The Black Dog

The black dog growls

His shadow falls across me

My lips can’t move to speak

Slack-limbed I lie

Drawing painful breaths

The black dog snarls

Joy has disappeared

Love is pale, smothered,

Fear and nameless dread

Invade my shivering soul

The black dog bites

I am consumed.

An excerpt from scene 16 in We All Die in the End “PET”

When the time came I went to the bathroom and gathered up the boxes and packets of pills. I felt all right but I couldn’t breathe properly – I had to keep my mouth open. In the kitchen I emptied the whole lot into a bowl, popping them out of the tin foil – it was like shelling peas. Then I put them into the coffee grinder and switched it on. They broke up very quickly and fell to powder, much quicker than coffee beans.

            The lilies arrived and I put them into white bowls, horrible greeny waxy things. I couldn’t decide what to wear for death and then of course there was only one dress that would suit, the tight, black one, my party dress, also my funeral dress. It made my hair look darker and my face whiter. I ringed my eyes with black eye pencil, lathered on the red lipstick. Nothing subtle about that.

            The curry was just about ready and I was unwrapping garlic bread when Jack came in.

            “I’ve made chicken curry,” I said. “Isn’t that all right? Louise likes curry, doesn’t she? She can leave the garlic bread.”

            He didn’t answer, just frowned, at my darkened eyes, at the lilies, half-smiling.

            “What is all this, pet?”

            “Say my name,” I said.

            “What?”

            “Say my name. You never say my name. My name is not pet.”

            The half-smile disappeared. He smacked the newspaper against his leg and went to poke at the curry.

            “I made an effort,” I said when he wouldn’t answer.

            “And I ordered lilies – you said Louise likes them.”

            And I smiled and smiled, still trying, even then.

            “Why are you wearing that dress?”

            He was walking in and out of the dining-room, taking off his jacket and tie.

            “Do you not – ” I began.            

But he went off upstairs.

A Review: Peaches by Dylan Thomas

I first read this story many years ago and never forgot about it so recently I read it again, and again it seemed terrific. It is written from the point of view of a very young Dylan, perhaps ten years old. He is spending time with his aunt and uncle in rural Wales, and his best friend from school, Jack, is coming to visit. Jack’s people are well off and he is expected to arrive, accompanied by his mother, in a Daimler. Dylan’s aunt has been holding on to a tin of peaches for a special occasion and is now looking forward to serving them, with a dollop of cream, to Jack’s mother.

And all around this situation is built a whole world of characters:

” . . .  a thin, bald, pale old man, with his cheeks in his mouth . . . “

” . . . a sour woman with a flowered blouse and a man’s cap.”

There is not a wasted word in the story of this small boy with his fears and fancies; it draws you in, subsuming you almost, until you are living on that farm,  playing in that farmyard:

“On my haunches, eager and alone, casting an ebony shadow, with the Gorsehill jungle swarming, the violent, impossible birds and fishes leaping, hidden under four-stemmed flowers the height of horses . . . my friend Jack Williams invisibly near me, I felt all my young body like an excited animal surrounding me, the torn knees bent, the bumping heart . . . the sweat prickling in the hands, the tunnels down to the eardrums, the little balls of dirt between my toes . . . “

The young Dylan imagines his uncle:

“I could see uncle, tall and sly and red, holding the writhing pig in his two hairy hands, sinking his teeth into its thigh . . .  leaning over the wall of the sty with the pig’s legs sticking out of his mouth.”

And about his his aunt he writes:

“She went upstairs to dress like Sunday.”

In this tale the writing is the thing. It is hardly like reading at all; it’s like someone sitting beside you telling the story, the language rich and sumptuous and deep and luscious, full of adverbs and adjectives:

” . . . for his uncle to light his pipe and set the darkness on fire and show his long, red, drunken fox’s face to me, with its bristling side-brushes and wet, sensitive nose.”

