By Roderick O’Sullivan
“Flight 407 to London Heathrow is now boarding at Gate 34. American Airlines again apologises for the long delay, resulting from the earlier security incident. American Airlines thanks you for your understanding on the inevitable seating changes that have proved necessary to make up for lost time and backlogs. A complimentary bar service will be available throughout the flight. This is the last and final call for Mr Patrick Murphy. Will Mr Murphy please make his way to Gate 34 where this flight is now closing…”
“It’s swell having you back on board again,” said the smiling chief-stewardess. “To your left, doctor, as usual. First class, 2A. May I?”
The tall silver haired man handed over his jacket and in the same movement bent to stow away his briefcase. Settling into his seat, he adjusted the creases in his pinstriped trousers.
“Thank you, Cherry. And may I say how radiant you look this evening?”
“Oh, that bedside manner of yours. I’m beat already, you know it’s been chaos and the flight is jammed. Anyway they’ve arrested those two crazies carrying Kalashnikovs. Thank the Lord nobody was hurt. Can I get you anything, doctor?”
“Most kind, Cherry, but no thank you. All I need is a little simple peace and quiet to add the finishing touches to my lecture. Later a little Brahms and maybe, just maybe, a chilled glass of Chablis with my meal.”
“It was so fortunate having you aboard back in April when that woman took that turn. You remember?”
“Indeed; I hear she made it to hospital in Seattle. Didn’t she make a full recovery? I was never informed.”
“According to Captain Wainright, complications set in and she passed away some days later.” She smiled as her eyebrows arched. “I think they wait for you to come on board before having their seizures.”
“Sometimes I think the same, Cherry.” He stroked his beard then tapped the small pouch at his side. “I make a point of always carrying my emergency kit.” As an afterthought he added, “Anyway, one can only do one’s best…”
“I’m sorry, doctor for being so, so, erm, flipperant. I know you did all you could for the elderly lady. You were so composed…”
“Thank you, Cherry, and I think you mean flippant, not flipperant.” His quick smile disappeared. “May I say at this juncture just how very helpful you yourself were when the good lady lost consciousness. What an excellent nurse you would have made.”
“Oh, doctor, you do say the nicest things. Oops, this way madam …if you would excuse me…”
With ten minutes to take-off, the only empty seat was 3A First Class. As the last passenger entered, he bumped against the doorway and after taking two unsteady steps, tottered, scattering a bottle of liquor, a carton of cigarettes and a half-eaten sandwich from a duty-free bag.
“Whoa,” he cried, stumbling after the bottle as it rolled along the aisle. “Come here, me little beaut, you’re not gettin’ away that easily.”
The bottle had come to rest against the doctor’s shoe. Breathing heavily, the latecomer slowly knelt to retrieve it. He winked knowingly, straightened up and held the bottle aloft.
“John Jameson,” he said, showing an irregular row of chipped and stained teeth. “The only stuff, I’m tellin’ you. Would you be fancyin’ a tipple yourself, sir, seein’ that it was your good boot that arrested my liquid friend here. And he tryin’ to escape, no less. Aye.”
The doctor suppressed a shudder. “I rarely touch spirits, my good man,” he said, staring pointedly out the window. “Thank you, nonetheless.”
“You don’t know what you’re missin’. Good old John J.”
“Your seat is there, sir,” interrupted Cherry, using both arms to propel the man into his berth. “Strap yourself in quickly, you’re delaying us long enough as it is.” Her eyes rolled heavenward. “Mr Murphy has been upgraded from Economy, doctor. I’m sorry about this extrusion, oops, I mean intrusion…”
“Aha, doctor is it?” Murphy said, his ruddy face beaming. “That’s one for the books, eh? Me sittin’ right next to a real medical man. Put it there, sir.”
Murphy stretched forward and before he could react, grabbed the doctor’s right fist with his rough-skinned hands.
“Delighted, doctor, dee-lighted. Wait ‘til the missus hears just who I was sitting next to. Always knew you’d get a grander class of person in the First Class. PXBM at your service; that’s Patrick Xavier Boniface Murphy to all and sundry.” He inclined his head backward and squinted. “And who might you be?”
