This story was one of the first stand alone pieces of prose I wrote for my (abortive) Open University second year Creative Writing module. After I finished it I understood I didn’t want to spend a year picking apart what I’d written to adapt it for another format, I was actually really happy with just keeping it as it was. This was one of many ‘epiphany’ moments with my fiction, as it happens. I’m not after academic validation, I just want to write a good story.
General for content, though the details some people may find upsetting.
Life goes on. It is the history that defines us.
Deals with the death of a relative. Was based on the actual experiences I had before my Grandmother died. As a result, read responsibly.
1600 words, give or take. I have a hard time with restrictive formats. However, it’s a good skill to learn.
Matt knows from his mother’s anguish on the voice mail that it’s almost time.
He’d hoped the gradual improvement over the last week might be a trend, but this message signals otherwise: ‘Grandpa got worse overnight, you can’t wait until the weekend. Come home NOW.’ His History lecturer is surprisingly accommodating when Matt explains the situation after their weekly tutorial, giving him seven days extension on his very close to overdue second year dissertation. Walking to the station from campus his stomach periodically flutters: excitement is a lot like fear, he understands, only his brain capable of separating the two. That’s the first time he told anyone that a member of his family was close to death. He’s not sure he ever wants to do it again.
Sitting on the train, pulling into Liverpool Street station, Matt remembers the last time he saw Joe Ashton. Everyone was recalled, his branch of the family forcibly tethered around his sister’s brand new Wide-screen High Definition TV, bought especially for the occasion. Cathy wore black that morning, and his sister had stared sadly at his choice of battered jeans and Elbow t-shirt. He knows Joe wouldn’t have minded, because nothing was capable of phasing him. He was the most laid back old git Matt knew, secretly proud of the fact that the World bounced off Teflon Joe with ease. Not even his mother’s perennial fussing could dent his demeanour. He’d looked utterly distinguished that Sunday, in the black woollen coat he’d owned since before Matt had memories of him. Despite the now ever-present stick, he had managed to carry the Poppy wreath to the Cenotaph unaided.
His parents stood motionless as the Last Post
played, and the cameras had focussed on Mum, failing to not cry on cue. Matt only now grasps in the cab he can’t really afford but needs to take from the station to the hospital they weren’t tears of pride. She was afraid, must already then have known then about his illness and that it was only a matter of time. Matt’s fear can’t be shaken, eats inexorably into his core; stops him studying and keeps him rooted to his room at Halls. The inevitable refuses to sit in his particularly rational mind
. Lying awake at night, fear morphs silently to sickness, the understanding that one day he will be nothing. He will simply cease to exist
He’d never understood why Aunt Chloe started attending Church, until his mother told him that Grandad had Pancreatic Cancer. Mum had stared at him for a long time, her eyes becoming increasingly misty, then shook her head.
‘Chloe needs to deal with it in her own way, Matt. Don’t think badly of her because she has to believe there’s something afterwards. Try and understand.’
He hadn’t been able to then, but he was beginning to now.
The hospital is busy, and he isn’t sure where to go, but the Receptionist is genuinely sympathetic and helpful. As he turns the corner out of the lift he can see his Dad, standing awkwardly outside a door, doing something on his mobile. Matt smiles, wondering if he should point out that phones should be switched off in the wards. As he gets close enough his father looks up, and meets his son’s gaze head on. They don’t say much to each other right now, but Matt knows enough about the look. He’s done something right.
‘Well done, mate. Thanks for getting here so fast. Your mum will appreciate it.’
Matt knocks before he pushes open the door of the private room. Inside is his mother, lying on the low hospital chair, looking like she’s asleep. When she registers his presence she rouses and a weak smile appears, before she comes over to hug him. She’s not had a shower in a while: stiffness mixes with hot and clammy as Matt awkwardly returns her embrace.
He hasn’t noticed that his Grandfather is awake in the bed to his right. He is a pale shadow of his former self, skin stretched over bone, paler than the sheets he is wrapped in, but he is still there, trapped inside his rapidly disintegrating body.
