Meadhbh Ní hUigínn has a problem — a problem that overshadows everything. But now she thinks she’s found a solution... and a ticket to a new life where the biggest thing on her face does not disgust her
Meadhbh was ready to get her nose. First, though, she had a question.
“Supposing,” she asked the doctor, “supposing a person’s nose broke. Supposing their insurance covered getting it fixed. If they went for surgery, could they ask for extra?”
“That would be a matter of discretion.” A green silk scarf encircled Dr Kilgallon’s neck in fretful knots, and she spoke tightly so as not to rouse it.
“I mean work,” Meadhbh said. “Say this person arrived with a srón not unlike mine, but a srón that needed fixing. A srón that’s falling off. Could the person get it bashed into something nicer? While they’re there, like.”
“They do non-cosmetic first, and insurance covers that much. They work on your nose until it functions. Until you can breathe. Once that’s in order, the breathing, they start another timer. It’s cosmetic from there, and you foot the bill.”
“Stops lowlifes cheating the system.”
“The person is me,” Meadhbh said. “By the way.”
Meadhbh Ní hUigínn had the compact, executive manner of someone determined to hide what all the world can see. Usually she thought half about her words, and half about which way to tilt her jaw. Her last relationship had ended when she wouldn’t board the bus home at rush hour. “Did you forget something?” Claire had said. “The café’s closed but we can ring.” The evening wind howled and stalled engines fumed as other passengers pushed past. Meadhbh said, “Yeah, I think I left my phone.” “Maybe check your bag,” Claire said. Meadhbh wouldn’t, and they argued in the rain until Claire said: “I can’t do this anymore.” Meadhbh couldn’t tell Claire her real reason for not budging, because other people pretended not to know. The shape was so vile that they honeyed her with lies. Sitting next to Claire on a forty-minute journey was impossible. It would expose Claire without relent to Meadhbh’s profile. Then Claire would have to acknowledge the issue. Meadhbh had a nose problem.
She shouldn’t have gone to the GP clinic today, because she still had no money for surgery. But she couldn’t bear one more day as she was. She was staying with her meanest aunt in Dublin now, since she couldn’t afford a room alone. The nose kept her single. If she showed it on dating apps they’d be nauseous. If she hid it, they’d be all the more repulsed when they met her in person.
With Claire, Meadhbh had introduced herself online through a curated range of photos. She limited her angles when they met, never sitting directly opposite or parallel. She’d then dialled down these efforts so that the nose sneaked into Claire’s subconscious without a defining eureka. There was no nasal big bang. If you’d asked Claire about Meadhbh’s nose, she would not have told you it was hideous. But Claire agreed deep in her skin. That was why she’d dumped Meadhbh. Anyone Meadhbh dated now would know, too, because Meadhbh did not have the energy to ease them in. Off with it. Then she could find a new girlfriend. She’d leave her aunt’s house — it stank of burnt egg and the radiators rattled — and begin a life where the biggest thing on her face did not disgust her.
So she’d paid for today’s referral consultation. She’d hoped the GP would suggest a means of getting the surgery itself covered. Now Meadhbh slouched in disappointment. She stopped herself when she recalled the accentuating shadows this could cast.
“There are two local surgeons with a track record,” Dr Kilgallon said. “Breathnach’s D4, Leamy’s D6. Have a think and let me know.”
No hope of paying for it with those postcodes, but she took the names anyway.
Later, upstairs in her aunt’s house, Meadhbh found the surgeons online and stared at their noses. Their websites were minimalistic, with infographics and well-judged white space. Both brandished credentials, but Breathnach, D4, was the undisputed king of rhinoplasty. The men’s biographies listed industries, institutions and neurotic trophy wives who’d deemed Breathnach victor and Leamy runner-up. At the Royal College of Surgeons, Breathnach had ranked top in their year and Leamy second. Each professional event Leamy attended, Breathnach had been a keynote speaker. Any shortlist Leamy graced, Breathnach was sure to have won.
Neither offered a monthly repayment schedule. You had to cough up the whole sum.
She couldn’t stand another day with the nose on her. She couldn’t live with this foul growth. But there wasn’t the money to smash it in.
Then she saw the testimony option on Leamy’s page.
The D6 boulevard conspired to look younger than its years. Georgian terraces lined up symmetrical and tall, curtains drawn and paintjobs smooth. Garden sculptors, brickwork gurus and gourmet petsitters knocked on main doors, happy to assist. To distract from cracks in the buildings, the owners adorned the driveways with flashy decoys of cars. In the middle of the road was Dr Leamy’s surgery. He saw to the residents’ faces.
Meadhbh buzzed in for the basement flat. “Ní hUigínn. I’ve an appointment for noon.”
The waiting room was like a giant whitened tooth. Meadhbh was afraid to sit down, even at the receptionist’s insistence. She’d get the couch dirty. The walls were bright and no clutter discoloured the surfaces. “Dr Leamy will call you in shortly,” the woman said from behind a clipboard bearing one blank page. Her face was spotless. “Take a mint from the bowl.”