His lips forming in a thin line the doctor quickly withdrew his hand and muttered, “My name’s Dr….”
“Please fasten your seat-belt,” interrupted Cherry, making no attempt to conceal her exasperation, “and kindly allow the other passengers their privacy. You happen to be in First Class now, Mr Murphy, not Economy. Respect. Manners. Please get a hold of yourself and remember where you are.”
Murphy burped then whispered conspiratorially against the back of his hand, “Know somethin’, doc? I reckon her ladyship’s got up on the wrong side of the bed this mornin’.”
“I’ve changed my mind. Would you be so kind as to bring me a large malt? Laphroaig.”
“Oh, miss? Miss.”
“Yes, Mr Murphy?” came the icy response.
“I’d like to order somethin’ from this here, complementary list o’ drinks. I’d like some of that Klug champagne. Make it a bottle while you’re at it.”
“You mean Krug, Mr Murphy.”
“Indeedy, bottle of Klug. The very man.” He rubbed his palms together. “Ah, ha, way to live, way to go.” Leaning across the aisle, he tugged the sleeve of the passenger in the adjacent cubicle, a sixty something-ish lady of Middle Eastern appearance.
“How’s it goin’ there, missus? I bet this Klug stuff beats the livin’ stuffin’ out of Matt Molloy’s pints of Guinness, what do ye reckon, eh? Eh?”
With a perceptible shiver, the woman shook her sleeve free, her smouldering dark eyes never deviating from the book firmly held in her grasp.
Murphy stepped backward and jostled the doctor jostled playfully in the ribs. “Have you heard the one about the one-eyed lesbian who…”
Brow furrowing, the doctor unbuckled his seat-belt and stood up. “My lack of interest in social discourse, Mr Murphy,” he grated, sliding his laptop free, “is due to my having to complete my lecture. Do excuse me.”
“Say no more, doctor. Never let it be said that any member of the Murphy tribe ever put as much as a toecap in the way of expandin’ the frontiers of medical science.” To the stewardess he called, “How’s me old friend Mr Klug comin’ along there, missy? Chop, chop, what?”
“We’re taking off very shortly, Mr Murphy. You’ll just have to wait until we’re aloft.”
Five hours into the flight, only a muffled snoring and small movements of bedclothes disturbed the dark serenity in the First Class cabin. The sole light came from overhead 2A, its cone-shaped beam illuminating Murphy’s slouched figure like a searchlight. His shirt open, half-sitting, half-lying on his bed, he rose unsteadily to his feet and stepped across the aisle. He stared down at the doctor for a few seconds before shaking him by the shoulder.
“Sorry to be botherin’ you, doc,” he slurred.
The doctor’s sleep-filled eyes shot open, unsure of where he was. Blinking, he glanced at his watch. 2.43.
“What on earth is up with you, Murphy?” he growled. “Do you know what time it is?”
“Two things, doc. One, I’m damned if I can remember the words of the third verse of ‘My Lagan Love.’ Great song entirely. You wouldn’t happen to know them by any chance, eh? I’ll never get to sleep otherwise. As God’s me judge.”
The doctor half-rose from the bed, propping himself up on an elbow.
“No, Mr Murphy, I do NOT know the second verse or the first verse or any verse of your ‘Lagan Love’”.
“I’m all right up to…” With that he broke into instant song,
“But dew-Love keeps her memory
Green on the…”
“For heaven sake,” spluttered the doctor. “People are trying to sleep…”
“Cut out that bloody racket,” came a gruff male voice.
The doctor was wide awake. “Now look, I’ve had it up to here….”
“…I’m really sorry sir, really. It’s not me fault, it’s the drink, it does do funny things to me mind. Unless I can go to sleep satisfied about things like, then I do be tossin’ and turnin’ the whole night through. It can be the words of a song, me youngest being in trouble again or that eldest waster of mine being on the lash – anythin’ can put me right off me beauty sleep. Don’t tell me it’s weird, I know.”
