This story is by Shane Fitzpatrick and was part of our 2018 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
My knuckles are raw, despite a morning soak in a bowl of iced water. A glimpse of her image and a faint whiff of her smell drove me to smash the bathroom mirror. My self-absorption partially led to her demise.
Everything is different since Daisy passed. She was getting old, just like me.
In the end, I couldn’t prevent it, despite my strength. The slate floor echoes my every movement. Pictures removed from blank walls further resonate the hollow void.
All doors are left ajar, no need to close them anymore. I live in a place called Middle Parish, slap bang in the middle of Cork city. Half a million people live here, yet I have never felt so isolated.
I light the hearth in the front room each evening. As I cook dinner on the pan in the adjacent kitchen, I half expect her company asking what’s for tea. Now all I hear is the crackle of the tinder cracking and burning.
Trying to remove all semblances of her is difficult. Daisy has been part of my life for so long. Her smell particularly tugs hard on my heartstrings. Despite incinerating rugs, throws, towels, and stuff from her room in the old oil drum out back, her odour permeates the mortar and soul of our home on Academy Street.
I cleaned the place using bleach that made me gag, just to rid the emotional and physical stains. It reminds me of the caustic substance we used to use in the Congo to clean up bloodstains. I was an Irish Army Ranger back in my youth, serving three tours on two continents. Those days are now a distant recall but were full of good memories.
Age is a devil that catches us all. Seeing a forgotten photo on the stairs last night, with my belly full of whiskey, led to my implosion where my fist crashed into my reflection. Neighbours and friends thought it weird that Daisy had her own room, but I always replied that a lady needs her own space. Personal space is important to allow a relationship to grow.
I have never owned a TV. I listen to the radio and newspapers tell me all about community, cultural and world events. I appreciate how some others like the distraction of TV, but it’s not for me. Most of it is chewing gum for the brain anyhow. I have always found my salvation in books.
The mental and physical scarring I endured as a child meant that I craved escapism. I would read until the binders were withering between my fingers, bent over and ripping.
I grew up in an orphanage posing as a convent, ironically called Good Shepherd. The nuns and priests took perverse pleasure in telling me that I had no family and no one wanted to love me, except God. This is where I began to resent God and all his representations, no matter what form they took. Never mind the incessant senseless beating, subliminal psychological religious repetition or reminding us that we were worthless.
As it turned out, I found out over twenty years ago, not long after my fiftieth birthday, that my mother worked in an adjacent Magdalene laundry to the convent, but I never knew her. We were neighbours for eleven years, without getting a chance to meet or say hello. My mother died of cancer, aged 37.
I was fostered out to multiple families, never settling more than a year anywhere. Shifted around the city, I lived with all kinds of reprobates and yet the Church deemed them fit to accommodate a ‘troubled’ youth. If you spoke up for yourself and articulated yourself well, you were seen as troublesome. I educated myself through books and immersed myself in them.
When I was thirteen, one priest called Fr. Damien saw something in me that others didn’t. He didn’t preach or talk down to me. He was slight in stature and a good gust of wind might have lifted his feet, but he looked beyond the obvious.
He saw my hands one morning, as I dropped my satchel on the floor. One of the nuns, Sister Margaret, had raked a bamboo stick so hard across my palms that it hurt every time I closed them. Holding anything betwixt my fingers stung. She ordered the infirmary not to give me any rosehip water to make it heal. Her mantra was the church owned the books, not us. They were to be treated with respect, not us.
Fr. Damien asked me to stay after class one day, and I expected another lashing. Instead, I saw kindness in the eyes of someone who appreciated the written word as much as I. He smuggled a copy of Animal Farm into my satchel. It was illegal to own the book in Ireland at the time, but like with everything, the church had its hooks in all manner of Irish society. He didn’t reinvigorate my love for the Church, but reminded me that compassion; empathy and gentleness existed within the world; not just within books.
Daisy liked when I read aloud to her. She would sit fireside, listening with head held high. When she tired, her head would droop before falling asleep in the brown corduroy chair. At that stage, I would stop and drape a light throw across her body. I would gently kiss her head and resume reading to myself.
My walk in the early morning without Daisy isn’t the same. She was fierce fit, just like me. We would turn right out the front door and follow St Patrick’s street onto the Western road. Walking at a fair pace, we’d pass the University campus crossing the River Lee on the shaky pedestrian bridge. Then we would climb the hill, turning right onto Blarney Street. Taking a moment for Daisy to pee at Good Shepherd Convent, we would gather ourselves for the further climb up to the Cathedral.
Considering we were out walking before most had consumed their breakfast, we would nip into the private graveyard at the back of the Cathedral, through a side gate with a broken, rusted lock. Here, in a fairly simple plot with sixteen other mothers from one of the city’s’ Magdalene laundries, lay my mother Agnes Reilly.
The small walled graveyard housed mainly deceased priests, sisters, and lay missionaries. The six-foot walls were adorned with dark green ivy, apple and plum trees in each corner, with buoyant shrubbery and multi-coloured roses in between. A wooden work shed blended into the background, camouflaged by ivy and roof-high sunflowers. Starlings chirped in the cool morning air. We never had much time before eyes were upon us.
Curtains would twitch from the inside the parochial house before an angry priest in paisley pajamas would shout some pompous nonsense about respecting the dead and the flowers above them. Now that I think of it, Daisy peed more with age, particularly peeing on the flowers inside the enclosure.
We would race out of the cemetery down the hill toward MacCurtain Street. Once out of sight, we crossed the river Lee again over Collins’ bridge before cutting back onto Douglas Street. I’d have a pint and Daisy would have water in Nana’s pub knowing we’d covered five miles. Alcohol never suited Daisy’s digestion.
Two mornings ago, our morning ritual was interrupted. As we stood at my mothers’ plot, I was accosted. The same pajama priest hopped out from behind the shed, wielding a baton. He struck me across the shoulder blades and I collapsed, narrowly missing a headstone. Daisy was also caught unawares.
It didn’t take her long to protect me. She leaped up, pushing off her hind legs, gnarling teeth. She knocked the stick out of the priests’ hand, nipping him on the arm. He winced, catching Daisy and propelling her mid-air. He picked the implement up and went to attack me once more.
I lay prone, dizzy and vision blurring.
Daisy came from behind him, raking loose stone from a grave from beneath her paws.
The priest saw her in his peripheral vision and swung his baton. He caught her square in the face as she launched herself, protecting me.
She went down with a thump and a thud. I knew straight away.
Realizing his predicament, the priest started wailing as if mortally wounded, with skin barely broken. His housekeeper sounded the alarm.
I felt every last ounce of her slipping between my arms as I cradled her. In her eyes, I saw no regret, just acceptance. I had taken her in from the pound when she was just a pup. She simply fell to sleep.
Before the ambulance arrived for the priest, I saw him compound his wound further by raking his arm along the concrete. There was no way my Jack Russell dog, Daisy, did all he said.
My name is Seamas Reilly and that priest will get his comeuppance on Daisy’s behalf. I will correct that he took life without retribution.