Follow me to Paradise
By Susan Browne
Dearbhla half closes her eyes and peeps at her reflection in this palatial bathroom of mirrored walls and sumptuous white towels. Her pinkness morphs into mottled skin. Blue creeps into the lips. Membranes rupture. She blinks hard and smiles at herself.
Patsy has gone to find tea. The Las Vegas strip hotel is the size of a small town. She hadn’t the heart to ask him for a soy chai latte. He’s won this holiday for them through the Christmas Credit Union Draw.
Thinking about him, Dearbhla feels a rush of affection and wishes he would hurry back. She looks at the silver ice bucket on the sideboard, underneath a bewildered painting of Venice. Even being in the room, she feels ill at ease. Like the walls themselves are watching.
Maybe he’s gone gambling, she fancies, body sucked toward the slot machine, cigarette in hand with long ash falling over his forearm as he concentrates. Thoughts such as these fascinate her. Then she glimpses her face, freezing over with the fright of it.
Her friends had brought her to Lisdoonvarna’s matchmaking festival. What did she want a man for? They had no idea the delight of not having one – but something made her go, anyway. And they matched her up with him. At first, she didn’t like him. His jolly face, round abdomen and white hair. Shorn Santa with a comically thick country accent. But he had grown on her. The Sligo landscape gardening company owner and the Kildare A&E Senior Consultant. They married on a white-sand beach in Bali. He was widowed; Ann-Marie died of cancer.
When she’s ready, face made up, diamante necklace and earrings and ivory silk. On cue, Patsy knocks at the door. He brings two monstrous Costa cups, and suddenly it’s the last thing she wants, but she thanks him and accepts it.
‘What’s it like down there?’
‘Hell on Earth. I keep on losing my bearings.’
‘I do too. We’d want to get ourselves a GPS.’
‘Or leave a trail of breadcrumbs.’
They drink some of their American English breakfast teas in silence and then set off on the complex journey to the vast, golden hotel lobby, but Patsy remembers it. The Italian centrepiece is a golden globe statue atop a fountain; the ceiling a replica of the Sistine Chapel. A walkway past designer shops funnels them to the hotel-casino.
‘I passed through here for the tea.’
For Dearbhla, a coldness unfurls. She conjures up her father. He used to like the fruit machines, before M.S. and the wheelchair.
Dearbhla was the eldest, then Orla, Mike, and baby Áine. Right here in that casino, she can feel them all around her. Wisps in the blue cigarette smoke. They rarely come this close.
Cirque du Soleil’s “O” boasts an inexplicable stage of water with changing depths. So much happens at once it is impossible to take it all in. But Dearbhla finds herself pulled aeons away. Her mother as a young woman, taking her to the circus, radiant with an enormous, round belly. She wears a long, pink dress and a crisp white cardigan. Her hair is pulled up into a ponytail, and strands of auburn tumble down.
They watch as the slender, ballet-lace clad acrobat climbs up the turquoise silk. Winding and spinning, twirling and dropping.
‘Mama, I want to do that.’
Her mother holds her and kisses her on the head, and says ‘I know. So do I.’
Later, the sound of her grandmother shouting about women in condition at the circus and lions and foolishness and her mother’s face red with temper and tears and Dearbhla being sent to bed early. The pipes clanging and banging, drowning some of it out but not enough. The hailstones clattering on the window and then moonlight and stars and the long silent gap that is night.
As Dearbhla drops off to sleep, clowns float in upside-down umbrellas; synchronised swimmers point their legs in the air keeping their heads underwater for impossibly long amounts of time. Divers plunge from deathly heights, and she can see a wheelchair rolling towards the ocean. Falling in at high tide into the sun-speckled water that laps at the pier with tiny grey fish swimming near the surface. A little boy tugs at her arm and she is telling him to ‘wait a minute.’
Only there isn’t one.
The curtains are thick, but a sliver of light intensifies through the blackness. The time reads 5:33 and Patsy breathes softly. Inside the elevator, Dearbhla watches the small marketing monitor which tells her about diamonds and drinks in cut crystal glasses and luxurious face creams with collagen.
In the sprawling casino is a darkly lit restaurant with shiny black floors that welcomes her like an open mouth.
A menu reads ‘breakfast,’ and right under that: ‘cocktails.’ She orders herself a Margarita.
The salt at the rim which she had presumed to be sugar makes her wince, but she takes a big swig. After a second mouthful, she orders a second.
A warm feeling enters her brain; her body begins to relax and tense up all at once as elation takes hold.
A tanned man, about her own age, sits down in the chair opposite. His hair is short and grey-black, and he wears a colourful silk scarf and a black jacket. He is bat-like and beautiful.
