Tuesday, March 24, 2015


This story was inspired by the photo above taken by my friend Joe Healy.

[As a follow-up to yesterday's post and requested by you faithfuls via emails and comments, here is the short listed story. Thank you kindly and feel free to critique.]

Strange how the simple regimentation of childhood fell into place once again in the declining years, the seeming spontaneity of middle life vanishing almost imperceptibly. Each day blended seamlessly into the next. Every morning at eight she had her simple breakfast of tea, toast and marmalade while reading the headlines of the Irish Examiner which seemed to slavishly follow the unwritten rule of 'if it bleeds it leads'. Accidents, drug lord battles, a drowning in Crosshaven. The bowl of mixed fruits in the middle of the table brought the only spot of colour into the kitchen, a counterpoint to the murky grey day nudging at the window. She rinsed out her dishes.

November is a wicked month, she reflected, looking out. Now who'd said that?

Ginger wheezed at her feet. A most unattractive fellow, all the colours of the dog world on him none of which were even remotely appealing. A mottled thinning wiry tufty fur: grey, dirty sand, streaky black topped by his white whiskers in a downward swoop giving him a constantly mournful expression. Fifteen. A great age for a dog but it was far too challenging to calculate it in human years like some did. Multiply a dog's age by seven? Maybe six? Or something far more complicated. She couldn't remember. And she a maths teacher back in the day.

Ginger was a witness to the last breath of her married life. A couple of years before he died, Hugh had found Ginger on St. Patrick's Street huddled up against a rubbish bin. A wee puppy. Rain slick and softly whining. He'd brought him home wrapped in his winter scarf and wanted to call him Pana after the street. Ah now, he'd said, don't be so hard Norah, a dog will get us out of the house more. And on the third ah now she'd relented. What harm? But she stood her ground on calling him Pana. Ginger, she'd said. And that was that.

And he'd stayed runty small and Hugh, God bless him, ignored the laughter-laden jibes, the 'sure what kind of rodent-rat-squirrel is it at all?' remarks that were tossed casually at his six foot self and his ugly little dog by passersby on Pana. Ginger. How euphemistic a name was that, you'd have to hunt to find the small bit of ginger fur on his belly.
Hugh had died right there on the kitchen floor while he was bent over topping up the dog dish. Ginger had a voracious appetite. They had laughed about it. Taking a peculiar pride in his enormous consumption. Hugh would joke about the subsequent output, he'd put all the Irish wolfhounds out there to shame would our boy!

Ginger whined and licked Hugh's face as he lay there, dog food scattered around him, while she dialled emergency services, stuttering into the phone, her words panicked and incomplete. For they both knew, she and Ginger, that Hugh lay forever still beneath the death that had silenced him.

Lisa and Jeff and the grandchildren came down for a week but that was all a blur. A disturbance really. Lisa had left home many years before and Hugh and herself had always visited them up in Dublin as there wasn't room in their small house in Cork for the swarm of them all. Five grandchildren including one set of twins, all within five years. All very loud.

After her cancer and hysterectomy and some very careful consideration, she and Hugh had adopted Lisa. They'd hoped for a quiet girl. And Lisa, as if she knew what was required of her, was one of those self-entertaining babies fascinated with her own fingers and toes, overjoyed with the mobile they hung over her cot, rapturous at being taken outdoors into the sunshine and best of all she slept through the night. She was barely an intrusion on their reading and listening to classical music, was entranced by their singing rehearsals for the Cork Baroque recitals and gurgled as they hosted their turn at bridge nights. Pretty too. And bright. They took a modest pride in her accomplishments, her scholarships. And then she'd met Jeff and all these children started arriving. Quickly. Unseemly they'd thought but had agreed it was truly none of their business. Three days in Dublin every Christmas, they decided, followed by one long weekend in the summer. That would keep their grand-parenting end of things up. And, of course, remembering all the birthdays and the anniversaries and putting aside modest educational funds. There, that would be their duty done without the noise of the rambunctious four boys and their even louder sister offending their delicate sensibilities.

She'd embraced the internet some years before after a few night classes. A vast encyclopedia of untapped knowledge, she'd said to Lisa, excited for the first time since Hugh had died. She missed Hugh's stimulating conversation. The vast world wide web compensated for this in a small way.

