Friday, February 26, 2010

#fridayflash: Act Normal

(Image: Ayena)

By Lily Mulholland

It was eleven o’clock on a Tuesday morning and Andie was lined up at the dispensary counter of a pharmacy at her local shopping centre, waiting to be served. Doing her best to blend in with the other customers, mostly elderly folk who cashed their pension checks each fortnight to do the prescription shuffle, she pretended to examine the merchandise crowding the shelving under a sign that read ‘Foot Solutions’.

Who knew there were so many kinds of dressings available? Or foot problems, for that matter? Bunions, corns, planter’s warts, calluses, in-grown toenails, heel spurs, fungal infections, hammer toe, chilblains – the list was seemingly endless. In her imagination she had a brief but lucrative career as a podiatrist. Gross, but a money-spinner for sure. Maybe she should look into it. She had good scores in Year 12 biology and they had mature age entry schemes these days, especially for battlers. Or something like that. She vaguely remembered hearing it on the radio the other day, the education minister banging on about getting more people into university.

With the old dears jostling for the few available vinyl chairs, Andie maintained a respectful distance, observing queue etiquette with patience and a poker face. It would not do to be drawing attention to herself. Getting ready this morning, she had chosen her clothing with care: neat jeans, not too faded, not too tight, a clean grey t-shirt, and a red wool coat, a hand-me-down from her grandmother. Fortunately it was a timeless cut and Nan had taken good care of it. Andie had even lucked out on a decent pair of shoes from the Salvos Store (although she told her husband she had bought them from a department store and pocketed the difference).

Finally it was her turn. She moved up to the counter and asked for four boxes of Mersyndol caplets. Eyebrow shooting skyward, the sales assistant looked suspisciously at Andie.

‘Are they for yourself?’


‘Are you taking any other medication?’

‘No,’ replied Andie. It was the truth. Mersyndol was the only drug she needed.

‘Any other paracetamol or codeine?’

‘No, none,’ she lied.

‘Have you discussed taking this medication with your doctor?’

‘Yes.’ Andie’s rising irritation levels were manifested by the prickle of sweat on the skin above her top lip.

‘I’ll have to talk to the pharmacist.’ The woman disappeared up behind the three-quarter wall separating the chemist from the massing hordes. A full-blown hot flush was sweeping through Andie’s body; she could feel her face burning as the heat ascended and tried to escape out through her hair. The sweat was making her wish she had chosen a lighter jacket, but at least Nan’s coat would hide the dark patches infiltrating her t-shirt. Gripping the edge of the counter helped still the tremors in her hands.

The disapproving saleswoman returned with the blue and gold boxes. Andie’s heart leapt while her head pounded. A headache was crashing down on her and fast.

‘You are not to take more than two at a time. No more than eight capsules in a twenty-four hour period. Do not consume alcohol while taking this medication. Stop taking them as soon as they start working then switch to paracetamol. Do not drive after taking this medicine...’

Andie zoned out as the woman sounded like a robot, reciting by rote the instructions she knew so well. She could have listed the side effects, in order too, but that would have been a dead giveaway.

‘I understand.’ Andie’s hand stretched out to take the boxes, but the woman with her cat’s bum mouth and bad highlights had not quite finished.

‘You must advise your doctor you have taken this medication.’ She glared at Andie through slotted eyes.

‘Okay,’ nodded Andie. Anything to get the woman to release nirvana from her garishly painted claws.

‘Pay at the front.’ With that, the magic boxes were placed on the counter and Andie was dismissed. Scooping them up, she threaded her way to the front of the shop. A long queue of pensioners was waiting at the checkout; no doubt their fumbling for small change in the bottom of bags was causing the hold-up.

Hit by a wave of nausea, Andie closed her eyes and leaned against a crown end display at the end of the ‘Sensational Skin’ aisle. The tabs ran out the day before and the withdrawal was already hitting her hard.

‘Next please!’ Andie’s eyes snapped open. Lurching forward like a learner driver missing first gear, she fumbled the box onto the counter and handed a twenty-dollar note to the cashier. Andie took the proffered change and receipt and stuffed everything into her bag.

Escaping into the chill air was like diving into a deep, cold pool, invigorating and cleansing. Almost as good as the dreamy post-pill slide. But that would have to wait. She had her rounds to complete: the other three pharmacies and their scrutineers to withstand before she could abscond with her bounty.

If she timed it right, the first tabs would kick in before the children arrived home from school.


  1. I had to enter "Mersyndol" into Google to figure out what it was (shows what I know about drugs, eh?), and the top website I clicked on gave a bit of a description and said it is sold only by the pharmacist's discretion, so that was a spot on part of your story, and it really added to it on my second (more knowledgeable) read through. This was a good story, really following the mindset of someone who is addicted to drugs, no matter what those drugs may be. Well done!

  2. Good job of describing the housewife junkie! I had to look those drugs up. I've never heard of Mersyndol - but I doubt that anything with codeine can be purchased in the US without a prescription - and the paracetamol is called acetaminophen here. You taught me new words today! Thank you.

  3. You're going to make someone very suspicious with all these web searches for Mersyndol. The funny (or sad) thing is that a few of those pensioners were probably doing the same thing. Great job with describing the withdrawal effects in a new way. Loved the heat flash.


  4. Oooh, I like it. I too didn't know what the mersyndol was, but of course I knew about panadol ^_^. Love that last line. Was it deliberate? The reference to tabs, making me think of LSD?

  5. Good story Lily - I felt the panic rising! Loved this too: "...elderly folk who cashed their pension checks each fortnight to do the prescription shuffle." Such a sad image. My story shares a theme with yours this week - must be something going around?