‘You like Margaritas for breakfast?’
‘Oh, let me guess, Vegas has brought out the footloose, and fancy-free side? You been here all night?’
A sigh escapes.
‘You sure don’t look it, if you were.’
She can feel her nose wrinkling and forces herself to speak. ‘So, what brought you here?’
He smiles, warmly and says ‘I’m here on business. Not a big fan of the strip. But this place makes great coffee, almost as good as New York.’
Dearbhla relaxes again. Luca chats easily and orders them pancakes, which makes her laugh. These are topped with strawberries, icing sugar and syrup.
‘So are you working today then?’ she asks him.
‘Later on. I thought I’d go to the Eiffel Tower just now.’
‘Could I join you?’ she hears herself say.
He turns to face her and looks into her eyes. ‘Are you sure your husband won’t mind you coming up here with me?’ He gently touches her wedding ring.
‘Patsy? He’s still sleeping,’ she laughs.
The elevator doors close, caging them in with the crowd, forcing them closer together. At the top they walk around, watching others taking photos with their phones through the fencing peepholes, of the city skyline. Then, she turns to face him. A smile plays on her lips.
Luca looks at her, and she cups a hand on the side of his face, moving closer to him. But he turns, peeling her hand away.
She burns with shame and presses her body into the railing.
‘I’m sorry. It’s okay.’ he whispers.
She looks through metal at scintillating towers and desert. If she could, she would love to walk right off this tower and crash down through the café awning below to concrete death. A spattered, battered corpse, and perhaps another one that was in the firing line. An unsuspecting waiter dressed in crisp black and white. Or a tourist enjoying a croissant.
‘My apologies. I don’t normally behave this way. And I love my husband,’ she straightens her posture, pulling her shoulders back.
‘It’s okay. We’re still good. Don’t worry about it.’
Dearbhla feels her mother coiling around her, serpentine. Her fathers face downcast, blue eyes not looking. He wears a little stubble and his full lips in a twisted pout. She can see beads of sweat on his forehead. The desert is too hot for him. This tower too high.
‘This place. It makes me feel crazy.’ She can breathe better now. She feels the kindness from him. ‘And sometimes I get so afraid I’ll end up like my mother.’
‘What was she like?’
‘Drunk. She was drunk.’
She closes her eyes, and now she is pushing her father in his chair. Baby Áine is beside him in the stroller, bawling, driving her mother mad. The wailing, and the crowds. Just everything. It’s a sunny day in Dún Laoghaire. School holidays. Tourists and locals are milling around. Her mother has already been drinking; the car filled with her fumes. Laughing. In so many ways, she is much easier to be around in that state.
Dearbhla is left to care for her father most of the time – and the baby and Mikey. Her mother has asked her to buy ice cream for Áine. Anything to make the crying stop. Dearbhla has lost patience and told her mother to go get it herself.
The bearded Austrian man that tried to rescue her father is apologising over and over. He has just got sick on the concrete, having swallowed so much water.
The paramedics take him away too, with a cellular red blanket around him. She wonders how close he got to rescuing her father. He said ‘he was just too heavy, with the chair.’ She tries to imagine the point where her father stopped breathing, his lungs filled with water. When did the man let go, deciding it was futile? She didn’t blame him.
She couldn’t understand how he even started rolling in the first place, on such a slight slope.
Her mother returned at night time to a house choking with mourners. Neighbours poured her a drink and gave her the news.
Down in the café, she’s glad she didn’t become the suicidal flying missile causing any untimely deaths. She’s never seen a fall victim from that height, so it’s a stretch to imagine the scene. Multiple fractures. Shattered skull, perhaps with brains, bones and organs spilling out. A messy business.
‘This is good coffee,’ she says, enjoying the bitterness of it.
Back at the hotel, Patsy is waiting by the fountain, frowning.
‘Are you okay, Dearbhla? I was so worried. Next time would you bring your phone? I didn’t know where you were.’
‘I’m fine,’ she kisses him.
‘You smell like booze. Have you been drinking?’
‘I had a cocktail. To try it out. There’s this restaurant that does cocktails for breakfast. And pancakes. Amazing pancakes.’
Patsy’s raises his eyebrows. ‘For as long as I’ve known you I’ve never known you to drink like that,’ he says.
‘Just be safe, that’s all. Don’t just go out without me. And start drinking cocktails.’
Dearbhla flinches. ‘I’m going for a lie-down. I’ll see you later.’
He lets her go, and she doesn’t turn around. She remembers her mother, telling people to fuck right off and mind their own business. She shudders as she steps into the elevator and struggles to remember again which button to press.
