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An Irish Country Cottage

An Irish Country Cottage

An Irish Country Novel
also available: Hardcover
tagged : medical
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Plum Rains

1 Angelica
Angelica was hurrying toward the crowded crosswalk, determined to get back to her elderly client Sayoko-san before the deliveryman arrived, when the view of buildings and business suits in front of her dissolved.
     The heart of Tokyo at 4:07 p.m., improbably on pause. A sharp whine and then static; a muffled white-noise pulse.
     Three throbbing beats. Then silence.
     Jellied knees.
     Shifting sidewalk.
     Going down.
     Someone else might have thought: terrorism. But Angelica’s mind reeled back only to what she’d known personally, growing up in the rural Philippines: the chaos of nature itself.
     Not again—the first thought of anyone who has lived through tremors, tsunamis and typhoons. Her fingers went to the tiny gold cross at her throat.
     Angelica did not stagger so much as melt. The concrete smacked her cheekbone just as the light seemed to leak out of the world. She took the biggest breath she could, like a diver preparing to go under, filling her lungs with the last clean air she might ever have, while behind closed eyelids, images from her childhood formed: looking up through the rubble to the gray Cebu sky, one arm protecting her head, one hand trapped, the other free, dusty fingers struggling to flex above the ruin. Tabang! Help!
     Papa! Mama!
     But then: veins relaxed. Oxygen flowed. The past burrowed back under its dirty blankets, its broken pipes and dust. The Philippine island of Cebu on that day over thirty years ago was only a memory.
     The light returned, soft and spotty at first, and then too bright. She squinted toward the curb, two meters away, and the street beyond, where whisper-quiet cars eased through the busy intersection.
     Get up. Get up. But she couldn’t. Her head was too heavy. The hiss in her ears was fading, but only slowly. Her leg was abraded from the fall, only a little, but it stung. A moan escaped from her lips, equal parts pain and simple embarrassment.
     Without lifting her face, Angelica could see businessmen’s loafers and women’s low-heeled pumps moving steadily past, pausing, moving again as the light changed. When she rolled to one side to look up, a woman wearing a germ-blocking face mask met her glance with an apologetic bow and then kept going.
     A whisper of wind against thigh warned that her skirt was up, her panties exposed. She’d meant to buy new underwear this spring and never had. Too broke and too busy studying for the next Japanese language proficiency exam. Last night, she had stayed up two extra hours and nodded off with her phone in her hand, kanji quiz app open, unfamiliar characters swimming through her dreams.
     She wasn’t the only one struggling. Ask the other Filipino nurses, the West African physical therapists, the Indonesian caregivers. Ask anyone in her position: trying to learn fast enough to pass the latest JLPT, trying to avoid unsafe jobs and the loan sharks back home, trying to avoid being sent back at the wrong time, always keeping the door open to returning at the right time.
     But still, it could have been worse. Instead of dull gray hip huggers with a worn-out elastic band, she could have been wearing the weirdly juvenile underwear her sometimes-lover Junichi had bought her. A forty-three-year-old Filipina should not be caught wearing a Hello Kitty thong.
     The blood was returning to Angelica’s head now. She needed only to lie on her back and let the spinning stop. She had been hurrying and worrying about something—and not only kanji.
     The deliveryman. That was why she had been rushing, why she had ignored the mounting headache, the prickly flush behind her knees, the feeling of unmanaged anxiety—an army of tiny ants creeping across her scalp. Her body had been trying to tell her: Eat something. Breathe. Put your head between your knees.
     But there’d been no time. Minutes earlier, while waiting in a noodle shop for Junichi (late as usual; probably not even coming) she’d received a text from the agency relief nurse, Phuong Pham: Leaving early. Sayoko is fine. I have emergency.
     When Angelica had texted back, You can’t. Wait until I get there, she’d received no further reply. She had set off toward the Itou family’s luxury condo at a worried trot, throat constricting, scalp crawling.
