Away With the Fairies

I’ve got my head down working on a new novel at the moment, so things are relatively quiet around here. I thought I’d share a free story with you to keep your attention!

I released THE LAST BIG THING in January – a collection of some of my favourite of the short stories I’ve written. The collection includes a number of new stories, one of which is AWAY WITH THE FAIRIES. You can read it here.

The Last Big Thing by David Moody

The last year of my mother-in-law Betty’s life was pretty bloody miserable. She had cancer, and she came to live with us in Birmingham for most of that time until she went into hospital. She ended her days in a hospice, and it was the most remarkable place; desperately sad and yet always warm and welcoming. The staff there were incredible. Some of the other patients clearly knew they were there to die, whilst others had no idea at all, often arguing with the nurses to try and get released or simply making their own spur of the moment attempts at escape. Without having much direct interaction, we got to know many of the patients just by being around them. If you’ve ever spent time with someone as they approach the end of their life you might have felt the same strange mix of emotions as me: you don’t want them to die, but equally you know it’s probably the kindest thing for them. And in that peculiar period of time where the rest of the world carries on regardless while your life is put on pause and your relative’s life fades away, emotions can run high.

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‘You really are heartless, Andrew, you know that?’

‘So you keep telling me, sis.’

‘I just wish you’d show a little respect, that’s all.’

‘What, like he showed me?’

‘He did a lot for us.’

‘When? He was never there.’

‘He worked long hours to support the family.’

‘To support his drinking.’

‘Give it a rest. Stop talking about him like he isn’t here.’

‘But he’s not here. Jesus, Jess, look at the state of him.’ Andrew waved his hand in front of his father’s face. No reaction. ‘See? He’s long gone. Away with the fairies.’

Jessica and Andrew sat either side of the bed, Dad between them, propped up with pillows. His face appeared hollow, cheeks sunken now that his false teeth had been consigned to a plastic beaker. His eyes looked ahead unblinking, looking through everything, staring at nothing. Not a movement. Not a sound. Not a flicker. Sometimes the hospice felt more like a morgue.

Jessica lowered her voice. ‘The nurses were saying last night how he can probably still hear everything we’re saying.’

‘Shit. I hope not.’

‘They said he’s probably getting a lot of stimulation from listening to us talking.’

‘Arguing.’

Talking.’

‘Well he doesn’t look very stimulated. I have to keep checking he’s still breathing.’

‘Please, Andy, just try and be nice.’

‘Nice? Nice? For fuck’s sake, when was he ever nice to me?’

‘I know you two didn’t get on—’

‘And whose fault was that?’

‘—but I wish you’d try and make an effort. Let bygones be bygones.’

Andrew crossed his arms defiantly and slumped back into the uncomfortable plastic chair. ‘I’m wasting my time here.’

‘Do it for Mum.’

‘Ease up on the emotional blackmail, Jess. Give me one good reason why I should stay?’

‘Because it’s the right thing to do. Besides, you’ve not been here twenty minutes yet.’

He checked his watch. ‘Seriously? Christ, feels like hours.’

‘And you only ever come once a week. Twice at most.’

‘I’m busy. I’m working.’

‘Yeah, so am I, but I still manage to get here most nights.’

‘I don’t know why you bother. He doesn’t even know you’re here. Why d’you keep putting yourself through it?’

‘Because he’s my dad. You just don’t get it, do you? I’m not here for me, I’m here for Dad.’

‘Yeah, but chances are he’ll never wake up.’

Jessica paused, on the verge of tears. She bit her lip, but then said it anyway. ‘It’s all about the odds with you, isn’t it?’

‘Oh, here we go…’

‘I’ve said too much.’

‘You have, but go on, you’ve started now. Might as well put the boot in.’

She paused again, then spoke. ‘I wasn’t going to bring it up. Not here.’

‘You might as well. Dad’s past caring. Anyway, it was him who first took me into the bookies. Hadn’t set foot in a betting shop until he dragged me in before the match one Saturday.’

‘I know, I remember. Mum gave him hell over it. Especially when…’

The words dried up.

‘Go on, sis, don’t hold back.’

