Here is our second place winner Sharon Black with her story Mollie. Congratulations Sharon
‘SHE’S A REAL BEAUTY. I know I’m always saying it, but it’s true.’ Robert runs his hand along the length of the dog’s back and looks up at the elderly woman across from him.
‘Now, you’re clear about the tablets and the eye drops? Do you want me to go through it again?’
Chrissie makes an irritated sound and shoves her wispy grey hair under her woolly hat.
‘I’m not a fool, Robert. I know what to do. So will she be all right, then?’
‘She seems happy enough, she’s certainly not in any pain.’ He pauses. ‘She’s a good age for a Beagle, Chrissie. I haven’t seen many that make it this far.’
‘Hmmph, she’s lived this long despite you, so.’
The vet laughs and lifts the dog down from the table.
‘There you go, Mollie. Good to see you both looking well, Chrissie. And if you have any questions, just phone Leah.’
Chrissie rolls her eyes.
‘Come on, girl.’ She shuffles out of the room and makes her way slowly over to the reception desk. A young woman beams at her from behind a computer.
‘Robert says only to charge you for the medication. So, that’ll be,’ she peers at the screen, ’€32.17.’ She looks up. ‘You know you can get some of that back on your pet insurance, right?’
Chrissie takes out the exact change from the pouch at her waist and slaps it down on the counter.
‘You’re new. You must be Leah.’
‘Yes, I am.’ She smiles again. Chrissie checks the harness on the dog.
‘Come on, girl, home we go.’ She gives Leah one last look before she turns to leave. ‘Clueless.’
The train is quiet when Chrissie gets on. The other passengers are scattered around the carriage, all of them on their phones. She sits beside the window, the beagle at her feet. The train pulls away from the station and she turns to look out at the view.
In a few minutes, she will see her old house. Its garden backs onto the railway line. She and John lived there, raised their son, JJ. He rings her once a week and tells her she should come out to Australia to visit him. She’s told him she can’t, she won’t leave Mollie. He’s a good man, but he doesn’t understand. And she’s not sure about his Australian wife. She’s loud, laughs at everything.
When she reaches her stop, she asks a student who’s standing with his bike, to hold the train door open for her. She is slow to get up from her seat, and once or twice she hasn’t made it, the train pulling away too soon, forcing her to get off at the next stop and walk back.
She pulls her wool scarf a bit tighter, as the wind whips along the platform at Dún Laoghaire. The ticket seller nods to her.
‘How are you, missus? How’s Mollie doing? What did the vet say?’
‘She’s got years more to live.’ Chrissie walks through the open gate and Mollie wags her tail.
‘Like yourself then.’ The young lad gives her a cheeky wink. Chrissie chuckles, then starts to cough.
‘You don’t smoke, do you?’
‘Yeah, do you want one?’
She shakes her head, still coughing.
‘I bloody don’t. Why do you think I have this cough?’ She waves a hand in his direction. ‘Don’t smoke.’
‘See you later, missus.’
Back at her one-bedroom, ground floor flat, Chrissie gives Mollie a couple of dog biscuits. The beagle eats one but lets the other fall to the floor. Chrissie picks it up and puts on the kettle but doesn’t bother making tea.
Outside, the first huge rain drops splatter against the window. She turns on the heating and lowers herself into her armchair, hunting around in the cushions for the TV remote.
‘Just in time for our favourite show, Mollie.’ She pats the side of the chair and the dog lies down, her body warm against Chrissie’s legs.
Later, when she wakes, Mollie is still there, her body colder and stiffer. With an effort, Chrissie lifts the dog onto her lap.
‘You’re a good girl, Mollie.’ She stays there a long while, her tears disappearing into the dog’s fur.
In the morning, she phones the vet.
‘He’s with a patient at the moment, can I take a message?’ Leah asks.
‘No, I have to talk to Robert. It’s important. I’ll wait.’
Leah puts her on hold.
‘Mollie died yesterday evening,’ Chrissie says, as soon as Robert takes the call.
‘Ah, Chrissie, I’m so sorry. Are you all right?’
‘Of course I’m all right, why wouldn’t I be? I didn’t die, my dog did.’
There’s a brief silence.
‘What would you like to do, Chrissie?’
‘Well, I’d like to bury her, but I don’t have a garden.’ She clears her throat. ‘I’m not sure what to do.’
‘Why don’t you bring her in?’ Robert’s voice is gentle. ‘Cremation might be an option. It’s nicely done, Chrissie. And you can keep her ashes, if you want.’
‘Yes, all right.’
‘I can bring her in this morning.’ She hangs up and looks over at the dog. ‘How am I going to carry you? We didn’t think of that, old girl, did we?’
‘You all right there, missus?’ The ticket seller is on a smoking break outside the train station. ‘Don’t be at me, now. It’s only the one.’ He drops the butt and grinds it underfoot.
‘Here, I’ll carry that onto the platform for you.’ He gestures to the bag which she carries in front of her, both hands clutching it. ‘Me gran has one of these old carpet bags.’
‘It’s a hold-all.’ She hesitates. ‘You can carry it for me if you’re very careful. Don’t drop it.’
