“The UI Man” by Ron Woods

Frank had been working with his boss on the new January price lists when he asked him for the time off. ‘I need to take a couple of hours off Harry. I’ve to go for a check-up.’

     ‘Ah yeah – shouldn’t be a problem,’ said Harry not looking up from the pages of figures in front of him.

‘Grand. Friday the 28th of February then, I should be in by lunchtime.’

‘When?’ Harry was looking up now, peering over his glasses at Frank. ‘The 28th of this February?’

Frank nodded.

‘But that’s the end of the financial year Frank. It’ll be all hands on deck here. Does it have to be that day?’

‘Well I’ve been waiting to get the appointment Harry, I don’t want to cancel it now.’

Harry sat back and took his glasses off. ‘What’s wrong Frank?’ he asked, then hesitated. ‘Nothing serious is it?’

Frank could feel an ache of panic in his stomach. ‘Ah no Harry, just a check up, but I want to get it done.’

‘But Jesus Frank, not at the year-end though. End of the month is bad enough but we’ll be up to our clackers.’ He sat forward and put his glasses back on. ‘Give them a buzz and get them to put it off for a couple of weeks.’

Frank had phoned the hospital and put it off. Two weeks later Harry had waltzed in to the office and told Frank he was going to be away himself at the year-end.

‘The missus has me under pressure,’ he’d said. ‘A last minute special offer… sure you’ll be grand…we’ll go through all the figures when I get back.’

So when Frank should have been attending for his appointment back in February he was up to his clackers in stock-taking and paperwork while Harry was sunning his clackers in Tenerife. Well he showed him, Frank thought. By the time Harry got back, every nut and bolt was accounted for. It took him all through that weekend and late nights for a week but it was worth it.

Or maybe it wasn’t, he thinks now. When he’d phoned the hospital the next available appointment was five weeks later, and then there’d been the nurses’ strike, or go-slow, or work to rule, or whatever they wanted to call it so it was put back again to the middle of June. His appointment is not until half past nine and it’s only a quarter past but the waiting room is already almost full. As the young receptionist with bright red fingernails types his details into her computer he looks around the room, counting the number of seats. He likes counting things, six rows of eight that’s forty-eight and two more at the window is fifty, a number that he finds satisfying for no real reason. Like the way he always sets the volume on his car radio to an even number. The waiting room serves six different doctors and as far as he can tell everyone is here for a 9.30 appointment. I’ve been waiting five and a half months, he thinks, so another few minutes won’t hurt. He takes the first seat in the second row.

It’s been a lot longer than five and a half months since his problem started, he remembers. It’s probably been a couple of years, certainly since before his fifty-fifth birthday and that was eighteen months ago. Angela had insisted they go down to Fogarty’s for a carvery lunch.

‘To mark the occasion’ she’d said.

His birthday had fallen on a Saturday so he’d suggested they should do something special, maybe go away for the weekend, they didn’t like parties, well Angela didn’t. She kept putting him off and in the heel of the hunt nothing happened and they just went for a carvery.

So they had their lunch and Angela was following him out to the car when she said, ‘Ah Frank, you must have sat on something, the back of your trousers are all stained. The seat must have been wet.’

He remembers the pain in his chest when she’d said that, he knew what it was and it wasn’t the seat.

Most of the chairs in the waiting room are occupied now and every so often a nurse appears from the corridor at the other end of the room to call out a name. There are different nurses and Frank reckons that each consultant must have his own. He wonders which nurse is his and how far up the queue he is now.

‘You’ll have to go and see about it,’ Angela had kept telling him. He didn’t tell her but he’d already been to see Dr. Wilson about it months before.

‘You have UI,’ Dr Wilson had said after he’d examined him, ‘It’s not unusual for men your age Frank. You don’t seem to have any other problem so it’s probably just a weakness of the pelvic muscles.’ Frank was only half listening to him. ‘You can do some exercises to help. I’ll give you a leaflet, but if you can’t sort it yourself I’ll have to refer you to a consultant, you might need a little op..’