She shook her head. ‘You lost so much to gambling, Andy. The house, the kids, your marriage…’

‘You don’t have to tell me. I’m not proud.’

She lowered her voice again. Even in his current state, she didn’t want Dad hearing her. ‘I’m worried that when Dad’s money comes through, you’ll gamble it all away.’

Andrew shrugged. ‘So what if I do? He won’t care. He’s no use for it now.’

‘That’s hardly the point. I just think—’

‘I don’t want to die.’

Jessica was interrupted mid-flow by the desperate, pleading voice of another patient in another bed in another bay elsewhere on the hospice wing.

‘I don’t want to die,’ she said again.

‘Jesus, here we go,’ Andrew muttered, bracing himself.

‘It’s just Brenda next-door,’ Jessica sighed. ‘Have a little compassion, will you? These people are dying. They’re here to see out their days peacefully.’

‘Peaceful? That’s the last thing this place is once she’s fired them all up.’

‘I don’t want to die,’ Brenda said again, a little louder this time. Then again. ‘I don’t want to die.’ And again and again on an increasingly desperate-sounding loop.

Andrew looked over his shoulder at Raymond, the wizened, white-haired old gent in the bed diagonally opposite Dad’s. Raymond had been sound asleep but had perked up and shuffled upright as soon as he’d heard Brenda’s moaning. Andrew braced himself. ‘Here it comes… Any second…’

He hadn’t spent anywhere near as much time in the hospice as his sister, but he’d been around long enough to get used to the routine and he watched for Raymond’s inevitable reaction. Unlike the majority of the patients in this wing of the hospice. Raymond was still communicative, yet his reality appeared to be several decades out of date. He’d been a teacher once, by all accounts, and on regular occasion when Brenda’s recurring outbursts triggered him off, he still believed he was. ‘Jennifer Billings, is that you?’ he shouted to someone who wasn’t there. ‘What have I told you? You’re never going to amount to anything if you’re not prepared to put the effort in.’

‘It’s about time he eased up on poor old Jenny, don’t you think?’ Andrew laughed to himself. ‘Don’t know what she did to deserve all this abuse. Must have left an impression on the stupid old goat.’

The noise was mounting. The woman in the next-door room continued moaning, and Raymond continued to berate non-existent Jenny. True to form, their combined noise triggered the next one off. Enid belonged in a bed two bays farther down the corridor, but she was mobile and the only place she didn’t go was where she was supposed to be. ‘Help me, I’m sick,’ she wailed, her voice higher in pitch than both the others, easily discernible. ‘Somebody help me. I’m sick.’

‘They’re all sick,’ Andrew grumbled, watching as she shuffled into view then shuffled away again. He winced as the volume continued to increase. ‘Not sure how I feel about these mixed wards.’

‘It’s not a hospital, Andy, it’s a hospice. Do you think they’re bothered?’

‘Fair point. Half of them don’t even seem to know they’re here.’

‘They’ve been prodded and poked and medicated and tested… I don’t think they care by the time they get to this stage. They’re just glad of the comfort and care. You’ll be the same when it’s your turn.’

‘No chance,’ he said quickly. ‘Not me.’ He nodded at Dad. ‘If I end up in this state I want someone to finish me off.’

‘I’ll do it,’ Jess said without hesitation.

‘Thanks, sis.’

‘Your problem will be finding someone who still cares enough when you get to that stage. You’ve already pushed most of us away.’

He ignored her. He usually did when she was right.

The patients’ combined din continued to escalate. Dad’s jaw began to judder, as if he was ready to join in but couldn’t make it past the first syllable. Up and down his bottom lip went, a tremble becoming a definite movement, until he swallowed involuntarily then coughed and retched. Jessica was up out of her seat and over him in seconds, tissue poised to catch the phlegm. Andrew looked away and sunk back into his chair, bilious. ‘Disgusting,’ he grumbled.

‘He can’t help it,’ Jess snapped at her brother. She screwed up the tissue and dropped it into the clinical waste bin with all the others.

‘It’s gone quiet,’ Andrew said, and he was right. Dad’s sudden outburst had brought the cacophony to an abrupt end. A gluey full-stop. Calm was restored. Enid shuffled past again, this time without a word.

