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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© 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.
The Taste Tester
By Susan Browne © Susan Browne 2017/2019
Callum has taken up an unusual job opportunity, keeping a paranoid elderly author safe from poison.
I’m lying here, curled around my dream girl like a c-shape. My lips rest on the crown of her head. We fit together perfectly. Me, a clumsy six foot three, and she a dainty five foot five. I nearly lost her, then I won her back again. When I close my eyes and feel the rise and fall of her breath, my mind wanders back to Elena, and her house in the mountains. It’ll be minus ten up there tonight.
Elena and I found one another, wretched and vulnerable. Her furious ex-lover had dumped her in the city, knowing that would leave her distraught. I was looking into the hurriedness of the Liffey. Wondering how it might be to sleep with the fishes. All that mattered to me then was Ailsa. She had dumped me for my best friend, Darcy. I didn’t care about life.
Then I heard crying under the bridge. I went to investigate. Birdlike, in a fur coat and hat and long boots she lay crumpled in the mud. She looked about sixty. A sad, thin scarved face of bright lipstick and rouge and dark eyes.
We didn’t say much at first. She shook my hand, shivering.
Her accent was foreign. She wanted to go home, is all. We walked to my car, and I drove her to her place. It was over an hour’s drive outside the city. I would have travelled anywhere, for the distraction and for having anything at all to do.
I had never seen such a beautiful house. It was enormous, and yet she lived alone. It had a pool in a room with a peel-top roof, so it could also be open air. At the top; a viewing dome. A gym, pool and outdoor jacuzzi. She fixed us tea, and then, before drinking hers she said:
‘Would you mind tasting this for me, just to see if it’s safe?’
I laughed at first. Her eyes never flickered. She wasn’t joking.
I honestly wouldn’t have cared that day if it was laced with arsenic and so I agreed. Out of politeness, I used my teaspoon to ladle some out. I was aware of her watching me intently for a few minutes, and I tried to shrug away the prickly feeling around my neck.
Then we drank our tea, and she began to tell me about herself.
‘I am an author. I write fiction. Originally, I come from Russia, but I moved to Ireland in 1997.’
It turned out she wasn’t just any author. She was an international bestseller and one of her books was currently being made into a movie with some of my favourite actors.
‘I need someone to work for me up here. Would you be interested?’
‘What sort of work?’ I asked her.
‘I need a taste tester. My other boy has gone travelling and I need someone who could start right away.’
‘What even is that?’ I asked her.
‘Someone to test my food before I eat, and drink before I drink.’
There was a long pause here. What do you even say to that?
‘I work in an office,’ I told her.
She waited for me to say more.
‘..And it’s incredibly boring.’
It was regular money, but it was not what I had envisaged for myself at twenty-two. My dad couldn’t afford to keep me in college and I couldn’t afford it either.
She smiled and regarded me carefully. ‘Then you would be perfect for me. I will pay you well, but the hours are long.’
‘We’ll give it a go,’ I said.
My employment began immediately. I worked right up until 9pm. I emailed my boss to let him know I was resigning. This gave me an enormous sense of satisfaction.
She had saved me. And I had saved her.
‘Why do you have a taste tester anyway? Is someone out to get you or what?’ I wondered about her other boy who had gone travelling.
She became still and stared at me. ‘I cannot say. I’m sorry.’
‘Alright then.’ And that was that. I hoped he wasn’t buried here somewhere.
Elena was queen of the mountain. She could do what she liked, including hiring a taste tester. She could hire whatever she wanted up there.
‘Were you always like this?’ I asked one day. ‘Y’know. Suspicious and all.’
‘Not always. Only since the character of Dina.’
I had searched for her books and seen that the character of Dina was part of the fantasy thriller she had written in 2015 that was being made into a movie. Dina was a paranoid but very powerful witch. Turns out my Ailsa had the very book too. I didn’t tell Ailsa who I worked for. Confidentiality was part of the deal.