Early morning again, Dearbhla wakes to voices on the corridor. Patsy is fast asleep beside her, snoring a little. Ann-Marie’s ghost is there beside him. In between them. The two women stare unblinking.
She pulls on a long turquoise dress and some delicate white sandals and sprays a falling cloud of Chanel above her and styles her hair. She looks at her phone, which tells her she is in a place called Paradise. This time she can find the way to the reception without help. A Roman man in a painting winks at her.
She goes to Paris. Lights flash, music pumps. Eyes from the top of the Cosmopolitan follow her. Across the gaping street, he appears, beside the Bellagio lake. He sees her, and she blinks and stares back.
Don’t walk changes to walk and she’s walking and then running.
He cups her face and touches her lips. Kisses her lips, her ears, her neck, her mouth, her fingers, her hair. She slides her hands into his jacket and up towards his shoulder blades, pulling him closer. They slow to a still, and she pulls back.
‘I have to go.’
Dearbhla has a rental car and is driving in Death Valley while trying to get a phone signal. Eventually, the bars and 4G appear, and she pulls over. She opens the windows and then closes them again, gasping. Fingers reaching for the AC controls, but it’s already on max.
It’s evening time in Ireland, and it’s ringing. The nurse goes to get her.
‘Dearbhla?’ her voice is frail, but it’s her. She can feel the rasp of her breath into her ear.
She holds the silence that bounces off a satellite in space.
Dearbhla presses the red button and blows air out of her mouth. She steps out into the shimmering heat and tries to unpick her mother carefully from every part of her.
At Zabriskie Point, the phone reads forty-three degrees. Dearbhla imagines how her body would look after three days here. Barbequed. She’s never seen one like that. Burn victims, yes but not sunbaked ones. Blood thickening, heart rate increasing, blood pressure lowering, hallucinations, organ failure. She once saw a dead pig with sunburn. Perhaps by the time they found her, she would be a more dignified looking bleached skeleton. Helped along by critters after nightfall.
Patsy’s not looking for her; he hasn’t rung. He’s so mad because she told him what happened. Perhaps he’s getting his own back and ordering in some company with blown-up lips and bouncing breasts, or having an MI with the stress of it. Or the excitement. But she’s glad she told him all the same.
She has no water in the car and has already walked some two hundred yards. She sits down on a rock, and she and a lizard contemplate one another. Her breathing is over thirty resps per minute. Her pulse pounds in her temples. It feels good.
It would be painful though, to go through with it, and take longer than she could bear. The hallucinations could be interesting. She thinks of a woman she assessed not so long ago for a nervous registrar on call. The patient had sliced her left forearm open. The look on her face, indifferent. She asked not to have anaesthetic as she wanted to feel the pain. Two dead eyes. Straight mouth, the spider lined mouth of a smoker—a tattoo of a teddy bear on her neck.
Back in the car, she thinks she’s left it too late. Her coordination is going. She closes her eyes and slips back towards her father, now, at the bottom of a water tank. It is cylindrical and enormous. Bubbles come out of his mouth. Blue eyes stare back at her through the blue water with a white face. His clothes float around him, a red and black shirt and silky black hair.
Gasping, she pulls six large bottles from the Gas Station fridge. She drops five, and they roll around on the floor, and she drinks the one in her hand. Then bends over double and begins shivering violently, afraid it might come up again.
‘Are you quite well, Ma’am? Do you need to see a doctor?’ The old shopkeeper stands awkwardly. She looks at him and nods.
In one of his eyes, he has a cataract, and he wears a football team cap atop grey curls.
‘I am a doctor, and I’ll be fine,’ she tells him. After paying she uses the dingy restroom. Looks in the mirror. Paste white, sweat-soaked, deranged looking.
McCarran Airport pushes them out of the birth canal, and they are born into the American Airlines aircraft, amniotic and new. Dizygotic twins. After they fasten their seatbelts, they hold hands. Ann-Marie is not there anymore. Nor any of Dearbhla’s people, or Luca. A young woman sits down in the window seat beside them and drinks from a bottle of gin in her handbag.
Patsy smiles at Dearbhla. ‘This’ll be fun,’ he whispers.
After takeoff Dearbhla is not aware of the woman talking to her about her nails, instead she’s staring at the emergency door. It’s reflexive. She is thinking about plane crashes. She’s floating, weightless around the cabin and Patsy is still talking too, not noticing that she’s dead and can’t hear her. Then she’s hypoxic, miles above the ground, waking up only to realise the Earth is racing up to meet her and there’s nothing she can do about it except wait. Trees. Perhaps there will be trees. Broken bones. Punctured lungs. Branch through the eye socket.
