In this story, one of 10 shortlisted for the RTÉ Short Story Competition, a doctor and her driver, out on a late night mission, encounter a new problem...
Author Helen O'Neill says: "Drawing on some of my own experiences, The Night Call explores the stark realities of the work of a tired GP and some of the ethical dilemmas encountered."
The Night Call by Helen O'Neill
It was the last call out of the year. When I saw the address, I knew those unforgiving backroads would scupper any hope I harboured of getting home to what remained of the celebrations. At the latter end of sixteen hours straight, it felt like I had looked into the throats and ears of every child in the county. Just in case, their mammies said. My two would have to manage without me, again.
The Driver flung the bags into the boot and hardly spoke as he drove us at speed out of the town.
"Don't take it out on me," I snapped, as the car skidded on the frosty road. "Someone had to do it before the red eye shift and none of the others were going to do it." Taking it out on him was easier.
"We won’t get back for midnight."
"We won’t get back at all unless you take it handier!" The Driver eased up on the throttle, conceding. I turned on the radio, flicked across the channels searching for something which wasn’t there, so we travelled together in silence.
Finally turning off the main road, we bumped through the potholes of a narrow laneway, the undercarriage of the car scraping frozen clumps of scutch grass. A fox stopped momentarily in the headlights, looked indifferently at us, then continued across the ditch. We reached a rusty gate hanging at an angle from a cracked pillar. The yard in front of the cottage was strewn with the detritus of a long life which had lost its pride of place, upturned buckets, plastic bags, an old chair. Weeds consumed everything.
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A young Garda met us at the open door, silhouetted by the dull yellow light spilling out from the hallway of the cottage. No doubt he too had somehow managed to pull the unfairly stacked short straw, while those at the top nursed their drinks miles away from the banalities of life and death.
Leaving the Driver to turn the car, I followed the Garda inside.
"Her carer called to put her to bed and found her dead in the chair," he read from the first page of his new notebook.
Her living room was cold, with that old people’s smell of unwashed clothing and mothiness. My shoes lingered a little too long on the tacky lino, where some food from a dog’s dish had spilled out. A single bulb suspended from the ceiling threw shadows onto the walls where her life was displayed, in the usual way of these old ladies. Her marriage was framed in a black and white photograph of a young woman and an older man, dressed in wedding clothes, both posed and staring forward, unsmiling; in the smaller images of communions, confirmations and graduations; in the postcards from far-flung places 'Wish You Were Here,’ where likely as not they didn’t really; in the yellowed Vincent de Paul calendar from 1993. And on the windowsill, the Child of Prague, headless but not heartless, raised his hand in blessing.
The old woman was slumped over in her grubby armchair, pulled close to a plug-in heater, a tartan rug draped loosely across her knees, its fringed edge failing to reach her bare white toes. Her glassy unblinking eyes stared into the room, some dried up drool hung from a hair on her chin. Rosary beads and pain pills were woven together in a white and green chain through her cachectic fingers. She was still. She was cold.
My role here was to formally state her passing, so I did the necessary, listening to the silence in her crooked body for two minutes to confirm its lack of tides and rhythms. I closed her eyelids. Muttering a short prayer of gratitude that her pain had ended, I added to it privately, guiltily thanking God that I didn’t have to go through the motions of sorrow and sympathy with grieving relatives. It’s what we do, on these occasions.
The Driver had kept the car idling and I sank gratefully back into its warmth, leaving the Garda to trace some relatives and make the necessary arrangements.
We were a bit more upbeat on the return journey. Perhaps we would get back at a reasonable time after all? The Driver put on some music and we broke out singing along to ‘Country Roads, take me home’, a favourite of ours when we travelled together on long callouts.
Suddenly, there was a flash of eyes and a sickening thud coinciding with a wobble through the wheels. The Driver jammed on the brakes then looked at me, wide-eyed, fingers white on the steering wheel.
"Please tell me that was only a dog…?" A flick of the headlights outlined him on the road, a hairy brown mongrel, raised up on his front legs, his back nauseatingly crooked, hindquarters still and splayed, a pool of steaming urine flowing slowly from him across the road.
"Aw, Jesus. I didn’t see him, he came out of nowhere."
We got out of the car, the dog’s eyes oscillating from one of us to the other, perhaps wondering which of us to fear the most.
"No houses around here," said the Driver, who knew every fold of this land.
"Well, we can’t leave him like this," I said. We both knew the damage that had been done and the inevitable outcome. A decision needed to be made, as always.
I rounded the car and pulled my doctor’s bag out of the boot. How much morphine would be needed to despatch a dog? I had no frame of reference for this one. We swore to preserve human life, ethically bound to force quantity over quality. So many times I had been in this moment, with the means to end the pain. Some had even begged me, but I always stopped short. In the end you become hardened to it, falling back on Hippocrates to shield you from the obvious compassionate choice.
