Death waited eagerly for me

House calls aren't always fun, especially at a spooky time like Halloween.

The cottage was deep in the woods. As usual, on calls where the welcome is uncertain, I parked facing away from the house and on a down-slope, and left the engine running, all to facilitate a quick getaway.

The countryside, so familiar  during the day, now seemed veiled and threatening. The trees loomed out of the fog like great, grey ghosts, which I thought was a bit too much of a cliché, and behind a hawthorn bush I glimpsed a pooka sexually harassing a banshee. 

The menacing eyes of sheep surrounded me on every side; you city folk think sheep are cuddly and innocent, but get between a pack of sheep and their prey and you’re in for a stomping.

The farmyard was guarded by a three-headed hound  carrying a knife and fork, which struck me as curious yet apt. It snarled at me affectionately, but I placated it by stuffing my fingers up its nostrils till it suffocated; animals respond to kindness, don’t you know.

I knocked, there being a huge knocker on the door, and entered.

The skeletal figure of Death sat in front of a waning fire, girt in a well-cut, fashionable and slimming black robe. He was accessorised, I noted, with a gold pendant and an earring; even Death can’t resist a bit of bling.

He pointed a finger at me. ‘I have a task for you,’ he said in a voice that managed to be sepulchral and nasal and full of self-pity all at the same time, ‘I have an awful cough, I’ve been trying to fight it myself, but I can’t get rid of it and I thought maybe... an antibiotic?’

As if to emphasise the gravity of his complaint, he hawked noisily, and I thought, a tad theatrically, and expectorated generously into the grate, only lightly spraying me on the way. There was a whoosh and a sizzle, and the dying embers wrought their ghost upon the floor a month earlier than Edgar Allen Poe might have expected.

My clinical instincts are always alert, and I noticed from the specks on my silk cravat that his sputum was non-purulent. I explained firmly that he had a viral illness and that antibiotics would not be of any benefit, and I advised that he should rest and take plenty of fluids.

His shoulders sagged in disappointment, then he perked up again.

‘My back’s giving me gip,’ he said, ‘what with all those hours in the saddle and carrying the scythe and all; how about an X-ray?’

‘No problem,’ I replied, ‘but at this time of the night there’ll only be a skeleton staff on duty.’ 

- Dr Farrell is a GP from County Armagh. Email him at

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