‘Are you okay, Dearbhla?’ asks Patsy.
Her eyes snap into focus ‘yes, I’m fine.’
‘Oh my God, I’m probably, boring her to death, sorry,’ the gin-and-nails lady laughs.
Dearbhla looks at her. ‘Impossible,’ she announces.
‘Oh, thank you. You’re so sweet.’
Dearbhla takes out her laptop to read through emails. There sits Áine’s invitation to visit and a ‘gentle reminder to please ring Mam. When you get a chance.’
The lady has now fallen asleep and is resting on Patsy who looks at Dearbhla helplessly. It makes her laugh, and she mouths him a kiss.
Dearbhla puts her laptop away and closes her eyes, and in her mind, she says thank you. To herself and all of them.
Written in Spring 2020
© Susan Browne 2020
Tiny stories are fun for writers, both beginners and experienced, to enjoy the buzz of creating a whole project with a start, middle and end quickly. I highly recommend them. This month I decided to set myself a challenge of one very short story per day for a week, following the hashtag and daily prompt on twitter found at #vss365. VSS365 stands for “very short story,” and 365 because a new prompt is given every day of the year. To search for the prompt, I type the #vss365 hashtag and search ‘latest,’ and there is typically a cluster of new tweets that are using the same word.
At the time of writing, you have just 280 characters to write a tweet. So your story must be just a few lines long – unless you are writing very short lines, which some writers do.
Having finished the week, I thought I’d share my week’s pickings with you here. As well as some another micro fiction story I wrote this Spring. If you do the challenge for yourself, or even just have a go at one, why not share in the comments below? I’d love to see them.
The 7 Day #vss365 Challenge, June 2020
Some Tiny Stories:
It was you that brought him there. A door opened to kismet. I stood in trees with velleity, seeking strength. It didn’t matter.
After days and nights deep in the forest, I met tellurian spirit folk. The Königin said I could stay in the Festung if I agreed to tell their stories.
I promised – wondering how I might fit – explaining that only children would believe.
‘Good,’ she said.
Once, I found the Fly Agaric, generous and baroque under oak in the national park. After a day searching with dripping camera among trees and the rubiginous graves of Autumn.
A bite was taken from its cap.
What creature eats this and lives?
Boggy island is a circular swamp where once a bomb was dropped. A place of newts, frogspawn and lost shoes. A place, in the minds of the verdant, you might just disappear. Rapidly sucked down under the silt and mud. Becoming fodder for red worms.
It was expensive, so I slathered it on my arms, face, and legs, without reserve. Essential oils enveloped me as I drifted into a world aeons from the glossy shop floor.
‘Can I help you, Maam?’ The crackle of a walky-talky.
‘That would be highly unlikely.’
Summer’s viridity formed hiding places for children, and for other things deeper inside. Far from carved paths, climbing trees, illegal tents and big walking boots.
1 am; a coruscate within a tiny clearing beam right up to the fat moon.
The second bravest of our escapades was the peanuts in a cage over swarming feline beasts – adjacent to transparent human shield. Easier than hunting, yet saturated with adrenaline.
One stormy day the cage got blown to the ground. That was the first.
And Finally, this is a micro-fiction story of just 100 words for the NYC Midnight Micro-Fiction Competition, using the prompts:
Action: making a cup of tea
I See Them
My new life began the day I disappeared. I was twelve.
The TV was left on, the front door open. Mom began the search by calling me – and later asking Google where my phone was. It had been dropped into the centre of our neighbour’s cornfield. Police found it cracked.
I get it now. I am assigned to improve the world through the tasks they set me. They require people with my capabilities.
I can watch my family today. I see them, but they don’t see me. My mom makes tea and stares at a spot on the counter.
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From Procrastination to Celebration
I’ve been trying to write a novel since childhood. For some reason, it was much easier to write my first book (non-fiction) than it has been to complete my debut novel. But I’m done – whoop!!! And I’m celebrating today with a blog on my fave tips for finishing your novel. Among other ways, of course.
1) Know that Nobody Cares
The cruel truth is that the world is not waiting for your book – and if you’re like almost all first-time novel writers – nobody cares if you write it or not.
Really. They don’t.
Except you, that is. So you have to fight for it. Yes, I know, it sounds a little cold. And I’m sure you have loved ones and friends who encourage you and want to see you happy. I know I do. But in the harsh light of day, it’s only you that cares about this. So this brings me onto tip #2:
2) Become Pigheaded
There are a hundred other things you should be doing today, rather than advancing your novel. I read The One Thing, and this helped me a lot in this department. Each month I began printing out a calendar for that month. I would place a golden X for each day I worked on my novel, for a minimum of 25 minutes. My inner nerd was thrilled to see X’s building up. Twenty-five minutes is not very long – this meant that every day this would be possible no matter what. Even on days when I hated my book and my writing and felt like giving up entirely.
