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Molly McDonagh – Why won’t John wake up?

P Molly McDonagh LE Y P&W Dec 2019

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Short Story by Molly McDonagh

My name is Molly and I’m thirteen years old. I live in Kiltimagh, County Mayo, Ireland. My hobbies include reading, writing and drawing. I like to read comic books and graphic novels too. I also like to swim and go to the cinema with my friends.


The place smelled funny. It tickled my throat and made me cough. Mammy said it always smells funny here. She said they spray the place with the funny smelling stuff to make it clean. I don’t like this place; it smells weird and the seats are very sore. There are lots of people here. They make me nervous. Some of them are crying. One girl has red lumps all over her face. They look weird and make me feel sick. Mammy says it’s like this a lot.

We have been coming here for a while now. I think it must be something to do with school, like that time the doctors came in and poked me with a pointy thing. Daddy said it was called a needle, but I don’t think so. Granny has needles and they don’t look like that. But then a lot of things Daddy said aren’t true. At least that’s what Mammy told me. Mammy and Daddy don’t really get on. John says Daddy lives in America now. I wonder where that is. John says it’s a very big country, he says we can visit Daddy over the summer, but I don’t want to. Daddy was very mean to me. He used to shout at me, and he always went out at night instead of giving me bedtime stories. He left soon after we started going to this place. This funny smelling place with its hard chairs and crying people. Mammy calls it a hospital. We go here every week and John and I must leave school early. John is my older brother and he is sixteen, Michelle and Sean are thirteen but I’m only six. My birthday is in May though. Mammy said we’ll go to the cinema for it. Mammy and I love watching movies, our favourite is Toy Story and since it’s coming out on my birthday, we’re going to go see it. Michelle likes it too, though not as much. Sean hates it. He says it’s too babyish and boring.

John is in the hospital now. He must go to a special room with Dr Richard and Mammy. Mammy won’t let me, or Michelle and Sean go. She says it’s for big kids only. But I’m a big kid too! Whenever Mammy goes in there, she usually leaves crying. John looks upset too though they won’t say why. I try to ask Mammy, but she just says that they put medicine in her eye to make it feel better. Mammy does need glasses, so I suppose it does help.

John is just grumpy. He recently cut all his hair so now he’s bald. At least I think he cut it. He just left for a while with Mammy and we stayed with Auntie Kay. He came back after a couple of weeks later with no hair. I think it’s a trend. Like Michelle’s earrings or dyed blue hair. Mammy seemed upset then as well. I try to ask Michelle sometimes why Mammy is crying but she just tells me it’s Mammy’s eye medicine too.

Dr Richard comes back out with Mammy. He says a lot of big words like “surgically remove” and “tumour”. I don’t know what these mean and Mammy doesn’t tell me. She just looks sad and tells me she will be going away for a while and that we were to stay with Auntie Kay again. I wonder if she’s going to see Daddy in America. Michelle says she isn’t. They leave later and Auntie Kay gives us all chocolate cake to eat. It’s nice.

Later, that night I go up to go to the bathroom. I see a piece of cake on the table and go to try it. I just really like Auntie Kay’s cake. I notice some paper on the table. It looks boring until I see John’s name on it. Under it is written a load of weird words like “brain tumour, fatal, suggested route, surgery, time left around nine months.” This looks like those numbers you get on the back of my coco pops boxes. I asked Michelle what they mean, and she said it was to tell if the food was out of date, so it didn’t make you sick. I wonder if John is like that. Is he out of date? I’d never heard of it before. I notice another line below it. It just said one word. Cancer. I didn’t know what that was either. I decided I would ask my teacher Ms Moran. Ms Moran knows everything. I hear a creak behind me. Auntie Kay is there. She looks very cross. She told me to go to bed. The next morning, she was still cross. I heard her talking to Mammy before school, she sounded worried.

