Wednesday 17th August
Janet was the fifth reader at Story Shop 2016, the daily Edinburgh International Book Festival showcase of up-and-coming writers living and working in Edinburgh today.
Her appearance was on Wed 17th August 2016 at 3 pm in the Spiegeltent.
Story Shop performances take roughly ten minutes and are free and unticketed.
A short bio
Janet Nixon has lived in Scotland for over 15 years, writing mainly short stories and scripts. Two of her pieces have been performed as part of the Traverse Theatre’s Words Words Words series.
Janet is now working on some longer writing projects and can be found on Twitter as @Janetnix16.
You can hear the author read an extract of the story by clicking the play button on the photo above.
The story she read
a short story by Janet Nixon
“Maureen’s not doing so well today Mr McAllister”, the nurse said.
Billy almost said “Who?” Somewhere between boy and young man he had gone from Billy to William – only Mo called him Billy now – but his sister had always been Mo.
“Mo”, he said instead.
The nurse looked at him quizzically. Had he spoken or just groaned? It was hard to tell with some old folk.
“Mo”, he said again. “Everyone calls her “Mo””.
“Okay. Mo. I’m afraid she’s not doing so well.”
“But there’s something you can do?”
“Well, we can make her comfortable of course.” The nurse looked uncertain now. “You know Maur…your sister’s prognosis. She’s in and out now. More out really. I’m sorry.”
“But there must be more you can do.”
The nurse looked even less certain now. And young. But then almost everyone looked young to Billy these days.
“Well…” she said after a pause. In her six months on the Oncology Ward she’d seen a few elderly relatives keel over with the shock of bad news. And Billy was more devoted than most. He’d visited his sister every single day of the month she had been on the ward. Plenty of husbands did less. Today was going to be hard for him.
“You really need to speak to the doctor, but I think we’re getting close to the end.”
He remembered his father telling him when Billy was complaining about something his little sister had done – broken one of his toys? Who knows now? It was so long ago.
“Be nice to your sister. It’s the longest relationship you’ll ever have.”
Billy must have looked confused, and probably appalled, because his father had roared with laughter and said, “Think about it. Everyone else will come into your life later or leave earlier, but Mo and you will be together for pretty much all of it.”
And, in truth, even then he hadn’t minded Mo. She did steal his toys and sometimes followed him round like a puppy but at least she wasn’t like Tommy Cook’s wee sister; she didn’t try to kiss his friends or turn cartwheels in a skirt.
She might have been a girl and two years’ younger than him, but his sister was the fiercest creature he’d ever known. And he a man who’ d known active service in the Second World War and been a mean amateur boxer in his day.
An image came to him of Mo. She would have been five. She’d followed him and Tommy all day as they’d chased butterflies with that huge old net Tommy’s dad had given them. As Tommy owned the precious net, he’d claimed the job of chasing and catching the butterflies, although most of them had sensed the net and flown away. Billy’s job was to transfer the butterflies Tommy did catch to a glass jar with holes drilled into the lid.
Mo had been happy enough following them round, squealing when they caught a butterfly, squealing even louder when one got away. It was only when it was getting dark and time to go home, she’d looked at the pathetic creatures imprisoned in the jar and asked, “Whatcha gonna do with them?”
Tommy had grinned and said, “Kill ‘em! Stick ‘em in books on pins like my uncle does!”
Mo had screamed. She had just thrown back her head and screamed. Then she’d turned to Billy and said, “You let them go Billy! You let them go!”
Billy had looked from Tommy to his sister. Tommy smirked at Billy, already confident in the bonds of male friendship; they both knew kid sisters were stupid, but no one ever took any notice of them.
Mo just stared at Billy; fierce blue eyes boring into him. A five year old ball of fury.
Of course he let the butterflies go.
“Mr McAllister? Mr McAllister?” The nurse was speaking again. No, it wasn’t the nurse. They had now been joined by someone else. Another young woman. This one was wearing a white coat and a stethoscope hung around her neck. A doctor.
“Mr McAllister,” she said again. “I’m Dr Adams.” Already he didn’t like her. She bristled with business-like efficiency, looking at the clipboard she held, briefly at him, then too quickly back to the clipboard.
“Your sister declined rapidly over night. I’m afraid it sometimes happens at this stage.
She touched his arm lightly and held his eyes, “I’m sorry. I really am.”
Maybe she wasn’t so bad after all. Just busy. Everybody was so damned busy these days.
He was taken to a different room, not the main ward where Mo had been for the last month, but to a side room, a few feet away from the main ward. Evidently someone had decided last night that she should be moved – less for her sake, he suspected, than for the other patients in the ward.
She lay on her back in the only bed the small room could hold, the thin hospital blanket pulled up to her chest, with her arms – stick thin and bruised where the papery skin could not cope with the endless blood samples and injections – lying on top . Her head was propped up on two pillows, her eyes were closed and she was completely still. If he hadn’t heard the laboured breathing, Billy would have thought he was already too late.
