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Authors: Patrick McCabe

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BOOK: Mondo Desperado
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How her head swirled as she followed the older woman along the corridor, a succession of blurred portraits of long-dead philanthropists and mutton-chopped physicians assailing her with
bewildering rapidity – but excitingly so! The alabaster statue of a little boy, representing the victims of a Victorian cholera epidemic, seemed to salute her with his outstretched hand and
cry out: ‘Welcome to St Bartholomew’s, Noreen!’

As their heels clicked on the brilliantly polished black and white tiles, Noreen Tiernan sighed anew. She touched her forehead gently in an effort to stay the whooshing, planet-like rotations
that were assailing her consciousness at that moment. Then, as the sister superior led her into the building through the door which bore the nameplate N

, Noreen almost fainted – because of the realization that at last she was here – in St Bartholomew’s! In England!


It is possible, without a doubt, to consider, in retrospect, what might have transpired if A wing had been their destination on that particular occasion – and not the
fatal B wing, the stairs of which she was now briskly ascending with her officious, astoundingly spotless companion. Because, of course, in the former, where the students spent the greater
proportion of their free time locating imaginary epidermal imperfections (principally in the regions of the face and neck), obsessively bathing feet and driving themselves to distraction with
seemingly interminable combinations of apparel – nowhere was there to be found a student who responded to the name ‘Sticky’ (Stephanie) Diggs. Who, although she could not have
possibly known it at the time, of course, was destined to become what can only truthfully be called – Noreen Tiernan’s nemesis!


Idle speculation is, of course, of little value now, and all that need concern us here is the indisputable fact that it was firmly within the four walls of B wing that Noreen
Tiernan now found herself, being – with something of a giddy flourish, indeed, uncharacteristic as it might seem – introduced with the words: ‘Stephanie – I want you to meet
Noreen Tiernan. She’s to be your room mate for the next year!’

Perhaps if the sister superior, or indeed Noreen, had been possessed of finely tuned, highly intuitive powers such as might be encountered in the pages of light fiction or the average daytime
television crime series, they might instinctively have attributed some measure of significance to the fact that the pink pointed tip of Stephanie’s tongue (for all the world like the smallest
fleshy arrowhead) was protruding ever so slightly from between her lips and was literally quivering as her eyes locked onto the figure of Noreen Tiernan with an intensity that was quite startling,
especially when her gaze exhibited no sign of flinching, her eyes – like two tiny twin cameras – inspecting Noreen’s lengthy, flowing tresses, blooming pink cheeks, and, of
course, the soft heaving slopes of her bosom as she extended her hand and flushed crimson, shyly uttering the words: ‘Hello, I’m Noreen.’


Of great significance at this meeting was the vast difference in presentation which announced itself instantly between Noreen and her room mate to be. For, whereas
Noreen’s hair was soft and feminine, spilling onto her shoulders in waves of molten copper, Stephanie’s – what little she had of it! – resembled nothing so much as a clump
of the coarsest mountain gorse. Noteworthy too was the difference between their noses – it seemed as if, while Noreen’s was small, perfectly and elegantly contoured, Stephanie’s
was a weathered, bulbous affair not unlike a species of root vegetable. Their taste in clothes, too, seemed to indicate between them an abyss of unbridgeable proportions. Noreen’s delicately
billowing cottons and forget-me-not patterned silks were nothing if not light-years away from Stephanie’s ‘County Home Trousers’, as her father might have referred to them, above
the waistband of which it was possible – breathtaking in its ostentation, indeed! – to make out the stitched brand-name of a company whose supremacy in the marketplace was a consequence
of unrivalled excellence in the manufacture of men’s underpants –


As for the hospital, however, Noreen loved it more than she could have dared to dream! Especially since she had been assigned to the children’s ward, reading aloud with
all her heart to the little sick mites as they returned from toileting each morning. How she looked forward to those mornings now! Barely be able to contain herself as she bade goodbye to
‘Stef’ (as she now instinctively called her!) and clacked across the polished corridors with her books tucked under her arm, unconsciously rehearsing the speech which she habitually
made each morning before she bent her russet head to read. ‘Very well, children! Now that we’ve done all our poos, I want you all to sit up straight and listen to Tommy the Turtle! Arms
folded, now!’