     At any moment, the deliveryman would be ringing the buzzer, having been assured that someone reliable would be there to greet him. Sayoko would be confused. Unless the old woman had thrown a tea towel over every eldercam eyespot in the house, Angelica’s phone would automatically fill up with images of an agitated lady, rolling back and forth toward the door in her outmoded wheelchair. If Sayoko’s blood pressure plunged or her heartrate increased past a certain point, programmed alarms would sound on her son’s phone, even as he sat in an important business meeting in Kuala Lumpur. Ryo Itou might think it was a serious emergency. Worst of all, Sayoko herself would be afraid and alone. Angelica knew how time could change in that kind of situation: how anxiety opened the door to a lonely eternity.
     Angelica closed her eyes.
     Then opened them, a moment later, to see a white, concave disk as wide as her shoulders, hovering just above her face.
      “I’m fine,” she said as she tried to turn away from the public health device. “I have to get up.”
      “Please, remain still,” the machine responded.
     The disk’s white wings angled down toward either side of her head, granting some small measure of privacy, a comfort more for bystanders who could hurry by with less guilt, even if their questions remained. Had they been standing close to her at the last crosswalk” Would there be some new outbreak announced on the evening news?
      “There’s nothing wrong with me,” she said.
     A cuff tightened automatically around Angelica’s arm. A black weight, no larger than a change purse but hard and heavy, vibrated threateningly against her sternum. Thrusting her chin down into her neck, she just managed to see the unit’s flickering red light, but only until the next instrument moved into place.
      “I have low blood pressure,” she said, before a rubber ring lowered around her mouth and sealed tight.
     The kenkobot was just doing its job. There was no way out—only through. For one claustrophobia-inducing minute as she waited for the test to finish, Angelica tried to distract herself—tried, even, to see the value in the situation.
     This would be a story to tell her brother, Datu. She would confess about the underwear. Yes, all the businessmen were staring. Whether or not it was true, just to make him laugh. So he could moan and answer: Nena, don’t tell me that. Take care of yourself. Buy new underwear at least. You’ve always been such a miser. As if being a big spender was any better. Even when they were kids, he’d been unable to hold onto what the charity sisters gave him long enough to pay their school fees. Every coin went to candy and chips, later to beer, and then they’d sell gasoline from a plastic soda bottle to passing tricycle drivers who could only afford a splash at a time. Stand at the corner, wave them down, waggle your hips, he’d say, sitting on the dusty shoulder, in the shade. Or at least waggle the place you’ll someday have hips. He was four years older, and cool. She had always admired his fearlessness, his reckless dreams—I’ll be the first off the island, and I’ll be the first back home, rich and ready for the good life—and even when their other three siblings had been alive, they were the closest.
     Datu. She would text him this weekend and insist: not just audio. Video. Even if it couldn’t be in real time. I want to see you.
     Finally, the kenkobot finished its task and the rubber ring around her mouth lifted away, leaving its chemical smell and a feeling of pressure under her nose and over her chin. She’d have an indent above her lip for a few hours, a rash on her chin later. Small price to pay for state-of-the-art diagnostics, or so the kenkobot advocates would say.
      “I had sake on an empty stomach,” she told the unit. That part was true. At the noodle shop, she’d tossed back a single tiny cup before dashing out the door. “I’m a nurse. I know I’m fine.”
     She wasn’t quite sure. But that was her business. Later there would be time to consider the symptoms, allowing some possibilities to flit across her mind and deliberately blocking others that were too frightening or simply unlikely. Nurses did that, too. Easier to treat than to be treated.