When we go to school, Michelle and Sean went to their friends and I went to my class. My friend Sarah and I played dollies together. Today Sharon and Megan went to the swimming pool, but the house next door was haunted so they had to save their neighbour, Shellie. This is what Sarah and I always play. I asked my teacher what cancer was and she said it was a constellation in the sky.

Constellations are shapes that the stars make in the sky. I know this because Sean loves looking at the stars. He has a telescope and Galileo teddy. He wants to be an astronomer. I want to be an actor and play a cowgirl like Jessie from Toy Story. I don’t know how I’ll be a toy though. Mammy says they use something called animation.

I haven’t seen Mammy in thirty-six days. She calls every night but it’s not the same. I miss her. I hope she doesn’t leave like Daddy did. Michelle says she hasn’t, but I don’t know.

Mammy called last night with news. She said we were moving to a new house. Sean got so mad. He started screaming and saying rude words. Michelle started crying too. I didn’t know what was going on and everyone was making so much noise. I ran out of the room and down to my bedroom. I could hear my Mammy giving out to Sean and Auntie Kay was looking for me, but I stayed under the bed. I don’t want to move to a new house. I had a friend, Siobhan, once. She moved to a new house and I never met her again. I want to say in my house and play with Sarah. I don’t want to leave Auntie Kay either. She would be all alone without us. But Mammy came home a couple of days later and we drove all the way to a big city. It was a nice house with four bedrooms. One for Mammy, Sean, Michelle and me but none for John. I hadn’t seen John at all. Mammy said he was gone on a school trip and wouldn’t be back for a while. But that was ages ago. I’ve been at school for almost a month and haven’t seen John at all. Mammy works all day to get money and I have no one to talk to. Sean and Michelle pick me up and mind me but they are always busy. I miss John. He always said bedtime stories to me after Daddy left and knew all the answers to my homework. Sean and Michelle are nice to me too, but they seem sad. I think it’s because they miss their friends. I miss Sarah too, but I’ve got my Jessie doll to play with. Michelle and Sean are too big for dolls. At least that’s what Sean says, but I think they should have dolls too. Jessie helps me feel happy when I’m sad or lonely. I feel lonely now without John. Mammy said we’ll see him soon, but I sometimes hear Mammy and Michelle talking when they think I’m asleep. They say stuff like “it’ll be ok” and “there isn’t much time left”. I don’t know what they’re talking about, but they scare me. I don’t like them talking like that. It’s like Daddy leaving all over again.

I’ve started my new school now. It’s ok. I miss Sarah and my new teacher is very mean. She gives me loads of homework to do. Mammy says we can still go and visit Sarah on the weekends. I hope we do. People in my class laugh at me and call me names. I would tell Mammy but she’s working all the time and Michelle and Sean are busy with end of year exams. I wish John was here to talk to but whenever I ask where he is, Mammy just says he’s on a school trip.

The next day we had to do questions in school. They were what, where, when and why. For homework we had to write a question for each one. I stared at it for ages before deciding what to say. Michelle and Sean were at school so I couldn’t ask them, and Mammy had gone to get some milk so I couldn’t ask her either. I wish John was here. He could help me with my homework. Eventually I went with:

What does the word cancer mean?

Where is John now?

When will I see John again?

Why is Mammy always crying?

I waited for Mammy to come back and did the rest of my spellings with her. Mammy looked sad and she had started to get grey hair. I wonder why her hair was grey. Only old people like granny and grandpa had grey hair and Mammy wasn’t old. When I asked her why she just smiled and asked me what I wanted for my birthday. My birthday was next week. I would be seven! I told her I wanted to see Toy Story 4 in the cinema. She said we could.

There was a loud crash from downstairs that awoke me from my sleep. I had fallen asleep after dinner and Mammy had put me to bed. I felt hot and sweaty and my throat was all dry. I needed a drink. I got up and went out to the kitchen. The kitchen tiles were cold against my feet. Mammy was there on the phone. She was talking to someone in a panicky voice. Michelle and Sean stumbled up to the kitchen, yawning.

