Eileen Bennett is an experienced writer and editor, with an M.A. is Writing from NUI, Galway. Her career spans over 25 years in media with an eclectic focus on lifestyle, business and spirituality in a number of private and public sector organisations. Eileen has a keen interest in Social Media and technology.
By Eileen Bennett
After school every day we would all meet along the road and play whatever game was popular at that time. It would be marbles for weeks then one day we’d start playing hopscotch and keep doing that until the skipping ropes or the footballs or the hula hoops or the roller skates or the guns and holsters appeared.
There were supposed to be boy’s games and girl’s games but most of the time we all played together, especially since there too few of us to make two gangs. I was called a ‘tomboy’ because I preferred the rough and tumble way the boys attacked every game and I hated the way some girls could be made to cry so easily.
It was conker season when Johnny found the dead dog. We’d all collected them. My daddy helped me to dry mine. Then he bored and we ran string through the holes. The competition was fierce. The only way we could have been distracted from conkers was by something as cool as a dead dog.
It was lying at the side of the road covered up with leaves. I suppose that’s why nobody had noticed it before. Johnny got a stick and pushed the leaves aside and we could see the whole dog.
At first, it just looked like a normal brown dog that was asleep on the side of the road with its eyes open. Then Johnny poked it with the stick and we could see its guts spilled out on the road. The other girls screamed and that made Johnny braver. He put his foot on the dog’s ribs and pressed down. More guts spilled out and they ran away.
I wanted a dog but I got a tortoise. He moved slowly and hid in his shell whenever he didn’t want to play – which seemed to be most of the time. He was called Roundy and he liked to be tickled under his chin. Then he would stretch his long wrinkly neck out and half close his black eyes. That’s about all he could do. My mother was fond of Roundy. She used to wrap him in hay and newspapers and hide him in a cardboard box at the back of the shed at the start of every winter so he could hibernate. We were not allowed to disturb him.
She would write a big F on one end of the box and when spring came she would cut that end off to let Roundy out when he woke up. F was for ‘front’ and it was the way she put Roundy facing in his box. I often wondered what would happen if she got it wrong or if I wrote F on the other end and turned it around. I never did though and every spring, sometime after the box was opened, Roundy would appear after his long sleep and my mother would be delighted.
I had a rabbit before I got the tortoise but he bit my little sister and had to go and live on a farm. I don’t know where the farm is but they told me he is very happy there with the other rabbits and I would only upset him if I went to visit. He was white and warm and fluffy and he had pink eyes. His name was Snowy. I liked him a lot better than the tortoise. The tortoise wasn’t much fun but now, seeing this dog split open and lying cold and dead on the side of the road made me realise that, in some ways at least, maybe having a tortoise was better than having a rabbit or a dog. In terms of durability, the tortoise had a lot going for it. Roundy never bit anybody, and his guts were safe inside his shell.
The dog’s guts were all different colours and shapes. Most of them looked like a very long sausage but there were other bits too, all different shades of red and pink and a kind of green, but not normal colours like you’d see in flowers and grass and trees and things that were alive.
Johnny covered the dog up with the leaves again and we all went home. After school the next day the dog was still there. Its mouth was slightly open and there were brown stains on its teeth. Its eyes were kind of like the eyes in my sister’s doll. Its tongue was now too big for its mouth.
I looked at its paws and they looked just like the paws of any dog you’d see asleep in the road or anywhere else. You wouldn’t know it was dead by looking at its paws.
The next day the dog was gone. So were the leaves and we wondered if everything had been sucked up by that machine that cleaned the streets. We speculated about where it would end up. We talked about it for a few more days, and Johnny chased the girls with the stick he used to poke the dog. It wasn’t the same stick but they didn’t know that. Or if they did, they pretended not to.
We all forgot about the dog eventually until the day the car hit Johnny. I was walking to the shop to buy messages for my mother when I heard the squeal of brakes and the thud. Then there was a silence, like time stopped, before Johnny’s mother came running and screaming from the shop.
A crowd gathered around them and I couldn’t see what was happening but I could see Johnny’s feet and they looked alright. Somebody brought a blanket. His mother was crying. The driver was saying ‘he just ran straight out in front of me’.
