HISSAC Highlands and Islands Short Story Association and Writing Competition

RICTUS

The first time the dog had a fit Dawn thought, ‘now I know what I look like.’
She watched in dismay, noting the ugly jaw movements and vacant eyes, the groans forced from lungs in spasm. Foam collected on the animals lips; she knelt to wipe it off. When it was over the dog slept quietly, fur damp with sweat. Dawn fetched a bucket and sponged excrement from the kitchen floor.
When she went to the chemist to collect her month’s supply of medication, she mentioned the fit to Annie. The chemist’s assistant knew something about everything but particularly, dogs.
‘It can’t possibly be catching,’ Annie said. ‘He’s an old dog - maybe he’s got a tumour or something.’
But Dawn knew, in spite of the vet’s reassurance that the dog’s seizures were due to advanced age, that she had contaminated him. She didn’t believe in coincidence; she had loved the dog too much, loading him with more emotion than an animal can bear. For years Buster had witnessed her epileptic convulsions. When she woke drowsy and perplexed from her post-ictal stupor, in the dark kitchen, dusk having fallen outside, or in the bathroom with her head pressed against the toilet pedestal, she was aware always of the dog waiting patiently, watching her. She wished that Mark had the same tolerance; lately he had taken to going out when she started to fit, adding to her disorientation when she woke.
At school her epilepsy hadn’t been a problem; she felt no shame when she regained consciousness with a folded coat under her head and one of her friends a cheerful guard, delighted that Dawn had engineered an effective diversion from the tedium of the school day.
‘He knew what I was when we married,’ she told Annie. ‘It didn’t seem to matter then. I haven’t changed; it just happens more frequently, that’s all.’
Annie said, ‘Men are like that: pathetic. They can’t cope with mess. If you believe the telly you’d think we’re all dainty creatures on pedestals, but when there’s something nasty to clear up there’s always a woman holding the mop and bucket.’
So it was inevitable Dawn would spot it in her baby. It was a seduction of sorts, the way Emmie moved her with her translucent blondness and petal soft skin. Yet Dawn knew with complete certainty the first time it happened, when Emmie was just a few days old and Dawn had yet to believe that the fluttering life she had held within her for so many weeks was shelled out and separate; before she knew where she ended and the baby began. She noticed the delicate tremor that ran across the baby’s face, so subtle it could be easily missed; the way her grey eyes stared, momentarily emptied; the split second rictus of her peach-down cheeks.
At first the doctor was reassuring: ‘Babies develop differently, it’s too soon to tell.’
As the weeks went by he became less able to meet Dawn’s eyes with placid certainty. Dawn watched his face as obsessively as a lover, noted every nuance of doubt and evasion, and prepared herself. At last the doctor said, ‘I’m worried too; something doesn’t seem quite right. She should be doing more than this now.’
Dawn felt a sensation like a cold trickle of water along her arms and legs: the body’s immediate response, as though to a malediction, to information that her mind had yet to process.
Months passed and there was plenty of information; more than she could bear. The paediatrician spelled it out: the facts, the prognosis- for that is the way it is done now. When there is no hope, no false hope is offered. She heard in his voice how much he hated this duty, the bearing of bad news: a shy man.
He said, ‘It’s a genetic neurological degeneration, related to epilepsy, but different. Have there been,’ he asked delicately, ‘other children in the extended family…’
Of course there had been others: the child of a distant cousin, the baby of a great aunt long ago, who sickened and died with little said and no explanation; she thought all families had them. She lay beside her baby listening to her soft breathing. Emmie looked so much like her- everyone said so. Her eyes were Dawn’s: the same colour and shape, embedded to the same depth in the eye socket, corneas identically curved. She knew that every cell of her child’s body contained her mark, encrypted in DNA, twisted in its double helix: her potential, her faults, her weakness. As the baby faded something left Dawn like a breath, but slowly, with each day that passed, every milestone not reached, until friends no longer came and Dawn lay on the bed next to the cot and waited. When it happened she knew at first glance, she was ready, and there were no tears in her. She lay motionless while the light faded outside until it was so dark there was only an absence of texture and colour.
When Mark came home from work he stared into the cot and his face jerked sideways as though he had been struck. He looked at her at last with features so distorted she couldn’t recognise him. ‘Why didn’t you do anything?’
His voice came from a distance; they were too far apart to comfort each other. She turned on her side away from him; she didn’t answer because what the heart knows cannot be spoken - it emerges trite and inarticulate. And so it went on for another ten years.
The doctor said,’ you have to move on; it’s been so long.’
Every three months the G.P. signed an incapacity certificate. Over the years the diagnosis on the form changed, from ‘bereavement’ to ‘depression’ and finally, with nothing said, to ‘epilepsy’, although she had suffered from epilepsy all her life and it had never stopped her working. She had been a nursery assistant for five years when Emmie was born - in another life, when children were interesting little people and not unbearable reminders of injustice and the impotence of love. Annie at the chemist said, ‘you could try for another baby, it can’t happen twice,’ although Dawn heard doubt in her voice.
And nobody knew how she and her husband lay night after night not touching, chaste in their mutual betrayal and injury as sepulchres in a country church. Sometimes in her dreams she made love to the man who lay frozen beside her, who called out in the night, and woke longing for any touch, anything but this sterility. She hated every day that came, believing each one separated her further from her child, until she understood: that at the moment Emmie stopped breathing, before each cell began its irrevocable unravelling, she was already as far away as it is possible to be. Those ten years got behind her as though a day passed .She watched the TV news and in her grief understood things not comprehensible before. Her mind, like a wine glass which vibrates to a certain note or cries out as a finger runs along it, resonated to the world’s suffering. She saw what nobody else mentioned: that children die in their millions every day, their parents mourn and it is commonplace- and seeing this she knew a truth she could not express. All she could do was be a witness, compulsively switching from one news broadcast to the next, so that no death occurred in a corner, unnoticed, while the world continued its dreary business.