All the kiddies loved Tommy. Especially when he went to the city to meet Tara Turtle. They loved that, all scrunching up their noses as they laughed into their hands. ‘O Tommy!’
Noreen used to say when he kissed Tara. ‘Tommy! You naughty turtle!’ It was the best fun ever in the hospital!


It was upon her return to A wing from one of these sessions on a Thursday morning in early September 1980 that Noreen looked up and saw Nurse Jennifer Hayes coming walking
towards her with her arms swinging. Nurse Hayes was nice but she was a tad old fashioned and set in her ways. As all the girls said: ‘O, Hayesy’s all right but she’s been here for
yonks!’ And truly it was hard not to laugh when you saw her in her old flat shoes and big chunky cardigan. As Noreen observed to Stephanie: ‘She reminds me of what I would have been
like if I’d stayed in Barntrosna, Stef! A big country galoot!’

Which is, in terms of this narrative, a truly telling remark. Especially considering the lack of restraint with which it was delivered. After all, it must be remembered that for most of her life
Noreen Tiernan had been a dutiful, exemplary Barntrosna girl, fiercely – if quietly – loyal to both family, friends and fellow citizens of the town.

And now, here she was, inexplicably insulting the place of her birth with the brazen implication that to remain there beyond a certain length of time was to risk a certain
‘unfash-ionability’. It was not the only odd remark made by Noreen Tiernan around this time; soon there were to be many others.


For it is useless to pretend that she was the same girl now who had arrived at the hospital only some few short weeks before. How much exactly was her own fault and to what
degree she might present a case for mitigation shall always be a matter of conjecture. What was certain was that now the clock had been set ticking and there could be no going back. The girl who
had once been ‘the old Noreen Tiernan’ would never have wantonly flung her pencil from her and caustically snapped: ‘Oh, I’m fed up writing this! What’s the use of
writing to Pobs every night! It’s stupid!’

Perhaps – in an extreme situation of almost unbearable tiredness and confusion occasioned by excessive demands on the wards – the words might have regrettably passed her lips.

But such was not the case. As she sat at the table with her writing materials on its surface before her, those words had only one meaning and one alone – that an unbridgeable fissure had
opened up in the relationship between her and Pobs McCue. Had Noreen, in that first instant whereupon those hasty, injudicious words had been uttered by her, placed at her elbow a small mirror, she
would have been witness to a quiet, unspectacular development which was soon to prove of the utmost significance – for already a sly smile, as thin as wire, was making its way across the face
of Stephanie ‘Sticky’ Diggs, who was sitting directly behind her in the rattan chair (purchased, not insignificantly, in the back streets of a Bangkok market!) with her bared legs
thrown rakishly over its curved edges, inhaling the smoke from a slender cheroot. Sadly, however, no such mirror was in evidence that night, and thus events continued apace.


It was some days later that Noreen Tiernan found herself standing in the main corridor of St Bartholomew’s hospital, with the sister superior (who, she had learned,
because of her excess weight the students had uncharitably named ‘Tank’) breezily enquiring after her mother’s welfare and quizzing her repeatedly as to how she liked London. And
who – quite out of nowhere – suddenly gripped her fiercely by the arm and forced her – how else can you describe it? – into a corner demanding to know how
Miss Diggs
behaving herself

Noreen felt certain there must be black and blue marks appearing on her upper arm as the older nurse breathlessly continued: ‘You must tell me! Have you had any –

At this point, Noreen Tiernan found herself at a loss for words. O for heaven’s sake, what is the old fool on about? she asked herself. She was beginning to understand now why all the
girls made a laugh of her. (‘I see Tank is wearing a lovely top today!’ she would often hear them scorn, indulging in pseudo-laudatory dialogues concerning her shoes and hairstyle when
they were not drawing pictures of her in their lecture folders, colouring in great big beards on her rotund form in brown felt marker.) Which was why she sighed and thought to herself: I wish she
would leave me alone and go about her business, the old heifer! But she did not give any indication of this as she replied: ‘No – no trouble. No trouble at all, Sister. She’s a
lovely girl.’ She endeavoured to be as mannerly as she could, hoping to ‘shift the hairy old gasbag’ – as she was now in her own mind referring to her. Which at last
transpired but not before her arm was squeezed one more time and she found herself wincing as – almost hopefully – the older nurse growled: ‘Don’t forget! I’m always
here if you need me! And remember – there’s nothing I haven’t heard before! If she lays a finger on you . . .’