     One thing she knew for sure: she wasn’t as resilient as she used to be. Not so long ago she’d been able to juggle more uncertainties—Junichi not showing up for a date; Datu possibly trying to hide that he was sick; a borderline exam score—with only a passing sense of worry or irritation. But now, every stressor triggered something physical: Breathlessness. Dizziness. Psoriasis at her hairline or a rash across her chest. Her body was shouting what her mind didn’t care to admit: it was too much, sometimes. She had a better situation than most, but things weren’t getting easier.
     The kenkobot recited her name, her age, her nationality, her physical address. Even the expiry date on her visa. The machine’s volume seemed to increase with that last detail.
     Was it all correct?
     Yes. Of course.
     Did she want to add additional contact information” No thank you. She wanted only to leave.
     A list of medications was reviewed, patient history rapidly taken.
     Symptoms, permission to access recent food purchase data, confirmation that she had not eaten any tainted food products purchased by others.
     Still menstruating” No—sorry, sometimes. Irregularly.
     Fertility therapy” No.
     Sexually active” Is that really necessary?
     Sexually active” Yes.
     Travel outside Japan” Not since moving here.
     When, precisely” Five years ago.
     Sixty months” Let me see . . . fifty-eight.
     Interactions with other foreigners” Only other healthcare professionals. Documented, healthy people.
     From” Vietnam, China, West Africa . . .
     And from the Philippines” The machine already had her travel records and general personal data, of course.
     When she took too long, it asked again: Interactions with citizens of the Philippines?
     She thought of her nursing friend Yanna, who had come with her, from Cebu, and then, despite threats from the moneylenders she still owed back home, had unwisely decided to return. You can go home if you’re paid up. You can risk a trip if you’ve got an envelope full of cash, ready to negotiate the moment they hear you’re back. What you can’t do is return home more broke than when you left, having flouted every payment date you were given. Yanna had known that. And still.
     Angelica answered the kenkobot, “Not many.”
      “Please,” the kenkobot said. Always polite. A flexible perimeter rose around her with a gentle hiss as air inflated the soft, low barrier, each corner marked with a winking blue caution light. “Relax and remain still. With permission granted, final diagnostics will take only three minutes.”
     A stranger had accidentally kicked her right shoe and now it rested several meters away on the street beside the curb. Good nursing shoes in her extra-small size were hard to find. Any small shoes were hard to find. In Cebu and Manila, she had often searched through children’s departments, but here in Japan, where the infertility epidemic was severe, children’s shops were becoming rare, and the clothes they carried were infantile, part of a national obsession with things cute and riotously colorful. Each passing tire missed the simple white shoe only by centimeters.
     She was asked a list of questions, seeking permission for each further invasion. A needle pinched the soft skin of her inner elbow. A chilled puff of air blew against her eye. A swab pushed stealthily into her nose and then retreated.
      “I’m a little cold,” she said, trying to reach a hand down to adjust her skirt and cover her thigh.
      “Ninety-eight point eight degrees. Normal. Estimated time for transportation—”
      “Not necessary,” she said. But it, not she, would make that determination. With any luck, the nearest clinics were overbooked and the directive would be to release her, barring any indication of communicable disease.
      “Please wait,” the kenkobot said.
     All this technology and she’d willingly trade it for a rolled-up towel placed under her neck and a simple blanket draped over her legs. All this so-called progress and what she needed was a kind word in a human voice.
      “Please wait,” the kenkobot repeated.
     Technology alone, no matter how efficient, however seemingly foolproof, could never suffice. Any good nurse knew that. And with that thought, Angelica experienced the first sense of calm she’d felt all day, the certainty providing a visceral comfort: she knew things. She was a professional. She was needed, in this day and age more than ever, when so much of life was automated and impersonal. She had value. No one could take that from her—least of all a machine.