It makes today’s pared-down prose appear without smell or taste or colour, and it reminds me of “A Christmas Carol”, especially the middle part, about Christmas Present. I found it very difficult to choose which quotes to include in this short commentary – every line is memorable.

A Review: The Three Fat Women of Antibes by Somerset Maugham

Does anyone read Somerset Maugham any more? I don’t think so; my own young ‘uns don’t for sure. Two of his novels are terrific – Of Human Bondage and The Razor’s Edge, both made into successful movies. But his short stories are even better, wonderfully exotic, full of heat and colour, and cocktails – a combination of narrative drive with great dialogue and characters. I should add to my series on “writers no one reads any more” and begin with him. Or Graham Greene anyone? Maurice Walsh? Do young people read War and Peace? David Copperfield?

Anyway . . .

From the opening paragraph of this story the reader is grabbed and held in fascination. Here we have our three fat ladies, three friends who have melded into a tight unit over many years, each one balancing what is missing in the other. They are kind to each other, making allowances and being supportive. Arrow was the youngest, an American twice divorced; Beatrice Richman was a widow and Frances, who was known as Frank, had never married. Maugham explores what happens when an outsider joins this group, how the dynamics are altered and distorted.

“They were great friends, Miss Hickson, Mrs Richman, and Arrow Sutcliffe. It was their fat that had brought them together and bridge that had cemented their alliance.”

The ladies are grossly overweight and every year they go to Carlsbad in Western Bohemia – the Czech Republic now – for a “cure”. They take the waters, follow the strict regime and attend the same doctor. If one of them falls behind with weight loss:

” . . . the culprit went to bed for twenty-four hours and nothing passed her lips but the doctor’s famous vegetable soup which tasted like hot water in which a cabbage had been well rinsed.”

And every year they return, fatter still. This year, Frank decides that they should take a house in Antibes to continue the “cure” on their own for a month or two and Arrow and Beatrice happily agree. They would have their own cook who would continue to feed them boiled eggs and raw tomatoes. But there was one problem – where would they find a fourth for bridge?

“They were fierce, enthusiastic players . . .  they had long arguments over the rival systems. They bombarded one another with Culbertson and Sims.”

However, it so happened that a cousin of Frank’s was newly widowed and making her way to the Riviera. Frank invited Lena Thorne to join them.  She was a bridge player so they would be independent of outsiders and able to continue with their restricted diet.

Lena arrives. Lena is not fat. They sit down to dinner the first evening and Lena immediately asks for a cocktail. Frank, aware of her friends sensibilities says:

“We find alcohol isn’t very good in all this heat.”

But Lena says the heat doesn’t affect her and when dinner arrives – a poached sole, all  alone on a plate – she asks for, and receives, potatoes with plenty of butter. But worse was to follow – Lena asks for fresh bread.

“The grossest indecency would not have fallen on the ears of those three women  with such a shock. Not one of them had eaten bread for ten years.”

And when Beatrice intimates that she will get fat Lena laughs and says that nothing ever makes her fat and she can eat whatever she likes without worry.

“The stony silence that followed this speech was only broken by the entrance of the butler.”

And then of course, Lena was a terrific bridge player, playing with glorious abandon and imagination, ignoring systems and rules. The friends begin to bicker, accusing each other of being vulgar, of sneaking food, and of never losing any weight. Tears and recriminations, but they make up and hug each other and decide that Lena, being a new widow, should have whatever she liked to eat.

“But human nature is weak.”

Beatrice grew “limp and forlorn”; Arrow’s “tender blue eyes acquired a steely glint”, and Frank’s voice “grew raucous.”.

Lena guzzled macaroni and cheese and paté de fois gras with peas swimming in cream; she drank burgundy and champagne. The bridge sessions became bitter and silent, often ending in tears.

“They began to hate one another.”

But Lena’s stay in Antibes came to an end and Lena went on her way, claiming she had had a wonderful holiday. Frank left her to the train, holding herself together, remaining polite until she waved goodbye. But on the way home:

“‘Ouf!” she roared at intervals. “Ouf!'”

