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A doorstep view of the Dublin mountains, the grazed sky lead and liquid, a radio mast scratching the clouds. Mam buttons your wool anorak up to the neck, kisses your face with her cherry-sticked lips, and you feel the tickle of her mustache, annoying and raspy. Before stepping across the threshold you dip two fingers in the holy water font and make the sign of the cross. This is what it’s like to be seven and about to walk to school for the first time in nine months.


The nephritis came with bloodied urine, straight to the hospital, where they put you in leather straps you called, “strainers,” so you wouldn’t make yourself sicker. At night you listened to Sister’s castaneted shoes on the polished ward floor, the swish of her starched skirts, the glint of steel from her spectacles as she made the night rounds. Always the smell, too. Dettol antiseptic and mashed potatoes and gravy. Even in the night you couldn’t move in the bed, the straps pulled tight against your chest. When you pissed the bed the first time it wasn’t a big rigmarole, but after the third and fourth time the nurse put rubber sheets under the starchy linen. Rubber and piss blended into the scent of a six-year-old’s sadness, the uncomfortable dampness as you lay shamed and silent in the dark.

No school for you, instead the stretched out days of hospital food and leather straps, of bed baths and blood tests. Every day, mam bused to town and walked to Temple Street Hospital to visit you, her little soldier. In the daytime an old man came to your bedside with the Irish Independent and read you the comics—Dennis the Menace, Count Curly Wee and Gussie Goose. Two flaps of hair were plastered to the sides of the man’s head, like a cruel Viking helmet. “Say the words after me,” he’d say, and fear pushed them out of your mouth, reluctant crumbs. This was how you learned to read. One day he stopped coming, Sister shaking her head when you asked where your friend had gotten to.

In time the nurse loosened the straps, the wetting of the bed lessened, and you began to walk the corridors, looking for your friend with the newspaper. In the old men’s ward you peeked between curtains, bruised skeletons sponged, nurses hoisting cracked limbs into clean pajamas. One old shitehawk wrinkled a finger at you and asked whether you’d like to know a secret. When you got closer he thrust his mousie at you and a trickle of piss ran down your leg. As you backed away from his bed he winked a moled lid at you, his tongue poking from the side of his mouth.

Paper chains and bright lanterns suspended from the ceilings, a string across the end of each bed for Christmas cards from home and friends. Mam and Da came with the boys to see you. She had a miniature tree in a pot, just like the one at home, except this one was covered with gold-flake and ornaments attached by bits of pipe cleaner—snowmen, silver balls, an angel in a white robe, gold-haloed, her face a smiling wooden ball. Packages in wrapping paper littered the bed, stuffed animals, baby bear, Lego bricks and a jigsaw puzzle with the Matterhorn in one corner of the sky.

When they let you out it was a Thursday, after breakfast. Mam came with your clothes in a bag and helped you dress. As you said goodbye to the nurses and Sister your eyes leaked. Mam held your hand as you walked down Temple Street towards the bus stop. On jellied legs you followed her as fast as you could trot. At home everything smelled the same, the cigarette smoke and the shepherd’s pie for dinner, an apple pie, crusted with sugar steamed on the counter.

Da was working and Ma hadn’t told him you’d be home, because she couldn’t phone him at work. At six, as the Angelus bells from Radio Eireann bonged, Mam hid you in the sitting room behind the curtains, and told you to wait until you heard your Da’s voice. When you jumped out from your hiding place his face lit up like you’d never seen before and he began to cry. “Don’t cry Da, don’t cry. It’s only me, it’s only me.” He hoisted you so high you were able to touch the brass lampshade with your tongue. That night, the bed did not smell of rubber, though the sheets once again were damp.


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James Claffey JAMES CLAFFEY, hails from County Westmeath, Ireland, and lives on an avocado ranch in Carpinteria, CA, with his wife, the writer and artist, Maureen Foley, their daughter, Maisie, and Australian cattle-dog, Rua. He is the author of the collection of short fiction, Blood a Cold Blue, published by Press53 . www.jamesclaffey.com

9 responses to “Kissing the Lampshade”

  1. […] post on the nervous breakdown is here pass it […]

  2. j says:

    i am always touched by your stories of being ‘in hospital’, so young. i can see it, and hear your voice reading it – your accent. i love the image of your father being so happy to see you he cried. lifting you in the air so high you touched the lampshade with your tongue. i love that feeling – used to love it, as a kid. we used to make ornaments out of paper towel rolls and cotton balls, colored paper… j

  3. Jessica Blau says:

    This is so great–I can hear your voice so clearly here. What is nephritis? I’ll have to look it up. This feels like it could be part of a longer work. Are you working on a memoir? You should. I’d certainly read it.

  4. thanks, jessica. nephritis is a kidney disease and it came on overnight when i was six and i ended up missing a year of school and spending way too long in catholic ireland’s hospitals! the piece is another section of a longer memoir project called “scenes from a receding irish life.”

  5. SAA says:

    This was fantastic, the last bit with your father almost made me cry.

  6. Ronlyn Domingue says:

    Welcome to the TNB family, James!

    I love the tight attention to details–the fragments of that time in your life you’ve beautifully pieced back together here. Like other readers mentioned, the ending with your father is so touching.

    Oh, great pic of you with the streetcar. 🙂

  7. thanks ronlyn! excited to be part of TNB! yes, i’m missing nola and streetcars and bayou dog walks in the evenings. but the cool temperatures of carpinteria are more bearable than the louisiana heat right now.

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