It all started with a bad shepherd’s pie.
I downed it, along with a pint of Beamish, in a hole-in-the wall pub in Cork. The cabbie who’d picked me up at the train station had recommended the place, and since I had an afternoon hour to kill before I met the lady with the room to let I thought, why not? I’d asked the cabbie for someplace authentic, where I would not run into any other Americans.
When I felt a bit lightheaded in the first moments with the landlady, I attributed it to that daytime Beamish. As a rule, I wouldn’t have indulged so early, but after I ordered the shepherd’s pie, the publican trilled out a question in a high-pitched, sing-song voice. I was too embarrassed to ask him to repeat it a second time. So I just nodded. He trilled out something else and pulled me the pint.
The room to let was on the third floor of an old brick house near the docks.
Lugging my bag of books, I stumbled on the stairs as the landlady, several decades older than me, sprang right up them like a wolfhound chasing a weasel.
The room was small and plain, but its selling point was a tiny en-suite bathroom. No other room in the house had its own loo. This amenity, however, nearly doubled the weekly rent. Normally, I might have negotiated a bit, but suddenly I was in dire need of that amenity.
—I’ll take it!
—Ah, grand so. Will we have a cup of tea to celebrate? What part of America are you from at all? Do you know any of the Gallaghers in Buffalo, New York now?
—No! Here! I handed her a stack of cash that would cover the first two months. I’m sorry. I’m late for…thank you. Good bye.
I backed her to the threshold and shut the door on her as she kept naming Gallaghers.
—Patrick? Mary? Little Patrick? Young Mary?
Then commenced a series of unspeakable eruptions in that exclusive loo.
The flock turned on the shepherd. The shepherd was impaled on his own staff. There was a massacre in the pasture.
The next thing I remember is my thesis advisor checking in on me. Which was odd because, after our first meeting, when my thesis advisor told me this was not America and that I should not expect him to be constantly checking in on me, I had not heard from my thesis advisor.
It was also odd because my thesis advisor, based in Dublin, was communicating with me telepathically as I lay in boxer shorts, drenched in sweat, on an amorphous mattress in a small room on the third floor of a boarding house 250 kilometers away in Cork.
—Yes, yes, it’s the New System, his voice said impatiently in my head. Now, how are you getting on with the metempsychosis?
—The what? Is that from Ulysses?
—But I’m not doing Joyce. I’m doing Theosophical Symbolism in the Early Poetry of Yeats.
—Jesus, why do I always get the Americans? Where are you, anyway? Did you go back to the States? Is that why they’re making us use the New System?
—No, I’m in Cork. After exams, I needed to leave Dublin. So I could focus on my thesis.
—Funny, I heard it was because your wee girlfriend gave you the chuck.
—That’s got nothing to do with it.
—I believe you; thousands wouldn’t. But look here, I have to go. I’m going to send you my treatise on metempsychosis. It might take a few minutes to get through. There’s still the odd glitch or two in the New System as you can well imagine. Get back to me when you’ve absorbed it.
I closed my eyes. My forehead was an inferno. My guts were a gyre. This New System sucked. And what in the everloving fuck was metempsychosis?
I awoke and realized it was all a fever dream. Again, I cursed the shepherd who first dreamed of pie.
But now I couldn’t shake the notion that instead of my dry-as-dust standard academic thesis I should be writing and performing a country song called “That Ol’ Highway of Love.” That’s what would really impress my thesis advisor. I lay for hours working on the lyrics, but got no further than a rap verse that went “My name is Yates, so don’t call me Yeets, it rhymes with Hates, so Love my Beats.” Perhaps, I reflected, I was still a bit sick.
At some point, I opened my eyes and saw a large head looming above me.
It was the head of young woman. She was pulling a thin blanket over me, smiling. That small smile, along with a tiny little nose, tiny little eyes and tiny little ears, was subsumed in the vast mashed-potato-white expanse of her face.
—How’s the head? she asked.
Monumental, I almost responded, before realizing she was speaking of my head.
—Still a bit cloudy, I said. Is this Cork?
—It certainly isn’t heaven, boy.
—I think I’ve been sick.
—Sick, he says! Sure, you’ve been spewing your guts up for three days straight.
She nodded to the side of my bed. A blue plastic bucket stood there, thankfully empty.
—I’d say you’ve filled that yoke about three dozen times at a guess. What did you eat at all?
—Shepherd’s pie. Pub. Mangan’s, maybe?
—Jesus, what possessed you to go into Mancky Mangan’s?
—My cab driver.
—You might want to tip a little better next time. Where in America are you from?
—Ah grand, do you know any Reidys in Chicago, Illinois? I’m joking ya. I’m Deirdre, by the way. I live directly below.
—Matthew, I said.
