All Stories, General Fiction

Falling Stars by James McEwan


Dressed in mourning suits, they listened to the minister as he read out the eulogy. My name is Benjamin Carmichael and at fifty-two years old this was my funeral. To me, it seemed surreal as if floating around in a euphoric haze viewing my coffin draped in the clan tartan shawl and adorned with white lilies. Peeping through a small gap I could see the faces of the congregation and by their demure I sensed an impatient acceptance. Were they saddened by the tale of a tragic loss as imposed on them by the monotonous voice of the minister or were they merely bored by the ritual? Surely, this was the day they had been expecting for years and eventually their long suffering would be over.  Soon, the body would be cremated to ash and the soul free to flutter heavenly in a plume of white smoke, and they will be able to continue their lives free from guilty retributions.

I pulled up my coat collar against the chill of the draught coming up through the floorboards where I was hidden behind the black drapes of the pulpit. I swallowed rapidly to suppress my impulse to laugh and muffled a cough.

When you least expect it, it’s a killer.  I knew something was wrong, and horrified when I received the news that confirmed my journey towards an early death. The doctor had asked me to lie on my side and pull my legs up into the foetal position. I can tell you, no matter how pretty she looked with her warm smile and bright intelligent eyes, there was nothing erotic in the process.  Perhaps, and I might have appreciated it more if the procedure was a little less clinical, and maybe, just maybe if she had warmed the gel before she put her icy fingers up my anus.

‘I’m afraid.’ Her expression had turned serious. ‘Your walnut is inflamed and extremely enlarged. We’ll conduct further examinations.’

Walnut! I would have expected her to use medical terminology, but it seems any reference to testicles or the prostrate gland is analogous with nuts.

‘The nurse will take some blood.’

I chuckled at the Doctor’s words and she looked at me as if I was mad.  It was the sudden vision I had of a female vampire dressed in a skimpy nurse uniform embedding her fangs deep into my carotid artery as she sucked the life from me. It was my hopeful illogical reaction to the pending news.

Three years of failing treatments were followed by my admission into the cancer research centre. That’s what private health insurance gets you, your own room and the privilege of being a guinea pig to medical science. I was delighted that all the students were able to embellish their knowledge as the balding consultant prodded at my swelling tumour in my anus and lectured on about my degenerative condition, now slowly spreading throughout my body.

I would smile at their cheerful mantra laced with an air of defeatism, ‘Good morning Mr Carmichael, you’re still with us today.’  As if somehow a miracle in the night had organised my escape, perhaps to a better place. Certainly, there were no places worse than in this clinic where I was methodically dying under the careful scrutiny of medical science.

Oh, the family and friends came visiting always tearful and full of hopeless encouragement, but as time went on I saw less of them, and less of their tears. I had become a physiological burden and a nuisance intruding throughout their daily routine, it was the knowing and not knowing with the contradictions of fate and hope that pained them most. I gently encouraged them to distance themselves from all intrusive thoughts and to continue with their lives as I slowly edged towards my bodily disintegration. It was not the prospect of dying but the slow pace of the journey and the constant bobbing between episodes of pain and euphoric high of morphine induced hallucinations, it was the frustration of waiting as if my long haul flight was delayed indefinitely.

I once played profession football until my knees protested, after which I created a line of sports luggage. I met Carol at an exhibition and I expanded my range with handbags for her fashion shops, we married soon afterwards. Life was kind to us with two children, Mike and Vanessa.

Despondent I sat by the window in the clinic, it was a particularly bad evening after some rough radiation and mouthfuls of Bisphosphonates, and I was feeling tearfully fearful of my fate. Through my ward window I observed the spectacle of stars in the clear night sky. There were occasional bright flares of meteorites streaking momentarily towards Earth before extinguishing as they burned out in the atmosphere. I absently unburdened my thoughts verbally in the presence of Rosanne the hospital cleaner, regardless if she was listening.

‘You only die if you want to,’ she said, and stood behind me.

‘What choice do I have?’

‘Falling stars, they are the souls of angels returning to Earth.’

‘What!’ I felt indignant for my outburst and so moderated my tone. ‘Yes, of course angels.’

‘Here.’ She took a small flask from her apron pocket. It contained some cold red berry tea. I sipped at the acrid juice as she placed her hand on my head; she closed her eyes and recited a prayer. Once finished with her religious ritual she said, ‘dying is natural, let it go and make a choice.’

Next morning I sat up cheered by Rosanne’s rigid belief in the power of faith and sweet tea. Then I saw them. I watched through the hospital window as my wife Carol got out of a white Range Rover in the car park. The driver was Douglas my business partner, who hugged her and held her as he kissed her more lovingly than any mutual friendship would dictate. They were laughing beyond grief. At this, I felt my cancer inflame and rage through my bones causing my heart to race as it pumped its fiery liquid into my veins. She came up to my room alone and sat next to the bed. She held my hand loosely avoiding the permanently attached intravenous needle.

‘You’re looking better today,’ she said, her face blank and drained of emotional expression.

‘I know.’

‘It’s a lovely sunny day outside.’ She hid her disdain behind the stare of her hazel eyes.

‘How are Mike and Vanessa?’

