Fidelma always voted, though never with much hope. It was a civic duty and she had voted yesterday as she always did, quietly and with no fuss. She was almost fifty-five and had learnt to be philosophical about things she couldn’t change. Not only that, but she was so used to being on the losing side, she had begun to think she was the kiss of death to any political campaign.
Nevertheless, as she drove around the grounds of the hospital searching for a parking space at 5pm on Saturday, May 23rd, listening to the radio, she was fairly sure (though the counting was not quite over yet) that the result of the referendum would be what she’d hoped for.
Finally, she spotted a parking space that looked easy enough for her; she was terrible at parking even after all these years; Aisling did most of the driving. Carefully, Fidelma manoeuvred into the parking space and got out. She reached into the passenger seat for her jacket, and slung it on over her favourite plaid shirt. Patting her jacket pocket to make sure she hadn’t forgotten anything, she took a deep breath. Then she locked the car and made her way towards the front door of the hospital.
The entrance hall was quiet today. As Fidelma passed the reception desk she overheard a very hefty man in a tweed cap asking anxiously for directions.
’They sent her from the Mercy Hospital this morning. I went up in the lift already but I couldn’t find Ward 27 at all.’
’I’m going to Ward 27,’ Fidelma said. ‘I know the way.’
’Sure that’s great altogether. Much obliged, Ma’am.’
As they stood together in the ascending lift, the man began to chat.
’I was trailing around for ages thinking I’d be only fit for a bed in this place meself if I didn’t find me wife soon,’ he said. ‘So I decided to start again from the beginning and go down the stairs; but I came out a different way entirely. I swear to God I wisht I had me Honda 50.’
The thought of this portly old fellow chuntering along the hospital corridors on a tiny motorbike conjured up a cartoon image in Fidelma’s head.
’A Honda 50 would be handy enough, all right,’ she smiled. She would tell Aisling about this character; Aisling would get the humour of it.
’We’re thirty-eight years married next month, myself and Annie,’ the man added. ‘I don’t know whether I’m coming or going since she got sick.’ The joke was over now; he looked as if he might cry.
’I know exactly what you mean,’ said Fidelma.
’Is your husband in here too?’
’No, it’s my friend I’m visiting.’
Ward 27 was a long room with four beds on either side. The Honda 50 man sighed a relieved thanks to Fidelma and waddled across to his wife, who lay prone in a bed near the door and smiled weakly when she saw him.
Fidelma’s friend Aisling was asleep in the bed nearest the window. She had covered her head with a rainbow-coloured cotton scarf, one that Fidelma had given to her at Christmas. She was probably anxious about her hair. Aisling was always careful about her appearance.
Fidelma sat down in a chair beside the bed. There was no point in waking Aisling. She always had trouble sleeping, especially in hospital. Fidelma noticed that she trembled slightly under the bedclothes as if she was in the midst of much activity in her dreams. Fidelma patted the box in her jacket pocket and waited. Beside her, Aisling shuddered once, alarmingly, and Fidelma held her breath until Aisling relaxed into a smoother sleep. It was then that Fidelma remembered, quite vividly, the only dog she’d ever owned, the dog she had loved so much.
It was way back in 1975, on Fidelma’s sixteenth birthday, that her parents gave her the red setter. She called him Toby – a good name for a dog. She could hardly believe that they’d finally given her something she wanted; she’d been asking for a dog since she was four.
Every day when Fidelma came home after school, Toby would greet her at the gate, wagging his feathery red tail. Every day Fidelma took Toby for a long walk down by the river and told him all her troubles. He was her best friend and true confidant. (Years later, after her parents were dead and gone, she came to believe that Toby might have been a more considered present than she’d realised; that perhaps it was an attempt to help a teenage daughter who was quiet and withdrawn, with little in the way of friends – a person her parents were ill-equipped to understand.)
Down by the gently flowing river, Fidelma told her dog Toby that she didn’t fit in and that nothing seemed right and everything seemed odd – and about a girl in her class called Leanne who had tumbling blonde curls and wore a blue denim jacket over her school uniform. Toby heard how she’d admired Leanne’s jacket and Leanne had said, ‘Have a lend of it if you like’ and had taken it off and handed it to her right there and then; and how when Fidelma put the jacket on it smelled of Leanne and how that made her feel (really odd) and how she wore it all the time until a week later, when Leanne had said, casually, kindly, ‘You keep it, Fidelma, it suits you,’ and how happy she was about that until she saw Leanne on Patrick Street that weekend, wearing a new black denim jacket and jeans, holding hands with Joe Buckley. Toby would listen sympathetically and then he would go and chase some rabbits and then he would come back and listen carefully again…
And when she was almost seventeen and stressed out doing the Leaving, she came home from school and Toby was not at the gate to welcome her.