During those years the dog came to fill spaces in her loneliness: his body the same temperature as that of a human being but without the complexity, his non- judgemental presence company through all the lost time when she only left the house to go to the chemist or the doctor. A gate at the end of their garden opened onto a school playing field where she let the dog run free for exercise. As she watched Buster lope about the field she felt she was running too. She imagined her feet substantial on the ground, muscles strong, not flaccid from years of inactivity. When the wind gusted across the field, through the empty nets and barren trees, and the sky descended with the onset of winter dusk, she felt as if she might fly away unnoticed. Then the dog would return with his need for food and attention, providing purpose for the next few minutes, grounding her. Sometimes on the deserted playing field she saw another figure, a woman jogger gaudily clad in blue and pink- an incongruous humming bird against the bleak grey afternoon. Dawn recognised her by her startlingly slow and ineffective running style. She ran hunched in contemplation, shoulders rotated with forearms uppermost, legs wheeling outwards from the knees. Her steps were so short she barely seemed to cover ground yet when Dawn looked again she had completed another dull circuit. Dawn admired her perseverance, her doggedness year after year, her patience; never any faster, never any thinner- surely the longest running and least effective exercise programme in the world.
The dog aged fast after the onset of seizures; his muzzle became grey and he seemed to shrink in size. He no longer wanted to trot about the field but lay by the fire, his paws twitching as though running in his sleep. Dawn watched with familiar helplessness, as though time had looped round twice, but the dog was old and tired, resigned to weakness; he had had his fill of running. After a few weeks he no longer wanted to eat.
Annie at the chemist’s said, ‘You’ve got to let him go.’
The vet said, ‘It’s time now; this is the last thing you can do for him.’
Annie said, ‘You can get another dog. I’ve heard they train special terriers called fit dogs. They watch your face all day for subtle signs, so you can…’
Her voice trailed off, uncertain what one should do if warned of the imminence of an epileptic fit. Dawn looked at Annie’s peaked, sallow, smokers face, and seeing her eagerness to make things right, remembered something she had nearly forgotten about the friendship of women. She realised how funny Annie was, the constancy of her.
She said to help her out, ‘I could go somewhere safe- maybe lie down so I don’t hurt myself when I fall.’
She saw Annie’s pleasure that something could be done- that life might after all change and be better for Dawn.
So the dog was put down and Dawn stood by the back gate in Wellingtons, holding the spade with which she had buried his stiff body by the hedge. A cold wind howled across the playing field and she watched, distracted, the progress of the jogger on her second circuit. Dawn noticed she was wearing a pair of expensive trainers; perhaps she hoped they could somehow compensate for her woeful lack of athletic ability. Dawn envied her belief that it mattered, that anything mattered: her optimism. The sight of the plump woman scurrying past in expensive trainers was so ludicrous she had to smile. The woman immediately stopped, as though she had been waiting for this for years, and smiled back.
She said, ‘Are you all right?’
Dawn said, ‘I’ve just buried my dog; I had it put down, it was having fits.’
The woman said, ‘I’m sorry.’
Dawn looked at her, noticing her eccentrically spiked grey hair; creases around her eyes like bunched fabric when she smiled; round cheeks pink with exertion. She realised the woman was beautiful, and that although her old dog had died, she could bear it.
Dawn said, ‘I had a baby once, ten years ago. She lived for eight months and then died.’
The woman said, ‘I know. I’m sorry.’
‘How do you know?’
‘Annie at the chemist’s told me.’
They both laughed, because of course Annie knew everything and everybody.
‘Why don’t you come for a run with me?’
‘I can’t run- I’m really unfit and I’m wearing Wellingtons.’
‘It’s all right, you can’t go any slower than me, it’s impossible.’
So Dawn leans her fork against the gate and half runs, half walks beside the woman, who really is very slow. She feels the soft give of grass beneath her feet, the sting of air, the quickening of her breath. Looking back at the house she has barely left since Emmie died, she sees how small it is under the sky. And she remembers more things about the company of women: that you can talk until your jaw aches, and laugh until your stomach hurts and pelvic floor loosens dangerously.
Mark returns from work to a deserted house. The TV, playing to itself in the empty living room, tells of another child caught in the crossfire in Iraq. A mother’s face is locked in a tetany of grief. Mark dispassionately notes the expression; he no longer knows how to cry, has forgotten which muscles to use. He knows that the dog was due to die today and his stomach is knotted tight with an almost phobic dread of the new pit of misery in which he might find his wife. He feels they wander in a wilderness without landmarks, passing the same place again and again. The kitchen door is open and with trepidation he steps into the garden, noting the mound of earth by the hedge; she should have waited for him -she never asks him for anything any more. The back gate is swinging open, and he starts to run because he has seen her, he can’t believe it, shuffling along in Wellingtons on the other side of the playing field beside that peculiar woman in the loud clothes. They look absurd; he wants to laugh. There reaches him airborne, like a sound muffled by the wind, a sense of something he nearly forgot. As she approaches on the next lap she spots him standing, astonished, by the gate. Suddenly bent double, a gesture he has not seen for years, she is crinkled up with laughter, clutching her belly, helpless. The wind takes away the sound of her laughter but he hears it in his head like a song remembered.
He stares at her face, familiar yet unfamiliar; the lines of middle age have begun to encroach but she is still there, changed but the same- he nearly forgot. He runs through the gate to catch her in his arms.