  6. "but the woman with her cat’s bum mouth"

    Sometimes? I wish my imagination wasn't QUITE so literal.


  7. Sorry, should have inserted a note about Mersyndol. It's a codeine/paracetamol mix with a low-grade sedative. I take it for really bad headaches and people take it for migraines, etc. Codeine, I've discovered through researching it, can be addictive - it's a barbituate after all. There is a whole subculture out there that I stumbled across, and hence a story was born :)

  8. Mama's little helper indeed :^).

    Great portrayal of a 'pharmacy hopper' -- one who seeks rx medications to get high. Loved the cat bum's mouth.

    Note: Codeine is a narcotic; at this low dose, you need a lot to get high and addicted. Doxylamine is an antihistamine with sedating properties. [By day, I play a pharmacy professor ;^) ]

    Great story about a problem more common than you would think. Peace, Linda

  9. This builds nicely. An innocent seeming what to wear to go out in is later revealed as key strategy for hiding the obvious signs...

    Good stuff (the writing, not the drugs I mean).

    Marc Nash

  10. Great work, Lily. I started reading it just because you'd written it, but was almost immediately hooked (pun totally intended - it's the copywriter in me). A great read! xk

  11. As horrible as addiction is, I had to grin a bit at the last line.

  12. Nasty - addictions.
    Well written

  13. Like the situation and character here. The closing line about timing the tab's kick-in for when the kids get home is a blinder. The piece is full of tension. Fav description has to be 'Lurching forward like a learner driver missing first gear, she fumbled the box onto the counter.' Great piece of description.

    My only criticism would be the opening is a little over-written. We don't need to know some of the details in the opening paragraphs, and the first could certainly be trimmed to focus on the features of the scene stopping her getting to what she wants and so heighten the tension from the get-go.

    Strong writing here though. great stuff.

  14. Good job of showing how addiction takes over a whole life - right down to the choice of clothes.

  15. Captures the feeling of a pharma addict. Strong writing. I was into this feeling Andie zoning out listening to the pharmacist.

  16. I of course want everything done in 299 words, but I was happy to spend extra time with yours, Lily, because the tension was clearly going to pay off eventually. I think the time for her to name the foot remedies would have been while the disapproving clerk was consulting the pharmacist. Then it would have served the added purpose of making us fill the time she had to wait. Sad about the kids. I wonder what drugs they'll abuse when it's their turn.

  17. Lily, that was a great suspenseful piece. The addict emotions were palpable. I marvel at the many unique details you put in your stories, things I could never think of. They make your story come alive and add to the readers enjoyment and visualizations.

    "Anything to get the woman to release nirvana from her garishly painted claws" - great line.

    And, the clincher at the end was excellent.

    Thanks for drug lesson.

  18. I thought it was lacking the "flash" aspect as well but it built up so well that I was glad I read it. Grim, depressing stuff. Such is life. Nice writing.

  19. Believable and real. Pharmacies can be intimidating and embarassing places especially when you aren't feeling well!

  20. Another good story. I really saw through the eyes of the protagonist.

  21. I really appreciate the comments and critique. I'm trying to take risks in my approach - sometimes they pay off, sometimes they don't. But I'm learning and hopefully getting better!

  22. Loved the meandering of her mind to the foot products!
    Sad piece, very vividly described.

    Back when I was in my early teens, over the counter cough syrup had codeine in it. I remember once I had a cough and could be bothered to get a spoon, so I guesstimated what turned out to be a rather large glug. I had a great afternoon and got no homework done :-)

    I remember hearing, years later, that junkies would use cough syrup when they were too hard up to purchase the strong stuff

  23. Lily - you asked for some constructive feedback, so i'll take a stab. There is a LOT of good in this story - others have mentioned key phrases that are inventive and descriptive and the fact that the suspense builds towards the end. My suggestions would be 1) tighten the prose (eliminate words & sentences that don't directly add to the story and avoid any repetition of ideas), and 2) avoid passive tense like the plague (is, are, etc - all forms of "to be"). These two things will focus the reader on what's really important and sweep them along. Great story!

  24. Like the others, I did not know what Mersyndol was, BUT from the reaction of the woman behind the counter, I understood that it was strong and addictive.

    Vivid description throughout the piece. Especially liked the "Lurching forward like a learner driver missing first gear." I know what that feels like!

    And three more pharmacies to go! Poor woman. Being in the grips of drug addiction is a whole lot of work.

    Very strong writing....

  25. Very sad stuff...but I also had a little smile at the end. And I didn't think it mattered to the telling of the tale that I didn't know exactly what the drug was...I think you had enough info there that I knew what I needed to.

  26. I enjoyed this - from the descriptions of the pensioners to the build-up in tension as she worried about getting her drugs. Lots of lovely tidbits to enjoy, while feeling pity for her addiction.

  27. Ah, poor kids...and even with that knowledge, I feel sorry for her. She probably didn't mean to get addicted and now it is driving her life. Great job building the tension, by the way!

  28. I loved how she felt, waiting in line... I've done that before (not with her particular problem) ... the waiting... the trying to look normal... the flush... great stuff!

  29. The nice thing about coming late is everyone did the homework for me. You captured the character's anxious self-consciousness well, with good descriptions throughout. I agree that a short direct first sentence would drive the reader in.

  30. I read this picturing a young, single woman. Your revelation at the end was timely and sharp. Great, well written story.


I love reading comments so please do leave one! I would also appreciate your constructive criticism - life is a learning journey and I'm enjoying learning a lot about my writing.