Story: Visiting Uncle Charlie

By: Trevor Conway

 

 Uncle Charlie“DNA is a large organic molecule composed of a series of sub-units called nucleotides.”

Nucleotides. Nucleotides.

“Each nucleotide consists of a phosphate group–”

Phosphate group.

a five-carbon sugar, deoxyribose–”

Deoxyribose, a five-carbon sugar.

and one of four different nitrogenous bases. These bases are adenine, thiamine, guanine and cytosine.”

Four different nitrogenous bases: adenine, guanine, cytosine, thiamine.

I always thought reading out loud was the best way to study, far better than making your own notes or underlining text. Besides, this book is already riddled with dimpled pen marks from a variety of people I’ve never met. The pages curl to a smooth edge. Diagrams are good, too, so I draw plenty of them in my hardback copy. The visual impact is great for memory. You have to use lots of colour, remember all the details, draw them big – don’t be afraid to fill the page, even if every plant cell resembles a cramped foetus straining the edge of its womb.

So, Sonia, what does DNA stand for? Deoxyribonucleic acid. Deoxy-ribonucleic-acid. And what’s DNA made ofcomposed of?.It’s divided into nucleotides, which are made up of three different elements: a phosphate group, a substance called deoxyribose and a nitrogen base. There’s four nitrogen bases: thiamine; guanine; cytosineDon’t look at the bookDon’tAdenine!

(I looked.)

The exams are important, but I won’t let them define the rest of my life. I know plenty of people in their thirties who have jobs that bear no relation to what they studied. Society measures too much by grades. The thing that bothers me most, though, is having my period during an exam. I heard of one girl who was so pressed for time that she kept on going, and ended up in a bit of a mess. They should have special allowances for these things. As long as I get off to a good start, I’ll be able to deal with it. I can’t imagine getting anything other than average results, but I don’t care that much.

After forty-five minutes of study, my room feels stuffy. My brain shifts to a lower gear. I consider a shower, but what I really need is a new environment. I can’t shower before going outside: though I like how soft my hair gets, it just swells up. If you met me on the street, I’d look like a walking wall of jagged curls coming toward you.

There’s a nice, mellow sun, doesn’t ask too much of the eyes. I can taste the fresh air, blended with grime and fumes, a blend that’ll grow stronger as I near the city centre. There’s so much to distract you in a city, so much humanity oozing from every angle. An empty bottle of vodka lies at the edge of the road. The street cleaners should’ve cleaned it up, I observe. They’re paid to do it. But we can’t criticise them, of course. That would be condescending. People have no problem criticising other professions. Traffic wardens; mechanics; politicians – they have to put up with dire abuse. Cleaners, however, are above that.

It isn’t long before I realise I’m close to the psychiatric hospital where my uncle Charlie stays. I usually only visit with my dad, but I’m bored. And I’d say Charlie is just as bored as me. I don’t know what he does to occupy himself, apart from reading. It’s a pity his life turned out the way it has. “He was a handy footballer,” Dad says. I think the main cause of his problems was a car crash he had years ago, when his girlfriend was pregnant. It was a wet day, and Charlie took a bend too fast. They lost the child, and Charlie did some serious damage to his knee. Dad said Charlie never wanted the child, but it did something to him, nonetheless.

Outside the hospital, someone’s collecting money for multiple sclerosis. She’s blonde, attractive in an inconspicuous way, if that’s possible for a blonde. If it’s “multiple”, should it not be “scleroses”, instead of “sclerosis”? I observe as she smiles at me.

“Hi there. Would you like to support–”

“No, thanks.”

I go inside and ask a nurse where I might find Charlie. He might be in the day room. So, I walk in, looking round. I don’t see him. There’s a strong sense of comfort in the day room, but I feel as though I’m disrupting them, especially when their heads all flutter in my direction, before returning to the TV again. I’m obviously not worth a lingering look. I think of the phrase “contrapposto”, remembering it used in my art history book to describe the depiction of twisted torsos in paintings. The smell here conjures the thought of clothes that are worn too often, the staleness of routine, an all-too-certain future. To my left, three guys play poker at a small table. Two of them are about thirty, while the other, severely bald, with large glasses, seems about fifty. He shuffles the cards with his short, fat fingers, and seems particularly put out when I interrupt:

“Excuse me, could you tell me where I’d find Charlie Wynne?”

“He’s not in his room?” asks one of the younger guys.

“No.”

“He’s with Dr Florin,” shouts one of the men watching TV, keeping his face firmly fixed on the screen above.

