Friday 15 December 2023

Sean’s Last Christmas by Maeve Murphy, a stiff whiskey

The door bell rings.

Well surprise, surprise. They were all back like flies around shite.

The sound of the front door opening. Hushed whispers. 

“What did the doctor say? I went to the airport immediately.”

“What I said, to get everyone back. “ 

Back to dump their guilty gurnin’ on me.  The last Christmas. All gathering to watch me, the dying turkey, get stuffed next door.

The sound of Sarah bursting into tears.

On  Cue. Did it not cross anybody’s mind I might actually be listenin’?                                                          


The door opens to Sean’s room. His raised hospital-style bed is in what was once the family dining room. There is a dark mahogany antique sideboard with cut Waterford glass on display, and family photographs, on top of it. It is a weird contrast to the tissues, wipes and ointments that are on a cheap white hospital-style cupboard that stands between the hospital bed and the antique dresser. Christmas decorations are up, green and red tinsel intertwined and a real small Christmas tree with presents wrapped in one corner. A hospice nurse sits quietly on a chair at the back of the room in another.

Sarah enters with a big strained smile. Her intense gaze fixes on Sean, as she keeps straightening out sections of her long red hair out of nerves.

“Hi, Dad,” she says. Michael her brother, walks in behind her. He has a kind of Tom Cruise feel about him, good looking with a friendly pleasant smile. He moves with ease.

Sean listens to the sound of his own grasping breath. Sarah bursts into tears again. 

“I’m sorry I haven’t come over to see you more.”

Well it’s Christmas, so you’ve managed to make it for your once a year visit with no extra cost. Good purse keeping there. So glad to be of convenience.  Nice bit scheduling for you by him upstairs.

Sarah sits down beside the bed and strokes his forehead. The sound of the doorbell again. Michael goes to answer it.

            “Dad – Did Michael tell you? I won a prize.”


            He had, and now I had to hear it again. Sarah was the clever one, the star of the family. Until she went to Exeter university and got bullied senseless by a nasty public-school boy. To escape she would, go down to London at weekends, to late night shabeens where Irish brickies doing their own double identity thing became world-class musicians on a Friday and Saturday evening. The music bonded them and together they relished in being Irish. And now her paintings were being noticed and as she was goin’ on about her prize. Selfish bitch.

Una, Sean’s other adult daughter, enters with a box of Cadbury’s roses chocolates. She has a concerned look on her face. She is older than Sarah and Michael, nearly forty and more conservative in both in how she looks and how she holds herself. Her long loose dress doesn’t quite have the casual fashionable London feel of Sarah’s jeans and jumper but she has a smartness about her, born of years as a city centre shop manager.

She holds the box of chocolates before Sean. “Happy Christmas, Dad.”

Sean’s eyes fall from the ceiling onto the red roses on the box.

What kind of Christmas present is that? How the hell do you expect me to eat them? So now I’m convenient and cheap?

Sean’s wrinkled hands grasp each other anxiously, his long uncut nails claw into the top of his hand, drawing blood. Sarah watches this disturbed.

“What’s he doing with his hands?”

“It’s okay,” says the nurse. “He’s just a little distressed. Maybe all go and have yourselves a wee cup of tea; let him have a moment.”

Sarah looks anxiously at him. She turns and looks at the nurse.

“Can you not stop him? Should someone not cut his nails?”

There is a hint of accusation in her voice, fire in her hazel eyes.  

“He just needs rest. Not too much activity.”

Sarah stares at Sean, unsure, then with a strong look from Una, reluctantly leaves; Michael follows her, Una glances at the nurse, then leaves with them.

The nurse sits down beside Sean in the seat where Sarah was sitting. It’s a wooden chair with an embroidered maroon soft-cushioned bit to sit on. It looks like it comes from a dining room set of table and chairs set, formal, expensive. It gives a sense of the room, before it was converted into Sean’s room. The nurse sits there quietly, no noise. Sean’s eyes are now glazed and fixed again on the off-white ceiling. 


A big bunch of red roses flying through the air. Mary, a beautiful bright-eyed bride has just thrown them in the air. “Catch,” Mary cries. A woman with a pretty squashy face, button-up nose and bright-red nail varnish on her fingernails catches the flowers. She laughs in surprise... Everything is white, white sheets, twisting and turning.



The sound of the front door bell again. Sean flinches at the noise, the nurse observes this. He also stops scratching at his hands. The door to Sean’s room re opens; a priest walks in and very slowly approaches Sean’s bed.

Swooping in like a black vulture ready to pounce on my rotting carcass. 

The priest sits down on another dining room chair on the other side of the bed.

