Foolish Mortals: A Novel

Foolish Mortals: A Novel

by Jennifer Johnston

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After a shocking accident, one family gathers for an unforgettable Christmas overflowing with secrets and revelations in this deeply felt novel by one of Ireland’s foremost modern writers

Henry has been estranged from his children since his divorce with their mother, Stephanie. But when a car accident claims the life of his second wife and leaves him with partial amnesia, Henry embarks on the fraught journey of making amends. As the family gathers for Christmas dinner, Henry’s memory comes back in starts and stops—the wedges that drove his daughter, Ciara, away; the slow onset of his mother’s dementia; the real cause of his break with his ex-wife.
A tragicomedy of near-Shakespearean proportions, Foolish Mortals is at once a novel of the mending of a dysfunctional family and a portrait of the modernizing gradient blending old Ireland into new. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781497646445
Publisher: Open Road Media
Publication date: 06/24/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 252
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Jennifer Johnston is a preeminent voice of contemporary Irish fiction. Her long list of accolades includes the Whitbread Literary Award for The Old Jest, the Evening Standard Award for Best First Novel for The Captains and the Kings, and a Man Booker Prize shortlist mention for Shadows on Our Skin. Her recent Foolish Mortals was shortlisted for the Irish Book of the Decade by the Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards. Johnston has authored seventeen novels and five plays. She lives outside Derry, Northern Ireland.

Read an Excerpt

Foolish Mortals

A Novel

By Jennifer Johnston


Copyright © 2007 Jennifer Johnston
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4976-4644-5



'He's coming out ...'

My head was filled with coloured reverberations but I heard the words.

Purple, green, yellow.

It was a deep unknown voice.



Red, flashing in front of my eyes.

Someone had sewn them shut.

I tried to pull them open, to see who had spoken, to see the world.

No luck.

The colours in my head flashed, red and deepest purple, the purple of kings and queens and cardinals.

I laughed inside myself and the pain came.

Wave after wave, filling my body and my head. Nothing, no part of me was free from that pain. The colours deepened into black and I fell.

I seemed to be forever falling.

Beside me someone sighed. Someone was holding my wrist. Was it the same person, I wondered.

I wondered, and then I realised that I was wondering.

Oh dear God.

I heard the words echo in my head.

Oh dear God.

I felt my jaw, my mouth forming the words, opening and closing.

The fingers holding my wrist loosened, fell away.

'What was that he said?'


'He spoke. He spoke.'


'He must be—'



I wondered again.

Someone covered my hand with a soft cloth.

They whispered. I could only hear the soft hissing of their breaths as the words pushed out of their mouths.

Clink and then the sound for a moment of running water.

I surprised myself by knowing what these sounds were.

I knew whispers. I knew water. I knew that someone had put a soft cloth over my hand. A chair leg squeaked on the floor and then someone sighed once more.

I knew those words.




My mouth needed water.

I tried to raise my hand, the one that someone had covered with a soft cloth.

Then the pain began again.

Not this time like the coloured pain. No.


I could bear this.

I could wonder where I was, who were the whisperers.

I could try to open my eyes.

Oh dear God.

'He spoke again. Henry.'

'Ssssh. Leave him. He's not yet ready.'

Oh dear God.

'Please let me, please. Henry.'

The chair leg scraped again and someone stood beside me. I felt the shadow of someone there on my right-hand side.

Oh dear God.


'I'm tired.' It was my voice. I spoke quite clearly. I surprised myself by the clarity of my voice.

'Henry. You're going to be all right. Can you hear me? Henry?'

More words.





I turned my head away from the voice. I was truly tired. More tired than I could remember ever being. I was weighted down with tiredness. Long and thin, I was, and covered with heavy stones: shoulders, chest, arms, legs, smooth, heavy stones.

Murmurs reached my ears, but meant nothing. Soft steps moved. I went into blackness.

Stephanie, who had been his wife, left the room, followed by Dr Cairns, hot on her heels. He closed the door carefully behind him and turned and lookd at her. She was pale, with deep black rings under her eyes.

'Is he ...? Will he ...?'

The doctor sighed.

'Mrs ... ummm ...'