A month ago, she'd looked up the symptoms for depression. Old Doctor Harmon hadn't picked up on what was really going on with her. By now he was just seeing her and a few more of the stalwarts as he called them - patients that had been with him for the fifty years since he qualified. So he listened carefully as she read off her symptoms from a slip of paper and then handed her a small pack of anti-depressants from his samples. He wagged his finger at her in that way of his that she was used to by now but that Lisa had so much trouble with when she was a teenager.

Now Norah, he'd said, you can only take these with a bit of food, and just one three times a day mind! She'd nodded, repeating what he said as that had always pleased him.

And the three prescription renewals were no trouble either. He'd asked to see her again after the third one. She made sure she pasted a smile on her face as she walked into the surgery and remembered to keep it there even though her face ached as she left with the new prescription. Feeling marvellous, she'd assured Gerry Harmon, like a new woman!

She'd seen her mother going down the road she was headed. Second childhood they called it then. But at least children could recognize their own families. Her mother hadn't known any of them during the eight years before she died, even their simple brother Bertie who had lived with her all his life. A mother to nine strangers.

On researching Alzheimer’s on the web, she found that there were ten early warning symptoms. Not that she could remember all of them now.

She went into the hall and put on her blue quilted coat, forcing her mind back to the symptoms. Oh yes, one had to do with driving, another with forgetting to pay the bills. She'd always liked driving out to the country, especially Kinsale, usually with friends, most of them now gone or in care homes. Lovely spots for lunch there. But the confusion on the roundabout, and those coloured lights, what were they again? – traffic lights that was it - and deliberately avoiding the motorways and then getting on to them accidentally. This was all alarming enough for her to hide away the car keys in a lucid moment a few months ago and then forget where they were. Good thing too.

Ginger was sitting in front of her, staring at his leash hanging on its hook. She certainly never saw the need nor had the desire to talk to Ginger as Hugh had done. They existed within each others' lives without the clutter of language. Ginger knew the times of his twice daily feedings and his walk or reliefs, and would leave his basket by the kitchen stove and show up by the dish or the coat-rack or the backdoor without prompting and at the right times for these functions. He made no unusual demands on her nor she on him. It was a highly satisfactory arrangement.

She snapped the leash onto his collar and put on her blue hat and her red mohair scarf and her winter gloves and took her cane out of the hall stand. Ready steady go.
Not for her the stroll on Pana of Hugh's days but the scantily peopled North Mall with its nice flat footpath around the corner from the house. There were no twists and turns on their promenade and they both knew the way.

As she walked, she found herself pondering yet again on that Ten Point List. Something about forgetting to groom, using poor judgement. She'd made careful notes. Stuck them around the place. Especially about bath times and washing her clothes in the machine. One day, she'd found herself washing sheets in the bath like her grandmother would in the old copper tub at the farm. At times, alarmed, she'd had to decipher what the notes meant as once it took her many hours to figure out the word shampoo as she'd thought it had something to do with Ginger's doggy business.

Lisa hardly telephoned anymore which was all well and good. They now exchanged emails. Lisa sent current photos of her family on Sunday nights from her Iphone. Dinners, graduations, Halloween, birthdays, sports, performances. She would respond cheerfully, exclaiming over the children, all adults now, some married themselves. Unknown beings to her. She assumed their communal loudness had decreased in volume. Or maybe not, as on line she had kept herself up to date on heavy metal music and that rap nonsense that so polluted the airwaves on the radio.

Before she realized it, Ginger had turned around and they were headed back down to the corner of Marlborough Place. Close to sixty years at the one address though for the life of her she couldn't recall the number of her house if she was asked even though she'd silently repeat it to herself when she saw it on her own gate.

Mornings were the best. Afternoons were more of a challenge especially with the sun going down, for her agitation increased and then her ability to read even her own written directions to herself failed. She had let go of her beloved books, how long ago now, a year? Still aware enough then to find herself re-reading chapter one of each well thumbed tome over and over again trying to set the characters in her mind. And failing.

