Dave Duggan is a dramatist and novelist, living in Derry. The Guardian described his first novel, The Greening of Larry Mahon (Guildhall Press, 2004), as ‘an engrossing study of shifting rootlessness.’ His second novel, A Sudden Sun, was published by Guildhall Press in April 2012 and reviewed as ‘a powerful and heart rending story of the raw courage of a woman in the face of adversity’, by The Irish World. He wrote the Oscar nominated short film Dance Lexie Dance (Raw Nerve Productions, 1997) and was awarded a Major Arts Award by the Northern Ireland Arts Council in 2010.
By DAVE DUGGAN
‘Margaret Duggan, please.’
Still not used to her married name, Margaret stayed in her seat when the nurse called. Other women looked around, waiting for someone to stand up and go into the doctor. The last woman had taken an age in there. She was young, very large, crumpled into the side of her mother. The nurse had walked them to the end of the corridor, then laid a gentle hand on the young woman’s back as she ushered them through the door to the rest of the hospital.
The other women sensed the word and folded their palms across their midriffs, easing the blessed cargo they bore, new life floating within them, pearls to be sounded and cosseted until the final dive to maternity.
This time the nurse’s tone rose at the end, in mild irritation. Margaret stood up and dropped her string shopping bag at her feet. She bent down, her middle tightening, and picked up the bag. Crochet needles poked out and one fell onto the tiled floor with a tinny clatter. Again she bent and picked and as she rose up, she felt her face flush and her head lighten.
‘A lummox, that’s what I am,’ she thought.
‘This way, please.’
The nurse beckoned and Margaret turned to face her. Her head settled and she clutched her string bag close, a crochet needle stabbing her thigh. Her breath heaved in her chest and the amphibian inside her squirmed heartburn. The other women in the waiting room looked at her, their faces a palette of colonial colours. Browns, blacks and ebonies. Greys, whites, pinks. Olives, duns, sepias, creams. Some smiled. All urged her on. Time was pressing.
Margaret approached the nurse.
‘Sorry. I didn’t hear rightly. I’m only….’
‘This way. Urine, please.’
‘In here. Hurry along, please. Doctor’s waiting. Urine?’
The word clanged in Margaret’s head. New words. New accents. New voices. New city. London.
And the nurse knew.
‘Did you pass water this morning? Doctor needs some of your water.’
Water. A sea full of it, under a boat hardly fit for the cattle below decks. A woman and a man, ten years between them. The coast of Ireland behind. The coast of Wales before. Water heaving and morose. A train then. The man craves a drink. The woman has one too. A holiday? A jaunt? An adventure? Two brown cardboard suitcases. Worlds in them. A life-time ahead, to be sealed by marriage, work and babies.
The nurse took Margaret to a toilet cubicle and handed her a small plastic bowl and a tubular bottle. She said nothing, simply nodded her through the door.
Margaret closed the door and slipped the bolt, then sat on the toilet pedestal, her string bag slumping on the floor beside her. She pressed her palms against her cheeks and felt them burn. Her breath returned to her, less gulping and more even. With a great sigh, she stood up and prepared to provide the doctor with her urine.
A new word. Foreign, yet her own language. Medical. Her words were ‘water’ and ‘piss’.
New words everyday in this new city, every one of them impressing upon her the sense that she was unlearned, inadequate and out of her depth.
But this word she now knew. She mouthed it soundlessly as she arranged her clothing. She mouthed it once more as her water tinkled into the small plastic bowl she contorted to place below her. She lifted it gently and she dried herself and re-fixed her clothing and she hummed the word as she decanted it from the plastic dish into the tubular bottle, spilling droplets of amber liquid into the toilet bowl, but preserving enough to fill the bottle to the brim. She lilted a tune to it as she screwed the cap onto the tubular bottle and rinsed it under the tap of the hand basin. Urine.
When she came out of the toilet cubicle, she found the nurse waiting for her. Margaret’s face flushed once more. Did the nurse hear her lilting and humming and singing?
‘I only …..’
‘Come along now. Doctor doesn’t like to be kept waiting.’
The nurse made the doctor seem like a terror, but he was relaxed and put Margaret at her ease.
‘Everything seems to be ticking along nicely, Mrs. Duggan. Ticking along nicely. We’ll see you in two months then.’
Reassuring words to send her on her way. She could ‘tick along nicely’ and in two months time she would return, this time with her water in her string bag.
The nurse gave her an empty tubular bottle.
‘For the next time, love.’
And she smiled.
‘Yes’, said Margaret. ‘For me urine.’
Margaret found herself looking into a deep trench, on the Harrow Road, unsure of how she got there. She raised her eyes and looked across the road. She saw a wedge of clear blue sky above the tops of red buses. One of the buses carried a picture of the newly-crowned Queen and her Prince.