He’d sat outside in the car reading the leaflet. UIUrinary Incontinence it said, then gave a long list of possible causes. Not the kind of thing to boast about to your mates in the pub, if you had mates in the pub. From then on he was careful with himself, kept going to the bathroom regular never leaving it until he needed to go, doing the exercises from the leaflet he kept in the back of his wallet.

Angela bought him heavier cotton underpants. ‘Just in case,’ she’d said.

Then he started wearing two pairs at a time. He was only caught out once more, well once more by Angela; there was usually something there most nights. They’d been sitting in watching the Late Late on RTE, he was half asleep when the doorbell rang and without thinking he’d jumped up from the armchair to answer it. That did it and Angela sent him upstairs while she went to the door. It was only kids messing, playing knick-knack.

The next day she came home from the supermarket and handed him a packet of Always pads. She didn’t look at him when she handed them over, just pushed them into his hands and said, ‘The instructions are on the back, I’ll get you more when they’re gone.’

It’s half past ten on the waiting room clock. Frank stands up and walks over to the reception counter leaving his newspaper on the chair.

‘Your consultant’s been delayed’ the receptionist tells him, pressing a red fingernail to a spot on her chin. ‘He isn’t actually here yet.’

‘And when were you going to tell me?’ asks Frank.

‘I’m trying to keep your appointment open,’ she says, her voice hardening. ‘By rights, if it goes after eleven o’clock we’re into the next session and I’ll have to arrange a new one for you, but that might be another six weeks.’

‘You’re joking me,’ says Frank, ‘I’m here since a quarter past nine.’

‘I know,’ says the girl. ‘Do you want to leave then?’

‘Do I want to…do I want…?’ He’s not sure if she’s asking him a question or taunting him. ‘No I don’t want to leave,’ he hisses. ‘I’ll wait.’ He walks back to his seat, straightens his newspaper and sits back down on it.

Angela had stopped sleeping with him. There was never anything said, she just stopped coming to bed. At first she would make some excuse to stay up later than him and then sleep on the couch. That played havoc with her back so instead she would tiptoe up to the spare room.

‘You were fast asleep,’ she’d said, ‘I didn’t want to wake you.’

She said the same thing three nights running. Then she didn’t say anything but she still didn’t come to bed. All her makeup and cleansers are in the spare room now.

And she was always asking him if he’d washed his hands, wouldn’t let him lay the table or help with the dinner. If he offered to make a cup of tea she’d jump up herself and say, ‘You’re grand, I’ll do it.’ A couple of times he’d made her a cup without asking and she’d taken it from him, but she didn’t drink it. She just left it on the table beside her to go cold. Now that he thought of it, he couldn’t remember the last time she’d touched him.

And he had to sit in his own armchair she’d said. That didn’t bother Frank, he always sat in his own armchair beside the fireplace, with the pictures of Angela’s nieces on the mantle. What did bother him was that she wouldn’t let anyone else sit on his chair. The night Tom and Mary came over he was mortified.

About twice a year Tom and Mary would come to their house for a drink or they would go to theirs. They were the only neighbours that they were really friendly with. Frank thought they were very nice people, very ordinary, no airs and graces about them. Angela made a terrible fuss when they arrived, running around clucking like a mother hen.

‘I’ll take your coats,’ she’d said. ‘Mary give me your coat there, Frank get Tom and Mary a drink, what will you have, I’ll put these coats upstairs, oh Mary your coat’s lovely, I’ll have to be careful I don’t give you back one of mine when you’re going, sit down sit down, Frank will you get the drinks.’ She nearly took her eye out with the door as she rushed out.

Frank was just coming back into the lounge from the kitchen carrying two glasses of wine when Angela came back in the door from the hall at the opposite end.

‘Oh Mary!’ she says grabbing her arm. ‘Don’t sit there, that’s Frank’s chair.’

Poor Mary, thought Frank, she didn’t know where to put herself. Her face went bright red and she hopped up.

‘Sit over here Mary,’ said Angela plumping up the cushion on the other armchair. ‘You’ll be more comfortable here…and Frank is a bit fussy about his chair,’ she added.

