Danielle McLaughlin: ‘Primal Cuts’

It was late afternoon when the taxi dropped him at the house in Drumcondra. A summer drizzle was settling on the street, dampening the last of the light. ‘Bring your bag,’ his sister had said on the phone, meaning his doctor’s bag, ‘and your special knives.’ A bit peculiar, Carol. Always had been. Not in a needs-to-be-locked-up way, but in the strangeness of the small challenges she persisted in setting the world. He’d explained slowly, perhaps too slowly, that outside of war zones, surgeons no longer carried instruments around in bags. ‘Oh,’ Carol said, ‘I see,’ and she’d sounded disappointed. ‘Is anything the matter, Carol?’ he’d asked. Her request that he come home for a weekend had felt more like a summons. She’d muttered an evasive half-answer, before hanging up. He’d begun to think cancer, heart disease, some other dark and galloping affliction that his sister’s brain was processing in its own anomalous fashion. Now, as he stood opposite her in the hall, her features warmed by the light that filtered through the stained-glass panels of the door, she looked perfectly well. A little older, certainly, her hair greyer, but then, it had been more than two years.

‘I’ve put you in your old room,’ she said. ‘Or perhaps you’d prefer the pull-out bed in the sun room, on account of your back? Except the sun room doesn’t have a rail for your shirts.’

‘My back is good these days,’ he said. ‘My old room is fine.’

‘Well, then,’ she said, ‘you know where it is,’ and he realised he’d been standing there, waiting for her to direct him.

Upstairs in his old bedroom, he unpacked and sat on the bed. The crucifix still hung on the wall and on the window was a blue vase with three red carnations. A single shelf held the few books that had not been bundled off to the charity shop. He took down an old favourite: a late nineteenth-century butcher’s manual that had belonged to his great-grandfather, page after yellowed page of finely etched diagrams of cows and sheep and pigs. The parts were labelled in neat calligraphy, the writing as spare and beautiful as the illustrated primal cuts. His father’s people had been butchers from Claremorris and this, he thought, was his real inheritance—not his father’s gold watch, but his ancestors’ skill in carving flesh and bone. He was now fifteen years on the Register and liked to think that he’d arrived at a reasonable understanding of the human body. He unlocked it with his scalpel, laid bare its dark and bloody cavities, felt its organs warm and knowable beneath his gloved hands.

He glanced at his shoes and saw that they were streaked with dirt. At the airport he’d told himself he wouldn’t visit his parents’ grave, that he was not the sort of man to seek solace in the bleak furnishings of the dead. Yet in the taxi, he’d found himself leaning forward, asking the driver to take him to the cemetery. The plot was by the north-eastern boundary, neat and white-pebbled. It was late afternoon and the grey of the sky mirrored the headstones and statuary. But he’d sensed nothing of his parents there and had not expected that he would.

He could hear Carol talking to herself downstairs; she’d always been that little bit loud. Was there, he wondered, an element of mental slippage? But when he went back downstairs, he discovered that a woman had arrived while he was unpacking, although she might have been there all along, because she was already settled in an armchair by the window. She was in her late sixties, he guessed, dressed in a brown cardigan buttoned to the neck, the rim of a polo neck visible above it. Her skirt was in a practical check pattern, the sort his mother would have described as serviceable, and she had thick tights and sturdy shoes. If her clothes suggested durability, there was only frailty in her face. He had the impression that if the super-structure of fabric were taken away, she might disintegrate. She had white hair, loosely curling, and the kind of glasses that came free on prescription. There was a box at her feet, with a blanket resting on it. She looked familiar but he couldn’t place her. He presumed she must be one of Carol’s neighbours, which meant that she had once been a neighbour of his. He racked his brains as she got up to greet him—Sullivan, Murphy, Foster—but nothing came.

‘Maurice, my dear,’ she said, and her voice was like that of a soft-hearted aunt, ‘how are you? You get more like your father every day.’

He no longer cared much for this comparison, now that his father was dead. And still her name wouldn’t come to him. Possibly she was a distant relative rather than a neighbour, but where to begin? His mother’s side or his father’s?

‘I’m well, thank you,’ he said, ‘it’s very nice to see you again. I hope you’re keeping well yourself?’

‘As well as can be expected,’ she said. ‘But may I say, it warms my heart to see you back on this street. I remember you when you were a little scrap of a thing.’