A plastic catheter was stuck into the flesh on the top of her left hand and held in place with sticky tape. He knew this was for the morphine. He knew also that there was another catheter hidden under the bedclothes – even moving from bed to commode was now beyond her – and that if he stayed on the left side of the bed he could avoid seeing the clear bag it connected to. He sat on the beige wing chair next to the bed and shuffled closer to her. He touched her hair, so white and fine it was barely more substantial than tendrils of smoke.
“Is she in pain?” he asked the nurse.
“We’re doing everything we can to keep her comfortable.”
Mo groaned softly.
“No, she’s in pain. Can you give her some more painkillers?”
The nurse’s eyes flicked to the drip. “We’ve already increased the morphine dosage considerably. If we put it any higher, her organs wouldn’t cope. I’ll leave you together for a while.” The nurse slipped out of the room before he could reply.
Someone had tried to tidy Mo up: brushed her hair – what was left of it – sprayed some Lily of the Valley on her and even put a bit of blusher and powder on her cheeks. Mo would have been horrified . The perfume was old lady scent and the make-up badly applied. Mo had always had high standards when it came to her appearance. No, Mo had always had high standards period as our American cousins would say.
The Americans! What would Mo have been when she insisted on dating that Yank soldier? Billy fought to remember: eighteen maybe? And what was his name? Their parents had been shocked – probably more worried about Mo’s reputation than guilty of any real hostility towards Americans. Things were different in the forties, Billy sometimes privately thought they were better – what was wrong with folks keeping to their own kind? Their father had been adamant – “You try to leave this house Mo and I’ll lock you in your room!” Mo had been equally adamant, “You let me go or next time I leave this house I’ll go for good!” Eighteen years old, working a factory job paying two shillings a week and barely a change of clothes to her name. She didn’t even own a suitcase. Where did she think she would have gone? Still, their father must have believed that she would leave. She’d gone on that date. And quite a few others with – Billy remembered now – Roger. Roger, a nice boy, about the same age as Billy. Just a little bit homesick and a little bit scared – all the fliers must have been scared, although they tried not to show it. And Roger had thought the world of Mo. Who knows what would have happened? If things had been different Billy might have had Yank nieces and nephews and known all about the Superbowl. No, truth is by the time his plane didn’t come back from that mission, the whole family had grown very fond of Roger.
“Mr McAllister?” The doctor was in the room, looking around as though expecting to see another chair. Ordinarily he would have stood and offered her his seat, but his legs felt heavy and numb. She leaned back against the door frame and consulted her clip board again. “We really need to talk about what comes next.”
Billy looked up at her, “When is she going to wake up?”
“She isn’t going to wake up. I’m sorry.”
“But she was talking to me yesterday! And now she’s like this and she’s getting worse. She’s moaning with pain and the nurse told me you can’t do anything!”
“I can increase the morphine. That would help her to feel more comfortable.”
“But the nurse said that her organs couldn’t cope.”
“That is a possibility Mr McAllister. If I increase the morphine again it will put more stress on her organs and they may shut down. It is not the intention, but it is a possibility. She paused and looked directly at Billy. “It’s a strong possibility.”
Billy just shook his head. Mo had never backed down from a fight in her life.
The doctor nodded. “Can we call anyone to come and sit with you? A relative?”
Billy shook his head again. No one to call. His wife was long dead and his daughter was in Australia, a teacher like her Aunt Mo had been. Ellie and he and had been well into their 30s when they’d married. Sarah had come along and they’d hoped for a brother or sister for her, but it just hadn’t happened. Billy had especially hoped for a brother for her.
Sixty he’d been when Ellie had passed. Just retired from the factory and Sarah had only just started her first job in Oz. She’d offered to give it up, bless her, and come back home. And he’d nearly let her. He’d explained to Mo how lonely he was, how lost and that Sarah really didn’t mind. And Mo had fixed him with those blue eyes of hers and said, “Well, you can let her. Of course she’ll never forgive you and I doubt you’ll ever forgive yourself.”
So Sarah had stayed in Australia. And Mo had missed her almost as much as Billy.
When the doctor returned, she checked Mo gently and took up her position leaning against the door. “I’m afraid she’s getting quite uncomfortable Mr McAllister. Have you given any more thought to what I said earlier? I’m willing to increase the morphine to ease her pain, but only if you, as her next of kin, agree that it’s the right choice.”
Billy looked from Mo to the doctor, then back to Mo
Butterflies and jars.
Brothers and sisters.
The longest relationship of a long life.
(c) Janet Nixon, 2016
Part of Story Shop at the Edinburgh International Book Festival
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Janet Nixon reads Letting Go on 17 August 2016 at Story Shop during the Edinburgh International Book Festival.
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