Beatrice was the first to give in. Frank found her in a restaurant eating croissants with jam and butter; a jug of cream stood by the coffee pot. Frank hesitated, but only for a second before sinking into a chair. And then Arrow came along. She pretended horror and disgust before seizing a chair herself and calling for the waiter. Course followed course:

“They ate with solemn, ecstatic fervour.”

And Frank said:

“You can say what you like, but the truth is she played a damned rotten game of bridge, really.”

From “Man and Wife”

Jim coughed again, a hard, tight bark from the top of his chest. His head jerked forward when Connie’s big hand landed on his back and he gulped for breath, waving her hand away. Connie grinned and hit him again anyway. His chest hurt; his eyes watered and tears sat in the long creases in his cheeks.

            The beer tasted sweet going down and he took a long suck, wondering if Connie would let him have another one. He looked at her glass and measured the last of her pint. Connie gave him one of her half-smiles and he knew she knew he wanted another drink. He set down his glass as if he didn’t care and glanced with pretended interest around the bar.

            The usual trio sat on stools, their heads together, Eugene Curran and the Brothers Grimm, and Jim thought that if Connie wasn’t with him he might walk over and say hello, what are you having boys? He tried to imagine that . . . they would talk to him about sport and ask his opinion.

            A shout from the corner drew his attention. He thought there was a fight starting but it was only a crowd of young fellows, a whole gang of them, shouting and laughing, and pushing and shoving at a slight, fair-haired one in the middle. He looked like he couldn’t stand up for himself and Jim’s heart beat sore for him.

            “Birthday party,” Connie said in his ear.

            Jim looked again and saw the huge gold key on the table. The fair-haired boy wasn`t being bullied; his friends were teasing him and Jim could see that he was full of drink. The hair was stuck to his head and his face bloomed in the dark corner.

            “That boy’s not twenty-one.”

            “Eighteen.”

            “You have to be twenty-one to get the key.”

            “No you don’t. That was years ago, it’s eighteen now. You know nothing.”

            “He’s not old enough. Look at him.”

            “Time!” Charlie roared, rattling a spoon against a glass.  “Come on now.”

            Barney Madden started picking up glasses. He’d lift it from under your nose, finished or not. Jim held his on his knee. 

            The crowd in the corner stood up and pulled the birthday boy to his feet, shouting at him to make a speech and he began to talk, leaning on the back of a chair. He seemed to be nearly crying and he shook everybody’s hand over and over.

            The trio at the bar pocketed their change and went out, leaving the doors to swing behind them, letting in great gusts of cold air.

            “Come on now, Connie,” Barney said. “Get that into you. Jim, can you do nothing with that wife of yours? Take her away home to bed.”

            He laughed when he said that and clattered glasses onto the counter.

            One by one the young men got up. With the fair one in the middle carrying the huge gold key they pushed through the swing doors and then they were gone.

            “Now, Barney,” Connie said, and handed over her glass.

            Jim nodded and said goodnight and waited for Connie to button up her new brown duffle-coat. It is a man’s coat, he thought again, looking at the long sleeves of it and the breadth across the shoulders. Whatever she says, it is a man’s coat. I’ll say it to her later, get her going. His own grey tweed was threadbare but he was attached to it. Connie wouldn’t let him have a new one anyway. She belted the door open and Jim ducked as it swung towards his face. Barney winked at him and locked the door behind them. They wriggled deeper into their coats, turning their faces from the wind, and then Jim pointed:

            “Oh, look!”

            The fair-haired boy was crouching at the corner, his arms hugged over his thin chest, and him bare as a baby. He turned when Jim and Connie came out and moved towards them with his knees close together.

            “The b-b-b-bastards left me.”

            He sniffed hugely and wiped his face.

            “I thought they were going to throw me in the sea! I’m fuckin’ freezin’ . . . give us a jacket for God’s sake, will you?”