A neighbour after all, then. Mrs Sheridan on the corner, perhaps. Or was Mrs Sheridan dead? It was difficult to keep track.

The box by her feet shuddered and one side bulged outwards. The box yelped.

Carol and the woman both bent in a flurry of concern, hushing and tutting. ‘Oh dear,’ Carol said, ‘poor lamb.’ When the woman straightened up again, she had a Jack Russell terrier in her arms. Brown and white, the tip of one ear missing, the skin pink around the edges of his dull black nose. He rested his head, listlessly, on the woman’s arm as she stroked his forehead. ‘The cratur,’ she said.

Ah, Maurice thought. Of course! Tara Henly’s mother. How often in her house as a boy had he heard that word applied to any man, woman or child who suffered even the mildest affliction? He struggled to reconcile the image of the woman he remembered with the woman standing before him now.

Carol ruffled the dog between his ears and he licked her hand. ‘The little dote,’ she said, ‘and him in such pain.’

They were like an alternative nativity scene, Maurice thought, Carol peering fondly over the shoulder of Mrs Henly who was cradling the dog in her arms.

Gently, Carol elbowed her in the side. ‘Tell him what the vet said,’ she prompted.

Mrs Henly took her eyes from the dog, and looked at Maurice. ‘They did an ultrasound,’ she said. ‘Adenocarcinoma of the intestine.’

‘Colon cancer,’ Carol said. ‘€2800 they quoted. Imagine. And it mightn’t even work.’

And now he knew why he was here.

‘Carol,’ he said, ‘I wonder if we could have a word, please?’ He nodded at Mrs Henly. ‘Excuse us,’ he said, ‘we won’t be a minute.’

‘Take your time,’ she said, ‘I’ll be getting him nice and settled.’

He exited the room, glancing over his shoulder to make sure his sister was following. He marched down the hall, hoping to have a discreet conversation in the kitchen, but Carol was already talking loudly as she followed him. ‘I got a few bits and pieces you might need,’ she said, ‘I’ve read up about it on the internet.’

‘I can’t operate on a dog,’ he said.

‘A colon is a colon, surely.’

‘I’m not licensed to operate on animals,’ he said, ‘she needs to take that dog to a vet.’

‘You do know who she is?’ Carol said.

‘Of course I know who she is. She’s Tara’s mother.’

‘Angela,’ Carol said. ‘Angela Henly. I was afraid that maybe you didn’t recognise her. It will be ten years this month.’

‘Yes, I know.’

‘I’m worried about her,’ Carol said. ‘The anniversary has her very down.’

He was quiet for a moment. ‘How about I foot the vet’s bill?’ he said eventually.

Carol shook her head. ‘She wouldn’t let you.’

‘A loan then.’

‘She wouldn’t accept it.’ Carol clicked her tongue in annoyance. ‘That dog mustn’t die, Maurice.’

‘What if I get it wrong?’ This, he realised too late, was a tactical error; it implied that he was actually considering it.

‘You won’t get it wrong, you’re top of your field.’

‘My field, if I may remind you, is medicine, not veterinary.’

‘Please, Maurice. That dog is going to die without an operation. She won’t be able to bear it. Not now.’

He shook his head. ‘I can’t believe that you brought me home to operate on a Jack Russell.’ This was a lie. He could very easily believe it. This was vintage Carol.

‘I wanted to see you as well,’ Carol said. ‘It’s so long since I’ve seen you, Maurice. You hardly ever come home.’

‘Is it any wonder?’ he said. ‘And there I was thinking we might have a bite in Guilbaud’s and go to the Abbey.’

‘If I’d told you, you wouldn’t have come,’ Carol said, and he couldn’t argue with that. Instead he said: ‘It’s impossible. I don’t have any surgical instruments. I don’t have any anaesthetic.’

Carol, as if sensing that he was about to fold, smiled. ‘I have everything we need,’ she said. ‘It’s amazing what you can get on the internet these days.’

And so it was that he returned with her to the sitting room to tell Tara’s mother that yes, he would operate on the dog, making clear that his experience of animals was limited, and his experience of operating on them precisely zero. They all went together to the kitchen where Carol took the oil cloth from the table. She replaced it with a layer of black bin liners and on top of these she spread a white sheet. Then she went over to the sink. For one awful moment he thought she was going to boil the kettle for tea, but she rolled up her sleeves and began soaping her hands and arms to the elbow. ‘In case you need a hand,’ she said. Tara’s mother—Angela—sat white faced on a kitchen chair with the dog on her lap. It was difficult to think of her as Angela because when they were younger, in so far as he’d registered her existence at all, it was only ever as an adjunct of Tara.

