The Untimely Demise of Fotheringon-Tomas
… A short story by R.A. Gregory…
It was noon when Maxwell reached the cottage, his feet crunching noisily on the freshly raked gravel, as he hastened down the garden path. Rapping smartly on the front door, he was answered by Sarah. She looked haggard and careworn, and was holding a rake, but still managed to maintain her impeccable British composure, as she greeted her husband’s best friend.
“Maxwell. So good to see you. Please excuse the rake, but Gilley the gardener is off sick with Bloat Foot again. There’s a kettle boiling in the kitchen. Would you care for a cup of tea?”
Bugger the tea, thought Maxwell, as he bent forward and gave Sarah a perfunctory kiss on the cheek, before dropping his swordstick into the umbrella holder by the front door. Right now, there were more important things in the world than tea. For one thing, his best friend was in the other room, dying.
“How’s he doing?” asked Maxwell, the tip of his waxed moustache twitching anxiously as he waited for her answer.
“Not so well, I’m afraid. The doctor says that he’s only got a few hours left, which is why I sent you that telegram. He really does care for you, you know. Even if he doesn’t always show it,” she said, her voice dropping low, as she dabbed the corner of one eye with a dainty, yet well-used, floral handkerchief.
“I know, Sarah. I know. Which is why I got the nine-thirty express from Paddington. I could have got the ten-fifteen stopper service, but I wanted to make sure that I got here before, well, you know… the inevitable happens.”
“Well, you’d better go in and see him then. I would come with you, but I can’t. It’s just too painful for me at the moment,” she replied, “I’ll be in the kitchen if you need me.”
“Thank you, Sarah. I shall be fine,” said Maxwell. Then after rolling his shoulders to stop himself slouching and repeating one of the Nepalese relaxation mantras he’d learnt during his time with the Gurkhas, he entered the living room.
There, sitting in a wicker rocking chair, with a woollen travelling blanket covering his knees and listening to the first test at Headingley, was the great man himself. Fotherington-Tomas. Double first from Oxford, Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons at twenty-two and a proud member of the Order of the Old British Empire, there were few men of his ilk left in the world, principally because Fotherington-Tomas had dedicated his life to exterminating them, especially if they posed a threat to the Empire, which, in his opinion they often did. A man of great modesty, despite his imposing appearance, he’d once won a drinking wager by knocking ten seconds off Bannister’s time for the mile, but had refused to claim the record, because it was not done under precisely the same conditions as the original.
“Come on you bastards!” Fotherington-Tomas roared at the portable radio, sitting on a dainty little table next to his rocking chair. “You should have known he was going to bowl a googly. Even I knew that, and I can’t see the bloody pitch!”
“Good afternoon, FT,” said Maxwell with false cheer in his voice. “How are you doing?”
“What?” said Fotherington-Tomas, looking at the radio with deep suspicion, before turning his head to spy Maxwell approaching. “Ah, Maxwell, dear boy. So glad you could make it. How’s London and more importantly, how’s Liz? Fully recovered from the Klipschstein incident, I hope?”
“London is fine, thank you, FT. Although it’s just not the same without you. And as for her Majesty, well, she was understandably shaken by the whole experience, but yes, she’s made a tremendous recovery and sends her sincere thanks,” replied Maxwell.
“Glad to hear that she’s on the mend, although I wish like hell the same could be said for me,” said Fotherington-Tomas with a thin smile. “I still don’t know how Dr Mephostus managed to smuggle that Death Ray into the Duke’s palace in the first place.”
“He always was a wily one, FT,” said Maxwell, looking fondly at his best friend since University.
“He was too. You’re right about that. And he finally got me. Got me good, Maxwell. A man doesn’t take a full hit from a Death Ray and just shrug it off, I can tell you. Still, it was a small price to pay, all things considered,” said Fotherington-Tomas, switching the radio off with a loud click.
“Well, you did save the Queen and I have to say that you seem to be doing remarkably well for someone who, as you just put it, took a full hit from a Death Ray,” gulped Maxwell, his emotions momentarily threatening to overwhelm him. “I mean your beard is a little ragged and you look like you haven’t slept for a day or two, but apart from that you appear entirely unscathed!”
“Saving her Majesty was just duty, Maxwell. Any Englishman worth his salt would do the same. One day you’ll understand that, I hope. As for my condition, well that’s the awful thing about Dr Mephostus’ Death Ray. It eats you from the inside out. Oh, and talking about eating, do feel free to help yourself to fruit cake. It’s over there by the fireplace. I’d have a slice, but unfortunately, I’ve got no stomach for it,” said Fotherington-Tomas, pointing to the dining table on the other side of the living room.
“But you must be in terrible pain,” said Maxwell, as he crossed the space between them and cut himself a healthy slab of cake.
“Ah, pain is all in the mind, my dear boy,” replied Fotherington-Tomas, fixing Maxwell with a disapproving stare. “I suppose for the average person, my discomfort would lie somewhere between excruciating and agonising. However, as well you know, I trained under the Abbot Victor Falangies and his Children of the D’amned Ned when I left University and as a result am able to control all aspects of my physical existence using my mind, so no, I am not in any pain, although the fact that you are eating fruit cake with your fingers and not with the proper fork is causing me a significant amount of distress at this precise moment!”
“Sorry, FT!” said Maxwell, spraying the shag-pile rug with cake crumbs, as he apologised to his slowly expiring chum.
