© 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.
Drama short story
© Susan Browne 2019
Bob has loved Donna all his life. Now she is in a nursing home, but he hasn’t given up, and finally, he has nothing to lose.
NYC Midnight challenge, 2019: Drama / Nostalgia / A chauffeur
It is a frosty morning in Hyde Park, and Bob is walking home for the last time from Marlborough Lane Chauffeur Services. All he wants is a drink. To sit by the fire and watch the squirrels play in his little white garden.
Swans weave in the mist on the lake, and he contemplates throwing his work bag into the black water. Letting it sink down. But he might only get stopped for littering. Doggy patrol are all around. With their poo bags and camera phones.
Feeling pain in his fingers, he regrets not bringing his gloves. Queen Victoria looks down at him with contempt, frost on her eyebrows. He pulls a face at her and walks on the grass to feel the crunch of frost under his feet. His boss’s words run over and over in his head.
‘You don’t work here anymore, Bob. We’ve talked about this enough now, and it’s time for you to go.’
At the kiosk just outside the park he picks up a newspaper, and the headlines make him stop dead in his tracks. Nursing Home Near Miss as Dementia Patient Walks Out into Traffic.
He’s getting an idea.
At home, he lights a fire and pours himself a glass of scotch. The idea whisps past again. His pulse quickens. Crazy but possible.
He closes his eyes and thinks of June 1965, shooting catapults with his friend Mark. Marks little sister Donna goes by, and Bob feels his face flush. She is not quite a kid any more. Twelve but sculpting into a beautiful woman. Mark is going to shoot at her, and Bob puts his hand on the catapult.
‘Urrgh, you fancy my sister. You’re disgusting, mate, you know that?’
He was disgusting. He knew. The law of the jungle is that you don’t fancy mates’ little sisters. Especially ones so much younger. But he couldn’t help it. Ever since their joint family holiday in Scotland, two years previous. He tried to make it stop. But whenever he thought of her, he felt out of control.
‘Ouch! You bastard, Mark.’
‘Don’t call me that,’ and with that Mark pounced on her. They were on the pavement, she was screaming, and Bob, stronger, broke them up. He grabbed her close, pressing her against himself. She wriggled free and glared at him.
‘What the bloody hell are you doing, perve?’ She stormed off. Bob didn’t see Mark for a while after that. Their friendship fizzled, just like many friendships do at that age with life making its own twists and forks. But he never moved on from Donna Roberts. He refused to let go, no matter how many times she rebuffed him. He thought he just had to wait until the time was right. She’d come around.
When she got married seven years later, he thought of it as just another delay. She had four children. He could wait. Her husband died of a fall in 2004. Off a ladder, such a shame, and such a careful man. Things got deferred further still as in her grief she went off travelling for years, then arrived back only to develop some brain condition or other and was later admitted to a nursing home in South London.
Now perhaps the wait is over. Now maybe it’s time. He’s running out of patience. And of reasons to hold back.
He bought her a teddy last Valentine’s Day in the shopping centre. It holds a heart across its chest that reads in white writing ‘Be Mine.’ It sits on his bed. He keeps a photo of her beside it, age twelve, that he stole from Mark’s house one day and nobody saw.
Now, already he’s outside Oakdale House again. He watches the big red, Georgian front door. It’s locked of course. You need to ring to be let in. There’s a camera. You need to sign in. And you need good reason to visit whoever you are visiting. He can’t mess it up, or they will be on alert for him.
He waits and watches from across the street. Sitting on a bench near a bus stop. He’s done this a number of times since she got here. Never been in yet. He hugs a takeaway coffee, into which he’s poured a nip of scotch from his hip flask. A retirement gift. His car is parked around the corner. Ready just in case.
He’s going to take a chance. He can just visit this time. He’ll see. Test the water, come up with a proper plan. He writes a fake name in the book. Tells them he is her cousin. A care assistant shows him the room, and she is there sitting in her chair with a blanket on her knees.
‘Hello, Donna. I bought you a teddy bear,’ he tells her. He’s trembling, and he can’t stop the smile stretching across his face. She is still so beautiful.
