Authors: Bartholomew Gill
A Peter McGarr Mystery
Mortality: A Personal View
A Dawning Predicament
On Casting a Cold Eye
Inexhaustible, Ineffable Sources
On Full Faith, Credit, and Giving the Other Side
On Scratching the Good Life
O’Duffy’s Man, Slane
Rot Beneath Heather
Appearance and Reality
The Other Woman
A Prescription for Genius
On Going Long, and Cold
On Bridges, Rivers, and No Turning Back
On History, Which Is Not Life
“YOU’RE IN GREAT form altogether, Paddy. Simply brilliant. I’ve never seen you looking so fit,” said the last guest to leave the hotel suite.
Perhaps Power was
fit, but he was not feeling at all well. His heart was racing, and he did not have to glance in the mirror to know that his brow was beaded with a cold and sickly sweat. His legs were quaking, and he was aware of a vague feeling of unease. If he did not act fast, the sensation would soon plummet from anxiety through downright dread to a scarifying, wild panic that might land him in a hospital. Power began to close the door.
“Are you still taking that potion for your ticker after all these years?”
Power nodded, but he added nothing. Nobody should know the precariousness of his condition, especially now, when he was about to step back into public life. Monday week—he now promised himself—he would visit the surgery of the cardiologist in Mayfair who had recommended a pacemaker.
“It always amazed me,” the guest went on, “how punctual you were about taking the stuff. Middle of a meeting, middle of the night, middle of sex, for Jesus’ sake, you’d pull yourself away and, damn all, take your medicine. Remember that time we were on a toot in Paris? Any excuse—the telephone, a drink of water, the cat. You were
always so secretive about the thing. What is it again? Quinine?”
Were he feeling better, Power would have objected; he had never allowed the condition to intrude on his life. Power could not abide people who were always running on about their aches and pains. “Quinidine,” he said, pushing the door a foot closer to the jamb.
In fact, when taking a pill in the toilet only fifteen minutes earlier, he had even considered removing his supplies from the cabinet there, so no inquisitive guest could pry. In order to sell his proposal to the conference, Power would have to sell himself as well, and the fewer doubts, the better.
“You should mind what else you swallow. Apart from the quinidine, of course.”
What was that supposed to mean? Power surveyed the tall figure, who was now standing in the middle of the hall, regarding him. Then again, most people seemed tall to Power. He himself was a short, wide man with a ruddy but handsome face that was usually lit by a pleasant smile.
“Really, I must say good night.” He was trembling, and a wave of nausea rolled up from his stomach, crested through his chest, and broke in his throat. He choked it back down. “Tomorrow is a big day, and I’m feeling a bit peakèd.”
“I’m sure you are.”
Power did not know how to interpret that remark either, nor did he care.
Power managed a thin smile and closed the door, turning the dead bolt and fitting the night latch into its brass slide. Power was afflicted with Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome, and he had weathered attacks of paroxysmal supraventricular tachycardia before. It was not usually a medical emergency, and he knew just what to do.
Turning from the door, he reeled into the reception room. His legs felt so weak, cold, and clammy, he thought his socks were wet. At the door to the toilet he steadied himself on the jamb, but, when he let go, he pitched, like a drunk, toward the basin. He tried to break his fall with
his hands on the sink, but the porcelain was slippery, and his forehead dented the mirror, shattering the glass.
When he looked up, he saw a bright wheel of spangled yellow light with his face shattered into mirrored planes. Like a Cubist painting, he thought, and he almost paused to admire the effect, until he noticed the blood.
“Oh, Jesus. Oh, Christ!” he now said aloud, talking to himself as he often did in his native Kerry tones, which, in spite of decades passed in Dublin, London, and New York, he had not lost. “You’ll need a bandage plaster for that, so you will. And more, some right excuse tomorrow. The others’ll think you’ve gone back on the booze,” which Power had once imbibed in epic proportions but had given up since the diagnosis of arrythmia five years earlier.
His heart rate, he could tell, was well over a hundred beats per minute, each stroke of which now began coinciding with something new: a sharp, stabbing pain in his chest, the left side of his neck, and his left arm. Never,
, had he felt anginal pain during an attack, and Power tried not to panic. “Yip, yip, yip,” he said with each prick of pain. “That smarts, you bastard. I’ll tackle you with high tech Monday week, just you see.”
But all that he had read about cardiac arrhythmias—every book, periodical, and paper that he could find in the British Museum—came flooding back to him, especially the gruesome, horrifying details of ventricle fibrillation, which forced a person to witness his own death.
He tugged open the medical cabinet behind the mirror. His breathing was labored now, and his head felt as if it were made of stone. It lolled on his shoulders. Blood from the wound on his forehead now began trickling into his eyes. He tried to laugh and pretend it was all just a game, a practical joke that his body was playing on him, but the blood splatted on the porcelain by his hands, and he realized he would need every last ounce of strength and will to overcome the crisis alone. Without phoning for help.
