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From 'How To Live'
Embarrassed that he might be appearing
too obsequious, his sobriety slowly subsiding, he
put the dishes down in front of them with less care
and attention than usual. The resentment that was
coiled up inside him, tightly closed like a clenched
fist, was ready to spring open and strike out. "Hello,
I'm a person, I'm here," he felt like shouting.
Then, he couldn't help it, he turned towards Dr Flinter
"Don't you remember me?"
She stared up at him, her eyes focusing slowly, surprised
at the imposition of being forced to take in an underling,
and after a minute, as though she hadn't noticed him
before or been able to work out who he was, replied:
"Oh yes, how are things?"
"Phil," he said, "Phil's
the name," since he saw that she'd forgotten it.
"Yes. And how are you keeping?"
"Oh, still as alcoholic and depressed and paranoid
as ever. It's on account of my underlying inadequacy
"I'm sorry to hear it."
She turned away from him, her face setting in a shield
against his torrent of sarcasm. Her companions, especially
the males, were indignant at this intrusive outburst,
and ready to rush to her defence.
“Who is this guy, Niamh?” a burly bruiser
in a blazer, and a blue shirt with a white collar and
a garish green tie, asked her.
“Client confidentiality forbids me to tell you,”
she smiled dryly.
But Phil was gaining courage now, even if it was Dutch,
to the point of becoming reckless.
"Don't you think you might have been wrong?"
"What do you mean? How was I wrong?"
"By putting those labels on me, calling me those
"But look at you now Phil, you're drunk."
"You're drinking too."
"In moderation, Phil."
"You were wrong to say that I was inadequate. I'm
as good as you are, any day of the week, if not better."
"If you’d like to make an appointment, I
can go over these points with you. We can resume treatment
or, if you prefer, one of my colleagues could see you."
"You must be joking. Do you take me for a complete
She settled herself in her chair, as though she would
entertain no further exchanges. She was, after all,
a woman of some bearing and hauteur, who made a tidy
living by breaking the wills of already broken people,
and bending them to what the state authorities deemed
to be mental health. Adjusting her posture to make herself
more comfortable, she smoothed down the skirt of her
two piece suit, and looked around the table for support.
"You were wrong to call me a failure," Phil
continued, goading her. "I'm not a failure."
"You're working as a waiter."
"There's nothing wrong with being a waiter."
"No, you don't understand. You wanted to be more
than a waiter."
"Like what, a psychiatrist? Anyway, I might not
be a waiter tomorrow, much less for the rest of my life."
By this time one of the men had called for the manager,
protesting about the rudeness of the waiter, and demanding
he be sacked.
"What gives you the right to go around taking people's
characters? Is it just because you've got a few letters
after your name?"
She remained silent.
"People like you shouldn't be practising at all.
You haven't got a clue how people feel."
"At least I know how to live."
At this point P J arrived, and after roughly escorting
Phil away, went back out with a tray of coffees and
cappuccinos to try calming the troubled waters his disgruntled
customers were left swimming in.
“The barefaced cheek,” the man in the blazer
“Absolutely,” the one called Sean agreed,
more equanimously. “And things have been so difficult
for poor Niamh since Conor left her and the children.”
“Yes, it’s terrible,” another woman
of the party added, “these middle-aged men, they
get a whiff of young skirt and they throw away fifteen
or twenty years of marriage.”
“She was just beginning to get back on her feet
again.” said Sean, after Dr Flinter
had slipped away to recover in the ladies’ room.
“We were trying to get her mind off it and take
her out of herself, and now the whole evening’s
First published in ‘New Irish Writing’ in
The Sunday Tribune, June 2000, edited by Ciaran Carty,
and winning a Special Merit Hennessy Literary Award.