Friday, 31 January 2014

The Good Boy, a short story by Jack McBride

The smell of iodoform soaks the room. Dim Christmas tree lights cast weak shadows on the walls. On a metal framed bed pushed into one corner lies a woman. In another corner a teenage boy sits on a wooden chair. The Virgin Mary looks down from a picture frame hung above the bed. A phonograph plays faintly in the adjoining apartment.

The woman whimpers, her body contorts. The boy rises anxiously to his feet. He crosses to the bedside table and picks up a hypodermic syringe.


“No, not yet,” smiles the woman wearily. She looks at the clock on the shelf. Not enough time has elapsed since the last dose.

The boy has been with her all afternoon. Through half-open eyes she has observed him, sometimes sketching on a pad, sometimes softly weeping. She knows her illness has caused him great sadness. He is a good boy, she reflects. She wishes her husband could have made his peace with him before he died.       

No-one has told her, but she knows that she too is dying. Breast cancer detected too late. Mastectomy performed too late. She has little faith in the doctor. She has less faith in the iodoform treatment. The only one who can save her now is God. She has faith in Him.

An hour passes and it is time for the morphine. The boy administers it with a dexterity acquired over the past eleven months. The woman settles back into a painless, dream-filled, sleep.

She is back in the village with her mother, standing in a lane that runs along the back of their cottage. It is August and they are picking blackberries. The sun is shining and she is happy.

Then she is on a farm at the edge of another village. She is with her six-year-old son and they are gathering eggs from the hen house. Her husband is working alone in the field where the beehives are. The sun is shining.

Now she is in a house in a town. Her husband and son are arguing. The sky is dark.  

She wakens. She half opens her eyes so that she can watch her son without him knowing.

He is sketching again. He holds the pad out in front of him as he sits in the chair, his work illuminated only by the faltering Christmas tree lights. She wonders what he is drawing. He has always had this gift for art. If only her husband had appreciated this, maybe they would have argued less. He would have seen him for what he was. A good boy.

The boy looks away from his pad and sees that the blanket has slipped from his mother’s shoulders. He moves towards her to adjust it. As he does so, she emits a barely audible yelp of pain. The effects of the morphine are beginning to wear off.  

“Don’t worry dear mother,” he reassures her. “Don’t worry. Your boy, Adolph, is here.”


Jack McBride was born in Belfast and has spent all his life in Northern Ireland, except for a year studying for a master’s degree at Newcastle University. Now retired, he has had several articles/ short stories/ poems published in on-line magazines and technical publications. 

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