Here’s the first draft of a short story I wrote yesterday for my Fiction class, based on ideas from a class I’m auditing: ‘The Medical Mind and Literature’. This week, we talked about palliative care, ageing and dying. We looked at Beckett’s morbid approach to those things in his short plays Footfalls and Rockaby and discussed more positive approaches to dying, as in this interview with a palliative care assistant Kathryn Mannyx. I’m finding Beckett’s short plays pretty terrifying, but I like his ambiguity. I wrote the following story with that ambiguity in mind, but with slightly less morbidity. Quite a tricky topic to avoid though, when writing about death. The characters are loosely based on my grandparents.
“They’ll be here today, I’ve got a feeling today was the day they said. The nineteenth.” Olive pressed her toes down into her slippers a little, tried to use the grip to push herself up a little more in her armchair. But the Parkinson’s made it hard to feel her toes nowadays. When did sitting become so uncomfortable? No matter how many cushions and blankets she had, no matter how she rearranged herself, Olive couldn’t escape her jabbing bones. It was like trying to sleep on a bag of tent pegs.
“Well I won’t contradict you. You’re the one that heard them say. I didn’t hear anything.” Alfie didn’t take his eyes off the television as he answered his wife. It was always on, lately. He couldn’t remember the last time it’d been off. Quiz shows, mainly. Sometimes it was the overexcited man telling people to open boxes. Sometimes it was the suave man with the false laugh, the one that Olive liked, who wanted you to guess the most unusual answer. Alfie didn’t understand the point in either of them. Yet another thing that made him feel he’d lost touch with things.
“I don’t know how you didn’t hear. It was commotion everywhere. Honestly Alfred, trust you. Trust you to miss the end of the world.”
“I hardly think it can have been the end of the world, Liv. We’re still here aren’t we? If it’s the end of the world I think I’d have noticed, I think I’d have got out of my chair Olive, don’t you? I’ve spent half my bloody life sat in a chair talking to you. If this is what the end of the world looks like I think I’ll bloody kill myself.”
“Still swearing at your wife, at least that hasn’t changed. Make me a cup of tea Alfie, I’m sick of having this conversation. Your memory, honestly. Anyway, if it’s the end of the world then you can’t kill yourself can you, you’re already dead. Stupid man.” Alfie looked affronted but, really, he liked to be teased by his wife. Slowly, he rose from his seat and doddered into the kitchen. Less than thirty seconds later, he was back.
“What am I doing in here, Olive?”
“For goodness sake Alfie, you’re making us a cup of tea! Honestly, your mind, my body, what a pair. Anyone would think we were getting old.”
The bungalow hadn’t helped Alfie. He’d been a lot grumpier, a lot more confused, since the downsizing. At least before, he could get to the corner-shop or the bookies on auto-drive. He’d been anchored by the old house. The carpets their kids had learned to crawl on; the dining table where they’d had the grandchildren round for Sunday lunch. Memories bound up in everything. Signposts. This new bungalow – with its too shiny granite worktops and its garish ‘feature walls’ – had irritated him from the start. Olive resented their daughter for pushing the move. For insisting they’d be happier. For not visiting once it was all sorted. Not that that mattered now.
“I don’t like Fenny Bentley. I’ve never liked Fenny Bentley, Alfred. Why did we let Christine convince us this was a good idea? We’re city people. I miss Duffield. And it’s a ridiculous name for a place! It’s embarrassing to tell people our address.”
“Who do we tell? I don’t tell anyone. Olive, before I put the kettle on, remind me what they said. Remind me what they said about the end of the world. You’ve got me worried.”
“It wasn’t just what they said Alfie, it was everywhere, you could hear it, you could see it for goodness sake! You said you could see it! And why don’t you put the kettle on first, put the kettle on before you make me explain it again. You’ve been making me explain it for two weeks, I need a cup of tea.”
“I’ll put the kettle on when you’ve reminded me. Remind me what happened, I think I’d remember it, don’t you? The end of the world?”
“Like a dog with a bone, Alfred, honestly. I’d sooner tell you over tea.”
Slowly, Alfie walked back to his armchair and lowered himself into it, as though it were a bathtub of scalding water.
“How can you think of tea when you’re saying it’s the end of the world?”
“Because Alfred, I’ve had time to make peace with the idea. It’s not new information for me like it is for you, I’ve known it was the end of the world for two bloody weeks! Look, you’ve got me cursing now!”
“Tell me what they said about the end of the world, for God’s sake woman!”
Olive sighed. The kettle was only a few steps away. It might as well have been in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
“Alfred, it’s really quite simple. I wish you’d write it down so that I didn’t have to keep reminding you. Our daughter called. It was the middle of the night. Four o’clock, I think-”
“Which daughter? What do you mean, which daughter? It was Christine, we’ve only got one daughter.”