‘Thank you,’ she says as he puts it on her pillow. Be Mine. He can’t tell if she knows who he is. She seems like she is thinking hard and trying to make sense of something. There is a greyness to her eyes that wasn’t there before.
They sit in silence for a while. He is running over the years in his mind, and she is quiet and still.
‘Do you want to come for a walk?’ he asks her.
‘Of course,’ she smiles. ‘I love walks.’ Bob wonders if she will really come with him. He is excited and tries to calm his breath in his chest.
‘Back in a minute.’ He wanders down the hall and pauses here and there. Watching. He sees the woman at reception pressing something on the wall to release the door.
In the sitting room, just two patients are sitting there and there is a daytime chat show playing on the TV. He lights the corner of a paper napkin and puts it in the wastepaper bin, then walks hurriedly to Donna’s room. She is sitting on her bed. She looks through him when he comes in.
‘Did you miss me?’
‘Is it Monday today?’
‘Yes,’ he lies. He starts putting some of her clothes in a plastic shopping bag. Cleaning items and all he can grab quickly. The teddy. A coat smelling of must in a wardrobe. A nightdress. Underwear. Socks and slippers.
‘Who are you again?’ she asks.
‘I’m your chauffeur, and we’re going on a grand adventure. You must get bored in here, with all these old cronies. A young woman like you.’
‘Is it raining outside?’
‘Frosty. So put this jumper on. That’s the girl.’
And they walk arm in arm as the fire alarm sounds. People are rushing around. Even the receptionist has left her chair, and he says to Donna ‘open the door in a second, when I say. Okay?’ He puts her hand on the door handle and shows her how to open it.
And it works. They are out. Down the slope and onto the street. She stops, frozen. ‘What is that awful noise?’
‘The alarm, we had to get out. Everyone is. Are you ready to come for a drive with me?’ He flips on his hat that he stole from work.
‘Is there champagne?’
‘By God there will be. For you my darling. Champagne it is. The best money can buy.’
He guides her into the passenger seat and she looks around. He locks the doors. Before long the A40 turns into the M40 and all is going to plan. He looks over at her from time to time. He wonders how it would be if she were suddenly to start yelling and trying to get out. Attracting attention. He wonders about the cameras in and around London. His fingerprints on the sign in book. No going back now.
He’s low on petrol at around Stoke-on-Trent. She is asleep, so he leaves the motorway at the next service station. Parking up he gets out as quiet as he can. Tank full and she’s still sleeping, her head lolled to the side. When he goes to pay he’s conscious but tries to smile and relax. She’s just out of view from the queue. He buys what food he can grab, and pays by card. Another traceability – he curses himself for not thinking things through more.
Then his heart jumps in his chest. Donna isn’t there. His first reaction is to wonder where to hide. Perhaps the police have got her. But they haven’t. She’s there chatting to a woman filling up her tank. Stay calm.
‘Come on my lovely, better get back on the road.’
She looks at him sharply, a confused and slightly suspicious look. ‘Who are you again?’ she asks. The woman, about forty with a black fur hat on, frowns a little as she replaces the nozzle and screws her petrol cap back on.
‘Here I got your favourite chocolate,’ and he gently pushes her back into the passenger seat and her body yields.
‘That’s so nice of you,’ she says and looks at it as though she has no idea how to unwrap it. He takes it from her and removes the wrapper, and she tastes it. ‘I love chocolate.’
The log cabin is nestled on the banks of Loch Lomond, with a view of Ben Nevis. Very like the big one they stayed in all those years ago. He gets her inside, and then he can’t rest. Pacing and wondering what to do, trying to make her comfortable. He makes her tea. Shows her the patio then brings her in again.
‘Do you remember, Donna? When we were here last?’
She looks at him, bird-like. Her head a little to the side. He just can’t tell, but he likes to think that she is remembering too. She has chocolate at the side of her mouth which instinctively makes him wipe his own.
‘I’ll tell you about it to jog your memory. In August 1967 my family and your family holidayed together. Our parents were the best of friends. And Mark and me, and you. I was fifteen, and you were ten.’ It’s clear she’s not listening now but he continues anyway.