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Into That Fire

Does something always have to die in order for something else to be born? To Imogen, the idea seemed melodramatic. She con­sidered herself a practical girl—woman—not the bluestocking, not the suffragette, not the pamphleteer her fellow medical students made her out to be. She just wanted to do some good, be some use in the world, and didn’t see this ambition as unsuitable. Yet she knew that others—her father, Quentin—found it unusual because their reac­tions made it plain.

The church clock bonged the quarter hour. Only fifteen minutes before she was due to meet Quentin on the front steps of Rush College. She had been listening to the clock for hours, her German text open on the desk before her. She hadn’t learned a single verb all morning. Consciousness of having soon to commit an unkindness had rendered her skull impenetrable.

She got up and checked herself in the mirror and started to fuss with her hair, then stopped. What was the point of trying to look pretty? Surely when you’re about to tell someone that you don’t love him it was best to be as ugly as possible.

Four hats sat on top of her rickety armoire. She took down the cream-coloured Java with the blue silk stripe. Quentin’s favourite, true, but also her own, so why shouldn’t she wear it? It was anticipat­ing the summer a little, but the alternatives were all too formal.

Outside, the sun was bright, casting crisp shadows. She watched her own ripple ahead of her on the grass as she took a shortcut through a schoolyard, hat just so. Could you acquire a Bachelor of Science degree and membership in Phi Beta Kappa, and qualify for your MD in the top three of your class, and still care about hats? Apparently you could.

Her mood darkened as she got closer to Rush. In a few minutes she would have to tell Quentin that whatever it was they had shared could not continue, that it was over. Skinny, gawky Quentin with his bony hands and his pretty girl’s mouth had been her ally, her refuge, in this strange adventure she had set for herself. She had never expected to make such a friend. She had come almost to believe that all men hated her.

The way the other students looked at her when she answered a question! Folding their arms and rolling their eyes or staring at the floor. How smug they were on those rare occasions when she got it wrong. Sometimes she bit her tongue, repressing the urge to answer, only to hate herself later for cowardice. The sexual insults—she had been completely unprepared for those. Anatomy class in particular. “How does this gentleman’s penis compare to all the others you’ve seen, Miss Lang?”

She had not known, until then, that it was possible to blush all the way from sternum to occiput. Skin scorched, right across the shoulders, and rivulets of sweat travelling to unheard-of destinations beneath her smock and heavy clothes. It was not so much the sexual content of the remark that upset her, but the depth of hostility it revealed.
Another young woman might have run home to cry on her father’s shoulder. Her own father, Josiah Lang—one of Chicago’s top attor­neys, a progressive, a friend of Clarence Darrow’s no less—could have shut her classmates up with a single riposte. There had been a time when she would have run to him, when she valued his affection and good opinion above all others. What a joke that had turned out to be.
She had sought out the other four women in the class, thinking that together they might lighten each other’s burdens. But two had dropped out in the first couple of months, and the other two were so competi­tive they would not so much as speak to her. They seemed to hate her even more than the men did.
And then there was Quentin.

Even if she had come to Rush in search of a man, which she most emphatically had not, the quality of her male classmates would have rapidly put her off her quest. Louts. Imogen had always imagined phy­sicians to be a valiant example of the human male, rational and scien­tific, eager to be of service, even chivalrous. From what Avalon did such paragons arise? Certainly not from the Rush College class of 1916.

Except for Quentin. Quentin stood a good five inches taller than Imogen, who at five foot nine and a half was taller than most women. She loved the Euclidian angularity of him, the way he bent his neck forward to engage with his shorter colleagues, the loose-limbed way he would unfurl a long arm to point something out—a hawk riding a thermal over Lake Michigan, the sunlight blazing in the library windows. He had a disarming way of folding himself into or over a chair; he was incapable of sitting up straight anywhere except the dinner table, where he looked positively architectural. Everywhere else he slouched, he draped, he accordioned himself into, around, or over whatever support was available.

His physical being was a lovely contrast to his rationality. Professor Coughlin had posed him a question in cellular biology class once, something about mitosis, and Quentin had stood there mute, head bent, arms folded, still as a lamppost. Coughlin was sadistic enough to let dullards hang for ages before he would bail them out by posing the question to someone else. On this occasion he emitted an exasperated sputter. “Come, come, Mr. Goodchild, it’s not a difficult question.”

“It is for me, sir, because I’m thoughtful.”

Everyone had laughed, including Imogen, because it was clear that Quentin’s cranium was indeed humming all the time. And he did manage to retrieve the right answer before the laughter had quite faded from the hall.
Sometimes when they went for walks, around the campus or far­ther afield, he would be silent so long that Imogen would begin to get annoyed. “If you don’t want to be here,” she would begin.
“Sorry. I was just imagining the future when this is just a memory. Us walking down Harrison Street on a sunny day in 1916—how can that ever not be real? Not be present?”

“It’ll be gone by tomorrow. Sooner, even.”

“But this heat on my skin, those twin curls on your neck—they’re just like parentheses—it’s all so vivid, so real. How can it not be forever?”

Because nothing is forever, Imogen wanted to say but found herself silenced by his noticing her curls. In moments of absolute honesty, she could admit that she enjoyed the way he responded to her—the way he might tremble a little when helping her with a coat, a scarf, or even a book. Or when they sat side by side, how he would tilt a little away from her to avoid the most innocent touch.

