Here’s a short story I wrote last year having read Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, a collection of magical realist short stories. It made me interested in stretching the boundaries of possibility and not making a big deal of it.
Some of the story comes from personal experience. Most importantly, the manner of my granddad’s death and the unexpected calmness of my Nana’s reaction to it. I thought about how open and adaptable the human mind can be, which is where the premise of the story comes from.
I’m part way through writing a collection of short stories which all attempt to mull on this theme. It is best summed up by the lovely illustration below from one of my favourite authors: Kurt Vonnegut.
Alone, but for the dog
It was an unfortunate series of events that had left June, deep in the throes of Dementia, alone but for the dog. Her husband Jack had just begun to notice the warning signs. Two weeks ago June had poured them both a nightcap but, instead of the usual glug of Glenfiddich, June had brought two tumblers brim-full of clear liquor. Jack had only to smell it from the tray to know that it was Pernod – the aniseed stench was petrol station heavy. But before the confusion had registered in his brain, June, a sipper by nature, had swilled the lot. Her eyes were glistening. ‘My father introduced me to real single malt whisky. None of this Jack Daniels shit the kids are drinking these days. It’s for the dogs’. June did not usually swear. Nor did she usually denigrate dogs. The dog was on the sofa within earshot of the insult but said nothing.
The Pernod had been living quite happily in the liquor cabinet for almost a decade now. It had been put out to pasture after the last meeting of their bridge club, which had dissolved on account of all the death and sickness which had come with being a club of septuagenarians. Jack and June did not drink Pernod. They didn’t like it. They liked Glenfiddich.
A week after the Pernod incident Jack died suddenly. He had woken in the night half way through a heart attack and within an hour or so he was gone. Most of the time, June still felt quite lucid (and the rest of the time she thought she did). She was clear-headed and composed as she traipsed through the motions of Dealing With The Death Of A Spouse, although it was really quite a blow. Having outlived all of their friends and having not produced offspring, Jack and June had been all alone in the world. Now June was completely alone. Alone, that is, but for the dog.
Being alone but for the dog might have been a problem for an old lady with Dementia, had the day of Jack’s funeral not also been the day that the dog decided to start talking.
June had been the only funeral attendant – an unpleasant but not uncommon fact of life for eighty-three year olds. Afterwards, as she clicked the front door shut behind her, she prepared herself with a deep breath for the first moment of domestic life post-Jack. It was to be her first evening as the sole resident of their sixty year marital home. She spent a moment in the doorway, not ready to enter the living room and see Jack’s empty chair. June contemplated the tragic inevitability of her future. People think that with old age marriage becomes a tale of companionship. They imagine that old people don’t experience desire once they cease to incite it. In the doorway, June briefly lamented the fact that she would never be kissed again. Desire, for June, had lived and died with Jack.
Wilbur was a Great Dane with black spots on sleek white fur. Six foot three when standing on his hind legs, he was named ironically after the runt piglet in Charlotte’s Web. When June found him in the living room after the funeral he was wearing a grey tweed suit of Jack’s with a powder pink shirt and braces. When June walked in, he furrowed his brow sympathetically. “How was it, June?”
June blinked and stared at Wilbur. He paused and then walked to the liquor cabinet. “Let me get you a drink” he said fraternally, pouring out two generous portions of Glendfiddich. “I’m joining you on the whisky if you don’t mind.” He winked at June as he handed her the glass. “Pernod’s for the cats”. June took the Glenfiddich and spoke at last. “You can talk!” It was a predictable thing to say but, considering the circumstances, reasonable. “Can we skip this part and start having fun?” Asked Wilbur, smiling. June sipped her Glenfiddich and nodded slowly. After a few moments she grinned and asked: “Who’s your favourite author?” Wilbur laughed. He had always been a great fan of June’s open minded nature. “Tolstoy, but I mainly like his short stories. I’ve not read Anna Karenina which I think makes me a bad Tolstoy fan. Do you like Bukowski?”
That evening June stayed up until 11pm: it was her latest bedtime in years. She and Wilbur were having so much fun. She read aloud to him her favourite excerpts from Anna Karenina and he recited his favourite Robert Frost poem, Fire and Ice. They laughed fitfully rifling through June’s old lipsticks and eye shadows and giving each other makeovers. June’s arthritis and Wilbur’s lack of opposable thumbs made their efforts equally ridiculous. Wilbur tried to recreate a montage fashion parade such as one might see in a teen movie. He put some Eighties Madonna on the Hi-Fi and bounded in and out of Jack’s wardrobe in various comical combinations, but ended up getting his head stuck in a turtleneck and eating a moccasin shoe in overexcitement.
When they were tired Wilbur made some cocoa and they built a fort from blankets and cushions to snuggle in and share favourite memories of Jack. If you’re wondering at this point whether Wilbur’s intentions were anything but honourable then put the idea out of your mind. Wilbur was a dog, remember, and a neutered one at that. Besides, he knew as well as you and I do that June’s understanding of romance lived and died with Jack. Wilbur knew it instinctively but you should know better; I told you only a few paragraphs ago. The new sleeping arrangement was undeniably symbiotic though. Dogs love blanket forts and old ladies love to be the little spoon.
Three weeks later June followed Jack to the land of peace and conclusions. She was in the garden deadheading marigolds while Wilbur recited The Owl and The Pussycat to her, substituting ‘dog’ for ‘owl’ and ‘OAP’ for ‘pussycat’. June was giggling and sprinkling the flower heads onto the springy grass at her knees as a warm feeling, normally associated with drinking red wine at lunchtime, spread dizzily through her. Gently she lay among the marigold heads and smiled her final smile up at Wilbur, who smiled softly back and bellowed jovially, “Go forth, Titania!”
The dog barked for an hour before a frustrated neighbour peered over the fence and saw the scene: a gaunt, wild haired old lady, lying dead in the grass wearing nothing but a stained nightdress, next to a distressed and lonely dog.
The death certificate cited malnutrition as the cause of June’s death but, had she or the dog been able to share the truth, the world would have known that she had died of happiness.