“Don’t worry about it. Sarah will clean up the mess. Now, I haven’t much time left, so I must prepare myself before I depart this mortal coil for the next great adventure. By all means remain with me, just don’t interrupt and please, eat quietly.”
Fotherington-Tomas closed his eyes and began readying himself for his impending journey to the other side. As Maxwell watched the hypnotic rise and fall of the huge man’s chest, his thoughts turned to his own mortality. When my time finally comes, I wish that I could face it with as much dignity as FT, he thought, struggling to fight back a solitary tear, which he knew that his friend would consider ungentlemanly.
“Well, it might come a bit sooner than you expect, old boy,” boomed Fotherington-Tomas from his chair, shattering the meditative silence. “You did after all get a hefty dose of Strontium-40 from Aldo Passlington’s henchman when we went to see U2 in Hungary last month. He slipped it into your pitcher of G&T during the interval, when you were chatting up Arch-Duke Olivano’s child-bride. Just thought you might like to know, so you can put your affairs in order and all that. Oh, and I can read minds too, so thank you for the compliment and yes, crying is most unmanly!”
“What! You mean to say that I’m going to die?” spluttered Maxwell in disbelief.
“Ha, ha! Got you!” cried Fotherington-Tomas, an uncharacteristic tear of mirth leaking from his own eye, as he wrapped his arms around himself in delight. I was just joshing with you, Maxwell. Just joshing with you. After all, what’s the point in living if you can’t have a joke at your friend’s expense, especially when you yourself are dying?”
“Yes, yes. Very funny,” replied Maxwell flatly. He hated it when FT made him the brunt of a joke because he never saw it coming.
Suddenly, Fotherington-Tomas’ face grew serious and a flicker of pain crossed his eyes. “I fear that the moment is approaching, Maxwell. Be a good fellow and go fetch Sarah, please.”
“Of course. Hold on, my friend!” said Maxwell, as he dashed from the living room to the tiny kitchen at the other end of the hall.
Moments later, he returned with Sarah in tow. They both stopped in stunned surprise when they entered the room. The space where Fotherington-Tomas had been was now empty, with only a light scattering of fine dust and his old wooden pipe sitting on top of the travelling blanket, to mark where he had been.
“He must have completely disintegrated. There couldn’t have been anything left of him in the end!” wailed Sarah, turning to bury her face into Maxwell’s shoulder.
My God, the sheer amount of willpower that it must have taken to hold himself together like that, thought Maxwell, still staring at the chair with a mixture of disbelief and unashamed awe. As he watched, a small gust of warm summer air blew in through the open window of the living room and swept the dust that had been Fotherington-Tomas up into a little whirlwind, before scattering it indifferently among the crumbs of fruit cake on the floor.
Sarah sniffed heavily and pushed herself off Maxwell’s shoulder. “Well, life goes on, I suppose,” she declared, as she straightened her pinafore and left the living room to go fetch a dustpan and brush.
At least the funeral will be cheap, thought Maxwell idly, still standing dumbfounded in the middle of the room. Then the realisation hit him that Fotherington-Tomas was really gone. Defender of the Realm, clandestine agent to her Majesty, spin bowler extraordinaire and general all-round top chap; the human mammoth was no more. Who would save them now from the evil depredations of Dr Mephostus and his crazed minions? Who would battle the Mad Monks of Mont Blanc, the Iron Men of Kazrakastan and the myriad of central European dissidents that crept out of the woodwork at the most inconvenient of moments? Not him, that was for sure. No, he had a nice, cushy job back in Whitehall, with an endless supply of tea and postage stamps to look forward to. Someone else would have to take up the slack.
At that moment, there was a heavy knock at the front door.
“Could you get that?” came Sarah’s voice from the kitchen.
Maxwell walked hesitantly to the door, fearing the worst. Fotherington-Tomas had only been dead for a matter of minutes, so how could his enemies have found out so quickly?
As he flicked the latch with a trembling hand, he breathed a sigh of relief as he opened the door to a postman.
“Afternoon, Sir. I have a telegram for a Mister Fotherington-Tomas,” said the postman in bright, cheerful tones, proffering a slip of yellow paper in Maxwell’s direction.
“I’m afraid that Mister Fotherington-Tomas has gone away and I don’t think that he will be back for quite some time,” replied Maxwell, gently pushing the telegram back towards the postman.
“That’s not a problem, Mister Maxwell, Sir. I’m sure that you’ll be able to help us instead. Her Majesty is counting upon it, in fact,” countered the postman, dropping the telegram onto the doorstep between them and turning on his heel down the raked gravel path.
Bugger, thought Maxwell for the second time that day. If the Queen wanted something done, then there was really no way that he could get out of it. Duty. That’s what it was. Duty. “Well FT, it looks as if the story continues with me,” he said to no one in particular, as he picked the missive up off the floor and closed the door with a gentle thump. Then, returning to the living room, he scooped Fotherington-Tomas’ pipe from the chair, stuck it absentmindedly into the corner of his mouth and tore open the telegram to see what the glorious Empire required of him this time.
Author’s note: This could well end up becomming a series of short stories. If you’d like to see that happen, then please drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org
Also, don’t forget that Drynwideon, the world’s first anti-fantasy novel, is still available as a paperback from my website www.rob-gregory.com and as an ebook from Amazon and Smashwords. It is coming up to Christmas and I really don’t want to have to sacrifice another child for the dinner table if I can help it!