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Cork Lives
“I dunk a chocolate biscuit while admiring my new heels. It’s not easy finding pretty shoes when you’re size 10½”
“I dunk a chocolate biscuit while admiring my new heels. It’s not easy finding pretty shoes when you’re size 10½”

I see my tattoo every night, ‘De Oppresso Liber’ it says

Welcome to the Evening Echo’s annual feature — Summer Soap. Launched last year, Summer Soap is a daily fictional serial run over 12 parts, which began yesterday and runs each day in the Echo for a fortnight. Called Personal Services, this story was written by Sue Dukes (right) of Skibbereen, and is one of two soaps chosen from work submitted by students of the MA in Creative Writing Programme at UCC. In this second chapter, we learn a little more about Madge.

Episode 2

THE bell jangles. I love the sound of that bell. It’s a forewarning that Cork life is about to enter, tethering me to this community.

I push through the tassled curtains which hide my inner sanctum — my clients have a strange aversion to being watched.

“Hi, Madge.”

“Jim. Nice day, eh?”

“Isn’t it just?”

Now, old Jim isn’t exactly a client. He’s a gossip, if the truth be told, and since his wife died he’s been using me as a sounding post. Personally, I reckon he talked old Sal’ to death, but me, I like to let people talk, it’s surprising what they give away.

I fuss about and make tea while he parks his tattered self on my velour chair and combs his fingers through the grey remnants of fuzz under the flat cap.

“Did you hear the one about the whore and the parrot?” he says.

“No, but I’m sure you’re going to tell me.”

Now old Jim doesn’t hear anyone except himself and wouldn’t know sarcasm if it belted him on the bum, so he carries on and tells me the one about the parrot, even though I’ve heard it a dozen times.

I say ‘Really?’ in the right spot and laugh when he’s finished. But then he adds something that makes my ears prick up.

“Say again?”

“I said Biddie Baker died last night.”

“I thought that was what you said, it just didn’t seem possible.”

“No, she’s been in Shandon Street for ever, eh?”

“Since before I came over the pond,” I agree.

Now, that old poison-monger wasn’t one of my clients, either, and I’m not exactly upset, if you get my meaning. I’ve watched good people die horribly, and horrible people live long, safe lives; there’s no rhyme nor reason to any of it.

Mostly people don’t appreciate what they have because they haven’t experienced the alternative.

“Her funeral’s tomorrow, will ye be there?”

“Of course,” I say. Might as well make sure the lid’s fixed tight, at that. I wonder if it’s lead- lined.

“But you know, Madge, she said a funny thing to me before she died.”

He waits, so I oblige. “And what was that?”

“She said you had a tattoo, with Latin words.”

De Oppresso Liber. I see it every night when I wash, but nothing can wash away the memories it invokes, or the increased heart rate that comes hard on their heels.

I wonder when the hell the nosy biddy managed to see my tattoo. I argued myself silly a while back about whether to have it removed, but it involves skin grafts, and the smell of hospitals does bad things to my mind.

“Well, she must have been thinking about someone else,” I say, breaking a silence that’s slightly too long. “She was losing it a bit, you said yourself last time you were in.”

“Ah, well, she was coming up for 98. God help us if we all live that long.”

“True enough.” I glance at the clock. “I have a client due any minute.”

“Well, thanks for the tea, Madge.”

I wince as he clatters the bone china cup down into the saucer. Perhaps I should buy some solid mugs for extra special guests.

I make myself a cuppa and sit down for a moment, crossing my ankles on the desk. I dunk a chocolate biscuit while admiring my new heels. It’s not easy finding pretty shoes when you’re size 10½.

The door handle clunks down. I hastily make myself decent and paste a smile of welcome on my face. “Annie, dear, you’re looking truly frazzled. Come and tell auntie Madge all about it.”