            Jim looked at Connie. She was laughing, her eyes going up and down the pale, shivering figure.

            “Is it your birthday?” she asked. “Where did they go, your friends? God you’re a hoot, isn’t he Jim?”

            “I’ll get my fuckin’ death out of this, an’ me ma’ll be waiting and I’ve no phone.”

            The boy’s voice went up and up.

            “Oh Jesus God I’ll kill the poxy bastards. Give us something to put on for fuck sake!”

            He began to dance around like a boxer, swinging his arms, and then he remembered to cover himself. Connie turned to Jim and he backed away from her, shaking his head. His chest hurt in the cold air and he coughed. She can’t make me, he thought. I’m not going to. For a moment the three of them stood there, until bolts were shot in the door behind them.

            “Quick,” Connie said. “Charlie’s still around, cleaning and that. Go on, knock the door.”

            And then she turned and knocked it herself.

            “What’s your name, boy?” she said.

            “Frank.”

            “Frankie Pankie,” Connie laughed. “Isn’t that right, Jim? Frankie Pankie! God, he’s a hoot . . . Charlie!” she roared, banging on the door.   

            “There’s a bare-assed bird out here. Let him in. Come on, we know you’re there, we know you’re not gone yet.”

            There was no sound from behind the door and then the lights went out. The wind rose with a cruel nip; the sea rolled black and oily beyond the wall and the first drops of rain were blown over Frank. He ran against the stout door of the pub and shouted for somebody to fucking well open up, and then he ran up and down the street listening for a car, for his friends to come back. Connie watched him and Jim stood well behind her, his coat clutched tight.

            “Poxy bastards! Frank screamed into the wind.

            “Make your man let me in,” he said to Jim and Connie. “Yous know him better than me. He must have heard us knocking – they’ll have put him up to it, the fuckers. How am I to get home? Lend us the taxi-fare will yous?”

            Jim felt the rain on the back of his neck and turned up his collar. Poor bugger, he thought. He looked at the boy’s thin legs, white as milk in the dark night, and his arms like strings wrapped around his chest. Jim was cold himself; he wanted to go home to his quiet bed and lie against the warm bulk of Connie’s back.

            And then he saw Connie taking off her own coat and his breath puffed out in a snigger. What was she at now? She threw it around Frank’s shoulders and he seemed to sink under it, bending his knees, trying to get his feet into it too.

            “Come on now.” Connie marched him quickly away.

            “You come home with us, boy. We’ll mind you, won’t we, Jim? Sure you’re only a little chicken. Are you sure you’re eighteen?”

            She belted Jim’s ear and he staggered.

“Some husband you are,” she said.

From “We All Die in the end” – Now with three 5 star reviews on Goodreads

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“Loose Threads” from The Red Petticoat

Two loose threads in the sheet

Separate and come together again

Like lovers in the wind of her breath

She makes a story for them

And they bend and dance and spin

At her command

But she must bend and dance herself

To a rhythm not her own

Blown by the stormy breath of others

The lovers are cast aside

Their story slides away

As she is born again

From the warm sheets

Sans mental teeth anyway.

A Review of “A Friendship” by William Trevor from the “After Rain” collection

William Trevor often makes me laugh. There are situations in his novel, “The Old Boys” that I remember at odd times and that make me laugh out loud no matter where I am. And this story does the same, but only at the beginning. It’s a thing that William Trevor does – you think the story is about one thing but it turns into something else entirely. The friendship in question is between Francesca, married to pompous Philip and with two sons, and Margy who livens up Francesca’s life with tales of her various love affairs. The two have been friends since childhood but have very little in common. As Trevor says:

“Their common ground was the friendship itself.”