She looked down at her flat black shoes, her sheer stockings and the hem of her mauve skirt, the string bag swinging below it, crochet needles poking out their tadpole heads. She remembered the hospital visit, the busy nurse, the easy-going doctor and the sense of being found out.
She looked into the trench. Broad enough for two men, it ran the length of the Harrow Road. The bottom was covered in a brown sludge of muck and water, like muddied urine. Margaret began to cry softly.
A bloom of black hair and a set of square shoulders emerged at the level of the pavement, as a young man stepped onto the wooden crate he used to climb out of the trench and said
‘Are you all right?’
Margaret was startled, but not scared. She guessed he was his own age, perhaps younger.
‘I am, amn’t I?’ she asked gently.
‘Are you going far?’
‘I’m getting the 36.’
‘Just beyond,’ the young man said, pointing with the hilt of his shovel.
‘I have to go the other way.’
‘You’ll cross then. Go down to the lights. We have the whole road dug up, only not at the lights.’
Margaret noticed the grimy crinkles around his eyes, fanning together as he faced the sun.
‘Ye’re digging for gold, is it?’
‘Likely. Only we’ll not get to keep much of it. You sure you’re all right?’
‘Ah, yeh. I was at the hospital and well……….
‘I got a bit of shock and I’m not sure ….’
She saw the young man blush and she asked him his name.
‘Danny,’ he said. ‘Me and two other lads are over from Crossmolina. They’re tunnel men, but they won’t let me go down with them. I don’t mind. This is as deep as I want to go anyway. There’s no bottom to London they say, not even under the Thames. The lads told me a Hungarian boy found a skeleton and men in brown coats took it to the British Museum. They said he was a Roman. He was a-roaming in the wrong place if he was under the Thames. Don’t be crying now. You’ll be alright.’
‘I will. Yes, I will.’
Margaret said it with conviction and looked straight into the young man’s blushing face. Then she told him about the nurse and the doctor, the baby that was coming, how Eddie, her husband, was never done reading books, the way London was always new and foreign, even though she was here two years now. She didn’t tell him about the word ‘urine’ and how she’d been embarrassed.
Danny stared back at her, his blush even deeper now.
‘You’ll be sound. I never heard a girl talk like that. Or even me mother.’
‘Thanks very much,’ said Margaret and she laughed.
‘Don’t you be crying any more now,’ he said.
‘I’m only sniffling.’
She dabbed her cheeks and her eyes with the sleeve of her coat.
‘Will you be over long?’ she asked.
‘Ah, we’ll go back for the Christmas.’
‘Have you a girl at home?’
‘I kinda have. Alice you call her. Her father has a small place, below Nephin.’
Margaret smiled again, turned and walked down the Harrow Road towards the traffic lights. When she looked back, Danny saluted her with the hilt of his shovel, then climbed back into the trench.
The number 36 was almost empty. Margaret took a seat at the front, upstairs. When the bus pulled off, the Harrow Road, heading west, unfurled before her.
She looked down to see Danny, but he was bent over his work and all she saw was his bloom of black hair, the swing of his shovel and the sludge he lifted onto the pile beside the trench.
He’s nice, she thought. A helpful, kind fella. And though he was almost the same age as her, she thought of him as the boy she would have, the one she carried within her now, the boy whose health and strength could be told from a study of her water.
She said the word out loud.
Then she repeated it.
Tears began to well behind her eyes, water filling the sockets and holding there. Her cheeks tensed, her mouth opened and she gulped a laugh, heaving her shoulders gently.
The bus roller-coasted along, jolting and hesitant at times, surging forward, then slowing and halting. It wheezed, grunted, then snarled up and down the gears. Margaret bobbed along with it. Just like Doctor said: she ticked along nicely.
She said the word out loud and laughed heartily to herself, blushing once more, remembering how she spoke to the young man digging the trench on the Harrow Road. She wouldn’t tell Eddie about him. She would tell Eddie what the doctor said and he would nod querulously because he was scared of the enormity of the mite she carried within her.
Then Eddie would return to his book and though she knew he did that to steal away from the world he lived in, she also knew that the words he read were powerful. Eddie knew many words. He probably knew the word ‘urine.’
There and then Margaret resolved that the boy she carried would know words. All the words it was possible to know.
‘No child of mine,’ she vowed to herself, ‘will ever not know the word. Will ever be lost in words. Lost in London or anywhere new and foreign.’
The bus shuddered to a halt. The conductor called
‘Harrow Road, terminating at Queen’s Park Station. Seats up top.’
She heard the dash of footsteps on the stairs and sensed passengers shuffling into seats behind her.
She thought of Danny, digging the trench. She hoped he would get home for Christmas and that Alice would be there for him and that he would hold her close in the home place.
© Dave Duggan