‘Your mum said you’d come. I wanted to see you.’
The door clicks silently, Matt realising that his mother has left the room. Joe beckons him to come closer, to approach the bed, and the young man is powerless to resist.
‘On the side there. The book. I want you to have it.’
When he was small, and Joe would sit and read to them, this was where History began. Tales of dogfights, Lancasters, explosions and men who were Heroes. Matt knew then he never wanted to have to fight for anything that way, but he understood the importance of telling others the stories of why men like his Grandfather did.
‘Never forget, Matty. They were your age when they died. So many boys.’
Matt scoops the battered volume from the small cabinet, unable to stop the shaking. Tears fall, silent and desperate onto the backs of his hands. Now he truly grasps the meaning of the Poppy on his battered coat, the one he can’t bear to remove since Remembrance Sunday. A determination rises, sudden realisation that this is not the time to be sad, but instead to ask this dying man as many questions as he can. He should make notes, to use the skills he has only recently begun to utilise to ensure he can remember them, so that others can share the same story.
His hand aches when his Grandfather finally stops and closes his eyes. This is why he’s here: not just the notebook, but his ability to breathe fresh life into his family’s legacy. Joe knows him better than anyone.
This man will always be Matt’s hero.
The dissertation arrives on his tutor’s desk a day before the scheduled deadline.
Chris Fairbanks glances at the first page yet finds himself compelled to keep reading, concluding that Mr Rushwell has done an extremely good job of combining historical accuracy with deeply personal insight. This is a significant piece of work, likely to vastly improve his second year mark.
Perhaps he has misjudged the young man’s desire to pursue a career in History after all.
Matt travels back down for the Funeral in clothes bought especially for the occasion, because now he understands the significance of respect. He hopes that the black jeans and white shirt are enough, that he won’t get into trouble from Cathy for not wearing a suit. She hugs him when he arrives at the Crematorium, oddly calm and approving. Matt had expected more tears and depression, but it occurs to him that Joe would have found that inappropriate. Even in death, there is a reason to celebrate life.
After the service he goes back to his Parents’ for the wake: his father has something for him. He hands over Joe’s old coat without ceremony and Matt knows this is how it happens, how life moves on when one person departs. It is the history that defines us. Even for late April it’s cold and wet so he wears the coat on the way back to Halls. It still smells of Joe: roll-ups and bitter, of a life granted by his friends’ sacrifice. Only when he gets off the train does he feel the envelope in his pocket. Inside is a hundred pounds in twenties and a letter.
This is the first time his mum wrote anything longer to him than a birthday message.
Grandad Joe always wished he’d had a son, but instead he got only daughters. I know how much you meant to him as a result, and he asked me to make sure that you got his Distinguished Flying Cross. He knew you’d understand its significance. He also left you enough money to cover your student loan plus some extra besides, but we’ll sort that out when you come back next. For now, here is his ribbon: I’ll keep the medal safe.
He was very proud of you, and so am I.
The tiny three centimetre piece of ribbon between Matt’s fingers looks so insignificant without context, but Matt understands. “An act or acts of valour, courage or devotion to duty whilst flying in active operations against the enemy”
: the day Joe Ashton had taken the controls from his wounded superior officer and landed a burning Lancaster, saving the lives of the crew. It had been Matt’s favourite story as a child, and had formed the basis of his Dissertation: how individual acts of bravery added up with shrewd leadership and circumstance to turn the tide of war to the Allies’ favour.
His mother cries the day he graduates: Matt knows they are tears of happiness, for the first time in many months. Everyone turns up for the occasion, even his sister who had maintained she’d not bother with the journey. Cathy takes more photographs than anyone else, gushing enthusiastically about how proud she was that he’s done so well for himself, that he has an internship already lined up at the British Museum. His Grandfather would be proud of him. Matt grasps the medal in his pocket as he accepts his Degree, silent words of thanks to the man who had meant so much to him.
This legacy was in safe hands.