, 'after I tell you about . .'
However, Dr. Porterre seemed to be in one of his rare chatty moods. 'Fruit bats at sundown. Flying high over the poolside bar. Making straight for the fruit trees.'
I could not give a fig about the Great Man's tropical experiences. His function was to hear about mine.
'In my dreams I'm collecting samples of marine life from the ocean bed for National Geographic. My fear of drowning is gone. Even the prospect of public acclaim doesn't bother me.' But the Great Man was not listening. ‘Those bats were as regular as clockwork. You could time your second G & T by them.'
I let it all wash over me. There was silence in the carpeted oasis. Just the two of us alone in green leafiness. Marooned in the tropics. Locked into our own dreams. I coughed. 'You know how one of the sharks keeps talking to me - in shark language of course- could that be my shadow self?' Dr. Porterre grunted. I waited. Then, from the green leafiness came the sound of snoring. The Great Man was asleep.
'I'm glad to hear you're taking your medication,' you said.
'Oh yes. Indeed. I never miss a pill.'
It was true. I looked forward to a new prescription and never risked disapproval by hiding pills in my pyjama pockets or behind the radiators. If I so wished, I could write a book about pills. My experience has made me something of an expert. Before the catastrophe, my skills were needed in the ward, where I was beginning to achieve a reputation of sorts. Whenever new patients appeared, they soon learned to seek me out for information and advice about tablets and potions. I enjoyed the feeling of being helpful. Besides, I could barter my own brand of wisdom for more material rewards such as cigarettes and bottles of fruit drink. As you know, real drink was forbidden. Understandable really. It clashed with the effects of pills, bringing out symptoms of mania in some of the otherwise docile and depressed patients besides completely overturning the prescription arrangements. Fortunately I was there to calm down an obstreperous patient or advise a downhearted one so that general regularity could be restored to the ward. If given new pills, I professed a modest improvement in my general morale. Any display of elation meant the risk of being put on a heavy dose of tranquilisers. When my prescription remained the same for several weeks I declared myself somewhat down in the dumps - but not suicidal. The distinction was crucial. Being down in the dumps meant a little help could cheer you up whereas anyone who was suicidal needed constant watching - often in a locked ward.
(2004, Trafford, Victoria,Canada) ISBN 1-4120-1299-6
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(A published short story)
If you want to meet the Paros pusakis, take the winding road from Parikia where the ferries land and cross the island to Drios. It's simple - once you know how. Just wend your way down through Podromos and Lefkes until you get to Drios village. When you arrive, ask for Nissiotiki Spiti. You reach it by going down a dusty path, passing the Anchor Taverna on your right and an ancient dovecote on your left. At the end of the path you're there. It looks more like a private house than a small hotel. Just walk through the gate painted that deep blue of the Cyclades, to match the shutters, and enter the garden, where cascades of bouganvillea glint in the sun like clusters of purple jewels. Go around the corner of the house. And there, glimpsed through a profusion of scarlet hibiscus, is the sea. An endless expanse of sparkling turquoise. Majestic, serene. Perfect. The place exudes peace. No mechanical sounds of any kind. And no transistors. None. The pusakis don't like them. For sheer kefi , these creatures of taste and discernment are a leap ahead of the languorous cats of Crete. But I forget myself. Wherever there are free spirits, there is no contest.
That first morning, we breakfast on honey and joghurt under a tamarisk tree. I gaze out at the islands. Hazy shapes emerge, shimmering in the heat, dissolve and disappear. I look towards Naxos, thinking of Nora. She begged us to come and stay. “Next time”, we promised. Only there wasn't a next time.
A black cat appears on a low wall between our table and the sea. I offer joghurt while G tries to interest a tortoiseshell mother and her family in some bread. Two white kittens tumble into the group, who wait patiently while we drink our coffee. They consume the remains of our joghurt, and scamper off into a tangle of trailing greenery.
