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Space to Think, a new book celebrating ten years of the Dublin Review of Books More Information 

Mount Merrion

Justin Quinn
Penguin Ireland
£ 12.99


The county hospital was only a few months old. The nuns and doc­tors still got lost in its corridors and ended up asking colleagues for directions in loud, humorous tones. The nuns especially seemed to doubt the very feasibility of the building. For them, the place still had the air of an experiment, the ambition of which was too out­rageous to succeed. They would not have been surprised to be sent back to the smaller health-authority clinics after a year's trial, leav­ing the new hospital to rust like an impressive wreck on the wild rocks of the western coast.

The architect, unusually for the time, had used the resources of natural light as much as possible, and the hospital's high windows let in extravagant amounts of it from early morning to late in the day. It came slanting down on the patients lined in rows, illuminat­ing their hair and other features (the broken remainders of their bodies covered underneath the crisply ironed white linen). It was cut in surprising angles by the building's design, suddenly conjuring a square of intense light at the back of a laundry room or bathroom that would disappear minutes later. As it reflected off the volumes of their white habits, it gave to the nuns' faces an angelic aspect that all noticed but none mentioned. They glided humbly but purpose­fully through their own wards, drawing the patients' gazes after them like guiding stars. If these people had come to them to be healed and depended on their mercy, then their mercy, in accord­ance with their order's vow, would be great.

The boy, though only twelve, had nearly a man's length in the bed. He couldn't move because his plastered leg was slung up in the air, pointing to the distant corner of the room. For most of the day, he stared at the ceiling; if he twisted his head to look to either side, the movement sent a pain to his leg. He read nothing and the nurses had been instructed by bis father not to speak to him in Irish. He hadn't spoken English since first class at primary school and would be ashamed to begin now, in this big, clean hospital, so he did not speak at all.

A large stone had toppled off a wall onto his shin, ripping the flesh and breaking the bone. His father had carried him to the cart and deposited him on the settle, where he had been left for several days, running a fever. He recalled the doctor coming into their house, and his conveyance to the hospital, but little else. His father had been roundly rebuked by both the doctor and the hospital staff, though the boy hadn't heard it. He would have died without the antibiotics that he'd received.

Gradually he had begun to be able to tell the difference between night and day, and to distinguish between the different voices of the nurses. He could understand what they said in English to him, but he felt unable to respond. One had taken pity on him and reassured him, in Irish, that he would be all right now and wasn't to worry. He asked for the glass of water that he'd been dreaming about for the previous five hours but had been afraid to ask for. Deoch uisce, a drop of water.

On his third day, a man was billeted in the bed next to him. Arthur could hear the conversation between nurse and new patient. The only place he'd heard English spoken like that before was on the radio. It had the delicacy of a fine lady's linen. He decided to pay the price of pain and twist his neck to see his fellow patient: a man in his early twenties. Slim enough, but strong all the same, with hands that looked like they could do a decent bit of work. The fea­tures of the face surprised Arthur - they seemed almost familiar, as though he knew this man's cousins. How could an accent like that come out of such a country face? Was there another man beyond? The eyes were blue and steady as they ranged around the ward, his bed, the nurse as she plumped the pillows, and then settled on his own in an appraising look....