“You’ve drunk enough to put a herd of hippos to sleep for a week. I’m amazed you’re still able to speak, never mind think about the words of songs…”
“…Not just songs. Poems are the worst, doc. I’m grand durin’ the day when I’ve tons of things to do and that but come the night and it’s a different kettle of fish. Soon as I start thinkin’ about poems I learnt at school I’m in real trouble. If I can finish the verses I’m all right like but if I can’t…” He didn’t finish the sentence but drained his glass in a swift backward movement. Wiping his lips with the back of his hand he continued in a tired voice, “And tomorrow I’m guaranteed to have the father and mother of hangovers. I buried the brother day before yesterday in Los Angeles – God rest hiss soul – and I’ve been on a rampage of a skite since they laid him in that cold cold clay. Aye. God, those hangovers.” He rummaged beneath the blanket. “Where the hell is it?”
“What are you digging for, man?”
“Me John J. It’s your only man at this stage of the game.”
“Haven’t you had enough?”
Murphy grinned crookedly. “One’s not enough; two’s too much; three’s not half enough.”
“For all our sakes, Murphy, let me give you something to make you sleep.”
In spite of the volumes he’d put away, a spark flickered in Murphy’s rheumy eyes.
“Like what?” he growled.
The years spent digging trenches and building motorways had honed his sixth sense to the presence of danger that no amount of alcohol or First Class travel could dampen. Blearily he took in the crocodile eyes, the dispassionate stare, the deep facial fissures. He shook his head as if to dismiss the cloying doubts that were tugging at the edges of his addled consciousness. This doctor bloke’s what real men should be like. Men who’ve seen it all. Men of education that you can really trust. For those few fleeting seconds some of the crooked gangers he’d served flashed by; Pudsey Ryan – a man who’d rape his own mother for a round of drinks; Gerry Collins who’d rob a blind man of his guide-dog without flinching. Yet both bastards had done well – one a government minister, the other running his own road-haulage firm – he shook his head again, trying to dismiss the unfairness of it all. You’re in First Class now, in with the real McCoy – educated folk – not like yourself – here it’s real class – people who really wanted to help other human beings…not like those gob-shites I have to rub shoulders with in the Queen’s Head…
He released his breath slowly, still reprimanding himself. Suspicions about a doctor? Shit, what was I thinkin’ of?
“What are you goin’ to charge me for the, erm, stuff, doctor?”
“Nothing. I’m giving you a helping hand. You’d do the same for me.”
“That’s sort of real kind, doc, it…”
“…It will also free you from your hangover. Judging by what I’ve seen you put away, you’ll be feeling pretty sorry for yourself in the morning.” He glanced at his watch. “Five hours to go. A half-decent night’s sleep is what you need. With what I’ll give you you’ll feel like a new babe when you wake up.”
“You mean with one tablet I can forget all this poetry thing, the hangover, the…”
“…The lot. It’s not a tablet, an injection. Faster, quicker, effective; gets into the bloodstream immediately – what your body is crying out for. A boost of multivitamins, electrolytes, essential minerals and a tincture of a mild homeopathic sedative. Never fails.”
“Good man yourself.”
“Roll up your shirt then back into bed quickly because you’ll …”
“…You’re a sound man, doc; know that?”
“Keep the voice down; sleeve up a little further; a tiny little prick…”
Cherry again shook the sleeping figure by the shoulder. “Doctor. Doctor. ”
His eyes stared unknowingly at her face before recognition set in. “Ah, good morning, Cherry,” he said rising on an elbow. “Breakfast already?
“We’ve thirty five minutes to Heathrow but I…” She choked back a cry and held a hand over her mouth.
“Whatever’s the matter?”
“I can’t seem to wake Mr Murphy,” she said, biting her lip.
“I’m not surprised seeing what he put away.”
“No, doctor, as First Class manageress I’m well used to people… you know. Mr Murphy isn’t just chilled out, he seems so still, so very still. And he feels, well, coldish…”
Her voice trailed off as her eyes pleaded with the doctor’s.
“I’ll take a look.”
