Ballyquilty

Dr Jon Bryce wanted to move away from the surgery, at least to the outskirts of Ballyquilty. It should have been affordable. It was not a large village. The railway service had stopped in the 1980s, and beyond the usual – a church, a garage with a shop that had a bar attached, a primary school and a chipper* – there was nothing there.

He didn’t like living at the surgery. He really had to be able to lock up the practice and go home. His predecessor, Dr Keely, had built an extension to the family home in the 90’s constructing a purpose built surgery, including a modern waiting room with a TV and red vinyl-covered seating. The problem was that people tended to call at the house at odd times expecting attention. ‘I’m not on duty’, Jon would say, and ask them to call the out-of-hours service, but they wouldn’t listen.

‘So fortunate to find ye in, doctor. Ye know, just then, as I went past the house, ye had yer blinds down and I couldn’t see in!’ A mother looked expectantly at him across her baby buggy. Her toddler, pink and fat, let out an imperious cough. Probably a virus. Evelyn, the receptionist, had gone home for the evening, so was no longer there to defend him.

‘It’s only for little PJ, doctor, he do have a dose on him now, and he’s took very bad. I only want an antibiotic for him. If ye’d only be so kind?’

Jon tried to suggest that Calpol would suffice, but the child made a noise like a pheasant, only louder and longer. Jon relented and wrote up amoxicillin, knowing that every other mother in the village would now expect the same for their small children until the virus season was over.

It was so important not to fall out with anyone in Ballyquilty, or the whole village of nearly 500 people would know about it by the time the chipper opened, and would not forget about it until several years after Jon had retired. Jon had been five years in the practice yet older patients still made a point of reminding him that Dr Keely had done things differently. Every now and again he saw his predecessor’s fountain-penned handwriting in their records, a reproach to his scrappy ballpoint.

It was especially important not to fall out with Evelyn. Dr Keely’s eldest daughter had taken over from her mother as the secretary, receptionist, occasional nurse, and practice manager. Now in her fifties, she stayed on working there after her dad retired and her parents downsized to a bungalow in the lanes above the village. Evelyn was the power in the place. She would even announce when it was Jon’s break and give him his tea when there were patients waiting on the red seats. He would gulp down the scalding liquid thinking of a case of cardiac arrest that had been provoked by the very same.

When he had first arrived, Jon’s priority had been re-equipping the surgery, installing a paperless IT system and replacing old instruments with new electronic ones. But Evelyn had insisted on retaining her paper records so they ended up with two systems running in parallel. Most of the patients’ records were in filing cabinets in Evelyn’s office, while behind it a walk in store-room housed what she called the ‘Archives’: a small collection of out-of-date textbooks, and a row of cardboard boxes crammed with files of patients who had died or moved away, and which probably should have been sent to the health board years ago. It was terribly inefficient, but Jon dared not mention it. He knew that she would assume the severe set of the mouth that she reserved for people requesting repeat prescriptions, and inform him that she had her Own Way of Doing Things.

Living at the surgery had suited Jon at first, having moved from Devon to Ireland after a messy divorce. Then he’d gone into Specsavers for new glasses and met Paula, an optometrist newly transferred from Wales. Now they were married, and it was time for them to get their own place.

But the national housing crisis had by now curled its dreaded grip around the Ballyquilty property market. An ugly 1970s bungalow was snapped up at way above the expected price by a professional couple from Dublin who wanted to work from home via broadband and embrace a more natural lifestyle. The only other place for sale was the derelict farmhouse at the edge of the village, with its boarded windows. It was called Rathquilty and came with six acres, mostly leased as grazing to a neighbouring farmer. In front of the house was a tree-lined drive, with a neglected paddock alongside. There were thick stone walls and the remains of a slate roof, and if the bushes had been removed from the gutters, and the adjoining barn converted into a double-height living space, it might have made a fine family home. Jon and Paula earned enough to hire a builder – if they could find one – and thought it could be an ongoing project while continuing to live in the practice. They had seen those type of renovations on TV.

One May evening they drove over to look and think, and to lean on the stone wall by the road. The evenings were getting longer and swallows looped the loop in the sunlit air. Yet the neglected paddock with its sprouting mounds of brambles and stinging nettles seemed dark, as through absorbing the shade of the trees.

‘Maybe we could get it for sixty thousand. What do you think?’ Jon said. ‘Only, it’s a huge project. And where there are swallows, there’ll be midges.’

Paula was always the upbeat one. ‘It’ll be lush. And once we get this paddock cleared, and put in a proper garden, we probably won’t get the midges.’

‘I wonder why it’s not used,’ said Jon. ‘It should be good land – look at the fields either side.’

‘The auctioneer said there’s planning consent for an extension. Or at least it had been granted in the past and was never built. I don’t know how long it is until those things lapse.’

‘Evelyn told me not to buy it. Don’t be buying that.’ Jon mimicked his receptionist’s sternest tones.

‘Oh, you always have to do what she tells you, don’t you?’ Paula rolled her eyes. ‘Why don’t we do what we think? Before someone else buys it?’

‘Evelyn said the strangest thing: If you ride a horse past this paddock it stops, and won’t go on until you say out loud: ‘I did nothing to Lorigan Haley.’ Once you’ve said it, the animal moves on.’ Jon shivered; the sun was going down. ‘I asked her who Lorigan Haley was but she just dumped the day’s correspondence on my desk and told me not to forget that Mrs Carty’s metformin prescription was one tablet in the morning and one in the evening, instead of one a day.’

‘I’ll ask Bernie in the auctioneer’s office about it,’ said Paula. ‘It’s probably a fairy story or something.’