By an act of sheer determination Power reached up and carefully removed the digitoxin bottle. Once it was in hand, however, he again staggered and careened into the steam rail with its hot towels. “Yah shite, you. Not now. It can’t be now, not when everything I’ve worked for is
about to come to a head,” he bellowed. “I’ll settle you, I will. I’m fed up with your carry-on.” His right arm shot out, buoying him momentarily on the wall, the door, and the back of a stuffed chair as he wheeled into the bedroom.
But there he fell to one knee and collapsed on the carpet. Uttering another sharp cry at the pain, at the duplicity of his body, and at the intransigence of the security lock on the bottle, he managed to twist off the cap and spill out the tiny yellow pills. He placed one on his tongue. “There now. There. That’s jam,” he said. And in spite of the anginal pain, which continued unabated, in spite of his shortness of breath and the soreness in every unoxygenated muscle of his weak body, Power managed to crab himself up onto the soft bed.
“Now, my good man—we never died a winter yet,” he said, lying back in the pillows relieved, believing he would soon be better. With the tips of his fingers he surveyed the extent of the gash on his forehead, saying, “But don’t we be the talk of Parknasilla.” He’d need some excuse, some way of explaining away the bloody gash and the shattered mirror.
The tiles, that’s it. He’d say he slipped on the wet tiles in the toilet; with the mirror destroyed, the hotel staff would corroborate the story. Now he stanched his bleeding forehead with a pillow and waited for the digitoxin to take effect.
His chest was still heaving, and the bed was swaying with his effort. Were he not so physically fit, Power told himself, he would most probably now be dead from a myocardial infarction. He had suffered through other, longer attacks before, when he had been away from his medicine, but never one so severe. And the pain was odd—persistent and stabbing. In twenty minutes when the potion took effect, the pain would ease, he was certain.
But it didn’t. Power kept raising his wrist to read the dial on his watch, and after thirty-eight excruciating minutes, his heart, if anything, was beating faster still. Yet in spite of the exertion he was cold, freezing, chilled to the bone, and he was feeling the same awful dread that
an attack. Why now,
Power’s head swung toward the toilet, and he squinted at the medical cabinet that was open. In his panic with blood in his eyes could he have chosen wrong? No—the shapes of the bottles were purposely different, and the bottles of quinidine and digitoxin were still there.
Could there have been some mistake in the preparation of the digitoxin? Power did not think so. He had been taking pills from the quinidine bottle for days, and he had also taken from the digitoxin bottle before. He tried to remember when—only last week.
“Am I dying?” Power asked aloud. “Is it poisoned I am?” Power tried to pull himself up to see the lower shelves of the medical cabinet, but he was too weak and fell back into the pillows.
The phone. No time for private suffering now. The pain in his chest was excruciating, and his heart felt as though it would burst. Power’s right hand lunged for but missed the phone, and instead blundered through the small stack of note cards that he had written since he had arrived at the hotel and had not yet added to his file. He knocked them to the floor. He tried again, but he had moved himself so close to the edge of the bed that he toppled onto the carpet.
It struck then, the fibrillation. The stop.
It hit him like a roaring hammer blow in the sternum. His entire body spasmed once, lifting him off the carpet, then twitched; and things—the room, his thoughts, the note cards by the side of his face—began to grow grainy, dim, and distant. He was dying.
Frantically he reached out for the file box of note cards that he had placed on the lower shelf of the table beside the bed. The name of the final guest, the one who had as much as sentenced him to death, was contained among them in a separate listing, an entire subsection; but the box was empty. Missing. Gone.
Power had time only to seize one of the fallen cards by his face before suddenly, miraculously, the pain ceased, and a blinding magnesium light, just as he’d once been told by a nun he’d see, filled his mind. My God, he thought, she had been right about it all along. How had she known?
Power began laughing, or at least he thought he did. It was a great, hearty, orotund, silent laugh during which he relived in an instant every sweet moment of his life. He saw himself as a baby sitting in the sun by the side of his father’s farm. There—he could see them—were the stony green fields sweeping up along rock walls to the top of the mountain where the heavens lay crystalline and glorious, filled with mansions of brilliant dream clouds.
And somehow he felt in a twinkling all the care, love, and affection his family had lavished on him in that packed, dirt-floor kitchen, and the joy they had taken in his every step and, later, his great progress in the world. It had been their love and support that had allowed him to go forward, nothing else.
In such rapture Power then witnessed his own ascension, the leave-taking of his spirit from his dead body.
As if from increasing height, growing small and smaller still, he left himself there on the carpet in the bedroom of the suite in Parknasilla, in Sneem, in his native Kerry, in Ireland.
Until he saw no more.