We give our cats Greek names, like Plato, Sappho, Orpheus. Plato, alas, manifested none of his namesake's greatness. A weedy little thing, he loved to immerse himself, most uncatlike, in pools of water. Perhaps he was meditating on the meaning of Life. All too soon, despite reviving drops of cognac in his milk, he departed Lethewards to taste the Stygian darkness.
Sappho came to us in a friend's pocket one Autumn evening. She was a tabby,wise with gleaming eyes and more a philosopher than a poet. When she gave birth in our bedroom, her purring woke me in the night. I crept out of bed, moving gently towards the sound. Four tiny kittens were huddlling in her fur. She purred as if she'd got the Nobel Prize for Feline Motherhood. Perhaps my delight in this miracle gave her ideas. She would bring the kittens to our bed for safe keeping while she resumed her nocturnal meanderings. In her own way she helped me mourn. After my mother's death, I found it hard to cry. Really weep. Six months later, Sappho was killed by a motorist outside our Dublin house. It was only then the tears came. I wept as if there was no to-morrow.
At the beach, I glance at the book G is reading. On the cover a huge eye, like a balloon, is floating up, up and away. I lie back, soaking in the sun, a slave to Helios. I listen to the sea. To an islander, reared at the edge of the Atlantic and caught in its roar, the sound of gentle waters is always a surprise. Later, while G is swimming, I pick up his book, lying face down in the sand. On the back, is the caption for Odilon Redon's image on the cover. The Eye Like a Strange Balloon Mounts Towards Infinity . Reading those words, I think of Nora. A free spirit.
As I write in the garden at Nissiotiki Spiti, the black kitten seems to have adopted me. It plays with my notes, scampering under the pine tree chasing pages. This tiny jaguar is like Orpheus, a gleaming beauty of a black panther, who wandered into our lives, as cats do.
During the glorious reign of Orpheo Negro, Jupiter landed. A large - a very large white bunny. His sharp teeth could bite through anything. In a house of free spirits, he was treated the same as everyone else, i.e. fed and then let off. However, when Bunny was discovered under the breakfast table munching away at G‘s only good pair of leather shoes, he was banished from the house. In the garden he hopped about happily but would dash over and spray my legs whenever I used the clothesline. “It's all right Mum, he just thinks he's your husband”, my daughter consoled. To escape, I was forced to dart out under enemy fire, do my business and nip back inside before he did his. It was a race to the death. We built a run for Bunny. Afterwards I had such sweet moments, hanging out the washing while he sped up and down, eating the place to bits. When he developed abscess after abscess on his left side, the Vet feared Jupiter might be facing his final leap to the Great Rabbit Hutch in the Sky. I was appointed Chief Nurse. Administering medicaments proved fraught. As he languished, I fixed my gaze on his perfect right side, white and fluffy and resplendent.
In the hushed night, the only sounds are gentle swishing sounds of the sea. Not a pusaki to be seen or heard. They are off at the tavernas, charming diners. The garden is full of fragrant silence. Overhead a milky band stretches across the heavens. I go out onto the little balcony for a breath of air and lean against the railings, painted that deep blue of the Cyclades. A sickle moon hovers over Naxos. The pine tree whispers in the scented breeze. I feel like flying out over the sea.
Our next feline - the only one without a Greek name - approached via the Evening Press. Good Home Wanted for Black and White Male Cat. Otherwise will have to be put down. No sooner had the words leapt off the page than we were dialling the Cat Rescue People. They were guarded. An outdoor cat might not settle. There followed an inquisition, which was insulting to cat people like ourselves. Did someone think we were about to eat the creature or use it in some bizarre sacrifice? All we wanted was to save the animal from certain death. Little did we realise we would be leading it towards a fate worse than death by Holy Orders. But I digress.
The cat arrived. Very very very large, with a pretty face and enormous feet. Black like Orpheus and white with a pink nose like Jupiter. The cat's foster mother tearfully delivered him and promised to phone. At the time of his arrival, our daughter, who has an instinct for wild things, was taming a hedgehog. When this prickly visitor emerged late one night from under the stairs, she fed it bread soaked in milk. It honoured us with a few nights visitations, and then disappeared, probably to work its way under the houses of Dublin 6 and onwards. It should be in Wicklow by now.