'Yes.' He said the word angrily. He knew. He bloody knew what her name was, but he had a lot of things in his head. Everyone expected you to be sharp. All the time. 'I'm sorry, Mrs O'Connor, of course I ... Yes. He'll be all right. Broken leg, ribs, collarbone, they'll all mend. Bones mend. I mean to say when he's about sixty or so, arthritis will probably set in. But.' He laughed a little awkwardly. 'That happens to a lot of people, doesn't it?'

'I suppose.'

She chewed at her lip for a moment.

Her teeth were white and very straight.

Expensive, he thought.

'It was really ... well, I meant in his head. Yes. What do you ... ummm?'

He pulled himself together.

'Tomorrow morning, Mrs ... O'Connor. We'll know more tomorrow morning. I will be in my consulting rooms at eleven.' Cautiously he put a hand on her arm. 'In the meantime get some rest. Please, do that.'

He turned and walked away down the highly polished corridor. His shoes squeaked as he walked; that embarrassed him slightly.

Stephanie watched him go.

Damn you.

She turned back towards the door of Henry's room and wondered whether to go in again or go home to bed.

Damn you too.

She decided to go home. She'd see about bed when she got there.

Damn everyone, she thought as she ran down the steps from the hospital to the car park. Most especially Henry.

She sat in her car for a few minutes staring out of the window, looking at people coming and going; people with flowers or

plastic bags full of clean clothes, bottles of lemon squash, books. One woman carried a large fluffy toy dog with long ears and another a small radio. They walked with purpose.

I'll bring him some flowers tomorrow, she thought, and the children must come in then, both of them. Not of course at the same time, that might be too much for him. That might make him lapse back into unconsciousness again.

She turned the key and set off for home.

Ciara was at home, sprawled on a pile of cushions on the floor watching EastEnders.

'What's for dinner?' she shouted as her mother closed the front door.

Stephanie didn't answer. She hung her coat up and went into the sitting room.

Her daughter waved a hand at her.

'The BBC's really gone mad.'

Two people were kissing on the large screen.

'They're brother and sister. Incest. I mean to say ... What is the world coming to?'

Stephanie picked up the zapper and switched off the set.


'Your father is still unconscious.'

'Should we care?'

'Darling, don't be like that. Of course we care.'

Ciara got to her feet and stood for a moment or two staring at her mother.

'Sorry,' she said. 'Of course I care. I think he's a bastard but I love him. Is he going to be OK? What do they say?'

'Bones mend. That's what the doctor said.'

'That was all?'

'More or less. I'm seeing him tomorrow morning. I expect he'll have more to say then. We can have omelettes or we can go down the road. Which would you prefer?'

'You look exhausted. Whackerony. I'll do us omelettes. You go to bed.'

'I'll have a bath. I don't know about bed. I'm tired but I don't think I'll be able to sleep. My head's a whirl. Have you not got work to do?'

'Nope. Done it all.' The lying words flew out of her mouth and round the room, like autumn leaves fluttering in the wind.

Stephanie smiled.

They went their ways; Ciara to rattle and bang in the kitchen and think thoughts about her father; Stephanie to the bath where she fell asleep and was wakened by Ciara's voice calling her.

It was night-time when my eyes opened. The lights in the room were dim. A figure stood by the window. It was a woman. She was watching me.


'Who are you?'

I suppose it was less of a cliche than where am I?

She smiled.

'I've come to say goodbye.' Her voice was low, almost like a man's.

'You have to say hello first.'

She moved silently towards me; there was not even the rustle of her skirt nor the slur of a shoe on the polished floor. She put out a hand and touched my face. A breath of a touch, no more.


My head hurt with the effort to remember.

'Have we met?'

'Oh yes, my dear.'

'I ... I'm sorry ...

'You have forgotten me?'

'I ...'

I didn't know what to say.

She leant over me, her face hovering above mine. I had never seen her before. I could swear that.

She sighed.

'Such inconstancy.'

I closed my eyes.

Stephanie brought flowers the next morning, an extravagant bunch of freesias, deep red, orange, purple and white, whose strong sweet smell she hoped would drown the hospital smell of floor polish and disinfectant. She also brought the Irish Times and a Venetian thriller by Donna Leon, in case he might be well enough to feel like light reading.