She sat on the bed and felt my head.
—Well, Matthew, the wildfire has cooled a bit. That’s a good sign. It’s a bit of sustenance you’ll be needing now. Sure, I’ll fetch you a hot toddy. Hold tight.
She closed the door. I looked at the bucket. Wondered whose it was. I couldn’t imagine they’d be wanting it back after what I’d evidently put it through. After a couple delicate dry heaves, I looked about the room. The curtains were drawn but some weak shafts of sunlight heightened the sheen of their snotgreen fabric a bit. It must be afternoon. What day was anyone’s guess. Along the wall opposite the bed, my books had been stacked in a six-foot-high pile. The Ivory Tower. Other than the bed, the room’s only furniture was a small desk and a wooden chair. My lair.
The door opened and a small figure darted in. It wasn’t Deirdre, but a small, skittish young man with a fringe of floppy hair. I sat up as best I could.
—Are you right so, boy? he asked.
I wasn’t totally clear on what he’d said—did all the men in Cork have a serious helium habit?—so, again, I just nodded.
He sat on the edge of the bed and flipped his hair from his face.
—Deirdre’s been here, playing Florence Nightingale, has she?
—With that head on her like a prize cabbage, am I right?
—Ah, you’re a man of few words now that the fever has passed, I see.
Nod. But I was getting a better grip on the accent so I added:
—Was I talking when I was sick?
—Was I talking, he says! Jesus, I’d hate to be whoever Shelley is. Or Professor Byrne for that matter.
—My ex, I said. And my thesis advisor.
—Well, I don’t claim to know much about thesis advisors, he said with another flip, but women are the devil’s handmaidens, am I right, boy?
Here, he punched me on my shoulder, causing me to realize I wasn’t wearing a shirt.
Deirdre returned, wearing floral oven mitts and carrying two hot toddies.
—Here we are now. Oh, I see you’ve met Fergus.
—Deirdre, he said with a hair flip (just assume he’s flipping his hair unless I say otherwise). How nice of you to make me a toddy, too.
—Make your own, you lazy git.
—Here you are, Matthew, she said, reaching around Fergus to hand me mine.
—And whose whiskey did you use? Fergus asked.
—Mine, of course.
—And whose cloves?
—Oh, shut up about your bloody cloves, you selfish thing. Sure, you can share my toddy, she said, shaking off an oven mitt. It landed in the bucket. She, too, sat on the bed, scooting ahead of Fergus to be right at my elbow.
—Cheers, big ears, she said.
Cheers, big face, I thought, as we clinked glasses. I was immediately ashamed. She had a big face and a big heart.
She handed her glass to Liam, who said, Slantje.
We clinked glasses and drank. Eventually, another round of hot toddies was prepared, both of them leaving this time to attend to questions about cloves and lemon slices. When I woke up the room was nearly dark. But they were both still there. Somehow they had wedged themselves on either side of me on the bed, above the covers. A bottle of Jameson’s was propped between my legs. Someone had made a careful gully for it in the blankets.
—Look who’s re-joined the party, Deirdre said.
Fergus snatched the bottle and gave it to me.
—You’re a bit behind, mate. Have a grand ol’ swig for yourself. There’s a good lad.
We passed the bottle back and forth and told each other our sad stories. Deirdre wanted Fergus to marry her; the problem was Fergus was as gay as Christmas.
—Anyway, that Shelley of yours sounds like a right old bitch, Deirdre said.
—Was she having it off with the thesis advisor do you think? Fergus added.
—No, just everyone else in my class.
—O ho! Fergus cried in delight.
—We’ve got him well oiled now.
—Will we have our way with him then?
—Well, he is a bit of a poet.
—Not really, I protested. I just study it.
—Sure, those poets are well known to be broad minded.
—Tis the rhyme scheme. AB-AB. AC-DC.
Then Fergus and I were both kissing Deirdre’s face. There was plenty go around. I lost track of time. Fergus’ hair flipped against my skin in many places.
—Say us a poem! one and then the other demanded.
—I will arise and go now…
—Go on, so!
—The trees are in their autumn beauty…
—So are you, boy!
—I sought a theme…
—Seek it, boy!
When I woke the next morning they were gone. The bucket was gone. There was no sign of last night’s clamor, except that my tower of books had collapsed. My books lay splayed across the floor like shot soldiers. I’d see to them later. Despite all the whiskey, I felt strangely clear-headed. And ravenously hungry. I’d have to go out to find food. There was nothing to sustain me here.
Xavier McCaffrey is a Chicago writer whose work has appeared in journals including Potomac Review and Poetry Ireland Review. He has won the F. Scott Fitzgerald Short Story Prize and the Gemini Flash Fiction Award. “A Bit Sick” is a work of fiction.