‘One day, you fell and sprained your ankle, playing in the waterfall, and I saved you, carried you all the way back to the cabin. It was very like this one. Not far from here either.’ Bob closes his eyes and goes back there, feeling her small frame in his arms. The way she looked at him. Like he was some big strong mountain man. Tarzan. She seemed to be enjoying it as much as him. She rested her head on his chest and closed her eyes.
The adults told him he was brave and responsible and caring and he and she were silent. Sharing a special moment that couldn’t be spoiled by speaking.
That night time the parents drank at the pub on wooden benches on the bank of the lough. Bob made sure to include Donna in their games. The sun stayed up very late into the night as though it didn’t want it to end either. They paddled in the clear shallow waters edge, splashed and skimmed stones. Mark made fun of Bob for being unable to swim. Bob didn’t care, and Donna said ‘at least he’s not afraid of the dark like you are,’ and they both laughed.
Now, Donna just sits there, tea in hand. An almost-smile on her lips.
Later, she is sitting in front of the television. He doesn’t know how she switched it on. She can’t seem to do very much independently. But the news is on. Her picture. A woman is believed to have been abducted from a nursing home in Kensington and the man…. He switches it off in a panic.
‘The world is cruel. What life have you got, a good-looking woman in your sixties in a nursing home? Life’s only beginning for us, darling.’ Perhaps he can take her away to another country. Make her better. And she will marry him as she knows this is true love which is as rare as diamonds in the night sky.
Donna wakes at four in the morning. There is a strange man beside her, and she doesn’t know where she is. She just thinks she should be really quiet. She slips out of the door and walks in her nightdress out into the night. It’s so cold. She wishes she had her coat, but now she can’t remember where she came from. A pathway leads her onto a track, and the moon lights it for her. She keeps walking until she reaches the waters edge.
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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.
By Susan Browne © Susan Browne 2018/2019
Clara has moved to a Greek Island and lives alone. She would love to get her ex back, but she never imagined he would fall into the trap so easily.
Well, what would you do?
I find him at the side of a dirt road, dehydrated in the blistering sun, on my island. My beautiful gem in the dancing Aegean Sea, with white buildings, dotted like cakes.
Fritz left me seven years ago. I never got over him. And now here he is. Like an apparition.
He said I was much too career-driven to have time for a relationship. I was running my own business. What choice did I have? They say it gets easier, and when it became too late, it did get easier. Much easier. I get to go to a Greek island and not come back and hire more staff to sort things for as long as needed.
I’ve bought a scooter, so I can nip around and see things off the beaten track. I like being on my own. I honestly don’t have an issue with it. I’m the foreign lady in the house on the hill that is kind to cats of every sort – even raggy, flea-bitten ones. And that speaks Greek badly.
He puts out his hand, and I pull over. He wears a hat and sunglasses, but it’s him.
‘No way,’ I say.
‘Any chance of a lift? I’m out of petrol.’ That accent still does something to me. I do my best to squish it and stamp it out like I would a moth getting ready to eat my clothes. Keep it together, Clara.
‘So it seems. What happened?’
‘My bike is back there somewhere.’
He smells of sun cream, aftershave that I recognise, and, well Fritz. The human body is a miracle. We are just animals at the end of the day.
‘You can laugh if you like. I don’t care. Yes, I am an idiot.’
‘I’m not laughing. Maybe you had a leak in your tank?’
‘Or maybe I didn’t fill up for such a long ride.’
He still tans easily. Ever pretty. A Bavarian Mountain God. Six foot two, flaxen hair and glacial blue eyes. Sultry lips like his mother has just smacked him in the mouth.
The years have only improved him. He climbs on behind me.
‘Let’s keep heading for this beach down here,’ I say. ‘We can get you some water. I’m just out.’ I want to lean back into him, to turn just a little and let my lips brush across his skin, but instead, I accelerate, and the bike lurches forward.
When we get to the beach, there is a small carpark where we dismount. After a few steps, he actually passes out right there on the sand in front of me. His head just misses a great big rock.