He was propped against a hill of white pillows, strapped and bandaged; the bruises on his face showed black and purple on his yellow skin. His eyes were closed, but he opened them when he heard the door.

'Hello,' she said.

She stood by the door for a moment, waiting ... for what, she wondered. Then with an idiotic gesture she waved the bunch of flowers at him. He closed his eyes again.



She went across the room and put the flowers down on a table near the window.

'I'll get a nurse to—'

'It is you, isn't it? Steph?'

'Yes. It is. Yes. I am Stephanie.'

'Thank you,' he said.

His voice, she thought, was scratched and faded, like an old shellac record.

She went over to the bed; her crêpe de Chine scarf had been neatly folded and placed on the locker beside him. She picked it up and put the paper and the book in its place. The scarf she unfolded and draped across her shoulders; it was a wonderful red with the faintest of grey-blue traceries across it. She had bought it in Venice many years before when they had been happy. She always had the remembrance of that happiness when she wore it.

'There's nothing to thank me for,' she said and touched his hand, the hand she had covered with the scarf the night before. 'I've brought you the Irish Times. I didn't know if ...'

'That is good,' he said.

His hand twitched under hers. He scrabbled at her fingers, tried to clasp them, but she pulled away.

'The children will be coming in ...'

'No,' he said.

He opened his eyes as wide as he could and stared up at her.

He flipped his hand at her.

'Not yet. Please.'

'They want to see you. It's been over a year since—'


'All right. I'll tell them not to come.'

'I want to be able to think when I see them. I want to be able to remember their names.'

His eyes drooped shut.

She looked at him for a while and then turned and left the room.

At the door she stopped for a moment.

'Donough and Ciara,' she said.

At eleven o'clock precisely she knocked on the door of Dr Cairns's room.

'Come in.'

His secretary looked up from some papers.

'Mrs O'Connor?'

'That's right.'

'Doctor is expecting you. Go right in.'

She nodded towards a door on her left.

The doctor got up when she came into the room. He held out a hand.

'Mrs O'Connor. Good morning. Was I grumpy yesterday? Don't tell me. I know I was. Please sit down. I'd had a dreadful day. The bedside manner wears thin from time to time. I hope you will forgive me.'

She sat down.

'Not at all. I mean, yes, of course. I ... I saw him earlier. I just popped in. I brought him some flowers. I thought he seemed better. He knew me. That was better. Wasn't it?'

'Yes.' He picked up a pen and tapped the table with it.

Rat-a-tata-tat. Quite rhythmic and soft.

'Am I right in thinking that you and Mr O'Connor are separated?'

'Divorced, actually.'

Ratatata ratatatat.

'I don't really see what—'

'How long?'

'Several years. Look ...'

'How long, to be exact?'

'Two years. It seems like forever.'

'Mrs O'Connor, it seems to me that you are taking on your shoulders the role of next of kin. Do you really think this is what my patient would want?'

'It doesn't really matter, does it? Someone has to care.'

'He has a wife? Hasn't he? Didn't he marry again?'

'She was killed in the accident. Did no one tell you that? Dear God, do you think he doesn't know?'

The rattatting faltered.

'That is likely. Yes. He has been unconscious until last night. I don't know what, if anything, he remembers, about the accident, about anything at all. As I said to you yesterday, his bones will mend, but no one can say anything about his head. Not yet. It will take time. He may be perfectly all right, but ...'

He looked at the pen and then dropped it onto the table. He sighed.

'I'm sorry,' he said at last. 'I can't say much more to you until ... well, until I discover more about who ... You have children?'


'Yes. Grown up?'

'Well ...'

'Perhaps if one of them or both of them were to come and see me.'

Stephanie got to her feet.

'I'll talk to them, but if I may say so, Doctor, I think you are a bloody pain in the ass.'

He looked startled.

'Mrs ... ah ...'


'Yes. Yes. I do remember your name. You must realise that your ... ah, that Mr O'Connor is very ill. I have to be aware of his best interests. You seem to me to be a rather intemperate lady.'