After work the next day Paula was solemn, but excited. ‘I offered them sixty thousand. It was what we’d said, wasn’t it? If there’s no higher offer in the next fortnight, it’s ours.’

‘Well done.’ Jon hesitated. ‘But what about Lorigan Haley, and the horses?’

Now Paula laughed. ‘Bernie said it was a load of malarkey and I wasn’t to believe what people round here said.’

Jon heaved a sigh. They had decided on sixty thousand, but it was a fair-sized addition to the mortgage, and there was talk that interest rates were going up. They sat watching their home improvement programmes on the TV that evening, but Jon felt there was something nagging at him that wasn’t just the money. Evelyn had gone home, so he’d have the surgery to himself.

‘I forgot to sign Mrs Carty’s prescription,’ he said suddenly. ‘I’ll only be a minute.’ There was a half-glazed door with a Yale lock between their half of the bungalow and the practice. He keyed the code into the burglar alarm and went through to Evelyn’s ‘Archives’. He switched on the store-room light and went in, wedging the door open behind him. The cardboard boxes were crudely indexed with marker pen: ‘Av – By’ and so on. Jon slapped dust away from the box labelled ‘Ge – He’, and inside, sure enough, there was Lorigan Haley’s file. The cover of the small buff packet of cards was scored through diagonally with two parallel ink lines and the letters R.I.P. between them, dated Sept. 1996. The home address was Rathquilty Farm. On the cards inside, the early entries were routine: birthweight and vaccinations, chicken-pox, school medicals. Jon recognised Dr Keely’s careful handwriting.

Lorigan Haley had been in the army. In 1995 an unusual blood group – AB negative – had come to light when a military vehicle had overturned in Bosnia and he had needed a blood transfusion. A year later it seemed that he had been invalided out. There had been a referral to a psychiatrist and Dr Keely had noted: raised GGT, alcohol? – Denies. The last entry, about post-traumatic stress disorder, had been made in August 1996, and Valium prescribed. Not the best choice, thought Jon, wondering why there was no mention of the cause of death.

Jon took the packet into his consulting room and laid it on his desk, knowing that Evelyn would notice it. As he expected, the next morning she stood over him in a huff with her hands on her hips. ‘For God’s sake, don’t be buying that place. I heard you made an offer-’

‘What happened to Lorigan Haley?’ Jon had prepared himself for this.

‘It’s where yer man was killed. He was shot while he was out on his tractor. The tractor went on until it ran into the wall of the house. Whoever it was, they never caught him.’

‘How do you know it was a him?’

‘Who knows?’ Evelyn took a step back. ‘Could’ve been a her, I suppose. No-one ever found out. Probably a complete stranger, one of those random things that happen.’ The phone rang and she hurried away to answer it.

Later that day Jon saw Gary Roche, a local farmer, for a blood pressure check.

‘I’ll have to increase your ramipril,’ Jon told him.

‘Ah sure, not getting any younger. Age is a cruel thing. And farming no better. You know what they say about a baby?’

Jon flicked through Gary’s record cards with a smile. He had heard the joke before.

Gary chuckled. ‘A baby may stop crying, but a farmer won’t.’

‘You were in the Army in the 90s.’ Dr Keely had written to the Army medical officer that Gary had once fainted but was otherwise healthy.

‘UNPROFOR. Peacekeeping when there was no peace to keep. We were in Srebrenica.’ Gary’s jovial manner had faded. ‘Bodies piled up high; we were undertakers, not soldiers. Then in 1995 we got out the way for the NATO airstrikes. That was the only thing that stopped the Serbs.’

‘Did you know Lorigan Haley?’

‘Aye.’

‘I suppose you must have been at school together?’

But Gary was fiddling with his phone, frowning as he brought it nearer to his eyes. ‘Sorry, doc, I’ve my daughter Rachel waiting in the car. She’ve another check up at the maternity clinic and the husband had to take their car in to the garage. That’s her texting me.’ Now his face relaxed into an affectionate smile.

As Gary made his way out, Jon thought of something: Rachel’s antenatal clinic letter. Her blood group was AB negative and they were going to give her anti D when her baby was born.

He checked Gary’s records: Blood group O. There was no way Rachel was Gary’s daughter. He retrieved her entry on the practice computer and checked her date of birth: May 1997. Lorigan Haley had died in September 1996. It was possible. Had Rachel been conceived just before Lorigan was shot?

There was one more record to check: Sarah Roche, Gary’s wife. Sarah’s computer record only went back to 2005. Jon squeezed past Evelyn’s chair as she haggled on the phone about an appointment. He went into the store-room and found the cardboard box marked ‘R’.

Sarah Quilty’s maiden name had been changed to Roche in January 1997, four months before Rachel’s birth. In October 1996 she had requested a termination of pregnancy and been referred to a private clinic in Liverpool. But evidently she had not gone through with it, for she had then returned for antenatal care before being delivered of a healthy daughter.

‘Everyone in the village knows.’ Evelyn was standing in the store-room doorway. ‘Lorigan was never right after Bosnia. We all felt sorry for him, but sure, when he forced himself on Gary’s sweetheart, well, you could understand what happened. What good would it have done to report it? That’s why we all stay away from the house.’

‘And the story about the horses?’

‘You see, Dr Jon, in the village we have our Own Way of Doing Things. And I hear there’s some lovely new houses being built down in the town…’

For the tenth time that morning, Jon reminded himself that falling out with his receptionist was not an option.

©HistWriter.com, 2022

*Note: for non-Irish readers, a chipper is a chip-shop, or take-away shop serving chips (fries) usually with deep-fried battered fish.

This story is dedicated to the hard-working GPs of Co. Wexford, especially Dr Jutta O’Meara and Dr Helen Doyle.

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