Meadhbh said nothing.
The woman looked up again. “Dr Leamy,” she said, “is sensitive to smell.”
The sweets lay at small, deliberate intervals. Meadhbh took one from the outer right corner, and assumed from the receptionist’s silence that this choice was acceptable. She opened the wrapper with due care not to rustle.
She’d just melted the mint on her tongue when Leamy called her in.
“I’m the first,” Leamy said, “the very first Irish plastic surgeon to offer the procedure. Now you might get your mountebanks, your arrivistes and your daddy-os thinking they’ll take a punt. Reckoning they’ll come in. ‘Cosmetic surgeon’, the most abused, the most plaintively abused phrase in the Saxon tongue. But if it’s real rhinoplasticians you’re after for an EMR job, I am, as I said” — he crossed his arms and flexed them — “the first.”
His eyes bulged, chin jutted, fingers stretched lean, and legs splayed conquistadorially. He spoke by projecting his lips, fervent and thick, at pains not to let them touch his teeth. The voice strove for distance from the speaker through tough consonants and hoarse travel. All extensions answerable to his blood flow had noticed they were currently joined to Leamy, and strove for remedy. Number two was not a bad position, not bad at all, but each muscle groped for more.
“I’ve always dreamed of an electromagnetic reshaping,” Meadhbh lied.
“Electromechanical reshaping.” Leamy’s diction rode on a voice wet with saliva.
“Sorry. I’ve always dreamed of an electromechanical reshaping.”
“Now there’s commitments. An undertaking, the early sampler slot. Reporting and testimony. A degree of paperwork.”
Meadhbh believed this was to her advantage as much as his. If Leamy monitored her results then she’d be getting follow-up appointments on top of the free nose job.
“What I’ll do,” Leamy said, “is I’ll pass an electric current through your nasal tissue. Flops like a goat in a heatwave, so it does, and when it’s nice and soft I’ll mould the cartilage. Only local anaesthetic so you’ll be nice and awake. Gala seat in the surgical theatre. No need to throw flowers at the end.”
A warmth fizzed in her belly at the prospect of those long fingers kneading her nose into a better one. Ireland’s second-best was still top-tier, major-league. She’d witness a master at work.
“Now I’ll warn you up front,” Leamy said, “not to be expecting miracles. Measure of bone to work around. But nostrils I can do. Soft tissue’s on the cards. Chat me through your wishlist.”
The relief was so total that she couldn’t speak at first. Finally, she could state how much she hated the nose. Her loneliness came from a rot she couldn’t share. She wanted the thing gone, and she wanted him to know that she disavowed its features, but if others didn’t see it then she would not alert them. She would almost have preferred open condemnation to hoarding the secret as she did. The hope was what killed her — the wish, the delusion, that the venom could stay inside. There it would harm no one else. But how did you walk around like that, holding something lethal? How did you know you could contain it?
“I want the tip less bulbous,” Meadhbh said. “Bridge narrower, or nostrils wider. Whichever gets you better proportions. Straighter, obviously. I know you said bone structure affects wiggle room. And I get that. I respect that. But really what we’re going for is thinner along here,” she ran her index finger down the centre, “and more definition at the bottom. Symmetrical. There’s more nose on this side,” indicating her right.
Leamy clapped. “Brava. Specific and achievable. Rare a request is either. Never mind both. Meadhbh Ní hUigínn, you are, if you don’t mind my saying, a star re-sróning candidate.”
“I don’t mind at all,” Meadhbh said, bright with validation.
“Now,” he returned to his screening checklist, “reasons for a procedure?”
“I’ve just told you.” She realised this was rude, and smiled to soften the tone.
“Psychological reasons. Motivations.”
This, too, confused Meadhbh. She had outlined what was wrong. If she’d said “make it straighter”, did he need it spelled out that the nose was currently bent? “Well,” she said, “I want the tip sharper because it’s not sharp enough. I want the bridge less wide because it’s too wide. I want —”
“For example, low self-esteem or social anxiety. History of body dysmorphia. Issues interfere with wellbeing. General malarkey.”
Wasn’t that what she’d told him?
Evidently she had to play his game, so she joined the dots for him. “I want the tip sharper because it’s not sharp enough, which makes me hate myself. I want the bridge less wide because it’s too wide, which makes me hate myself. I want —”
“That’ll do. Mind you, there’s a cooling-off period. Book you a couple of weeks from now. Time to chew.”
“More chewing. Nothing worse than an ill-thought-out rhinoplasty. Was a time —” the protuberant eyes screened her trustworthiness. “Did an RTÉ presenter, Maureen O’Brady. Brand spanking new nostrils. What does she want? The old ones back. Let me put her right? Not a bit of it. Gets a referral for — I won’t say the name.”
Meadhbh knew he meant Breathnach.
“Year on, I’m at a conference,” Leamy said. “Keynote speaker gets up. Marches up. Only after has the cheek delivering? Paper on botched surgeries. How to fix. Case study,” he double-checked she was a worthy confidante, “case study Miss Maureen O’Brady, if you like.”