I take a seat away from everyone else, and I’m happy just to observe. I like the sound of the name “Florin”. Much more interesting than “Sonia”. “Charlie” has some charm about it. Sometimes, I think I should write down my observations. It’d be kind of like a diary. Would anyone else be interested? I wonder.

The oldest poker player is winning. He’s calm, has the look of someone who’s used to winning. He slides the cards over each other; they make a prolonged hiss as they come into contact. I get the impression the other two players occasionally entertain hopes of beating him. Maybe he lets them win sometimes. They’re playing for balls of paper, some big, some small. I wonder if each ball is of equal value.

The door opens, but it isn’t Charlie. A man – I’d put him at about sixty – enters, wearing sandals and socks, oatmeal grey tracksuit bottoms and a fleece zipped so high it seems partial to his chin. His hair is short, black, dyed so badly he looks pathetic. I’m the only person he looks at.

“I haven’t seen you here before, have I?”

“I don’t know,” I answer, with minimal eye contact.

“Are you visiting someone?”

No, I came here to find a date.

“Yeah. Charlie Wynne.”

“He’s in with the doctor.”

“I know.” I think the conversation has finished, until he asks:

“So, what do you do with yourself?”

I touch myself.

“I’m in school. I’m studying for exams.”

“Oh, I thought you were a bit older. Sorry, I shouldn’t say that. Of course you’re that young. Then again, everyone looks young to me. I’ve been in this place the guts of twenty years now.” I don’t know why, but when he asks me if I plan to go to college, I say yes, and when he asks what course I plan to do, I tell him arts.

“You must be good at drawing, so,” he responds.

No, you idiot, I feel like answering.

“I was great at drawing when I was younger,” he tells me. “I suppose I just grew out of it somehow.”

“That happens a lot of people.” Shut up. Don’t encourage him.

A burst of light screams through the window, right into my face. I want to pull over the curtain, which surely hasn’t been washed in a year or more, but I don’t feel I have the right.

“Crazy how changeable the weather’s been lately,” my friend comments. “I was out yesterday. You’d swear the sky was watching you, just waiting to get the better of you. No day for topping up the tan,” he laughs, disappointed that I don’t join in. “One day there, I was heading out with the sunglasses on, and sure didn’t I have the rain jacket over me, too. You get all types of rain, this time of year: little, flaky half-showers, fuzzy stuff, buckets of it splattering down. No day for anything.”

The thought of this being the typical conversation Charlie finds himself among casts a quick depression over me. There seems to be a dangerous kind of comfort here, excessive, probably made worse with medication.

Charlie appears to my left:

“Someone told me you were here.” He sees the man beside me, rolls his eyes. Charlie’s dark brown hair is longer than the last time I saw it, below his jaw. There’s more strands of grey, too, and his stubble is a bit heavier, but it suits him. He bends down to kiss me on the cheek. I always hated that; it just seems so awkward. He suggests we go to his room. On the way, he asks to have two cups of tea sent in to us.

and a few biscuits, please, chocolate ones.” Very thoughtful. Typical of Charlie. He walks slowly, kind of nonchalantly, and I sense that he feels proud to have a visitor, especially one younger than normal.

His room is small, quite messy. He swipes his clothes off the bed, onto the floor. A beige jumper, almost identical in colour to the duvet, clings to the edge, then breaks away like an avalanche. When someone’s clothes are on the floor, you can’t help but feel you’re imposing. Though Charlie doesn’t seem to mind. The light’s on in his room, as always, despite the heavy coat of daylight over everything.

“I haven’t seen you in yonks,” he says.

“Yeah, I’ve been pretty busy lately. Been studying a lot.”

“That’s right – your examsthey’re this year, right?”

“Yeah. Three weeks away.”

“Don’t get too stressed over them. There’s more important things in life. What’s your favourite subject?”

“English, I suppose.”

“That was my favourite, too. I had a good teacher. That makes a big difference. Are you doing any Shakespeare? Sure ye have to do Shakespeare, don’t ye?”

Othello.”

“I did that as well. Great play.”

“It’s well written,” I say, with astounding insight.

“That Iago was a great character, the ultimate villain.” I’m surprised Charlie remembers the names, after all this time. It must be more than twenty years since he studied it. His musings fascinate me: “I don’t think he was necessarily motivated by evil, though. He only tried to destroy others so he could profit from it himself, career-wise. Just regular ambition, really. Well, maybe an extreme version of it. Is Othello based on real characters? I know most of his tragedies were based on real people – Hamlet, Macbeth, Caesar.”

“I’m not sure,” I mutter, thinking my teacher must have mentioned it. I enjoy this new dynamic, without my father here.

