NON-FICTION: The Book of the Unremembered by Mark Stewart

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Like most of my generation I am unfamiliar with death. As a Baby Boomer I was born after the two global conflicts that defined the last century and the seminal generation-defining wars that followed: Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and the war without end that is the relentless suffering in the Middle East. My only experience of death has been limited to family bereavements; that and the baffling loss of a boy from my class at school when I was thirteen. I was unable to understand then how anyone could die at such a young age, having lived so little. I think of him often, wondering what his life might have been like compared to mine. Somewhere in another time-line is the woman he might have married, the children that might have been his. Are they ghosts, or something even less substantial, the ghosts of ghosts, perhaps?

For my two cousins it was a different story. Death stalked their wives as if pursuing a personal grudge, taking one in childbirth at the obscenely low age of 21, and the other not many years later through multiple cancers at 28. My granddad died when I was 34. All I can remember now is a funeral under skies so grey it seemed impossible they would ever be blue again, preceded by countless Sunday morning trips to an equally drab nursing home. I lost my parents within six months of each other, my father to renal failure, pneumonia and dementia; my mother to the shock of losing the man she had been married to for 49 years. This is my death tally, my ledger of bereavement, the names I would have no trouble recognizing in the Book of the Dead. The only book that never goes out of print.

Never let anyone tell you that death is the last great taboo. We are every bit as obsessed as the Egyptians were. It’s just that our monuments are different and less conspicuous. Death infests our magazines and books, our TV programmes and our high streets, especially the funeral shops that we conveniently fail to see. Our reference points may be different but the preoccupation is the same: we are all marking time until the bony hand of Death taps us on the shoulder.

My father’s death was the worst of those bereavements, the dementia taking an appalling toll, severing the synapses in his brain, until nothing coherent was left of the man he had once been. In the end I prayed for him to die, for the release it would give us all, my father included. I grew to dread the daily visits to the hospital: in the evenings during the week, and during the day for seven or eight hours at a stretch at the weekends, a son visiting a father who no longer recognised him. Incoherent and incontinent, my father was by turns aggressive and indifferent to the presence of others. Worst of all were the journeys we made to the patient toilet, two or three of us escorting my father to the cubicle, lifting him on and off the seat, changing the incontinence pad, and then the stumbling journey back again.

At the end of each visit I wanted to run from that place and never go back. But I did go back. All the while knowing that the real victim in all of this was not my father but the woman he’d been married to for almost half a century.

If that is what lies in wait for me, I shall choose a different means of departure, a different way of entering my name in the ledger. I shall not go gently into my final terminal night, into the bottomless chasm that reclaims us all no matter how hard we struggle. Even if we keep our memories with us right to the end.


Mark Stewart

Mark HoL_small

Mark Stewart is the author of three collections of short stories: The Screaming Planet, The Absence of Wings and Letters from an Astronaut. The first two collections, written in the style of magical realism, show the world through the eyes of some of the world’s most endangered and persecuted animals. The stories comprise an ark of sorts, offering a literary refuge for creatures that may one day exist only in story books, fables and myths.

Letters from an Astronaut is a collection of messages sent home by an interplanetary traveller on a journey through the solar system.

Mark also co-authored and co-edited the biography Arthur C. Clarke – A Life Remembered.

In 2014 he won the Sir Patrick Moore Medal for services to the British Interplanetary Society where he founded and edited the e-magazine, Odyssey, for two and a half years.

Mark’s website includes full details on his short stories:

He can be followed on Twitter @pendragonmist

And on Facebook at:

Mark now lives in the Surrey/Sussex hills; members of his non-human family include rabbits, horses, foxes and hedgehogs.

If you enjoyed ‘The Book of the Unremembered’ leave a comment and let Mark know.

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