A nurse appeared at the foot of the bed, a wide smile on her face, eyes locked on Dad’s vacant gaze. ‘Everything all right here?’ she asked, sounding brighter than she had any right to at half-past nine on a Monday evening.

‘Fine,’ Jess replied, trying to summon up a smile herself.

‘He looks very peaceful tonight.’

‘He always looks the same these days,’ Andrew said. ‘Think it’ll be long?’

‘Jesus,’ Jess said when she realised what he was asking. ‘Will you shut up.’

The nurse had heard it all before. Much worse, probably. ‘No way of knowing,’ she answered. ‘Make the most of the time you’ve got. We’ll keep him comfortable and warm. Make him feel safe.’

‘You’ll be doing well if you can make him feel anything.’

‘Thank you,’ Jessica said, talking over her brother, and she meant it.

The nurse moved on and the silence returned, but it didn’t last long.

‘What did you have to say that for?’

‘Because it needed asking,’ Andrew replied. ‘This is just a waste of everyone’s time, his especially.’

Jessica leant across the bed and lowered her voice. ‘These are the last days of our father’s life, maybe even the last hours. Can’t you just stop thinking about yourself for a while and show some respect? What else would you be doing now anyway? Propping up some bar somewhere? In the all-night bookies? Slumped in front of the TV putting bets on with your phone?’

‘Give it a rest. It doesn’t matter what I’d be doing, point is I can’t see what benefit anyone’s getting from this. I don’t care what you say, he doesn’t know we’re here.’ He jabbed his finger in Dad’s direction to underline his point. ‘If he’s not getting anything from this and we’re not getting anything from this, why are we bothering?’

‘Who said I wasn’t getting anything from being here? Don’t put words in my mouth.’

‘Well, are you?’

Jess didn’t answer at first.

‘Does it matter what either of us wants? Dad’s all that’s important at the moment. Like the nurse said, we need to focus on making the time he has left as comfortable and peaceful as possible.’

‘Peaceful? In this place?’ Andrew looked back over his shoulder again, making sure that Raymond wasn’t about to kick off and berate another imaginary pupil, the noise of the patients’ last combined outburst still ringing in his ears. When he was satisfied there wasn’t about to be another interruption, he turned back to face his sister again. ‘I’d hate this. I mean what I said, when my time comes, if it looks like I’m heading this way then I want someone to finish me off.’

‘Well like I said, don’t look at me. I’m not saying I wouldn’t be happy to do it, mind.’

‘Thanks for your support, sis.’

‘I’ll use your inheritance to buy you a ticket to Dignitas.’

‘To what?’

‘Never mind. Doesn’t matter.’

Jessica paused, again wondering whether she should prolong this conversation, then deciding that she would.

‘Seriously, though, who would look after you?’

‘The state,’ Andrew answered without hesitation.

‘You mean no one.’

He pushed his chair back, looked down at his shoes. ‘Haven’t seen the kids for a couple of weeks. Shirley’s being a dick about the maintenance payments again and—’

‘You mean you’ve gambled your money away.’

‘I pay my way.’

‘Providing the right horse comes in.’

‘Ease off, sis, I’ve got enough people on my back right now. I don’t find all this as easy as you do,’ he said, gesturing around.

‘You think this is easy for me?’

‘You’re the one who’s all smiles and happy voices all the time.’

‘When I’m here for Dad, yes. This is hell, though. This is really, really hard.’

More nurses appeared. Three this time, hunting in a pack. ‘We need to reposition your dad,’ one of them said. ‘Should only take a couple of minutes. We’ll give you a shout when you can come back in.’

They were barely out of their seats before the curtains had been whipped closed around the cubicle. Jessica paused on the other side of the faded screen for a moment longer than she should have, just listening. Funny, she thought, how the curtains brought about such an abrupt change in behaviour. She was still thinking about it when she caught up with Andrew in the family lounge. He’d already made himself a coffee. It was almost at his lips when she came in. He caught her eye then handed it over and fetched himself another. He noticed his sister was crying.

‘What’s up?’

‘That’s the most redundant question I’ve heard all day. What do you think’s up? Our dad’s dying, or had you not noticed?’