There’s humming from the corridor, followed by a knock on the door. A smiley old woman with a barcode-like moustache enters, holding a tray. She looks at the light, sighs, then takes each mug/cup (it seems to be some kind of hybrid) by the rim and lays them down on the table, followed by the biscuits.

“Two teas,” she chirps, then turns and leaves. (We thank her, of course.)

“I thought you drank coffee,” I say to Charlie.

“I do.”

“Oh.”

“What?”

“It’s just unusual,” I explain.

“To drink tea and coffee? No way.”

I’ve never met anyone who drinks both.

“I feel like coffee sometimes,” he elaborates, “usually when I’m watching TV. Not that we get to do that much, lately. A new guy came in a couple of months ago – Jeremy. He’s fierce bossy. He turns on the TV and sits there all day with the remote.” Charlie’s voice assumes a deeper tone, a sharper rhythm: “We ask him to change the channel, but he always says he’s watching something. Seriously, you’re watching a children’s TV programme?” (At this point, Jeremy is represented by the wall.) “Some of us have started getting up earlier, just to get there before him,” he tells me. “I’ve been doing Wednesdays. John does Tuesdays. Peter does Mondays and Fridays. Jeremy started getting up earlier some days, but we got there today: Peter has the remote. Actually, I’ll have to go in and check on him soon, see if he needs a toilet break, or food or anything.” He looks at me, so I feel I have to say something:

“I don’t watch much TV.”

Charlie rests his hands over the tea, in the fashion of a priest blessing the chalice at mass. When he disbands them to grip the handle again, his palms are moist. He excuses himself to check on Peter, the keeper of the TV remote. From the window, I see the car park below. If Charlie was suicidalIf a patient was suicidal, he could jump out the window. Would the fall kill someone? Broken bones at least. Paralysis a possibility. I must make a list of the advantages and disadvantages of gravity.

A man with a clipboard walks past, glancing in before he disappears. He’s African, small, with a full face. Soon after, I look out along the corridor, out of sheer boredom. The African man is there, leaning against the wall, with a pen to his lips. He wears a white shirt and green tie, which sit vividly against his dark skin. I turn to go back in, but he asks:

“Can I help you?”

“I’m just here to see Charlie.” (I point to the room, for some reason.)

“It’s good that he has visitors. Engaging with others is always a positive. I’m Dr Florin. Pleased to meet you.” He offers his arm, then asks me about my relationship to Charlie. The words come out very distinctly, as though he wants to cleave them from each other, so they don’t tangle like lumps of fatty meat. “Where is Charlie?” he asks after a short time.

“Oh, I think he has something to do in the day room.”

He presses the clipboard against his belly, as though stapling it to half its size, frowning in the way I must frown while studying.

“I can’t imagine what that might be,” he says. “But then, he has been acting peculiarly.” He looks at me, but I have no reply. “May I ask you something?” he adds.

“Yeah, of course.”

“Have there been family problems in recent times?”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“Charlie has listed a number of things. Ever since his mother died–” He stops, seeing my expression. “His mother did die a number of months ago, didn’t she?”

“No – she’s still alive,” I tell him.

“Hmm. This is the only the latest in a number of problems. We’ve noticed a distinct change in his behaviour over the last few months. He’s been abusive toward staff and other patients. He tells us we don’t know how to do our jobs properly, that he’ll report us to the authorities. He complains that food is cold, when it quite plainly isn’t. And sometimes, he refuses to eat at all. Just lately, he has taken to embarrassing other patients when they have visitors. For the lack of a better explanation, he just seems to want to irritate.”

“That doesn’t sound like Charlie,” I say slowly.

“I agree, I agree,” he nods emphatically, extending his arm almost to the point of grabbing my wrist. “We’re all very surprised with his actions. And we hope he can return to his normal, pleasant self. In some ways, he’s been co-operative, but it isn’t acceptable to show aggression to other patients…”

Aggression?

or to take their medication. And worst of all, the comments he’s made to our female staff are disgusting.” Spit gathers at either side of his lower lip. “Apologies if I’ve lost my composure, but some of the things Charlie has said don’t bear repetition. It seems to me, the only possibility is for Charlie to transfer to another hospital, or to be cared for by a member of the family. I don’t know how feasible that sounds, but it must be considered. I wish Charlie could return to his former self and stay with us, but that appears as unlikely as ever now.” He turns away, stands against the wall, and pinches his eyebrows to the contours of a mountain range. “I shouldn’t be burdening you with this. I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay. We need to know.”

“I’ve had a very interesting day. I really should go now.”

