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Authors: Christine Dwyer Hickey

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BOOK: The Lives of Women
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She called me about six weeks after I arrived in New York: our first conversation since I'd left here. The last time I'd seen her she'd been shoving me into a taxi cab in the middle of the night, Patty beside me, her mother, Serena, up front. Patty and I bawling our brains out. My mother's face pale in the dim light of the cab's interior, not crying – not that, but with a tear in each eye like two silver studs. ‘It's for your own good,' she said. ‘You'll see that in time.'

She nearly had to break my fingers to unclamp them from her arm.

A glimpse that has stayed in my mind to this day: my mother, head lowered, arms ledged under her weighty bosom, crossing the road in a pair of slippers, the budge of her rounded backside like a horse's in the tight skirt of her very best suit which she'd worn to the meeting earlier that day and not yet taken off. And the light in the window of our sitting room, where only a moment before my father had been standing, now switched off.

He may have been still standing there in the dark. He may have grown bored already and gone up to bed.

When I'd turned back into the car, there was Serena kneeling up on the seat, arms stretched over the back of it, holding Patty by both hands. ‘Oh, sweetie, don't cry. Mom is here with you. It's all gonna be fine. Everything's gonna be… Oh, sweetie.'

Then she settled back down into the passenger seat, face turned to the window. ‘How could it have come to this?' she asked her black glassed shadow. ‘How could such a thing even happen?'

 

But my mother's first phone call – it was still a big ordeal back then, involving operators, and time checks, and worry about the second by second cost of it all. She must have said hello first. She must have at least asked how I was. But no matter how many times I went over it later – and even now when I replay it in my head – her first words remain: ‘We have a dog now.'

‘A what?'

‘A dog. We have him nearly a month. You know, I think I'm going to have to get a kennel built out in the garden for him – he's small enough now but apparently they can grow to a size that—'

‘Is that why you phoned me? To tell me about your dog?'

‘No. No, of course not. I'm just saying.'

‘It's weeks since I left – I haven't heard a word from you. How could you not even—'

‘I knew you were all right.'

‘How?
How
could you know?'

‘Serena told me.'

‘Serena? You spoke to Serena? When?'

‘When we were making arrangements to send money.'

‘Money? What money?'

‘Well you don't think she's keeping you for nothing, do you? Anyway, I brought him to the vet today for his vaccination. He's a right handful, I don't mind telling you.'

‘Is that all you can talk about – your bloody dog?'

‘Please don't raise your voice to me.'

‘Aren't you going to say anything about what happened? Aren't you going to tell me how—?'

‘Everything is fine here.'

‘Well, what about—?'

‘That's all you need to know. There's no need to discuss anything. It's all in the past now. It's all sorted.'

‘Can't you just tell me at least—?'

‘I'm telling you, everything is all right. Don't ask me about anyone. I don't want to hear mention of anyone's name. And if you keep asking I'm hanging up the phone.'

‘I only, I only—'

‘I mean it! If you don't stop, I'm hanging
up
. Actually, I'm hanging up anyway because I've just about had enough of—'

‘No, no, no, wait. Please, I didn't mean. Wait. I just want to ask. About. About the dog. I want to ask about the dog.'

‘The dog?'

‘Yes. What sort of a dog is it?'

‘Oh. Well, it's a – what do you call it? – German shepherd. A German shepherd, that's right.'

‘Do you mean like an Alsatian?'

‘I suppose. A pup, you know – into everything of course, driving me up the… I don't mind telling you. He's made mincemeat out of my good shoes. Worse than a— Worse than a— Well, you know.'

‘Yes.'

‘What? What? I can't hear you now.'

‘I said yessss.
Yessss
.'

‘Anyway, I suppose I better be… I'll give you a ring again.'

‘What do you mean –
again
?'

‘Another time.'

‘No wait! Hold on…'

‘What? I have to go. I really have to go now.'

‘What – what did you name him?'

‘Who?'

‘The dog. Yes, what's his name?'

‘Oh. He doesn't really have one.'

‘How do you call him then?'

‘I whistle. Sometimes I click my tongue.'

 

The dog was to replace me. Something to feed, clean up after, do duty by,
endure
. And it didn't even have a name. On the few occasions she called after that, she talked about ‘the dog'. After that dog died, she talked about another nameless one. And a few years later, that time she came to meet me in Paris, she said, ‘When this one dies, I don't think I'll bother with another one.' But she did get another – she must have done – because in a later conversation there was yet another Alsatian pup chewing up her shoes.

There's a photograph of a young Alsatian on my father's piano
but I don't know which one it is. It was taken on the lawn out in the back garden on the far side of the shed where the rose-beds begin. The dog's head is raised; it has a thick healthy coat, a waggedy tongue, hard, bright amber eyes. It looks like a poster for a Hollywood dog.

Not this dog, though, not this old soldier beside me. The markings are different for a start; so is the expression in the eyes. The present incumbent has much softer eyes: eyes like melting caramels. Or maybe that's just the cataracts.

I wonder if it's too late to give him a name. I could call him Boy. I often call him Boy anyway. ‘Here, Boy' or ‘Down, Boy'.

I think he deserves that much – a name, even something as stupid as Boy.

‘Come on, Boy,' I say. ‘Come on, you can do it.'

 

I can feel the weight of him on the end of the lead as I pull him along, the vibration of his legs, as if the bones inside them are beginning to dissolve. We are almost at the dip in Arlows' wall; I pull him along until we are beside it. Then I sit into it and let him rest for a while. It was here Maggie used to perch in the evening to smoke a cigarette, after she was done working in the stable yard, thrilling us with her outrageous talk and feeding us French fags that she bought by the carton.