I check his pulse and its racing. An elderly man runs up to us, completely naked, and it dawns on me that this is a nudist beach. He straddles Fritz and announces ‘it’s okay, I’m medically trained,’ and begins CPR. I pull him off, and Fritz wakes up to a pair of balls swinging past his face and me shouting at the man.
‘We are okay,’ I say to the pair of balls.
We aren’t really okay, in truth. I should ask someone to help us to stand, to get water, but I just can’t bring myself to ask naked people. There’s just something about them. I’m going to manage him myself. Past all of these bodies, we walk arms around one another for support, across to the Red Snapper Taverna.
‘Water, please. Neró parakaló.’ I help him to sit in the shade. Fritz is shivering. ‘Easy,’ I say. ‘Drink it slowly.’
‘I want to eat something. Anything,’ he tells me.
‘I have the perfect thing in my bag. Close your eyes and open your mouth,’ I find myself saying. I take out a meatball that I have had wrapped in napkins, last nights leftovers brought along for snacking on the go. It’s still good. He opens his mouth and bites into it.
‘Oh my God,’ he says. He always loved my meatballs. He licks his fingers and looks at me, and I feel self-conscious. ‘I’m better now. Cured.’
I suppress the smile. ‘So, what are you doing here?’
‘I came to see you. I heard the news.’
I flush. ‘Oh that. Nice of you. Are you with anyone?’
‘No. I was, but it’s over.’
‘You came all the way out here to see me? Because you heard I was terminal?’
‘Yes. You look great though.’ He pauses. ‘How are you?’
I take a big drink of water. ‘Fine, actually.’
‘Fine? Nobody knew where you were staying, you’re hard to find. I’ve been here for days.’
I shrug and smile.
‘And I heard you are still making these amazing meatballs.’
I punch his arm and we both laugh.
‘I have missed you.’
‘Come on. You’re certifiable.’
‘You always said that.’
‘I was always right.’
‘So, if I am, you want to run into the sea naked with me? Since we are here on a nudist beach anyway?’
‘No, I bloody well don’t,’ I say.
Ever quick, he pulls off my top faster than I can react and runs into the sea, stripping as he goes. From there he throws his shorts out onto the shore. With just my bra and skirt on, I pay for the water and walk down to the water’s edge, cautiously undressing as I go. The waiter in The Red Snapper is used to it I expect. Here goes.
Truth is, I got the all clear months ago. I could have gone and told them all and got back to work. But it’s just too good here. So I kept it under my hat. Here, I write. I swim. I cook. I explore. The business ticks over itself and I get paid. Just a few emails and the odd call. They leave me alone. I hoped beyond hope that he might want to see me. That a part of him still loved me somehow. Still cared. I have a friend back in London that knows him. I was just about to tell her the good news then she mentioned she would be meeting him. So I thought I’d leave things the way they were. I know its lousy. I can always tell her now. I didn’t think in a million years he would actually come, but here he is. Bare as the day he was born in the sparkling surf. I could always say I only just got the news now. In my inbox today. Who’d know?
About this Story: This story was written in response to a flash fiction challenge run by NYC Midnight in 2018, where I had 48 hours to write a 1000 word story.
The Prompt: Genre = Romance; Location = a dirt road; Object = a Meatball.
By Susan Browne © Susan Browne 2018
A Flash Fiction Thriller. Josh is desperate to get work, on the verge of being kicked out for not having the rent. On finally getting an interview somewhere unexpected and bizarre, he is subjected to a test he hadn’t bargained for.
This morning I woke up to the sound of a tinkling bell and Tiddles licking my face with her tiny ragged tongue. Her paws are like something out of a dolls house. Her collar is too big for her scrawny neck. Her blue eyes too big for her head.
The landlord didn’t allow pets, so I had to keep her a secret.
On checking my email, I had a reply from my most ridiculous job application I ever applied for: a freak horror show assistant. Whatever the hell that is. It was shoved into my hand in a bar a few days earlier, a handwritten note advertising a job. And then this email came:
We are interviewing this morning at 11, please reply if you can make it, and include your phone number so I can give you directions.