At first, Pussy scuttled under the stairs in the direction of our disappearing hedgehog and could only be coaxed out by our daughter, who talked to him in cat language. This worked wonders. He inched his way up the hall and through the study door to the strains of the Moonlight Sonata only to hide under my desk. Was he trying to tell me something? Beethoven however, seemed to have a calming effect.
The Cat Rescue People advised keeping him indoors for six weeks. On the third day we opened the window and let him off. After all, we are a house of free spirits. Two days later he was still on his travels. Being cat lovers, we confidently awaited his return. His foster mother bore the news of his absence bravely and suggested making bird noises to lure him back, giving a bravura demonstration over the phone. She even offered to come over and repeat the performance since I was unwilling to imitate her warblings. I graciously declined her offer. On the third day Pussy returned without the benefit of bird calls, to his foster mother's shock and relief. He soon settled. Rolling in the grass and chasing wild things were among his delights. With his black and white fur he seemed like Orpheus and Jupiter rolled into one. Half cat, half rabbit. Sometimes we called him the cabbit, which was irreverent. Perhaps this was why he fell prey to the ministrations of the archdeacon's housekeeper and took Holy Orders. But that's another story.
I walk by the water. Like any islander, I am always looking outwards and onwards to the next sea voyage, to the far shore. Sipping ouzo at a harbour kafenion, I sit with my back to the setting sun. I am facing East. Naxos is behind me. It's only a short boat journey but I cannot bear to go there. Not now
On our last night we go to a taverna on the waterfront. We take the table, where a piece of paper, fluttering in the breeze, proclaims TZAK in boldly pencilled letters. Nearby a group of Germans drink beer. Recognising them from the beach, we exchange smiles. A family of pusakis gathers as we feast, gazing out beyond the harbour to the sea. Caiques, clustered near the tiny white church on the pier, rock gently in the water. Jack's wife throws bread to the fish while I feed the kittens. Listening to Jack playing Rembetiko airs on the bouzouki, I remember his daughter singing the same songs as we drifted over the wine dark sea to Sifnos. At the next table, a boy of eight with glistening eyes turns to face the music, sitting astride the back of his chair like a man.
“Er ist begeistert”, murmurs one of the Germans as the child's fascinated gaze is held by the power of Jack's playing. The boy's father, sending over tributes of retsina, hums to the melodies while Jack and his beautiful Slavic wife think of their nightingale daughter at Music college in London.
The Germans leave. A small black cat hovers at the harbour's edge. “Ela Pusakimou” I call softly. It glides over and graciously accepts bits of fish. “Orea”, I smile, patting its sleeky fur and offer a piece of G's souvlaki, filched from his plate. A last offering - till next time. Will there be a next time?
Back home in Dalkey, the bottle of Trebbiano'97 comes in an ice bucket. Fancy for a pub. By some miracle it's sunny and we eat outdoors. I lift my glass.The chilled wine is crystal clear with a pale silvery green tinge. It looks like the waters of Paros. They say in Greece that wine delights all the senses except hearing so we tap our glasses on the table before clinking them together. ”Sigia”, we smile. When we drink, it's like diving into the Aegean. Would there be a next time?
At home we play music and read. G picks up Captain Corelli's Mandolin. It's my turn now for Enduring Love . I'm fascinated by that picture of an eye like a balloon on the cover. Putting a CD in the player, I realise that most of our music has the Naxos label. Once more I think of Nora.
Remember, if you want to meet the Paros pusakis, make sure you stay at Nisiotiki Spiti. I promised Grigoriou I'd spread the word. But not to everyone. Just to people like ourselves. Antitransistorite cat lovers, longing for peace and the magic of Greece.
2002, The Turning Tide, Anthology of Co. Waterford Writing, edited by Thomas Mc Carthy