Pyjama-clad, he threw back his blanket, slipped the emergency-kit from below his bed and stepped across the aisle. He seemed unaware of the handful of silent passengers standing to the front of the cabin, while another cluster stood apprehensively by the First Class exit. Murphy lay immobile on his back, half covered with a blanket, an arm hanging over the bed, his drooping fingers hanging above the carpet like a claw. The doctor moved quickly, first feeling for Murphy’s wrist-pulse, then the carotid-artery before bending down to place his ear over the wide-open mouth. Without speaking he loosed Murphy’s shirt and tie and placed a hand over the heart. After a short hesitation he straightened and spoke without turning.
“Cherry, please inform the Captain that one of his passengers has most likely passed away in the night. Have him alert Heathrow; have an ambulance standing-by with a resuscitation-team. I don’t consider there’s much hope but we just might be lucky. In the meanwhile try and keep everything calm with the rest of the passengers while I administer some adrenaline. It’s a long shot.” His dark eyes continued to regard the body. “Poor fellow,” he muttered, kneeling down in the aisle beside the body.
Zipping open his bag he quickly removed a tourniquet. In a swift well-practiced action, he snapped the top from a phial and in almost the same movement, flicked the ampoule upside down. Inserting a needle, he quickly loaded a syringe with clear liquid.
Captain Neehammer coughed self-consciously as he stood with Cherry behind the doctor. “What do you think? Any hope?”
The doctor didn’t reply but slowly stood up, his eyes still focused on Murphy’s face. After a short hesitation he said softly, “I did what I could. No response, I’m afraid.” As if remembering something, he bent down and gently closed Murphy’s vacant eyes. “May God have mercy on your immortal soul, Patrick.”
A voice from the small group of spectators said, “God be with him.”
”You did all you could, doctor. Awesome.”
“Amen to that,” said the Captain. “I’ve alerted Heathrow. Team’s on stand-by. Thank you again ladies and gentlemen for your understanding. Now would you all please return to your seats for landing.”
“Excuse me, Captain.”
“Will there be an inquest? Will my presence be required?”
“A post-mortem maybe; an inquest I think not. It’s obvious the man was grossly intoxicated. I saw him in the Departure Lounge myself, singing he was, could hardly stand. In the event of perhaps having to make a statement to the police I would be most grateful if you could leave your card with Cherry. From what she tells me this isn’t the first time you’ve been on board to lend a hand. May I express our heartfelt gratitude, doctor – we’re soon turning onto finals so, please, everyone… Cherry, cover Mr Murphy, we can dispense with seatbelt procedures. Excuse me.”
Captain Neehammer and crew stood upright in a silent semi-circle by the exit, watching the doctor make his way down the aisle. The police, forensics and ambulance-crew had been and gone and he was the last passenger to depart the plane. A yellow-uniformed cleaning-team stood in the vestibule.
The Captain shook the doctor’s hand and proffered an envelope. “We’re real appreciative for all your help, doc. Two open-ended First Class return-tickets for yourself and your loved one to visit the United States. At your leisure. A small token of Atlantic Airlines’ appreciation for your efforts.”
“I couldn’t possibly accept…”
“…Nonsense,” smiled the Captain, sliding the folded envelope into the doctor’s handkerchief pocket. “We all sure hope and pray that your next trip with us will be a sight more peaceful.”
“Thank you, Captain. And you, Cherry. Here’s my card should you have any formalities etcetera you’d like me to attend to. Goodbye.”
They watched as, hand-luggage in tow, he stepped onto the gangway, aware for the first time that he walked with a slight limp.
Cherry glanced at his card. “English doctors are much more, how shall I say, Clem, more mannerly and old-fashioned than our New York guys, you think?”
The Captain nodded. “You’ve a point there, Cherry. What was his name again?”
“Shipman. Dr Harold Shipman. Got a real doctor’s ring to it, don’t you think?” Her doe-like eyes remained focused on the departing figure until he rounded the corner into the terminal building. “Lovely man.”
[Dr Harold Shipman: History’s most prolific serial killer with 218 deaths, although he’s suspected of murdering many more victims. Convicted and sentenced for fifteen homicides, he committed suicide in Wakefield Prison, 2004.]