“Okay. Thanks.” As he walks down the corridor, it strikes me as unusual to use the word “interesting” in a negative way. I stumble back into the room and wonder how Charlie could’ve changed so drastically. I’m also puzzled as to why my dad wasn’t told about this. Maybe he was told, but didn’t want to tell me. He’s been less insistent about me accompanying him, lately, but I assumed it was because he knew I needed to study.

Another couple of minutes pass before Charlie enters.

“Sorry I was away so long. Peter had to use the toilet. He was longer than normal.”

“That’s okay.” I’m conscious of the hesitancy in my body language. To deflect attention from it, I comment on the Sunday newspaper culture supplement lying on the floor: “Anything good in it?”

“Not much. The quality varies. Well, I suppose it depends on your taste. Some architecture and dance in it this week. Not my specialist subjects. I must be the only person who’s still reading the Sunday paper on the following Saturday.”

“Do ye have to share it?”

“No – I get my own. I like to read the book reviews. It’s usually Thursday or Friday by the time I get to them.” He wants to say something else, but it takes a moment of silence for the courage to foam up: “I was thinking of writing a memoir. Not right now – in a few years. But I’ve been jotting down some ideas.”

“Wow.”

“I’d just get it printed privately, for anyone in the family who’d want to read it.”

“You wouldn’t get it published?”

“Aw, Jesus, no. I can’t imagine anyone’d be interested.”

“You never know. A book abouta person like you might be something people would be interested in. You’ve been around the world, and all that.”

“I don’t know. Maybe. I did keep a diary. I still do. I only fill it in when big things happen, though. And there hasn’t been many big things in recent times. I had a lot of jobs – that could be interesting to read about: the building sites, working behind the bar, my brief boxing career.”

“I didn’t know you were a boxer. Dad said you played football, alright.”

“I boxed for a bit, too. Only a couple of years.”

I can tell that even the hint of these days brings him down.

“What’s the difference between an autobiography and a memoir?” I ask. He thinks it over.

“I’m not sure. Maybe it’s the length. No, probably not. It could be the way it’s divided up. Autobiographies have chapters, don’t they? Memoirs could be one long stream of events, maybe with observations and opinions. I supposeyeahmemoirs seem more formal than autobiographies…”

I punctuate his soliloquy with “It’s okay” and “It doesn’t matter”, but he won’t let it go. Then, he suddenly gusts off in another direction:

“Hey, I never asked you how everyone is. I’ve no manners.”

“They’re all fine. Nothing new.” I find it hard to reconcile the Charlie sitting before me with the Charlie who’s been causing so much trouble here. He senses something odd in the way I look at him.

“Is everything okay?” he asks.

“At home?”

“No – with you.”

“Yeah,” I answer. He’s unconvinced. “I’m a bit nervous about the exams, I suppose.”

“Ah, here, it’s not the be-all and end-all. All this fuss about it’s just hype.”

“I know.”

Over the next couple of minutes, it becomes obvious that we’re struggling to say new, interesting things. It could be that I’m still wrestling with the thought of Charlie’s behaviour, or just that we’ve reached the finite boundary of our comfort with each other. In any case, I say goodbye (rising quickly to escape his lips) and leave.

Walking down the shiny corridor of the hospital entrance, I contemplate telling my father about what the doctor told me. He’d only take over the situation; it’d embarrass Charlie, I consider. But what if Charlie had to leave the hospital? My runner squeaks on the floor, and I almost trip over. No-one’s noticed. Just as I reach the great torrent of daylight beyond the door, I hear a familiar voice.

“Hello.” Dr Florin smiles at me. A thin veil of smoke wafts by my nose. He lowers the cigarette. “Are you going to come back to us?” he asks.

“I don’t know. Probably.”

“You’ll have to come and see your uncle, see how he’s doing.”

“Yeah. Hey, can I ask you something?”

“Of course, of course.” He rolls the cigarette in a circular motion, impatient for me to continue.

“Has anyone told my dad about Charlie?”

“Hmm. To my knowledge, I can’t say.”

“What should I do?”

At this, he pats me on the shoulder. I’m pretty sure his cigarette touches my hair.

“I didn’t mean to alarm you. I’m sorry. A young girl shouldn’t allow herself to have such heavy worries.” He leans back against the wall, looks up to the sky. “You know, Charlie reminds me of a patient I treated in Nigeria, a realI suppose the word you would use is ‘nasty’ – a real nasty guy. I don’t mean that Charlie is just as nasty. What I mean to say is, people like this must be watched closely.” He ponders for some time, still looking up, nodding subtly. “I did all I could. There is only so much that my profession can handle. When violence comes into the matter, everything changes. That patient isn’t alive anymore. He was only thirty-three when he died. I really hope something like this doesn’t happen to Charlie.” He turns to me. The look on his face makes me realise something must be done about Charlie very soon. I must tell my father once I get home.