‘Now, girls, you should know this – a man will say anything to get his way.'

Or, ‘Never mistake the pleading eye and trembling limb for love – that's just the erection talking.'

And once when Agatha was going on about older men being more romantic: ‘Romance! Don't make me laugh. Take a look at the women around here – where did romance ever get them? Into a twelve-by-twenty kitchen is where, hoping for head-pats and hand-outs from their lords and masters.'

 

Across the road, a pair of school uniforms trundle past, two cherry noses sticking out from gabardine hoods. The afternoon must be getting on. I feel the cold air cling to my face like a cellophane wrapper.

‘Poor Boy,' I say. ‘Poor old Boy. Better get you home before you catch a chill.'

We leave Maggie's perch and cross over the main road, then turn the corner onto the straight. Only one house to go before home – I point this fact out to encourage him. ‘Look, nearly there now. Only one house, then ours. A few more steps, that's all, that's all.'

But he's dragging his paws. Just before the gate he digs them in completely, twisting his head backwards as if he's trying to get away. I'm worried that maybe his hind legs have finally given up: it's the first question the vet always asks, and I know it will be the last one. ‘How are the old hind legs doing?'

I consider attempting to lift him into the house or at least calling Lynette to help lift him in. But then I see what he has already sensed – a figure at the door.

This dog is mute. The vet has told me that some five years ago his bark completely disappeared. Apart from the occasional plaintive howl at a distant ambulance, or maybe a bit of half-hearted
whimpering when his teeth are giving him pain, this dog has nothing to say for himself. He's deaf in one ear. He views the world through the holes in his cataracts. He'd prefer a bar of chocolate to a meaty bone. And now, to top it all off, he's become afraid of strangers.

‘Some bloody Alsatian you are,' I say to him, and drag him whimpering through the gate.

 

The figure – familiar and yet not – is standing with her back to us. At first I think she's her mother – the rounded shoulders, the stiff little hairdo, even the way the coat hangs off-kilter. It's on the tip of my tongue to say, Mrs Caudwell? But of course it's not Miriam Caudwell. It's her daughter, Brenda. Jesus. A middle-aged Brendie Caudwell.

We stand looking at each other and then do that skittery laugh that people who haven't seen each other in years tend to do. We become minstrels: goggling our eyes, widening our mouths and lifting our hands in amazement.

I forget sometimes that I'm nearly fifty. I forget that while I'm trying not to look appalled at the state of Brendie Caudwell, bloodless and beige and slightly humped on my doorstep, Brenda is trying not to gawp at the state of me – bedraggled and scrawny or how -ever the hell I must look – dragging a geriatric Alsatian behind me.

When we finish laughing, we tell each other how little each other has changed, and a few more lies besides. Then, because I feel I ought to, I ask her into the house. She looks freezing: beneath the mask of brown make-up lies a face that is brindled with cold.

‘Have you been waiting long?' I ask. ‘Why didn't you ring the bell?'

‘I gave the door a little knock but didn't like to disturb your dad – I know he's not been well…'

‘Oh, he is well. Very well. He's in a wheelchair, that's all.'

I push a cement block out of the way with my toe and reach down for the key.

‘Well, I didn't want to drag him out to the door, you know.'

‘His nurse would have answered if you rang the bell.'

‘His nurse?'

‘Yes. She's with him now.'

‘A full-time nurse?'

‘A couple of hours a day.'

‘Oh. Oh, that's great now – isn't it? And people always complaining about how dreadful the health service is.'

I recognise her mother in there, the same old begrudging glimmer in the watery eye. I stick the key in the lock and look at her.

‘He pays for it himself. She's a private nurse.'

The glimmer remains – the fact that he can afford to pay for his own nurse is not helping Brendie at all.

‘Oh right,' she says, ‘but you know now, you could probably qualify for the carer's allowance, Elaine. It's a government thing, you see, and then you wouldn't have to—'

‘I don't want the carer's allowance.'

‘Yes, well, I'm just saying…'

‘I'm not his carer.'

*

I unhook the dog and we follow him into the kitchen.

‘I was so sorry about your mother,' she says, laying a hand lightly on her breast.

‘Thank you.'

‘And how are you now?'

‘Me? Oh you know…'

‘You need to give yourself a bit of time, Elaine. It hasn't been long.'

‘No.'

‘I was at the funeral…'

‘Thank you.'

‘Oh no, of course I'd be there. Of
course
. You didn't make it back yourself, Elaine?'

‘No. No, unfortunately. I tried but… Well, the way things worked out, I just missed it.'

‘That must have been terrible for you.'

‘Yes.'

I pour water into the dog's bowl and lower it to him, his tongue hooking up to it even before the bowl reaches the ground.

‘And how is your father taking it?' she asks. ‘It must be tough losing someone after all those years.'

I can't think of anything to say and so just keep nodding my head, slowly.

‘I've been meaning to call round. But I wasn't sure if – well, you know…?'

‘And and… what about your lot, Brenda, how are they all doing, huh?'

‘My kids you mean?'

‘You have kids? Great. You married then? You always said you wouldn't.'

‘Yeah, should have listened to Maggie Arlow. Anyway I bloody didn't. Sorry, we separated a while ago. I'm still a bit – you know –
raw
. The kids are with me. Well, me and my mother. I'm back living at home.' She rolls up her eyes and gives a bitter, flimsy laugh. ‘Imagine? At my age? Jesus. And you? Did you?'

‘Marry? No.'

‘So are you back for good now?'

BOOK: The Lives of Women
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