“Yes, I know we’ve only got one daughter! I’m not an imbecile, Olive, I thought you might have meant Chloe or Charlotte.”
“Alfred, Chloe and Charlotte are our granddaughters, why would I say daughter if I meant Chloe or Charlotte?”
“I don’t know Olive, because you’re mad. Carry on with your story would you?”
Olive closed her eyes for a moment and took a deep breath. She thought about the teabags in the next room, wondered if she could make the few steps to the kettle. The kettle was too heavy anyway, once it was full. The little things we take for granted. Once she’d dreamed of a face with no wrinkles. Now she’d just settle for being able to lift the kettle. What was coming next to make that dream seem too big?
“Don’t interrupt me this time then, Alfred. Just listen. Christine, our daughter, called in the night. It was four o’clock and she called, still dark, it was two weeks ago now, November fifth or sixth, I think. You were already awake, you’d heard banging. Christine said to me ‘mother, I’ve got terrible news, it’s the end of the world; the end of the world has come!’ Well I was half asleep, I’d been dreaming about a dog, a Yorkshire terrier; I’d been running with it. I was still half in my dream and I didn’t fully appreciate the gravity of what she was saying. I said ‘the end of the world, Christine, you mean the four horsemen of the apocalypse?’ I asked her if her door was locked, you know how she is with leaving the front door unlocked. She said ‘no mother, don’t be silly, that’s the bible, it’s the end of the world. The environment, you know, we can’t live here anymore, haven’t you heard the explosions?’ Well at this time, you hadn’t told me about the explosions that you’d heard, and I’d been dreaming, you know, the Yorkshire terrier, so I didn’t know about any explosions. I said ‘You and the girls can’t live here anymore?’ And she said ‘no, not just us, all of us, humans, they’re evacuating, it starts tonight, that’s why I’m calling.’ Well it sounded like nonsense to me, so I said ‘that sounds like nonsense to me, Christine, I’m sorry to say, someone’s probably having you on.’ She said ‘no mother, look outside if you don’t believe me, anyway I’ve got to go, they’re taking us now!’
“Who’s taking them now?”
“Well quite, that’s what I said, and she said ‘they’re evacuating, there’s a space station and we’re going there! They’re starting with the women and children and they’ll be sending for the rest of you within the week.’ The moon, she said! Well blow me, I thought, barely fifty years ago, we thought it was made of cheese and now here they are, moving us out there! I said to her ‘hang on a minute Christine, if that’s the case, you’ll need to come and get me, if they’re taking the women.’ ‘No, no’ she says. ‘No no, women counts as under sixty, they’ve put you in the O.A.P. category. They’ll be back for O.A.Ps within the week.’ Well blow me, I thought, not a woman! ‘Not a woman indeed!’ I said to her, but she was talking to someone else in the background and she said to me: ‘listen mother, I’ve got to go, I’ll see you within the week!’ And that was that! Two weeks ago and not a peep!”
Alfred was quiet for a moment, staring glassily at Olive.
“I’m sorry to tell you Olive but it sounds like a load of bollocks to me.”
“It doesn’t matter what it sounds like Alfred, at the time you said you could see it out the window.”
“The end of the world!”
“Well what the bloody hell does the end of the world look like?!”
“For goodness sake, Alfred, I don’t know, I wasn’t the one looking out the bloody window! Lord, give me strength-“
“Well, what about the men? When are they coming for the men?”
“I’m not sure Alfred, but I assume that you’ll be lumped in the O.A.P. category with me.”
“What about the cat? Is there a cat category?”
“Alfred, we’ve not had a cat since nineteen seventy-five.”
“It was a bloody joke, Olive.”
Silence resumed. The well-spoken man on the television was discussing the big cash prize. It seemed like a lot of hassle for a thousand pounds.
“So if she said the end of the week, why did you say she’d be here today, if it’s been a fortnight?”
“You said they’d be back for the O.A.P.s within a week, but you said before they’d be back today, and it’s been a fortnight.”
“Well, yes. It’s quite a big operation, I imagine. I imagine it’s taking longer than they anticipated. They always underestimate how long these things take.”
“These things? What category of things exactly are you referring to, Olive dear?”
“Oh hush Alfred, you know what I mean.”
“Well if it’s the end of the world, has there been anything on the news?”
“I don’t know.”
“What do you mean you don’t know? You never stop watching the damned television!”
“Yes but it’s the recordings thing that Christine set up. I don’t know how to get it back onto the main channels.”
“Let me have a-”
“You tried yesterday Alfie and the day before. It’s no good, you’re as useless as me. Just a different kind of useless.”
