Mr Duffy

The room at Hutt Hospital had four beds, separated by long, sky blue curtains. I was given one of the two places by the window. Opposite me was Mr Duffy. He was a small, compact man with a neck as wide as his head and solid arms and legs; white, wispy hair and skin the colour of pale toffee. He reminded me of one of the upholstered tuffets my grandfather used to make – a soft-looking, dumpy shape that was actually as hard as a rock. It was difficult to guess his age.

When I arrived he was sitting in a chair beside his bed, staring straight-ahead with wide round eyes, staring straight at me, as it turned out. I said hi and gave him a minimalist wave. He barely responded. Unsociable, I thought, which was all right by me. I have a horror of being trapped in places with people who won’t stop talking so I prefer the other extreme. The stare was disconcerting, though. I tried to ignore it and settled down to dozing and reading my book. Whenever I surfaced over the next few hours, he was still there, in the same pose, except that at one stage I would find him wearing a grey knitted hat like a tea cosy that came down to the level of his eyebrows. It made him look like a dwarf warrior from Lord of the Rings.

Mr Duffy, it turned out, spoke English with a strong accent. It sounded southern European although probably not a Romance language. Something Slavic, maybe. With the nurses, at least, he was quite a cheerful fellow. There was a lot of mutual joshing. He seemed older than I’d first thought, quite a bit older than me, in fact, and, by nature or design, had taken on the role of the loveable old rogue who gets along, with women especially, by being cheeky. Witness a conversation with a young nurse aid:

Duffy: How old are you?
Nurse Aid: Twenty.
Duffy: You have a boyfriend?
Nurse Aid: Yes.
Duffy: How long?
Nurse Aid: Since we were fourteen.
Duffy: You gonna get married?
Nurse Aid: Oh, maybe. Some day.
Duffy: You have sex with him?
No response.

I guess nurses have to put up with a certain amount of this sort of stuff and, given they are clearly in the position of power, it probably doesn’t matter too much. It made me wonder about Duffy, though. He didn’t have the air of a dirty old man, exactly. Not obviously sleazy. In fact, he seemed quite a jolly chap. Did I like him? Ought I to try to get to know him better?

Later in the day, Duffy had a visitor, a short, dark plumpish man, with a black moustache. He looked like a younger and spongier version of Duffy himself. The two of them had a conversation in something like Maori. Maybe it was Maori and Duffy, who had the louder voice, was speaking it with an accent. Maybe it was the Cook Island dialect. Whatever the case, Duffy was a great deal more fluent in it than he was in English. I wondered if I’d made a mistake and Duffy wasn’t European at all. But then again, he didn’t speak English with a Polynesian accent. There was a story there. If I had been more mobile (the only position that did not give me pain was lying flat on my back) I might have been tempted to pursue the matter.

During the night a new patient arrived in the bed next to mine. He snored prodigiously through the curtains on my left. Duffy, too, had some sort of crisis. Between the two of them and the pain in my guts I did not gave a restful time.

I was woken at six thirty the next morning by a burst of music. In my hypnogogic state, I seemed to be wrapped in blue, with swirling white, cloud patterns. There were words, too, but I couldn’t make them out. A foreign language? Greek? The song ended and a voice said. ‘Great music, good company and a message of hope. Radio Southern Cross.’

A strong, richly timbred voice then began to intone some sort of litany or creed – a long string of sentences each beginning with the word ‘God’. Then there were more songs. By now I was awake enough to recognise the uplifting Christian messages and that the broadcast was coming from Duffy’s bed. Dear God, I thought, barely conscious of the irony, was I going to have to listen to that all day?

The answer was yes, more or less. A nurse came along and asked me, with quirk of an eyebrow, whether it was all right with me. I told her it was a bit much so she got Duffy to turn it down. Over an hour or two, though, the volume gradually increased again until I could hear every word.

There is something about these religious songs that makes them seem genetically engineered. You take a standard genre, like jazz or country and western or pop and you cross it with musak. Then you add lyrics to suit, varying from the lugubrious (‘How sweet Jesus died for me’) to the absurd (‘God never let me down’) to the down-right weird (‘When we have the right to die’).

I was still spaced out from the pain and painkillers and the super-strength antibiotic that had been shot into my veins and I felt oddly ambivalent about this assault. If Duffy needed Jesus to get him through his present situation, then maybe that was fair enough and if he was so deaf he had to have it at this volume then that was okay, too. In addition, on another level, I didn’t really care. I was somehow above or beyond it all. On the other hand, though, I sure as hell wished it would stop. I felt I was being polluted and that there were mental infections in the hospital that were just as dangerous as the necritising whatever it was that had been mentioned in the consultation I had overheard through the curtains on my left. I decided I needed an antidote so I sent a text to Barbara to see if she could find me a copy of Karl Stead’s ‘My Name was Judas’.

Several times during the day I asked for the radio to be turned down, which it was, only to be gradually turned up again. On about the third request, the nurse who did the job fumbled the buttons and lost the station. After some zooming across the band, she and Duffy settled on a different channel. All voice this time. Over the next hour or so, Duffy gradually tweaked the volume upwards and I realised we was now listening to the racing station. I heard commentaries and results from Melbourne, Sydney, Greymouth and Pahiatua. In some ways this was harder on the nerves than Radio Southern Cross but, at least, it seemed to provide a more apposite metaphor for our situation. A prime feature of the view from the ward window was the funeral parlour across the street. The odds and the dividends from the TAB seemed more in tune with this reminder of mortality than the candied songs of Christian radio.

One of the nurse aids told Duffy she preferred his earlier choice of programme but he stuck with the racing. The next day it was Solid Gold Hits. I did wonder, in the end, if he cared what he was listening to. Maybe Mozart would have done the job just as well. I doubt it somehow.

Tomatoes, at last.

2 Responses to “Mr Duffy”

  1. maggie@at-the-bay.com Says:

    Well, I should first extend my concern over your sojourn in the hospital but I have to say that the eloquence that it inspired has almost surpassed the Pass-more series (see, those puns, they just come naturally)… Mr Duffy is the perfect fictional (yes, I know he is real) character, and we all want to know more, but preferably without you returning to hospital.
    Best wishes for your gall-less future. And empathy to Emma Peel if she has had to play nurse…. we girls all know about this!

  2. jackie Says:

    This is really a terrific blog post. I will have to include you to my RSS list.

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