‘What are you writing since?’
Then she looked at the floor, her shoulders slumped. ‘Every day my agent calls; ‘what are you writing?’ I can’t write. Dina has sucked all of the words out of me. Now I am empty.’ She suddenly looked even older, like a crumpled plant shrinking down to the earth.
‘Well, maybe you have enough writing done. Maybe it’s time to take a rest.’
She scoffed, and I felt silly.
Here I lie in Ailsa’s bed. Her father’s apartment. He is upstairs with his big, black moustache and disapproving stare. Big tattoos on his big Popeye arms. He doesn’t even know I’m here. He never liked me. Give him time, he’ll be grand about us.
I am still inside my head thinking about a paranoid old lady. Her ability to write those incredibly popular books. It didn’t make much sense. The fact I could lie here with The Goddess of Happiness in my arms and still have her on my mind. I watch her red lipstick smile inside my head, at the thought of that.
I breathe in the smell of Ailsa. Her silky dark hair, tangerine body lotion. I know it’s strange, but I can tell that she loves me now and that she didn’t used to. I feel safe.
One day Elena had me swim in the pool. I didn’t see how that was part of the job, but I did as I was told. It gave me the creeps at first. That this old lady wanted to perve over me or something. Images of a terrible scene from ‘The Shining’ flooded my mind and I tried to shrug them off.
But that wasn’t how it went. It turned out she wanted me to swim in the water to see if it was poisoned. She herself got in exactly twenty minutes after me when she was satisfied that it was safe.
‘You can go now,’ she said, thank God.
Sometimes it felt as though I was part of a game she was playing. I was a pawn on her chess board. I couldn’t very well argue. I didn’t want to get the sack. And I wished to please her. Strange and cantankerous as she was, I got satisfaction out of getting things right. I was her circus monkey.
She knew all about Ailsa and the bother I was in. So, she asked me more and more questions. Personal ones. And, out of loneliness, I told her.
‘You are an idiot. Of course, the girl won’t want you then. You need to wake up and play the game.’
‘What game? I don’t want to play any games. I just want her back.’
She taught me things. And as though by magic – as soon as I let go, Ailsa came to me. I made a mistake. There was only us. Of course, there was. I knew it all along, and so did my moronic mate, Darcy. Ex-mate now.
There were long periods of time where there was nothing to be done. She needed quietness and solitude, but still, I must remain on the premises. I started using the gym. I began to get fit and enjoy it. I started to like myself. I learned the different trails on that freezing cold mountain, I took her two blue-eyed huskies for walks and they showed me the way. It didn’t feel like Ireland there. It was as though she brought her own climate with her and placed it there.
In this bedroom now, I feel her vaporous presence. She lingers, watching me holding Ailsa. I feel the sense of unease as the air stirs and the nets move. Outside a train passes and the house shakes a little.
‘Would you die for me? Like the president’s bodyguard?’ she asked one day.
I considered this carefully. ‘Isn’t that what I do every day? Risk my life by tasting your potentially poisoned food and drink?’
To this, she snorted. ‘You were a dead man that day, down by the river, if I had not saved you.’
I looked at her incredulously. ‘And yourself?’
She only laughed. Funny Irish boy.
It’s no good. I can’t sleep, so I peel myself away from Ailsa’s warm body. She moans softly in her sleep. I reach for her tablet and I find myself reading about Dina. I’ve read most of it already. Dina is just like Elena. The appearance, the mannerisms.
I reach the final chapter and still a goddess and a contemptuous Scotsman sleep.
“He searched everywhere for her on the cold mountain. Afraid of what he would find. Down by the lake, he fell to his knees. The ice sparkled, and then he saw her. Frozen under the ice looking up. He beat and bashed the ice…”
I snap it shut and realise that I am holding my breath. I get dressed as quick as I can, and I am out the door.
‘Is that you, Hen?’ her father shouts.