Once, when they had both pointed to a page at the same time, their bare hands had collided and he’d reacted as if she were a red-hot poker, his cheeks turning scarlet. She was aware of possessing such power over him, and she did not like the part of herself that was gratified. All men were idiots when it came to lust, so she tried not to attribute any deeper meaning to Quentin’s reactions. He was a man; she was a woman who was not ugly if not beautiful—of course he was attracted.

But Quentin was a wonderful person, someone she would want to know always. So why did she not react that way to him? She did not pine for him when they were apart, did not daydream about him, never wrote out his name just to see it in front of her. In short, she was not in love.

“I wish you were my brother,” she had blurted out one hot after­noon when they had known each other for about a year. By then Quentin had dropped out of medical school to study at the University of Chicago. He had set his heart on a literary career, thus enraging his doctor father—an experience with which Imogen could sympathize.

They were in Lincoln Park, sharing a bench by the fountain, and a monarch butterfly had landed on Imogen’s sleeve, brilliant wings opening and closing as it caught its breath after its long journey from Mexico or wherever. Imogen raised her arm so that the sunlight lit up the Tiffany wings.

“Hinge,” Quentin said, and opened and closed his bony hand, four fingers in unison against his thumb. “Hinge,” he repeated. “Excellent word.” He turned on the bench and interposed a crooked forefinger between their two faces, curling it closed and open as if scratching the ear of an invisible cat. “Hinge,” he said in a deeper voice, as if Imogen had just arrived from a foreign land and needed a lesson in English vocabulary.

Something about the way he said it—gravely, but with a touch of self-parody—threw her into a fit of giggles.

And Quentin became relentless. “Hinge,” he said again, solemn as a judge. He got up and stood in front of her, held his arms out and crooked the elbows, first one then the other, a living marionette dis­covering his invisible strings. “Hinge.”

“Stop,” Imogen cried, laughing harder.

He lifted his knee, foot dangling and swinging, a pendulum of flesh and bone. “Hinge.”

“No, really. I can’t breathe,” Imogen managed. “You’ll kill me.”

“All right. Sorry.”

He plopped himself down beside her again, and folded his hands in his lap and looked out across the pond. The butterfly was gone. Imogen extricated a handkerchief from her bag and wiped her eyes and blew her nose.

When they had started walking back toward campus she touched Quentin’s arm—she had never touched him before—and said, “I wish you were my brother.”

“Oh,” Quentin said. “Oh, I—well. Um, why?”

“Because you make me laugh. Because I love your company. And obviously because I have no brothers.”

“But you don’t have a husband, either.”

Imogen stopped and looked down at her feet, at the grass, at a half-acorn with the twin grooves of a squirrel’s teethmarks on it.

Quentin realized what he had said. “I’m sorry. It was just an observa­tion. But why a brother? Why not some other male figure, I don’t know, a piano instructor, or a priest or something? I didn’t mean, you know . . .”

“No, of course not.”

“I just meant—”

“No, why would you?”

“May we walk on? We’re meeting Jack at three-fifteen.”

Quentin veered away from the subject of husbands and on to John Dryden, how one could admire the poet’s precision, his perception, his brilliance with verse, but he would never in his life want to write like Dryden, and he wasn’t just talking about style. This was all so much persiflage to draw her attention away from what he had said. It was unlike Quentin to do this, and so all the more proof that he had blurted out his true feelings.

Imogen had never, not once, thought of Quentin as a possible husband; she didn’t think of any man as a possible husband. But as they continued their walk toward the fine art museum it dawned on her that he was confusing friendship with courtship. That saddened her. To some degree it even annoyed her. He shouldn’t raise the issue of marriage when they were obviously just colleagues. He had dam­aged this thing that was bringing her such joy, more joy than she had realized until that moment—right there, right then in Lincoln Park—when she faced its loss. In her eyes, marriage had no claim to supe­riority over friendship. Marriages were commonplace, even good marriages, not that Imogen had ever witnessed such a union. Fine friendships were rare.

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Up in Smoke

Up in Smoke

A Dr. Zol Szabo Medical Mystery
also available: Hardcover Paperback eBook
tagged : medical
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