My mother came and made me go home, even though I still hadn’t got the messages. From our front room window I saw the ambulance pulling up and then driving away. The lights were flashing but there was no siren. I wondered about that for a long time.
I wondered if his guts were spilling onto the road. Were his eyes glassy and was his tongue growing too big for his mouth? We never saw Johnny again and nobody big ever spoke about him. It was as if he had become some kind of a secret or a mystery.
Roundy didn’t come out from his box when he was supposed to. I checked to make sure somebody hadn’t written F on the other end and turned it around but it was blank. My mother talked about what a late Spring it was and how clever Roundy was to stay where it was warm and dry for as long as possible but I know she was beginning to wonder if she had put him in facing the wrong way.
The curiosity got the better of me one day and I peeled back the newspapers and the hay. He was there, facing the way he should be, but I knew he was dead. There was a bad smell. When I lifted him out, his neck was floppy and there was no shine in his eyes. My mother was very sad. I know where Roundy went because we buried him in the back garden.
When we got back from our summer holidays that year my daddy was gone. I was seven and a half then and able to mind my sister so we had been allowed to stay a while longer with Uncle Jack and Aunty Phil when the holiday was supposed to be over. Uncle Jack was my daddy’s brother and he and Aunty Phil looked after my nice granny. I saw my other granny – the cross one – every Sunday but I only saw my nice granny in the summer holidays. Nice granny was in bed all the time. Her room smelled of snuff and silvermints. She wore a shawl around her shoulders and was always happy to see us. She gave us money to buy sweets and asked us to tell her stories or sing a song or show her how we could dance. Cross granny had a shop and a farm and was always busy. Nobody could ever do anything right for Cross granny.
They said he was gone to Heaven to fix the angels’ wings but I didn’t believe them. If angels were are good as they were supposed to be, they could fix their own wings. All I knew for sure was that he wasn’t there anymore and my mother was even sadder than she had been after Roundy didn’t wake up. Nobody wanted to talk about him or explain why he had left us. If we asked, they told us to be quiet and not upset our mother with questions. Here was another secret, another mystery to wonder about.
The dog was dead. So was Roundy. I knew they were never coming back. I waited for the others for a very long time.
By Eileen Bennett
You used to be beautiful.
You used to have strawberry-blonde curls framing your chubby face. You used to have peaches and cream pink skin and eyes that were so blue and clear that they seemed to see far beyond the years you had lived. You used to remind people of a cherub. You used to be happy and confident and funny. You used to be a bright shining star at the center of a blonde, blue-eyed, curly-headed perfect universe.
Your teacher told your parents that you were squinting at the blackboard. You got thick glasses. Nobody noticed how blue your eyes were after that. Your hair changed from tumbling curls to unmanageable frizz. The strawberry-blonde took on a non-descript mousy-red tone. Stuff happened. Day by day, bit by almost imperceptibly bit, the perfection slowly vanished until even the memory was so faded that you believed you must have dreamed it.
By the time you were twelve, well-meaning adults were suggesting that you wear a roll-on to hide your flabby pre-pubescent belly. Even the kinder ones, the adults who told you it was just ‘puppy fat’, succeeded in underlining your burgeoning and inevitable faith in your own plainness.
You grew to be a shy and awkward young adult. You were socially inept. You created a façade of bravado. You came across as too pushy, too cocky and smug. You never interacted from a place of truth. You had forgotten by then that such a place existed. Even if you had not forgotten, you would have been too terrified to explore it.
By thirty you had managed to shape yourself into a reasonably acceptable human being. You seemed to be fully functioning and relatively normal in all you did. You had children of your own and did your best to keep them secure and confident in their own perfection. You did your best to vaccinate them against soul-destroying self-doubt. You did your very best.
Then there was nobody else to look after and it was your time again. Your hair was grey and your skin was wrinkled but old photographs showed you that you were never plain and you were never fat. Your eyes had lost their open innocence but they were still as blue. The lie you had been living for so long dissolved and you discovered that she was still there. The once-perfect child, open-hearted and trusting, had waited a lifetime for you to come back.
And you recognized that you are, and always have been, beautiful.