‘I’m not,’ said Frank as he handed Mary her glass of wine. ‘Not really.’

The conversation carried on but every time Frank looked at Mary he felt embarrassed and looked away. He tried just talking to Tom but his mind kept drifting back to Mary and what she must be thinking. They didn’t stay late. Mary said she was very tired and hoped they wouldn’t mind. When they were gone Angela tidied up and washed the dishes in the kitchen. Frank flicked on the telly. Nothing was said.

Just before eleven an older couple come into the waiting room. She’s a big imposing looking woman, short grey hair cut a little severely and wearing a long cream raincoat. Frank thinks she looks a bit like the actress Joan Plowright in a very bad mood. He thinks her husband looks a bit shook, very unsteady on his feet. He’s probably about sixty, not much older than himself but he looks a lot older. He looks like he used to be heavier and taller than he is now, as if he’d shrunk. The woman walks him over to Frank’s row so he tucks in his feet to let them pass. She’s in charge, no doubt about it, thinks Frank.

‘Sit here,’ she says to her husband lowering him into the seat next but one from Frank. ‘I’ll get you checked in.’

Frank nods to the man as he sits down but he doesn’t seem to notice. Looking at him close up he thinks his face is familiar then realises with a shock that the man looks quite like himself. Frank catches his breath. Dear God, he thinks, is that what I’m going to look like? Do I look like that now?

‘Right,’ says the woman when she comes back from the counter. ‘I’ve told them you get tired so they’ll have to see you quickly.’ She plonks herself down on the seat between Frank and her husband. Her bulk presses against Frank and he has to move sideways in his seat to make room. ‘I’m not sitting here all day, that’s for sure,’ she says.

Her husband is called almost immediately. ‘Mr Gilligan…Mr Gilligan?’ calls the nurse.

‘Right that’s us,’ says the woman reaching forward to the back of the chair in front of her to pull herself up. ‘Come on, come on, the sooner we get in the sooner we’ll be out.’ Her husband winces as she takes hold of his arm and pulls him up from his seat.

Frank watches as Mr Gilligan shuffles slowly away from him along the row of seats to follow the nurse. As the nurse turns to lead them to the doctor’s office Mrs Gilligan puts her hand on his back and pushes him. He staggers forward and puts his hand on the wall to steady himself, then walks on. Frank feels his stomach sink.

She pushed him, God almighty she pushed him, he thinks.

He feels his body starting to shake. He can’t stay sitting so he stands up, then sits down again. Then he stands up and turns around on the spot. The man in the seat behind looks up at him.

‘She pushed him,’ says Frank.

‘Mr McCarthy…Mr McCarthy?’ It’s a different nurse calling.

For a moment Frank stands where he is, facing the wrong way, his arms tight by his sides, his fists clenched.

‘Mr McCarthy?’

Frank takes a deep breath. He feels himself becoming calmer, relaxing. He stands straighter then turns to face the nurse. As he walks toward her she smiles briefly before leading the way down a small corridor and into the last office on the right. ‘Mr. Eglington’ is written in red marker on a piece of paper stuck to the door. The consultant, a man about his own age and height but heavier and going bald is standing behind a small wooden desk, head down leaning on his fists as he reads a file. Frank stands in front of him looking at the pale freckled skin on the top of his head. The nurse closes the door and comes to stand at the side of the desk. Nothing is said. Frank can hear the man breathing and he can hear his own breath too, even and deep.

The consultant looks up at him, ‘Ah yes, the UI man.’

‘No,’ says Frank.

The consultant looks startled. He looks down at his file again, running his index finger across the lines muttering to himself then looks up at Frank. ‘Not the UI man?’

‘No,’ says Frank.

The consultant looks over at the nurse then back at the file and then at Frank. ‘Mr. McCarthy?’ he asks.

‘Now you’re talking,’ says Frank quietly. ‘Don’t call me the UI man. My name,’ he says, leaning forward so their faces almost touch, ‘is Frank McCarthy, and you’re late.’


Biographical Note:


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