Francesca seems an ethereal creature, tall and blonde, hardly aware of her surroundings, or of what her boys are up to. Margy, however, sees everything, She is small, dark, quick, with a touch of spite, especially where Francesca’s husband is concerned. And this spite is what eventually wrecks the friendship. Philip doesn’t help  himself however; he is known as “bad news” in their dinner circle:

” . . . he displayed little interest in the small-talk that was, increasingly desperately, levelled at him . . . he was not ill at ease; others laboured, never he.”

Margy, on the pretense that it was time she thought about settling down, proposes that they contact their old college friend, Sebastian. But Sebastian had always fancied Francesca, and shortly after they all meet up for lunch, he and Francesca begin an affair. Margy facilitates this by lending them her apartment from time to time.  Philip finds out by accident, a slip in conversation:

“Oh heavens, I’ve said the wrong thing!”

Philip pretends that he and Francesca often meet up with Sebastian. He confronts Francesca, who is contrite and says it wasn’t much. They have a row, clear the air, and decide to continue as before, with one difference:

“‘Drop me?’, Margy said, and Francesca nodded . . . ‘It’s how Philip feels.'”

“On the pavement . . . they stood for a moment in a chill November wind, then moved away in their two different directions.”

This is the body of the story, but it begins with Francesca’s two sons, aged six and eight, pouring wet cement into their father’s new golf bag, complete with new clubs. Even thinking about this makes me laugh. Trevor writes it down in such a matter of fact way, without as much as an exclamation mark.

“Sharing the handle of the bucket, they found they could manage to convey their load . . . they had practised; they knew what they were doing.”

“‘We know nothing about it,’ Jason instructed his brother. ‘Nothing about it,’ Ben obediently repeated.”

Francesca is oblivious; Margy sees it straight away but says nothing and the four sit down to lunch. Ben decides to break the monotonous silence and mentions his teacher:

“‘Miss Martindale’s mother died . . . a man interfered with her.'”

His mother is shocked but Margy is amused.

“Ben said all the girls had cried, that Miss Martindale herself had cried, that her face was creased and funny because actually she’d been crying all night. Margy watched Jason worrying in case his brother went too far.”

And that’s all there is about the boys, except for a sentence to say that when tackled by their angry father they said it was just a joke. But for me, they make the story memorable. I loved the pair of them. Very often children are interesting and exciting and you wonder what will become of them. But generally very little does; they grow up and stop pouring cement into new golf bags.

The writing, as always, is delicious.

Thelma

“I wonder if I should wash . . . Thelma, do you think I should have a wash?”

            Thelma dithered beside the bed, moving from one wee foot to the other, waiting to heave Thomas to his feet. The top of his pyjamas hung open and his belly bulged over the bottoms. There was a line of sweat where the bulge began and another across the back of his neck when he bent to look at his feet.

            “Whatever you like, dear. The water’s hot.”

            “Well, I will then. I’ll have a nice wash and you can change the bed. I’m a bit sticky. One of the boys spilled beer . . .   “

            Thomas waved a hand near his pillow and then clutched Thelma’s arm. She braced herself and waited while he moved his heavy legs to the floor.

            “Up we go,” she said. “Upsy daisy.”

            Slowly, Thomas pushed his feet into his summer gutties and hauled himself up along Thelma’s, thin shoulder. She glanced at his jacket hung over the chair, pockets sagging a bit with change, good! Thomas’ hand was tight on her wrist and she fixed her eyes on the plump, pink fingers. She would prick him like a sausage . . . prick, prick, prick, all over, and his pink skin would burst open with wee pops and the yellow fat would ooze out, relieved and grateful.

            “I’ll have a piss first,” Thomas said.

            “Yes, and have a shower,” Thelma said. “You’ll feel the better of it.”            

Thomas nodded and shut the bathroom door. Thelma could hear him coughing, and then he was pissing and spitting and farting and coughing all at once – the whole bloody orchestra, as he said himself.

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FREE! One Scene . . . and a taster!

From “We All Die in the End”.

