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The Devil’s Bit had not changed much since I was there as a lad, but the surgeon had changed in the decades since I had last met him. I was surprised that he was still alive yet here he was, striding towards me on the stony ground, an incongruous sight against the backdrop of the gold hills and blue sky of Tipperary. He had aged, but he still had the bright eye and the energetic manner that had belonged to the hardest-working surgeon in Ireland.
“There you are. If I had been any longer, you would have been late.” I was straight away back on the hospital corridors, when whatever we did was wrong, and wondering why he had summoned me to this remote place.
“Anyhow. I have been reading your hack work in the medical papers. Simple stuff. I would write myself if I had the time, and a lot better may I add, but as you worked for me once you cannot be a complete fool, so I need you to write about this.”
I looked around the stony hollow. A chilly breeze rustled the few autumn leaves on the ground.
“Write about what, Professor?”
His walking stick struck me sharply on the knee.
“Fool! I have to explain everything. Take notes.
“Today is 21 September, which is the autumn Equinox, and for as long as anyone can remember, which in my case is long, the surgeons of Ireland have gathered here at The Devil’s Bit for Gallstone Day. Do you have to gape like a jackass? Close your mouth!”
“But Professor,why here?”
I ducked as the stick whistled over my head.
“Look around you. There are none so blind as he who will not see! What are everywhere?” He threw a handful of pebbles at me, as he had once hurled surgical implements at scrub nurses. “Stones! And not just stones. Perfect replicas of gallstones, kidney stones, biliary tract calculi, sharp ones, round ones, cholesterol-looking ones, pigmented-looking pebbles, and great big whoppers like golf balls.
“I see that I have to explain, you nincompoop. Before your time, if you operated on a patient, particularly a private one, for gallstones and nothing was found, it could be damned awkward. Nobody expects to see an appendix, but you had better have a nice gallstone for the punter to take home. And if the patient’s damned insides would not oblige, then the Devil’s Bit would. You would approach the bedside, chat for a minute and then fish from your pocket a fistful of stones, or a big one and a small one, or a few small ones. It didn’t matter, as long as it tallied with what you predicted. Many a house on Taylor’s Hill and in Killiney was paid for by those boyos.”
“As soon as you passed the Fellowship and got a permanent position, you were inducted into the Tipperary Calculus Club. We would comb the hill and fill our bags with gallstones, or the next best thing.
“Then along came the ultrasound. Took the awe out of it. Our God-like prescience was no more, when any fool could count the bastards for himself on an illuminated bread bin.”
His voice grew soft. His eyes were distant.
“We were never wrong. Never! I am the last of them. They are all gone.”
He walked away, suddenly old.
“Tipp did no good this year. But it’s a young team,” said a small voice behind me.
I whirled around. A leprechaun was sitting on a rock.
“And do you know, he never even thanked me for all the stones I picked for him down the years. Not once.”
He looked at the surgeon, now small in the distance.
“I suppose we felt sorry for them, slipping about in their shiny shoes and stripey trousers, dropping their top hats and cursing like rugby players. So we decided to help them out. ‘Get me a gross of cholesterol and two of bilirubin’ and off we would go, after yellow ones and piebald ones. Leprechauns and surgeons together, on Gallstone day. Small thanks we had for it, but I suppose many a one helped those lads out and watched them take the credit. But I would say you know that yourself.”
His eyes were as shrewd as a terrier’s. You don’t hide much from a leprechaun.
It was neither this year nor the last it happened. But I sometimes wonder, on the solstice, if there are any of them still there: Surgeons, leprechauns or gallstones.