Short story: I couldn’t wait to get out of that town for Leaving Cert English #625Lab

‘When I was eighteen, I couldn’t wait to get out of that town.”

Write a short story in which a young character is eager to leave home. (Composition, 2012)

At 980 words, it's just a little short for a short story. I would add on another 20%. It has a spectacular beginning, but the end doesn't quite do it justice. You may also like: Complete Guide to Leaving Cert English (€)

When I was eighteen, I couldn’t wait to get out of that town, and above all – get away from the woman whose shadow I’d resided in for a total of thirteen years. You’d think with no other children to compete with I’d have been the favourite child automatically, but somehow, Margaret always managed to be her own favourite child.

Short story I couldn’t wait to get out of that town for Leaving Cert English

To understand what leaving her meant, I think you ought to understand how she came to be my reluctant minder, and I, her reluctant mindee. My parents were killed in a boating accident when I was five. Both were only children and my Dad’s parents lived in New Zealand, so there was only one option. On May 6th, 1985, I arrived on my grandmother Margaret’s doorstep. I’ve never forgotten the speed with which my naive dreams of a typical smiley ‘granny’ figure were dashed. I’d never met her before, you see – she had a ‘strained’ relationship with Mom.

She opened the door that day and I took it all in – orange (or strawberry blonde as she used to call it) dyed hair, a yellow vinyl raincoat and dark glasses. (She was blind in one eye- though I never found out why). Quite a frightening figure to a 5 year old orphan, and I don’t think that fear ever really went away.

She was Margaret Dennis, playwright extraordinaire and renowned Irish poet. A Cavan woman and a notorious figure in the Irish theatre scene by the time I came to know her, mainly because she took to critiquing other artists work vocally in the media and was known for her ‘romantic escapades’ with married men. Any assumptions you’d make about my grandmother after hearing these facts are probably quite accurate. She was narcissistic, haughty and of course, rather selfish. 

And so it was that I spent my childhood in Margaret Dennis’s cluttered cottage in Kinsale, a town where my dear grandmother was revered and despised in equal measure. When the time came to leave this town, I knew I wouldn’t miss the whispering and the staring. “You’re her granddaughter?!”

Our relationship was more like two reluctant roommates than a child and her grandmother. Two roomates who just about managed to look past each other’s flaws. I put up with her flaws: constantly forgetting to collect me or feed me, never turning up to my school plays or events, holding strange parties at 2am on week nights and of course, chewing with her mouth open (that really irked me). And in turn, she put up my flaw: being a person whom she was expected to care for. What a martyr. (The tone of the essay is a little confusing. On the one hand, it is light and reminds me of how Juno talked about her cactus-sending real mother. On the other hand, what is described here is bona fide negligence towards a child - or is it a little exaggerated, in a sort of a cute sulky teenage way? It reads as the latter, but the ending makes it sounds like there is a lot of resentment here.)

I can still remember our encounter at breakfast on my 18th birthday. 

“It’s my birthday today.”

“Oh?” Margaret said. She hadn’t looked up from The New Yorker. 

“Yeah, I’m eighteen.”

This caught her attention and we locked eyes. In that moment, I knew that we were thinking the same glorious thought – soon this would mean freedom – freedom for both of us. When my exams were over in a couple months, I could get a job, move out, and she’d have no obligation to care for me – her duty would be done.

That night, Margaret arrived home at seven o’clock in her yellow raincoat and called me into the kitchen.

“Cake?” she asked, “Its chocolate, I think.”

She had bought me a birthday cake, a nice one at that, with thick icing and a mound of sprinkles. I was touched by the gesture – she couldn’t have known I hated chocolate. I accepted a slice and we ate in silence (though at one point, I gagged a little and passed it off as a cough). I contemplated my imminent departure as we ate. Though I found the gesture endearing, it certainly didn’t dampen my desire to get out. If anything, it solidified it. I knew that it was almost a parting gift, a farewell olive branch and when I swallowed the last bite of cake, the action seemed symbolic. I hadn’t chosen this cake, but it was what I got. I didn’t particularly enjoy it, but I’d eaten it – it was over and I could get a merciful glass of water to wash the taste away.

A slice of cake is an odd metaphor for the lonely childhood of an orphan, but somehow it fitted. A childhood with Margaret was not the childhood I’d have chosen for myself, but it was finally coming to an end. (The problem with this interpretation of the cake metaphor is that none of us choose our childhood, be it with our own parents or someone else. I would emphasise not the aspect of choice, but the formal, impersonal effort on the part of the person who didn't ask for children, didn't manage to make them happy and didn't particularly care, but still it is a kind act to care for a child - hence the cake metaphor.)

Four months later, I was gone. Me and two other girls had saved enough to rent a small flat outside Dublin – enough to move out of Kinsale. I left on May 12th 1998. Thirteen years and six days after I had arrived, and Margaret wave-kissed me on the cheek and sent me out the door. No emotional goodbyes, though I think I may have seen a single tear of joy trickling down her cheek. In all that time, Peggy hadn’t changed, and she never would. Freedom transformed me. At eighteen, I was nervous – a softspoken girl and a bit of a people pleaser, but I would soon become a confident, headstrong woman. But my absence wouldn’t change Peggy - I had been just a bit of a nuisance; a short lived presence in her long life. 

I attended her funeral last week. She died at the age of 97 and I put yellow daffodils on her grave. Her death had a strange effect on me. At eighteen, I’d walked out the door and left Margaret Dennis behind, and though we had lost touch, somehow she’d always remained with me. Now though – now, she was truly gone – she’d walked out the door just as I did all those years ago. 

Photo by Jad Limcaco on Unsplash

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