The Sudden Goldfish Fin of Pride
by Dan Brotzel
On the train down, Govey wrote some phrases in a workbook.
Lovely route, isn’t it? Never really noticed the countryside in this part of the world before.
He’d come from a meeting in the City, a typical encounter with people from a company he didn’t really understand but who valued the plausible noises he made about what they stood to gain from maximizing their social media opportunities.
He was in a charcoal Prada suit picked out by a girlfriend for a wedding. (She hadn’t been invited herself because she’d once upset the groom.) He looked smart, smarter than any of his family would expect, in a smooth white shirt offset by a navy Paul Smith tie and subtle cobalt cufflinks.
Are you comfortable? They treating you well in here?
Though he did not encourage it, he could not avoid a faint narcissistic frisson at the situation: the head of the family on his deathbed, the younger man descending from town, the poignancy of farewell and blessing and things passed on. The gathering of the clan, the passing of the patriarch. Oh dear.
What’s the food like?
He had never spoken to anyone about to die. It seemed important to say nothing that would be an obvious fiction, such as See you when you get out or Once you’re back on your feet... At the same time it seemed important to say something, but as the stations began to fly by, not a single authentic line came to mind. Govey felt a stab of annoyance that Don and his dying should put him in such an uncomfortable situation.
So how are you feeling? Been giving the nurses the runaround?
“Ask how they are, and then just listen,” his mum always advised on dealing with the bereaved and other emotionally challenging types. When you truly attend to what someone is saying, you will always know what to say next. (But then his mum did not live her life insulated from the other by a perpetual solipsistic haze.)
The older man, Don, the last of his generation, was on a ward of 8 beds. Only one other bed was occupied, by a talkative Jehovah’s Witness with most of his front teeth missing. In another room without a door a family huddled together, the air blurred by their crying.
Govey stood reverently to the side of Don’s bed. Don was unmistakably Don, albeit a Don who has just died but whose body persists in breathing with a deep, labored rhythm, not unlike snoring. Govey stroked the hairs on the back of Don’s hands, hands that reminded him of his own dad’s. He looked at the hairs in the nose, the catheter, tried to take in the whole pale vulnerability.
Alors, mon vieux, comment vous allez?
Their relationship had not been profound but it had been cordial and fond, and their encounters at family dos were marked by an ease that gave each obvious pleasure. They had obvious affinities –speaking French, theological wrangles, writing for the newspaper. They had his Dad – Don’s brother – in common too.
Though Don was very religious, they never discussed religion. Beside his bed were various books, all devotional: a Bible, a modern prayer book, a commentary on the Psalms. The Jehovah’s Witness said he’d never seen such a stream of men of the cloth coming and going to a single bed before.
Govey thought he’d heard this man tell the nurse he was going to get out tomorrow and congratulated him on the news. “I wish. I’m going out to the other place for a CAT scan.” So he was very ill too (of course; why else would he be here, forced to witness another man dying breath by breath?) and his chirpy chatter was a kind of courage. And he knew, too, that Govey was scared.
Didn’t realize the train went right past your stop.
“Go on, talk to him. He comes and goes. I’ve been having some good chats with him these past few days. Try his right side.”
Govey stood duly upon the right side, stroked the hairs on Don’s hand, leaned in, called his name. Don surfaced briefly from somewhere far down and raised his right hand with slow heavy symbolism... to scratch at his right hearing aid. Three times the hand, and the wire taped to it rose slowly to fiddle approximately with the earhole, as if Govey’s words had stuck like wax to the top of the canal and needed to be forced in to be heard.
Govey paused, chattered craply with the other man, tried again. This time Don said his name and motioned for him to round the bed and talked to him from the other side. But by the time he got round, however, Don had drifted away again.
The pattern of attempted exchanges and drifting glimpses continued. At one point Govey clumsily moistened Don’s mouth with a damp sponge-on-a-stick. He looked down the ward; no nurse came to advise or relieve him of the task. Thinking of dentists, Govey dipped the pink sponge in the plastic cup of liquid and poked sporadically at the dry, flecked lips. He thought: Do not choke him.
So how are you feeling? Been giving the nurses the runaround?
Govey wouldn’t need any of his lame conversational gambits. Don had done him the great service of being unreachable. Now he could leave the ward, update the family on his visit. They would take his account seriously, listen to his words carefully as if they carried insight. As if he felt something.
Now that Govey could leave, he chose to linger cinematically. He circled the bed a few
times, listening to the click of his shiny brogues on the hospital floor. He fiddled with a
cufflink, looked away meaningly when a nurse looked up at and smiled.
As he walked through the maze of corridors, back to the reception area with its self-help
leaflets and minicab phonebooth, he passed a couple struggling to comfort a baby. The baby
was wailing like a seagull.
That night Don would die and Govey would be the last to have spoken to him.
Dan's competition shortlists include Flash500, Sunderland University/Waterstones, Wimbledon BookFest, Fish and Retreat West. His work has appeared in Cabinet of Heed, Spelk, Ginger Collect, and Fiction Pool. He wrote for Dead Ringers (BBC Radio 4) and has also made two appearances in Christopher Fielden's To Hull and Back comic-writing anthology (2015, 2016). His agent is Ger Nichol, and both his first novel #unforgivable and a collection of short stories, Hotel du Jack, are currently under consideration.