“Sean,” He speaks very quietly.


The sound of the death rattle is now audible. The priest is anointing Sean’s forehead and hands, and gets out his book and starts to recite last rights. Sarah and Michael and Una come back in, there is a shaken solemn expression on all of their faces. Sarah watches the priest.

Michael stares at Sean, tears welling up in his eyes, he audibly starts to cry.

Michael looks like me, but better lookin’. He’s lucky, things come to him easy, everyone wants him, women throw themselves at him, men want to be friends with him. He’s charmin’, funny, smart. Maybe drinks a wee bit much. I did too when I was a lad. When he finished his English degree he’d three local schools after him and Queens University offerin´ him a PhD. He likes Belfast, likes being local, like me. Except he’s a homosexual.

The priest tells Sean, “You are forgiven.”

Michael looks at Sean. “Just as well you’re a fenian, Dad, isn’t it?”

Sarah, Michael and the priest all laugh. Sean raises his eyebrows.

Seeing this, they all laugh even more. Una joins in.

             “He raised his eyebrows!” says Sarah.

Thank God someone’s paying attention.

“A showman to the end,” says Michael. 

That’s more like it. Now stop all this cryin’ lark. It’s depressin’.

Sarah kisses him on the forehead.

            “Go on, Dad, do it again.”

Sean raises his eyebrows again. They all piss themselves laughing. The door opens and Nuala a grey elderly-looking woman with a squashy face and a button up nose enters.

“What’s going on?” she asks.

“Dad’s raising his eyebrows,” replies Sarah.

            Nuala coughs; she covers her mouth with her bright-red nail-varnished fingernails. Then she looks apologetically at the priest. “I’m really sorry; I was out sorting the burial plot and having a quick look at coffins. Even though it’s Christmas, they opened for me.”

The priest nods.

“I think I’ll go for the mahogany one.”

Michael makes a face.

“Very heavy to carry, Nuala. Want me back good.”

Sweet Jesus! Does it ever stop being all about you.

Sean raises his eyebrows again.

“Look,” says Sarah. 

Nuala half smiles, as if she wants to believe Sean is communicating but clearly doesn’t think he is. There are a bunch of white roses.

“Who brought the roses?” Nuala asks.

 “Aunty Patricia popped round earlier; it must have been her,” Michael says.

Nuala suggests lunch, they all leave. Nuala tells the nurse they will be back shortly. The nurse nods, but leaves also to make a phone call in the hallway. The door bell rings again.


There are so many reasons why I love you.

Sean gazes at a woman, who is now standing at the end of his bed. Smiling, he stares in total adoration. Her long light blonde wavy hair is smooth and her startling arresting blue eyes are dazzling. She smiles back at him. It is Mary, his beautiful bride, his wife. In a joyful silence they are together again. She sits down beside him and thinks, then starts to sing a fragment from the traditional folk song “She moved through the fair.”

“My love said to me

My mother won’t mind,

And me father won’t slight you

For your lack of kind

Then she stepped away from me

And this she did say,

It will not be long, love, ’til our wedding day.”

Mary, beautiful Mary, your beautiful voice.  I never thought I’d hear you sing again.

Mary takes a step towards him. The nurse comes back into the room and noticing something about Sean’s breath, takes Sean’s pulse. She immediately leaves Sean’s bedroom.


The whole family gathers round the bed. The sound of Sean’s rasping breath. Mary stands near the door. Sarah is telling Sean how much they all love him. Michael is crying again and holding Una’s hand and then takes Sarah’s hand. Nuala is on the other side of the bed. Una glances at her and stretches across and takes her hand. One last big breath from Sean, then his breathing stops. They all stare at him, stunned, not sure if that’s it. No-one speaks.

The nurse says quietly, “He’s gone.”

I was shedding, father, husband, crabby old codger. It all fell away like clothes before a bath.

The sound of sobbing. Sean looks still but snarled under the white duvet cover.              


Sean’s well-presented corpse is laid out in an open coffin. He holds some rosary beads in

his hands. Michael is watching him, as if hoping he might again somehow breathe.  Like he thinks it might almost be possible.

The sound of the door bell. The undertaker and his younger colleague arrive. The undertaker asks Michael if he and the family would like to go outside while they put the lid on the coffin and bring it out the front door. The undertaker’s phone rings, it has a Doctor Who ring tone. The undertaker’s young colleague sniggers despite himself. Una does also.

“Is he going out in the Tardis?” asks Michael.


 I was still there. I wasn’t feeling good. About anything. Una was the best of us.

Came down to see me most nights for the last few months.

            Gave me three grandchildren. Gave me soothing conversations. Gave me her time.             