'Possibly. But I am the person who cares. I've told you that.'

He waved a hand in her direction.

'I was his wife for over twenty years. I am the mother of his children. I do care, Doctor. Believe me. Goodbye.'

She stamped out of the room and past his secretary and out of the door into the passage. She left both doors open behind her; why bother slamming them, she thought, as she stamped down the passage.

She stood at the top of the steps outside the hospital main door and looked across the car park. She took a deep breath of fresh air.

'I care,' she shouted. No one paid any attention.

A nurse came into my room and asked me what I would like for lunch.

I told her I wasn't hungry.

She said I must try something.

'Soup, perhaps. A few spoonfuls of soup?'

I didn't answer her.

'You must eat something.'

I shut my eyes.

I could feel the pain starting again. A distant wave which I knew would grow and grow, wash over me, wave upon wave like the tide creeping in, like the sparkling heads tossing, like the undertow pulling gently at first and then washing, pulling, sucking, tugging on and on. I groaned.

Featherlike fingers touched my forehead, slid down over my cheekbone, my jaw, to my neck. I forced my eyes open to see her face; it was the same face, pale as death. I had never seen her before and yet ...

Her fingers touched my forehead again. She whispered warm words into my ear. I couldn't make out what she was saying, but her breath was warm.

The wave of pain washed, washed washed.

'Well one of you will have to go and see the doctor. He won't talk to me. He thinks I'm up to no good and then of course I was rude to him.'

'Trust you. The words fall out of your mouth before you think. Don't they?'

'And Daddy. Just pop in and say hi. He is after all your father.'

Donough sighed.

'Yes, yes, yes, yes.'

'Say your name. Tell him your name, just in case ...'

'In case of what?'

'Just in case. He might be a bit dopey. You know. He said ...' She stopped. She turned away from her son and looked out of the window. Someone had left a deckchair in the middle of the lawn and its seat flapped, dispirited, in the wind. Brown leaves lifted and then fell again, the trees were nearly bare and in the low sun the shadows of their bare branches danced on the grass.

'He said what?' her son asked.

'Nothing much. Just that he mightn't recognise you: any of you. He didn't want that to happen ... so he said ...'


'Not to come.'

'Well there you are then.'

'But ...'

Donough sighed again.

'I think you should. I really do; and go and see the doctor. Get some sense out of him.'

'No. I won't go.'

'You said yes a few minutes ago.'

'You hadn't told me the whole of it. About him saying that.'

'For heaven's sake Donough, stop arguing. I want you to go and see the man.'

'You're bullying me.'

She began to cry. She felt in her pocket for a tissue and dabbed at her face. He watched her in silence for a few moments and then got up and went over to her. He put his arms around her.

'It's OK, Ma. I'll go. Tomorrow morning, I'll go. Come on, don't cry. Please don't cry. Everything's going to be all right.' He rocked her in his arms and kissed the top of her head. 'Mamma mia, sssh. Don't cry. There, there, there.'

She lifted her head and gazed out at the garden over his shoulder.

'Someone's left a deckchair out there.'

'I'll get it.'

She dabbed at her eyes again.

'Thank you.'

He unlocked the door and went out into the garden. She watched him pick up the deckchair, fold its legs together and carry it over to the shed on the other side of the lawn; the leaves scuttered round his legs as he walked and she thought of Henry, his whole unbroken self, cutting down the apple trees and putting up the shed and how angry she had been with him. They had been lovely apple trees, Beauty of Bath, pink, crunchy and sweet. She could taste the juice in her mouth as she thought about it. You couldn't buy Beauty of Bath in the shops any longer, she couldn't think why. Maybe you never could buy them. Maybe only those people privileged enough to have apple trees in their gardens had ever tasted Beauty of Bath apples. Henry had not cared; he had preferred the shed, so that his expensive garden tools might not get wet, where he could keep things in order. He had used the work bench quite a lot. She wondered how he managed without it now, in his new life, and then thought that now his new life was changed, he had entered a new phase.


Excerpted from Foolish Mortals by Jennifer Johnston. Copyright © 2007 Jennifer Johnston. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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