Taxi for Elvis
After my daughter’s graduation ceremony a few years ago in University College Cork I was invited to have refreshments in the Aula Maxima. That ‘Great Hall’ is a capacious and impressive room with gilt-framed portraits of past presidents of the college adorning its wood-panelled, high walls. It was the first time I had been in that chamber since I sat exams many years before. I remembered those stern faces peering out of the past and the equally austere countenances of those supervising the tests. I was glad to be beyond that phase of my life.
Proud parents and joyful graduates were gathered in huddles around tables where steaming teas and coffees were being served. It was the last day of November. There were plates of biscuits strategically located throughout the room. I reached for a Bourbon Cream and smiled broadly. I haven’t had one of these for years, I thought as I dunked the biscuit into my tea.
I was transported back in time to my childhood in Limerick in the 1960s. I came from a poor family and we rarely had biscuits at home. But, at Christmas time my aunt Rose would give us a tin of USA Assorted Biscuits, which contained some Bourbon Creams.
One cold December Saturday my mother brought me and my older brother Michael to town to get us some clothes in Moran’s Menswear on William Street. I remember it was December because Todd’s window in O’ Connell Street had its annual, impressive, festive display.
Michael had Down’s syndrome. Some people in those days referred to him as a “Mongolian.” I recall being asked, “How’s the little Mongolian?” These women would invariably add in a sympathetic tone, “Your poor mother. God help us!”
My mother bought us identical blue, woollen, jumpers. I didn’t want to be dressed the same way as Michael. Looking back now I think that was because I didn’t want anybody to think I was a “little Mongolian” too.
My mother decided to visit Aunt Rose. We were welcomed warmly and brought into the parlour where there was a blazing fire in the grate. I declined several invitations to remove my coat, keeping the blue jumper hidden. We were offered tea, which came in fine china cups. A plate of Bourbon Biscuits was also produced, much to my delight. I was shy and waited to be offered a biscuit but Michael stood over the plate with glee. He lifted the chocolate-filled sandwich, inspecting it as if it were a prism refracting light. He rotated and scrutinised it with singular intensity. We all looked at him, amused. Noticing our gazes fixed on him he blurted out merrily, “Ah, Christmas!” We laughed.
The two women chatted for what seemed like ages. Michael furtively secreted a fistful of biscuits into his trousers pocket and sat on the floor scoffing the lot, with his back to the ladies. I played with a battered old dinky car that I had in my pocket. I cannot recall anything that these women said but I do remember their voices occasionally dropping into a whisper. This made me more attentive. But they seemed to be aware that my antennae were up and they talked under the radar.
I was brought back from my moment of reverie by my daughter who wanted to introduce me to one of her professors. The room was filled now with young men and women in their caps and gowns, holding scrolled parchments in their hands and flanked by mothers in their best frocks and fathers in suits. I was introduced to the professor and I proffered him a plate of Bourbons.
He declined. We chatted about Aoife and her fine achievement in the hallowed sanctum of my alma mater and in the course of the conversation he said it would soon be Christmas. “It’s Christmas every day now,” I said as I dunked another Bourbon biscuit into my tea.
The day after my daughter’s graduation I visited Michael in hospital in Limerick. It was the first day of December and the streets were busy with shoppers scurrying about in search of Christmas gifts for loved ones. The festive vibe was in the air.
Michael had been traveling by taxi regularly for dialysis and his health was deteriorating rapidly. I was told later that those journeys were memorable for all the taxi drivers in Limerick because Michael, who thought he was Elvis, regularly entertained them en-route. Of course I use the word “entertain” with literary licence because Michael couldn’t actually sing. The sound that emanated from his mouth was more like a wolf howling at the moon. But these taxi drivers loved him and enjoyed swapping stories amongst themselves about him. I sat at Michael’s bedside and waited to see his surgeon, who was “doing his rounds” this morning a nurse had informed me.
Surgeons rarely have what is called, “a good bedside manner.” They are clinicians, scientists not priests or counsellors. It’s not their job to offer emotional support. They are busy professionals who encounter sick and dying people every day and cannot afford to make an emotional investment in their patients. This is how I reasoned as I waited to meet the surgeon who had operated on Michael. The last time I met him he appeared to be aloof, preoccupied perhaps.
The door flung open and the surgeon entered the public ward with such a flourish I almost expected to hear a fanfare of trumpets. He was dressed for the operating theatre in green garb and accompanied by an entourage of junior doctors who waddled behind him in single file like ducklings. They gathered around the bed in a horse-shoe shape in their white coats. Some were adorned with stethoscopes and had notebooks and pens in their hands, ready to record anything noteworthy from the oracle. There was a regimental distinction between doctors and nurses in the hospital, where doctors wore white coats and nurses were dressed in blue and white uniforms. The catering staff wore green.