The place was well outside of Sligo town, behind a caravan site, through acres of bog, a breeze from the Atlantic that would skin you. I had to bring Tiddles with me and leave her in the back. Too risky leaving her in the apartment. I banged the door shut and walked down the narrow, overgrown path. I had a weird feeling that I was being followed, and I tried to shake it. I thought I heard a van door being slammed again but convinced myself that was madness.
At the entrance, I was met by Sofia. She was far from Irish, had long, white hair with a streak of blue and a short denim skirt. I tried not to stare at the tiny tattoo under her left eye of a teardrop with a skull inside it. It looked strangely familiar, which threw me. She sounded Italian. She brought me down to the interview room which was an old staff canteen. I could hear someone shuffling down the corridor away from us. It smelled like a thousand spilt powder cappuccinos and cup-a-soups in there. And some other faint, repulsive smell that I couldn’t identify. On the wall, an ancient sacred heart flame lamp flickered red. The air was freezing.
She looked at me and smiled, but it did not reach her eyes. ‘Thanks for coming. Please sit down.’ I sat across from her on a red plastic chair, accidentally standing on cutlery on the filthy floor.
‘Do you like horror, Josh?’
‘Sure.’ I actually didn’t.
‘Do you scare easily?’
‘You know, if, say we said this place is haunted and we needed you to be the caretaker for the night, alone, would you do that?’
‘Sure. I don’t scare easily.’ That’s not entirely true, but I figured I might as well roll with it. I was about to be living in my van, or worse, with my dad in Castlebar, and that was scarier than any freaks in there.
‘Okay. This is a very well-paid job, and this interview is a sort of.. test.’ She flashed a ruck-sack full of money at me. ‘We pay cash, and we pay quick, immediately at the end of each assignment. We need someone with some kind of .. grit.. you see.’
‘Really?’ I just really heard the money part and began plotting my escape from my life of despair into a life of coolness. Whatever kind of shit this is, I’ll have to do it. Me and Tiddles could live in luxury, free from huffy, eye-rolling landlords.
She turned toward an old brown microwave. ‘What if I were to tell you that something you love was in that microwave? What would you do?’
I laughed. ‘What? Like my favourite pizza?’
‘Not food. Something you care for. Personally.’
I felt hairs on the back of my neck stand up as she walked over to the old dirty microwave. I had this silly habit of making jokes when I’m nervous, so I said ‘what? Have you got my mam in there?’
‘Not your mam, she would not fit I do not think,’ she said, and grinned. Despite her pretty face, her teeth were yellow, and a little pointy, and her silver eyes widened alarmingly. ‘Meow,’ she said and rolled what looked like a cat collar bell between her fingers.
I stood up so fast I knocked the chair back.
‘Relax,’ she said, but I was already lunging towards the microwave.
Just then big strong arms yanked me back by the shoulders. I was being held tight and I could smell the sourness of sweat and feel a scratchy beard and lip stud against my ear.
‘We just need to know what you are willing to sacrifice. You see, to do this work requires a tough guy. Someone who can fulfil the assignments. Most people so far.. they don’t meet the criteria.’
I relaxed into the hold, feigning submission. ‘Do it,’ I said. ‘Switch it on,’ but as she did, I wriggled out from under the arms, stabbed a fork into the man’s leg and knocked the burco filled with boiling water flying. The microwave was on for less than a second, and Tiddles was stunned but alive. I shoved her into the bag with the money and ran. The man was yelling and hunched over in pain.
I ran through the bog to my van with Tiddles and the money which of course I should have left there. I daren’t look behind me. My lungs were screaming, and my vision was going dark and patchy. But I made it. My beat-up old van with no shocks. With very little fuel in it. At the end of an awful, old road that is overgrown in part. Potholes that you could comfortably bury a body in. The van made it.
Tiddles and I, we’ve decided to move South. The van is packed and we’re going in ten minutes. I had a few missed calls but I’ve switched the phone off and will be getting a new number. I’ve even put all the rent outstanding in an envelope, with the word thanks scribbled across it.
About this Story: This story was written in response to a flash fiction challenge run by NYC Midnight in September 2018, where I had 48 hours to write a 1000 word story.
The Prompt: Genre = Thriller, Location = an Interview; Object = a Microwave.
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