I’m gone. Into the car and headed for the mountain. February’s dawn creeps over the iced valley, and the road is slippery. I know the complex code to get through the gates. The blue-eyed dogs are whining; agitated. I park the car and run down the trail to the lake. They are leading the way. She is there beside the water’s edge.
‘Callum? You came.’
‘Are you alright?’
She turns to face me. ‘I just had my tea,’ she says. Her eyes are full of a tenderness that I haven’t seen before.
‘But it’s alright, Callum. It must be this way. You see I am Dina.’
‘You’re not Dina. No, no. You are Elena. The author. The author can’t die.’ I lift her little frame in my arms and bring her back up the trail. The dogs are crying. She gets limper and limper, and hot tears are coming down my face.
‘Help. Somebody.’ My phone is in the car. I lay her on the back seat and call an ambulance. By the time it arrives, she is unconscious.
‘Come on, Son,’ the paramedic says to me. ‘We need to get her out of the car, alright?’
‘Alright. Hey, I think she might have taken cyanide.’
‘Why would you think that?’
‘I could be wrong, but it’s what the character in her book took.’ I realise how crazy that makes her sound and how someone else couldn’t understand.
‘You may be right too. Leave it to us now.’
She seems even tinier now, as they lay her out on the gurney. She’s slipping away from me. The quiet snowy mountain is suddenly awash with blue lights. I drive slowly home. We’ll be in touch again; the Gardaí had told me.
Months after I often go up to the mountain. Always alone. Never telling anyone. It’s not cold anymore. Spring flowers and birdsong annihilate her further. I wonder if I could have saved her, had I arrived just a little earlier. And sometimes I question if it really was she that poisoned herself. I find myself colluding with the story. This is how I keep her alive. Just a little. And in my head, she smiles about it.
About this Story: This story was written in response to a short story challenge run by NYC Midnight in January, 2017, where I had 8 days to write a short story.
The Prompt: Genre = romance/ comfort zones/ a taste tester
Historical fiction short story
By Susan Browne © Susan Browne 2017/2019
Arius, a prosperous Spanish merchant returns to Galway to marry the love of his life. But when he arrives he finds she is in grave danger.
1588, Galway, Ireland.
Arius Emelio walked into the Claddagh from the sea, a little older than he had hoped. Across the white sand his sea legs took him. The market was there just as before, over the dunes. He bought oranges from fellow countrymen and ate them in front of the stall, catching his breath. Calming himself.
Past the sellers of fish, wine, fruits, wool and leather he strode. His heart overflowed with a mixture of anxiety and love. The streets of Galway opened up and embraced him as an old friend. The music he heard in his dreams played on. Past the sullen grey horse and its one-eyed owner and into the narrow street that took him finally to the wood shop of Nola. The last time he was there she worked for her father, but he was ill at the time and likely dead now. Now it would be hers.
He paused in the doorway and inhaled the scent of cut timber. He had waited so long for that smell again. It was the sweetest he knew – the happiest of days were furled up inside it. This time the shop boasted the most ornate of carvings. Furniture fit for lords, with intricate Celtic designs on them. He gasped when he saw the detail in them and ran his fingers over animals, trees, crosses, and spirals. The work of a supremely talented artist.
‘Arius,’ she rushed towards him. She was covered in sawdust. Her face, her blonde hair piled atop her head, her overalls. They held one another. Then gently he kissed her, and she kissed him back fiercely and pulled him to her.
He leaned back and looked at her. ‘You taste like.. trees.’
They laughed and wept. Her fingers traced around his face, like a blind woman they explored his contours. She kissed the parts of her fingers that had touched him and then his face over and over.
‘For good this time I am staying. I have handed over my crew, so that I can be with you,’ he looked at her, for any trace of regret or torment. Any sign that she was not still fully his. He had been gone four years. Most women her age were married. ‘One hundred and thirty ships sail to England under the command of the Duke of Medina Sidonia to invade England. I know it was such a long time and for that, I am so sorry to you. Now, we have all the fortune we could ever need.’