‘You mustn’t worry about us.’ She lifted up her iPhone. ‘Look, our time in St Lucia.’

As she flicked through the pictures of her and Vanessa I noticed Douglas lingering in the background, but I said nothing. I had no strength to argue and was unwilling to change the mood. Who was I to judge? I didn’t recall seeing Mike in any of these recent images.

It seemed so obvious now. From my vantage point concealed in the dark of the church I tried to judge their expressions. Carol kept looking back down the aisle as if someone was missing from the empty seat beside her. She held on tightly to Vanessa’s hand. I couldn’t detect any emotion or see tears on their blank faces, which were tanned by the healthy exposure to nature and fresh air. There was no sign of Mike.

How I missed being outdoors during my confinement in the cancer ward where I had occasionally stared through the windows and marvelled at the rain.

Behind my family in the church the rows were filled with my business acquaintances, dressed in black making them look like vultures ready to pick and clean the bones of some leftover carcass.

In the hospital research ward, I had indulged Rosanne’s constant attention with her insistence of prayer as I listened, and at the same time sipped palmetto tea. How could she have so much belief when my family and the doctors had all given up? The limitations of medical treatments were replaced by her reliance on the power of God through the Bible and palmetto berries. She believed in fate and had made provisions for her passing. I learned that she was not the employed cleaner after all, but nevertheless enjoyed working on the ward, as it helped her spend what remained of her life feeling useful. She also introduced me to her friends and family, a group of people who had formed a deep belief in the regeneration of angels. They reminded me of sixties hippies with a naïve idealism of a perfect world, who accepted the failings of human bodies and believed that medical science would never surpass the inevitable end by old age or otherwise. They preached self-determination and the right to making choices, what they then offered as an end of life plan I found exciting and so comforting.

From my teens I had built up a leather handbag and suitcase business,  my share was worth millions. Douglas, in my absence had taken over the concern in complete disregard to my son Mike who held a minor managerial position. Ever since my confinement, Mike had formed an unhealthy distaste for Douglas and was determined to surpass him to continue the family name.  My house was mortgage free as was the holiday home in St Lucia. I know that Carol and Vanessa would be well taken care of, and Douglas would perhaps be around. Still, I couldn’t help feeling inadequate and although it may seem illogical I blamed him for my cancer. My share in the business was sold reluctantly by Mike to pay for my trip of a lifetime, my choice and my end of life plan. I had no intention of wasting away in some stuffy hospital bed.

I took one last look around the congregation and decided I had made the right choice. I then slipped out the back of the church and met Mike waiting by his car. We sped along the motorway towards the aerodrome to the lift off point for my final destination. I asked Mike how he had managed to arrange a body in the coffin, don’t worry he told me as such earthly matters were no longer my concern. I knew he was right.

I held Rosanne’s hand as we sat on the escalator chair taking us into the spacecraft. A sense of relief and feeling of self-control washed over me as I embarked on this last and final stage of our journey, Rosanne was smiling. Behind and in front us there were lines of other chairs taking people into the same rocket, although the sense of excitement was subdued there was a warm glow of happiness on every face. We were split into two groups, the inward and the outward bound.

In orbit we looked down and saw the blue glow of the planet suspended by the gravitation hold from the sun and its rays warmed us through the viewing portal.

The inward-bound group, all of whom had some form of terminal illness, would be released to fall from space and burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere, they would become the falling angels as Rosanne believed.  The outward-bound group, containing the aged healthy people, would be released in small capsules to drift away into Space, where the occupants could marvel at the enormity of the universe as they slowly passed away. Their bodies would freeze dry and somewhere it maybe possible that from their DNA new human life may reform in some other part of the universe.

My fate in the inward group would allow me a final descent to a planet where I was born and to have had the humble privilege of a wonderful existence.

James McEwan

Banner Image: By NASA on The Commons (CONTOUR Launch) [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons

12 thoughts on “Falling Stars by James McEwan”

  1. James, your brilliantly-written story really grabbed me. My daughter and son-in-law are temporarily living with me as my son-in-law stays daily by the side of his brother, dying of cancer at the age of 54 in home hospice care. It is a painful process for everyone, especially the wife, son and daughter. I will share this beautiful story and picture with my family. I consider it a remarkable and memorable coincidence to be reading it this morning. Thank you, June


      1. Thanks, James. He passed away thirty minutes ago. A blessing. We’re doing wel. Best always, June


      2. Sorry to read about your loss June but hope you find comfort in his release and you will soon remember him with a smile. Hugs x


  2. Hi James, the ending of this story has such a positive message that it has to be out there. It has to be read. Most of us in one way or another have experience with that disease. Your words cause a smile to crack through any tears.
    I also pass on my thoughts to June and her family.
    All the very best my friend.


  3. I love your story James – such an imaginative take on the grim business of dying slowly. Your ending is magnificent – I’d like to be a Falling Star guided by Roseanne- a joyous free spirit. My dear late husband died from ‘walnut’ cancer, in a hospital. Sure he’d have chosen to be a Falling Star. Hope it catches on…


  4. Hi James,
    I think this story resonates not with a few but with everyone who reads it so it is brilliant to see it getting another airing!
    All the very best my friend.


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