Leo Marphy sat in the corridor of Ward 8B and waited for the receptionist opposite to finish her phone call. He re-crossed his legs with exaggeration and picked up a copy of the Ulster Tattler, a pile of which had been unceremoniously dumped onto the seat beside him by a porter. Leo flicked through the thick, glossy magazine pages, a who's who of local businessmen and their bleached teeth. He lifted his legs for a cleaner who used Toilet Duck in his mop-bucket. It was a pharmaceutical ball at the Waterfront, dental alignment of almost architectural splendour; an orthodontic wet-dream. He tossed it back onto the others and poked a piece of tuna lodged under his right incisor. He rose as the receptionist replaced the handset and imitated that she was ready for him.
‘Yes? Can I help you?' She asked not looking.
‘Hello, yes, I'm the new counsellor-'
‘Ah yes, filling in for Sharon ,' the receptionist cut in. Sharon was the regular counsellor, on maternity leave. Leo looked down the receptionist's front. Her chubby paunch, like a stash of crisps of family-pack proportions, seemed the only thing holding her vertical. Leo looked to her badge but he couldn't make out the name. The fake gold enamel had flaked to reveal black plastic that tilted downward like a wilted flower too heavy for the pin. She looked like the eye of some centripetal force, gravity's cousin. She stared at him above glasses that slipped downward with everything else, as if she had just caught him looking at her breasts. She folded her arms and adopted the displeased look of the ugly feminist.
‘Yes. I was told that all had been sorted, all the relevant material had been faxed through.' Leo said. She looked at him through a globule of mascara, which had formed at the corner of her eye, like a freakish forty-year-old Alice Copper groupie. She pulled an A4 from a stack on the In-Tray.
‘Ah yes. Mr Murphy,' she said as a statement not a question.
‘Um, yes. Actually its Marphy.'
‘Marphy?' She looked at him like he had just felt her up.
‘M.A.R. not M.U.R?'
‘So this isn't a typo. That is really your name?' She asked, giving him the option.
‘O.K' she shrugged, self-justified in the power of the part time deed-poller.
‘Is there somewhere I can put my stuff, Sharon 's old office?' Leo glanced back to the chair, his briefcase, a raincoat and a small box of patient files Sharon had sent him.
‘Sorry, the whole hospital's moving to the City in a month. Sharon 's office is waiting there for her.' Leo mentally scoffed at the pathetic fallacy and pictured the office, waiting, reading an Ulster Tattler . The receptionist cleared her throat and answered the phone on the second ring.
Leo collected his things and trundled back to his car. He had forty-five minutes until his first appointment and needed to look over some notes beforehand. He had parked at the corner of the car park where all the rain had funnelled and gathered around a blocked drain. His car-key central locking lacked a battery and he climbed into his '93 Peugot 106 with fantastic difficulty. He had a bright yellow anti-theft lock across the steering wheel, preposterous among the Mercedes and BMWs, an affirmative fluorescent tick highlighting the crappiness of his vehicle. The windows steamed as soon as he sat.
He was to session hourly with Breda at 9:30, who, according to Sharon 's notes was undergoing a rigorous dose of chemotherapy. She was fifty-two and had already lost her left breast, her hair and a husband to cancer. Leo tried not to read much of the notes; a good counsellor will get the talker to tell the things that matter. He sat back in the drivers' seat and tried to relax. Although it was raining there was a sticky heat that gave him sweat patches under his arms as if God or some heavenly being had spread tarpaulin over the o-zone. He took off his jacket to air them. His suit was old, a deep mariner blue that never seemed to get made anymore. He had worked for eight years in a young offender's institution and hadn't worn a suit, hadn't owned one in all that time. This monstrosity was a hasty hand-me-down from his father; retaliation for his Oedipal complex. The knees were shiny and the legs much too short and he cursed himself for wearing white socks. He looked like Michael Jackson's back-up vocals. The only item he laid claim to was a Homer Simpson tie, a present from the boys when he left.
He checked himself in the mirror. The grey Belfast sky did nothing for his complexion and a shaving rash glowed and stung, like the bars on a Superser heater, across his neck. His face was pasty and pocked with old acne scars that creased and deepened when he smiled, like the man on the moon. He was balding although he was only thirty-four. His hair was thin and wispy and outrageously out of fashion. He licked his hand and slicked his hair back across his head in the fashion commonly known as the Walnut Whip. All in all, Leo Marphy had the look of an extra from a cheap seventies Mafia movie.
He glanced at his watch from habit and tuned his radio to Lyric FM and reclined his seat. Raindrops ran down the windows like a tadpole steeplechase and he watched them and occasionally picked winners. Bald, androgynous teenagers passed with their parents. Leo lifted his hand to his hair but stopped himself, checked it again in the mirror.
The rain eased as he rose from the car with only his jacket, deciding to leave the files behind. The sun came out in full, like the cavalry after the attack, as everything dripped wet. He entered the long corridor and past the small shop that sold second hand books and knick-knacks to the patients. Leo stopped in perusal: all Mills and Boon and Catherine Cookson but nestled amongst the glossy well-thumbed paperbacks sat Freud's The Psychopathology of Everyday Life . Leo lifted it and leafed through. He hadn't seen a copy since he had left university. With some difficulty he placed it back into its aperture on the shelf marked ‘tacky'; the books to each side swollen with fresh air. He wasn't a fan of keeping reference books and took pride in learning the basics and working from practical. He walked on but turned back, pushed through a group of radiologists and retrieved the book without looking.
‘How much?' he asked holding it up to the old lady attempting the Irish News Sudoku at the counter.
‘Hardback or paper?' she asked squinting.
‘Pound,' she said, returning to the puzzle.
Leo set a pound on the desk and walked into 8B.
The receptionist pointed down the corridor from her chair.
‘Family room, third on right,' was all she managed. Leo smiled and rapped his newly acquired book with his knuckles.
The room was cold and furnished with a busted sofa, the colour so faded it was hard to distinguish what it had originally been. Possibly red, or mauve, he thought. On either side of the sofa and tilted towards the TV, two armchairs sat patched with curtain material surplus to requirements. A dull landscape hung much too high above the TV, near the ceiling, and a cheap, gold frame shone like some sort of evil halo. A large fridge snored in the corner and emitted a nauseating smell of cheese. Leo trod into the room as if not to wake the beast. The place had the feel of Stephen King's retirement home. A sink stood under the window and served to make the room feel colder. Leo walked to it, made sure the latches were properly fastened.
Outside, under the decayed fire escape that looked like it had been rescued from the Titanic, two men with lung cancer stood in their pyjamas and slippers and smoked rolled tobacco in silence.
‘Leo is it?' a voice at the door. Leo turned. A young man stood behind one of the armchairs.
‘Yes?' Leo replied and waited for an explanation.
‘I'm Tim, I was supposed to be your 10:30 but I'm gonna have to see you now. I've visitors coming then you see.'
‘Well I'm afraid I can't, I've another appointment for…' Leo looked at his watch, 9:45, and caught himself unaware.
‘Um, Breda ?' Tim asked, a deliberate pause, ‘I guess you didn't hear then huh?' Leo looked at Tim and Tim looked at the floor. One of the men at the window, farted, grumbled about the weather and went inside.
‘Awh man, A Brief History of the Irish Linen Trade ,' Tim snorted air through his nose, pointed at the book in Leo's hand; ‘I wish I had Breda 's excuse. You givin' lectures?'
Leo didn't look at the book. The fridge went silent before jumpstarting back to life.