She carefully hung up the walking paraphernalia on the hall stand, placing Ginger's leash on its special hook and stared at it. She'd never been a sentimental woman. There was room for very little sentiment in the house she grew up in, and Hugh, bless him, had provided what sentiment there was in this house.

She took the four bottles of pills out of the kitchen cupboard and ground down two of the pills with her mortar and pestle and mixed the powder into some fresh mince meat. Ginger wasn't used to treats and devoured the snack quickly. And then she waited. It didn't take long. Wordlessly, she laid him in his bed beside the stove.

She put the remainder of the pills into the pestle and ground these. She poured some cornflakes in a bowl and sprinkled the powder all over it and poured milk on top and set it aside carefully and then went into the parlour to the computer in the corner and opened her email. She reviewed the instructions for 'delay delivery of email' and set the time for eight p.m. that evening. Then she painstakingly typed from notes she had prepared over the last few days.

Dear Lisa,
By the time you get this, I will have passed on to be with your daddy. I sense the onset of my own Alzheimer’s in more ways than I can tell you and I do not want yourself or Jeff to be burdened with my ever worsening condition. I've left all in order for you in your father's small safe. I'd like to be buried with him in St. Finbarr's.
You've been a joy and a source of pride to me Lisa and always respectful of my need for privacy and quiet. I am so very grateful that I can take care of this one small task left to me without bothering you. If you would, please have Ginger's ashes scattered on the grave. Your daddy did love him so. Goodbye. I've had a very good life.
Love, Mother.


  1. so very sad this story. ann.

  2. That's very, very good. No wonder you made the short list!

  3. I really enjoyed this! Very poignant and beautifully written. Thank you for sharing it with us.

  4. Excellent! Gripped me to the end. I could hear the Irish brogue shining through. Beautifully written.

  5. Yes, I would definitely have put you on the shortlist too.
    Spare, unsentimental, real.

  6. Yes, it's good and deserves at least the short list.

  7. I was right there with Norah as I was reading. Nicely done missus!

  8. I somehow missed this post. Congratulations on making the short list. Of course, that's a great accomplishment, and I hope you're ridiculously pleased. Critique: I will remember the way the heroine ordered her life as a way of managing the encroaching memory problems. You were doing a great job of showing us instead of telling us what was happening. She might not consider herself sentimental and she is certainly spare in her sentimentality, but you were wise to provide her with enough empathy that we could identify with her and like her. She is a well-rounded character. We could imagine ourselves in her place and could wish the best for her that way. That builds tension. Because you're so good at this, you might consider just dropping the first and maybe first two sentences entirely, sentences that tell us what to think and perhaps might mistakenly lead some readers to worry that the work will be too didactic. It's definitely not didactic. Trust your story-telling ability and your readers' intelligence. If you begin with the third sentence, we're immersed right away in the story. I like just the little bit of doubt about whether she was taking care of Ginger first so that he wouldn't be left behind or whether she was testing the efficacy of her own solution. Brava!

    By inserting the startling sentence about Hugh's death right after some innocuous details, without any buildup, you show us the disorder of her mind. Great job. However, you might consider breaking the paragraph there, forcing a slight pause on the readers so that they can absorb this and realize what's happening. Otherwise, they might just blaze through and think you, as the writer, are disorganized, until they get a little further.

    I hope this critique doesn't seem too much, but when I brought my manuscripts to critique sessions, I wanted some concrete "I like this but consider this" kinds of comments, too. I felt then that the work at least merited that kind of attention and then I had feedback. Your work does merit that kind of attention. Then, you look at these comments, of course, and keep the ones that make sense and toss the ones that show that I don't get it!

    1. Oh Linda - I missed your reply until I linked to this story on my latest post. Thank you so much for taking the time to read it and your valuable critique that I will work with.


  9. Powerful piece that is ... based on a true story? A friend of mine did a similar thing after he had been diagnosed with ALS. Sad.

    1. No all the characters came alive in my head Tom. I had written a basis for this years ago, the main character was in her fifties and runner but I couldn't get it to work. Here I think it does and it will be in an anthology coming in 2016.
      Thank you!

  10. Are you paying over $5 / pack of cigs? I'm buying my cigarettes over at Duty Free Depot and this saves me over 60% from cigarettes.


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