“A boiled egg and toast please!”
I laughed. The nearby patients and visitors who heard it chuckled. The junior doctors couldn’t resist the compelling humour of the moment and they giggled too. Michael’s face lit up with merriment, in stark contrast to the serious visage of the surgeon. My brother had not intended to be funny at all. He merely mistook the man in the green clothes for one of the caterers and simply said what he would like to eat.
I suppose he didn’t know his place because he didn’t recognise status or qualifications or the boundaries or rules of engagement that we observe. Man is made, “a little lower than the angels” so why should an angel be intimidated by a mere mortal?
He was being discharged. Ready to leave we stood in the foyer of the hospital beside the Christmas tree as Michael inspected the baubles dangling from its pine-fragrant branches. He looked at me, “Jingle Bells,” he said and smiled. I forgot my mobile phone so I asked a “yes” faced woman at reception if she could call a cab. “Certainly” she said with a smile as she dialled and said, “Taxi for Elvis.” Michael beamed, pulled up the collar of his shirt and started to sing.
“White Christmas” was playing on the taxi radio – “May your days be merry and bright…” Someone must have made that wish for Michael because it was true in his life. Not only was he always happy and cheerful but he made others feel happy too. That was his last trip by taxi. The next journey was by hearse followed by mourning cars and a fleet of taxis, empty, except for their drivers.
Michael had no educational qualifications but he had noble qualities and graduated from this world to the next with distinction. He was bestowed with the first class honours of a gentle spirit and a loving nature. Although he never held a scrolled parchment in his fist he held a degree of affection evident in the faces of many who attended his graduation day.
Afterwards, at a buffet for the mourners, it seemed everyone had a story to tell about “Elvis” and yes, there were plates of Bourbon Creams. Even though it was June it felt like Christmas.
A nurse remembered the occasion when Michael’s hearing was being tested. He was directed into a glass cubicle and asked to wear headphones. He donned them with enthusiasm and started to sing, “Caught in a trap” as if he was making a recording. He was asked to raise his hand when he heard a sound. It seemed he had no difficulty hearing both high and low frequency sounds. But alas, things are not always what they appear to be. Michael loved being in hospital and that was largely due to the attention he got from the nurses. He was an outrageous flirt. I watched as his hand was raised once then again and again but it was not in response to aural stimulation but to stimulation of a different kind – he was waving at passing nurses.
My sister recalled the time when she applied under the Disabled Drivers and Disabled Passengers Scheme for tax relief on the purchase of a car. Michael genuinely had restricted mobility, or so we thought. Betty didn’t drive but her husband, John, was his chauffeur. Michael was summoned to appear before a board of medical examiners to determine if he was eligible. Betty watched and grew pale as her brother unwittingly blew his chance. One of the doctors asked Michael if he could touch his toes. Michael smiled. This was a challenge he relished. He not only touched his toes but put on a gymnastic demonstration that Nijinsky would have been proud of. Then he sat in a front lotus posture like the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and asked, “Am I good?”
I listened to many such stories that day and laughed and cried – sometimes at the same time. Then I noticed in a corner of the room a man standing alone with a cup and saucer in hand. It was the surgeon that Michael mistook for a member of the catering staff. I smiled and nodded and he smiled and raised his cup as if in toast to the memory of a beautiful soul.
Michael was born on 12 August, 1950 and died 22 June, 2014 aged 63. At that that time he was the oldest person with Down’s syndrome in Ireland
Kieran Beville is a former teacher of English (literature and language) and History and lecturer in Biblical Studies (Hermeneutics). He is author of the novel, Bohemian Fire (pen-name Austen K. Blake, Bohemian Books, 2017). In addition he has published fourteen non-fiction books and he recently completed a book of poetry – Songs of Sorrow. He has had a substantial number of articles published in various newspapers, journals and magazines in the UK, USA, Ireland and India. He was a tutor in the Irish History Department in UCC for a couple of years in the 1980s. More recently Kieran served for several years as Professor in the Intercultural Studies Department of Tyndale Theological Seminary, Amsterdam, where he taught Master classes. He has lectured on Leadership Training Programmes in Eastern Europe (Serbia, Hungary, Romania, and Moldova) and Hermeneutics courses in the Middle-East (Amman, Jordan) and India (Kolkata and Assam). He has also spoken at conferences in Ireland, the UK and India (New Delhi and Nagaland). Furthermore, he has co-ordinated youth-work programmes and managed educational programmes for the disadvantaged in Cork and worked in Community Development. Separated with three adult children, Kieran currently lives alone in West Cork but has plans to relocate to Limerick city, his native place, in the near future. He plays guitar and paints, using various mediums – oils, acrylics.