She placed her hands on his heart and then on his waist. ‘Thank God you are safe and not going. Aruna… are you wearing money or jewels around your belly?’ she asked, feeling around his waist and stomach.
‘No, I am just fat from all the big feasts we have out at sea.’
‘I don’t think so, my love,’ and she pulled his clothes over his head to reveal his wrappings.
He flushed, ‘let’s lock the door. I don’t think a naked Spaniard in your shop will be looking so good with the neighbours, no?’
‘Always so sensible,’ and she closed the shop and pulled him through to her home behind it. ‘It’s not so safe for Spaniards here now. And there is something else I must tell you.’
‘I am not afraid, and I am not the only Spaniard here in Galway. Still, they are at the market, trading here. What must you tell me?’
Her eyes narrowed. ‘They are coming for me.’
‘Who is coming?’
‘There is a rumour started that I am a witch. The Mayor has a hatred of women, especially those who trade. I am told he does not think that it is natural for women to carve in this way. Black magic they say.’
‘No! We have to leave right away. They will kill you.’
‘They will weigh me, to see if I weigh little enough to ride on a broomstick,’ her eyes glistened with tears ‘and if that is the case then they will kill me. I do not weigh little, so then I have nothing to fear.’
‘Insanity. I have heard of another woman tried in this way. In Amsterdam. Are you light enough to ride on a broomstick, sweet Nola?’
‘When I am with you Arius, I am light enough to fly right into the clouds.’ They both laughed, wiping away tears. ‘Come with me, let me bathe you and wash your clothes. You must be hungry.’
‘No. We must disappear, Nola, if they think you are a witch, they will make you weigh whatever they want, you don’t understand. I’ve heard about it in other places. Ven a España.’
‘I cannot leave Arius. I’m being watched. If they see me try to leave, I look guilty. Spies are everywhere.’
In the early hours, soldiers broke into the house.
‘A filthy witch lying with a foreigner. Faigh di.’
One tall man with wiry hands roughly threw Nola’s cloak around her before tying her with rope. Arius got stabbed in the arm as he attempted to obstruct their exit.
They were led to Gort weighing house. There too was the mayor, who looked at her with contempt, even though her father was a well-liked man. Her mother and brothers were killed by consumption five years earlier, and so now Arius was all she had.
A crowd gathered. The large weighing scales, normally used for weighing cattle and goods was what they pushed her onto. A large circle of onlookers was ever widening. Some were already crying ‘cailleach, cailleach, cailleach,’ like wolves, baying for blood.
Her eyes met his and she gained strength as she awaited the verdict. The weighmaster announced, ‘this must be a witch, she only weighs five pounds.’
‘Estafa!’ Arius cried. ‘You lie!’
The crowd jeered in delight as she was dragged away to Blake Castle dungeon for death by burning that evening. Arius smacked his head over and over, he was trying to conjure up a memory from years before. A memory of a raid on the castle and an underground tunnel.
The acrid smell of death filled their nostrils in the pitch blackness of the souterrain running from underneath Blake Castle to the sea. ‘Be careful here, you’ll have to step over,’ Arius told her.
Nola gagged as her foot touched the liquid mass of a rotting corpse. In the dead of night, the blackness of the tunnel seemed never-ending. At last on the beach, the lights of the ship glinted, and they rowed over to it.
Out at sea, he held her close and they watched a fleet, ghostlike, aking their way from the North to Ireland’s west coast. Nola thought of her wood shop, her carvings, and tools. She conjured up a dream of starting it all anew. In a place where the sun shone that Aruna had told her all about. His home town of A Coruña.
About this Story: This story was written in response to a flash fiction challenge run by NYC Midnight in 2017, where I had 48 hours to write a 1000 word story. I have since added some more words!
The Prompt: Genre = Historical Fiction; Location = a wood shop; Object = a weighing scale.