’I think he’s sick,’ her mother said. ‘We might have to get the vet.’
Toby was lying down in the garage on the straw bed where he slept at night. He trembled as if he was running hard, chasing rabbits out in the field by the river.
’What’s wrong Toby?’ Fidelma asked, bending over him and gently patting his head. He tried to look up – and then came a final tremor and he died. A heart attack, the vet said. Fidelma had lost her best friend. She hadn’t owned a dog since.
And on that Saturday, the day this story began, Fidelma looked at Aisling while she slept and her elation over the ‘Yes’ Vote subsided for a while because of her worry over Aisling and she wished she had not remembered being seventeen and her heartbreak over Toby, the best dog in the world, and her confusion about a perfectly lovely but straight girl called Leanne and how desperately alone she had felt at that time.
There had been another time of quiet desperation. A time when Fidelma and Aisling were apart. The worst time.
They had met almost by chance, she and Aisling, when they shared a rented house in Dublin. It was hard to tell exactly how it began. A special glance, a gentle touch, a memorable illicit embrace in a sunlit door and at last something fell into place and felt magic and right.
Aisling was in Fidelma’s life for two years - and then Aisling had left. A job in London. Everything was just too hard in Ireland. She might get from there to California. A different kind of life. Freedom to be herself. There had been talk of Fidelma going too, but it seemed to her at the time that Aisling didn’t really want her. Or didn’t want her enough.
Fidelma continued teaching in Dublin but it was lonely so she moved to a different job in Cork. She kept going; books, film, theatre, a few friends, an occasional coffee in the Quay Co-Op. Mainly, though, hers was a quiet, industrious (and sometimes desolate) life. There were hints of interest but never anyone else, not seriously.
Six years later, Aisling came back. Their future was never discussed in great detail but it was decided and it was theirs. They went quietly about their business. Aisling moved into Fidelma’s house in Ballincollig. Later she sold her house and Fidelma sold hers and they bought a house together in St Lukes. There they had stayed - two old maids as far as anyone else was concerned - and lived patiently and worked diligently, believing that their low-key contentment was all that could be hoped for. But last year Aisling became sick and Fidelma feared that she would die, just as a gentle breeze of change was rising into a strong wind.
In the hospital ward, Fidelma checked the results of the Referendum on her phone and was all of a dither, not knowing whether to laugh or to cry. Finally, to her relief, Aisling woke up and smiled.
’Gosh I was really out for the count there,’ she said.
’You were. In more ways than one.’
’Are you here long? You should have woken me.’
’I figured you probably needed your sleep. Do you want to know the result?’
Aisling looked dubious. ‘Do I?’
When Fidelma told her, Aisling’s face shone and she demanded to be propped up in her bed and said there was no doubt but that she was going to get well now for sure and maybe they should put on the TV in the ward to see the coverage and Fidelma thought she’d better bite the bullet before someone put the TV on and she wasn’t sure if she should or not (you never really know, do you?) but to heck with it anyway she thought to herself and she said ‘Hang on a minute first,’ and she took out the box with the rings …
When Fidelma left the hospital building, the cold May sun was shining and for the life of her she couldn’t remember where she’d parked the car but she hardly cared. She walked around for a few minutes in a daze, before remembering she could click the ‘Unlock’ button on the key so the car lights would come on and the car would beep (like the time she’d lost the car in Douglas Shopping Centre). So she traipsed around the car park clicking and listening for the car until eventually she found it.
She got into the driver’s seat and by then she was trembling so much she couldn’t even put the key in the ignition. All she could do was to sit there, hands on the steering wheel, looking at her shiny gold ring.
The rings were beautiful, just beautiful. It was Aisling who’d said they should wear them straight away.
Their good friend Sam the jeweler had made both rings – and promised, cross his heart, not to tell anyone – just in case the result went the wrong way.
Madeleine D’Arcy’s début collection of short fiction, Waiting For The Bullet, was published by Doire Press last year and is currently shortlisted for the Edgehill Prize 2015. She won the Hennessy XO Literary Award for New Irish Writer in 2010.