But then Dr Florin’s demeanour changes. He looks over my shoulder and his head tilts lower. There’s a tall, sallow, grey-haired man staring at him. Dr Florin looks away.

“There you are,” the man smiles, with a strong, oaky voice. “I don’t suppose you’d know anything about my clipboard.”

“Your clipboard? No,” Dr Florin replies. The comfortable stance of only a few seconds ago has flowed into one of very obvious uneasiness.

“And if we search your room?” the man asks. He looks at me, then back to Dr Florin. “Have you been telling lies again?”

Dr Florin doesn’t answer.

“What has he told you?” the man asks me.

“He told me my uncle was having problems.”

“Who’s your uncle?”

“Charlie Wynne.”

“What kind of problems?”

“That he was causing trouble, and stuff.”

“Charlie Wynne has been no trouble to us. Don’t heed a word that comes from this man’s mouth. Has he claimed to be a doctor?”

“Yeah. He said his name was Dr Florin.”

He laughs.

“Trying to impersonate me now, are you?” he says to the man beside me. “You know that’s punishable by law, don’t you? This man’s name is Jeremy,” he tells me. “He’s no more a doctor thanthis shoe,” he lifts his leg. “I hope he hasn’t upset you.”

“No.” I’m relieved that I no longer have the weight of Charlie’s troubles over me.

“Jeremy,” he says in a stern voice and nods toward the door. He smiles at me and follows Jeremy in.

Walking away, I feel terrible that I acted that way to Charlie. He could sense it. I’m sure he’s trying to figure it out now. You wouldn’t know Charlie had any problems if you met him. Then, after a while, you might notice little things. His life isn’t so bad, after all, I consider. He seems comfortable, happy. Or at least as happy as he can possibly be. Who decides that everyone should get married, have children, a house, a car? I haven’t seriously considered such things. I’m too young for all that. I’ve always imagined labour to be one of the worst things you could go through. But then, you see the child, and it’s all worth it. I try to think of the line in Yeats’s poem, Among School Children, about a mother imagining her child as a sixty-year-old man. I used to know it off-by-heart.

Further into the swirling grime of the city, I wonder if mental illness is permanent. It could be firmly set at mitosis, I ponder. But take Charlie, for example: if he’d become a professional footballer and made lots of money, maybe even raised a family, would he be in hospital now? I doubt it. Charlie’s biggest problem is his past: both the accident and the way people talked about him after his breakdown. Lots of other things, too. He’s very sensitive, Charlie. I don’t know how I could’ve believed those lies.

All the other sounds around me are smothered by the straining mechanism of a bin lorry. Maybe Charlie isn’t ill, after all, I laugh – he’s just pretending because he enjoys the comfort of life in the hospital. Someone like me could never fathom the mind of a person like that, with so many demons circling round like a pack of rabid dogs, no means of escape. At least I hope I could never fathom it. I wonder why this image comes to me, until I see a dog and cat across the street, passing each other as slow and suspiciously as two boats in thick mist. Maybe it was the sight of them that conjured up the image, though I’m only conscious of them now. But they say we only control a small fraction of our thoughts with our conscious mind.

I don’t pay enough heed to traffic when I’m walking in the city. This thought resurfaces when I realise there’s a car waiting to turn into the street I’m crossing. Though I’m walking slow, he doesn’t press the horn. He looks frustrated, but I appreciate his patience. I throw him a wave, and his frown melts instantly. I spend way too much time observing stuff, I think to myself, hearing the bin lorry catching up on me. And then I remember how I thought cats and dogs were one species when I was younger, cats the female, dogs the male. It pastes a wide smile over my face. I can’t get rid of it. If anyone could see me, they’d think there’s something wrong with me.

 ******

Trevor Conway, a Sligoman living in Galway since 2005, writes mainly poetry, fiction and songs. He has recorded an album of his songs, released in 2013. His work has appeared in magazines and anthologies across Ireland, Austria, the UK, the US and Mexico, where his poems have been translated into Spanish. These publications include ROPES, DecantoRead ThisFusionCuadrivioPeriodico de PoesiaPoetic Expressions and Poetry Salzburg Review.

Subjects he’s drawn to include nature, creativity, football and people/society, especially the odd ways in which we look at the world. In 2011, he was awarded a Galway City Council bursary. He is a contributing editor for The Galway Review, and his first collection of poems is forthcoming from Salmon Poetry.

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