‘Yeah, of course I noticed. But Dad’s been dying for a long time. We knew the cancer was going to get him eventually.’

‘That doesn’t make it any easier.’

‘I know that, but you weren’t crying out there, were you? What happened?’

‘Maybe I think about what other people might be feeling, has that ever occurred to you? Maybe I just don’t want Dad to see me upset. Maybe I’m just struggling with this and the longer it goes on, the harder it gets.’

‘Like I said out there, this isn’t benefitting anyone.’

‘That’s not what I mean.’

‘What then?’

‘I don’t know… it’s the little things that get to me. Those nurses just now… they were chatting away to Dad, then they closed the curtains and started talking about him like he wasn’t there, like he was a piece of meat. You grab his feet, one of them said. Roll him over this way. One of them called him a lump.’

‘He is! Even now. He’s lost a lot of weight but I’d still struggle to shift him. That’s why it takes three of them to move him around and hose him down.’

‘Andrew, please,’ Jessica said, hiding her tears in her coffee.

‘Look, I’m sorry if you think I’m being harsh, sis, but Dad’s gone. He stopped being Dad when they wheeled him in here, whenever that was.’

‘Seven and a half weeks ago.’

‘Right.’

‘I know. I’ve been here just about every bloody day since.’

‘Okay, but the point is, he’s had his time. His number’s up. This is just delaying the inevitable.’

Wandering Enid drifted past the lounge doorway. Jessica waited until she’d gone then hissed at her brother, ‘you just want to get your hands on his money.’

Andrew shrugged. No denial. Then, ‘so do you.’

‘I don’t. I mean, it’ll be nice and everything, but I’d rather have Dad than his money.’

‘You saw him about as often as I did before he got sick.’

‘You know how it is…’

‘Always off on holiday or doing up the house.’

‘If you’re saying I should have seen more of him then yes, you’re right. We both should have.’

‘That’s not what I’m saying at all. I’m saying I think you’d rather be debt-free than be visiting the old man here every day like this.’

‘That’s not true.’

‘Come on, Jess, you forget how well I know you. I’m not stupid. I know roughly how much you’re on, and your Brian can never stop telling me how much he picks up each month.’

‘And?’

‘And I know it’s not enough to sustain your fancy lifestyle. Brian told me as much.’

‘I don’t have a fancy lifestyle.’

‘Believe me, compared to me you do.’

‘People who live on the streets have a fancy lifestyle compared to you.’

‘You know exactly what I mean.’

‘And what’s Brian been saying exactly?’

‘Last Christmas he was half-cut. He was bending my ear about you and your credit cards. He didn’t say a lot, but it was enough to start me thinking. I reckon you’re mortgaged up to the hilt. Probably got everything on credit.’

‘Not everything…’

‘You’ve dug yourself into a hole, haven’t you? Big house, two nice new cars on the drive, couple of holidays abroad every year…’

‘We work for everything we own.’

‘I’m not saying you don’t both work hard, I just don’t think you actually own much of it.’

‘That’s none of your business.’

‘You’re right, it isn’t. And what I do with my share of Dad’s estate isn’t any of your business either. When the money’s gone, it’s gone.’

‘You’re starting to sound like him now.’

‘Christ forbid.’

‘Okay, you’re right – the money will make a difference. A big difference, if I’m honest.’

‘How big?’

Jessica shuffled awkwardly in her chair and finished her drink. ‘Doesn’t matter.’

‘You see, I’m just trying to get a feel for things, sis, because Dad’s cash is going to make a massive difference to me, if I’m honest. It’ll get a couple of people off my back for starters.’

‘Oh God, what kind of people?’

‘Not the kind you’re probably thinking, but not the kind you want to keep waiting for money, either.’

One of the nurses appeared at the door. ‘All done. You can go back in now,’ he said.

When Jessica and Andrew returned to his bedside, Dad looked completely different. An orderly was still tidying, smoothing down the bedclothes. They’d washed Dad. Combed his hair. Changed his pyjamas and propped him up in a more comfortable-looking position. ‘Looks lovely, doesn’t he,’ the orderly said, and she gently stroked his cheek. Jessica nodded and bit her lip to save more tears. Dad didn’t react to anything. Breathing heavy. Eyes fixed ahead in that same vacant gaze.

