I have had enough. I need a break and I had planned to get away this week. The pharmacy was mayhem and madness from a week before lockdown and for a month after. The pressure has eased but I am exhausted. I feel like Herman Melville’s Ishmael in Moby Dick. “Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth, whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul…. I account it high time to get to sea..”
The last time I felt like this it was a stressful Christmas Eve. Just after midday, a customer struggled through the door holding a large heavy package tight against her chest. She made her way up through the pharmacy, laid the package on the foot platform of our Keito 8 personal weighing machine, inserted a 50p coin and stood back. The machine voiced “measuring your weight and height” and then, “printing your result”.
She took the receipt from the machine, studied it for a moment and, looking somewhat confused, approached me as I stood at the counter. She asked what weight in pounds a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 111 was. The height-weight ratio is more difficult for something 0.3 meters high. She had just recorded the BMI of her Christmas turkey in its package. The butcher forgot to mark the weight so I was glad to tell her it was about 23 lbs and calculated the cooking time for what was fine bird indeed. As she struggled off rather than celebrate this eccentricity, I cruelly could only think of W.C. Fields in an old Christmas film stopping a boy carrying a large turkey “What did you get that turkey for boy”. “I got if for my mother, Sir.” “Boy, I know your mother and it’s a fair swap”. With this thought, I knew it was time for a break!
So in the New Year, I went on pilgrimage to Dublin. Sweny’s Chemist, Lincoln Place Dublin, situated at the back of Trinity College just down from Merrion Square, is famed for its small yet pivotal role in Ulysses. In Joyce’s literary masterpiece the main protagonist, Leopold Bloom, is on a one day odyssey through Edwardian Dublin – the 16th June 1904. In Chapter five Bloom visits Sweny’s Chemist and Druggist and the pharmacy is described in exquisite Joycian detail.
“He inhaled the keen reek of drugs, the dusty smell of sponges and loofahs and of time taken up telling your aches and pains”.
While in the pharmacy Bloom picks up a bar of lemon soap and smells its “sweet lemony wax” and impulse buys. The lemon soap then becomes a kind of talisman for the rest of his Dublin Odyssey.
Ulysses, published in 1922, is possibly the most difficult book in English to read; I have attempted on more than one occasion and each time I failed.
Sweny’s Chemist as a business has gone. When I arrived outside on a cold and grey Saturday afternoon in January through the window I could see, standing behind a Victorian pharmacy counter and adorned in a white coat, a man in his 60s with a shock of white hair, wearing a pair of wire spectacles and looking down at a book. As I entered I realised he was reading from Joyce to a silent and reverent audience seated on pews in the body of the shop. In this very small space, cluttered with second-hand books and old pharmacy bottles, there was a respect for a profession and a literary genius in equal measure and I felt somewhat proud.
The pharmacy stopped trading in 2009 but has been retained by a group of loyal volunteers as a shrine to Joyce and they still sell bars of the world-famous lemon soap. Second-hand books were an addition to the venture when the volunteers realised that a pharmacy – even a literary famous pharmacy – cannot exist on soap sales alone. The building and fixtures, even the window display, have been preserved perfectly “by years of neglect”.
I bought a bar of the famous soap but was disappointed to find it was not the lemon soap I remembered from childhood that not only smelled like a lemon but was shaped like the fruit even down to the dimples in the yellow bar.
And when I returned to my dispensing bench refreshed and renewed ready for another year of service to the wonderfully unpredictable folk of West Belfast who would not be out of place in a James Joyce or Herman Melville story or a W.C Fields Film. I vowed to return on Bloomsday by sadly, not this year.
I am a pharmacist in Belfast.