3) Reach out to other writers – but don’t join the procrastination club.
When I first started this website, I came across lots of writer hashtags, and “met” other writers like me. It was a lot of fun to know there were others, all over the world, struggling too. And it’s not just struggling. The last two and a half years have been a joy. I’ve been so happy to be writing this book.
An excellent way to focus yourself is to set goals – and a time limit – when hopping on to social media to network.
Q: How much time do I want to spend doing this today?
Q: What do I want to achieve from it?
Check back later to see if you honoured/achieved these. Other writers can be very cool people with immensely helpful tips. I’ve learned a lot from my peers. Sometimes though, you might find yourself on social media chatting to other writers when you should be tap, tap, tapping away at your book instead.
You might be lucky enough to find an accountability partner who you can check in with each week as to your writing goals and challenges. I did, and it’s super helpful.
4) Keep Making Goals
Goals are what keeps us stretching ourself to the next stage. Writing the first novel is a mammoth task. Break it down into chunks. Goal examples include:
- Word count goals, e.g. get to 40,000 words by the end of this month.
- Editing goals, e.g. run chapters 1-10 through Grammarly and/or ProWrtingAid by Friday.
- Research Guatemalan priests by the end of this week and answer the questions I have for my book about this.
- Finish chapter 22 by the end of this week.
You get the idea. I often stuck my monthly goals up on a notice board so I could see a hard copy of them regularly. There’s something about paper as opposed to digital for me. If you didn’t achieve your goal, the next time set a more achievable one. If you always set the bar too high, you will become used to never achieving your goals – and use this to beat yourself up. You won’t finish your novel that way.
I found that by making my goals a little too easy, I often ended up achieving even more. When I set the bar too high, I got annoyed with myself and disheartened.
Not sure what goals to choose from? Take a look at my blog on Powerful Questions.
Your goals might not all be about writing the novel. They might be connected to the bigger picture, such as building your author platform or networking with potential agents or publishers or other people who will help you on your journey. Always come back to the book, though. Without your novel being finished, all the other stuff doesn’t matter.
5 ) Use BiteSize Sessions when Writing Feels Intimidating
Whatever you choose to do – it has to be do-able.
I am not Stephen King – and I used the Pomodoro method for writing a lot for writing my latest book. It involves 25-minute sessions of writing (or editing) using a timer. You can just stick to 25 mins or put the timer on again as many times as you like. It’s totally do-able and the time usually flies – even if you were in knots of frustration and trepidation beforehand.
6) Learn from People in the Know
Those who have had success in writing or that know the publishing business have much wisdom to share. I have learned so much over the past three years about writing a novel. You could say, I overdid it at times. Spending more time learning about it than actually doing it. But, well, here I am at the end of a novel. So who cares? I’m going to share some resources I have found helpful:
Did I just contradict myself? I said get pigheaded; make your novel your ONE THING. Huh?? Yes, but life still goes on around you. As a coach, I like to use The Wheel of Life to look at how things are balancing. To enjoy writing your novel, other areas of your life need to work okay too.
To be present for family members, I mostly do my writing early in the morning. And because it’s quiet and free from distractions. Last year I wrote a blog on Mindfulness for Writers. Personally, my writing goes better if I make time to meditate and exercise regularly.
I also love entering short story competitions. The short story can feel very refreshing when you’re working on a novel.
I have a confession to make:
Your novel won’t be finished. Not ever. The most finished it gets is when it’s in print, and there’s not much you can do, besides launching a revised edition, to change it. However, I like to look at finishing a novel as being like a pyramid. In the beginning, you are at the bottom—lots of space there. Don’t know the whole plot yet. Lots of choices and unanswered questions.
Moving up the pyramid space gets smaller, but there’s still loads to do, and you might still feel lost. Towards the top of the pyramid you are polishing, editing, tweaking, and perhaps even still ironing out kinks in the plot.
I love this blog by Julian Gough that tells me it’s okay to not know the end of your novel right until the end, as that was true for me, and it used to stress me out no end apart from when I remembered that.
It feels good at the top of the pyramid. There’s a fantastic view here. Keep going. And tell me in the comments where you are in your book and what challenges you at the moment.
PS) Here’s a blog I wrote two years ago today on where I was at back then – 19th of May 2018. Take a peek.
© Susan Browne 2020
Published at womansway.ie on the 23rd of March, 2020. Whilst all characters in this story are fictional, it is inspired by true events of the COVID19 pandemic unfolding.