Brother and sister re-assumed their positions on either side of the bed. ‘I might get going soon,’ Andrew said.

‘I hate it when people say that,’ Jessica replied.

‘Say what?’

‘I might do something or other when they know full well they’re going to do it whatever.’

‘Okay then, have it your way. I’m going to go soon.’

‘That’s better. Places to go? People to see?’

She sounded more vitriolic than she intended.

‘Yes, as it happens. Not that it’s any of your business.’

‘What kind of people do you need to see at this time on a Monday night?’

‘Jennifer Billings, come back here when I’m talking to you!’ bed-bound Raymond yelled from across the way, startling them both. His physical frame might have withered over the years, but an unquestionably authoritative tone remained to his voice. ‘You’re never going to amount to anything.’

And that was it.

‘Help me, I’m sick,’ Enid wailed on her way past the bay.

‘I don’t want to die,’ Brenda moaned from next-door.

‘Christ’s sake,’ Andrew sighed as their voices continued on a loop. ‘I can’t take much more of this.’

‘You’re never going to amount to anything.’

‘Help me, I’m sick.’

‘I don’t want to die.’

Dad’s mouth began to twitch again, and the twitch became a violent cough. Jessica rested a hand on his shoulder – stopping him from slumping to one side – then wiped a green-tinged dribble from his chin.

The man in the fourth bed in the room snored loudly, audible even over the combined patients’ voices. ‘How anyone can sleep through this racket I have no idea,’ Andrew said, struggling to make himself heard.

‘Help me, I’m sick.’

‘You’re never going to amount to anything.’

‘I don’t want to die.’

Several more repetitions and the voices eventually petered out.

‘I don’t know how much more of this I can take,’ Jessica admitted.

‘What, the noise?’

‘No, all of it. Being here night after night…’

‘Go home then. I am.’

‘I’m going to stay a while longer,’ Jessica said.

‘But you just said—’

‘I know what I just said.’

‘You and Brian fallen out again?’

A pause, then ‘yes.’

‘Bought something you shouldn’t have again?’

‘We needed it.’

‘But you didn’t have the money?’

‘Yes.’

She was crying again now but tried not to let her brother see.

‘You need Dad’s cash more than you’re letting on, don’t you?’

Another pause. Yet more tears. ‘Yes.’

‘Me too. I’m in trouble, Jess.’

‘And me. Bloody hell, Andy, I don’t know what I’m going to do.’

‘It’ll be okay, sis. We’ll get it sorted. Soon as he’s croaked we’ll get the solicitors sorted. There’s only you and me named in the Will and there’s only the house and his car to sell. I’ve got a mate who knows a bloke who can put us in touch with a lawyer who’ll see us right at a decent price. Won’t be long now.’

Jessica nodded.

‘Brian said he’d leave me if I didn’t stop.’

‘Didn’t stop what?’

‘Spending. I can’t help it, though. Since the kids left home I get bored. It makes me feel better, spending a few quid.’

‘It’s an addiction,’ Andrew told her. ‘Believe me, I should know. Gambling’s the same.’

‘I can’t see another way out of this mess.’

Andrew paused before speaking again. It was clear he had something more to say but wasn’t sure if he should – could­ – say it. Deep breath. ‘We could, you know, speed things up a little.’

Jessica wiped her eyes and looked up at him. For a moment she didn’t know what to say, how to react. ‘Tell me you’re not serious…’

His face cracked. ‘Had you going there, sis.’

Jess relaxed. Smiled. Shoulders slumped. Almost laughed.

‘I thought you meant it.’

‘I know you did. Let’s be honest, we’ve both considered it, haven’t we?’

Dad coughed again, louder this time. Jessica dabbed at the spit pooling in the corners of his gaping mouth.

‘I feel terrible saying this,’ Jessica admitted, ‘but yes. And I know I was shitty with you earlier, but things would be a heck of a lot easier for all of us – you, me and Dad – if he just stopped fighting and let go.’