“Right. Well. Well! What about the phone? Have you tried calling anyone? Our daughter, or anyone else? Surely you could call someone to find out when we’re getting picked up. Or if it is bollocks after all.”
“Well that’s another problem! The phone’s one of those battery powered thingies with no wires. I tried calling Christine back the next morning but it wouldn’t connect. Didn’t even ring out, and now the battery’s gone and I don’t know how to fix it. Christine normally does it.”
“Jesus Christ Olive, we’re prisoners in our own home!”
“Alfred, how many times do I have to ask you not to blaspheme in this house?! And you’re overreacting. I told you, they’ll be here today to pick us up, or Christine’ll be back. Then we can fix the phone and the TV and get to the bottom of this end of the world business. There’s no use us two going over and over it, there’s nothing left to say.”
More silence. On the final round of the quiz show, the contestants guess was unsuccessful. Polite hugs, commiserations, theme music. Olive muted the television. As though on cue, the clock on the mantelpiece rose to fill the void of sound, chiming six o’clock.
“That’s dinner time, that is. Six o’clock. What are we having, Liv?” Alfie was cheered by the idea of food; the routine, the comfort. Perhaps there would be a beer. When all else failed, the effects of beer gave texture to a day. He pulled himself up, energised by this thought, and helped his wife to her feet. She wobbled a moment before finding her balance, and letting him lead her slowly into the kitchen, sitting her at the dining table. Alfie did the cooking now but old habits die hard. He liked Olive to tell him what to do.
“What am I making?” He opened the fridge door and scanned the contents expectantly. Two eggs; a tub of butter; some milk dregs; two shrivelled carrots; no beer.
For Olive, this daily refreshment of Alfie’s disappointment was the hardest thing.
“Love, we’re down to tins. And there’s some bread in the freezer. How about beans on toast? And tinned peaches for pudding? There might be a bit of custard powder left but we’ll have to mix it with water.”
“Why on earth are we down to tins? I’m not having that Liv, I’ll go to the shops. Where’s my coat?”
“I’m not letting you go roaming out there, it’s dark. And late. And it’s the end of the world. Christine will be here any minute, with food, or they’ll be coming to get us-”
“Oh bloody hell Liv! I’m not living off of tins because of some stupid idea you’ve got in your head, give me my coat, I’m going to the shop, and if you try and stop me I’ll give you a clip round the ear!”
“Alfred Johnson. Do not threaten me like a child! You are not going to the shop. Even if it wasn’t the end of the world, you don’t know where the shop is and you’d get lost. And who’s going to come and find you? Me?” Olive gestured down to her legs, pale and veined with blue. As useless as having slinkies for legs. This softened Alfie. Sighing, he turned to the cupboard and started preparing the meal.
They ate at the dining table, slowly and silently. Alfie wanted to ask questions about the end of the world, about who was coming, about what the end of the world meant. But it was hard to remember which questions he’d already asked, and the bickering was starting to weary him. Olive wanted to discuss it too, wanting desperately for Alfie to remember the bangs, to describe what he’d seen out of the window, to reassure her. But he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, and she didn’t want to bicker either.
Another quiz show and a soap took them to seven thirty. They’d watched the same few episodes a few times now. Olive didn’t really mind though, so she didn’t remind Alfie. It was probably too late now for anyone to come and get them, probably a little too early to go to bed. When they were younger, the evenings had been too short. They had always ended up accidentally staying up too late. When did that stop?
“Alfie, be a love. Unhook my bra for me so I can get into my nightie. I can do the rest myself.”
“Ey, it’s my lucky night!”
“Come off it, you make the same joke every night you batty old thing. Unhook it.”
“What about them getting here? Look well if they get here and you’re sat there in your nightie, with no bra on. They might not take us, if you’ve got no bra on.”
“Alfie love, I doubt they’re coming tonight. With it being this dark, and seven thirty already. I think it was tomorrow they said anyway. Today or tomorrow it was, it’ll probably be tomorrow now.”
“Oh, it was today or tomorrow?”
“Yes. Nineteenth or twentieth, I’m certain it was the twentieth, now I think of it. They’ll be here in the morning I expect, when it’s light. We’ll watch one more soap shall we, then we’ll go to bed ey? Then in the morning, when it’s light, we’ll be nice and refreshed, ready for them to collect us.”
“Well if you think it’s tomorrow.”
“It’s definitely tomorrow.”
“Well, either way, I’m checking what’s going on outside tomorrow, in the morning, when it’s light. Sort this out once and for all.”
“That’s fine love. You check it when it’s light. But they’re definitely coming tomorrow.”
“Alright love, tomorrow it is.”