Author’s additional note, written 22nd January 2022. This story was written when everyone was absolutely bricking it. I was, like the character, wondering about ‘answering the call,’ and returning to nursing. I did renew my registration but never ended up nursing during the pandemic. At the time of writing this today, we’re told we’re almost out of the pandemic and I, for one, am tired of talking/thinking about it. My hope is that this story could be historically interesting in years to come. Hard to imagine today.
Photo by Artem Kovalev on Unsplash
Kate woke at 3:33 to the sensation of her grandmother Peggy’s hand resting gently on her forehead and the faint scent of roses. Peggy had died almost forty years ago. Kate lay very still, willing her to stay. She’d been a nurse in World War Two, and Kate had loved listening to her stories. ‘It changed the way I looked at life forever. I was proud to be a nurse.’ And that’s what Kate would become too, she decided some sixty years ago.
But the beloved woman faded as the mind’s cogs began to turn into wakefulness, and Kate remembered the reality she was in. She got up in the darkness and put on the kettle. Waiting for it to boil, she pressed the screen of her phone and push notifications from the news came piling in. More cases confirmed; more deaths and more restrictions. It was like being at war, with each announcement more nerve-wracking than the last.
She recalled the trip to the local supermarket the day before. Perspex screens had been erected to protect the staff from the shoppers, and vice versa. You shouldn’t be at the supermarket. I can drop all you need at your front door. These were the words of her daughter, Noreen, who would have her wrapped in cotton wool and placed in a matchbox for safekeeping if she could. It was no use telling her she was in perfect health and had no underlying conditions. You’re no spring chicken. Stay home, is all she would say. And Kate didn’t need to hear it.
There it was again, the thought that she should answer the call. Come out of retirement and help the nurses at the front line in the international emergency that was COVID19. After a bit of googling she found the online form and filled it. Her hands trembled a little before she hit send, thinking of Noreen and what she wouldn’t say about it.
It was ten o clock that morning when she was just about ready to go for a lie down when the phone rang. It was her grandson, Rory, aged ten with something sticky like syrup smeared around his red cheeks on Facetime. She squinted at him.
‘Hi nanna, Mom’s changing Sarah’s butt, she had a whoopsie,’ he giggled.
‘Good morning sweetie. Well, it’s good to see you. What did you have for breakfast?’
‘Pancakes and lemon and sugar. As a treat for finishing my maths on time.’
‘Oh, good man.’
Kate’s little granddaughter Sarah pushed her face into the camera ‘Nanna, Nanna, Nanna, what’s for breakfast? We had pancakes.’ Her eyes sparkled and Kate wished she could give her a cuddle. They often sat snuggled together on the sofa, reading stories or watching Peppa.
‘I’d my porridge like usual, sweetheart. What did you have on your pancakes?’ But she’d already gone, not interested in a phone conversation with anyone at three years of age. Kate winced at the pain it caused her. Noreen’s face came into view. Her brown eyes looked tired.
‘You okay, Mom?’
‘I’m fine. You’re all well?’ She felt her eyes begin to water. ‘What’s that? Bad connection, look it, I’ll call you back soon, okay?’ and she hung up and wept until her body shook. Then she got up and washed the ware.
‘I can’t just sit around here all day, moping,’ she said out loud. The house seemed so small suddenly. A three bedded bungalow on a country road that led down to the sea. At least she could watch the sea from her living room window. It always looked different, and now you’d hardly see a boat. She felt like a walk down to the strand a few times but didn’t end up going.
She thought about nursing and the way it had become when she had retired, six years earlier. All degrees and masters and forms a mile long. What would it be like in an emergency? All hands on deck or all trying to fill out forms with big fancy words in them that nobody could make head nor tail of?
She held her wrist gently to see if she was still able to take her own pulse. She felt the old familiar thud, like a current of electricity. It wasn’t as regular as it was one time, but she’d do. The only condition she suffered was loneliness. It heaved in her chest like a large feathered bird that couldn’t get out.
A Week Later
The ward manager had explained over the phone that she needn’t buy herself a uniform, that all staff were changing into hospital scrubs at the start of each shift to reduce cross-infection. The long walk down the corridor made her heart race. She still hadn’t told Noreen, because she knew she’d try to stop her. But now she felt her grandmother again.
‘Give me the strength to do this. Please.’
‘You are strong,’ said the wisp of a thought in her mind. And then a warm feeling, like wings of an angel softly wrapping around her, and she pulled her shoulders back and walked a little taller.
© Susan Browne 2019
Shortlisted for Words by Water short story competition in October 2019. The judge’s comment was: “A gripping read, the reader is taken on an undulating wave of emotions with the main character.”
