Ailsa Cox talks about how she wrote her story, Coup de Grace, which appears in The End: Fifteen Endings to Fifteen Paintings: Short Fiction Inspired by the Artwork of Nicolas Ruston, edited by Ashley Stokes
When, in summer 2015, the writers were asked to select a paintings, I knew the one I wanted straight away. It was the picture that looked like an eye in fur. I’m a very slow writer, and there wasn’t much time to complete the commission. But my journal was full of entries about my dog George, who’d died not long before. Losing the dog had been incredibly painful. Something vital had been lost in both our lives, my husband’s and mine, and this wasn’t just about George himself, but mortality and love and loss, and the human condition. Ours is a late marriage; we have children by previous partners, but none together, so the dog we’d had for fourteen years was, if not exactly our baby, a creature we’d brought up together, some one who’d shared our daily lives. 2015 was not a great year for our family. George’s decline symbolized all those other adversities. There’s also something about the absolute trust dogs place in humans that’s especially heart-rending, and exposes your capacity for grief. I’ve never wept for anyone as much as I wept for George. I couldn’t bear to be at home because it seemed empty without him.
So then – easy. I’d just rework the material I already had, including a trip I made with my husband, stepson and grandkids to see the cruise ships passing by on from the beach at Waterloo, just up the road from where I live on Merseyside. (Waterloo and Crosby Beach also feature in my story, ‘Killing with Kindness’ in Unthology 6). The story’s ending was all ready; I wanted to finish on something my husband said, about George’s final moments, as he was put to sleep – ‘I couldn’t look him in the eye.’ I’d been been reading unashamedly autobiographical fiction by Karl Ove Knaussgaard and others, and it seemed impossible in any case to just tinker with the truth, changing names and so on. What was the point?
This is my first attempt at an opening passage:
George. Not all of this story is fact, but I don’t have it in me to invent another name because he was true to himself, he was the indefinable substance that went by that name. Most dogs have sad expressions, and George is one of them, unutterably sad. Is that a cliche? Unutterably sad.
Just terrible. Soppy. Cringe-making. Scrap the auto-fiction. I needed a different dog and a different family. And somehow that took me to Freddie and Evelyn, his elderly owner, and my narrator, who is her daughter-in-law, and younger than me because I wanted the children to be her children. And then if Evelyn was in her 90s, there had to be an age gap between the narrator and her husband, Jeff. That worked, because it helped to add another layer to the themes of mortality, aging and loss. The image of the children on the typewriters is taken straight from my diary, but also served to signal the age gap; ‘“Do you remember those golfballs?”’ says Jeff, “used to be like a circular thing?”’ Other elements, like Evelyn’s funeral tape, just came out of nowhere as I was writing. At some stage I know I wanted to reference Joyce’s ‘The Dead’ and Evelyn’s name was taken from another story in Dubliners, ‘Eveline’. That has been lost in the writing, and so is the line of dialogue about the eye that I wanted to steal from real life, and other things have taken their place, according to the logic and the rhythms of the story. Once you’ve taken that first step from fact to fiction, everything changes, and a different kind of reality opens up before your eyes.
The End: Fifteen Endings to Fifteen Paintings: Short Fiction Inspired by the Artwork of Nicolas Ruston, edited by Ashley Stokes is available to order here.