Carol produced what she’d earlier referred to as the ‘bits and pieces’. Maurice was impressed. She truly had done her research. He didn’t like to consider too closely where she might have got the Telazol or the Ketamine, although it was unlikely that she’d had to frequent seedy alleyways—these days, such things could be sourced as easily as gluten-free biscuits. The Valium was in a pharmacy package that bore a sticker with Angela’s name; when he glanced up from reading the label, he saw her watching him, her face flushed and defiant. There were also sterile swabs, clippers, a suture set, syringes and sterile needles, and several disposable scalpels. ‘I wasn’t sure what size,’ Carol said.

‘Our Lady of Guadalupe,’ Angela said out of nowhere, ‘Saint Joseph of Arimathea.’ Maurice thought she was reciting a prayer, a litany of the kind his mother had been fond of, but she gestured to the dresser. There were two statues, each about a foot tall. They both had chestnut brown hair and their lips and cheeks were a consumptive red. Someone, years ago, perhaps by way of petition, had entwined a scapular around the feet of the Virgin, threaded through the open mouth of the snake she crushed underfoot. Now as he looked at the table with its white sheet, it reminded him of an altar, and as Angela placed the dog on it, he couldn’t help thinking that they were engaged in some sort of ritual sacrifice, only with a Jack Russell instead of, say, a goat. ‘Nobody must know about this,’ he said. ‘Carol, would you draw the curtains, please?’ She unhooked the cord tie-backs, loosening the bunches of faded jacquard. The fabric was heavy, unwieldy, and as she pulled it across, he thought he heard a murmur in its folds. He imagined a bee, a moth, some other small creature, shaken out of darkness.

He washed his hands, his arms, used the disinfectant offered by Carol. The dog whimpered, looked at him with sick, dull eyes, as he felt its abdomen, located the small, rounded protrusion. ‘I think you should go now,’ he said to Angela. He was afraid she might object, but she just rubbed the dog’s head and went, wordlessly, out to the hall.

Carol had arranged on the table the diagrams and instructions she’d printed from the internet, including an ‘Anaesthesia Cheat Sheet’—who wrote these things, he wondered?—calibrated per kilogram of dog. He indicated to Carol where she should clip the dog’s hair while he put on surgical gloves. He was nervous at first, terrified, but as the animal slipped slowly under, the nervousness gave way to a sudden—and possibly misplaced—confidence. The field surgeons of earlier centuries, the men who’d operated in ditches and trenches, had worked without disposable needles or sterile gauzes. They’d relied on their hands, a bottle of rubbing alcohol, a few cherished instruments. As he cleanly slit the dog’s belly he thought: butchers from Claremorris, it was in his blood. And now here was that thing both familiar and strange: a ventral cavity, albeit quite unlike any one he’d encountered before. He could see the section of colon distended by the tumour. He began to cut.

Growing up, he and Tara had spent so much time together that people sometimes mistook them for twins. For his part, he’d never regarded Tara as another sister. He recalled one particular afternoon, in the garden of this house, the two of them crouched in the long grass beside the lupins, burs clinging to Tara’s fair hair. Tara was explaining how the glass of the front door was more than a pleasing arrangement of shape and colour. Maurice had never thought about the door at all, couldn’t recall anyone else in his family thinking about it either, apart from shouting at him to close it. If you looked at the glass, Tara said, really looked at it, you could see a girl in a red costume being eaten by a dragon. ‘There’s the tail,’ she’d said, ‘there are the jaws, there, at the top, the girl’s cloak.’ She’d traced an outline in the air, her small hand rising and falling, as if in blessing. Then she’d taken Maurice’s hand and made him trace it too. Even from a distance of some three decades, he remembered still the feel of her hand on his, the warmth of it.