Scene I3: May

There was still thunder in the sky but it was far off now and the rain had stopped. The smell of the earth was strong and Henry breathed it in deeply, liking it. He didn’t mind graveyards; it was nice smoking in the dark with no one around. Not for long though – they’d be coming out soon. He might have stayed at home and let her walk. She’d think there was something wrong with him, coming to get her but he had to think ahead. If she had to walk up the shore road in the storm she’d be whinging and complaining; salt spray on her good coat, boo, hoo, hoo, and Henry wanted his dinner early. Was he to be left waiting just because May wanted to trot along to the church with all the other craw-thumpers? Twice a week she went, and money every time.

            Henry leaned in close to the grey wall of the church and listened to the singing. He could pick out the odd word – father, soul, heaven. He moved away, back among the graves. He didn’t want to be seen when the fools came out and he could hear shuffling now; the singing had come to an end.

            A sudden burst of light shone from the main door and people began to come out slowly, talking and stopping and starting. A group of women stood near the porch looking at the sky to see would it rain again and Henry squinted, trying to pick out May’s green coat. He felt a spit of rain and wondered if he could get to the car without being seen.

            “Godallmighty! Is that you, Henry Toal?”

            He heard a laugh behind him.

            “I thought you weren’t the praying type. I thought you’d go up in a ball of smoke if you were anywhere near the church!”

            “Very funny, Barney, very funny. Did you see May about? Is she saying extra prayers or what?”

            “Couldn’t say, I wasn’t in there myself, just taking the short cut. Will you be over for a pint later?”

            “Aye, after my dinner.”

            “See you so. Say one for me while you’re at it!”

            Jesus! Henry spat his cigarette to the ground when Barney had gone. He’d be the talk of the pub now. That gobshite would be saying all sorts, he’d make a production of it – Henry in among the graves, saying prayers! And where the bloody hell was May anyway? Leaving him like an eejit to be seen by the whole congregation! He stared up and down the street and turned back to the churchyard but it was empty. He took out his phone and rang her but only got the message minder.

            “For fuck sake!”

            He looked at his watch and stood helpless for a minute. Where could the woman be? Well, he’d soon see what she had to say for herself, and if she said nothing, a few belts would loosen her tongue.

            Henry drove home to a dark, lightless house. He turned up the heat and went into the kitchen; the kettle was stone cold. He lit a cigarette and thought about filling it but it wasn’t for him to do it. His stomach roared with hunger as he paced the room. What was May at? She must have lied, and she’d got money off him too.

            Henry stopped pacing. Maybe . . . maybe she had done this before. How would he know? Money for the collection! By God, he thought, I’ll give her a collection. She’ll be fucking well collected when I’m finished with her. He began to relish the thought of smacking her good and hard. It was months since he’d hit her; she’d be getting careless; time to sort her out again. She always cried and said she was sorry afterwards. She’d be sorry all right, sore and sorry. Henry closed his fists slowly, watching the muscles jump, but he’d wait till he’d had his dinner.

            He put out his cigarette and lit another and then he heard May’s step and the swing of the gate. The key was in the door and there she was, pulling off the green coat and patting her hair the way she did. She moved quickly, hardly looking at him, and there was a half-smile on her face. Henry felt his fists curl.

            “I suppose you’re starving.”

            May went into the kitchen.

            She felt the kettle and threw Henry a look over her shoulder.

            “Wouldn’t kill you to put it on, you know. You could have had a cup of tea anyway.”

            She laughed a giddy laugh.

            “Do you have to stand there staring, Henry?”

            Potatoes thick with dirt thudded into the sink. The smell reminded Henry of the graveyard and himself standing there, waiting. And laugh, would she? He moved nearer. Who told her she could laugh like that? She was making it very hard for him to wait. Liar! Well, he had her now all right. His eyes began to water. Don’t hit her yet, he told himself. But he couldn’t help it – he pushed her shoulder and she staggered. He saw fright jump into her face. Oh, he’d fix her! He stood over her with his arm raised and she hunched away from him.

            “What’s wrong with you? You leave me alone.”