The Driver was kneeling, his corpulence making him awkward, holding the top end of the whimpering dog in his lap, apologising. The plunger dropped slowly, we heard it squeak slightly through the warm breathing of three souls rising into the night. We waited for a sign, an easing, but nothing changed. Minutes passed.
"Dammit…I must have got the dose wrong or something? Maybe morphine doesn’t work on dogs? I don’t know..."
It was The Driver’s turn to decide something.
"Get in the car, Doc. You don’t need to see this," he said, his eyes avoiding mine. Like I had never seen worse?
I heard him lift the snow shovel from the boot. I turned away, waiting, trying to remove the sickening image from my mind, holding my hands over my ears, la-la-la, not wanting to hear it fall, or fall repeatedly.
The Driver opened the car door. He looked defeated. "Can’t do it."
I understood that. It’s not what we do.
The Driver wrapped the dog tenderly in a blanket and lifted him onto the back seat. We turned off the radio going back towards the town. It somehow seemed wrong. There was nobody left to make another decision, so one was not made.
The darkness of the roads began to give way to the orange glow of the town and already, an occasional firework was lighting up the sky. We had run out of options, trapped by the dog who remained stubbornly alive on the back seat.
The Driver suddenly veered left off the road and turned into a gateway marked by an illuminated sign advertising veterinary services. It was a desperate move, a final chance.
The driveway of the large old house was packed with cars. We came to a stop and he turned off the engine. We hesitated, both of us aware that the sudden arrival of a marked white car was so often a harbinger of death. I could see that the place was heaving. People in party dress, framed in the tall bay windows, gathered in groups laughing and clinking their glasses.
As we stepped out onto the crunching gravel, the front door opened, amplifying the hum from inside. A grey-haired man in a tuxedo hurried down the steps with a woman at his heels, clinging onto his sleeve. He searched my face for clues, his eyes a question.
"It’s only a dog, I need help for a dog," I said quickly, to reassure them.
The man exhaled long and slow into the frosty night.
"It’s all right, Margaret," he whispered and kissed her gently on the cheek. "Go back inside." Her shoulders relaxed as she climbed the steps and retreated into the hallway.
I outlined our sorry situation and waited for his reasonable refusal.
"Come into the surgery," he said, without hesitation, indicating the building which stood across from the house. He unlocked the door and turned on the harsh white lights of the clinical room. An antiseptic aura hung in the air above the shining metal surfaces. He slid off his jacket, hung it on the back of the door, loosened his bowtie and rolled up his sleeves in business-like fashion. The Driver carried the dog inside and laid him gently on the stainless steel table. Moving his hands slowly over the dog’s matted coat, the vet pressed methodically into the flesh and bone, watching for a response, checking and rechecking. He confirmed what I already knew, a fractured spine and a severed cord.
"You did the right thing," he said, his eyes meeting mine as he drew up a syringe. What right thing had I done? I didn’t ask. I let it sit in there between us, a platitude to absolve us all.
He paused before he injected and, leaning in to stroke the softness of the dog’s domed head, he crooned a lullaby of reassurances into the dropping ears.
Then, as the column of thick white liquid slipped into the vein, we could hear the countdown rising ever louder from the house, four, three, two, ONE!
The dog’s broken body relaxed, and his eyes closed slowly.
The party erupted into cheers and Aul’ Lang Syne. "We’ll drink a cup of kindness yet…."
The Universe sometimes conspires to wring every last drop out of a moment, clamouring for our attention, wanting us to notice and remember. And so, the skies popped with fireworks and church bells across the town rang in the new Millennium.
The Driver stood in the corner and sobbed, fingers on his face, fat tears leaking through them.
The vet covered the dog’s body with the blanket, and with a reverence usually reserved for the loved, he tucked in a protruding paw.
It was only then, with that small, exquisitely tender movement, that the Universe finally got its way.
"Thank you," I said to the vet.
"Not at all," he replied. "It’s what we do."
About the author: Helen O'Neill worked as a GP for nearly 30 years. She has just completed a Creative Writing course in Maynooth University and this is her first time to enter a writing competition.
The Night Call was read on air by Jane Brennan on Friday 8 October as part of the RTÉ Short Story Competition series 2021 in honour of Francis MacManus which runs weeknights on Late Date from Monday 27 September to Friday 8 October at 11.20pm on RTÉ Radio 1.
Listen back to a special Arena with Seán Rocks broadcast Monday 27 September 2021, in which judges, Lucy Caldwell, Declan Hughes and Lisa McInerney discussed this year's shortlist and awarded their top prizes.