The cat is missing. It’s not here waiting for its breakfast. Bella does love that wretched cat. Just five minutes left until the school run. I step outside, and the frosty air hits me, and I squint in the sunlight. I rattle her bowl and call her name. Inspect the road both ways. No cat. I don’t mention it, and we walk out to the car.
When I get home, I find it curled up in a ball at the edge of the field. ‘Come on, you. Breakfast.’ She doesn’t budge so I take her in my arms to the front door where her food sits. She slumps down, ignoring it. She is listless. Floppy. ‘You can’t be sick, cat.’ I go inside and dial the vet, and the secretary asks if I’d like to bring her in right away. There goes my morning.
‘What’s the cat’s name?’ she asks in a green reception that smells of bleach and bones.
‘Sadness,’ I say.
Fingers hover over a keyboard.
The vet shows me Sadness’ ghostly eye rims and white gums.
‘Severely anaemic. She’s only hanging in there. The kindest thing is to put her down right now,’ she says, matter-of-factly. It’s just a cat, after all.
‘I can’t put her down.’ I feel my head filling up with water as I picture my little girl, getting home from school only to find out her best friend in the world is dead. No warning. No time to prepare.
‘It’s a hard decision. Take your time,’ the vet says. A large dog barks busily out in the waiting room, and Sadness looks at me.
‘I’m going to take her with me. She can die with us at home.’
‘Sure. That’s your choice.’
‘And there’s really nothing more to be done?’
‘We could try some iron and antibiotics, but there really is very little point.’
‘Well, we’ll try anyway. Please.’
I pay and walk out with my severely anaemic cat and useless tablets to my crookedly parked car and drive home.
I allow her into the house, and she heads right under the stairs. I tidy it for her and get out some spare bedding. She’s just a pair of green eyes in the darkness, watching me as I carefully move things around. I get her food and water — an old litter box. Stairs get brushed even though it is only Thursday. I wipe marks off the paintwork.
I collect Bella, feeling wretched.
‘I have some upsetting news for you.’
‘No go-go’s left again?’
‘No. We have go-go’s. It’s Sadness. She is very, very sick.’
I adjust my rear-view mirror. My little girls head has shrunken in like a turtle, back into her body. School uniform all crumpled up around her shoulders — a tense, straight line for a mouth.
When we arrive home, she’s immediately under the stairs. They share a silent commune.
The next thing Bella’s disappeared down to her bedroom and returns after ten minutes with a picture. It has Sadness, hearts, leaves, sunshine, clouds, grass and says in the sky on one of the clouds’ eid ot ecalp ecin a.’ A Nice Place to Die. She sticks the picture up over Sadness’ little sickbay.
‘That’s amazing. Sadness will love it.’ When I check again, some white plastic rosary beads have manifested and are dangling down the bannister over Sadness. Bella is sitting close to her, and they are both very still. My hand rests over my mouth. In that pocket of silence, across the airwaves flows the very purest of love, and I think it might break me open.
I wake myself up in the night, sneezing, and feel the vaporous presence of both a cat and my estranged husband. But in truth I am alone.
It is morning and Sadness lives. She even trots out to the kitchen after me, so I fix her some breakfast and tidy up. Brushing the little spills of cat litter away and giving her fresh water. I imagine that she might survive and something inside me dances.
Hugging a mug of tea, I think about Paudie.
‘Still pushing the important things away and clinging onto deadwood,’ said my father before he died of a massive heart attack on his favourite seat overlooking the marshes.
People say he’s gay, my deadwood-Paudie. I don’t think so. I didn’t hear it from him. Bella tells me that he lives with another man and that she’s met him a few times and that his name is Colm. She told me more things, but my brain removes them like there’s no space for that information.
I did all I could, in the beginning, to prevent the divorce from going through. I was sure he was making a mistake. It was for him, I told myself, not just Bella and me. In the end, even my solicitor seemed to give up on me.
‘You’re scaring him, Claire. I think you’re actually scaring him.’ I think I may have been scaring her too. If she was honest about it.
I am glad that Bella is at school when I try to give the cat those tablets. The whole ordeal almost kills her. She won’t swallow, and I let her go with the fright of those bared fangs. She darts behind the sofa. Writhing and making hideous sounds. I watch, frozen. A puddle of urine seeps out from under her.
‘Oh my God, Sadness. Please don’t die yet,’ I’m crying and sneezing.
Bella is home again, and she can’t find Sadness who was on the blanket under the stairs earlier. Where I lifted her flimsy frame with very little life force left in it. My daughter’s eyes are wild, her hands flapping. She covers her ears and hums, and I get up and hum too and wrap myself around her, making myself into a humming human blanket.