At which point the sister superior broke off, a high-ranking rival appearing suddenly at the end of the lime-green corridor like a startled cabbage white on a stalk.


When Stephanie heard this story, she nearly, as she said herself, went and ‘wet her farking pants!’ ‘Why, the old dingbat!’ she chortled, puffing on a
cheroot. ‘Can you believe that cheeky cah?’

In truth, Noreen couldn’t believe it but what she could believe was what her room mate said some moments later, her eyes lighting up flirtatiously: ‘I’ll bet you’ll never
guess where I’ve been!’ Noreen was a little bit nervous because of course she still had a long way to go before she was a real, uninhibited London ‘gel’ like Stef. But she
approximated as best she could and, contriving herself to be chewing a stick of heavily minted gum, replied: ‘No! Where, Stef?’

Stephanie’s eyes glittered with excitement. ‘Da-dan!’ she cried, and out of nowhere a star leapt off shining glass. Astonished, Noreen found herself staring straight at a
gleaming bottle of full-strength undiluted Russian vodka!

There are those indeed who would argue that what occurred on that fateful night was not in any sense a crime at all. This, however – as was subsequently proven to be the case – would
not have been the view of Fr Luke Doody, Pobs McCue, Mrs Tiernan herself – or, most likely,
of the townspeople of Barntrosna. Which Noreen would have known instinctively, of
course, but by the time she had consumed a substantial quantity of the aforementioned vodka, she really did not care an awful lot what their views might be – not only on that particular
subject but, quite simply, on any at all! Which was why, when Stephanie quipped mischievously: ‘I bet you’re wearing your black one tonight, aren’t you, Noreen?’ that she
chuckled and cheekily scooped up her sweater, revealing her white lacy brassière with the little rosebud nestled in between the cups, and with an unbridled howl of mirth fell backwards onto
the bed with her white-stockinged legs giddily, furiously, scything the air. Quite how Stephanie managed to manoeuvre herself into the position she did, in retrospect seems quite remarkable. But it
proved to be devastatingly effective, for before the Barntrosna girl could even begin to know what was happening, her room mate’s lips had welded themselves to hers and she found herself
barely able to breathe. The young nurse blanched. It suddenly seemed absurd that such a thing could be occurring. She considered that it was a kind of game. A Nurses’ Home initiation
ceremony, perhaps? But – how could it be? After all, she had been in the hospital for months! What then was it? Noreen Tiernan’s mind whirled. Then, out of nowhere, she felt the pincer
jaws of guilt and fear tightening at the base of her spine. Perspiration beads squeezed their way to her brow as she writhed frantically in an effort to wrench herself free. ‘No!’
snapped Stephanie angrily. There could be no doubting the firmness of the admonition. ‘No!’ she repeated and glared at her prone, exhausted colleague. As the strength ebbed from her
limbs, Noreen Tiernan summoned what resources were at her disposal and weakly cried: ‘Stef! Let me up! Let me up, please!’

But it was clear from the expression on Stephanie Diggs’ face that she had no intention of doing any such thing! In that instant, Noreen Tiernan thought of Pobs, the tears flowing down the
front of his jacket as he howled: ‘How could you, Noreen? How could you!’ She thought of her mother, her knees practically worn away to nothing as she stormed Heaven for guidance. She
thought of Nabs Brennan, scratching his head and murmuring perplexedly: ‘A tragedy! That’s all you can call it! Thank God himself is in the grave!’ and she thought of Fr Doody as
he thumped the pulpit and barked: ‘It is forbidden by the law of God! You hear me? Your rancid body will burn in the pit of hell, Tiernan, for what you’ve done!’

What occurred directly after that is not entirely clear. That Stephanie administered some kind of drug would seem to be beyond question. For, try as she might, somewhere behind the vague and
swirling smoky haze that was her mind Noreen Tiernan could not bring herself to resist as once more she heard herself darkly instructed to ‘Kiss me, slave!’, the tongue of Stephanie
Diggs probing wickedly, brooking no resistance. Eventually, triumphantly, crying: ‘That wasn’t so bad, was it?’ as, to her delight, she perceived Noreen’s arm curling about
her waist and her own body being drawn slowly downwards until, in a mélange of deliriously indulgent falsetto cries, they were as one.

BOOK: Mondo Desperado
3.23Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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