In the years when she was ill, the same years when he was tentatively establishing himself as a medic, he’d visited Tara only once. Whenever that day returned to him, it returned in the first instance as a dark-coloured flannel, hard and shrivelled as a bog body, sitting on the ward’s sole sink. The sink was small, the tiles above it cracked. The ward was on the third floor of a faded red-brick building, part of a cluster of equally faded buildings that comprised the hospital. ‘Tara,’ he whispered, having followed the nurse to her bedside, ‘it’s me, Maurice,’ but she gave no sign of having heard. Carol had gone with him that day and had told all the staff that he was a doctor. He’d watched the nurses hesitate as they delivered their pronouncements, waiting, he supposed, to see if he had any of his own, even though his expertise lay in the body and not in the mind, even though the sight of Tara, looking as she did, had invoked in him a sense of dread, of futility.

He removed the tumour, and placed it in the bowl offered by Carol. The bowl was a cereal bowl and had a detail of sunny yellow wheat all around the rim. This dog, he could tell, was hopelessly sick. Never once in his medical career had he offered hope where there was none. He knew that at the hospital in Manchester he was regarded as ‘abrupt’, ‘cold’ even. But sentiment had no place in medicine. If he were a vet, he would advise putting this dog down. And how bewildering, that vets were allowed bestow on animals the mercy he was forbidden to offer humans.

Earlier that day, when visiting the graves of his parents, he’d also paused at Tara’s grave. Now, he couldn’t help thinking that he’d unsettled something, that some previously at rest energy had startled into life, like the minor chaos wreaked by his foot when it glanced against a marble chip on the pathway, sending it skittering ahead of him. It was as if Tara had sent her mother round to enact this posthumous joke at his expense.

He began stitching up the dog, working steadily. Angela put her head around the kitchen door, and Carol beckoned her in. She sat in a chair near the table and watched him as he worked. The phone rang, and Carol excused herself, went out to the hall to answer it. He wondered who it might be. Who peopled his sister’s life these days? He no longer knew.

He glanced at Angela. ‘I’m sorry I didn’t visit more when Tara was ill.’

‘It wouldn’t have made any difference.’

He was irrationally insulted by how quickly, how matter-of-factly, she offered this. ‘I’ve always felt that I should have been able to save her,’ he said. ‘That maybe I could have said something. Done something.’

She got up from her chair and came over to rest a hand on his shoulder. ‘I used to think I could save her too,’ she said. Carol hurried back in, muttering apologies. Seeing that he’d finished the sutures, she handed Angela a blanket to tuck around the still-sleeping dog. Angela didn’t ask about the prognosis, just touched a finger lightly to the dog’s forehead. ‘He was a gift from Tara,’ she said, ‘just before she … Well. Just before.’

They waited, the three of them, for the dog to wake up. Maurice had an urge to mark something on a chart, to detail instructions for post-op care. He watched the dog beneath the blanket make the first twitches of a return, releasing a low whine. Usually the nurses took over now. Later, he checked the dog’s vital signs and lowered it gently, still wrapped in the blanket, into its box. Angela thanked him, tearfully, and he nodded. It was as if he’d left all his words inside the dog’s belly, now sewn tightly shut.

Carol said that she would take Angela and the dog home, calling out as she left that she would make tea on her return. He removed the white sheet from the table, rolled it in a ball. At the hospital, there was usually a bin for such things. He didn’t know what to do with it here. He stood a moment, the rolled-up sheet in his hands, before going outside and stuffing it into the wheelie bin by the front gate. It was almost dark, and the street was quiet. He experienced a sense of anti-climax. If this were a film, everything would have been scaled up. It would’ve been a vet operating on a human, at the very least, it would’ve featured Brad Pitt and Kate Winslet, a violin concerto, a pure-bred pug. There wouldn’t be a tumour in a cereal bowl forgotten on a kitchen table. He stood at the gate of the house where he’d grown up, and looked back down the path. The light was on in the hall. He studied the glass panels either side of the door, the patchwork of blues and reds and greens and yellows. He strained to make out the dragon and the girl—he’d known how to find them once—but all he could see was that a small section of glass was missing from the fanlight, the square left behind grown round from dust and cobwebs.

Danielle McLaughlin’s short stories have appeared in The New Yorker, The Stinging Fly, The Irish Times, and elsewhere. Her debut collection of short stories, Dinosaurs On Other Planets, was published in Ireland in 2015 by The Stinging Fly Press, in the UK and US in 2016 by John Murray and Random House, and, most recently, in Slovakia by Inaque.

‘Primal Cuts’ is featured in Issue Seven of The Lonely Crowd. Read how Danielle McLaughlin wrote ‘Primal Cuts’ here.

© Danielle McLaughlin, 2017. Image © Jo Mazelis, 2017.