This is a prologue to the short story ‘Pitiful … Or Am I?’ that I shared on this blog at the start of August. Now, as the month draws to a close, it feels right to return to it: to learn more about the determined, resolute character who leapt out at me, demanding to be heard. This instalment of Sue’s story describes the moment she knew something wasn’t right…
The First Sign
My skin looked much paler, and much more drawn, than it should have: that should have been my first sign that something was wrong. I thought the light was playing tricks with my eyes. The windows in Maurice’s shop had always been dingy, the mirror itself was covered in grime … so I shook myself and looked away. It was nothing. As soon as I had finished washing my hands, I hurried back out to the shop floor. The morning had been busy, and I was sure the afternoon would be as bad, with Easter just around the corner.
‘Now, Ms Burke, what can I get for you?’
‘Ah, Sue,’ she chuckled. I had always liked her, with her perpetually smiling face and her air of constantly being somewhat mystified. ‘Go away with your “Ms. Burke” nonsense. If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times: call me Patricia. I have a list here for you. God save me, I don’t know how I’ll carry all of it home, but I can deal with that in a while.’
‘I’m sure one of the lads in Creedon’s can give you a hand. I’ll check whether they are in in a minute…’ Scanning her list, I had to conceal a smile when I read the first item: seven turnips. Patricia had always been well-known for her love of turnips. Flour, half a dozen eggs, salted butter … she was evidently planning to make a batch of her famous Easter buns.
‘How are your boys?’ I called out as I went behind the counter, in search of the flour. ‘Have they written to you at all since they left?’
‘Not at all,’ she replied heartily, but with a wink to let me know she was joking. ‘Sure why would they be writing to a silly old woman like me when they have all the delights of Dublin to discover? Ah no, John sent me a lovely letter on Friday.’
‘How is he?’
‘He seems a bit overwhelmed by the city, Sue, if truth be told. He told me that he saw a pair of young girls dressed in mini skirts last week, and I fear he’ll never get over it.’
‘Oh dear … here is your flour, Patricia, I’ll see about those eggs now –’
‘I hope he and Jim are still going to Mass every Sunday, that’s all I can say. If either of them were to go about chasing girls in mini skirts, Father Flaherty would have a thing or two to say about it.’ She cackled. ‘And how is your mother?’
‘Oh, not a bother on her. She’s been helping Father Flaherty to arrange the Easter Mass, of course. She –’
Suddenly, I had to grab the counter: I couldn’t speak. An awful wave of nausea had just swept over me, almost taking my breath away.
‘Are you alright, girl?’
‘Certainly, Patricia.’ My ankles were sore too, but I had been running around for hours. ‘Tired, of course. It has been a busy morning…’
Patricia frowned. ‘I hope Maurice hasn’t been working you too hard, now, Easter or no Easter. I’ll have a word with him if he has! Maybe you should sit down for a moment.’
‘I – yes. Perhaps. Just … for a moment…’
I sank into the small wooden chair behind me, while Patricia bustled around the counter to crouch down by my side. ‘Are you sure you’re alright? Let me see…’ She pulled down one of my lower eyelids and tutted. ‘Anaemic, I would say.’
Maurice strode in at this point, whistling away to himself – just back from his trip to the post office. Patricia rounded on him.
‘Have you been working this girl too hard?’ she demanded of him. ‘Look at the state of her! Sure, she nearly collapsed before my very eyes.’
‘I am alright, Patricia,’ I said hurriedly, as Maurice whirled around to stare at me, his eyes wide. ‘Really. I just … I needed a moment to rest. I’ll go back to work now –’
Eager to prove that I was fine, I rose to my feet … and promptly fell over as I lost consciousness.