We find a rhythm and rock gently. I kiss her chamomile no-tears hair, and her taut body starts to relax a little.
‘It’s okay. We’ll find her.’
I am worse than worried, though. I switch the torch on my phone and shine it around. Eventually, I discover that Sadness has crawled right inside the bottom step. I gingerly stretch out my hand and make contact with fur. Her body feels quite still.
‘Sadness? Are you alive in there?’
‘Of course she is alive. I can feel her. Let me look.’
‘Wait. Sadness?’ My heart is stopped. Then suddenly a grey tail flicks at us, and I breathe again. ‘She’s alive.’
‘Told you,’ says Bella, her chest puffed out and arms long and skinny at her sides.
‘Come on, homework time. Let’s give her some space.’
Bella sulkily empties her schoolbag. Books, pencils flowing out of their case and some smelly lunch remnants.
Each night I can’t sleep. He is gone seven years now. It’s not as though it’s a new thing. But how can you leave just as your first baby is born? He never answered that for me. It remains one of those mind-benders that goes off like the eternal boomerang into space and never turns around.
I walk down at three to see those green eyes. She blinks. I curl up on the cold tiles and rest my head down on the blanket, exhausted. Sadness walks over to me and places her forehead against the crown of my head. I bathe in an unexpected rush of affection.
Upstairs again I’m on my phone looking up how to help a cat that is dying. I discover a world of things, such as music for cats. I download some and put it playing softly under the stairs. It is a haunting, whirling sound with background purring noises on it. I am very glad I can’t hear it from my bed.
Sunday morning, Bella asks me to go to Mass. She is as still and quiet as ever she has been in there. At the end, she asks to light three candles. I watch her praying. Father Matt comes over, and I find myself telling him about the cat. He is old and sympathetic, which makes me feel a mixture of sorrow and mortification.
‘Thank you. Thank you,’ I say.
We drive home, and she checks Sadness, who is asleep. She looks peaceful. ‘Thank you,’ I whisper again. To saints and angels. To the cat. Anyone at all.
After a snack, Bella runs outside. I see her spinning on the grass, arms outstretched, looking up at the vast white sky. A small, blonde sorceress whipping up a spell.
It’s just gone eleven at night when I hear strange yowling coming from below. I take myself down to the bottom of the stairs where a cat called Sadness is truly dying. I am terrified. She thrashes around, claws outstretched. Then stops breathing, and I think that’s it.
After some time, there is another gasp. Her tail stands on end. She hurtles blindly into the wall. Death ravages her.
‘Rest now. Easy girl,’ I tell her. She stills again. I hold my breath. After some minutes, I want to reach out and touch her. But I’m frightened she will suddenly lunge at me, thinking I am Death. My hand floats in mid-air, idiotically.
I consider the large shoebox and wonder how I might fit her in there if she is left lying long and straight as she is. I need to curl her up. After half an hour of pacing and checking, I get her in there. One step ahead of rigor mortis.
He hasn’t come this close for seven years. As far as his feet have gone are about five paces onto the driveway. In all that time. My mother’s people’s land. He answered the text in less than a minute: ‘I’ll be there soon.’
He’s in the garden, digging a grave for Sadness. It’s where I found her a few days ago, her sunspot. He makes easy work of it. He is powerful and muscular, and I resent that he looks better than ever before. Deadwood clinger.
Bella and I watch. She has the shoebox coffin in her hands, with pictures drawn onto it and Sadness in big ornate writing. She doesn’t want to put her cat down there into that damp, dark hole. He helps her to lower it into the earth.
I look from one to the other, voraciously finding him in her and her in him. We take turns throwing soil onto the box and then he fills it in using the shovel.
Then we stand, three of us beside Sadness’s resting place. From afar, you’d think we were all together — husband, wife, daughter. Six shoes in the morning dew, burying our beloved cat. I wish someone could take a photo or paint us this way. I want to keep it even if it’s just a lie.
A little girl folds into my body, her back facing me. I lean forward over her, and we merge for a few moments. Like seven years ago, she is a part of me.
My gaze turns over the land and to the car parked on the road, and I see a bearded man’s profile in the passenger seat. I look at Paudie’s shoes and the way he carries himself. Then a boomerang in outer space crashes into something hard and breaks into tiny pieces.
Sun comes out from behind a cloud. It’s over.
‘Will ye have breakfast? Tea?’ I pause, my mouth opening and closing.
‘We’re good, thanks. Better be off. Bye so, Bella. Bye.’
I hoped he would refuse. I’m not ready yet.
A pile of earth sits on top of the grave. Ready to sink down over time.