Tom O'Brien is an Irishman living in London. He's been published, longlisted, shortlisted and placed in numerous competitions and publications around the web. He has a short story appearing in a forthcoming print anthology published by Blood & Bourbon.
He’s on twitter @tomwrote and his website is www.tomobrien.co.uk.
Maeve nearly died when she stepped from the back door of the Christian Brothers kitchen.
She was pulling her coat on and wishing she had remembered to grab her cuff, which was now up near her elbow, when her foot missed getting caught in the spokes of Hanny's bike, carelessly thrown there. It missed by less than half an inch. If she had snagged her toe she would have fallen forward helplessly with her arms pinned inside her coat and landed heavily on her face. That might not have been fatal in itself but combined with a weakness in Maeve's neck that she was unaware of, it would have been the end.
But nothing happened. Maeve walked on, unaware of her close call and mentally noting down that she should add eggs to the shopping list in her pocket. When that little tag was made, she fell back to absently humming the nursery rhyme that had been lodged in her brain all morning.
Every day we meet as many things that are as capable of killing us as keeping us alive. Every car on the road, every bit of food, every reaction in our body could, with the right or wrong set of circumstances, prove to be lethal. Of course most of us manage to survive most days but it's not something we should assume will happen automatically. Today the dice rolled our way. Tomorrow we might not be so lucky. But back to Maeve.
Maeve Cahill, housekeeper, cook, wife, devout catholic, inveterate bingo player, lover of Irish country music. Which labels tell us anything and which are purely decorative? Maeve walked on up the path from the monastery where she performed her housekeeping and cook duties. The path was slick with a fine film of moss that had resisted all efforts to permanently remove it over the years. Maeve was aware of this and through habit adjusted her footstep accordingly.
Father Christle, the senior parish priest who was a regular visitor to the Brother's kitchen was also aware of this minor danger but that wouldn't save him in a few years time. Distracted by some private guilty thought, he would slip and crack his skull open, dying almost instantly. On a sidenote to that sidenote, a schoolboy running an errand on the other side of the fence reported that the priest's last word had been 'Beaujolais'. This became craze around the playground for a few weeks where it morphed into ‘Bejasus’ before throwing yourself to the ground theatrically.
For now though, nothing happened and Maeve walked on, trying to decide on whether to use a quick pick for her lotto numbers or try her usual ones.
You may have noticed that so far gravity has been Maeve's greatest aggressor. Suffice to say that its threat is ever present. The fact that it may not feature so menacingly from now on does not mean that the danger is any less. The point has simply been made.
The two hundred or so yards that separated Maeve from the school gates might have seemed like a gauntlet if she was aware of the hazards she faced. Swinging branches, overhead power lines and even the threat of escaping animals from the adjacent farm. She was, of course, unaware and therefore made her way forward with head held high and a steadily beating heart.
It is that heart itself that hints at the other great and ever present danger. The body. Designed, if that's the word, to carry us through our allotted span, it is a cliché to say that it is a massively complex organism. Within any such complexity the potential for disaster is constant. Taking the good Maeve as a case in point, at fifty one she is no better or no worse than she might be physically but that in itself acknowledges that perhaps all is not what it could be. Pick a part, any part.
The eyes perhaps? There was no need for glasses yet but they were not far off. A slight differential in the rate of decline between the two meant that depth perception was poor. This is something that will cause Maeve a lot of trouble crossing the road in her later years as well as a particularly painful incident with an electric carving knife much sooner than that. The ears would hold a few nasty shocks too if they were examined but nothing life threatening and with such a catalogue to choose from we must move on.
If we decided to go internal we might never resurface. Rather than getting trapped forever in the body and its potential for self harm let's just summarise and say that the liver was weak, the heart was more or less sound, but only for about twenty years, the arteries were slowly clogging, there was the potential for Alzheimer's and she already had cancer of the colon which would prove fatal before being detected.
But today nothing happened and Maeve reached the school gates alive.
A road runs past the school gates. I hope that word: road, is in itself is enough to spell danger in very bright letters. I can't even begin to say what dangers Maeve would have faced had she needed to cross this road. Happily all her business was this side of that ribbon of death. That at least limited the more obvious dangers to cars, trucks, tractors and motorbikes that might career in her direction.
I will not pretend that this almost happened but I will direct your attention to the driver of the maroon gravel truck some way outside Town. The driver of this lumbering beast was, at exactly at that moment, asleep at the wheel. He woke with only good fortune keeping him alive but fell asleep again. Was Maeve to be his wake up call?
Only the fear of accusations of xenophobia prevents me from highlighting Michel Furnier, who fifty yards from where Maeve was by now, reverted to driving on ‘the wrong side of the road’ purely out of habit, as he turned into the square.
It was not to his credit that there happened to be no one behind the big copper statue at the time. If there had been he would have hit them.
The brave Maeve, inhaling what she had to of the poisons spewing around her reached the swinging doors of the Co-op store. These badly installed, poorly made spring-loaded mantraps failed to grab her and though they swung mighty close to her trailing heel, they had to go unfed for a little longer. Mind you a child's finger would act as a tasty morsel within the week.
Now inside the ageing store, its floors damp with every sort of slippery substance, badly stacked shelves, ancient and overburdened fittings, bottles of acid, adapted and re-adapted power supplies, I can hardly bear to look.
Maeve, who must now be assuming super hero status, has regularly negotiated them all with aplomb. Was it arrogance then that prompted her to choose the shopping trolley over her normal carrier? Unlikely, as Maeve's adventures and close shaves were completely unknown to her. And if she could have known then she would have been far more likely to be terrified than proud. Her reasons for choosing the trolley were no doubt more prosaic and practical.