Held us all together when Mary went.  I didn’t want to hurt Sarah, I didn’t want to upset Michael. I didn’t want to make them feel betrayed or any of that. I just wanted for one little moment, for Una to be the  one that got noticed. I knew since the sickness got bad, what it was like not to be seen, even when you were there. A strange ferocious kind of vanishing....  I had been tempted to change the will. I didn’t. I did love them.The money is to be split equally between them all, the three of them and Nuala. I didn’t want to be thought of as a bitter bastard shaking his fist from the grave.  And yet I was. I couldn’t leave, stuck now, hovering around that bloody Christmas tree.


Nuala walks in. She is dressed in a chic black straight woollen dress, with a matching black woollen jacket and high-heel black shoes. She looks good. She looks at Sean, in the coffin, her face crumples with emotion. She tells the undertaker she would like to be there when the lid goes on. The undertaker says they are very happy to do what the wife of the deceased desires.  “Partner – not wife,” says Sarah. Michael glares at her.

“What?” asks Sarah turning the glare back on Michael.

Michael continues to give her a look.

The undertaker nods quickly to dispel the tension.  “Partner.”


Nuala had never been truly accepted by them, though Una tolerated her. Well it’s obvious why isn’t it, but they were horrible to her. Nuala was good at taking care of everything and everyone and making sure all was in order and running smoothly. She washed their clothes and picked them up and left them to school. But they didn’t register that, it meant nothing, or next to nothing to them. And that was understandable also, kind of, but like me they were bitter bastards. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree there. And not even my death and not even my death at Christmas, good will to all men stuff, made even the slightest bit of difference. No like me, they wanted to merrily hoard their bad feelings and righteous grudges, gorge on them like sickly rich Christmas pudding that you eat until you nearly throw up, but don’t,  but end up having a clogged heart and sour death for it. 


Sean’s coffin is carried down a narrow path and lowered into the grave. Lines and lines of crosses stretch behind and beside each other in the long graveyard. Michael and Sarah help carry the coffin. Nuala, Una, her husband and children follow with other family and friends. Una is walking very slowly, holding one of her little one’s hands. It snows lightly.

The coffin is lowered. The priest reads from the Bible and quietly says some prayers. He sprinkles the coffin with some holy water, a sombre and final moment. They all stare at the wooden coffin. Nuala reminds Una and Sarah, it’s the hotel now for tea and sandwiches. They walk away from the grave, together but separately.  Half way up the path Nuala totally breaks down.  Her whole body is shaking as she weeps. It makes a horrible sound. Sarah stops, shocked, moved as Nuala empties her soul. The bad woman, the witch, the slut.             

            Sarah pauses, then very tentatively puts an arm around Nuala’s shoulder. Not knowing what to say, but standing there, like a guardian, bearing witness, there beside her until the crying gently eases, in fits and bobs finally ceases. And then silence.


Sarah and Nuala break away from everyone else and start walking in a different direction. They keep walking and stop and stare at another grave, which has a grey granite headstone. It reads Mary Devine, died tragically in a car accident. Greatly missed by her husband Sean and their three children, Una, Sarah and Michael. Nuala  holds a new bunch of white roses that she’s been given.

Nuala places them at the foot of Mary Devine’s headstone. 

           The wind blows very gently, scattering fresh white petals like confetti across her grave.


A wooden kitchen table. Patterned orange and brown checked kitchen curtains drawn tightly shut. Sean’s beautiful bride, Mary, looks stunned, bewildered as she holds a passport photo of Nuala. Sean’s jacket lies nearby.  Small children in their pyjamas arrive at the kitchen door. The children are looking at her and crying.

 Sean goes over tries to appease her.

Mary, his beautiful bride drives away in her car into the darkness. 


Sarah and Nuala walk to Una and Michael who are waiting for them at the entrance to the cemetery. Una is still holding her little ones hand. Ciara has some green holly with red berries pinned to her new Christmas coat. She lets go of Una’s hand and runs and hugs Nuala really tightly. Nuala’s face radiates a startled, shocked joy.


A streak of whitish light brightens the dull grey sky. Then with the soft red evening sun

slowly fades away.


 Now what was me before me now, goes.

Returns to her. Me and her. Feels nice. Close.

I can feel her, but not her or me. But-

It doesn’t matter.   


Enjoy your livin and breathin-

And loving-

And-take care,

All my very best, love Sean.


About the author 

Maeve Murphy is an award winning film maker. Her film Silent Grace was placed no 38 in Irish Times Best 50 Irish Films Ever Made in 2020. Her debut novella, Christmas at the Cross, serialised in The Irish Times was published by Bridgehouse in 2021. 


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