‘He’s hardly fighting. He’s barely even breathing.’

‘I’m sick. Help me.’

‘You’re never going to amount to anything.’

‘I don’t want to die.’

‘Jesus, not again,’ Andrew cursed, looking around. ‘I wish these noisy bastards would just shut up. Don’t they ever stop?’

‘I’m sick.’

‘You’re never going to amount to anything.’

‘I don’t want to die.’

The three patients’ voices were ringing in his ears, filling the hospice with noise.

‘The staff never do anything,’ Jessica said. ‘Bloody useless, they are. It’s making my head hurt.’

‘We should complain. This can’t be good for any of them.’

Dad’s chin was going again. He retched. Jess was out of tissues. She looked around for another box.

Shuffling Enid appeared at the end of Dad’s bed, frightening the life out of both Andrew and Jess. ‘I’m sick,’ she said.

‘Fuck me,’ Andrew said, clutching his chest.

‘Go back to your bed, Enid,’ Jessica told her, but she didn’t.

Andrew was far less understanding. ‘Nurse!’ he yelled, ‘One of your patients has escaped again.’ But no one came.

Dad coughed again and Jessica found more tissues in his bedside cabinet.

‘You’re never going to amount to anything.’

‘I don’t want to die.’

‘I’m sick,’ Enid said, and then she drifted away.

‘It’s a bloody disgrace,’ Jessica said, competing with the din. Her hands were sticky with Dad’s mess and she got up to wash them. ‘I mean, I know the NHS is stretched and under-resourced, but surely they can do better than this,’ she continued from the sink.

‘You’re never going to amount to anything.’

‘I don’t want to die.’

‘I’m sick. Help me.’

‘I’d write to my MP,’ Jessica said, ‘but she’s next to useless. Did you see her on the TV the other night, Andy? Andy? Are you even listening to me?’

Andrew didn’t take his eyes off Dad, just gestured. ‘Look.’

‘You’re never going to amount to anything.’

‘I don’t want to die.’

‘I’m sick.’

‘What’s wrong?’

‘Look,’ Andy said again.

Dad’s mouth was moving. Forming silent words.

‘What’s he saying?’

‘Don’t know, sis.’

‘You’re never going to amount to anything.’

‘I don’t want to die.’

‘I’m sick.’

‘Wish they’d just shut up,’ Jessica hissed. She wanted to yell at the other patients to be quiet but she stopped herself. She sat down opposite her brother.

Dad’s mouth was still going. Same movements. Same silent words. On a loop.

‘You’re never going to amount to anything.’

‘I don’t want to die.’

‘I’m sick.’

‘You’re never going to amount to anything.’

‘I don’t want to die.’

‘I’m sick.’

‘You’re never going to amount to anything.’

‘I don’t want to die.’

‘I’m sick.’

‘Is he copying them?’ Andrew asked.

‘Which one?’

‘All of them? None of them? Can’t tell.’

‘You’re never going to amount to anything.’

‘I don’t want to die.’

‘I’m sick.’

And then, gradually, Dad’s mouth began to match some of the words. He was picking out snatches of what Brenda, Raymond and Enid were each repeating tirelessly. The same few words every time.

And then his lips synced with the sounds.

‘You’re never going to amount to anything.’

‘I don’t want to die.’

I’m sick.’

‘You’re never going to amount to anything.’

‘I don’t want to die.’

I’m sick.’

‘You’re never going to amount to anything.’

‘I don’t want to die.’

I’m sick.’

‘You’re never going to amount to anything.’

‘I don’t want to die.’

I’m sick.’

Different words combined. A single sentence formed from fragments. On repeat.

‘Fuck me,’ said Andrew, pushing back his chair. Dad had definite eye contact with him now. First time since they’d brought him in here.

‘I’m never going to die.’

‘I’m never going to die.’

‘I’m never going to die.’

‘I’m never going to die.’

‘I’m never going to die.’

‘I’m never going to die.’

‘I’m never going to die.’

‘I’m never going to die.’

‘I’m never going to die.’

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THE LAST BIG THING is available now in hardcover and as an ebook. For a limited time you can get £5 off signed copies purchased direct from INFECTED BOOKS.

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