Now his extensions contracted. The lids narrowed so the eyes retreated, the chin tucked inwards, and the fingers clenched into half-formed fists. He was not number one, no, still not, but he fully occupied his runner-up platform. Out the window behind Meadhbh, he seemed to glare at Breathnach. He appeared poised to spit.
“I’m sure I want this,” Meadhbh said.
This had no effect on Leamy.
She leaned forward and chose her next words.
“I’m sure I want this, and I’m sure,” she paused, “that you’re my first choice.”
Leamy’s cologne reeked of antiseptic lemon. She shrivelled at the pang when he approached. Up close, she saw that his face advertised his services. Although his features that moved did so violently, his frozen forehead had clearly known acid. He’d had Botox at minimum, and likely an array of drubbings, etchings and assorted do-overs. Meadhbh tried not to move in her chair as he examined her.
“Took a mint,” he said. “Well done. Make everyone take mints. Since I got the septum sorted, slightest odour sets me off.”
Then he cupped her neck with one hand and placed the other behind her head. He made no sound as he scanned her profile. Again she felt free. She could offer Leamy the sight, having admitted it was putrid. It was not that she minded people seeing her face. It was the humiliation of their thinking she’d signed off on herself, that she was to her own taste. Did they not think she’d have chosen better if she could?
Leamy still said nothing.
First he felt the contours, then probed the nostrils and traced the skin. He measured, computed, parsed and translated.
Then he spoke.
“A real cromóg,” he said. “First I’ve seen in the wild. Where are your parents from?”
“My mam’s from Dublin,” Meadhbh said.
“His people are Drummore?”
“Far back as we know.”
“As I thought.” Leamy’s tone was steeped in awe. “You’ve a Drummore cromóg.”
He took his hands off, and stepped back in sudden wariness.
“A Drummore what?” Meadhbh said.
“A Drummore cromóg,” Leamy said, and walked elegiacally to the window. Now he surveyed not Breathnach’s spectre, but history. “Srón like the end of a hurley. Camán of a srón. Round where it shouldn’t be, flat where it shouldn’t be, battered as an old thatched roof. The Drummore cromóg’s for life. Centuries in it. No surgeon can interfere.”
She would not admit defeat. There was fight in her, and she’d come this far. Meadhbh wanted the nose off more than she’d ever wanted anything.
“I’m sure with your skill,” she tried. “You’re Ireland’s best. My GP said as much when she referred me.”
Leamy seemed mollified, but then it was gone. “Oh, I could fix the cromóg,” he said. “Could fix it now, were it not, as noted, for the cooling-off period. But the cromóg grows back. Stubborn yoke. The nasal tissues crawl and cling till you’re right where you started. And what kind of testimonial is that? Can’t put you on the website if a year on you’ve the cromóg on you again. Get away with that carry-on in Hollywood, but Dublin’s small. Do it for money, so I would, but I’m not doing it for free.”
She wanted to beg, to cry, to collapse at his feet if it would change his mind. Hot shame stifled her throat. She’d failed.
Then the solution struck her.
It rained as Meadhbh left. The grey sky emptied and water rinsed the pavements. She couldn’t get her face wet, so she held her umbrella close. The pain would creep back soon. She was armed with a prescription. Her bandaged face declared her still a fugitive, but the lump at least was gone. The past was clean.
Leamy had sworn her to secrecy, of course, but after she’d said her bit, he’d been as impatient as her to get it done on the spot. His scorching envy came with no cooling-off period.
“This isn’t my real nose,” she’d said. “I went to Breathnach and he gave me this. I’m embarrassed to ask him to fix it. Anyway, he’d botch it again.”
Her only worry then was that Leamy would be too eager. He’d wielded the scalpel steadily enough, but she’d heard his heavy breathing and smelled the cologne commingling with sweat. When she unwrapped her face at home, she’d have to see.
It did not matter.
With luck it would be a good nose, but it wasn’t her old one. That was already enough. She kept walking and buses drove past, yellow and blue, papered with adverts for wedding planners and zombie films. Sirens blared in the distance, and the concrete stench rose from the footpath into the cold humid air. Pavements always smelled that way, earthy, of everything they absorbed, but wet days released the odour from the ground. Her fingers hardened against the metal umbrella handle as she pictured how many feet had been where hers were. Half a million pairs of eyes opened each Dublin morning, and closed at night.
Perhaps her ex-girlfriend Claire was home by now. It was too late to go back to her and beg. She knew what Meadhbh had been. But some new person would see who Meadhbh was now. For this evening Meadhbh would creep upstairs in her aunt’s house. She’d leave first thing in the morning. Then she’d return late again, and keep avoiding her aunt until the bruises and swelling had receded. After that she would feign ignorance if questioned. This thing? Was there something wrong with it before? It was always this shape as far as I knew.
The rain would be back in the clouds soon and then down again, and in time she’d have healed and could take each drop on the skin. The cycle would absorb her. Freed from disgrace, she could join humanity. She was a new woman.
Naoise Dolan is the bestselling author of Exciting Times, published in Trade Paperback by W&N