            She straightened up and threw half-washed potatoes into a saucepan. Defy him, would she! Henry poked her between the shoulders.

            “Tell me more,” he said, “about the holy church and the holy priests and all the holy people.”

            He went round the kitchen after her, turning to meet her, trying to stand in front of her when she put the steaks in the frying pan.

            “I like to know where my money’s going,” he said. “All those collections.”

            “It was just the same as usual, Henry, that priest that’s visiting, Monroe, he’s called. Isn’t that gas? Do you think he’s related to Marilyn? He gave the sermon, better than the usual oul stuff, love your neighbour and all that. There’s nothing to tell, Henry, not a thing, unless you want to know what the neighbours were wearing.”

            Oh, but she had plenty to say for herself, lickity spit, lickity spit, galloping on. Henry slapped her hard; he felt the sting on his palm and she stumbled, reaching out a hand to the sink.

            “By God!” Henry caught her by the arm.

            “I’m going to find out what you’re doing with my money.”

            He shook her until the permed curls hopped and jumped and tears splashed from her eyes. Behind them the potatoes boiled up and water hissed on the ring. Henry’s fingers bit deep.

            “I went to the church, May. What do you say to that? I went to say a prayer alongside my wife, but my wife wasn’t there. And I phoned my wife but I got no answer. What’s up with you now? Speak up, woman! You had plenty to say a minute ago.”

            He grabbed the wiry curls.

            “Ah, don`t. Ah, don`t!” May cried out.

            “I went there in the storm,” he said into her ear, “to bring you home so you could make my dinner and not be whinging about getting wet.”

            Henry could feel the heat in his chest burning hotter and hotter. He forced May to her knees, still with his fist in her hair and he never even saw her arm swing up with the saucepan. It cracked against his head and he swayed there with his arms loose.

            “Jesus . . .  ” he said.

            When the second blow landed he fell against the table and slid onto a chair. He stared with dopey eyes at May. She’d gone mad, was all he could think.

            “Now! Now! Now! Now!” she said. “I’ll tell you where I’ve been if you want to know, not that I could go far on the bit of money you dole out to me.”

            She laughed suddenly.

            “And did you wait there long? I can just see you lurking around and squinting up your oul face. Well, I was in Dinnie’s, Henry. Me and your Irene, yes, your sister – we go to talks in the ladies’ club, and after that we go to the pub, and after that we get fish and chips and go down to the harbour, and we sit on the wall and eat them. So now you know what the collection’s for. It’s for me! But you can stuff it up your arse in future because I’m going back to the Civil Service and I won’t need your oul money. The girls are gone now and I don’t have to be here all the time to cook you steak for your dinner and wash your dirty clothes.”

            Henry didn’t move. He sat there with his fingers twitching and blood coming from his head. He couldn’t take in what May was saying.

            “You bloody men,” she said, “with your big swinging fists. We’ve been learning things, me and Irene. Did you know that men have to invent things so they can think they’re grown up? Rituals Henry, rituals. But not us, Henry. We’ve got periods!”

            May shouted the word at him.

            “And having babies, and yous have nothing! Did you know that? All over the world men invent things. They cut their faces and their willies and God knows what else to draw blood.”

            Henry half-lifted a hand against the spit from her mouth.

            “If men had periods,” May took a quick breath, “all the oul fellas would be running around the place with bloody sheets – my son is a man, my son is a man – but yous have nothing.”

            Henry tried to sit up straight, to get his head right. May was smiling fiercely at him. She swung up the pan again and he flinched.

            “Now I’m going round to Irene’s,” she said, “for a cup of tea, or a drink if she has any for I think I need it. You can put up your own dinner, and by Christ, you big gormless shite, you, if you ever touch me again, you’re dead.”

            When the door banged behind her Henry put his hands to the table and pushed himself up. He groped his way to the sink and washed his head with shaky fingers.

            “Jesus, God! Jesus, God!”