It didn't have a wonky wheel. Nor did parts of it stick out that weren't meant to stick out. It was, all in all a perfectly serviceable trolley; though none the less lethal for all that. The skill and judgement in terms of large load manoeuvring expected of the average trolley wielder are considerable but we are meant to have them instinctively. Try asking a passing toddler to steer your trolley for a while. That should crush the instinctive argument under a loud pile of tins very quickly.
Maeve at least had experience on her side. That's why she was able to stop when Una pushed her buggy out against the aisles flow of traffic and in a direct right angle collision course with Maeve's twin axled eight-wheeler as it towered over the infant's startled face. From a child's perspective a shopping trolley at close quarters is akin to a tower block with wheels and just as terrifying a proposition. The baby cried.
All Una, trapped behind her buggy, could offer was a sheepish grin and a quick forage for the rattling ball that tended to distract the little one long enough for all to be forgotten. She rolled the little ball across the well-padded lap of the child, letting its tune tinkle behind it.
When Una looked up at Maeve, pleased that the distraction had worked. She was surprised to see that the older woman was crying. Already an almost pathologically timid young woman, this jolted Una past the power of speech. She made some high-pitched noise, pulled a face that had far too many emotions vying for centre stage, then made her exit, stage rear as it were, scampering back up the aisle.
Maeve was left adrift, puzzled by her own tears and almost deafened by the ridiculous tinkling of that nursery rhyme in her head, the same one she had been mindlessly humming earlier.
In an attempt to distance herself from the emptiness that blew across her like the semi-toxic Legionnaire roulette of air conditioning of the shop, she moved on to the meat fridge that hummed brightly in the next aisle.
Maeve leaned over the carefully cling filmed debris of carnage and suffering that is any meat fridge and tried to get a hold of herself. This kind of nonsense had to stop. Right now.
In a way not entirely dissimilar to Una's efforts with the baby and the rattle, Maeve picked up a sizeable joint of beef. Her eye's still burned as she tried to read the label.
She stared at it for a few moments before she remembered that she never bought meat here, rather she went to the Mikey The Butcher who, for the record is a legitimate businessman, not a mass murder for hire. The sign over his window that proclaims him to be a Family Butcher should not be misinterpreted in any way. Mikey would never harm anyone's family other than perhaps that of the little bastard who made his only daughter Una pregnant and then skipped town.
Maeve put down the meat. That was just as well. Had her eyes been clearer she might have seen that the date stamped there was quite acceptable but she might not have seen the decay already occurring in the meat itself. That whole consignment had been packed some considerable time ago, in Antrim, by a young man who was so drunk at the time that he set the date stamper to his own birthday, some month's off at the time, and on which date he would end up in the emergency ward of Antrim General, both the cause and chief victim of a drink driving crash.
Maeve bit her tongue. Deliberately hard. The tears sprang back to her eyes but now there was a reason, a sensible reason. It was a ritual for when she felt like this and in truth it wasn't particularly effective but it had come to mark the time when she could move on.
Move on she did. The rest of Maeve's shopping was something of a protected procession. She was so wrapped up in her own emotional trouble that she could probably have survived a nuclear blast, in much the same way that a sleeper or a drunk might be safer falling from a height than someone why tries to save themselves.
She made it to the tills. She made it past them. She made it past the doors that were now stuck in the open position, waiting, tactically, to free themselves at some random moment. She made it to the air.
Maeve, weighed down as she was by so many shopping bags, took a deep breath. After all, nothing happened, so why had she cried? She exhaled. A mini exorcism to drive out whatever demon had crept up on her. She repeated her incantation. Nothing happened. There was nothing to be upset about.
With the ritual complete Maeve became self-conscious. Crying was bad and standing in the street breathing heavily might not match up to it but put the two together and, well, tongues would wag. There was no one looking at her though, other than that black dog that was always hanging round. He stared up at her and nothing was wagging there, not even his tail. He didn’t attack her. Which was good.
Maeve resettled the over-heavy bags and walked away. The danger of back injuries from carrying heavy weights improperly are well known but no one listens so there's no point in going into them here. Maeve walked on, bags and all, up the hill and across the path to the monastery, avoiding all dangers with her customary ease.
Early in her journey she heard a noise but she didn't look back. Usually she would have, having as fine a nosy streak as anyone but at that moment she just didn't want to know. If she had looked back she would have seen her friend the dog scuttling up Town at high speed. A truck, a maroon gravel truck, had struck him a glancing blow when it swerved for no apparent reason as he had trotted after her.
The wound, a swollen muscle at the top of his hind leg, would heal, though it hurt a lot at the time. The dog owned by no one had been distracted for a moment by the sight of an angel walking beside Maeve, because dogs think they can see death and angels.
If proof were needed that dogs think a lot of nonsense, it would be in the fact that there was no reason why a guardian angel should be there. Maeve was just walking.
The thing is though, that for those few minutes, she could have simply died of no causes at all. Some part of her chose not to and death put no mark by her name.
Reaching the door of the monastery, Maeve heard voices, which suddenly stopped. As she stepped through the door an acrid smell hit her. Something of the priest's cooking was burning. In the instant that she knew she'd better do something, she was glad. It was better to be busy than thinking. It was the thinking, she knew, that made her sad, the thinking and the empty cradle and the bloody nursery rhyme that wouldn't leave her head.
So nothing happened. Maeve survived and life went on. The dog had taken a bit of a knock but that happens.
Maeve had, I must add, forgotten to do something. She had forgotten to pick her lotto numbers. She would remember later, going for a quick-pick, as was her habit. It's just that if she had done that quick pick at the till as she usually did when paying for the shopping, then she would have won well over quarter of a million Euro. Instead those numbers went to the aforementioned French tourist, Mr Furnier, who due to not fully understanding the rules of the game would leave the country not knowing he had won.