“What’s going on?” Michelle asked, sleepily. Mammy looked up, tears running down her face.

“We need to go now. The hospital rang. They…they said it wasn’t looking good.” Sean and Michelle got up and ran down the hall. Sean got his coat and shoes and Michelle grabbed my hand. I didn’t understand what was happening. Why was Mammy so sad? Where were we going? I tried to ask Michelle, but she just told me to go to my room and get my coat. I went up and put it on but then brought Jessie with me too. Everyone was running around, and Jessie made me feel better.

Mammy grabbed the car keys, dropped them and then picked them up again. Sean took her hand and said it was going to be ok. Mammy just took the keys off him and went out to the car. I hugged Jessie tightly. Mammy started the car and drove down the road. She was driving fast. I thought we were going to crash. Sarah had been in a car crash once. She said it was very scary.

We didn’t meet any other cars on the way. Mammy kept crying and muttering. Michelle and Sean, we talking to her. They kept saying things like “it’s ok” and “try not to panic” even though they both looked scared too. We arrived at a big building. It had a strange smell like the old hospital we used to go to. I wondered if that was why we were here, because Mammy’s eyes needed fixing. But we didn’t go into any special room. Instead we waited outside on some hard seats. It was very boring. I started to play with Jessie. She didn’t know why we were here either. Mammy was still crying. She tried talking to some people in white coats, but they wouldn’t answer. After ages she came over to me.

“I’m sure your wondering what this is all about” she said. I nodded, leaving my Jessie doll down.

“Well….” she took a deep breath, “There is this sickness called cancer, sweetie and it makes people very ill. It makes people lose their hair and…..and sometimes they don’t survive.”

I stare at her. Mammy looks at me, still crying and says

“John has cancer, sweetie and they don’t think he is going to survive”

I don’t understand what Mammy is saying. John is going to die. But only old people die or…. or if you get hit by a car. John wasn’t old. Why would he be dying? Then a man comes over to us and brings us through the big doors. I look down for Jessie but realise that I left her behind. I try to go back but Mammy just pulls me along. I start to cry but stop when I see him. John was in a white bed with a dress on. There are weird straws attached to his arms with little packets hanging from a stand. The packets are full of water and red stuff, but they don’t look very nice. There is a weird TV on the wall showing some zigzags. He looks a little funny in a dress and I almost laugh until I see his head. It is all lumpy and red. Michelle says it’s a tumour, but I don’t care. I just stare at John. Why does he look so different? I start crying again. Mammy goes over to John and sits beside him. She smiles.

“You’re ok” she says” You’re going to be ok. The doctors said you’ll get better”

John just smiled “Don’t lie” he said. He looked around at us and smiled again, before falling back on the bed.

“Is Dad here?” he asked quietly.

Mammy opens her mouth and closes it before saying “Yes, he’s gone to get you a present.”

This isn’t true. Daddy’s far, far away. I go to tell him, but Sean stops me.

“I love you” Mammy says,

John tries to say something but starts coughing. He starts throwing himself up and down and wiggling about. Loads of doctors come and surround him. I try to tell them to get off, but Michelle picks me up and hugs me tightly. There is a loud beeping coming from the weird TV and the zigzags are moving very fast. Mammy is crying loudly and so is Sean and Michelle. I’m confused. Big girls and boys don’t cry. At least that’s what Sean says. But the beeping is getting louder, the zigzags are moving faster, John is coughing faster until…….. silence. I look up from Michelle’s shoulder. John isn’t moving anymore. The doctors are all walking away and going to Mammy. The beeping has stopped, and the zigzag is now one straight line. Suddenly Mammy starts screaming and crying. Sean is hugging her and crying too. I don’t understand. John isn’t coughing. He isn’t sick anymore. Michelle picks me up and carries me out. But I don’t want to go. I scream and kick her, trying to go to Mammy and John. Why isn’t John moving?

Why won’t John wake up?


©  Molly McDonagh