            How could May talk like that to her own husband – about things – she’d no right to talk like that. What sort of a woman was she? He turned off the cooker and lifted the steak onto a plate, and then he drained the potatoes and heeled them out. He tried to eat but when he chewed the cut on his head opened again and he felt a trickle on his face. He lit a cigarette and watched blood drip slowly onto his dinner.

Scene I4: Thelma

“I wonder if I should wash . . . Thelma, do you think I should have a wash?”

            Thelma dithered beside the bed, moving from one wee foot to the other, waiting to heave Thomas to his feet. The top of his pyjamas hung open and his belly bulged over the bottoms. There was a line of sweat where the bulge began and another across the back of his neck when he bent to look at his feet.

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“Wee Sadie” an excerpt from – We All Die in the End

Sadie checked the plates, shifting bits of cheese and cherry tomatoes. She ate a crust of the bread and put the kettle on and then she stood with her ear to the door.

            “It’s a grand, wee flat above the shop,” George was saying.

            Sadie squeezed her eyes shut and held her breath. Madge was asking how many rooms there were. The kettle hissed behind her and she turned down the gas to hear better.

            “And I’d expect a bit of meat, you know, and maybe a drive on a Sunday. You can have that oul car, parked out there, teach Sadie to drive it.”

            Sadie raised the gas again. Her hands trembled as she filled the teapot. Calm, she told herself, be calm. But the tray shook when she took in the tea and she couldn’t look at either one of them. The knives and forks clattered and the teaspoons rattled and Sadie couldn’t swallow.

            “Have some more bread,” Madge said. “Fill the man’s cup there, Sadie. More cake, George?”

            George ate everything he was offered and kept saying everything was lovely and when the last cup of tea had been drained he asked Sadie to come and look at the flat above the shop with him.

            “Ah no, George,” she said, and backed towards the kitchen. “There’s too much to do – “

            “Go on,” Madge said. “Off you go. Can’t I tidy up? I’m not helpless, am I? Us old people are useful too, isn’t that right, George?”

            George agreed with her and offered Sadie his arm. She went with him although she knew the dishes would be sitting waiting for her when she came home and Madge would have had another couple of gins and she`d still have to make her a fry too.

            George put the key in the hall door beside the shop and stood back to let Sadie in first.

            “It’s up the stairs,” he said.

            There was a strange smell, the smell of somebody else’s house. Sadie held the banister and then let go of its stickiness. It would take her a month to clean the place, she thought. She stood in the middle of the living-room and looked at the fawn-coloured floor and the fawn-coloured chairs and walls and the photographs of George’s family.

            “Will you sit down, Sadie,” George asked.

            Sadie looked at the couch before she sat on it and George sat down close beside her.

            “Could you live here, Sadie? With me? What do you say? Will we set a date?”

            Sadie couldn’t speak. She hardly knew how she had got herself into this position. She remembered the first night when George had asked her to go for a walk, and after that it had seemed impossible to stop. And she didn’t want to stop really . . . only . . .

            She clasped her hands together and nodded once. And then George leaned over and kissed her hard and his hand clamped onto her leg. Sadie let out a squeak and got up, pretending to look  at the photographs. George laughed and slapped his two knees.

            “You’re the very best,” he said, “you’re a great, wee girl. Look around, Sadie. You can do what you like with the place, make whatever changes you like. I`ve done a lot of work already, replaced all the tiling myself, so I did.”

            He got up and led the way to the white bathroom. Sadie stood inside the door and looked at the new electric shower. There was a smell of plaster. George patted everything, the bath, the shiny taps, the cistern, the shelf beneath the mirror.

            Sadie put a hand to her forehead. Impossible to think of being here with him, to stand here in her nightdress and clean her teeth and George in his pyjamas – waiting for her to get into the bed – no! no! She wanted to go home, to tell George she had changed her mind, but he had his arm around her, squeezing her shoulder, saying he’d look after her, and her mother.

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