‘Yeah, no bother.’ He takes the bag. ‘Jesus H.’ His eyes widen. ‘What the fu...’ he catches her eye. ‘Sorry, what the hell’s in here?’
‘Are you going to carry it for me or not?’
‘Yeah, yeah.’ He hoists the bag as carefully as he can. ‘Which platform?’
He takes a quick glance around.
‘Mollie not with you today?’
‘Over here will do.’ Chrissie clicks her fingers and points to a bench. ‘I’ll sit here.’
‘Chill out, missus.’ He puts the bag on the ground beside her. ‘There, all right now?’
He mutters something and walks away, hands crammed in pockets. She lets out a deep sigh and waits for the train. A young man, 30s, Chrissie thinks, walks down the platform and sits on the other end of the bench. She takes in his dark suit and smart coat, his neat haircut. JJ used to look like that when he worked here.
Now he works in some computer company, where everyone’s allowed to wear shorts and tee-shirts. He’ll be phoning her tonight. She’s not sure whether to mention Mollie. She knows how he’ll be. Briefly sympathetic. Then there’ll be more pressure to visit ‘down under’. He sounds like JJ until he slides into Australian like that.
The man looks up from his phone, catches her staring and gives a brief, polite smile. She looks away. The gates at the line crossing start to close, signalling the approaching train. Chrissie stands and reaches for the bag, willing the train to hurry so she won’t have to stand too long. Already her neck and shoulders hurt with the weight.
‘Can I carry that on for you?’ The man puts away his phone just as the train pulls into the platform and screeches to a stop, the nearest carriage a few metres away.
‘Ok.’ Chrissie nods. ‘Please, be careful with it.’ It’s so heavy, she feels she owes this polite, well-dressed young man some explanation. But she can’t tell him it’s her dead dog: people can be squeamish.
She grabs hold of the door and steps onto the train, makes her way to the window seat. The man follows her, places the bag carefully at her feet and sits across from her, near the aisle.
‘What’s your stop?’ He gestures to the bag. ‘I can take it off for you.’
She studies him for a moment.
‘Sandymount. Thank you.’
He takes out his phone, ending the conversation. Grateful, she turns to look out the window. Young people don’t make small talk on public transport, she’s noticed. Chrissie doesn’t mind: she’s never liked small talk.
It starts to rain again. Vaguely, Chrissie remembers some mention of a storm on the news. There seems to be a storm every other week now, and they all have names. She doesn’t remember storms having names in the past. But Spring in Ireland is unpredictable. JJ tells her they’re having lovely weather in Sydney: like a decent Irish Summer, he says.
Unconsciously, her hand goes to the bag. Already, she knows she won’t get another dog for a while. Mollie has been her companion for 16 years, since John died. But she prides herself on her practicality. Having a dog is good for her. It gets her out of the flat, she meets other dog walkers. And if she’s truthful, she likes coming back to her old neighbourhood to see Robert.
A woman boards at the next stop and takes the seat next to her. Chrissie starts to move the bag out of her way.
‘Let me.’ The man slides it across the floor, tucking it in beside him.
‘Thanks.’ The woman sits and folds up a small umbrella.
Chrissie concentrates on the view, waiting for the familiar glimpse of her old garden. She wonders if the current owners have a dog. Mollie used to dig up everything in the garden, until she trained her only to dig around the apple tree. Each Autumn, it would still produce small, sharp-tasting apples that were perfect for tarts and crumbles.
‘It’s Mrs Devine, isn’t it?’
‘Sorry?’ Chrissie turns to look at the woman beside her.
‘Mrs Devine?’ The woman smiles uncertainly. ‘I used to live on your road. I’m Breda Slattery’s daughter, Jennifer.’
Chrissie frowns, trying to place her.
‘I babysat JJ sometimes, before I went off to college.’
‘Yes, yes of course, I remember.’ Chrissie isn’t sure what to say next. ‘Do you still…?’
‘Oh no, I’m just visiting Mum. She’s in the local nursing home. How’s JJ?’
‘Great form, thank you.’
It’ll be the stop after this one she thinks, as the train pulls onto the platform. She wonders how she’ll manage the fifteen minute walk from the station to the vet.
The carriage door opens and a few people get on.
‘So do you still live around here yourself?’
‘Hmm? Oh, no, I live in Dún Laoghaire now.’
The man opposite stands abruptly and grabs her bag.
‘No, not this one, the next stop.’
He doesn’t look back, but hurries across the carriage and steps off the train seconds before the doors slide shut.
‘Isn’t that your bag?’ Jennifer stands quickly but is thrown backwards as the train starts to move.
‘Yes, it is.’ Her eyes sting with sudden tears, just as a laugh bubbles up. Shock, she thinks. Robert will have to make her sweet tea. Or maybe Leah will.
‘He’s running away, do you want me to call the guards? We should stop the train.’ She reaches for the emergency button.
Chrissie puts a hand on her arm.
‘No, leave it. I’ll make a report in person. When we get to the next stop, just hold the door for me.’
‘Of course.’ Jennifer looks upset. ‘Was there much of value in the bag?’
‘Still and all, would you like me to go with you?’
Jennifer looks doubtful.
‘I’d be happier if you weren’t on your own.’
Chrissie holds her eye.
‘I won’t be. I’m going to visit my son.’